Chapter Three: The Hot Spot

High in the executive tower atop the Jeft Organization corporate headquarters in the Capital District of the Rajalan capital world, Ijos, an impeccably attired, white haired, man, unbent by his considerable age, entered the outer office of the Jeft Chief Executive Officer. A sentient, in the flesh, receptionist looked up to him as he entered.

“Is he in, Harden?” the old man demanded.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Frek,” Harden answered him.

Without another word from either, Mag Frek strode to the door of the inner office. He stroked the door control and strolled on through into the inner office. A man of about his own age, equally richly attired in a padded shoulder mantle; a three-quarter sleeve tunic of fine imported fabric embroidered with filaments of titanium, silver and gold; a waist sash and full breeches, looked up as he entered.

The man in the mantle was Daggen Jeft, not only the Chief Executive Officer of the Jeft Organization but also patriarch of the Jeft family. He nodded toward a cushioned bench across his desk from him. Frek took it. The Jeft CEO looked back into the tank into which he’d been staring when his visitor had entered.

Frek waited patiently for his employer to finish what he’d been doing when Frek had interrupted him. Daggen ignored him for a full milliday before he blinked twice in rapid succession to terminate the program inside it and looked up at Frek expectantly.

“I just received fresh information from our sources in the Systemwide Health Commissioner’s Office,” Frek informed him. “It appears things will be coming to a head on Linguin within a matter of days. The Emperor’s Representative has been bringing increasingly heavy pressure to bear upon the commission. The Emperor wants the infection there contained. He’s not happy with the efforts of either Linguin Worldwide Government or Systemwide Government to contain the crisis. He wants Linguin quarantined: no body and no commodity on world or off world for the duration. He isn’t taking maybe for an answer.”

“When will the quarantine take effect?” the Jeft patriarch demanded to know.

“The Commissioner is buying himself the time to evacuate his own personnel from Linguin and to give us and the other major organizations the time to evacuate anyone we don’t want stranded there,” Frek said. “Our contact has guaranteed us a deciyear at a minimum. But I won’t count on anything longer than a centiyear. The Emperor surely won’t stand for further delay.”

“What’s the Emperor’s problem?” Daggen asked. “Is the situation on Linguin really that serious a threat to the rest of the system, Mag? Or, does it just offend the Emperor’s sense of discipline and order that sentients are dying there without getting his permission first?”

“It’s becoming more and more apparent. The situation there is seriously out of control, Daggen. The leader of the team the Systemwide Health Commissioner sent to study the situation told our contact the population crowding in the Urban Core is seriously exacerbating the problem. He pointed out that everyone in the Core uses public transit and that the main north-south conveyance promenade trunk line, serving nearly two million passengers a day, runs squarely through the heart of two of the most heavily infected neighborhoods in the Core. He told our contact it would surprise him if there’s anyone in the entire Core at this point who hasn’t already been exposed to death ache, drowning disease or yellow bloat, at least one of the three, since the refugees introduced them there. He said all three are highly infectious. For example, just a single droplet coughed into the air by a subject infected by drowning disease contains enough disease organisms to infect three other sentients.

“The local authorities made a fatal mistake in not instituting strict neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block quarantine measures as soon as the first treatment resistant cases of the diseases began to turn up in the neighborhoods the refugees were settling in. All three treatment resistant disease strains have begun showing up in neighborhoods all up and down the Urban Core.

“The back side of Linguin doesn’t appear affected yet. But since ninety percent of the population of Linguin either resides in or works in the Urban Core, or both, there’s no telling how many sentients who live outside the Core have been exposed. The incubation period for yellow bloat is three to seven centiyears. For drowning disease, it’s four to ten, and for death ache, three to six. All three are communicable well before the first symptoms show. If they wait to find out how many cases turn up they’re sure to find themselves with pandemics rather than epidemics on their hands before they can mount a serious campaign against them,” Frek explained.

“Does a centiyear give us enough time to get our non-essential personnel and their families off world?” Daggen asked. He was always interested in the practical.

“It will be close. But I can manage it,” Frek said.

“Get on it right away,” Daggen ordered. “If they intend to seal off Linguin entirely we’ll lose our Linguin production facilities. Both the production workers and the administrative staffs will be out of a job. It won’t be any use to us to leave any of them there. Bring them all off, every last one of them. We’ll assign as many of them as we can to other facilities. Perhaps we can pick up some of the slack from the production we’ll be losing from our Linguin facilities by stepping up production in other places.

“I guess we’ll need to isolate anyone we move off Linguin till we know they’re not sick before we can plug them in any place else, though, won’t we?”

“Yes. That would definitely be advisable,” Frek agreed. “Our clinics at our facilities on Asteroids 319 and 562 Beta and 823 Zed all have large sections which can be effectively isolated for use as quarantine wards. If we use all three we should be able to accommodate everyone we’ll want to take off from Linguin. I’m going to have to leave behind a large security contingent on Linguin to protect Jeft property for the duration of the emergency there.

“There have already been some civil disturbances in the Urban Core. Sentients have been blowing off steam. They always do when they don’t like what’s happening to them and there’s not a Fate blasted thing they can do about it. For the most part it’s been a lot of rowdy partying on Linguin so far. But there’s been isolated looting. And you can bank on there being more violence once the quarantine is announced to the public. The personnel I leave there will need support personnel to keep things running for them: communications techs, maintenance techs, and so on. Everyone else can be evacuated.

“The quarantine won’t be a short term measure, Daggen. They’re planning to seal the place up tight until the epidemics burn themselves out. That’s how the Emperor wants them to handle it. It’s either that or he’ll blow the whole moon up. It will take deciyears, maybe as much as two full years, for the diseases to burn themselves out, all three of them. That’s what our contact in the Health Commissioner’s office is telling me. Anyone we leave there will, from a legal standpoint, be stranded there, and essentially lost to us for the duration. We’ll probably be able to get a few sentients on or off from time to time once we see how enforcement works so we can work out how to get around it.”

“They’re pretty much writing off the entire population of Linguin, then,” Daggen inferred. He glanced ever so fleetingly in the direction of the one adornment to his otherwise completely utilitarian office, a special tank in which was displayed the life-size image of an attractive, matronly woman, the systemwide renowned philanthropist, Sachja Jeft, Daggen’s late wife.

Having known Sachja well, Frek knew exactly what his friend and boss of untold years was thinking. Sachja, were she alive to hear it, would be morally outraged that Systemwide Government would write off the lives of the greater part of the population of the most populous Rajalan moon, the third most populous of all the Rajalan worlds. Arguing with her that it was necessary to write off Linguin in order to save it from the Emperor and the rest of the system from it would have been futile. She would have demanded that Daggen put a stop to the outrage.

Daggen would have tried to reason with her that the policy was a pragmatic necessity. She would have pleaded with him. When her entreaties failed she would have rushed off to mobilize the army of charities she supported with Daggen’s credit to do something about the plight of all those sentient beings. She would have done anything in her power to improve their immediate plight, even knowing in her head that nothing anyone could do would truly save them from their fate.

Daggen would have been furious about it. But he would have let her spend the credit; he had loved Sachja that dearly. She had come second in his life only to the business empire Daggen had spent his lifetime building, the Jeft Organization. And it had been a very near second, at that.

Daggen Jeft was one of the most competitive, most ruthless, sentient beings in the entire Rajalan System. Many would have said he was the meanest. If you had asked him, he would have told you he was the toughest. No one would have dared gainsay him the point to his face. But Sachja had been his weakness, a weakness his competitors had sometimes managed to exploit despite Frek’s best efforts as the head of Jeft Security and of the Jeft legal department, the second man overall in the entire Jeft Organization, to prevent it. Daggen’s wife had been Daggen’s weakness; she and one other woman—

No. Frek refused to let himself think about that. The subject was too sore for him, even after so many years. There was nothing productive that could come of poking into that old wound. He put it from his mind completely.

“Privately, the Health Commissioner is projecting that the three epidemic diseases, combined, may claim as much as fifty percent of the population; that’s fatalities,” he responded to his employer’s comment after both had remained silent with their thoughts for half a milliday. “Collateral health problems and civil unrest could take the death toll significantly higher.”

“Have you notified Meggedin yet?” it occurred to Daggen to ask. “I believe he may be on Linguin now.”

“I’ve notified him,” Frek answered. “I actually spoke directly to him the moment I got the word the quarantine was definite. He’s been following the situation very closely. He was already closing up his townhouse in anticipation that he might not be able to use it any time soon when I called him. I also notified Frivollen. I put in a call to his yacht as soon as I got out of the tank with Meggedin. He isn’t aboard Dart Tail just at present. But Captain Tenl expects him back aboard within the next few decidays. Tenl didn’t say where Frivollen was. Dart Tail is presently in orbit above Ectuin.”

Daggen grunted. “Pissing away his time at some nightclub, exposing himself to trouble as usual,” he said.

Daggen was grooming his elder son, Meggedin, to take over the family business empire. Meggedin was dedicated enough and ruthlessness enough to run the business. He would very nearly fill his father’s slippers. He had an aptitude for the job.

Daggen’s younger son, Frivollen, was altogether a different story.  Frivollen didn’t have the slightest interest in the family business. He hadn’t the slightest ambition in life. He was wasting his best years away on mood elevators and bad company. And it made him a prime target of opportunity whenever some rival organization got the urge to mount a dirty op against the Jeft family.

Daggen had tried repeatedly to convince Frivollen to give up his wasteful, risky, ways. Frivollen was unwilling to take the slightest precaution for his personal safety, wouldn’t cooperate with the most basic security measures to protect him. Sometimes it was more than Frek could do to ensure his most basic safety. Had it not been for the cooperation of Tenl, the captain of Frivollen’s spacegoing yacht, Dart Tail—whom Frivollen trusted almost as much as he resented his father and his brother—Frek couldn’t have protected Frivollen at all.

In spite of all of which, Daggen cared about the boy. He cared about him because Frivollen was his own flesh and blood, and Sachja’s. Frivollen had been Sachja’s favorite. Daggen put up with far too much from Frivollen for Sachja’s sake. Years after her death, Sachja was still Daggen’s weakness, in the person of her son.

“What do you have on the war?” Daggen changed the subject. The burgeoning health crisis was the pressing immediate problem. But just a fraction of a galaxy away an epic battle to the death between two military giants was unfolding. A mighty invasion force of unknown origin which everyone had begun to refer to simply as “the Invaders” had already snuffed out three ancient civilizations and conquered one entire arm of the barred spiral galaxy which was home to the Rajalan race. The Invaders were now taking on the galaxy’s one native dominant military power, the Flachjik Empire. The Flachjik were all that stood between the Invaders and Rajalan Space.

“Information about the war is getting harder and harder to come by,” the man who was supposed to have all the answers for his employer, and usually did have them all, was forced to admit. “It’s been centiyears since any of the free traders with whom we have a special relationship have made an appearance in the system. Captain Den Glar was the last. It was Den Glar who told us, the last time we talked with him, that the Imperial Navy had engaged the Invaders on the near edge of Arjulan Space. Not a single report has come to my attention since of a suspected Arjulan vessel in port anywhere in the system. There hasn’t been a single dispatch on the war posted on a suspected Arjulan clandestine information site since Den Glar left. There hasn’t been a Flachjik battle bubble sighting in the system in a deciyear.

“One thing there has been has been a slow trickle of new refugees again in the last couple of centiyears. Apparently the Imperial crackdown on them is running out of force. They’ve all been Flachjik, though. They’ve all arrived aboard Flachjik vessels. There haven’t been any new Axspic, Minden, Warelen, or Arjulan refugees. And the newly arrived Flachjik haven’t been talking. You know how unwilling to mingle with us the Flachjik are under the most normal of circumstances. With the violence against refugees since the epidemics started, none of the refugees wants anything to do with us. They keep entirely to themselves.”

“You have no new intelligence on the war at all?” Daggen demanded.

“What new information I have, I have entirely by inference,” Frek answered. “From what I’ve been able to infer, it isn’t promising for the home team. For example, there’s been a new wave of kidnappings of Rajalan spacers by Flachjik press gangs. There have been about two hundred new missing sentient reports filed in the last centiyear involving spacers going missing. The actual numbers are probably closer to twice that. Most of the reports have originated in the Beta Asteroid Belt. Several Flachjik Imperial cruisers have been patrolling the three and four hundred sectors of the Beta Belt, purportedly enforcing the crackdown on refugees. One of our freighter captains saw one in the vicinity of Asteroid 377 Beta shortly before a dozen qualified spacers disappeared from there in a single night.”

“That’s something ominously new: press gangs operating off from cruisers. Until now they’d all been operating off from bubbles; hadn’t they?” Daggen asked.

“That’s right,” Frek said.

“I don’t like it,” Daggen said. “The Emperor has to be utterly desperate for space qualified personnel to impress so many Rajalans when he despises us so much.”

“Who would ever have thought the day would come when we’d be unhappy that the Emperor is getting desperate?” Frek asked.

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