(26) Local Politics

The Nightshade Campaign (312-1122 to 313-1122)

312-1122 : Mizan-fel / Querion / Spinward Marches

    They arrive at Mizan-fel at 19:00, in stealth mode of course.  Everything looks normal here too.
    Robert Morris is starting to get larger chunks of the encrypted Zhodani transmissions.  He's getting the picture now over a small range of modulation, and figures another jump might be enough to crack it completely.
    This world is independent, on the borders of the Zhodani Consulate that they have just left.  Following the fleet has proved so far to be a wild goose chase.  Without some solid information, tracking it is likely to continue that way.  Aside from their meeting with Marquis Marcus Crestworthy, they are still free to pursue what course they want.  Curmudgeon has piqued Misha Ravanos' interest, and he'd like to go back there and see what's going on, but after that he has no definite plans.
    By the numbers the world seems like it would be fairly pleasant, but there's no real reason to keep them here.  The system navy seems to consist of a mix of previous generation Zhodani and Imperial ships -- TL-13 to TL-14 rather than the system's rated TL-8.  Robert reports that their encryption is several generations out of date, and that while their ships have more modern systems, it's also fairly easy to pick up spatter from tight beam from their older ground installations.  There's no sign that the missing Imperial battle group could have come through here.

    Helia Sarina puts them into jump for Gyomar at 20:00.

318-1122 : Gyomar / Chronor / Spinward Marches

    Nightshade arrives in the Gyomar system at 08:00; again an independent world, again in stealth mode.  The mainworld is the only barely habitable world in the system -- the only one where water is not a gas, but with the corrosive atmosphere and Fluid rating it's unlikely there is any open water there either.  This is doubtlessly the brightest star they have visited yet.  Even though Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead and Mich Saginaw have seen a lot of spectral class F stars out in Whitestar sector, this star is class A8 IV, even further along the blue-white end.  The radiation in the inner orbits will be vicious.
    The only ships in this system are three Far Traders.  There is a beacon on the mainworld, rated as just a class D starport.  Two of the starships are located there, power plants on idle.  The third ship is refueling at the gas giant in orbit 5; at that distance, the conditions are almost normal compared with the other gas giants closer to the star.
    After the usual perfunctory one hour scan, they jump again for Curmudgeon at 09:00.

323-1122 : Curmudgeon / Fessor / Foreven

    Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, has continued working with her zack.  This time it's Misha Ravanos rather than the larian who has helped her progress the most.  Helia was busy with other tasks this time, and allowed her captain to take more of the load.
    Robert has finally figured out the Zhodani encryption system, and he confirms that there had been no sign of any Imperial fleet back there -- all communications were completely routine.  He also adds that he'll be adding the techniques to his tool box to improve their own encryption schemes.
    As Kalida points out, the Imperial Navy would love to know that encryption scheme -- and that's one of the least things they'd like to know from this ship.

    They arrive out of jump at 21:00, this time without stealth mode engaged but still with no transponder emulation.  Helia flies them in, reaching orbit at 22:00.  They are displaying red maltese crosses in the alternate color scheme, with all transparent windows.
    This time there is one ship in system, a type A Free Trader, descending from orbit towards number two of the three downports.  For Nightshade, Misha chooses starport number one -- the only one that didn't call themselves "the official starport" last time.  He announces that the ship will be known as H.M.S. Number Two.
    Misha asks Nightshade to call down to the starport for them and handle all the communications.  They do of course have trade goods that they can try to sell here.  The ship gets clearance to land and the landing field but no specific flight plan.  Misha is one again amazed at how Nightshade handles all the backwater starports so well -- including the handwritten Jannish forms for Digitis.  This time, the ship warns the captain and crew that the starport seems to have ulterior motives.  Misha smiles in astonishment -- not so much that it's hard to tell that here, but that the ship would notice it and consider it worth while telling the crew.
    Mich laughs that they just have to hope the ship doesn't decide to get rid of the crew.  He and Bridgehead exchange glances, remembering their first encounter with Anastasia.  Mich mentions the laser scanners above the door to detect when to open them -- the weapons grade lasers -- and the built in security system that decided the crew were insecure.

    Helia brings Nightshade in to land at starport number one.  It's definitely a starport, although they've seen better.  It has a terminal, service areas, and outlying buildings -- unimpressive, but probably all there, just like most backwater starports based around a large paved open landing field.  It gives the distinct impression it was thrown up in a hurry, and Kalida estimates it's about 30 years old and hasn't had much done to it since.  Obviously it doesn't get much traffic.
    This starport is slightly unusual in that the obvious security perimeter is particularly heavy, with machine gun nests and so on.  This is definitely out of proportion to the traffic.  Furthermore, Kalida notices that there are also artillery posts, and the artillery posts are pointed inwards.
    Misha laughs that they clearly don't want people to leave without paying.  Kalida isn't worried -- she is sure that they don't have anything that could threaten Nightshade.
    Misha asks about law level here -- he is told that by the same UPP that says there's only ten people on this world, the law level would be 2.  He apologizes to Teri that she will have to leave her beloved FGMP-15 on board the ship.  Since they aren't in the Imperium, they can't even use the "noble's retinue" clause.  Still, since the atmosphere is exotic, she can make excuses to wear her battledress; everyone else will need protective gear too.  Misha wonders if his zack will be enough to handle it, but there's no way to tell without trying it.
    Robert is disgusted that there is no local radio network to hack into.  Someone will have to go ashore to look into trading.  The obvious choice is Vonish Kehnaan, of course, although Kalida wants to help him to work on her mercantile skills.
    The starport itself of course welcomes anyone ashore who wants to come, but adds that any trade will have to be carried out at the starport building itself.
    As they get ready to leave the ship, Kalida notices some military activity by the outlying buildings, people getting into vehicles -- groundcars, trucks -- and so on.  They're moving with some haste and discipline.  She exchanges glances with Misha, and clearly the two of them think alike -- without a word Kalida mans her gunnery station and keeps a close eye on developments.  Mich keeps the engines ready to go.
    The vehicles move into a position closer to the landing field, but still a good distance away from them.
    The revised plan is for Misha, Teri, and Vonish to go ashore.  The Baron backed out once it was clear that the situation was not completely friendly.  Misha suggests Vonish might like to take some sample rugs ashore, while he himself tests out the zack for the local atmosphere in one of the airlocks.  Callisto tells him that there is no oxygen out there -- it's primarily methane -- so Misha doesn't even need to try out the zack in it, but will wear a personal vaccsuit over the zack.  Vonish too contradicts his captain, and says that they don't need to carry samples to figure out the local market -- if there's trade to be done, they can talk about their goods before producing them.
    While Teri is of course fine in her battledress, past experience means it's wise that Mich check that Vonish and Misha put on their vaccsuits properly.  Everyone does it correctly, although Vonish struggles for a while before getting it right.  Teri says she doesn't care what the nominal law level is here, she's taking her FGMP-15 anyway.  She expresses her concern about Misha's and Vonish's ability to take an artillery strike, but Misha assures her that since they haven't blasted them already, they probably want something from them and there'll be some warning.  Teri agrees that they'll probably at least have time to call in supporting fire from the ship.  Misha does, however, equip his sword before leaving; Vonish picks up his SMG.

    Misha, Teri, and Vonish leave Nightshade from the patio ramp.  As they have come to expect, the patio itself maintains a normal atmosphere, and they don't encounter Curmudgeon's air until they step off it onto the ramp.
    The starport building is about 200 m away.  None of the military forces have moved, but Kalida watches them carefully from sparkly pink at her gunnery station.
    At the building, they are faced with a fairly crude mechanical airlock door.  Teri spins it open, and they all step inside.  Teri closes it again, and the airlock cycles -- twice.  It seems that it first flushes the outer atmosphere with some inert gas, and then flushes that with breathable air.  Eventually the green light comes on, indicating the airlock has fully cycled.  Teri confirms that it's regular air now.  Misha takes off his helmet.  Teri suggests that Misha might want to keep the helmet very handy, just in case she decides to blow a hole in the wall.  Vonish removes his helmet too, although somewhat nervously.
    They open the inner lock door and step into the starport.  Immediately beyond is a guard post, with a couple of armed soldiers and a guy at a desk.
    The man behind the desk looks from one to the other, and says, "Who's in charge?"
    "That would be me," says Misha.
    "OK.  Can I help you?"
    "We're looking to sell some trade goods."
    "Very good.  Glad you chose to come here.  We do have a couple of forms that we need you to fill out, just routine paperwork.  If you wouldn't mind just stepping over here..."
    Misha nods.  Vonish looks at him pointedly, and Misha asks Vonish to fill out the forms for him.
    Back on board Nightshade, all are listening to this over the commdots, and watching the live video feed from Teri's battledress.
    Vonish goes over to the indicated desk and starts filling out the forms.  He reads out a few of the questions to Misha.  "How many crew do we have?" is the first of those.
    Misha says, "Thirty."
    "That sounds about right, or is it thirty-one because we picked up Nick over at that last place?  I'll put down thirty-one, that's close enough.  What about ship's armament, anything?  I don't know much about it."
    "I don't think so.  Teri has battledress."
    "That doesn't count as ship's guns."
    "Really?  It's guns on the ship, isn't it?"
    Vonish shakes his head and sighs.
    "I think we have some of that stuff, I'm not sure.  Can you just put unknown?"
    The man suggests having Teri call back to the ship and getting the details.  On the bridge, they guess that a basic trader of this size would expect several missile turrets, lasers, sandcasters, overall a little less than Anastasia.
    Misha says, "Teri, please call back to the ship and ask what kind of armament Marquis Marc put on it."
    Robert calls back with the armament of H.M.S. Third Eye, which had one forward mounted laser battery intended for cutting and clearing work.  That ship was designed for hostile zoological environments, not hostile military environments.
    Kalida takes over the answer.  She reports a couple of laser batteries and a couple of sandcasters.  This is what Vonish writes down on the form.
    Next, Vonish reports, it asks for simple operating parameters -- maneuver drive capabilities, jump, and so on.  On advice from the bridge, he writes down jump-2 and 2G acceleration.
    Misha says this is very interesting information, and is told that it's for a traffic and trade study.  Misha says he'd love to see the report, if it's publicly available, and the man says he'll check on it.
    Vonish continues, filling in answers in line with the background discussion: cargo hold 100 tons, computer model/3.
    Kalida comments that sometimes she feels that they just wander around the galaxy inviting people to mess with them.  She quickly adds that isn't a bad thing.
    Vonish finishes the form, and points to where Misha has to put his mark, which he does.
    The man waves him to the exit door, and they all go on into the starport.
    At the other side is a civilian guard post -- a man at a desk, and two guards with concealed weapons (which Misha notices immediately, of course).
    "Welcome to Curmudgeon," says the guy at the desk, "What can we do for you today?"
    Misha replies, "We're very interested in looking for some trade.  We have lovely items for sale."
    "Excellent.  One of my friends here can take you to the trading area.  Of course, if you'd like to leave any of your gear here, we have a secure locker facility."
    Misha replies that they're in quite a hurry.
    One of the helpful tour guides indicates to follow him, and heads off into the building.  Down a couple of corridors, and he leads them to a room well-stocked with telephones and assorted books.  Fortunately Vonish knows what to do with this.  There is a bar along one side, and Misha knows what to do with that.  The guide says the bar is complimentary for customers.  Vonish gets to work, while Misha eagerly hurries him along.
    Misha checks in with Kalida to see how things are on the ship.  She tells him that nothing has changed, all is as it was when he left.  Misha then asks Robert to listen in on local radio stations and see if he can get anything from the news.
    Robert has been listening for military communications, but has picked up none.  The local radio consists mainly of farm reports, industry reports, local sports teams, and so on.  Notable are reports on how wonderful it is to be in the army.  It is very obvious that there are more than ten people on this world; whether everyone here counts as starport personnel and is therefore not included is not clear, but there is certainly a small town about 20 km away.
    Vonish has been making lots of calls, but keeps shaking his head.  Misha acts more impatient.  Vonish sighs, "Not a thing, no market here for our stuff.  We could sell some of the booze probably, but it's not worth it."
    Misha says theatrically, "We've come all this way for nothing!  Well, let's get out of here."
    The guide takes them back to the desk.  The desk person asks how it went; Misha says he's very disappointed, and the guy asks him quietly what sort of goods he does have to sell because he might have some outlets that aren't available on the official channels, as it were.
    Vonish defers to Misha.  Misha asks what he has for them -- they have rugs, and alcohol.
    The man says he might be able to find an outlet for those.  He tells Misha to give him three hours to get his guys together, and he'll call him.
    Misha agrees.  The three crew go past this checkpoint, past the guardpost which does the double cycle again, and out onto the concrete surface of the landing pads.  Misha asks Mich why they would be doing a double cycle; Mich points out that methane and oxygen aren't a comfortable mix.
    The three return to Nightshade.  Misha had been expecting something to happen, but he isn't disappointed that it hasn't -- he's just glad to be out of the vaccsuit.

    Helia is bored and ready to leave, but Misha tells her they have to wait three hours for the guy to call them back.  The captain tells the crew that anyone who wants can take a break -- MIch points out that
all they really need to do is lock down the ship -- with this ship, they can't hurt them.  It takes 100 nuclear warheads to hit simultaneously to drop the shields down low enough to damage them with the expander weapon.  Misha had forgotten that, and it reassures him.  Mich also reminds him that Callisto can shift their sensor viewpoint in sparkly pink and watch what's going on in the starport too.

    After three hours nothing has happened, not even the promised phone call from the guy in the starport..  Callisto reports that he is not at his desk, and in fact has been gone from there for some time.  She can't find him.
    It's not long later that a figure in an archaic vaccsuit comes out of the starport airlock and approaches the ship.
    Kalida assures them that the military dudes haven't moved from their position.  Their commanders are holding them at ready for far too long, she says with a sigh.
    Misha goes to meet the figure at the ramp off the corridor behind the bridge.  Of course he has to show the newcomer where the translucent ramp actually is.  Mich as is now routine checks Misha's vaccsuit before he leaves; Misha has it all correct.
    In the low-tech suit it's hard to tell if it's the same person.  Misha nevertheless leads him to the airlock, and once it cycles takes off his helmet.  The man does the same, and turns out to be just who they were expecting.
    The man says, "We might have a good price for your trade goods, but it will take a little sweetening of the deal.  Nothing that's going to cost you much, just a little favor."
    "I'm listening," says Misha.
    "OK.  Well, it seems there's this trader over at another landing field that's been taken over by terrorists, and we'd kind of like you to smash the crap out of it."
    "Been taken over by terrorists and you want us to smash the crap out of it?"
    "Yeah.  Blow the ship up."
    "Because it has terrorists in it?"
    "Ah," says Misha theatrically.
    "And because if you do that, we might find a real good price for some trade goods."
    Mich muses that even on their official report, they have a lot more weaponry than a 200 std Free Trader.
    The man continues, "We're not too concerned about collateral damage, either.  Anyone important has been evacuated."
    "Ah.  And where is this Free Trader?" asks Misha.
    "We'll give you coordinates for the landing field."
    "Do you know where these terrorists took it over?"
    "I'm not sure of that information, no.  That might compromise our sources.  You can think it over if you like, because there's a time limit on this.  If that trader takes off again... a whole lot easier to smash it on the ground."
    "No," says Misha, "I don't think we can do that.  I'm concerned that our ship just wouldn't have the stuff to take out these terrorists."
    "I think you could handle it."
    "It's a greater risk.  I'm a trader.  If I wanted to be in the mercenary business I would do that, but I'm not."
    "Yeah, well, think of it as trading business.  Say we bought a case of whatever junk it is you're selling for two million."
    "See now, I'd have to get my trade coordinator in on that."
    "Whatever you need, take your time."
    "How about if I just bring my trade coordinator here, and you can discuss...?"  Misha calls Vonish to the discussion.  The vilani has already told his captain that they could pack a crate with garbage and give it to them for two million and they wouldn't care -- it's not their point.  Misha continues, "So no deal is to be had without this... police action?"
    "Yeah," says the guy.
    "Ah, that's just unfortunate.  Well, perhaps one of your neighbors might have a market for my goods."
    "I think you'll find your best market's here."
    "Well, I'll give it a shot.  Thank you very much for your time."  Misha reaches out and shakes his hand, puts on his helmet, and cycles the airlock.  The man leaves.