(4) Playing With Dolls

The Nightshade Campaign (119-1122 to 120-1122)

119-1122 : Regina / Regina / Spinward Marches

   Nightshade's crew has just successfully escorted Trow Backett from the starport to his uncle Vlen's apartment downtown, and back to the Traveller's Aid Society with a statuette and Vlen Backett's diary.  Trow has paid them 1000 Cr in cash for the task.  They have full 3d pictures of the statuette, but in practical terms scanning the diary will have to be done back on the ship -- Mich Saginaw's book scanning robot is in the attic, where the rest of the Imperial gear taken from the H.M.S. Third Eye is stowed.
    Edward "Shark" Teeth tries to negotiate taking the diary back to Nightshade and then returning it back here, but Trow is reluctant to let it that far out of his possession.  Shark asks if Trow would like to see the ship.
    "Yes, I would, as long as you aren't going to shanghai me," smiles Trow.
    Misha Ravanos says, "Weren't you looking for working passage away?"
    Trow nods.
    "What's your job?" Shark asks him.
    "I'm a steward."
    "Ah," says Shark. He muses to himself, "We don't have enough staterooms to need a steward."
    Even though Trow won't be working on the crew, he's still welcome to "see the ship" so they can scan the diary.  They all set out from the TAS building, taking the shuttle train to the private yacht terminal where Nightshade is berthed.  Vonish Kehnaan, who has been researching which local bars and clubs might be useful in finding a buyer for the Blockade Bourbon, accompanies them to supervise their guest's hospitality.  Both Shark and Misha are certain they are not being followed.

    The black ship is certainly an interesting sight.  Even though there are several kiloton displacement range yachts, Nightshade is quite distinctive with her needle configuration and black color scheme, with the unusual drive nacelles with a large red maltese cross on each.  Then there's the unusually clear transparent windows, the large multi-deck rear one revealing a large garden complex complete with waterfall.  Trow is clearly fascinated, although he says nothing.
    Shark quietly commdots to Callisto to scan Trow for any devices or weapons.  Callisto reports that he's clean.
    Since crates of North Whipsnade whiskey are being unloaded at the moment, they enter through the main cargo lift, transferring on D deck to the smaller personnel lift and taking that to the lounge.
    The attic where the book scanner is located is accessed by going aft through the upper cargo bay.  That is safe to take outside people through: there are cases of whiskey that haven't been unloaded yet, and a lot of original cases of food on which the original scryptese labels have been obscured.  Still, there's no need to show Trow any more of the ship than necessary.
    Shark asks Trow if he can run the diary up to the scanner.  Trow agrees, and Shark settles him in the lounge with a large pot of Navy coffee as prepared by Mich.  Trow may be a merchant, but his father was in the Navy, and he appreciates the thick brew.
    The book scanning is straightforward, but takes a while for the robot to physically turn the pages.  Robert Morris, as the computer expert, will be in charge of sorting out the handwriting -- of course, it's in galanglic, not his native language anymore, but he still has no problem setting up the interpretation.
    By the time Trow has settled into the lounge and been fed coffee and whiskey and light hors d'oeuvres, Shark has joined them again.  It'll be another quarter of an hour before the robot has scanned the book, and the transliteration is ready as fast as the physical scanning can provide the data.
    Trow is clearly impressed by the ship.  Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead is doing a fine job of keeping him distracted, telling him yet another long-winded story that everyone has heard a thousand times already.

    Shark sits quietly to one side, reading the entries relating to "statue" as they come in.
    The first entry refers to a stopover on Victoria, in the Lanth subsector.  Vlen Backett was on a small far trader merchant, and they were running industrial equipment into and agricultural goods out of a cluster of red zone systems in Lanth -- Victoria, and Sonthert and Ylaven.  The ship had a drive failure coming in to Victoria.  While the rest of the crew relaxed and played tourist, he was left on board to fix the problem.  After several failed attempts to fabricate new components, he was frustrated enough to take an R&R break himself.  He went to Albert, Victoria's largest moon.  There is a known Ancient site there, and he visited that first.  It had of course been completely looted long ago.
    Vlen's storytelling then starts to get more flowery.  He says he went hunting, and started to pursue an Ivory Gazelle that he'd wounded.  At this point he's clearly read too many classical literature tales of ancient hunters following wounded deer into forests to discover unusual wonders, and in purple prose he claims to do just that.  He says he came to a clearing, and found an intact Ancient residence.  He says that everything was weird, in many cases defying description: the sounds, the sights, the smells.  He describes nothing in detail, but mentions paper-thin walls, doors of cloud mist.  He brought back a few artifacts, but the items he liked the most were two small statues.  He called them "angels."  Later on when he retired, he sold one for 120,000 Cr to pay for the apartment downtown.
    Shark asks Trow if he can pull out the statue.  Trow is apparently finding the Baron's stories quite interesting, and just nods at the First Officer.  Shark takes it down the hall to the bridge, places it on his sensor console, and drops into sparkly pink mode.  He asks the ship what it thinks about it.  Based on the sensor facilities, it's nothing remarkable -- he does find it's an unusual alloy, mostly of lead but with some stable superheavy metals.  The ship suggests that engineering equipment for analyzing solid state objects might do a better job.
    Shark walks back to the lounge with the statue, and whispers an aside to Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, to persuade Trow to let him take it away for a while so he can examine it in engineering.  She says to ask Misha, so Shark asks the Captain to persuade Trow.  He explains to Misha that he's a little concerned that the statue is an artifact from "the other guys."
    Trow seems to have been accepting Misha's authority since the escort mission, and it's not hard for the barbarian to convince him to allow his statue to be examined more closely.  Mich takes it back to engineering to do the analysis.

    Mich finds that the distribution of the superheavy metal atoms in the statue does seem to have some pattern to it, although it doesn't make any sense.  Shark asks Mich if he can make a duplicate copy of the statue; aside from the technical difficulties, Mich is not at all in favor of that.  Mich does pass the data on to Robert to do an analysis of the pattern.  Any conventional analysis would say it was amorphous; it's only the equipment Mich has for working with solid items (like the power cube) that can pick out the superheavy atoms and their pattern.
    While Robert's doing his work, Shark looks at the pattern from the point of view of a robotics control circuit or something like that, but it doesn't seem to be that.
    Robert confirms that there is some information encoded -- some sort of data are stored there.  It's probably not a lot of data, but he can't figure out what is encoded.  It could be the equivalent of laser etching a serial number into a diamond.  His best guess at this point is that it might be a manufacturer's mark, a serial number, or something of that nature.

    That's all they need from Trow.  After a polite time for more socializing, they will escort their guest back to TAS.  Even though Trow's looking for a working passage, as a steward he really isn't a good fit for the crew.  He's planning to get back towards the Lunion subsector area of the Spinward Main.
    Shark takes Misha aside and observes that they could take Trow to that general area, or at least get him a lot closer.  It wouldn't take much to get him there from Victoria.  They could offer him a ride to Lanth, or possibly to pick up the Spinward Main at Ivendo.  He asks Misha if they want to offer him a passage.  They discuss their plans, and the consensus is that they'll spend a couple more weeks searching here, then go on to Victoria.  Shark quickly calculates how long they should take to get to Ivendo if they were a normal ship, and says they could take five weeks with Trow in restricted access areas to hide their jump capabilities.  The catch, of course, is the always open windows in the lounge, but they can just pretend it's a holographic projection of a simulation of a jumpspace view.  Misha suggests that rather than hide their long jumps, they just take their time and do smaller jumps -- they're not in a hurry.
    As a result, Shark offers Trow free high passage to Ivendo in return for his statue.  Trow immediately responds that the statue is not for sale -- he wants to keep it.
    In private, Shark acknowledges that they already have as much information as they can from the statue -- Mich's full atomic-level analysis should be as much as they could get.  Shark adds that it could possibly be a combination key to something, but then they might need the other statue too, and it was confiscated by the Imperial authorities.  He says that probably means it's on its way to Mora.
    They leave to escort Trow back to the TAS.  In the station at the TAS stop is the black suit guy, who nods and waves to them as they go by.  Shark tells Trow about him, but adds that he's probably fine in the TAS facility itself.
    They return to the ship for the night.  The whiskey is already offloaded when they get there; that leaves the computer equipment and of course the Blockade Bourbon to be sold.

120-1122 : Regina / Regina / Spinward Marches

    Shark makes contact with a local representative of his services, and asks about military deployments and the reasons for them.  Of course the news report about the Five Sisters battle group won't reach here for about three weeks, so Shark sticks to vague generalities.  The local agent hasn't heard of any border disputes or operations planned, but he does say that there is still a state of high readiness on the frontier with the Federation of Arden.  Other than that there are no definite threats.
    He then checks to see if Baba Yaga has been through unannounced; it has not been here.  With a smile, Shark tells the agent that Baba Yaga is a ship operated by Vilis Intelligence, and to add them to their database.
    The agent confirms that unregistered Ancient artifacts would be confiscated here, then sent back to Mora via secure shipments.  He adds that they think there's still at least one at large on this world, and Shark comes across anyone trying to smuggle it out, he should report it.  Apparently they have recently confiscated a statue that is one of a pair, and they've tracked down that some guy called Vlen Backett owned the other one.  Mr. Backett is dead, and they haven't been able to determine an obvious heir or the fate of that statue.  They're still on the lookout for such a person trying to get passage out of the system.
    Shark is extra careful to make sure he is not followed, and gets Callisto to scan him for bugs.  He is indeed bugged; he plants it on an unsuspecting random passenger in the same car of the train.  Shark gets out at the TAS stop, observing that suit guy is no longer at the station.  He leaves a message at the desk for Trow Backett that "The existence of the angel is known, and it's relatives are being sought by the authorities.  Good luck!  Call me."  Shark boards the train again and returns to the ship.

    It's mid-morning Imperial time when Shark reports to his captain.  He tells Misha that there is no information on military movements -- they have beaten the news of the deployment.  Confiscated artifacts are taken offworld and shipped to somewhere on Mora.  The existence of a second angel, probably in the possession of a relative of the dead man, is known and he is to let them know if he runs into anything.  So if they want to get something from this guy, they can probably convince him of the serious criminal consequences.  That might help persuade him that he should part with the statue.

    Mich has been re-thinking the possibility of duplicating the artifacts.  With the equipment on board, he could possibly in time make an indistinguishable copy of the statue -- which they could then sell for large sums of money.

    Vonish has identified the best high class exclusive club in the system.  That is where Kalida -- and her entourage -- should try to sell the Blockade Bourbon.