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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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."