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Deal 960: Path less travelled to fairy

I took the fabled path less travelled. This always works out well for the poet. But in the real world, the well trod path leads somewhere people want or need to be. The other path, not so much.

I had my reasons for travelling, and at the moment I made the turn, taking a path where I might not be followed or expected made a lot of sense. If I had just noticed the Fairy Ring it lead me through before it was too late, all this might be different.

Of course, if wishes were fishes, as they say.

Instead, my first clue something was no longer normal was stepping out of a muddy spring day into a crisp, cold winter’s night. The sky was clear, but it was well below freezing and there was a substantial amount of drifted snow. In the distance I could see a well appointed campsite with a large fire and figures dancing to tunes coming from a well cranked gramophone.

I looked behind me, just in time to see the window to that muddy spring day flicker and evaporate like a will-o-wisp.

I was committed to this path now.

I made my way down into the valley, where the snow drifts to either side of the narrow trail were often well over my head. The path crested enough small ridges on the way down to assure me it went somewhere. Whether that was somewhere I wanted to be remained to be seen.

Of course, before my unexpected change of seasons it was all out war from horizon to horizon, and that was no place for me to be.

I decided to simply embrace my fates, and put my best foot forward. With a new sense of resolve and hope for my future, I made my way down to the camp.

It was only much later that the nature of my mistake became clear.

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Deal 938: Arrival, watched.

The uniforms were orange.

At a distance at least, they seemed fairly evenly colored. Up close, it became clear that there was a fine black stripe pattern worked into the orange fabric. The stripes were mostly vertical, but some trick of the design meant that no matter what position the uniform was in, there were vertical stripes.

Still, the overall orange tone made them stand out and pop against the grey walkways, grey walls, and generally grey clothing worn by the civilians. And yet, if you looked away and the guard stood still, the stripes would somehow take over your perception and they would fade away into the background.

The Station Keeper travelled with several guards. The dockside is always a rough place, and the law is pretty much the pragmatic result of everyone’s guards keeping little bubbles of orderly and safe spaces. Luckily the necessary geometry of the station made snipers mostly ineffective, allowing safety to be a close-in issue.

And yet, there are exceptions to every rule.

So here I am, dressed in a mottled grey smock streaked with hand-painted black lines that match the character of the bit of superstructure I’ve been hugging for the past four hours, biding my time. When it comes, I’ll have at best a narrow window of opportunity. If I’m very lucky, the guards will never know what happened and I can just sit tight for another hour or two until it is safe to draw attention by moving. If I’m unlucky, I’ll be spotted and then it won’t go so well for me.

Perched in the artificial sky, among the utility runs and light panels, I have a view of the docks normally only seen by the security cameras. I’m actually tucked in right beside a camera now. I’ve mapped out its pan and tilt limits, and I believe I am beyond its reach. This particular camera is not equipped with a microphone, so it is unlikely to have heard me crawling into place. In any case, I timed my arrival to coincide with a docking so that any vibration or sound I inadvertently made would have a simple, obvious, and wrong explanation.

It has been long enough that the necessary quarantines, pressure equalization, and bureaucratic forms have all been followed. All that is left is for the Keeper to greet the Captain and formally grant him and his crew access to the docks. That would be my best opportunity at a clear shot.

The Keeper’s guard have taken up positions around her, with eyes looking outward, inward, upward, and downward. The latter possible because the access point is a mesh catwalk positioned to match the port in use. They don’t act as if I’ve been spotted, and as they fade away I become increasingly confident that I’ll get my shot. I’m watching through my scope, with the hatch centered and filling my field of view when I see the caution lights begin to flash.

That is my cue to start my recorder.

Everyone in the area pauses. This is the moment when we find out for certain that our protocols worked, and the hatch really is opening on a friendly vessel, and not an enemy of the state running a false flag. That is always the worry, even though it should not be possible. By the time a dock is granted, the identity of the vessel has been confirmed through every sort of telemetry signature possible, on top of her official and probably falsifiable transponder codes and broadcast identity beacon.

This time everyone is confident. Keeper is here in person, not by proxy or avatar. The section doors are open to either side of this bay, but per protocol no one is loitering in their path. The climate control curtains are in place, but not hard air-tight seals.

There have been stories of dead stations caused by overconfidence. An enemy using stolen transponders or even a hijacked ship to dock and vent a station to hard vacuum before the section doors could close. Open a large enough door and any station can be killed.

If that happens here today, then my fate is sealed and I will be among the first to die.

But no one has doubts, or Keeper would not be here in person and the doors would be closed.

And there shouldn’t be a problem. The ship on the other side of that unassuming hatchway is rumored to be carrying our Emperor, and we are a loyal way station of the Empire. All the tests passed, all the recognition codes were good. They likely have more to fear from us than we from them. Which is why I’m nervous even where Keeper isn’t.

It’s my job to be nervous.

I’m the advance team’s forward scout.

And I know that the Emperor is not due here for another month or more. The rest of the advance team is at least a week away. And yet the station is acting as if they expect the Emperor himself. So I know that something is very wrong.

So here I am, nestled in the overheads, with my sights and recorder trained on that hatch, waiting to see who or what is on the other side, ready to take action if needed.

I do hope I’m not needed.