Aramis has been an important name associated with the March Harrier. The world of Aramis is the vessel's home port. The ship was constructed there, and it made its first flight from that world some 20 years ago.
The ship has a colored history. Of the many conflicts it became involved in, several of the events occurred on Aramis or in the Aramis system.
Three times the ship has changed ownership. Each time, the transaction has occurred on the planet Aramis.
As a subsidy vessel in the Emperor's March Program, the Harrier has been assigned a subsidy route - the 8 system star cluster referred to as the Aramis Trace.
And now, a journal of the ship's travels has been recorded. It is a document marked ultra-secret by the Imperial Navy, referred to - only in clandestine circles - with the code words Traveller Adventure.
It should come as no surprise that the code word Traveller is a designate for a 400 ton March-class Fat Trader that has been journeying across the Aramis subsector of late - a ship called the March Harrier.
The Fourth Frontier War
Twenty three years ago, in the Imperial year 1082, a war began unintentionally as a result of an incident near the Quar system in the Cronor subsector - where the Emperor maintains a naval base in the independent region of space between the borders of the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate.
A series of naval battles ensued, triggering full scale war which ravaged the Jewell and Cronor subsectors for eighteen months. Historians sometimes refer to this engagement as the False War, because an armistice was concluded before the Emperor had a chance to issue commands or send reinforcements.
Such is the tragedy of interstellar empires existing at the mercy of communication condemned by travel times limited by the speed of a starship.
The Zhodani Consulate is the second largest Humani empire in existence, claiming a region of space spinward and coreward of the Imperium that is almost as large as the Third Imperium itself. Although as physically human as any Humani Imperial citizen, the Zhodani are very different beings. They are a race that has embraced the use of psionics, a practice that is outlawed and feared within the Imperium. To say that there is distaste between the two human empires would be a gross understatement.
Tensions first exploded between the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate some 500 years ago, when the Spinward Marches were first being explored and settled by the Imperium. As the Imperium expanded its borders into the region, tensions with the Zhodani heightened, bringing the two sides into conflict, and eventually to open warfare. The First Frontier War lasted close to 15 standard years and sparked the Civil War that raged within the Imperium from 604 to 622.
As the Civil War dragged on, the Zhodani saw that the stalemated First Frontier War had disrupted the fabric of the Imperium and struck again, deep into the Jewell subsector. This Second Frontier War lasted five years, and, ironically enough, lead to the end of the Civil War, just as the First Frontier War had caused it some 16 years before.
After over three decades of war, both with the Zhodani and with itself, the Imperium's frontier sector called the Spinward Marches finally found a period of peace - a long stretch that lasted three and a half centuries. It wasn't until 979 that the Zhodani struck again, with their battle fleets into the heart of the Jewell and Querion subsectors, starting the Third Frontier War - a conflict that began over 125 years ago, lasting 7 standard years.
In the last two decades, the Imperial worlds of the Spinward Marches have existed in relative peace shadowed by the ever present saber rattling with the Zhodani. On one hand, the Zhos have acted as the aggressor in all four of the Frontier Wars. On the other, the Zhodani maintain that the Imperium is crowding their border, and it is their right to defend themselves.
Today, forces patrol the border on both sides and tension is high.
The collection of star systems in the rimward region of the Aramis subsector is known as the Aramis Trace. This is a cluster of 8 solar systems, containing the subsector capital - the planet Aramis - and 7 other worlds that stretch into two other neighboring subsectors.
All of the worlds in the Aramis Trace are close, by intergalactic standards - all can be reached in a single jump by a starship with a J-1 jump drive. This bit of astrogational data made the cluster an ideal target for the Emperor's March Program.
20 years ago, a Fat Trader rolled off the dock at the Naasirka shipyards on Aramis. The ship was christened the March Harrier.
The ship's first crew were Vargr - the ship's first owner, a Vargr on-board owner/operator.
For two standard years this crew navigated the 8 worlds in the Trace. They made a steady profit, although no one was getting rich, and Oberlindes was pleased with the Vargr's execution of their subsidy obligations.
Emperor Strephon's program was working.
Comes a Stranger
In 1087, one of the Harrier's Vargr crewmembers grew bored of life as a Free Trader. The hostilities between the Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate that has become known as the Fourth Frontier War had come to a close, and the sector was safe for traveling again. This Vargr wanted to roam - as Vargr are prone to do - not be locked to the same 8 worlds, day in and day out - not when the entire universe beckoned.
The Vargr captain of the March Harrier set about looking for a replacement. The ship was in port on its homeworld of Aramis, undergoing its annual maintenance procedure, giving the ship's captain time to recruit and interview potential crewers.
Vargr candidates had become scarce since the end of he war. Large bands of Vargr had joined the Zhodani in the recent conflict with the Imperium, and a certain prejudice against the race was prevalent in the empire - especially in regions near the border where the war was fought (like the Aramis subsector).
The Vargr captain of the Harrier settled on a human as the best candidate to replace the ship's crewer. But, soon, the Vargr captain would be looking at his new shipmate through eyes of surprise, wondering why his life was ebbing away from him, before the Vargr realized just how bad a choice he had made by mixing a single Humani with an entire crew of Vargr.
The new crewmember's name was Shawn Grey.
20 years old, Shawn was an expatriate of the troubled world of Porozlo - a planet caught up in a dangerous political climate. It is a back water world in the Rhylanor subsector that has not yet (even today) achieved world unity, and the planet is characterized by heated conflicts between its several countries.
From time to time, Imperial forces are brought in when the fighting interferes with interstellar trade or Porozlo's stellar neighbors. Since the Imperium maintains a "hands-off" policy when it comes to politics on member worlds, Imperial intervention, on most worlds in the empire, does not happen often. For the same reason, the conflict on a member planet is unusually heated when the Imperium does interfere.
Shawn has seen Imperial forces come to Porozlo several times during his life.
Young men who opt to enlist in a Marine Corps have many choices of service. There may be a Domain Marine Corps, protection force for the surrounding four sectors under the leadership of the Domain's Duke. The sector itself may maintain a standing marine force. Sometimes, worlds in a subsector band together under treaty for the purpose of common defense, creating a marine force, or a ground army, or a space borne navy.
Very often, Imperial member worlds will maintain a force as a last line of defense (especially in light of the recent war), as support for customs, and as a controlled arm of power. It is usually necessary for a world to be unified in order to have the resources to support a space faring armed force, but some countries on balkanized worlds prize national defense so highly that they bear the burden of inexorable expense in the face of all other governmental obligations.
Porzolo is such a place.
Shawn Grey was born in a country characterized by an arms race and rampant fascism. His state is run by an aggressive dictator who encourages both fanatic nationalism and prejudice against non-humans. Since birth, national pride was drilled into him from his parents, the culture he grew up in, and the national propaganda that saturates his home.
Conditions on Porozlo cultivate a xenophobic, bigoted, racist way of life. At age 5, Shawn was enrolled in a military academy to prepare him for the time when he would defend his country. At age 13, Shawn became a member of the youth program. At age 18, he enlisted in the only force in which he had ever wanted to serve - the National Marines.
But, like so many young men on worlds across the Imperium - those grown to a belief who finally face the reality of the situation - Shawn had an eye opening experience. Service to his country did not hold all the glory he had anticipated his whole life. Used as a strong arm to enforce the personal whims of his country's dictator, Shawn saw the way foreigners were treated in his country... saw how his country was regarded with fear from other countries on Porozlo and the planet's interstellar neighbors... saw how the Imperium's call to arms to support the war effort against the Zhodani went unreturned... saw how his country's leader twisted the truth.
And, he saw death.
In an engagement during his two years of service, Grey was shot. As he lay there on a cloth stretcher in a mud hole on some forsaken piece of disputed territory, Shawn experienced an epiphany. As he beat death, and realized he would survive the battle wound, he searched his soul for answers.
Grey realized that Porozlo was truly indeed backwater. He realized that most space faring cultures only succeed after solving their domestic problems - that if more worlds experienced conditions like on Porozlo, there would be no Imperium, no intergalactic society at all.
Shawn's injury healed, but his mind didn't. The limp went away after a few years, but his life was shattered. He was bitter, and he became wayward, leaving the planet on which he was born.
He wandered coreward, stumbling his way to Aramis, candidate for the position of communications officer on merchant Free Trader - a ship with an all Vargr crew called the March Harrier.
Shawn Grey got up one morning and looked up at himself in the mirror with the realization that he was 32 years old, in a job he hated, working with a race of beings he despised, and had nothing to show for his sacrifice. He had spent all of his 20s - a total of 12 long years - in the employ of a Vargr captain who made decisions based on ignorance, working with dog-like aliens who stink, eat raw meat, and have filthy work habits.
Why he had stayed so long, he did not know. He was tired of the way other humans looked at him when they realized he crewed with Vargr shipmates. The heated arguments he had with the Harrier's captain served to remind himself that he was alive, but other than that, his only existence was trudging along year after year. He felt trapped. He was in a rut. He had no energy to move on, and he couldn't see a way to escape.
The year was 1097, on the day of Shawn's birthday. Grey stumbled down to the cargo bay after several drinks he had pumped into himself and happened upon a conversation the captain was having with one of Shawn's fellow crewmembers. The captain was explaining that he was going to have to get rid of Grey - Shawn had outlived his usefulness. Or at least that's what Shawn's experience with the broken Vargr language told him was said - what he heard through the haze of drink.
It is not easy to imagine a mind that has deteriorated over a period of a decade. Shawn had lost touch with his family on Porozlo, having never returned to his birthplanet. He had never received a promotion and never been given a raise in wage. In the 12 years he had been a member of the March Harrier crew, the ship had never turned a substantial profit to speak of, and therefore Shawn had never received a large sum for his share in the operation. The Harrier plodded along the same 8 planets of the Trace, day in and day out, making enough money to pay expenses, and when any profits were made, the Vargr captain would just plow them back into the ship.
Grey had no savings. He lived from payday to payday, wasting his life. Now, he was 32 years old, and they were going to fire him.
Something happened that day to Shawn, when he overheard the captain's conversation. His mind stepped past a point-of-no-return. Paranoia had crept in years ago. In his mind, what he translated was the Vargr intent to kill him.
The crewman left, leaving the captain in the Harrier's hold, using some crates from the last shipment they had picked up on L'oeul d'Dieu as a desk. His attention was on administrative computer work.
Shawn picked up a wrench. The captain turned to acknowledge him, and Shawn bashed his head. As the Vargr captain through up an arm, Shawn knocked it away and bashed the captain's head again. Shawn kept bashing him until the tip of that wet little pink tongue poked out that nauseating snout. Grey kept hitting him until blood matted the Vargr's food stained fur. Half mad, Shawn stopped only after the red in his vision subsided, giving way to the ache in his arm, and he saw that he had bashed the captain's ear clear down the side of his neck to rest on the shoulder of his gaudy costume.
Then Shawn stood there, sweat pouring off his brow, his heart beating in his ear, looking at what he had done. He clenched his teeth until they felt like they would crack and drilled hate with his eyes through the pitiful mangled form of a being who never saw his death coming.
Shawn noticed the blood on the hand computer. The screen on the unit glowed green in the recessed light. It was not administrative paperwork the captain was working on. It was the termination record for Shawn Grey.
And Shawn snapped back into reality. They weren't going to kill him, he realized. The captain was only going to fire him. The Vargr had put together a severance package for him. He had even thanked Shawn for his 12 years of service. The ship had just exited jump in their home system, and the captain had planned to give the rest of the crew a vacation as he searched for a new comm officer.
Grey panicked. What was he going to do?
The ship was carrying a load, and they were en route to Aramis although they were still several hours from orbit.
He punched the ship wide comm, "Ship emergency! All hands to the hold! The captain's been hurt on the cargo deck!"
The first two Vargr crossed into the hold wondering what that damn human was screaming about. Then they saw the captain. Grey was nowhere in sight. One of the Vargr, screaming at the top of his lungs, repeated the order on the ship's comm in his native tongue.
The other two Vargr arrived, panting from their run down the corridor. The first two were hovering over their slain captain. One of them asked where the human was.
That's when Shawn did it. He hit the control that sealed the hold from the rest of the ship. Then he threw the switch that opened the outer cargo doors.
The freight itself was fastened to the deck, but everything not nailed down blew out into space.
Shawn looked impassively out the port at the freezing Vargr bodies. Blood vessels were beginning to burst due to the radical drop of pressure. Gasses from within their bodies pressed outward - no pressure in space to counter the gas effect on soft skinned creatures.
Grey caught his reflection in the glass of the port and smiled to himself.
This was the first day of the rest of his life.
He repressurized the hold and went to work. After several hours, he had released all of the ship's cargo out into the void to float among the Vargr bodies and other debris.
He went forward to the bridge then and sat in the pilot's seat for the first time. The original pilot of the March Harrier had been with the ship since day one - a personal friend of the captain. He was very particular about anyone else sitting at his station.
"Well look at you now, you bastard," Shawn Grey said out loud. A bigger smile cracked across his face as he glanced out the bow port where the ex-pilot was tumbling in view.
Shawn hit the thruster control. The ship lurched forward, and the Vargr pilot slapped against the view port. Shawn heard a scrape on the hull when the Vargr bounced away from the craft.
He did not know much about starship engineering, astro-navigation, J-drives, or even piloting a vessel into a jump, but Grey could control a ship in system. It was something he had done a lot during his two years in the National Marines.
Two hours later, the March Harrier found another position, far away from the debris and dead Vargr. Shawn sent out a may-day, and a system defense boat was dispatched from the Imperial Naval base on Aramis.
The naval officers came aboard, and Shawn told them the Harrier had been ransacked by pirates. One had come aboard as a passenger at their last port and took them by surprise. The ship was forced to a rendezvous with the pirates' vessel then robbed of the contents in the hold.
The crew had been spaced.
"Why didn't they take you as well?" The Navy lieutenant asked.
"They didn't take me," Shawn said, "I think... because I'm human. They said that if I gave then no trouble, then they would let me live."
The Navy man grunted. Grey could tell by his expression that this wasn't the first time the officer had run across xenophobic prejudice against Vargr. The Vargr hoards raiding into the Aramis subsector, riding on the coat tails of the Zhodani invasion during the last war. It had been only 12 years. Imperial citizens remembered.
But, there was something else in the Naval officer's manner. Grey detected a hint of distaste - not just ambivalence.
"So you just held your tongue," he said, "and let them cart off your shipmates."
Grey tossed his eyes to the ground. He could give no reply.
It was a beautiful piece of acting.
Planet side on Aramis, Shawn implemented the rest of his plan. He contacted the subsector office of Oberlindes Lines on Paya, who, in turn, sent a subsidy agent to meet Shawn on Aramis. Shawn produced a computer log that the captain had made awarding ownership shares in the ship. Although the log was incomplete due to a magnetic blast it had been exposed to during the pirate attack, Shawn assured the agent that his name was on the log.
"I'm a little short of the 10 million credits required as a down payment on a new ship," Shawn told him, "and I'd like to resume title of the Harrier as is my right as the last surviving owner stated on this log."
The Oberlindes rep responded that the log would have to be verified with the company subsidy records on Paya. Shawn explained that the log had been established only recently, and it hadn't been posted or authorized yet.
"But I assure you," Shawn said, "that log is absolutely legal, and I'm the rightful owner of the March Harrier now."
"Unfortunate," the agent replied, tapping the damaged hand computer. "The log may be able to be reconstructed electronically. We'll have to give that a try."
And it was here that Shawn saw his plan starting to unravel. The reconstruction of the log would prove him to be a liar, and the Navy's investigation into the affair threatened to uncover Grey's hasty actions back on the ship. He was starting to get scared.
He was also desperate, so he went for broke, gambling with his life.
There were 93 tons of cargo floating outsystem, right where Shawn had left it - right where Shawn had intended to recover it before selling it to acquire funds to crew and outfit his new captaincy. He did not know what the crates contained. They had picked up the load blind because the deal was good, but he knew that the shipment had an insurance value attached to it of an amount close to half a million credits. Just salvaging whatever was in those cargo containers and selling it wholesale should be enough to put a Free Trader in business.
It was his recently gained nest egg - his insurance policy that his captaincy of the March Harrier would be vastly more profitable than that of the inept Vargr captain.
But, the time to play his Ace was then - immediately then. He was running out of options. So, Shawn looked at the Oberlindes agent and made him a proposition.
The agent need only validate Shawn's claim based on the evidence at hand and help him discourage the Navy from further investigation. In return, Shawn would give him the coordinates and trajectory of the missing cargo. The agent need only to retrieve it and disappear to earn close to 500,000 credits.
The agent stared at Shawn for a full two minutes. He never blinked, never uttered a word. Shawn could see that the man's brain was working - how would he get a ship, how would he keep those crewmembers quiet, was the half-million worth being an accomplice to a multiple murderer, would the Navy truly halt their investigation on the basis of his findings....
It seemed like an eternity.
Then, a greasy smile slid across the agent's face. "You've got a deal. What are the coordinates?"
The Man From Naval Intelligence
The Oberlindes agent transferred the subsidy ownership to Grey, turned in a supporting report to the Imperial Navy, and quietly resigned from service to Oberlindes Lines. Shawn never heard from the man again, but the March Harrier was finally his.
The new captain of the ship set about gearing up for the Harrier's next flight. Shawn needed a crew -
Then, a man from Naval Intelligence came calling. He was new. Shawn had not dealt with him before. And - Naval Intelligence! Grey knew that piracy was a priority with the Imperial Navy, especially with the Vargr corsair bands harassing the shipping lanes - pirates striving to make a living in the aftermath of the war. But, until this point, he had been hounded by men from the Naval Investigations department - not Naval Intelligence!
This man wanted to know about the pirate - the one Grey had said they had taken on as a passenger at L'oeul d'Dieu - the one that Shawn had said acted as the inside man. The Navy man said it had been checked. There were no records of any passengers taken on at L'oeul d'Dieu.
To this, Grey shrugged casually. He told the Intelligence man that L'oeul d'Dieu is a company world, owned by the Sharurshid megacorporation. "There is no law on the planet," he said, "and you should know that Sharurshid company customs on the planet are next to non-existent."
And this man, who identified himself as Eneri Giilaan, seemed to accept what Shawn had said, but Grey was now nervous. He didn't believe the report from the Oberlindes agent had had as big an impact on the Naval investigations as he had hoped. Their suspicion was strong, but they lacked hard evidence, else they would have arrested him already. Now, they were forced into a holding pattern, waiting for a break in the case.
If they kept sending men like this Eneri Giilaan to him, armed with probing questions, they would have their break, and there would be nothing Shawn could do to avoid a sentence to an Imperial prison planet... or worse.
As Shawn left the starport that day, his attention was drawn to an advertisement on the wall. It was a recruitment poster for the Imperial armed forces. A recruitment drive was in full swing. Nobody had forgotten the Fourth Frontier War of a decade ago, nor that the Zhodani had acted as the aggressors in every war the Imperium had had with them.
"Join The Best!", the sign said. "Join the Imperial Army, the Marines, the Navy, or serve in the Interstellar Scout Service!"
Like a light bulb flicking on, Shawn formed an idea. He was impulsive that way. 90 minutes later, he was sitting in front of the Army recruiter. He couldn't say exactly why he had left the Marine recruiter and came directly here after being turned down because of his age, but it might have been because the Marine recruiter suggested he try the Army - a force he said would take anybody.
Grey broached the subject of his ownership of the March Harrier. How would he be able to take care of his business investment if he joined up?
The recruiter told him about how the dearth of enlistees had effected the strength of the Imperial forces in this sector. Because of the constant tension between the Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate, a move was on to swell the Imperial ranks. There was a special program in effect for Free Traders like himself. If Grey signed, the March Harrier could be stored at a government base for the duration of his enlistment. A low charge would be deducted from his monthly earnings. It was an incentive program to get skilled starship crewers to put their expertise to work for their Emperor, and the money the Imperium saved in training these folks more than off set the cost of storage for a few years.
That was all Grey needed to hear. The Navy investigators were too close to the truth. Grey thought that if he put some time between himself and the events that happened around this planet, he could set a quiet foot back on Aramis after a 4 year term and set off in the Harrier, finally making something out of his life.
Oberlindes Lines agreed to suspend the subsidy agreement at the request of the Army, as long as Grey lived up to the full term of his inherited contract upon his discharge.
Shawn Grey signed on the dotted line.
The March Harrier went into a long-term berth at the Aramis Naval yard.
And, late one night, after Grey had shipped out, a team of men went undetected, intruding into the Naval dock housing the merchant vessel.
The man leading this team was the man who called himself Eneri Giilaan.