Saturday, November 14, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Eight

Tomani: Tomani 2

The supercruise journey to Tomani 2 was as short as it was uneventful and I berthed Fell From The Top(...) at Gold Dock, the Ocellus starport servicing the terraformed agricultural planet below. The planet's proximity to the tiny red dwarf star gave it a warm, arid atmosphere and the huge axial tilt of 123o but short orbital period of just 4 standard days meant that the planet's climate remained remarkably stable. The dense atmosphere pressure of 2300 millibars offset the relative lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, which was over 90% nitrogen. The mineral and metal-rich soils made for fertile land that was exploited by the tens of thousands of commercial and private farming operations, which competed with the refinery corporations for space on Maia, the planet's largest continent. The relative lack of water in the atmosphere meant that there was still an ongoing terraforming operation, which was already running into its second century. Every few months, an ice-rich cometary nucleus would be towed from the system's Oort Cloud and aerobraked through the thick atmosphere, adding millions of tonnes of much-needed water vapour. The aerobraking events were spectacular sights, often broadcast live on GalNet, as specially-designed tugboats skipped off the fringes of the planet's atmosphere, leaving fiery vapour trails hundreds of kilometres long in their wake as the frigid body they towed outgassed from the friction, melting away under the shockwave of air battering away at the surface layers of ice. Terraforming experts predicted that it would be at least another hundred years before the levels of water vapour in the atmosphere would become high enough to sustain a precipitation cycle that would make the climate more tolerable for general habitation, but the planet's ecology was already able to support a thriving viticulture and perfect conditions for the rapid growth of grain, exotic fruit and vegetables requiring a hot and dry environment. 

With planetary landing restricted by the local government to officially licensed traffic only, we had to leave Fell From The Top(...) safely stowed in a hangar at Gold Dock and ride a shuttle down to Novy Kostroma, a city of over five million inhabitants. Once planetside, I rented a Cardinal SRV, a lightly-armed two-seater survey vehicle that would be able to take us the three hundred kilometres from the city centre to the plantation owned by Karina's grandparents. The eight tonne vehicle offered both speed and security, but not much in terms of creature comforts, sacrificing living space for reactor power and armament, a Class One beam laser turret adorning the top of the driver's cabin. Karina sat in the navigator's chair, using the console in front of her to highlight a route through the city to our destination, deep inside the local tea and coffee plantations that sprawled for thousands of square kilometres beyond the suburbs of the city. The lightweight cabin had the characteristic feel of a Lakon-made vehicle, open and airy, with good all-round visibility. The six pairs of wheels, each pair two metres tall and attached to an independent suspension arm, churned over the dirt tracks outside the spaceport with ease, throwing rooster tails of ochre dust nearly a hundred metres into the air. The huge shock absorbers connecting the suspension arms to the main body of the vehicle giving a comfortable, smooth ride over the rough, primal terrain. Driving the Cardinal was not unlike flying a small ship, with HOTAS controls for the steering, throttle and external thruster modules that allowed the rover to jump over obstacles too large or rugged to be negotiated by the wheels. It was a lot of fun to drive, and I pushed the engine to its top speed of nearly 200 metres per second, using the thrusters to soften the impacts when the SRV occasionally took to the air over the inclines and dips in the makeshift road. About 45 minutes after leaving the city, I spotted the Volkov's farmstead on the horizon, perched on a ridge surrounded by seemingly never-ending rows of camellia sinensis bushes that stretched across the undulating terrain for as the eye could see. The tea plants had been imported from Sol to aid oxygen production in the terraforming effort, but had proven so well-adapted to the local climate that a huge export market had sprung up on the planet. The Volkov family had been amongst the first families that had emigrated from the Core Worlds to the nascent colony, and they owned one of the largest and most favourably located plantations on Tomani 2. 

“There it is.”

The farmstead itself was a sprawling array of prefabricated habitat modules, lacking finesse but prioritising function. At the heart of the farm was the largest building, the Volkov family estate, with smaller buildings surrounding it in concentric rings, with the living quarters for the workers clustered protectively around the main estate building, themselves ringed by the units where hundreds of tonnes of tea were processed, graded by quality and packaged for distribution every day. At the edge of the farm was a private landing pad large enough to accommodate a Panther Clipper. The pad was currently occupied by a Lakon Type-9 Heavy trader, in the process of being loaded with over 500 tonnes of processed tea leaves to be sold on the stock markets at Gold Dock in orbit above the planet. As we entered the outer fringes of the estate, I slowed the Cardinal SRV down to a more dignified speed, not willing to risk creating a poor first impression before we met Karina's grandparents. While I had called ahead from the spaceport to arrange a meeting and ensure that we were expected, I had decided that given the sensitive nature of Karina's relationship to the Volkovs it would be better if I kept the finer details as to the ultimate purpose of the meeting to myself before we met in person. Sensitive to the proudly independent sensibilities of the system's government, Karina and I had dressed down for the occasion, abandoning the opulent styling of Imperial-made clothing for the dour, utilitarian tailoring favoured by the upper-working classes on Tomani 2. Karina and I both wore spectacularly inoffensive jumpsuits, thickly-padded at the knees, shoulders and elbow, a flexible touchscreen wrapped around the left wrist to control the smart fabric's thermal regulation filaments, which could adjust the permeability of the suit to cool or warm up the wearer as they saw fit. I wore my dart gun on my hip, the utility belt and ammunition pouches strapped tightly around my waist. Out here near the fringes of civilised space, it was not uncommon for people to travel with personal armaments, both for self-defence and deterrence value. It was unlikely that I would offend anyone by travelling armed. 

As we drove slowly down the main road towards the centre of the farmstead, we were able to take a closer look down the endless rows of tea shrubs. Each plant was serviced by an irrigation tap that provided not only a supply of liquid water for the root system, but also a fine mist that condensed around the leaves of the bush at sunrise and sunset, replicating the monsoon climate of Sol's Indian sub-continent. The system spanned the entire plantation and must have cost hundreds of millions of credits to install, illustrating the vibrant market in the local star systems for the farm's produce, which commanded premium prices all the way down to the Empire. I bought the SRV to a stop at the gate to the compound, the two armed guards eyeing the vehicle warily, checking the rental record by wirelessly accessing the port database to confirm my identity before grudgingly raising the barrier to admit us.

"Are you ready?" I asked Karina, as I parked the SRV into a recharging bay a hundred metres from the main farmhouse. Only the building's size gave any indication of the inhabitants' wealth. The habitat's modern, austere aesthetics trumped any sense of style its owners could have easily afforded. Karina hooked her arm around my elbow to bolster her courage as we walked side-by-side to the main entrance to the towering prefab building, waiting in silence to be greeted and invited across the threshold.

We were met by Lavern, the head housekeeper, an open, friendly-faced woman with greying hair, who was remarkably spry for someone approaching their third century. As she escorted us at a gentle pace to the drawing room of the mansion-sized habitat, Lavern was only too willing to point out the plethora of rare artworks adorning the walls as she guided us instinctively from the reception hall along a maze of immaculately decorated corridors, filled with paintings, rare first edition books sealed away in airtight cases, and sensual marble statues carved in the Greek and Roman tradition. She sat us down on an immense, bottle-green leather-bound lounger in the drawing room to wait for Olha and Konstantin, inviting us to refresh ourselves from a steaming porcelain teapot, with matching cups and saucers arrayed before us on a beautifully decorated and carved mahogany table. I was hardly an expert in antique furniture, but I estimated from the flowing curves of the table legs and the density of carefully repaired woodworm holes that the table was at least 1000 years old and probably worth more than my Imperial Clipper. "Please help yourself to tea, my lovelies. It's our special blend."

The special blend did not disappoint. The black tea was lightly smoked, with hints of vanilla, clove, cinnamon and all-spice, packed full of intense flavour but not so heavy that it required toning down with milk. It didn't take long for our hosts to arrive. 

"Mister Roche, it's a pleasure to meet you." Konstantin Volkov greeted me warmly and with a diplomat's tact, his wife Olha following him only half a step behind as they entered the room. His accent was identical to Karina's, I noticed. I stood respectfully and we shook hands, giving my host a small but deferent bow. "I trust you had a safe trip out from Novy Kostroma."

"Not just safe, but spectacular. You live on a beautiful world, Mister Volkov." I replied, addressing him formally. "The scenery on the journey out from the city was incredible."

"It wasn't always quite so picturesque, Mister Roche." Konstantin told me as he waved a hand to invite me to sit back down. He sat down with his wife on the silk-upholstered divan opposite the lounger on the other side of the serving table. Ohla had not yet introduced herself and hadn't taken her eyes off Karina. She had recognised the family resemblance and was watching the younger woman like a hawk, as if ready to swoop down and pounce on any sign of vulnerability. "When Ohla and I first moved here a hundred years ago, everything around here for ten thousand square miles was nothing more than dirt. We've built this estate from scratch."

"You must be very proud. It's an impressive facility."

"Proud? No. Satisfied, yes." Konstantin smiled, the warm, open look on his features a direct contrast to his wife, who continued to stare at Karina in a way that was even making me feel uncomfortable. "Pride is a wasted emotion, like envy. Having pride in our achievements here would make us complacent, and there's no room for complacency in business, Mister Roche. But I do feel satisfied by what we've achieved, even if we're not the largest operation here on Tomani 2. Though I'm not envious of the bigger plantations, either. The scale of what they do brings them their own problems. There's no point in being jealous of your competitors, Mister Roche. It just saps away the energy you should be using to make yourself better."

"Very true, Mister Volkov. I'll have to remember that." I nodded my head respectfully to acknowledge the point. "Excellent advice."

"I could sit here and accept your complements all day, Mister Roche, but I'm a busy man. Why are you here?"

"He's here about her." Ohla Volkova interrupted me before I even started. "Why did you bring her here?"

"I would have hoped that was obvious, Mrs Volkova." I replied, taken aback by the hostility in her voice. "Karina is your granddaughter."

"Karina... that was my mother's name." Ohla said, without the merest trace of sentimentality. 

"Her resemblance to Svetlana at that age is remarkable." Konstantin pitched in, taking the time to study Karina's face closely. 

"And I suppose you want to dump her on us." Ohla sneered. "Take her in like some abandoned kitten."

"I wouldn't have put it quite like that, Mrs Volkova. But Karina is a part of your family, no?"

"Because blood is thicker than water, Mr Roche? If only my daughter had felt the same. Then she wouldn't have eloped with that rogue to the outer rim." Olha shot back, her cheeks flushing in fury. "Do you have any idea how humiliating that was? To be abandoned by your only child for some penniless deadbeat who stole one of our ships along with our daughter? Who promised her a life of adventure, but instead got her gang-raped and murdered by some of the galaxy's vilest scum?"

"I'm sorry, Mrs Volkova. I didn't know the circumstances of how Svetlana and Mikhail moved to Elysian Fields." I murmured, dumbfounded by the vehemence of her reaction.

"And now you present me with the living proof of my daughter's betrayal, expecting me to welcome her with open arms?" Ohla snapped. "How dare you? How dare you?!?"

"Ohla, please." Konstantin settled his wife with a hand on her forearm. Karina's grandfather sat in silence for a long minute, studying the young woman intently. "Where did you find her, Mister Roche?"

"I rescued her from a slave trader named Theriault, who was based in the Afli system."

"Imperial territory. You're an Imperial, then?" Konstantin asked, and I gave him a nod in reply. He turned to address Karina directly. "Poor girl. You escape from the hands of slavers to end up in the clutches of one of the Empire's assassin's for hire."

"Master Aemon has been kind to me." Karina spoke up in my defence. "He's a good man."

"You've got some nerve, Mister Roche. Coming here uninvited, expecting to dump an inconvenient trophy from one of your contracts off on us." Konstantin turned back to me, his face a mask of stone.

"But Mister Volkov, she's your granddaughter. You're the only family she has." I said, unable to understand why both of them had reacted to the news that Karina was their granddaughter so badly.

"Svetlana gave up any right to call herself my daughter when she ran away with that cheap crook in one of my freighters and nearly half a million credits worth of my stock. Karina may be our granddaughter, but there's nothing for her here, Mister Roche. What use would I have for a girl who's spent her entire life as a slaver's whore? Having her here would be a constant reminder of Svetlana's crime against us and an unwelcome distraction for my workers." Konstantin shook his head, sadly. "No, I'm sorry, Mister Roche, but it would've been better if she had died along with her parents on Elysian Fields. At least then we wouldn't have to relive the anguish caused by Svetlana's mistake."

"Mister Volkov-" I started, only to be cut off, which was just as well, because I didn't really have any idea of how to counter Konstantin's argument.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Mister Roche. Take Karina with you. If you're not gone from my property in the next hour, I'll have you prosecuted for trespass." Konstantin touched his wife's shoulder and they stood in unison, only the sound of their synchronised footsteps on the marble tiled floor breaking the deadly silence that had descended on the room.

Feeling stunned and empty, I took Karina's hand and let her back to the SRV, Lavern guiding and consoling us on the way. The wizened servant stopped Karina with a tender caress of her cheek and enveloped her with a hug as she was about to climb into the SRV's cabin. "Your mother was a lovely child, my sweet. It's a shame that Master Konstantin and Madam Ohla can't see past their grief. Maybe one day they'll want you back. It was nice to meet you. Farewell, Miss Karina."

Lavern wept in sorrow and gave Karina a goodbye kiss before returning to the mansion. I helped Karina up the steps into the SRV's cabin and strapped myself into the driver's seat. I looked into Karina's green eyes as I brought the vehicle's reactor back online, seeing only a hollow look of resignation on her face. I reached over to stroke the back of her neck in sympathy, Karina closing her eyes and leaning against my palm as I smoothed her hair over her tense shoulders. "Let's get out of here. I never want to see this second-rate excuse for a planet ever again."
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