(27) Twenty Questions

The Regency Campaign (278+280-1123)

30/1573 (278+280-1123) : Nakege / Jewell / Spinward Marches

    Sir Misha Ravanos, Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, and Teri Cralla are at the Forest Lodge where they have some explaining to do. Everyone else is on board, with Mzrk "Zel" Avnchnzl (who is convinced he is in a luxury building) kept on board for observation to make sure he's OK after his crash injuries. Zel's fighter is secure on Deck E, but they haven't told him yet that they've recovered it.
    Shark checks Zel in the morning. The medical board shows all red, and now he has a really good baseline on the anatomy of the Qldrn. He figures out that Zel is the equivalent of a human in his early 20s.

    It's raining hard, and the rain shadow shows that Blue Cross is still there.

    Down in the Forest Lodge, Kalida wakes early. The leaves are starting to turn and fall, casting a yellowish reflection to the sun's red light, and that's the kind of casual direction the conversation takes.
    The Seneschals have been assured there was no threat from last night's excitement, and they seem willing to leave it at that for the time. They tell her the season is changing, and that Winter officially starts tomorrow. It will last the same time as all the seasons, a quarter of the year -- 20 days. It will get very cold soon, with a lot of snow. In fact, the Midwinter celebration will be in 10 days.
    They are, however, concerned that Tukera is willing to use nukes. That is highly illegal, and something Kalida can use against them. Perhaps the limited number of ships here is related to Vemene's willingness to use nuclear weapons.
    Of course, as Kalida reflects, they can't use Nightshade's sensor logs as evidence. They can prove the damage to the fighter was by nukes, but of course proving Tukera did it is another matter entirely. She resolves to discuss this with the crew when she retires to her own rooms after breakfast.

    Back on board Nightshade, it's time for breakfast. Shark escorts Zel down to the Lounge, where they find that Lucas Fuentes and Robert Morris are already there. This is the first time Lucas and Robert have seen Zel.
    Robert greets Zel in Scryptese to see if he thinks and speaks in a civilized way.
    Shark notes Zel's confusion, and laughs, "You haven't been properly lubricated. But then the last time I tried it, I lost track of reality."
    Zel sees this human try to get his attention, but the Qldrn doesn't understand his language. That's if it's a language at all -- it doesn't really sound like one. He says, in galanglic, "Hello."
    Shark suggests he should try in his own language, and gets up to leave now that his charge is comfortable.
    Zel explains in Qldrn that Robert has said something unintelligible.
    At that point Robert starts plainly ignoring Zel.
    Zel asks, in galanglic, "Did anyone understand him? Do you know what he said?"
    Lucas offers him some coffee, and says, "No, he doesn't speak galanglic."
    It's good coffee. Zel says, "Oh, OK. What does he speak?"
    "I don't know. No language I know. I don't know what language you speak either."
    "I speak galanglic. It's not as my first language. So how do you know this being if you don't speak this language."
    "He's been on this ship longer than I have. It's OK, the ship translates for him."
    "So how come I didn't understand him?"
    "My guess is he didn't feel like having the ship translate for him."
    Robert looks up, and says, "What languages do you speak?" The voice is Robert's voice, it comes from Robert, and it's in galanglic, but it's clear those are not the actual words he said. This is what Lucas must have meant about the ship translating for him.
    "I speak galanglic and Qldrn," says Zel.
    "The computer doesn't have any Qldrn references," states Robert.
    "It might have Violantean references," says Zel.
    Robert quickly checks this. The computer does not have any information on the native languages of Violante. He asks Zel if he can give a primer of his language, simple words or a simple short story.
    Shark, over the intercom, says to assign him stateroom 20, and that Zel should talk to himself in his own language when he's in there. He would have preferred Zel to be in the stateroom next to him, but that one is already occupied by Chuck.

    Shark has gone down to Deck E to investigate the fighter. Others have gone through it before, of course, but he wants to do his own kind of investigation on it. Robert and Mich have been through it already and reported that it's a General Products medium-heavy fighter that was brand new before he took it over.
    It looks like it's been assigned to him for a while anyway. There are the little customizations, the private hiding places, that indicate it's been his for about a month.
    There's not a lot on board, even to a very thorough search. Nothing has been particularly hidden, just things secured in sensible locations. Zel had obviously been a fighter pilot for a while, and has laid out emergency gear in places that would be readily accessible if he crashed. There's a survival kit, an ACR, a gauss pistol, and a combat helmet. He came aboard with his knives, puter, and money. There's no contraband, even though there's room for it if he wanted.
    The history as reported by Robert says that it shows only him heading out, approaching the mainworld, getting shot at, and crashing. To Shark's surprise it does not show him launching; he was already in space when the history started. That presumably must mean he wiped it, or it was wiped remotely. The logs do show the incoming missiles and where they came from, which is direct evidence of Tukera's use of nukes in an Imperial system.
    That would be useful in their legal hearing about the blockade, which he tells Kalida immediately.
    That brings up the issue that they don't have legal counsel for the hearing. The Duke of Rhylanor set it up, so it's likely to start favorable to them anyway, but it might be a good idea to have representation too. Shark suggests that the new Seneschal might be a good person to represent them, since given her position she's clearly been exercising political deviousness for a while, and might well have other information on a more personal level too.
    Kalida says she'll sound her out about it.
    Shark returns to the topic of Zel's arrival. The logs show five other fighters and the Tukera patrol ship. Now it is just slightly plausible that there could have been something behind him that he wasn't scanning, but this is the most legitimate evidence they could have.
    Shark then goes back up to Sick Bay, where he scans Zel's knives. They're definitely not Imperial in manufacture, although they do use high tech techniques very effectively. These are very nice blades.
    He then takes all the personal effects, including the weapons, down to the Lounge. He asks Teri to take the guns to the Armory, and hands everything else to Zel, saying this is everything that wasn't nailed down. He says they can get him some more normal clothing if he wants.
    Of course they get their own clothes from shops. They don't actually know if the ship can make clothes for them. Shark says, "Ship, can you issue a crew uniform to our guest."
    "I don't know," says the ship.
    "Would you, please."
    "I don't know."
    Zel bursts out in a fit of laughter.
    Shark looks mad, but not mad at Zel. He says, "You went down a notch for that."
    Shark then calls up Kalida on the commdot and asks her if the Lodge can produce some clothes for their guest, a couple of suits for on board ship, sending her the measurements. She says that she is sure someone at the Lodge can produce something. Shark asks Zel if he wants some shoes too. Does he even wear shoes?
    "I will accept your shoes gracefully," says Zel. He thanks them.
    Shark says that while he's a guest here, that's just part of it. Now he might prefer it outside where it's very wet right now, but it is about to turn cold and snow.
    Zel makes it clear he's not comfortable with snow. He likes the warmth.
    Shark says Zel's quarters are the third door on the left. Any door where he is permitted access will open as he approaches it.
    Zel is very pleased at having his own quarters. He's even more surprised when he looks at his room, off a 6 meter wide corridor. The room itself is so much bigger than quarters on a ship, more like a large hotel room -- it's nice to be a guest in a Marchioness's residence. The far window is an entire glass wall, 9m wide, looking out over the forest 30m below through the heavy rain. Zel throws his gear on the bed and starts to settle in to these fascinating surroundings.

    Down in the Forest Lodge, Kalida has passed on the request for clothes and shoes. The staff should be able to get something ready by this afternoon. It won't be posh, but it will be serviceable.
    With that out of the way, she takes Beatrice aside for a private talk. It has occurred to Kalida that if she could get Nakege declared a Red Zone for cultural reasons, and then could issue permits for trade and visit, that would achieve the isolation without the annoyance of the blockade. That then would put the Imperium itself in charge of enforcement, at least in legal terms. She could make a very strong case that the people here have developed as an indigenous culture, and needs to be preserved without contamination.
    She says to Beatrice, "I think we need to work together on certain aspects of keeping this place the way it is, only much improved. I don't know what your personal opinion of the blockade is, but as Marchioness Nakege I would like to get rid of it completely."
    Beatrice says, "Given they are now lobbing nukes around this world, I would like to get rid of them."
    "Right. So I've already put some plans into motion to eventually rid this place of Tukera. The proof that I now have of them lobbing nukes should make it that much easier. However, both for your reasons and to keep the installations that are here private, and also as the wishes of the people of Nakege, I think I can probably get Nakege designated a Red Zone, which would also put the Imperium as the standing authority for that. It would be very useful if I had good legal counsel on this."
    "I could probably recommend some people."
    "You can't provide that yourself, or...?"
    "Not unless you're doing the hearings here."
    "No, they won't be here."
    "I'm... not permitted to leave."
    That's new, but it's not surprising. Kalida continues, "All right, I would like your recommendations, then."
    Beatrice gives her a name for a person on Jewell. He'd be willing to travel to wherever the hearings would be.
    Kalida says, "Is there anything you can add to this case that I'm going to make?"
    "Certainly not on the record," she says. "It's going to be political. If you have the political standing to pull this off, then you can do it. Otherwise you're going against Tukera and they will win. I know the tide has shifted recently against Tukera's exploitation and that will help a little. I think that their using nukes is going to be the biggest thing. It's a clear violation, and it's an indication that they can't be trusted to do a blockade here. Therefore they will have to drop the blockade, regardless of anything else. That might still leave the legal question open as to whether they are owed 40% of the company."
    "I have other ways of handling that," says Kalida.
    "But if you drop the blockade, that removes their economic reasons for being here. At that point they probably just won't care."
    Kalida thanks Beatrice, tells her they'll take care of the mess outside -- except for the landscaping -- and returns to her rooms.

    The clothes are indeed ready in the afternoon. Lucas shuttles the ground party back to Nightshade in the Launch, carefully planning his flight path to avoid being visible from Deck C of the ship, and thus not breaking the illusion that Zel is in the Marchioness's residence. Going out to the Launch is not just wet, it's cold. It does feel like Winter is on the way.
    Lucas grabs a snack from the Lounge and heads on up to the Bridge.
    Zel has been working with the computer terminal in his room. It isn't quite like an Imperial standard unit, but it's easy enough to figure out. There isn't a lot he can learn through this, but he does pick up a good bit of local information about Nakege.
    Kalida places the package of clothes on a table in the Lounge, as Shark briefs her on what he has found and wants to do.
    Shark says there were six fighters total, with only one accounted for so far. They should look for the rest of the wreckage, and any other evidence of the spread of half a dozen nukes. The fighter's data was wiped after it launched, so the pilot was probably awake for that. They need to interview Zel: who was he with, why were there six fighters launched, what were they launched from, where would that ship have gone?
    Kalida adds, what would they be after here? She asks what Shark found in the fighter.
    "Standard fly-boy gear," he says, "Survival stuff, couple of guns which are now in the Armory. I gave him back his two knives, which are hand-made with top of the line equipment. Not manufactured along lines I'm familiar with, probably native. I gave them back to him."
    "Did we figure out where he's from?"
    "Somewhere in Aramis, Violante. Not much information on it, just the codes. Moderate population, Medium size, Dense atmosphere, mostly water, Low law level, Early Stellar tech."
    "No good comes from Aramis," muses Kalida.

    Shark calls Zel to the Lounge. It's likely the Qldrn realizes this will be his interrogation, albeit a friendly one, but Shark starts by handing him the package of clothes. "The people at the Lodge made these for you. But we still have a couple of simple questions," Shark says, "We're still a little confused on where you came from."
    Zel says, "Right, that... that inconsequential piece of information, that little..."
    "Minor detail that wouldn't bother anybody, except maybe... Security. Or your Doctor. So, explain."
    "I take it you've read my log, then."
    "What you hadn't erased. Why did you erase them?"
    "I did not."
    "Who did?"
    "I am not certain."
    "You're piloting a ship and your logs are erased out from under you, and you don't know why?"
    Zel doesn't seem oddly surprised. "No, I'm afraid I don't."
    "Do you have a mental condition that wipes your memory...? It didn't show up on your examination."
    "Ah, no, I suspect it might not. No, I don't have any memory issues. I did not wipe the logs. My employer most likely wiped them after the launch."
    Kalida says, "Speaking of your employer... as the Marchioness of the planet your six fighters invaded..."
    Kalida's noble rank is not lost on Zel. He says, "I wish I could be of more help in this situation. I don't exactly know who my employer is."
    Shark says, "Who was on your ship with you?"
    "Some gentleman dressed in a dark suit. A man. Some person, some male figure, he appeared to be human."
    "He didn't introduce himself as Dr. Strangelove, or Mr. Smith, or anything like that?"
    "No, he did not."
    "So what did the other fighter pilots call him? I assume they had been there longer than you."
    "They didn't."
    "Where were you all acquired."
    "I'm certain from different places. I'd never met any of the other pilots."
    "So some of you were there longer than others."
    "Possibly. It's possible that they were all recruited at the same time."
    "Why don't you tell us the story," says Shark with a wry smile.
    Zel says, "I met a guy in a black suit..."
    "Whanga. Here." Zel is a little surprised to see the holographic astrographic map pop up without a holo tank, but he points out the location in Regina subsector anyway. "We were orbiting a comet near the planet -- near Nakege..."
    Kalida points out he skipped a bit.
    Zel acknowledges that. He says, "We started on Whanga..."
    Shark interrupts, "And you were hired to do what?"
    "To courier. We were told it should be done quickly."
    "And the name of this ship, the one you were hired onto?"
    "Actually I didn't even see the ship until we were hired. It kind of looked like a merchant ship, about 1500 tons, but not quite. So once we met up with the ship, we jumped twice to get here. We matched up with a comet heading for Nakege, waited for the comet to get into position, and then we began our descent."
    Shark speculates they probably had to come through Louzy, or possibly Grant, but the latter is a Red Zone.
    Zel continues, "They called me Captain Tuna. We didn't use names."
    Kalida says, "What exactly were you couriering?"
    "Funny you should ask," says Zel, "It turns out it was bourbon."
    "You were bringing bourbon here?" asks Kalida incredulously.
    "Well, no. We were to pick up a couple of crates each at the starport field."
    Shark says, "Were you to meet someone and say, 'I am Captain Tuna. I am here to pick up my box'?"
    "Boxes. Two. And then return with them."
    Kalida says, "To this ship that wasn't a merchant ship."
    "Yes. It became clear as soon as we approached the mainworld that six of us might not return."
    Shark says, "So as far as you know, the ship is still at the comet."
    "I doubt it, but yes."
    "Did the ship look military?" asks Kalida.
    "It did."
    "Which military?"
    "Sort of Imperial, but kind of not. Modified Imperial. Dark Imperial."
    Shark says, in the heavy accent of his homeworld, Romar, "You ain't seen nothing yet, boy."
    Zel doesn't quite get what he said. He says, "I'm sorry I don't have more information about that. I wasn't provided with much."
    Shark says, "Did you meet any of the ship's crew, the cook, anybody? They locked you in the hold with no windows?"
    "Essentially, in my quarters, which was much less extravagant than the quarters which you've provided me."
    "So now I know why you were here, where you came from. What did they offer you?"
    "Two million."
    "Two million?" asks Shark in surprise.
    "Which apparently is being underpaid."
    Shark does the maths. At 3m per bottle -- 5m high, but let's assume an average -- and nine bottles per case, that's 54m per fighter that makes it back. But they did have to buy the fighters, and outfit and run the mothership.
    Zel says, "I was under the impression that whatever we were couriering was already sort of paid for, probably."
    "Who were you to meet here?" asks Shark.
    "I didn't have a contact name. I was to come down, load two crates onto the ship, and take off."
    "So they would be just sitting on the tarmac for you."
    "I... didn't have that information."
    Shark looks at Kalida, and says to her, "I think we should probably fix his ship. Mich? We have a reason to need a working fighter."
    Zel says, "You want to fix my ship?"
    "Temporarily," says Shark. At Zel's reaction to that, he says, "Do you have a need for it?"
    "I do," says Zel.
    "It's salvage now. It's our salvage. It was on her planet, it crashed, we salvaged it. Legally it's ours, even if it wasn't yours."
    Kalida smiles, "They came down to steal stuff from the planet, I've confiscated it."
    Shark says, "You were told to fly in, use a code name, and take boxes off the planet."
    "I can see how it might have appeared less than traditional," says Zel.
    Kalida says, "And you got shot at while doing so."
    "That wasn't apparently supposed to be part of the plan."
    "But they put you in fighters," says Shark.
    "Rather than, say, cargo ships," says Kalida.
    "Or gcarriers," adds Shark. "In the meantime, we want to go looking for the other wreckage, and see if they shot up the other ship. Or got shot up."
    Zel says, "There may be other wreckage."
    "Well, there's five other fighters."
    "I don't know if they landed on the planet or not. They were using nukes, they could have been incinerated in space."
    "There would still be other wreckage."
    The priority now is checking the wreckage before the evidence degrades. Shark gets the ship to turn off the windows in Zel's stateroom and the Lounge, and display nice scenes. He tells Zel that they have a full collection of Akim Gavrolovitch novels, if he likes that kind of thing, but the Qldrn has never heard of him. Shark tells him that they'll be back here soon, and will tell him what they found. Zel returns to his quarters.

    Mich considers what would be involved in fixing the fighter. The thruster plates need to be aligned. Contragrav needs to come back up. Patch up the exterior a bit. Inertial compensators would have to be a luxury to be left until later. He thinks he could have it done by midnight tomorrow, depending on what he finds when he starts work. Somewhere between a day and a week is a safe bet.

    Lucas pulls Nightshade off station and towards the location of the battle. The Tukera ships are in the usual locations, although the orbit of the one around the mainworld has changed since the fight.
    On the way, Shark looks for this mysterious comet. He indeed finds it, in exactly the location he expects. There is no sign of any ship there. It's heading away from the mainworld now, about an hour each way away.
    As they approach the area of the nukes, Shark scans carefully for wreckage. There are a few pieces he picks up, but not a lot. Nothing is apparently left in space, although anything there is likely to have reentered by now. This is not over the Palace, not even over the Marchioness's estates.
    There is livestock in the areas where the wreckage fell. Retrieving any of it could therefore be quite dangerous.

    Shark then wants Robert to run a data intercept on the Tukera escort destroyer. He points out that they had always assumed that whatever bourbon was getting out was through Tukera, but apparently that is not in fact the case.
    Matching to the escort destroyer is still far from routine for Lucas, quite a tricky task in orbit, although at least the Tukera ship is in a stable constant orbit.
    Robert runs his intercept, hacking in to the Tukera ship's computer. It's not hard for him, and he soon has a lot of information pulled from the ship's and personal logs, personnel logs, inventory records, and so on.
    Shark then directs Lucas to take them to the comet. There's no evidence whatsoever that anyone has been there.
    On the way back, Robert starts analyzing the data from the Tukera ship. The order to load up nuclear missiles was a week before the exchange. Normally they keep conventional missiles loaded, but the order for nukes came direct from the captain. This definitely sounds like a set up. They noticed six fighters, launched a spread of nukes at them, and continued on their patrol. There is no indication of orders coming in to do this. The sensor logs show no other ships than these six, which were picked up on the way in from the comet. They did not go to investigate where these non-jump ships obviously had come from. They did not transmit any report about it, and did not go looking for the wreckage to confirm the kills.
    This of course makes Shark wonder if they are being set up. He checks with Mich to confirm that the fighter is not transmitting anything. A shadowy man in black. A highly modified military ship. Six brand new fighters tossed away. The patrol being tipped off, to use weapons they would not normally have used. Something very strange is going on. They just wanted the nukes to be used against some disposable targets. The question is why did they want nukes to be used? The orders came from the captain, with no other apparent source. The captain has been stationed here for some time and has not recently come in.
    Shark asks Robert to check the captain's personal communications. There is nothing there, no orders. No new crew assigned here in the last three months. Why would the captain do that? The ships here cycle through every six months, and presumably have six months worth of stores. This one is a fair way through its cycle. That means this had to have been planned months ago. This is not even the ship that met Beatrice on the way in.
    Shark says, "I hate to suggest this, Marchioness, but I think we need an alternate view of things."
    Kalida sighs, "Yeah, I've been thinking the same thing."
    The expedition is done. Lucas flies them back to their station over the trees, and parks them back in an identical location. Zel won't notice any change in the view.

    It's now around 7 pm and time for dinner. Shark and Kalida have things to do and discuss, and decide to leave Zel in the capable hands of Teri to entertain him in the Lounge.
    Before that, however, Shark has a couple more questions for Zel. "Two jumps, you've had the fighter for about a month, five weeks. What else did you do? Other jobs?"
    "No," says Zel, "We just ran exercises."
    "So you practiced."
    "Yes. Trial runs. Minus the nukes and the obvious betrayal."
    "By the way, what were your buddies' names?"
    "Codenames. We were specifically told not to use any names."
    Shark is skeptical, but Zel insists they stuck to those rules.
    Zel says, "So yeah, we just ran some training exercises, I hadn't done any other jobs with them specifically. I'd done other jobs since leaving Rhylanor, again mostly to get enough money for passage to Jewell, so... I was at the Battle of Rhylanor, and my fleet was destroyed there. We were outmatched."
    Shark says, "How did you get away from Rhylanor?"
    "That's quite a story actually. My fighter wasn't actually destroyed, it was deflected by the blast. I was picked up by the merchant vessel Youghi's Drawstring."
    That sounds familiar. Youghi's Pocket was the ship that crashed into the dome on Pannet that made the news.
    Zel continues, "I woke up in jump to Gileden. It was a rickety ship."
    Kalida asks, "You were already making your way to Jewell?"
    "I was headed there. There's an Imperial Navy base there."
    Shark points out there are bases all along the way.
    "So why go to Jewell?" asks Kalida.
    "I gathered that was the base that I should get to. I also didn't want to caught by any of the remaining fleet coming from Rhylanor. Which..."
    Shark says, "That's over. That conflict is over. They're taking it to Capital for judgement about the Archduke. It'll take a couple of years to get there, fight it out, and get back."
    Zel says, "My entire fleet was destroyed in this battle."
    "Thank you," says Shark, "That helped us a lot."
    "Oh, excellent, yes. I was going to say, we did delay them quite a bit on their path to Mora."
    "The Archduke stepped aside temporarily while they sort it out. He's coming back to be Duke of Regina."
    Kalida says, "Rhylanor is now the Regent. And our last cook is on the legal team for Archduke Norris on the way to the Emperor."
    "It's good to know my efforts were..." Zel trails off, then resumes his story. "Since I left Rhylanor, I've basically just been doing odd jobs for a couple of different ships, until I found this one which paid pretty well. At least, it seemed as if it was going to pay pretty well. So it looks like I was set up?"
    "Well," says Shark, "You said so yourself. Someone shot at you and shouldn't have known you were there."
    "Quite true. I'm just not certain that I would be an object of interest. I'm sure it had more to do with the package than it did with me."
    "We have no idea of the object of interest. Let's think about things that are pretty obvious. It takes months to communicate. The ship that fired the shots has been here for four months, without leaving. They shot at you at precisely the time you showed up. Months and months ago, before the battle, this thing was set up."
    "Either by two forces working in opposition, or two forces looking like they were working in opposition."
    "Even more so, someone wanted the blockade fleet to use weapons they wouldn't normally use."
    Four months ago was roughly the Battle of Rhylanor. Zel could not possibly be part of this plan, it wasn't known that he would be in the battle or even that he would survive it. The rest of this was set in motion before that whole conflict. Nightshade would have been at Tussinian around then.
    As Kalida points out, back then no-one could have known that they would be here now.
    Shark says that it had nothing to do with them being here, it had to do with this event causing some effect.
    But who would know, says Kalida, except people who can't leave?
    Shark says the ship that came could leave, and did leave. But the ship clearly isn't in system, and it can't have refueled. It must have jumped out with the fuel on board.
    Zel says they had been in the system since 259, so 20 days or so.
    Shark says they could have refueled at the comet, but there would have been evidence. They have to have had Jump 5 fuel capability, which would increase their costs. They could have come with a Jump 3 route, but they had to have the extra fuel to jump straight out to Mongo. They had studied the system too, knowing the comet would be in the right position. This was set up a long time ago. But the question is still why? They were willing to drop millions on top of the line fighters.
    Zel says these were totally up to date fighters, nothing he'd seen in service before.
    Mich cuts in and asks if they want the fighter powered from the ship. It wouldn't be any faster to repair, but might be interesting. Something to leave for a later day, though.

    On the way up to Sick Bay, Kalida says to Shark that someone is being set up, the question is who, and by whom. "If you know the who and by whom, you pretty much know the why."
    Shark is not so sure, but considers it a good start. Once they know what Kalida's trance will reveal, then they might have more to work with.