Chapter 9 A Feudal Feud

SECTOR -5,1. Zearla. The bright type 'A' hot white star shone brightly ahead of them, as the Asp began its acceleration towards the planet Fraser. A hellhole of a planet for sure. The serfs somehow managed to scratch out some kind of farm produce from the hardy vegetation that grew in the scorching heat of the planet. Just under one million people lived on the planet, leading a quality of life that might have been known to a sixteenth century aborigine. However, unlike the aborigine, the serfs lived under the fearful rule of the local barons.

  Eight astronomical units away, the cool, airconditioned comfort of the Asp's flight deck was a world apart both in creature comforts and distance. The three-sixty degree viewsystem gave the two occupants a panoramic view of the jewel-studded infinity of time and space, leaving them with the feeling of being suspended in the majesty. The console glowed dimly - information and operating parameters depicted on the smooth, flat display. The steady hum of the ship's prime mover, and the gentle hiss of the recirculation fans was all that broke the peace.

  Winston's hands danced across the flat console, instructing the autopilot to bring them to Jeffries, where Zearla's ship registry was located. The task completed, James Winston sank back into his seat contentedly, watching the autopilot carefully manoever the ship. A depiction of the ship's route appeared on the system diagram that showed on the console, and the hum of the prime mover increased in intensity as the thrust built up. The two occupants, shielded from the massive acceleration by the inertial dampers could comfortably relax and watch the show.

"Well, how does it feel to be a lieutenant?" asked Winston, breaking the peace.
"Better paid than an Ensign," replied Albright.

  The DSU Saunders had given them when they had left had explained the facts. The information had been presented by Commodore Malley, a man surprisingly similar in appearance to Saunders. He had started by apologising for not meeting them in person before starting his briefing. It hadn't contained much more than Saunders had explained, except the fact that all AJN Intelligence Bureau officers start at the rank Lieutenant. A good promotion for a young officer.

Winston looked over at the dark form of Albright, silhouetted against the light of infinity. "Well, we get a double bonus you know," he remarked.
"So I hear," replied Albright.
"It's only AJNIB officers who get to keep their bounty," said Winston, with a grin.

  Military flight officers usually fly ships owned by their respective militaries. Any bounties generated by destroying pirates were kept by the military. However, secret service officers usually flew ships on the civilian registry, to mask their real lives. As an additional perk, most military regimes allowed intelligence officers to keep bounties too.

"Well, it's a good job since we have to keep up the pretence that we are normal bounty hunters," observed Albright.
"Let's see if we'll get any this flight," remarked Winston, as he began to work the console again.

  The long range scan appeared on the display. They had an 8 AU distance to cross, and feudal systems were normally badly policed, with much pirate activity. However, this one seemed rather quiet. The scan showed a few ships, but the predictor lines showed they were headed straight for spaceports - probably traders. There was no indication that anything hostile was going to intercept the Asp.

Winston turned to Albright again. "It looks like we'll get a quiet run in - you may as well get a couple of hours rest, I'll keep watch."
"Thanks, I could do with some sleep," replied Albright, already climbing out of the seat.

  Winston settled down for the long flight, and engaged the stardreamer. He might as well save some of his own biological time if he wasn't going to be doing a lot.

  Jethro Bunn, the baron in charge of the spaceport, watched with mild irritation as the Asp descended, its bottom thrusters kicking up the dust. Not many people bothered coming down to Jeffries - most of the traders doing their business at Maxwell depot, orbiting high above the planet. Ships the size of the Asp seldom landed planetside, and when a 150 tonne ship landed, it meant lots of dust. It would now mean he'd have to find some serfs to clean up the spaceport's environs. The Osprey X parked on an adjacent pad rocked gently in the Asp's jetwash. The Asp finally made contact with the ground, and the power was cut. The baron watched the Asp's landing gear oleo struts compressed as the weight of the ship was borne by the landing gear instead of by the thrust. Peace once again descended on the hot, dusty starport.

  Bunn shook his head. He'd have to get his crews clean the dust off the Osprey X too. It was owned by a cantankerous slaver with whom he wanted to stay in favour with.

  Back in the cabin of the Asp, Winston and Albright released themselves from their seats. The trip had been totally uneventful, with not even a hint of a pirate attack.

"Well, we better take a look and see what a hellhole of a place this is," remarked Albright.
"Hellhole would be a good description. The average temperature here is over sixty degrees Celcius," said Winston.

  The two started out from the flight deck towards the rear airlock. Winston paused briefly to pick up Jas's remote terminal, slipping it inside his jacket. They walked down the narrow metal grille catwalks that ran through the equipment decks, and quickly arrived at the aft airlock. Winston activated the mechanism. Both the inner and outer doors simultaneously opened since there was a breathable atmosphere outside. A waft of scorching air drifted up to greet the two as they climbed down the exit ladder, and onto the baking concrete.

  Winston put his sunglasses on, and closed the door. The pair looked across the spaceport apron towards the main terminal. The air was dusty and extremely hot. Streaks of brownish sand lay across the concrete. Nothing moved in the broiling heat, apart from the apparent ripple from the heat haze. The terminal building looked like it was built at a waterfront, as the heat created a mirage. The reflection shimmered as the hot air ascended from the spaceport's concrete. The occasional wind gust blew some of the sand around, giving the whole area a strange, apocalyptic air.

"Looks like this was about the worst time to land," said Albright, briefly casting his gaze up at the powerful sun, Zearla, hanging almost directly overhead.
"I wouldn't argue with that. Let's go to the terminal and hope they have heard of air conditioning here," replied Winston.

  Winston and Albright walked quickly towards the terminal building. The heat was already making them both extremely uncomfortable. Winston took his jacket off and slung it over his shoulders, but it gave him little relief. Fortunately, they didn't have far to walk, and the terminal was indeed air conditioned. The building appeared deserted. It was a large, rectangular buiding, constructed of concrete that had begun to flake and crumble from the onslaught of the heat. The large windows were heavily tinted, but it was obvious that the tinting had been done on the cheap. The plastic film used to tint the windows had bubbled and wrinkled in places, making the spaceport outside look bizarre. The floor was carpeted, but the carpet was well worn. The whole place had the look of advanced decay about it.

  Winston and Albright looked around the deserted terminal. A janitorial bot broke the silence as it wheeled in, its vacuum attachments cleaning out the brown dust that had gathered in the worn carpet.

"Well, it looks like we've come to a ghost town," remarked Winston.

Albright cast his gaze over the empty seats and the unoccupied check-in desks. A large sign was hung above these. "Trans-Stellar Spacelin s", it said. The last 'e' had dropped off the sign long ago, leaving a dusty impression of where it used to be attached.

"It said the population of the planet was nearly a million. Where is everyone?" asked Albright, somewhat rhetorically.

  Winston merely grunted in acknowledgement. The janitorbot continued its menial task, the hum of its vacuum equipment somehow making the place seem a little more inviting. He then spotted a sign saying "Spaceport manager/records department" with an arrow pointing down a corridor to the right of the main terminal waiting room.

"Well, that looks like a place to start investigating," remarked Winston, as he set off towards the corridor. Albright followed.

  The corridor ran through the centre of the building. It was windowless, and lit by flourescent panels, half of which flickered intermittently. As the pair walked down the corridor, a door ahead opened. A dark, swarthy figure stepped out, his shadow spread out from the office behind him, lit by the bluish light of Zearla. The man's hair was flecked with the grey of age, his face witness to too many years of Zearla's harsh rays.

"You chose a hot day to visit our desolate planet," said the figure, as Winston and Albright approached.
"I would agree with that assessment. Where is everybody?" asked Winston.
"Asleep. It's diurnal hibernation time," replied the man flatly.

Diurnal hibernation time? What did that mean? Both Albright and Winston had a look of puzzlement. Neither of them had grown up on a planet like Fraser. The man saw their confusion, and began to answer.

"I guess you're not from around here. A day on this planet is nearly four standard years long. The sun scorches us for almost two years before we get the relief of the twilight season. Then we are plunged into the freezing darkness season, until the new twilight season begins," explained the man.
"And your main exports are agricultural products?" asked Winston with a sound of surprise.
"Yes. The hardy wixerfruit. It tastes very good. It is a root vegetable and sells rather well to offworlders as well as providing the staple diet for our subjects," replied the man.
"And diurnal hibernation time - that's when you all sleep, I take it," said Winston, everything becoming clear.
"Yes, that's right. So what can I do for you gentlemen? We don't get many people through here during the summerday. It gets to nearly seventy celcius out there," said the man, mournfully.
"Well, we have a question for the ship registrar," said Winston, the wind taken out of his sails.

  The man looked at Winston and Albright critically. First they throw dust all over his spaceport in the middle of summerday, and just to look at Zearla's ship register? He knew he couldn't allow it either. The registry contained...secrets. Secrets that no offworlders should know...

"Well, I'm the registrar. As well as the spaceport manager. My name is Baron Jethro Bunn. Follow me."
"Thank you, Baron Bunn. My name's James Winston, and this is my friend, Chuck Albright. We're trying to track down an old friend of ours. Someone gave us his ship's registration. We think you can help us find him," said Winston, lying about his reasons.
"Sure," said the baron. He didn't let on that he knew Winston was lying. He knew what the registry contained...and it wasn't people's random friends, that was for sure.

The three continued down the irregularly lit corridor.

"Baron?" said Albright suddenly. This wasn't an Imperial system, was it?
"You do know this is a feudal system, don't you?" said Bunn, with slight irritation.
"Yes...well...Baron, it sounds, well...Imperial," said Albright slightly uncertainly.

Bunn screeched to a halt. Winston almost cannoned into his back. The baron slowly turned around to face Albright.

"Don't ever mention the Empire to me again," he said, the edge of malice in his voice.
"Okay! Don't stress..." said Albright, backing up slightly. He half expected the baron to hit him.

  The three set off back down the corridor. Eventually, the corridor ended in a tee intersection. The baron swung to the left, with Winston and Albright in tow. The new corridor had windows running down its right side, with the same blistered plastic tinting as the main terminal building. One or two of the windows were cracked. After proceeding a few meters down the corridor, it ended in a door. Bunn opened the door, revealing a small office. It was rather spartan, containing a wooden desk and a rather dated looking computer. The baron sat down behind the desk, grumbling about something indistinct. Winston thought he caught the word "haemerroids" somewhere in the baron's muttering.

"Sorry, the voice unit quit on this three months ago. I'll have to type in your query," said Bunn in a voice of pained irritation.
"That's fine," said Winston. "It's Zearla QV-611".

  Baron Bunn began to type, pecking at the touchscreen with two fingers. He continued to mutter in a slightly impatient way as he kept apparently making mistakes. Eventually he managed to send the query.

"You said Quebec Victor Six One One?" asked Bunn.
"That's right," replied Winston

  Bunn rested his chin in his right hand, and looked at the screen. He sighed.

"Sorry, that's not in our registry," he said finally, looking up at Winston and Albright.

  Winston definitely knew that was the registration. He had seen it in the destroyed ASC ship's QAR. Of course, it was possible that it was faked. This would make the ship very suspicious indeed - in the vicinity of the doomed ASC ship, only a couple of hours before its destruction with the loss of all hands...

"Well, thanks for your time," said Winston. "We've got other fish to fry. Have a good day."

Bunn simply grunted and waved them away. Winston and Albright turned around, and silently walked out, retracing their steps to the main terminal. The janitor bot was still wheeling around industriously, as the pair left the building and went back into the scorching summerday heat.

  They quickly arrived back in the small living area on Winston's Asp. Winston slumped into a seat. Albright pulled out another seat and collapsed. The heat became very tiring, very quickly. Fortunately, the Asp's climate control was good, and kept the cabin comfortable.

  Bunn looked out of his office window, and scowled at the Asp parked outside on the baking concrete. Why weren't they departing? The nosy buggers were up to something. There was no way he could let command know that someone had come looking for one of their ships. The money that poured in for the use of Zearla's registry had been helping a lot... and he couldn't afford to lose it. He cast a baleful eye at the Osprey X parked next to the Asp.

"You'll regret dealing with Zearla," muttered Bunn, in the general direction of the Asp.

He pulled a communicator around to face him.

"Get me Max Vega," said Bunn. The comm beeped in acknowledgement.
"Connection coming up," said the comm. The holoFac appeared a meter or so away from the comm's projector. The image of a man in his mid forties began to resolve itself.

"Yeah, whaddaya want," said Vega, in a bad tempered manner.
"See that Asp on bay 2?" asked Bunn, in a no-nonsense tone
"What of it?"
"Bring me the receipt, and I'll make it worthwhile for you. Here's a picture of the two I want you to pick up from that ship"

  Bunn touched a few buttons. The security camera video of Winston and Albright entering the terminal was transmitted down the comm link. Max Vega's image began to scowl, as he watched the video.

"They won't fetch much - they're not big enough for mineworking. No, it's not worth it. Find someone else to do your dirty work," said Vega, casting a penetrating glare from his holoFac image.
"I'm sure they will both fetch a good price as messengers or couriers. Now I will make it really worth while for you. Bring me the receipt, and how about twenty five kay for each of them?" asked Bunn, upping the odds a bit.
"Nah, it's not worth it. Why not just have them assassinated instead? It's cheaper, quicker and easier and there are assassins everywhere"
"I've never murdered anyone and I'm not starting now. How about thirty?"

Vega's image shimmered for a moment. When it reformed, it showed him drumming his fingers.

"Thirty five," said Vega flatly.
"OK, deal. Bring me receipts for both, thirty five each, total of seventy. Oh yes, and don't do it here. We don't want to scare off what little trade comes our way," added Bunn.
"Are you crazy? The Clipper can't keep up with an Asp...that's - "
"I'm sure you'll think of something. Lure them into a trap. If you catch them within the next two weeks, I'll put an extra five kay in for you too," added Bunn.
"OK, we'll do it," said Vega, rearranging his features into something he hoped was ingratiating. "It's always good doing business with you, Baron"
"And you too. Goodbye."

  Baron Bunn closed the connection. He tapped his fingers on the desk, and smiled mirthlessly at the Asp.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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