As the time approaches to meet Kalida in the starport
bar, Shark prepares his outfit. He puts on a high collared suit from
the collection he bought at the last stop on
Zorro. Under that, he wears his zack. Accompanying him will be Robert,
Helia "Belladonna" Sarina, Vonish Kehnaan, and Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead.
This many people will require use of the gcarrier. Shark will be driving it, although he is rather apprehensive about it given the crew's bad record with gravcraft accidents. He locks it into a fixed altitude of half a meter -- they will be expected to follow the roads. Although the gcarrier is rather large, the local roads are wide too -- the large road trains use the country roads, while the city is laid out with plenty of space.
Shark maneuvers the craft out of the main cargo lift entrance, and drives it over to the starport building. He parks it and goes in to collect Kalida.
Kalida Siena is in the bar. She is well dressed.
Her whole wardrobe is in fact of very high quality, consisting of what she
packed when she left
. She doesn't have any cheap or rough clothing yet.
Shark meets her there, and walks her to the gcarrier. He confirms that she's Imperial Marine, explaining that even though he served in the military, it was system rather than Imperial forces.
On the gcarrier, Kalida is surprised to note an air
of apprehension among all those aboard.
Shark explains: "We have a tradition of... over-driving them."
She does notice with interest, however, that it's a state-of-the-art model, and practically brand new at that. It's also obviously scientific rather than military.
Robert takes the sensor operator seat, next to Shark at the pilot's console. The others occupy the remaining four seats.
Somewhat to everyone's surprise -- and much relief -- the trip to the city is uneventful. In the city itself, however, Shark has the obligatory mishap -- while looking for a place to park, he pulls into an intersection while traffic is already there. Fortunately a quick squirt of the throttle shoots them to safety. He takes extra care while he pulls into the parking space he's found.
The restaurant is fairly large, and looks like it's
been converted from a house. There are large windows that provide
a view of the street, but inside it retains some of the structure and feel
of separate rooms.
Shark leads them inside. The six of them are seated in a room to themselves, at a table with room for eight. Robert has ensured that everyone has translators.
Vonish orders for them all; after a short while, the servers come in with half a dozen pitchers of beer and several plates of leafy vegetables (similar to celery stalks with large leaves). Vonish explains that the key to the cuisine here is the freshness of all the produce. He warns them not to eat too much of the vegetables, as there's a lot of food coming.
Shark wants something to drink other than beer, since he wants an incident-free drive back to the ship later. Vonish discusses it with the waiter, who comes back with some sort of juice. Shark does allow himself one glass of beer -- it is very good.
While they enjoy the appetizers, Shark opens the interview
with Kalida. He says, "So what was your position on the previous ship?"
Kalida replies, "I was the gunner."
"Did they replace you with somebody, or...?"
"I don't really know. They just sort of left."
"So they cut you loose, just like that?"
"There really wasn't a contract. I simply served with them, and then... we went our ways."
Helia asks, "What did you do before this?"
"I was in the Marines."
"So what did you do for fun as a General?"
"I played a lot of golf. Some hunting."
"Hunting? Shooting at things... like birds? Did you hunt birds?"
"No, I have never hunted birds."
Shark puts the conversation back on track. "So the real story here is they landing here on planet, kicked you off, and took off."
Helia adds, "You want us to take a reject from somebody else's ship, on our ship. If you've been rejected by them, why would we want you?"
Kalida says, "Depends what the rejection was all about, now, doesn't it?"
"Indeed. I guess that's what I'm asking."
Robert asks, "Does a General gunner say 'Shoot at that,' or does he push the button?"
The rest of the crew start speculating how she got to be a General and a gunner, and in which order.
Helia points out that it's an interview, and that Kalida should be answering that. She asks, "So, you were their gunner and they left you, like, what, they're afraid they're not going to run into pirates, or they are pirates and they think they're not going to run into pirates?"
Kalida replies, "Well, I don't have any particular... I didn't necessarily see exactly what they were doing, but I had my suspicions that they were not completely legal or ethical."
Helia says, "So because you have morals, they abandoned you on some godforsaken planet?"
"I was snooping around probably a bit more than they liked into their business."
"And probably they knew you were ex-military. OK, so you don't value your own life very well. Could be a good thing in a gunner. What's to keep you from snooping around our ship?"
"Do you have things you don't want me to snoop around?"
Sharks interjects, "If steal her candy, she'll bite your ankles."
Helia explains, "There's the candy for everyone, and then there's my stash."
Shark asks who the crew of the ship were.
Kalida says, "Jake Andersen; a vargr who was called 'Pooch,' I didn't ever know his real name; Kris Trenton; Andrea Kahtra; and Albert Patyr."
The last name sounds vaguely familiar to Shark. He makes a note of it and resolves to look it up when they get back on the ship.
At this point, the main meal arrives. There is
a lot of food -- it's a large table but there isn't a lot of space left on
it. Everybody gets three loaves of bread. In the center of the
table are a large platter of meat (barely cooked), roast vegetables, a roast
beast the size of a large turkey.
Everybody has a large knife and a spoon. Helia wonders how they're supposed to carve with no fork, but Vonish soon answers that by using his fingers to hold the beast while he slices it.
There is indeed a lot of food. Any beer pitcher that starts to run at all low is refilled promptly.
Helia asks, "Do you have any sweet drinks, like a sweet wine?"
"We have some fermented juice," says the waiter.
Helia orders some, and a carafe arrives promptly. It's fairly light, sort of like a banana-carrot flavor.
As soon as they've started eating again, Bridgehead
asks, "So, this ship you were on. Where was it headed?"
Kalida replies, "The next stop was going to be Rapp's World . It was going on beyond that, eventually to Dekalb . At least, that's what they told me. We came from Rhylanor originally; our last stop before here was Zircon ."
"How'd you end up being a Marine?"
"Well, I went to college, and came in through OTC."
Bridgehead introduces himself formally. Kalida has heard of him; he retired while she was in the service. She remembers he had a reputation for being stuffy, and the word was that he couldn't command his way out of a paper bag.
Bridgehead continues, "What branch were you in?"
Shark asks, "Then how did you get into ships and gunnery? Infantry and ship's gunnery, I don't understand."
Bridgehead says, "You've got to put the jarheads to work sometimes." He adds hastily, "No offense. So, did you ever do any combat drops?"
Kalida says, "Yes."
"I always thought it was a damn silly way to land on planet myself."
"It's a little different. Very different."
"So are you actually good at gunnery, or do you just mess around with it?"
"I'm fairly good at it. I did serve as a gunner in combat."
Conversation turns to a light discussion about who
does what in the crew. Shark comments that since he joined the ship,
they haven't lost a crew member.
Bridgehead points out, "Otto was lost in the jump ... um.... why don't you explain it?"
Shark does: "That's right. In a jump explosion."
"I was trying to put it more tactfully than that. It was sabotage," the Baron explains.
Kalida says, "Well, that makes it better." What she thinks about it is not clear.
Helia adds, "And it was a different ship."
Shark expands, "It was the previous ship. We suspect he did the sabotage."
Helia muses, "She was a sweet ship. She was yar."
Kalida laughs, "So you run into sabotage on a regular basis."
The Baron jumps in emphatically: "No. Definitely not."
"Do you run into many situations when you need a gunner? In general."
Helia says, "No. As a matter of fact I like being the gunner, and can do it as well as pilot. So it's not like we need a gunner."
Bridgehead disagrees, "You know, Vonish isn't as handy at the controls, and we could use someone who's separate."
"That's true. And we're never going to have a pilot who's as good as me. Can you pilot at all?"
"No," replies Kalida. She does drive gravcraft, but hasn't in quite a while.
Shark continues explaining the crew. "Misha is our Captain. Misha was the Marquis' second in command, personal bodyguard, and all-around do-it person. Our captain... if you wanted it done, you told him to do it, and he would get it done. That was his job. Then he became Captain because the Marquis decided that far space exploration was a little bit exciting for him, so he retired from that."
The Baron continues, "Well, he is an academic. Not much stamina."
Kalida asks, "So you're a scientific vessel?"
Shark says, "Yes, we are mainly a scientific vessel. Everyone definitely agrees with that statement. Yes, that's what we are. Yes."
Bridgehead points out that technically they still report back to the Marquis. After all, he's funding it, right?
"Well, he was funding the Third Eye . The Third Eye was lost. We assume his insurance covered it. This ship we salvaged, presumably not under the auspices of the Third Eye . We are still trying to return the information that we collected for him on the Third Eye."
"Haven't talked to him in while, huh?" Kalida asks.
"We left him on Emape / Five Sisters . He was going to take commercial flights back to Mora . Then we went the other way for... several months."
Shark changes the subject. "So, you crewed with
a vargr. Have you ever crewed with any other races?"
"Ever met a starfish? Hiver ?"
Shark suddenly has a thought. He says, "We should get Sagan to do the sensors, because he's already used to looking in all directions at once." Of course sie can't currently sit at the chair at the station, but Mich could build him something. "On the other hand," continues Shark, "There might be a reason why it wouldn't work for a hiver. Same reason it doesn't work for Mich."
"Because he wears a metal hat?" says Helia.
Baron Bridgehead explains, "Our engineer, the one who wipes his hands on his shirt, wears a tinfoil hat."
Kalida gives him a quizzical look.
Helia says, "You know, the fact is, they really are out to get him. They really are. He got kidnapped."
Now it's Bridgehead's turn to change the subject.
"You dress well for a gunner," he observes.
Helia says, "Are you poor? I thought you were. I thought you needed a job, you can't just take advantage of your TAS membership?"
Kalida says, "Well, if I'm completely stuck I can do that. I still prefer to work my way home."
"Where I'm from? That's Jewell ."
"How do you feel about Imperial control?"
Kalida looks puzzled.
"You've been in, you're out. Do you think there should be an Imperium?"
"As opposed to democracy... you know, people have experimented with democracy."
"It's a fine experiment."
Baron Bridgehead mutters and splutters agreement. "Remember that the nobles have to run it. With the communication times the nobles have to represent the Imperium and be fairly autonomous."
Helia continues, "No empire. Elected officials. No nobles."
"But how would you arrange an election for someone two years away?"
"You just do."
"Doesn't sound very practical. Maybe in one world."
"What if an entire planet decided they didn't want to be part of the Imperium any more?"
"OK? Do you think the Imperium would let them?" She thinks for a while, then says, "What about a theocracy, instead of an Imperium?"
"The Imperium works."
"For people like you."
Shark turns away from Helia and Bridgehead, and asks
Kalida, "So, your family... you're not from a noble family, are you?"
"No," answers Kalida.
"How long ago did you muster out?"
"At the beginning of the year."
"So why didn't they just kill you?"
"I don't really know, but I'm fine with it -- the not killing me thing. It's a whole lot easier I'm sure for them to leave without me."
"So what did you have on them?"
"Nothing. Like I said, I didn't really have anything on them, just suspicions."
"So what was her current cargo?"
"Boxes," she laughs. "Apparently there's a booming trade in boxes around here."
Robert asks her what sort of pay she's looking for. Kalida says she's happy with standard rate.
Shark observes, "So, I think the next step -- after finishing this fine meal -- but first, I think I'll stop and save room for dessert. What do you think?" He pauses. "There are some people on board I want you to meet. A couple of ship's pets -- and the Captain."
Helia has finished her discussion with the Baron, and asks Kalida, "How do you feel about the color pink?"
"Not really my favorite color," says Kalida.
"That's a shame. That could be a real problem, don't you think?" asks Helia with a wry smile.
Robert says, "The best question is not whether you like the color pink, but what do you think about the color pink?"
The pink discussion continues...
Meanwhile, Shark sneaks off to the restroom and calls
Misha Ravanos. "This person is reasonably skilled, would fit the gap
and allow our pilot to fully focus on piloting. The only issue is that
in order to evaluate her skills, she has to become aware of the capabilities
of the ship."
"Can't she just run the console as a normal one, like Vonish does for piloting?"
"Find out a little bit about what she did in the service." Misha makes a few other suggestions to draw out Kalida some more.
When Shark returns, Helia is talking about Vonish,
how he's such a good cook, and how he does all that shopping on the worlds
they visit. She says, "I dare say one of these days Vonish is going
to write his own cookbook, based on his experiences."
"Yes," says Vonish, "But there's always that job I can fall back on."
"That's true. Can I come visit? Can I bring Helia?"
"Yes, yes. Of course." He turns to Kalida. "That's one thing you'd get on this ship. Good food."
There is a chorus of agreement.
Shark adds, "And the best booze we can buy at every planet."
Kalida says, "And this means you have good exercise equipment on board, right?"
"We have an excellent gym."
Vonish continues, "Well, I have a standing job offer if I ever want to give this up. It's as the personal chef to the son of a Duke."
Kalida says, "Ah, well. So if this gets too exciting, you can retire."
Shark asks with a smile, "So what's his title exactly? Dukette?"
Vonish says, "Sir. He's the Marquis' friend, Sir Geoffrey of Adabicci ."
"Really?" says Kalida.
"Yes. I can be his personal chef, anytime I want to. But in the meantime, I've had a chance to expand my horizons."
"And how did you meet Sir Geoffrey?"
Shark answers, "We stopped on his planet and invited him to dinner. Sir Geoffrey was in the Navy, and the Marquis was in the Navy."
"And who is the Marquis?"
"Marquis Marcus Crestworthy. Marquis Marc."
"Yes," says Kalida with a smile.
"He started this expedition on the original ship," says Helia, "And we're continuing. He hired me."
Baron Bridgehead says, "So, with the Marquis gone, I'm the ranking noble. Representative of the Imperium on board the ship."
"So, the Marquis is our sponsor," says Shark. He leans over to Kalida, and in a dramatic whisper says, "I'll let you in on a little secret. He doesn't actually have enough territory to be a Marquis."
The Baron adds, "Well, he didn't inherit the title. He acquired it through merit, as I did my own title. You might have read about it on the TNS ." He ignores Shark's comment that the Marquis obtained his more through politics than merit.
This reminds Shark of something. He turns to Kalida, "Oh! Did you read about a planet where the only city blew up recently? Pimane ? That's where we picked up Robert and Vonish -- Vonish was starport administrator there. Actually it was months after we left that it blew up."
Vonish nods. "I spent a good while in the merchants. Actually I'm from the Core, a long way from here. What they didn't tell me when I accepted starport administrator was that the place was a real dump. As soon as I arrived I was looking for some way to leave. Then these guys showed up. Sort of like you really, only Caloran is much nicer than Pimane ."
Shark has been whispering in Robert's ear, asking him to reconfigure the gunnery console into a standard Imperium setup. That will let them try Kalida's skills without giving much away about the Nightshade . Robert replies that it will not be a problem, just give him some time once they're back on the ship. Helia leans over and mentions that Kalida shouldn't have access to the third weapon; Robert says he'll work with her on the configuration.
Dessert arrives, and after dessert, tea. There is of course
no coffee here, and no caffeine except in soda -- and this is not the sort
of restaurant that serves zurta. Shark is relieved that Helia has
some chocolate-covered coffee beans -- that should set him up for the drive
As the meal tails off, Shark asks Kalida about her military career.
Actually it's the Baron who opens up the questions. "So what were you doing before you left the marines? Presumably you were out this way somewhere?"
Suddenly Shark gets a thought. Surely Kalida was fighting bugs -- that is out this way.
Bridgehead continues, "So what was your last assignment? Presumably as a Brigadier General you were in command of something."
"I was actually doing some training," replies Kalida.
Shark continues, "So what was your last command, and what were you doing there?"
"The last command I was actually doing Gunnery."
The Baron comes to the same thought as Shark, and asks, "Do know anything about cockroaches?"
"If I see one I step on one?"
Helia asks, "What if they're your size?"
Shark gets direct. "Did you serve in the cockroach war? The bug war."
Shark realizes that the Imperial task force in Foreven is probably still there. He asks her about the last term she served -- looking for gaps or inconsistencies. He is satisfied her record is complete. Also her record doesn't look artificial -- there's more combat drops than he would put in if he were making it up, for example.
Most of her action in recent years has been on the Vargr border, against corsairs up there. She's done combat drops into hostile areas, and fought as a gunner in naval actions on the way in and out from the ground battle. She explains how she picked up gunnery: "Between actions it was pretty quiet. In the quieter times, I felt that it would be good for me an my command to be able to back up the Navy if we needed to, so we trained for it. It came in handy on more than one occasion. Once we had proven how useful we were, we just sort of continued."
Shark continues, "So you've done orbital drops. That means you're used to wearing battledress. So is there any other kind of special event in your background you'd like to talk about?"
"Is this like, 'If I were a tree, what kind of tree would I be?'"
"No, just the weirdest thing, or most exciting combat, or anything like that."
"How about my first drop? That's always memorable... I was on board the Kingfisher during the action on Efate in 1106. It was mostly an Army operation, but there were marines there as well. We were dropped in to perform surgical strikes on specific targets."
Shark notes that the official news of the action doesn't mention Marines at all, just the Army. He's also curious that Akim Gavrolovitch 's book he picked up here, Drop Zone: Efate, might be about that subject. Perhaps Gavrolovitch did know some things that weren't public knowledge.
That seems to be all the formal interviewing they need. They get up to leave. Robert hands Vonish a wad of local cash to pay the bill -- he leaves an excessive tip. The plan is to go back to the ship to introduce Kalida to some of the other crew and pets, and to evaluate her gunnery skill.
Shark only had one beer, so he's driving the gcarrier.
Even so, it's not very easy at night to follow the road. It's a cloudy
night, and it's hard to pick out the way. Robert suggests putting
up a heads-up display from the sensors, and sets it up for him. It's
none too soon, as Shark almost runs them into a hedge before getting it back
on track. Shark slows down, and the rest of the trip is uneventful.
Nevertheless, he decides to leave the gravcraft outside the ship rather
than risk a problem parking on the cargo lift at night.
The Nightshade is not a type Kalida has seen before. The shape is fairly straightforward, a streamlined cylinder, but it has two sidepods at the rear. Also, it's at least as black as military black -- except for the big red maltese cross on each sidepod. What's more it's very clean, with no signs of wear, atmospheric burns, or dirt or anything. The bridge looks enormous, and apparently open to the air at the moment -- presumably the window is just very clean indeed.
They decide to conduct the interview in the lounge. Up through the cargo deck -- where it's apparently that the hull is paper thin -- perhaps a tenth of a millimeter, rather than meters thick as Kalida would expect. Then transfer to a smaller lift, and up to a spacious area in which there's a large lounge. From the inside, the windows are just reflective or translucent enough to see where they are -- there's no danger of walking into them on board.
Inside the ship is very clean too. It's obviously not a military ship, with all this wasted space. That backs up the claim that it's a research ship, intended for extended missions. Kalida is curious; she asks, "Where did you find this thing?"
Shark says, slowly, "We found it, recovered it, and lost our other ship, all at the same time. So, this is Misha, this is Misha's pet the dragon..." The reindog is not around -- the Baron is with them, and he doesn't like the old doctor.
Misha is in full dress with cape and sword. He introduces himself and welcomes Kalida on board. Sagan, the hiver, is introduced as well -- as hitchhiker, and welcome guest on board. Kalida hasn't seen a hiver before, although of course she's heard of them. Sagan has little to say -- sie greets her politely, and settles down to listen to the conversation.
Shark tells Misha that Kalida seems to meet the requirements for a gunner, and that Helia and Robert are right now setting up a console for the simulation. He then turns to Kalida, and tells her that famous author Akim Gavrolovitch used to be on their crew, and died in a hunting accident while on their previous ship.
Shark shows Kalida a stateroom. It's obscenely
enormous, at least three times as big as she'd expect as a high passenger.
The bathroom is almost a big as a regular stateroom. Shark tells her
she can stay in this one overnight if she wants, rather
than going back to the hotel.
She is impressed with the space. "Entertain visiting dignitaries often?"
"Not on this ship," says Shark. "On the Third Eye we've had several people aboard; heads of universities, heads of research stations, and so on."
By now, Robert and Helia are
ready to run Kalida through a few simulations. Shark leads her to the
The bridge is spectacular. It's three decks high of empty space, with a large perfectly clear bubble uninterrupted by any framework. A hammock hangs high up against the rear bulkhead -- Shark tells her it's Helia's. There's a large command dais in the center with various consoles on it. There are a number of console workstations scattered around the rest of the bridge.
Helia leads Kalida all the way to the front where the gunnery console is located. It looks like a perfectly standard Imperial console. She sits down, and performs a quick customization of the console layout. None of the other consoles look at all standard. She brings up the console, and is surprised to see a dedicated large holodisplay come up in front of her. It looks like she has command of two weapon systems -- missiles and lasers. There are no sandcasters or any other sort of defensive weapons. The lasers of course can be used against missiles, but there's no defense against lasers.
Helia has walked back to the pilot's station, on a small dais just aft of the gunnery station. They start the simulation.
The display shows two other ships
-- a small ship labeled as friendly, and a large Midu Agaasham class Imperial
destroyer which appears to be threatening the small ship. Standard escort
setup, clearly she's expected to do something about the destroyer.
Helia says, "At this point, go ahead and tell me where you want me to go, and I'll get you there as soon as possible. If you want evasive maneuvers, just let me know and hold on tight."
For some reason, the destroyer is not reacting to their presence. Robert feeds the gunnery station with information showing the big ship is starting to power up weapon systems. They're at long range, but the ship indicates they're OK to fire. Closing the distance would reduce travel time for missiles...
She asks Helia to get them closer -- she acknowledges cheerfully, and they zoom in closer at an impossible rate. Kalida is surprised by this, but then fires a salvo from the missiles. The default salvo for this ship takes just 7.2 seconds to fire; in that time, missiles pour from underneath the Nightshade at 6000 rounds per minute. The missiles move much more quickly than she'd expect, and apparently are fire-and-forget. They jink around, taking alternate paths, and time on target arrive 720 ten kiloton nuclear missiles.
"Hot damn, this is sweet!" Kalida pauses. "Is this what it's really like?"
"Yes," says Robert. "We have a rotary missile launcher with a firing rate of 100 missiles per second. It's designed to fire, by default, the entire missile load."
Helia explains that the fewest you can really manage to fire at once is ten.
Several more simulations give
Kalida more practice. She manages to get the minimum salvo down to
about forty or fifty. Her laser fire proves excellent too. She's
clearly not just trained, but actually rather good at gunnery. The
bridge crew are impressed.