(3) The MacGuffin

The Nightshade Campaign (119-1122)

119-1122 : Regina / Regina / Spinward Marches

    By this point, Mich Saginaw's knowledge of black technology has reached the point where he understands some of the background, not just how to use it.  He can power units from the power cube using the linked unspace holes, one in the cube and the other in the device.  He understands that Jane sabotaged the antimatter generators by introducing solitary unspace holes, which in the constricted realspace of the jumpspace bubble tended to link into unrestricted drain-radiate pairs, which converge in spatial location.  Then when the ship exited jump, the spatially collocated holes separated with a large release of energy.  He tries to explain this to some of the crew right before they leave the bar, but they seem otherwise distracted.

    Edward "Shark" Teeth takes a close look at the nervous guy they're about to escort downtown and back for 1000 Cr.  He seems to be on the level as far as he can tell.  Shark idly wonders if he'll get to use his zack in anger.  With Shark in the bar are Vonish Kehnaan, Misha Ravanos, Helia Sarina, Mich, Teri Cralla, and Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege.  That gives quite an escort, but of those only Misha and Shark are experienced urban brawlers.  At least Helia has her zack, and Teri -- whose preferred military approach to urban combat is to demolish the buildings -- is packing her gauss pistol.
    Kalida has to go with the escort so that they have the excuse to carry weapons, but Vonish gladly takes Misha's offer to remain behind here.  The vilani will research where the good (and bad) bars are in the area, to help them find a buyer for the Blockade Bourbon.
    Shark takes point a good way in front of the group.  He has the address pulled up on his hand puter, and is keeping a very good lookout in addition to following the route.  The uncle's apartment is in a mixed commercial and residential district downtown outside the starport; it's about 20 km away.  They'll be taking the starport and city public light rail transport rather than going back and fetching air/rafts from Nightshade or renting a car at the starport exit.  The apartment is about half a block from an underground rail station.

    As they leave the TAS building, Shark notices they are being followed subtly by a person in a generic dark suit.  They proceed carefully.
    The starport light rail is not crowded, but busy.  Shark has a quick word with Teri and arranges that they'll take over one end of a rail car.  When it arrives, Teri at least is sufficiently intimidating to ensure they have that space to themselves.  The group embarks.
    Black suit guy gets into the car behind them.  There is no door between cars on this train aside from emergency access.  Shark takes a look at black suit guy and figures he's using a commdot to talk to someone.
    Their guest is still a little nervous, but more relaxed with the large escort.  For some reason, he seems to trust them, which is giving him some degree of confidence.
    The ride to the transfer station is uneventful.  They watch the scenery through the glassteel walls.

    At the transfer station, they plan on taking the direct train to the stop nearest the apartment.  It's early evening.  That doesn't matter too much, as this is a big city and it's open most of the night -- it's not like they'll be doing this with no people around.  They'll just grab the stuff from the apartment, and then go straight back to the starport.  The guy then plans to rest at TAS and get a passage back out, either working or possibly buying a ticket -- although of course that latter option is expensive.
    They exit the starport train, then descend into the transfer station to a local station.  The black suit guy is still following them.
    Here they do the same thing -- corner an end of the rail car.  This train does have internal doors -- one person who is in the end they're taking over is intimidated enough to get up and move to the next car.  The suit again gets into the car behind them.  The train leaves.

    Once they're moving, Shark questions the new guy.  He asks him how he knew there were three guys.  The man -- his name is Trow Backett -- replies that he saw them before he went into the TAS building on his way from the trader terminal.  He picked up the cash from a lawyer in TAS, as part of his inheritance from his uncle, Vlen Backett.  Shark pulls up the obituary -- Vlen was a merchant engineer, served a long time mostly in free traders.  He calls Robert to ask for more information.
    Robert quickly looks up Vlen Backett and passes the information on to Shark's puter.  The guy served on a bunch of assorted traders, an average guy who'd made a good living as an engineer, mostly in this area.  He was unmarried with no onworld relatives, although he was from Regina himself.  He had a fourth floor apartment downtown, overlooking the street.  Robert sends the floor plan of the building.  The apartment occupies the front half of the floor -- it's a good size, but not too extensive.  The building has a central lobby area, elevator shafts, one stairwell.  All the front apartments have balconies over the street; the ones at the rear don't have balconies, but overlook back alleys.
    Shark shows Misha the floor plan and all the accesses.  They study it for a while.
    Robert has also checked out Trow Backett.  He says that according to the limited information available, he seems to be on the level.  He arrived on a merchant yesterday.  There's no direct connection between him and his supposed uncle, but there's also no reason to believe he is anything but legitimate.  Since he was in TAS, he had some reason to be in there, and presumably a membership since he was in the bar.  Robert mutters that faking TAS membership is as hard as counterfeiting Imperial currency.
    At this point, the sharp-eyed crew members notice that just entering the car ahead of them though the connecting door are three hefty guys heading purposefully this way.
    Teri and Shark cover the front, while Misha covers the connecting door to the rear where black suit guy is reading a newspaper.  There are three other people seated in this car, one middle-aged couple and an elderly gentleman.
    Clearly the crew has the drop on these men.  The thugs come through the door.  The guy in front has a large heavy length of pipe, shoves at the old man and snarls at the couple, "Just stay where you are!"
    Helia grins and says, "Oh, boy!  Can I take this one?"
    Shark sighs and replies in a very bored voice, "Not this time."
    "OK, daddy!" pipes the larian.
    "OK, just hand it over," says the thug, "And we'll go right back the way we came."
    Helia pulls out some candy and says to Shark, "Daddy, I think he wants this."
    "He's not that kind of sucker," says Shark.
    The thug is clearly getting irritated.  He says, "Come on!  Hand it over!  You!"  He points at Trow.  "Come on!  Hand it over!  You know what we're looking for.  Hand it over!"
    Misha assesses the threat.  The thug in front has a heavy pipe; the other two are behind, and could be carrying something.  Checking the reflections in the glass, he (and Shark) determine that one of them has about a 15 cm knife, the other has brass knuckles.  No firearms.  Misha says quietly, "Teri, show him your weapon."
    On cue, the whole crew pull out their guns.  It's an impressive display of gauss pistols.  Misha says, "Leave the car, or die."
    "Yeah... OK," says the thug.  They start backing up through the door to the car in front, shoving their weapons away.  They leave quickly towards the front of the train.
    The suit has stood up, was looking through the window, but has now sat down and has returned to his newspaper.
    Helia runs up and offers candy to the three people in the car, but that just makes them more nervous.  Misha calls her back.

    There are three stops between the starport and their destination.  At the first of those, the three thugs leave the train and walk quickly up towards the street.  Shark has put together a full description and picture of them; he then unobtrusively gets a picture of the black suit guy, who is still reading the paper in the car behind them.  Shark quietly tells the group not to react at their stop until the last minute, just so they don't tip off the suit.

    Eventually they reach their stop.  The doors open on the left, the same side they got on.  As Shark had arranged, everyone gets off quickly and the whole group heads for the exit.  The suit gets off the train too.
    Shark takes point, about 25 meters in front of the group, as they walk down the half a block to the apartment building.
    The building has a central entrance lobby.  The security guard on the left doesn't even look up from his magazine as they walk in.  There are two elevators straight ahead, with the stairwell on the right.  Shark presses the elevator call, then checks the back hallway.  The ground floor seems to be empty aside from the group and the guard.
    While most of them go up in the elevator, Shark runs up the stairs and beats them to the fourth floor.  This hallway too is empty.  Two apartments come off this lobby, which has seating, potted plants, and a computer terminal.  He keeps the stairway door open while the others exit the elevator.
    Shark then checks the door to Vlen Backett's apartment.  It doesn't swing open when he pushes it -- it's locked with a keypad and card slot.  He studies it carefully to figure out which numbers have been pressed most often, then tries those four in combination.  It doesn't unlock.
    Shark asks Trow for the keycode.  It's those four numbers, but it's a seven digit code.  Shark tells everyone to move away from the door.
    Shark and Misha suddenly notice suit guy appear at the stairway door, then duck back out of sight.  They keep an eye on the stairwell while proceeding with their plan.
    Shark and Teri take up a cross entry assault position.  Shark punches the keycode, pushes the door, and they enter the apartment.  The two of them quickly secure the place; nobody's in there.
    Everyone comes in.  They start searching for the statuette that Trow has told them he's looking for.  Trow joins the search, and soon points out a ventilation duct right as Shark is reaching for it.  Teri is used to dealing with explosives, so in case it's booby trapped she is the one to remove the small box they can just see.  It's about the size of a liquor bottle box.  In addition, there's a small book; Trow reaches for it, but Shark takes it from Teri and says they need to leave now.  But first, Misha directs them to search the rest of the apartment; they find nothing, and are pretty sure there's nothing else hidden.
    Before they leave, Shark goes out on the balcony and checks the street.  It's clear of anything suspicious.  He comes back inside.
    Suddenly there is a knock at the door.  A voice says, "Gentlemen, ladies, I have a proposition for you."
    Shark checks the peephole screen.  Suit is standing outside, his hands in plain sight.  The box is stashed in Trow's bag, which Teri takes.  Shark still has the book.
    Shark opens the door.  He says, "Come in.  And we have the pleasure of...?  Whose company?"
    The man says, "Somebody who can make you a very nice offer."
    Trow just looks puzzled.
    Shark suddenly starts laughing to himself.  He's figured out that the box probably contains a bottle of their expensive bourbon.
    Black suit guy says, "By now you must have it."
    "One could assume," says Shark.
    "I'm willing to offer you... 500,000 for it."
    This confirms Shark's suspicion that it's a bottle of Blockade Bourbon.  He goes over to Teri, opens her bag, and looks at the box.  He opens the top and looks in.  It's not bourbon, or any sort of bottle.  It's a small statuette of a stylized humanoid in what looks like pewter.  He shows it to Kalida, who just shrugs.  Helia comes over and looks in the box too.  Shark then hands it to Trow and says, "Here, you take a look at it before you decide to sell it."
    Trow says, "I know what it is.  It's Uncle Vlen's statuette.  No, it's not for sale.  Put it back please."
    Shark closes the box and puts it back in Teri's bag.  He says to the suit, "Well, thank you for your time."
    The suit man says, "If you should be interested in selling it, or negotiating, let me give you a card."  He carefully and slowly reaches into an inside pocket, and slowly and carefully pulls out a business card.  "And a good day to you all."  He turns his back and leaves.
    Shark takes the card, scans it into his puter, and hands it to Trow.  Misha points out that it's probably bugged, so Shark takes it back and leaves it on a side table in the apartment.

    It's time to leave.  Shark takes point again, running down the stairs ahead of the elevator.  Everything is clear.  The others come down in the elevator.  The security guard still has not looked up from his magazine, and doesn't react as they leave the building.
    There is no practical alternate route to the train station -- it's at the corner of the block.  So they just walk back there, and after a very short wait they take the next train to the starport.  This train is not as busy, and they get into a car with three other people, again cornering one end of the car.
    Shark takes a look at the book, planning on scanning it.  It's handwritten -- the journal of Vlen Backett.  The close writing makes it hard to read, and there's no practical way to scan the whole thing on the train.  So Shark turns to the back first, to see what he is sure is the most important detail.  He calls Robert to tell him what the statue is, and if there's anything in the pages he is scanning.  Robert tells him the scanning isn't working, and he should bring it back to the ship to give to Mich's reading robot.
    To Shark's great surprise, the last ten pages of the journal don't seem to be that important.  It's not a daily journal, just notes from his tours of duty.  Vlen Backett's last tour was as chief engineer on a decommissioned subsidized merchant.  The ship was several hundred years old, and he said he preferred the smaller tighter ship experience of the far traders.  It's nothing Shark couldn't hear in a bar sharing a bottle of vodka with Mich.  There's notes about places he visited, but nothing about statues, or about his will.  He tells everyone what he's found, and adds, "There's nothing in the last pages about the statue."
    Trow says, "I know how he got the statue.  He found it in the Victoria system.  He had two, and sold one of them.  He used to tell me the story about it."
    "Who'd he sell it to?" asks Shark.
    "I don't know.  He never told me that."
    "I take it he got more than half a million credits for it."
    "I don't know what he got for it."
    "So why do you feel so strongly that it's worth more than half a million credits?"
    "I don't know.  This guy wanted to pay half a million just out of the blue like that...  It is an Ancient artifact, or so my uncle said."
    "I wouldn't mind taking a look at it later.  We have some experts in ancient artifacts."  It still looks like a plain old pewter statuette to him, though.  Shark pulls up the scan of the business card again.  It has just a name and a contact number.  He asks Robert to check into it.
    In a short while, Robert calls back.  The guy is a wealthy collector.  He has an estate outside town, with a couple of other residences around the world.  He's in the records of several auction houses, and there are references in the local news as well.  He's put on displays of Ancient artifacts at a local museum -- twice in the last five years.  Internal records in Imperial enforcement agencies show that three months ago he had confiscated from his collection several unregistered ancient artifacts, including a 10 cm high metal statuette.
    Shark turns to Trow and says, "You said the Victoria system?  When was that?"
    "That was probably 45 years ago, in 1077 I think."
    Shark pulls out the journal again and tries to find a reference to that.  The problem is that the handwriting is dense, and the journalling erratic and missing dates.  He can't just turn to 1077.  In fact, he still hasn't found it by the time the train pulls in at the starport.

    The trip through the starport to TAS is uneventful and safe.  They're pretty sure they haven't been followed.
    Shark wonders whether there's two factions after this thing or just one.  Misha's opinion is that the thugs and the suit guy work for the same group -- he tried to get it at a deep discount first, then tried at a lesser discount.  Just for the sake of it, Shark calls Callisto and asks if there's been anything unusual on the football sensors.  She confirms that aside from the usual background, they have been quiet.
    Shark then takes a closer look at the statue, and scans an image of it for analysis back at the ship.  He makes a good all around 3d scan, including the base.  There is no apparent writing on it.  It is about 10 cm high on a 2 cm round base with a fine screw thread.  It's a very stylized bipedal figure with head, arms, and wings.  Gender is indeterminate.  He looks over at Helia, but the proportions aren't those of a larian.