2011-04-21

Crime & Punishment, playtest session 1

A couple weeks ago I ran the first of a two-part playtest of the Crime & Punishment setting using Classic Traveller rules. Here is chapter one of the novelization. (Referees are welcome to mine this fiction for read-aloud text, plot ideas, etc.)


Chapter One
    
     The shuddering of the ship's bulkhead was Alion Nolrante's first clue that he had nearly arrived at his destination. The free trader on which he had booked middle passage dropped out of jump-space on day 203 of the year 1105 (by the Third Imperium calendar) and began manueovering toward the system's only inhabited planet, a blue and white speck barely visible in the brilliant glare of the class F4 star.
     Alion could barely contain his joy. After several weeks with the space-weary crew of the old GeDCo freighter called the Tova Jerome, Alion was eager for younger, less brutish company. He hoped accepting graduate work at this far-flung Imperial research station hadn't been a mistake.
     Dostoevsky was an insignificant world somewhat smaller than Earth occupying a barren pocket of empty space in the Dpres subsector of the Trojan Reaches, beyond the fringe of Imperial space. Year-round cold and an oxygen-rich atmosphere forced its two million miserable inhabitants to wear protective gear and filter masks whenever they ventured out of their enviro-regulated enclosures. Four-fifths of the planet's surface was water, and much of it locked in extensive ice caps. Four small continents were dominated by glaciers and permafrost.
     The planet had no mineral wealth; the only reason colonisation of the icy world took root was the suitability of the local flora and fauna for harvesting and export to nearby food-poor worlds. In the decades and centuries following its first survey, Dostoevsky had seen its share of progress, first as a corporate outpost, then settlement by colonists, and growth of a viable population. After this came the painful process of organising a planetary government, rampant corruption, splintering political interests., civil war, and several major and minor conflicts thereafter.
     Alion knew none of that history; he knew only that Imperial Research Station Psi had recently been moved here, and securing a spot as a research student here was his last hope for future work with the Imperial Science Foundation.
     Alion was a slight young man of Vilani heritage, 26 standard years of age. Those who knew him would say that his knowledge of computers was his greatest asset, but somewhere within him was a power greater still, though it had yet to fully awaken.
     The free trader entered the atmosphere and slowed to a graceless touchdown at a spaceport built on an icy shelf sandwiched between a sharp ridge of snow-covered hills and a sea the color of a moonless night. It's official designation in the sector data files was DOS/D, which the locals pronounced "dosed," and for such a small port, it was impressively well equipped, if grimy and unorganized.
     DOS/D was situated on the outskirts of Pteragreb, the planet's largest city (or to be more accurate, the city grew up next to the starport) and the capital of the world's most populous nation, Yazand.
     Culturally and economically, Pteragreb was the link to the wider universe and the planet's hub for trade; agricultural products from nearby tundra farms and aquaculture pads were brought here for export on the GeDCo affiliate network, while industrial and technological goods were imported at exhorbitant rates. Physically, the city was a sprawling jumble of ugly steel and reprocessed stone buildings connected by an aging network of half-buried tubes.
     It was afternoon local time when Alion disembarked from the Tova Jerome with his baggage and headed for DOS/D Customs.
     There he met a sober and unimposing official named Toberavon Ossrol, the port warden. Under an agreement between the Imperium, the Oligarchy of Yazand and the local affiliate of GeDCo, DOS/D was treated as an extraterritorial enclave under Imperial jurisdiction. Even so, the Imperium itself had no military or scout presence here and relied largely on GeDCo corporate security for enforcement.
     Warden Ossrol cleared his throat and began speaking as if to a crowd of listeners, even though only Alion stood before him.
     "Welcome, all, to Dostoevsky/Dpres Starport, Protectorate Number TRD-1108 of the Third Imperium. Please empty all containers and place all possessions on the conveyor. If a customs officer provides further guidance, you must follow those instructions accordingly. Failure to do so may result in detention and/or prosecution under Imperium Starport Statutes."
     Alion set his luggage onto the conveyor belt in front of a bored customs officer, who seemed to take no notice as it slid by.
     "The displays behind me summarize the laws and regulations of the Oligarchy of Yazand." He motioned to an electronic billboard covered in tiny words, some flashing different colours. "You will note the section on prohibited and regulated substances, technologies, and information. If have any of these items, you may declare them at this time."
     Alion mumbled something that went unacknowledged.
     "Beyond the blue-designated territorial markings surrounding the port facility is Pteragreb and the Oligarchy of Yazand, an independent state outside Imperial jurisdiction. The Law Level of this locale as rated on the Hochstetler-Barett scale is a three."
     Ossrol continued on in this manner for several more minutes, pontificating on the various ways he could not help if misfortune struck a hapless visitor while outside of DOS/D. When he was finished and the customs officials were satisfied that Alion had nothing worth making a fuss over, he was directed to follow a series of white lighted arrows set into the floor tiles, which led out into the maze of access tunnels, directional signs, flashing advertisements, and lean-faced vagrants clustered at the edge of the starport.
    
     ***
    
     "Cr100k by end of week or we slit your throat." So read the note pinned to the silicon door panel with a rusty knife. It was one of many threats Ralvonse of Torrence had received, though it seemed decidedly more serious this time, since it demonstrated that they now knew where he lived. That thought only made the constant migraine he had developed over the past few months throb even more.
     "They" were the Kizakhistani mafia, criminals who called their piratical rule a government. Kizakhistan and Yazand had fought several wars, and although there existed an uneasy peace at the moment, there was no doubt that the mafiosos and oligarchs would find something new to squabble over soon.
     For his part, Ralvonse had cheated the Kizakhistanis out of a large sum of money on a weapons deal two months earlier. He'd been dodging goons ever since, buying time while looking for a way to pay the debt. He was acutely aware of the danger of his profession; he'd lost his right eye escaping from an ambush by Ir'abian zealots who were outbid on some of Ralvonse's goods a few years back.
     Ralvonse was a middle man, trading in items that needed to get on or off world without going through the official channels. Profits were thin, though he kept hopinh for a score big enough to lift him out of Wintermere, the crowded slums of Pteragreb, massive interconnected buildings filled with refuse, neon, noise, and huddled masses yearning to breathe anything but the stale, stinking air.
     Half of Pteragreb were holed up here, drowning in an endless miasma of crime, violence, addiction, and depression. In their insurmountable poverty, the populace turned to such morose proclivities to . Lately blood sports had been popular, encouraged by the oligarchs as a sordid diversion from the dismal reality in which they wallowed.
     Ralvonse, on the other hand, was a survivor, a self-actualizing optimist. Today was another day he was still alive, another opportunity to strike it rich. He was also something of a jack-of-all-trades, having picked up all sorts of interesting knowledge and skills in his short three-decade life.
     He hadn't fit in well on his homeworld, Torrence, a more populous world a few parsecs away on the Dpres trade route. The quasi-religious traditions of the society were smothering him. So as a teen he had signed on to work the tundra farms of Dostoevsky. It all seemed gloriously idealistic at the time: freedom, a new life, a home, the joy of harvesting the land.
     Disillusionment had set in nearly as soon as he had arrived on the planet. There was no freedom to be won through work, no life to build through shared toil. The farms were factories, harsh and hardening. Since then, he had determined to make his own destiny and never again be sold the false dreams of others.
     Ralvonse rubbed his free hand over his bald head, trying to smooth away the incurable pain within. When that didn't work (and he knew it wouldn't), he crumpled the note and threw it in the corner. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and headed away from Rat's Nest, the little barrio in which he lived, one of the dirtier corners of an especially filthy part of Wintermere. He stayed alert for thugs and thieves as he navigated through the maze of corridors and shanty-town galleries to the Refineries, and past them to the long, wide parallel tunnels that led to DOS/D.
     Pteragreb's tunnel network was composed mainly of trenches dug into the frozen soil, lined with processed stone slabs, then topped with a semi-cylinder of thick, clear plastic. On the dingy walls grew a tangle of pipes, panels, and wiring like a rampant poison ivy. Slow leaks, unhealthy smells, and flickering or non-existant lighting were their main features. The ice and snow outside drifted over the ceilings in most places, so that even in the daytime the tunnels were dim and claustrophobic. Every kilometer or so, travellers passed through iris valves meant to seal off sections of tunnel in the event of atmospheric breaches or other trouble.
     At the starport, Ralvonse slipped through a little-used man-gate whose access panel had long since ceased to function; the GeDCo facility manager obviously cared more about lining his pockets with company money than spending it on repairs.
     Once inside, he began to walk the entire length of the cargo causeway, until he spotted his quarry, a steam-enshrouded free trader. The aged freighter Tova Jerome had arrived only two days late this time. A crew of slow-moving service-workers were fastening hoses and wires to the hull, hauling freight from the cargo door, and dragging off bits of outer plating that had sustained damage since its last visit to a repair facility.
     Ralvonse leaned against the wall until the process of unloading and reloading was complete. When the activity around the ship died down, the GeDCo loadmaster who had been supervising the work noticed Ralvonse and walked over to him.
     "You still livin'?" he chuckled with mock surprise.
     "You call this living?" shot back Ralvonse. They shook hands. "Got anything for me, Arness?"
     Arness MacKaig was a hefty Swordworlder with a bushy black beard and steel-blue eyes. As a GeDCo loadmaster, he was responsible for ensuring that all the freight was properly loaded, balanced, and accounted for. It also meant he could ensure that a few extra items made on or off the freighter without the corresponding RFID signatures showing up on the manifests.
     "This is for Vrk," said Arness, producing a three-kilo package from the inside of his bulky uniform.
     "Thank you," responded Ralvonse as he tucked the package discreetly under his arms and turned to leave. "A pleasure doing business with you."
     Arness cleared his throat. "You seem to have forgotten our arrangement, laddie. Three hundred on delivery, it was."
     Ralvonse spun back around to face Arness. "Thank you for reminding me!" He reluctantly slipped some Cr50 cards out of their hiding place in the lining of his coat and palmed them off to the crooked loadmaster with an apologetic handshake.
     Arness winked. "If you've any gifts for your off-world 'relatives,' come see me. I'm here for two days local time."
    
     ***
    
     Castel Square was the tallest structure in Pteragreb, rising an impressive quarter of a kilometer into the sky, or about 80 storeys, on the other side of the city from DOS/D. Its footprint would have covered twenty blocks in a normal city. Despite its name, however, it was rectangular in shape rather than square.
     As the seat of power for the government, it was fitting that Castel Square was surrounded by security apparati. Connected to the northeastern corner of Castel Square was the Pteragrebcani Civil Police Headquarters, a three-story circular bunker bristling with antennae and sensor stalks. Outside the opposite corner was one of the country's main military base.
     On the lower floors of Castel Square, vendors jostled for space among the bland government edifaces that marked the entrances to the mazes of bureaucracy that filtered upward to higher floors, among which were supposedly hidden the magnificent suites of the oligarchs, or so went the rumours.
     From the outside, the office of Chief Administrator Michoff Jarell on the seventh floor of Castel Square looked exactly like two dozen others in those twisting halls.
     Inside it was very clean, but in a sterile, industrial sort of way. Not only was there no clutter or paperwork, but there were very few personal effects and nothing at all of a decorative nature, unless you counted a bright green litre-bottle of cabbage-whiskey and a crystal tumbler.
     Into this cube-shaped soulless vacuum walked Inspector Ward Vamendar, special investigator for the Pteragrebcani Civil Police. The door slid closed behind him, and he stood at ease, waiting to be recognized.
     Ward had served two terms in the Yazander army and been discharged at the rank of Captain. He had been lean as a lion and twice as quick back then, but since joining the civil police he had allowed his body to carry a few extra pounds. He remained clean-shaven and well groomed, however. His manners were business-like, overly formal, unsoftened by sentiment, perhaps because he'd never developed any closed relationships or started a family.
     Like Texas Rangers in the Old West, police inspectors in Pteragreb were few in number but given a lot of leeway to do their job. Ward was one of two inspectors on the homicide beat.
     Chief Administrator Michoff Jarell leaned sideways in his chair, staring at the ornately shaped litre-bottle he had been gradually emptying for the past couple hours. His coat jacket was carelessly unbuttoned, and his toupee askew. The lids of his leaden eyes drooped slightly behind the wire spectacles he wore.
     "You'll want some of this." Jarell poured clear liquid from the bottle into the glass he'd been using, and set the drink out at arm's length toward Ward, who obediently took it.
     "I feel obligated to inform you," said the official, the words billowing out of him like belches of volcanic gas, "that the extradition of Kizyl Karsdin was approved. He is to be returned to Kizakhistan for trial."
     Ward's eyes narrowed. Karsdin was one of the highest ranking mafiosos ever captured, and Ward had been the one who had collared him on charges of murder and conspiracy. Now he was to be released to his homeland, undoubtedly to a hero's welcome; the 'trial' Jarell mentioned was a joke.
     "Why are they letting him go?" asked Ward.
     "It's all political, Ward. You know that." Jarell took another drink. "They get the old man, and we get a Yazander spy back in exchange."
     As the chief administrator spoke, Ward thought he could see movement beneath the man's flesh, as if something small were crawling just beneath the skin of his neck, up over the ridge of his jaw, and disappearing behind his ear. Ward blinked and focused harder on the texture of Jarell's skin to see if he could confirm what he thought he had seen.
     As unsettling as this experience was, Ward did not immediately over-react. This wasn't the first time he'd witnessed the strange subdermal movement; he'd seen it in three or four other people in the last few months. In each case Ward had been unable to find out exactly what it was he thought he had seen. But the sightings were similar enough to make him genuinely worry. Was this some new parasite? A disease? Or was he simply letting the stress of his job take its toll on his sanity?
     Suddenly he realised that Jarell was no longer speaking, so he blurted out a question to cover for his inattention. "When are they going to pick him up? Or are we going to send him?"
     "We'll likely make the exchange in neutral waters. Probably some time in the next week."
     "You know how invested I am in this. I'd happily volunteer for the detail that escorts him out of Yazand."
     "Your concern is appreciated. If anything should happen to Mr. Karsdin while he is in our care, that would be . . . regrettable. And likewise if harm should come to my finest inspector," he muttered darkly, "that too would be regrettable." He raised his glass. "Salut."
     Ward lifted his own glass slightly in acknowledgement, emptied it, and set it down on the chief administrator's desk. He stared at Jarell again, hoping to see the movement he had seen earlier, but no luck.
     "Is there anything else, sir?"
     "That will be all, Ward."
   

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