A lot has happened in the past 36 hours. After spending 12 hours hunting around in 109 Virginis we headed over to the Prism system based on a hunch I had about a possible connection with Lady Kahina Loren. While there, Baiju finished his analysis of the sound from the unknown artifact recording that Mal gave us.
Other than the fact that the sound is like nothing we have ever heard before, the computer could not come up with a pattern match. One thing Baiju did say, however, was that he was sure the sound was not pre-recorded or random. He insists it is ‘intelligent’ and that it is communicating somehow. The question is… who, or what, is it communicating with and what is it saying?
We docked up at Hiram’s Anchorage for supplies and a couple of hours of down time. While chatting with the bay load master, I was approached by a representative of the Imperial Security force. At least, that’s who I thought she was. It looked like we were about to be apprehended for some reason or another and yet, I just stood rooted to the spot, like a rabbit stuck in headlights. The load master took one look at the approaching entourage and quickly scurried off.
“Commander Torkalar?” She was tall, around 6ft, with a long dark overcoat covering a tan, slim fitting waist coat and flawless long dark hair tied back in a neat pony tail. Small, delicate looking feet sported a pair of extremely fancy looking, and no doubt difficult to walk in, high heels. Her eyes a steely piercing grey. The two body guards flanking her, both built like gorillas, remained several feet behind her, continually turning their heads in all directions, tracking anything that moved.
“Who wants to know?” I replied, desperately trying to disguise the deep feeling of dread that was welling up inside me.
“My name is Lorentia and I represent certain, shall we say, Imperial interests in this sector. We’ve had our eye on you for quite some time now. Come, sit with me.” She gestured to some empty cargo canisters that had just been offloaded from Texas. Her body guards turning their backs to us, scanning vigilantly in all directions.
“How may I be of assistance to the Empire?” I said, as calmly as I could manage.
“May I call you Darius?” Her eyes burning through the back of my skull. She was intimidating and yet… strangely attractive. I felt decidedly uncomfortable yet I couldn’t let on. I had to muster up my best poker face.
“You can call me Susan if it makes you happy”
Texas in the docking bay at Hiram’s Anchorage in the Prism System
She laughed, her eyes sparkling. I suddenly felt less nervous. Oh she was good. Very good. “I don’t think that will be necessary Commander. Now, tell me, what brings you to the Prism system?”
I had a sneaking suspicion she already knew full well what we were doing here and yet I didn’t want to just hand her our asses on a platter. “We’ve been doing a spot of prospecting.” I responded, matching her gaze.
“I see.” she smiled a thin, wry smile then slowly laid back, crossing her beautifully shaped legs, her arms reached behind her, propping her up on the cool titanium. She stared up at the cockpit of Texas, looming dark and huge in the hanger.
“You know Commander, you won’t find any of those artifacts in Prism.” the wry, almost cheeky smile accentuated by her dazzling eyes. “Look, we know what you’re doing here Commander.”
“I told you, we’re..” She cut me off, placing a finger over my mouth.
“Commander” She leaned over, and whispered in my ear. “I have something for you.” I wasn’t sure whether to be excited, or scared to death.
Lorentia jumped to her feet “Come. We don’t have much time.” She took off her over coat and threw it at one of her body guards who caught it with his face.
We headed up the service stairs out of the docking bay and followed the narrow interconnecting corridor that leads to vaccination security, a process everyone entering the station must go through. I followed behind Lorentia, unable to take my eyes of her perfectly formed ass. The 2 body guards followed closely behind.
Once we arrived at the security station Lorentia, without stopping, waved her hand at the security chief “Their with me!” she barked, the guard immediately snapping to attention, followed by the other 3. “Yes Ma’am” they replied in unison as we bypassed everyone and headed straight over to the main lift station up to the station’s main services area. Everyone in line for scanning stared at us, muttering quietly to themselves.
We arrived at the services deck of Hiram’s Anchorage, a huge sprawling promenade of shops, dining facilities and company offices. I followed quietly wondering where the hell we were going and whether or not I could make a run for it if I needed to. I glanced back at the two body guards right behind me. They smiled. Perhaps not.
After a few minutes, we entered through a small, unmarked door to the side of the main promenade past another security guard and up a flight of stairs. Lorentia placed her face in front of the security pad to the right of another door at the top of the stairs. A thin blue light flicked across her face. “ID confirmed” the automated security system announced as the door open inward.
I followed as Lorentia lead us down another corridor and into a large plush office. Her body guards remained outside. She sat down behind a large ornately designed metallic desk, possibly duranium. “Have a seat Darius” she beckoned me to sit in the chair facing her. As I did, she typed away furiously at a small keyboard, the holographic display updating with her every keystroke.
To her left a small machine that looked like an old fax machine from ancient earth whirred; little blue lights blinking on and off. I could just about read the backward message on her holographic display. It read’ Approved’. Moments later the machine spat out an Imperial ID card. Lorentia then placed it in a slot on her table. It disappeared for a brief second, then was ejected again with an accompanying green light. She handed me the card and smiled.
The Imperial Clipper – “The Daedalion Falcon” – berthed in Hiram’s Anchorage.
“What’s this?” I asked reading the card and scratching me head.
“Commander Darius Torkalar, you are hereby awarded the esteemed Imperial rank of Baron and all the respect and privileges afforded to it.” she said, smiling.
“Are you going to tell me what all this is about? The Empire doesn’t just hand out ranks and privileges like sweets you know!” Lorentia leaned back in her chair and paused for a moment. “All is not quite what it seems commander.”
“You got that right!” I replied, placing my shiny new Imperial ID card on the smooth metallic table “So, what’s the deal here?” She paused for a few moments, looking down to her feet before raising her head to look at me. “They’ve got Pepper” she said, her face revealing a hint of emotion behind her cold grey eyes.
“Wait, what!? Who’s got Pe.. how do you know Pepper?” She now had my undivided attention.
“I’ve known Pepper for, oh… a long time Darius. We went to the pilots academy together in Lave. She’s a brilliant pilot. Did you know she was once the youngest female pilot ever to reach the Elite Pilots Federation rank of Elite?”
“Pepper is Elite!?” I was genuinely taken aback by this. And yet, deep down, it kinda made sense. Pepper is a dark horse after all. But Elite? Wow. That was news to me. She always laughed and said she was ‘Mostly Harmless’. I couldn’t wait to tell Mal about this. He was always ribbing her about her piloting skills.
Lorentia sat forward in her chair, her hands clasped together on her desk, a worried look braking the surface of an otherwise perfect poker face. She stared at the table for a second before laughing “Oh, there’s a great many things you don’t know about Pepper commander. Trust me when I say she is a very dear friend.” She turned to the holofax projector and spun it round to face me, typing a few commands onto the keyboard.
Several images of Lorentia and Pepper appeared on the screen. They looked young. Very young. One of the pictures was the pair of them stood in front of an original Cowell & McGrath Cobra MKIII. It looked like it had been in a war zone, several laser burn marks across its fuselage. “That’s us with Pepper’s first Cobra ‘Infinity’. We’d just come back from deployment on the front line. She took out 4 Thargoid mother ships single-handedly in that old wreck”.
She stared at the image, lost in her memories for a minute before swiping the next image. “This is her receiving the Duval Cross for Valor. Again, the youngest female pilot ever to get one.”
“Who’s got her Lorentia?”
She snapped out of it “About 6 months ago an Imperial Viscount by the name of Discus Alcart came into possession of an unknown artifact. We don’t know for sure how he got his hands on one, or where, but we suspect it was in the Federation controlled Laiawa system”
‘Discus’ – that name rung a bell for some reason…
“Viscount Alcart was a prolific collector of rare items. Jewels. Paintings. Ancient ceramics. Pretty much anything old and of value. After he disappeared we recovered many exquisitely rare pieces from his home on Achenar including a priceless Ming Dynasty Vase from Earth, an original copy of the Lave Mountain Scrolls and several first edition copies of spider man and super man comic books.” She tapped a few lines on her keyboard, the display swapping to a file of Viscount Discus Alcart. My heart sank. It was him.
Lorentia flashed that wry and deceptively innocent smile of hers at me “Don’t worry commander, we know all about your meeting with Discus Alcart” She was, of course, referring to how Dangerous Dave showed up in a stolen Clipper with a dead body in it. It turns out the dead body belonged to none other than the very Viscount who’s picture I was staring at.
The Daedalion Falcon in the rings of Apam Napat 2.
“OK, so who’s got Pepper and why?”
“Would you like a drink Darius?” she got up and walked over to a table in the corner of the room where an unmarked bottle and four tumblers sat. “Lavian Brandy. 3269 vintage.” She poured two glasses without waiting for my reply.
“You bet your ass I do” I remarked, taking the tumbler like a child teased with a chocolate bar. Lorentia perched herself on the edge of her vast silver desk.
“The men who were after you…” she continued “Lefors and his henchmen. They were not really interested in what happened to Discus, or you and Commander Washburne. They were after…”
“The artifact!” I interrupted her. Suddenly things seemed to be a little clearer now regarding the whole Dangerous Dave debacle. Lorentia nodded, taking a sip from her brandy “Exactly.” she smiled.
“You know, we gave him a proper burial. Discus I mean.” I said quietly. I couldn’t help but feel a twang of guilt over the whole affair, even though it was not our fault he died. I wanted to make sure she knew that.
“Of course commander.” She placed her hand on my shoulder and took another sip of brandy. I followed suit. “Lefors lost your trail after you ditched the Viscount’s Clipper in BD+71 1033. But Lefors is a very resourceful bounty hunter Darius. It didn’t take him long to discover who you were working for.”
“So Lefors has Pepper!?” It was all starting to come together now. We had assumed that Lefors had given up on us and headed back to the Empire. I guess commander Joe Lefors is not that easy to shake after all.
“When was the last time you heard from her? When she gave you the mission to find and retrieve an unknown artifact?” Lorentia impressively necked her remaining brandy and started over to the table for a refill. I held out my empty glass which she took before filling them both.
“About 5 days ago” I replied, receiving a full glass of brandy. Pepper normally keeps in touch on jobs like this… now I thought about it, it was kind of unusual that she hadn’t contacted me for an update.
Of course! That would explain Mal’s concerns about this whole mission. Of course Pepper knew what these things were, but she didn’t send me on that mission. Lefors did! He figured his best bet was to get me to hunt down an artifact for him! Clever, I’ll give him that.
I took a large mouthful of Lavian Brandy, letting the delicate flavour permeate every last taste bud before swallowing. “So, what do we do, and why am I now a Baron?”
“Your ship, Texas. She’s marked. Lefors pretty much knows your every move. His spies are everywhere.” She placed her glass on the table and walked around to the other side where she began typing into her holofax. The screen flickered bringing up a video feed from one of the docking bays. The unmistakable outline of an Imperial Clipper. “The Daedalion Falcon. Imperial Clipper. Heavily modified. Class A across the board. She’s yours”
I was stunned. In the past 15 minutes I had discovered that our humble company secretary was, at one point, the youngest female Elite ranked pilot in the galaxy, and had been awarded the Duval Cross for Valor by the Emperor himself. Dangerous Dave had unwittingly stumbled onto an unknown artifact, I had just been made an Imperial Baron and now I was being given an Imperial Clipper. I gulped down the last of my brandy. “May I?” I held up my empty glass.
“Be my guest commander.” she grinned.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked, leaning right back in my chair, Lorentia keying in a series of commands on her holofax. The screen went blank for a second before displaying a schematic of the galaxy. The map then zoomed in to the Laiawa system.
“Here” she pointed at Laiawa “The Federation seems to know a lot more about these artifacts than they’re letting on. They have managed to recover several of them already, moving them through Laiawa. They are usually carried in a Type 9 with a heavily modified and upgraded cargo hold, escorted by 3 Federal Anaconda warships and at least half a dozen small fighters.”
I laughed, half choking on my brandy “There’s no way I could hold up that convoy in Texas if that’s what you’ve got in mind, let alone the, er… what’s the name of that ship?”
“The Daedalion Falcon” she replied, folding her arms as she sat back in her chair. “And I’m not asking you to commander”. There was that smile again.
“Right, so what do we do? Ask them nicely for it?”
“The only way to find Pepper is to lure Lefors out. And to do that we need him to think you have an artifact.” I was growing more and more attracted to this Lorentia with each passing minute. Or was it the brandy? I had to remain focused.
Sunrise over Chione.
“So if we only need Lefors to only think we have an artifact, why go to the trouble of actually tracking one down?” Yep, the brandy was starting to kick in at this point. I’d said ‘only‘ twice in that sentence.
“Because each one is unique. Those sounds it makes. They are not random.” Well what’ya know, little old Baiju was right on the money. “It’s communicating.” she continued, untying her hair and shaking her head, the long dark hair falling untidily down her back. “We don’t know what it is saying, or to whom, but we know that whatever it is it possesses intelligence. Now, Lefors already has the recordings that commander Washburne gave you, so he’ll know you are bluffing if you say you have one because he knows that that one was destroyed.”
My head was starting to spin. And not because of the brandy. Or the gorgeous brunette who just made me a Baron. This was all a little too much to take in. “OK, so we just need to locate and record one, right?”
Lorentia stood up and walked over to the window behind her desk. She peered out of it for a second, regarding the hive of activity on the promenade below. “Yes, that’s right.” she turned back toward me, those eyes seeing deep into my soul “Once you’ve recorded the artifact, go to Apam Napat. I’ll meet your there.”
“Are you sure this is going to work? I mean, what if he discovers we’re bluffing?”
“He won’t. Trust me Darius”
“Trust you? I’ve only just met you!” I almost cringed as the words came out of my mouth. Of course I didn’t trust her. But was I going to go along with this entirely crazy idea? Lorentia smiled at me. Yep. Of course I was!
I got up and made my way toward the door, pausing a few feet from it, staring at the plaque above the door frame. “One question Lorentia.”
“What is it commander?” her voice even sounded sexy now. She must be laced with pheromones.
“What happens if I get caught carrying a fake Imperial ID and impersonating a Baron?”. There was a moments silence.
“Who said it was fake?”
Without turning round, I opened the door. “I’ll meet you in Apam Napat then.”
“I look forward to it Baron Torkalar.” Her voice felt like velvet on my ears. I made my way back down the corridor, smiling to the two body guards as I headed out the main door and down the stairs. They looked blankly at each other, then back at me. “So long fellas” I quipped as the door closed behind me.
Walking briskly down the promenade toward the main elevator station I grabbed my communicator. “Baiju – get hold of the station clerk. We need to park Texas up here for a few days, grab anything you need and meet me at bay 25”. There was a brief silence, then Baiju’s voice crackled out “Ooooh kay sir”.
“And while you’re at it Baiju, get hold of Commander Plate and commander Washburne. I’m going to need their help!”
While waiting for the elevator down to the docking bays, I connected my communicator up to the station intranet service, and did a quick search. That plaque above Lorentia’s door. I was sure I’d seen it before somewhere. After a few seconds, the search results came back.
“Well well well, I have seen it before.” I stared down at the image on my screen, smiling to myself. The image, was the Senatorial seal of the House of Loren!