It was 22.30 when the klaxon sounded to say that the Tide is Turning had safely emerged from hyperspace and was now heading towards Collace. With this now being the fifth time that the party has returned to Collace over the past six months, there is not a great deal of novelty to the approach any more and so they all head to their staterooms to get some sleep before their arrival.
They all reassemble in the common room at 04.00 for a quick breakfast prepared by Natalia as the ship makes its final approach to Collace Highport, docking a little after 04.30.
With no cargo for Max to take care of and very little in the way of personal possessions to bring through customs, entry onto the Highport is very simple, with just cursory checks of everyone’s passports required.
As soon as they are through customs, they are approached by a uniformed figure who everyone remembers as the Baroness’s chauffeur.
“Welcome back, mesdames and messieurs,” the chauffeur greets them. “The Baroness asked me to pick you up and take you to the Ritz Carlton, where she has booked rooms for you all.”
The party members follow the chauffeur to the awaiting grav/limo and he helps them to place their luggage in the trunk/boot, before whisking them off, heading for the exclusive upper levels of the Highport. On the journey, Max notices that there is a decanter of brandy and several tumblers on the back shelf.
“After all we’ve done for ‘er, I don’t fink ’Er Ladyship can begrudge her a little drink at ’er expense,” he says, filling the tumbler nearly to the brim and glugging it down."
Ten minutes later and the grav/limo pulls up in front of the Ritz Carlton, where a posse of bellboys descend upon them, helping to carry their bags into the hotel.
“The Baroness has asked if you could attend a cocktail reception this evening at 8pm at her residence,” the chauffeur asks them. “I will come to collect you at 19.45.”
“Sounds good to me,” says Max. “The sooner that we meet with her, the sooner we get the 150k which she owes us.”
Check in at the hotel is a formality and the party members are soon escorted to their rooms by the bellboys.
The Baroness has obviously spared no expense in accommodating the party members as the rooms are huge suites, more luxuriously appointed than any that they have stayed in before. The party members spend the rest of the morning enjoying the comfort of their rooms and catching up on their sleep before meeting up at 13.00 in the hotel restaurant for some very expensive lunch all on the Baroness’s tab and, in Max’s case, quite a few beers for the first time in many weeks which he enjoys thoroughly.
There’s little on the party member’s agenda for the afternoon. Max spends most of the time in the bar just drinking, enjoying the fact that he doesn’t have to rush around buying or selling cargo, which is how he seems to spend most of his time at the Highport.
The party members occupy themselves for the afternoon before returning to their rooms around 18.00 to get prepared for their meeting with the Baroness, assembling in the lobby in their smart clothes once again at 19.30, where they wait for the chauffeur to return.
On the dot of 19.45, he arrives and drives the party members the very short journey to the Baroness’s Residence. They are met by the butler who shows them into the reception room where they met with Anya the previous time that they met with her before agreeing to undertake the mission on Pavabid. The butler pours drinks for everyone and then leaves them for a few minutes.
He then returns opening the door for Anya who wafts into the room, her fluffy white pets following behind in her wake as before. She has a broad smile on her face.
“Well done, everybody!” her voice booms across the room.
“Barker, I think that such an occasion calls for opening a couple of bottles of Chateau des Appelier ’73.”
The butler heads off and returns with a couple of bottles of champagne which he begins to pour.
The Baroness sits and lights a cigarette in its meter long holder.
“So it would appear that your mission was a complete success,” she says. “It was around three weeks ago that we received the message from Pavabid to say that Kanaleb, the new ‘Son of the Star’, wanted to sign an agreement with us to give us exclusive mining rights on Pavabid. Very well done indeed.”
“I must admit that I was starting to get a little worried as you took such a long time to return here. I hope that the mission didn’t cause you too much difficulty.”
“Not at all, your grace. In fact, we had time to shop.” says Grim, approaching the Baroness and bowing slightly.
He rises, looking the Baroness in the eye, just for a moment. Holding out his hand he slowly uncurls his fingers, “We brought you a present, to thank you for the opportunity to serve Naval Intelligence.”
In his palm is a twisted lump of metal strung on a necklace, recognizable after a pause as two pieces of carefully fused metal, one having been the cheap “Long Live Orobid” charm Grim had purchased in Twalarsk when the group was posing as pilgrims before the assassination, the other a common gold ring.
It is Taeva who first recognizes the wedding band that had once been on the train Engineer’s hand. The same wedding ring she had glimpsed out of the corner of her eye as his hand had come up, in a weak, futile gesture, to claw at her face as she gripped his neck in her hands.
“Please wear it in good health, Baroness.” smiles Grim, grimly.
The Baroness take the gifts with a smile.
“Well that’s very kind of you, Mr. Grimstead. Thank you very much, but you really shouldn’t have.”
She investigates it a little more closely and her nose wrinkles a little.
“You really shouldn’t have.”
She hands the gifts to Barker, who whisks them away.
Arvor accepts a drink (uncharacteristically), and even asks for something stronger, and joins Max. Instead of lossening up becomming merry, however, if anything he just gets more sullen and rigid. He has realised the full truth of the saying “you can never go back”. He just wishes he didn’t have to put his companions through what they have done.
William keeps mostly quiet, speaking only when spoken to, except to ask one question: “Your Ladyship, I was wondering if and when there will be a Collacian or Imperial embassy established on Pavabid?”
“There is already a Collacian Embassy on Pavabid,” Anya replies. “Up until now, it has been highly restricted in terms of what it can achieve. It’s only real purpose in the past was for facilitating communications between Collace and Pavabid. The staff there were kept deliberately small and were constantly shadowed and allowed practically no communications with anyone except for top officials in Pavabid.”
“As for the Imperium, unfortunately I have no knowledge of, or influence over, what the Imperium will or won’t do. Currently the Imperium has direct communications only with the more forward-thinking worlds in this District, or those that are acting against the Imperium’s interests.”
“With Pavabid being such an insular world that has no interests outside its own system, I would imagine that it is not a top priority for them to establish an Embassy there until such times as they decide that the whole District should become part of the Imperium.”
Arvor finally speaks:
“Your Ladyship, I think I speak for everyone here when I say that while this mission may have succeeded, it has been an exceptionally trying time for all of us. Much of what was necessary for the mission was morally repugnant, and while I can accept that in the long run, the majority will benefit, there were some casualties that will haunt us for the rest of our days.”
“We have a short list of people, ordinary people who had lives, and families. They had to die in order for us to succeed. They – and their families – did not deserve to suffer. I would like the Imperium to become actively involved in improving the lives of ordinary Pavabidians. From my own experience the biggest hole in their society is the lack of what you would consider a normal, scientific education.”
“I would like the Imperium to assist in the provision and financing of modern, scientific Universities on Pavabid, and announce a scholarship program driven by entrance exams, and an added “lottery” component. I would like for a “bias” that ensures that at least one close relative of each person we list have a scholarship made available to them.”
“I am sure that ultimately some Imperial influence over education will ultimately benefit the Imperium as much as it benefits Pavabid, so education was likely one of the exports you were considering in any case.”
“One day, Pavabid will be a free and (more) democratic country – if the normal pace of Imperialisation is anything to go by. These people should also be publicly honoured when the time is right.”
The Baroness sighs:
“I am sorry, Arvor. I agree with you that it is a crying shame that the people of Pavabid have to suffer so greatly. But there is nothing that either Collace or the Imperium can do in order to change the way of life that people have on Pavabid.”
“It is outside the Imperium’s remit to dabble in the internal affairs of its member worlds even if Pavabid was part of the Imperium. The Imperium only rules the space between the stars and planets. Only in the most extreme of circumstances – such as rulers enslaving their populations – would the Imperium take action.”
“Believe me,” she continues, “Nothing would give myself and other high ranking officials in Collace more pleasure than to invade Pavabid and bring them liberty and democracy, but that is not an option if we are to keep in good favour with the Imperium – and to avoid an escalation in the cold war with Trexalon.”
“It wouldn’t make the lives of the citizens of Pavabid any better anyway,” she adds with a sigh. “Pavabid’s problem is its religion – not its leadership.”
“If we were to oversee democratic elections on Pavabid, then chances are that the majority of the population would vote to keep things as they are. To them, we are just godless infidels who want to take their religion away from them.”
“Many more would die if we were to dabble too closely in Pavabid’s affairs. If we were to send troops in, then they would be there for countless generations – fighting unwinnable guerilla wars with partisans who won’t stop fighting until we are gone.”
She shakes her head:
“Through the trade agreement, Pavabid will be earning a lot of revenue from the mining rights. But how that income is spent is down to Kanaleb, and down to Kanaleb alone. If we had tried to put provisos into the contract, then either they would have refused to sign the contract for any mining rights, or else they would have done the deal with Trexalon instead.”
“In summary, Arvor, I really can’t see what myself, Collace or the Imperium can do to change the situation on Pavabid. The citizens there are willing prisoners of the system due only to their religious beliefs. Religion has caused more misery over history than anything else – money, resources – it’s all secondary to the damage caused to humaniti by religion. It’s been this way for millennia after millennia – and there is nothing that anyone can do about it in a period of time that’s not counted in generations.”
“With respect, your Ladyship, I was not asking for the Imperium to overthrow the Son of the Star and replace his leadership with a democratic government,” Arvor replies, “I was simply asking for their help in establishing a scientific institute.”
“Unfortunately there is no way that a scientific institute could be founded on Pavabid without a complete regime change,” Anya replies.
“The only reason why Pavabid is not so advanced technologically is because the Sons of the Stars have deliberately capped their advancement at the point just before their citizens are able to leave their planet.”
“As you know, the Church of Stellar Divinity is based upon the belief that all stars are gods; conscious beings of transcendental power and that the pious, if they follow the teachings of the church will, upon their death, join with their deities who form the stars.”
“With even a rudimentary knowledge of astrophysics, the entire religion would immediately be revealed as nothing more than superstition, which would lead to a complete downfall of the system.”
She shakes her head.
“So no Son of the Star will ever allow this to happen. It will take a complete regime change for there to be any increase in the people’s knowledge there.”
There is a pause for a moment, and then Max speaks. As usual, politics are of little interest to him – it’s all about the money.
“Errm … there’s the 150k completion bonus still to come?” he asks.
“But of course,” the Baroness replies. “Barker, please fetch me my handcomp.”
The Baroness keys over the funds to Max’s handcomp. He smiles when he sees the big number that’s currently sat in the party’s account.
“So what are your plans now?” Anya asks.
The party members shrug and look at one another. Taeva is the first to speak:
“I have plans that will keep me occupied for around a week,” she says, somewhat mysteriously.
Anya doesn’t want to pry.
“So, you have your Iridium contract; we have our money," Taeva says. "We’ll be off then. Bye.”
“Well if there is anything else that I can do to help you while you are on Collace, then please don’t hesitate to ask. The suites at the Ritz Carlton are paid up for the next two nights.”
She pauses for a moment to see if anyone has any more questions or requests, and then gets up from her chair.
“Thank you once again for all your hard work on this last assignment. Myself and the people of Collace are most grateful for everything that you have done.”
She shakes each of the party members by the hand and then heads off, leaving Barker to escort them to the door.
The chauffeur is waiting for them outside and drives them back to the Ritz Carlton.
The grav/limo arrives at the hotel and everyone heads into the lobby.
“To the bar, everybody,” Max says. “It’s payday time – and we’re all gonna be pretty rich!”
Everyone heads to the bar and orders a drink while Max goes through the finances.
“So there’s 503,750 from the sale of the cargo on Pavabid, plus 150,000 for the completion bonus – so that’s 653,750 in total. So let’s call it Cr.108,500 with the odds and ends going to top up the petty cash.”
“Nice one – we’re all rich finally!”
“So what’s the plan now then, everybody?”
He looks to Taeva.
“What are you planning on doing for the next week if it’s not a great secret?”
“Mysterious women’s stuff,” Taeva replies.
“Fair enough then,” he says. “Best I don’t know the gory details in that case.”
“Max: I’m booked into New You, a very expensive augmentation clinic,” Taeva replies. "Their catalogue is online.
Max flicks on his handcomp and takes a look. He raises an eyebrow.
“You sure you want to be messin’ wiv that sort of thing, girl?” he asks in a concerned manner. “Your body is perfect as it is. Are you sure it ain’t dangerous?”
Arvor has been drinking heavily since they got back to the hotel, the first time that any of the other party members have seen him with alcohol. He seems unconcerned about the money, his mind still on the conversation with the Baroness.
“Arvor it was never about the good of the Pavabidians," Taeva says. “It was always about the Imperium getting hold of the iridium. I know that sucks but there it is.”
“I’ve been involved in a business which involved NI before: it wasn’t their operation but they came in late as one of the people they wanted was one of the targets. They totally screwed it up by jumping the gun to get their one man several hours early, nearly screwing the rest of the two-years -in-the-planning operation, and leading, I believe, to about twenty cops getting killed when the main operation went into overdrive at the appointed time.It fucked me over too.”
“All NI did was look mysterious and claim that they were operating for the good of the Imperium. The fact is that’s what they always claim, and it was basically because the NI officer in charge could run home to his Uncle the Admiral to say his operation in arresting one Ine Gavar guy had been successful-and fuck everything else that was going on and a major operation almost being wrecked. The Cops hate them, the IISS Intelligence hate them, and I hate them.”
“NI wanted this Iridium; I’m sure it will be useful but you can also be sure someone will get titles or promotion out of it. They don’t give a shit about Pavabid’s population.”
“I kind of assumed all this from the start-but you came though for me with the business on Tarsus so I wasn’t saying anything then, as you obviously wanted help on this.”
“As for the nasty stuff I was probably better prepared for it than you might think. I’ve always had one rule though-while the Players are all Fair Game the Citizens don’t get hurt. But NI don’t play by those rules, and we were put in a position where we couldn’t either.”
“Working as a grunt in the front line of most brush wars in this sector I couldn’t agree with you more," comments Jie. "Too many times, the blood and lives from the Hell’s Brigade marine detachment paid for another medal of some high ranking Duke or some-such once the mission was over. There were never tears over the dead that lay strewn up on the marine’s far-flung battle fields, only words. Speeches of some high ranking Naval Intelligence officer who never set foot in a de-militarized zone telling us what a good job we’d done and how he feels sorry for our losses. Then we’d get the notice to ship out to some other god-forsaken hell hole to do it all over again.”
Jie takes a long drink at her whisky, empting her glass.
“The Imperium is a beast. Always hungry, always hunting for means to support its massive stellar size and the NI constantly examining the weaknesses and benefits of non-aligned governments like a predator eyeing up a pack of prey. It seemed to me that we’d all be better off without the Naval Intel Spooks always putting their nose into privet planetary matters. But then my opinion changed on a barely terraformed moon circling a paradise planet called Tarkine. The Imperium had an eye on its Tellurium deposits and was slowly conducting trade agreements with the locals. Then a religious sect had over thrown the established monarchy and in a short time had committed one of the largest acts of genocide in this sector. We were sent to rescue a pocket of marines and civilians on that moon. We were almost too late.”
Jie stares at her empty glass. The low bass music preferred by the upper class Collacians droned on in the back ground.
“What I saw happen on that cold battlefield was the result of fanatic who lead a small powerful minority to impose his will on others with deadly force. A lot of good soldiers died that day because Navy Intelligence did not do then what it just paid us to do on Pavibid. Did Collace, the Imperium and Naval Intelligence profit from our blood shedding? Hell yeah they did! But I like to think that Pavibid is now on a slow path to intellectual freedom for its people and the chance to choose their own future.”
Jie sloppily fills her glass with the remains of the whisky bottle then hails one of the serving droids to bring her another one. This night she will sleep soundly. She will sleep like the dead.
“But don’t you regret the innocent lives that we…” William let the sentence trail off.
As Jie swigs down another glass, she clandestinely wipes her eyes that were probably watering because of all the smoke in the lounge.
“I ran out of regret in the cold mud of that far away moon a long time ago.”
Grim looks startled at Jie’s mention of Tarkine, though he quickly recovers. Composing himself, he quietly listens to her as she slurs out her story. Grim thinks to himself that such a big universe seems to fold itself endlessly into tinier and tinier pieces when it comes to coincidence, until, like a complex origami, two people who might never have met become a paper crane with its beak pointing towards destiny.
When Jie is finished, Grim leans back and says:
“Tarkine was where Beverly died. Sargent Meyers to her unit. Did you hear anything about her?”…
Jie looks at Grim. Her oriental dark eyes slightly widen in recognition of the name Sgt. Beverly Myers. She also feels that the universe is getting way too small and destiny is soon going to play a heavy hand in the intertwined lives of all at the table. Being unprepared to disclose the truth of what really happened on that distant moon and ashamed of the part she played in the sergeant’s death, Jie does the only thing she can think of. She reaches for the handle and opens the door and storms out.
Grim notices Jie’s look as she flees the bar and vows to question her further when he can get her alone.
While Grim has unfinished business with Jie, Taeva hasn’t finished with Arvor quite yet.
“Arvor, you can’t open your mouth without behaving like a sneering little NI sneak,” Taeva adds.
“We all did this pretty much because you wanted us too, and we’ve all pretty much kept our mouths shut throughout it. I even refrained from sniggering while you made your embarrassingly naive plea to the Baroness-as though she would give a shit.”
“If you can’t be civil even when I am trying to be nice to you, then just Fuck Off.”
Taeva gets up from the table and heads out of the bar.
“I’ll see you all at breakfast tomorrow.”
Arvor shrugs as Taeva heads out:
“Well, thanks Taeva – I apologise for not noticing you were trying to be nice.”
He waves his drink in a sloppy salute to the door.
“Blame me for asking for something to help my people. Treat me like a schmuck. What kind of monster do you think I am? I should let my pride stand in the way of asking for a favour for an entire planet of human beings?”
He looks around, a little unsteadily.
“I suppose you all think we’re pretty stupid down on Pavabid, don’t you? A bunch of ignorant hicks lapping up every word from the Son of the Star, keeping ourselves forever in willful ignorance. Well, perhaps there are some like that, maybe quite a few. But they are mostly only the ones who benefit from it – and those who by their nature don’t question authority. In many homes, in private, “He” is know as the Son of a B***h. I wasn’t the only one to wonder if the rules weren’t just made to keep certain people in power, and the rest in their places.”
Warming to his subject, he goes on:
“Sure, a planet wide vote today might keep the existing powers in place. But there are millions who would vote the other way, and millions more in exile, even on Tarsus, who disagree with it. Free trade will slowly erode the power of religion on Pavabid. Outside money, new mining jobs, increased capitalism, the dissemination of wealth, and sooner or later, the regime will break down.”
Oblivious now to the embarassed silence and the averted eyes, he continues, getting steadily louder:
“I didn’t ask to get transfered to NavInt. I wanted to stay in the Navy. We can’t all keep our hands clean in this mess we are born into. Not if we ever want to accomplish anything worthwhile. I happen to think that sometimes, the end does justify the means. The good guys have to be seen to be bound by the rules of fair play, and the bad guys aren’t. We are the levelling force. The ones who get the information necessary to stave off war – by any means necessary, or kill a handful to save a million. I don’t like what happened down there any more than the rest of you. But I also pretty sick and tired of being criticised and patronised by a jumped up ex-crook and expert assassin who thinks she is better than the rest of us, because she never had any beliefs of her own in the first place.”
Arvor downs the rest of his large drink in one gulp, reaches for a door handle, misses as the door opens automatically, stumbles through and heads off to his room.
After all of the storming out, only Grim, Will and Max remain at the table – more in body than mind in Max’s case as he’s already in a coma.
William looks at the snoring Max, face-down in a puddle of spilt beer, and at the somewhere-other-than-here look on Grim’s face.
“Shit, you guys sure carry a lot of bad memories. I guess I’ve got only this Pavabidian one and that’s enough. I used to think academia was cutthroat.”
He slaps Max’s unmoving back.
“My friend, I hope we can find us a nice simple trade mission for a change.”
Grim looks over at Will and says, “I’ll have three of whatever knocked Max out.”
Despite the fact that the staff of the Ritz Carlton are obviously not too impressed at having a bunch of ruffians knocking over drinks and storming out of the bar one by one, they put on false smiles and continue to serve Grim with drinks as he continues to chat with Will – a pleasant respite from the drama-charged conversations earlier. A couple of hours later, Grim’s head flops down on the table next to Max’s, leaving Will to drag them to their rooms assisted by the very relieved security guards of the Ritz Carlton, very glad to have finally gotten all of the drunks out of the public areas.