(7) Whiskey for Walter

The Nightshade Campaign (121-1122)

121-1122 : Regina / Regina / Spinward Marches

    Everyone has returned to Nightshade after dinner with Sir Arken Hauther.  The immediate plan now is to finish selling their stuff -- the computers on the TAS board, and the Blockade Bourbon at a lunch with Walter Elliot, who apparently wants just such a bottle.  They also, of course, want to find out who is trying to kill them -- the ones who control a piece of the Imperial Navy and shot at them at Mora.
    One related question that comes up over breakfast is whether a meson gun can actually damage the ship.  As Edward "Shark" Teeth points out, if it can't, then whoever shot at them from Mora has no idea of the capabilities of the black ship.  Mich Saginaw and Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, come up with the answer that they could probably be used instead of nuclear missiles to overload the shields, if timed perfectly.  For that the firer would have to target around the ship rather than in it.  They also can't rule out the possibility that the meson gun might be able to damage them once the shields were down.  Any Imperial ship would aim the meson gun inside the ship, which wouldn't hurt Nightshade.  Of course, large Imperial warships also have meson screens, which negate the effect of the weapon.  If the planetary defenses had been directed by someone who knew about black ships, all the shots would have had to surround Nightshade simultaneously, and it might well have taken more than three to get coverage.  Kalida and Callisto could have pulled off the retargeting based on the shadow from the first shot; it's not outrageous to believe that top planetary defense operators at the Domain capital would be that good too.
    One thing they didn't mention to Sir Arken was that Shark was warned off the database by an agent on Mora.  One reason he didn't say anything was because to do so would involve revealing that they were looking into the black tech trail.
    Misha Ravanos says that the Mora incident was not only remarkable for the speed of the response, but for its intensity.  Are other databases that might trigger it?  He continues, "We've been assuming that there's some secret thing that Mora defenses have been co-opted by.  Maybe that's not true, and this database is on the list of things considered so sensitive that it automatically and legally triggers that defense."
    Shark says that Arken said it was an unauthorized use of planetary defenses.  He then goes on to consider possible good places to go: perhaps Zett; perhaps wherever the Imperial FarSpace Service is, to track their funding and look for black tech traces.
    Misha points out that they should probably finish their search here in Regina before moving on.  It doesn't have asteroid belts, but was mentioned in the database.  It's the only place in the database that doesn't have belts.
    Shark adds that there is a fourth possibility.  There is Victoria, the system where the statues come from, a red zone.  The trader Vlen Backett had found an intact residential site.  It didn't seem to be black ship tech, although it was clearly highly advanced.  Whether it's the other guys, or an earlier or later colony, they don't know.  He does have another thought: the droyne, descendants of the Ancients -- the statue could be interpreted as a stylized droyne.
    Shark then asks Mich about converting the ship's missiles to probes.  Powered from the ship, they would have unlimited endurance provided that Nightshade was still in the system.  Mich says that really can't be done, not at all easily, since the coordinated time-on-target guidance systems are built into the missile body; also, the ship doesn't have single missile launch capability -- it would have to be physically put outside the ship.  It's not nearly as simple as converting an Imperial missile to a probe, something he's done many times before.  The solid systems in black tech devices don't lend themselves readily to conversion to a different use.
    Shark would also like to be able to project whatever he wants as the exterior appearance of the ship.  Mich says that he hasn't figured out how to do that, and he'll need to understand a little more about the technology before he can give any sort of definitive answer.

    There is some definite good news: the Imperial computers have sold for 2.5 MCr.  That's a good sum to add to the ship's finances.

    It's now time to leave for lunch with Walter Elliot, the prospective buyer for the Blockade Bourbon.  They originally paid the small amount of a 250 kCr for it, back when they bought it from Andy on Wonstar.  Kalida says they'd expect to get 5 MCr from the Emperor, or move it quickly for 2 - 3 MCr.
    So Kalida, Misha, and Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead board the launch as passengers, while Helia takes the pilot's seat.  They can afford to be inconspicuous, as they have plenty of time for a conventional three hours to the Eagle's Nest where Mr. Elliot has arranged their meeting.
    Meanwhile, Shark and Robert have checked up on this Walter Elliot person.  Shark's work with public records reveals some information.  He's a local businessman, very wealthy.  He runs a whole bunch of companies in speculative trade and shipping within the Regina subsector.  His family came up from independent merchants, and from his grandfather onwards has built that up to a small subsector-wide shipping line.  He runs ships along the main trade routes, including a good number of subsidized merchants.  His operations don't extend beyond the subsector, and obviously he doesn't ship to any interdicted world.  As a person, he keeps a fairly low profile.  He is definitely the sort of person who would buy the bourbon; the only question is whether they could get a better price.
    The consensus is that they should push for a good price, but definitely try to sell it.  They can get more whiskey, after all, by running the blockade at Nakege.  They'd have to be careful about where they claim to have obtained it, short of laundering it through Andy, but it could certainly be done.
    Misha asks if there are political or human rights reasons for breaking the blockade -- not just running it, but breaking it.
    Kalida says that the colony is pretty much self sufficient.  Anyway goods are permitted in, just not out.  The problem is that they are just going steadily further and further into debt because they can't sell the bourbon.  She reminds them that Tukera Lines was doing the same thing around Ianic, and although they have a history of doing this, that one was the first time the Imperium has interfered with it.
    Misha asks what Tukera is getting out of this.
    "Money," replies Kalida.  "They want to be the sole distributor.  The Bank of Mongo is floating the loan for the company that manufactures the bourbon.  The Bank of Mongo is wholly owned by Tukera Lines, so if they sit there long enough they'll own the company themselves.  That's what they're after."
    "Ah," says Misha, "Then they can take down the blockade and sell the bourbon.  Is this the only product on this world, or is there a whole range of products?"
    "That's pretty much it.  They do some wood and furniture, but everything is being blockaded."
    "What was the product on Ianic?  Anyone remember?"
    Bridgehead says the dispute was over an exclusive shipping contract for all state owned crafts, after several former industries had been outlawed.
    Misha continues, "So what's the legal reason for the blockade?"
    Kalida says, "They're claiming that there was an agreement that they should be the only distributors, and the company says that's not true."  That's essentially what Tukera did on Nakege too.  She adds, "It's considered a local commercial thing.  Tukera is very powerful, too."
    At this point, Vonish speaks up.  He thinks Tukera Lines might have some sort of legal tax angle on the whole thing.  He believes there's some weird quirk in the laws of Aramis subsector that lets Tukera get reimbursed for the interest that they're not currently being paid on the loan.  By an odd megacorporation law, they could well be getting the interest paid to the company in actual cash from the Imperial government.  Megacorporations are subject to different laws, and Tukera is particularly powerful in Aramis.
    Misha says, "So despite the fact that they're the cause of the company's inability to pay its loan..."
    Vonish says, "Yes.  Based on Kalida's figures, the interest accumulating for 1122 is around a gigacredit.  The loan is about 8.7 GCr, compounded annually at 12%."  If they're taking in a gigacredit in cash from the Imperial government, that represents quite a profit from just maintaining the blockade.  That's a big incentive to make sure the loan can't be paid off.  In addition to that, they're skimming off profits from anything that does make it out of the system through their people on Mongo.  There is absolutely no reason for Tukera to settle the dispute.  He adds that technically the Imperium could interfere if the situation was considered a threat to Imperial interstellar trade.  That was the grounds used to break up the Ianic situation.  That being said, to break up such a long established blockade as the one at Nakege, you'd have to have serious support from upper nobility because Tukera is so powerful -- they'd have to go up to Archduke Norris.  The only other possibility would be if there was a separate Duke of Regina -- a title that would be inherited by Norris' second child, if he were to marry -- and that Duke would have to be a powerful influence.
    "So," laughs Misha, "Short of marrying the Archduke, getting him two children, watching them grow up and then appealing to them...  We could run the blockade.  We could run the blockade in quantity.  We could make the blockade very expensive.  We need to come up with a much more elegant scenario so that it no longer makes sense."
    Shark points out that Tukera has one of the best security forces -- actually more like a full complement of private armed forces -- in their subsiduary Vemene.
    Right now the bourbon is just piling up.  Production isn't fast to begin with.  Even if the everything there was to hit the market suddenly, because of the limited and special production methods, the price would still be very good indeed.
    Misha asks if the company -- Traditional Heritage Craftworks -- owns the right to produce it, or just the current production facilities.  "What if all that bourbon were to go away?  What if we destroy it?  The company shuts down and..."
    His words are drowned in  roar of outrage.  Vonish quietly adds that the company isn't making money now, it's just piling up the loan, and Tukera will continue the loan as long as they can.  Even if the company tried to declare bankruptcy, no court would accept it as they have a continuing source of funds in the loan.
    Shark wonders what would happen if they pointed out to the Archduke that it was costing him -- the Imperium -- the amount Tukera was being paid.  Of course, that would depend where the money is actually coming from.
    Misha says, "OK, ignore my destroy the product scenario.  What if another company were to start making the same bourbon the same way.  That company wouldn't owe money to Tukera."
    Kalida says, "Tukera wouldn't let them out either, and they would be going bankrupt.  So Mongo comes in, floats them a loan, and now Tukera has two companies."
    "Ah, it doesn't matter that they never pay off the loan.  Even if the stock was destroyed or disappeared, it wouldn't matter.  They'd just keep collecting on this tax thing.  Bank of Mongo isn't doing it for the future revenue from the whiskey.  It might be a blow to certain aristocrats who would no longer get it."
    Shark adds that Tukera Lines is covering the interest to the Bank of Mongo, so the Bank isn't losing anything either.  Tukera doesn't care about the product, just their gigacredit a year.
    Misha says that perhaps the way to eliminate the blockade is to get rid of the stock of bourbon.  With no product to ship out, the company continues to owe and Tukera continue to get their money, but there's no longer any point in maintaining the blockade.
    "There's something wrong there somewhere," says Kalida.  "THC can sit there doing absolutely nothing, but all these people need something to earn their livelihood, so they're going to start up another company to do essentially the same thing.  Why isn't Tukera going to do the same thing to another company?"
    Vonish says that if they paid off the loan -- and kept it paid off -- there's nothing Tukera could do to stop them.
    Misha points out that if the price dropped to just a million per bottle, they only need to sell 8700 bottles.  Surely there's that many on Nakege now, and that would only take a couple of trips.
    Shark says again that they need to break the economic reason for the blockade, and it has nothing to do with the bourbon itself.
    Kalida says they have to bear in mind that Tukera has been quite willing to resort to military action in the past, and if there was enough smuggling going on they might well just bring in their own marines and invade the planet.  So it's not as simple as just shipping the bourbon offworld.

    Finally Helia flies the launch into the Eagle's Nest.  They are escorted to a private dining suite, this one very much showing the oppressive wood panelling style of the Members Room.  Kalida notes that the wood is not up the the standard of the white oak in the Nakege Room on Mongo.  Mr. Elliot's personal chef is overseeing the meal, as did Vonish for yesterday's dinner with Sir Arken.
    Mr. Walter Elliot is pointedly ignoring Misha.  Obviously the barbarian is not up to his exacting etiquette standards, or perhaps he just doesn't like the look of him.  After everyone else manages to make it clear that Misha is a respected member of their group, it helps, but Walter still clearly does not like him.
    Walter Elliot is in his early fifties.  He's dressed in perfect high end clothes, but does not wear them well -- he even manages to make them look a bit scruffy.  He immediately says that he much prefers to get business done right away, and then they can relax and enjoy the rest of the meal.  He motions, and a servant comes in carrying a suitcase, gives it to Elliot, and leaves.  He says, "The bartender tells me you have the bottle."
    Kalida says, "Yes.  How long have you been looking for one?"
    "A while."
    "How did you hear of it?"
    "Everybody knows the quality and... it's the best, right?"
    "It is indeed the best."
    "I hope you will find this satisfactory."  He hands Kalida the suitcase.  "Five million?"
    Kalida hands him the case containing the bottle.
    "Excellent," says Elliot.  He motions again, and hands the case to the servant.
    Kalida hands her case to Misha.  She says, "I hope you enjoy it.  It's excellent."
    "Well, I need something to cheer myself up at the moment.  One of my ships got into trouble."
    "What happened?  That's a shame."
    "Yeah.  I got a 10,000 ton freighter impounded at Boughene."
    "Why?" asks Helia.
    "The Navy says they were using the wrong communications channel.  Apparently something about running into a couple of their fighters."
    "Having an exchange?"
    "No, no.  Just literally running into a couple of their fighters.  They said our captain should have known about the interference in communications there.  I figure it's the Navy just trying to screw me, you know?  Just because I don't have a title.  But I'll figure out who I have to pay to get it out of that..."
    Kalida asks, "What kind of cargo did you have?"
    "It was just mostly manufacturing equipment."
    "Well, I hope you get it untangled."
    "Yeah.  So do I.  I'm not so worried about the cargo as having the ship out of impound.  I need to get the ship running.  It's not like I'm Imperiallines or something, I can't afford to have ships sitting still."
    "I'm sure not."
    "I hope you enjoy the meal.  I'm told it's a traditional style from Ruie.  Never been there myself.  I like the food, you know.  Don't have to go somewhere to steal somebody's food."
    It is good.  It's not as good as Vonish's -- very little is -- but it's good and accompanied by some rather good wine.
    Helia asks, "What sort of goods do you usually trade in?"
    "All sorts of stuff," says Elliot.  "Whatever I can buy cheap and sell high.  That's how business goes."
    "If it's not too prying, because I really don't understand all this business stuff as well as my companions, what are normal good things to trade in, aside from bourbon?"
    "Agricultural goods, manufacturing goods..."
    "Raw materials?"
    "Yeah, whatever.  You buy something where it's made, and ship it to somewhere where there's demand.  If there's nothing really being on sale, you pick up a government contract and ship cargo."
    "Spider silk," says Helia.
    "Spider silk?"
    "It's a thread that you can find that has a very, very high tensile strength.  You can use it to make some stuff, but it's not usually available in this part of space.  I understand that there's only one planet it's ever made on."
    "Where's that?" asks Elliot, almost offhandedly.
    "I hear you can get it in Reidan subsector.  Raschev?  I think that's it.  I'm not quite sure, I've only heard stories about it.  I myself like interesting clothing, and I hear tell it's very lightweight and strong, and it would just float and look pretty.  I guess it would be a luxury item.  Once in a while, when I meet a trader such as yourself, I ask him if he's heard of it, because it would truly be interesting to find it."
    "Thank you.  I'll definitely be looking into that."
    Kalida says, "Luxury items get the best markup."
    "Yes, they do," says Elliot with a smile.
    Helia says, "I was raised with simple tastes, but travel widens one's perspective."
    "It's a long way out of my working radius, but it might be worth sending a ship to look into it."
    "I think you should make inquiries first, because I'm not positive that's where it's from.  I would hate for you to send one that far away.  That's about 20 parsecs," she rattles off as if anyone knows the distance.  She continues, "Ask around.  I may have the location wrong, but I know it's very far from here."
    Kalida says, "There would certainly be a market for that on Regina."
    Elliot says, "Yes, there would indeed."
    Helia says, "Does Regina have that many rich people with nothing to do?"
    "Yes.  And rich people with lots of things to do to."
    "Rich people who like bourbon?"
    "Rich people who appreciate the finer things of life, yes."
    "I mean, I prefer fizzy burblesnaps with an nice pink umbrella, or straight giddyhooch which is really pretty good too."
    "Do you play golf?"  He looks at the Baron, but the Baron avoids his glance.
    "Sure, I do," says Kalida.
    Elliot brightens visibly.  He says, "Do you have time for a round this afternoon?"
    "Yes, I'd love to play a round."
    "Excellent.  Always interesting to find a new opponent... associate."
    "I haven't played in a very long time.  It will be a treat."
    "The course here is excellent, as I'm sure you know.  Do you have anybody else you could bring to make a foursome, maybe?"
    The others at the table glance at each other and exchange blank expressions.  But it turns out that Calliso plays golf, so Kalida suggests her.  Helia will have to rush to the ship and back to pick her up, but she enjoys flying fast anyway...

    Helia takes Misha (with the money) and the Baron back to the ship; Misha will return and caddy for Kalida, while Shark will caddy for Callisto.  Misha doesn't know why they'd need security guard for a golf game at an exclusive club, but as Shark said it's his job to be paranoid, and this guy overpaid without question, no negotiation.