(27) To Be Named

The Nightshade Campaign (323-1122)

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323-1122 : Curmudgeon / Fessor / Foreven

    The representative from the starport has just left.  Misha Ravanos has told him that they aren't interested in taking out some free trader on the ground, and thought they might get better prices elsewhere.  The military forces are still on alert near the outlying buildings, but none of them have made any move.  Callisto has been pulling in her sensor data in sparkly pink, to enhance the sparkly pink of Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, at her gunnery station.
    Misha now wants to check out this other free trader.  They didn't get the coordinates when they refused the job, but there is only one other free trader in the system and so it has to be the one.  It was landing at starport #2.  There is of course no local comm network, so the only information they have comes from the transponder on the Imperial ship.  The man didn't say anything to verify that it was the same ship, so it was possible he was sending them on a wild goose chase, and Misha wants to be sure.
    Misha asks Robert Morris to contact the man at the starport.  Robert brings up the link and nods to his captain.
    Misha asks what the coordinates were of the ship.  He eagerly gives the position of starport #2, the same one where the trader had landed.  The man adds that a good price would be waiting for them if they help him out.
    Misha motions to Robert to cut the connection, and turns to his pilot.  "Helia, take us there.  Not too fast, just normal speed for a normal ship.  I don't want to scare this guy off."
    Helia Sarina takes off and flies them to the next starport at an uncharacteristically sedate pace.
    Misha asks Robert if he thinks he can break into the ship.  He laughs, and presents the Captain with a crew list.  At Misha's request he adds that there has been no recent tampering with the information -- it's all perfectly legitimate.  Misha asks Robert to open a link.
    "Captain Ravanos, of the starship H.M.S. Number Two.  Is everything OK?"
    "Yeah everything's fine.  This is Captain Will Everson of the free trader Starshader.  We're fine."
    Privately on Nightshade, Misha asks Robert if there's a way he can verify that voice matches the name, and it's not just someone else claiming to be him.  Robert checked the crew identifying information on Starshader and verifies it is indeed the Captain, and nothing's been tampered with.
    Misha continues, "Captain Everson, I primarily want to inform you that the other starport offered us a reasonably large bounty to, and I'm quoting here, 'Smash you.'  It wasn't enough money to convince me to do such a thing, but I wanted to warn you that the locals may not be entirely honest or friendly."
    "Yeah.  Ok.  Thank you, I appreciate that.  Anything we should particularly watch out for?"
    "The locals are neither honest nor friendly.  But they're not well-armed, as far as I can tell."
    "Any reason we shouldn't do business here?"
    "No reason, except watch your back. Caveat venditor."
    "Yeah, we were kind of getting some funny responses from the guys here.  We weren't quite sure what to make of them."
    "Well, as far as I can tell each of the starports claims to be The Official Starport.  It's not unreasonable given the balkanization of this planet, but open bounties on other traders is not good business."
    "We figured there was some money to be made here."
    "There very well could be.  I'm going to give it a shot at another starport.  But we'll see what happens."
    "Well, thank you.  And thank you for not smashing us.  Just out of interest, what would it be worth to smash us?"
    "I think it was two million credits, minus a box of junk."
    "Nice to know we're worth that much," smiles Everson.
    MIsha laughs.  "Well, if you're not worth that much, you could consider selling your ship."
    "Hey, I'm still paying for it.  I'm not going to be worth anything for another ten years."
    Misha says good-bye to the Captain of Starshader, and gets Robert to connect him with starport #2.  He tells them they have alcohol and rugs for sale, and asks if there might be a market for either of these here.  The starport, of course, enthusiastically says they'll have a great market here.
    Kalida wonders if there's a history of free traders vanishing here.  There's not a lot of sources they could try, but the system is an Amber Zone because of "High danger and likelihood of any visitors being drawn into local politics as a tool of one faction or another."
    Misha muses that it might not be so much that they wanted them to smash the free trader, but more that they were hoping for extensive collateral damage.  He asks what a free trader is really worth -- was the captain joking?  He is told that a brand new free trader would cost about 36 MCr, and an older one like this is probably worth at least 5 - 10 MCr depending on what shape it's in -- and if it's operating this far out, it's probably in good shape.  Misha is now confident they were after the collateral damage.
    Misha tells the ship to ask for landing clearance, which it does and passes on to Helia.  The berth is conveniently right next to Starshader, and the larian brings them in to a gentle and sedate landing  The Captain glances at Kalida and Callisto meaningfully.
    This starport is laid out somewhat differently.  Callisto reports that the military capabilities here are significantly better hidden.  The underground bunkers and in this case several missile stations are indeed already on active alert, ready to open fire.  Misha asks Robert to send this information over to their neighbor.
    "Jeez, are you guys serious?" exclaims Captain Everson in shock.  "Whoa.  After your last message were were trying to get our guys back from the starport, but it's taking them some time to get through the bureaucracy there."
    "Let's see if we can confuse the situation a little bit," muses Misha, "It's our specialty."  He turns to Kalida and confirms that Nightshade would not be in any danger from the weapons here, but that Starshader would be in some danger.  To take down their own shields and expose them to an expander takes about a megaton of coordinated nuclear assault, assuming that enough non-black tech missiles could even get past Kalida in sparkly pink.  A standard Imperial free trader could be disabled without much difficulty, causing considerable damage.  Misha tells Kalida she can act on behalf of the free trader should it seem necessary.
    Misha turns to Vonish Kehnaan, and asks if he'd like to take a trip into the starport.  The vilani replies that he feels much safer on the ship.  Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead backs him up, hastily stating that no-one should leave the ship -- the missiles wouldn't hurt the ship, but would kill anyone in battledress.  This isn't just an artillery barrage, it's full anti-ship capability.
    Misha understands, and says that he and Teri Cralla will go ashore to see if they can get the free trader's crew back to their ship.  Mich Saginaw double checks their gear before they leave, and confirms that they have indeed donned it correctly; of course, Teri doesn't need to be checked, but it has proven wise to check the rest of the crew whenever they get into hostile environment gear.  Of course Misha looks really odd with his large sword on the back of his vaccsuit.

    The Captain and the Marine disembark to the landing field.  They walk over to the starport terminal -- probably built by the same company as the previous one to the same design, a little before the other most likely.  At least, the landing pads and buildings look the same, which of course is not true of the military installations.  They also probably get about the same amount of traffic, perhaps slightly more here but on the same order of magnitude -- almost none.  Fessor subsector is not exactly the galactic center, particularly this end of it -- at the rimward end it's a bit more dense than it is here.
    Before they cycle the terminal's airlock, Misha asks Kalida if there is some weapon that they could have for sale that might be interesting to a starport that they don't already have here.  His gunner says there isn't, but they could offer personal arms.  Misha likes that idea -- what Teri is wearing, TL15 battledress with an FGMP-15, should go over very well here.  Kalida suggests he offer a dozen combination units; she adds that the missile systems are well above local tech, about TL13 she estimates.  Someone came in from offworld, probably the Imperium, to put in this anti-ship defense system.  She observes that they probably paid quite a bit for it, too.
    Misha and Teri enter the airlock, which cycles twice.  There is a military guardpost here, but aside from the official behind the desk this starport presents much more obvious force.  There are a dozen men here, armed and equipped thoroughly.  Even the entry official is in military uniform.
    Misha attempts to bluff his way in as a gun runner.  He makes it look good, exploiting Teri's presence to make it convincing.  He says, "Who's in charge of purchasing?"
    "What are you selling?" says the man behind the desk.
    "Well, I have some alcohol, and some rugs, and perhaps some other equipment that could be useful.  But we'll talk about that with whoever's in charge."
    "Certainly.  Would you like an audience with the Colonel?"
    "If that's who's in charge, that's who I'd like an audience with."
    "If you'd like to wait here for a moment, I'll set it up right away."  The man gets up from his desk and leaves briskly through a side door.  He's gone for five minutes, and comes back to tell an impatient Misha that the Colonel will see him now.  The man adds apologetically that they'd like it if they didn't take the heavy weaponry into the private audience -- as he says, "The Colonel didn't get to be Colonel by submitting to potential assassination attempts."
    MIsha says, "I didn't get to where I am by allowing my First Officer to stay behind.  I assure you that I am quite capable of assassinating your Colonel by myself."
    The man blanches.  "Yes, sir!" he says.  "This way please."
    He leads them through a few rooms, through a blast door, and to a fairly spartan office.  The person sitting there is in a Colonel's uniform, obviously modeled on the Imperial pattern.
    Misha adopts a much more friendly attitude with the Colonel.  He reaches out to shake his hand, and the Colonel responds and welcomes him.  They exchange brief pleasantries, then quickly get down to business.
    "What do you want?" says Misha.
    "Firepower," says the Colonel.
    "How big?"
    "What have you got?"
    "Well, it's less what I've got than what I can obtain, but as for what I've got, at the moment I have a dozen suits of battledress with FGMP-15s."
    "Fifteen million credits?" proposes the Colonel.
    Kalida tells Misha that such gear should command a premium price this far out, and the stuff is worth more like 1.5 MCr per suit/gun combo, 18 million for twelve.
    Misha attempts to look thoroughly disappointed and says, "I'm sorry, I thought you might understand the effect this equipment might have on your, uh, local economy."
    "If you'd be willing to sign an exclusive deal with us for this world, and deal only with us, we could definitely include, say, a 10 million signing bonus for the contract."
    Misha continues to look like he's suddenly found out his potential customer is just a small time junta.
    "That's a good deal," says the Colonel, "We have the budget to buy what you have to sell.  Particularly if you'd be willing to arrange a training contract, or broker a training contract with an appropriate mercenary unit.  Another five million for arranging the training contract?"
    "No.  Thank you."  Misha gets up to leave.  The Colonel allows him to do so.
    Neither Misha nor Teri have seen any sign of the Starshader's crew members.  The most likely place would be the trading room, if it's laid out like the other starport, but for the time they just walk back to the ship.  No-one stops them.
    "Well, shit," says Misha as they cross the landing field.  "Called my bluff."
    "That's always a danger when trying to sell things you haven't got," sympathizes Kalida.
    "I'm open to ideas," says Misha.
    "What exactly were you trying to accomplish?"
    "To get the free trader's crew out."
    "Are they still there?"
    "I assume so.  Actually contact the free trader and find out.  I was hoping that he'd be so interested in my deal that I could say that before we went any further they'd have to get the free trader out of there because I didn't want them to see what was going on.  Actually I was hoping he'd ask for a demonstration, because then I could say 'Get the free trader out of here and I'll give you a demonstration.'"  Obviously Misha had done too well at projecting the air of a legitimate arms dealer -- no-one had questioned that he could deliver.
    Robert tells him that Starshader's people are being delayed.  They're done with the trading, but they're being told that there's some problem and the two of them are being kept there in that room.

    On Misha's return, he asks Vonish to contact the Colonel and try to reopen negotiations.  He can say anything he wants about the foolishness of his captain, and his goal is to get the Colonel to agree to a demonstration.  He of course has to bear in mind that they don't actually have anything for sale, and that the goal is to get the free trader out of here.
    It takes Vonish about half an hour to get it done.  He adds that he was offered the choice of having made sure the free trader could not report at all that they were here, but turned it down.  Starshader is free to go.
    In fact, Captain Everson calls them soon after.  "Did you do something?" asks Everson incredulously.  "My guys are not only being let out, but they're being escorted out.  We're having our tanks filled for free and being told to leave.  Something weird is going on here.  What did you guys pull?"
    "We pulled a few strings," says Misha with a smile.  "You're welcome.  And you might find another world, more suited to, uh..."
    "Yeah, we got that.  But you know, we figured an Amber Zone is generally a pretty good bet.  Just one question, though..."
    "What the hell kind of ship is that?"
    "It's a very special ship."
    "I have never seen anything like it."
    "Yeah, it comes from a long way aways."
    "Yeah.  Well, I owe you one.  Just call it in whenever you like.  I'll be glad to oblige.  Thank you."

    It takes about half an hour to finish refueling the free trader.  It's easy to tell that the crew brought in to hasten the process are all military.  There has been no change in the alert status, and when Starshader takes off they are still on high alert.
    Kalida asks Misha if he's planning to proceed with this demonstration.
    In reply, Misha tells the crew, "Here's what I'd like to do.  We have a situation here where we've offered to sell a bunch of stuff that we don't have.  So we need the deal to break down.  We need the negotiations to fail.  Now, Vonish, do you think you can pull this off?"
    Vonish looks at his captain strangely.
    Helia says, "So we offered to trade stuff and we don't have it to trade?"
    "Yes," chorus Misha and Kalida.
    Kalida adds, "If they don't offer enough we can just walk away.  So far they haven't offered enough.  But if we do this little demonstration they may negotiate up.  All we can do is say it's not enough and just walk, but if they end up offering us a lot over what it's worth then it would be mighty suspicious that we would just walk."
    Helia asks, "Why are we trying to sell stuff to them that we don't have?"
    Misha says, "The whole point was, it was my plan to get the free trader..."
    "Ah!  You were trying to get the free trader free by promising them a lot of bullshit stuff!"
    Vonish doesn't think he can pull it off.
    "I can!" says Helia brightly.  "Do we have any of the stuff we promised them?"
    "No," says Misha.  "Well, we've got one but we aren't selling it."
    Teri quietly says that they do have more than that, but they aren't selling any of them.
    Misha lays out their options.  They could just leave, or they could try for some more elaborate scheme.  He looks around for inspiration to strike the crew.  Misha says that one thing they could do to turn it around is just kidnap the Colonel for fun, and admit it was all a scam.
    "Isn't it just easier to leave?" asks Helia.
    Misha replies, "It certainly would be easier.  Is that what we want to do?  We could just do the demonstration and see what happens."
    Kalida says, "If they just try to up their price a little bit we can say it's not enough and leave.  It's a bit weird I would think if they upped their price a lot and then we went away."  She doesn't even mention the possibility of a sub-par demonstration -- she knows that it would totally blow their cover, as Imperial equipment is just too reliable to fail.  At least, to fail without killing Teri.  Mich and Teri could probably, with time, try to get an FGMP-15 to fizzle, but it still wouldn't really be credible.  It would also ruin their reputation as arms dealers, which she seems to think actually matters.  Out loud, she suggests they just do the demo and see how it turns out.
    Misha says that there are three starports, so they could get their income three times.  That means the Colonel doesn't really need to show them that they can afford this block of stuff, but that they have enough cash flow to pay for three income streams.
    Bridgehead mutters something about directly going against the Traveller's Advisories.  This really is getting involved in local politics.  Everyone ignores him.
    Kalida continues that one sale and this bonus won't cut it, because they could make more by selling to everybody.
    Misha asks Vonish if he thinks he can carry this off?
    Vonish just shrugs and says he's out of his depth in the arms trade.
    Misha clarifies for them all: the matter is not so much this hypothetical dozen units now, it's setting up an exclusive deal, a relationship, and any kind of exclusive deal is about making enough money off one guy to make up for the money they're not getting from selling to the others too.  "Let's just go for it," he says, "Let's do the demo and see what happens."
    Kalida adds, "And if nothing else we can always just leave."
    Misha nods and smiles.  "The Captain can throw a fit," he says.
    There's a free for all as everyone excitedly takes on new roles for this fun caper.  Since Teri has already been introduced as the First Officer, that leaves it wide open.  Helia wants to be Chief Money Officer, and grabs one of her most disturbing outfits that make her look like a sexy ten year old, with a purple lace bra and matching panties under the skirt -- she really wants to mess with them.  She's disappointed to find out that full environmental gear will be required, making dressing up pointless, but dress up she does nonetheless.  Kalida takes one of the generic unmarked suits of battledress rather than her own Imperial Brigadier General Marine kit.
    Preparation and planning fills the half hour until the locals call back to arrange the rendezvous.  Misha points out that the rendezvous point might be another starport they want the weapons demonstrated on, in which case they can flatly refuse and walk out.  They agree to refuse to do any demonstrations on live targets, or inside.  While they have used one inside -- on Goose -- it's generally not the best place to use an FGMP.
    The location is about 130 km away, and the Colonel suggests they take their ship there and meet in three hours.  The area is open and hilly, well clear of any civilization.  It's perfectly acceptable.

    On arrival, it's clearly a military installation -- a large scale firing range, exercise base or similar.  There are troops in the area, and in fact about 10 km away there's an armor exercise under way.  The area designated for the demonstration is clear of uninvolved people, quite secure.
    A dozen people have turned up to watch the demonstration, plus assorted drivers and staff officers and so on.  The official party is a collection of army officers all the way up through General.  These people are in vaccsuits of about TL13, Imperial design.  No-one but Teri and Kalida are in battledress, and despite all the crew's initial excitement it's just these two who represent the crew.
    The Colonel is here, and greets Kalida as she goes up to him.  He asks for a simple demonstration run: grav belt, FGMP... he points out several pillboxes as targets.  Kalida gives Teri the signal, and the demo starts.
    Teri does a perfect pass, sweeping through the range and taking out the pillboxes in spectacular fashion as only an FGMP-15 can do, textbook basic training stuff really, using cover as appropriate and just doing the whole run in a matter of fact manner.
    Kalida of course knows exactly what to expect, and is watching the officers rather than Teri.  They seem quite impressed.  Oddly enough the Colonel is doing much the same, clearly knowing what capabilities are being demonstrated.
    Teri swings back to the observers, comes in to land in front of Kalida and presents arms.  She follows that up with a perfect parade ground drill demonstration, not at all easy to do with an FGMP.  Kalida notes with interest that it's not quite an Imperial drill, but very impressive indeed.  On a private circuit, Teri tells Kalida that "Back in Scorpionis they were very keen on drills, ceremony, and stuff."  There is a hint of smugness in her voice.
    Kalida starts renegotiating on the basis of such an impressive demonstration.  Most of the officers start to filter away, leaving the Colonel to pick it back up.  He emphasizes that his offer was a good one, and he knew what the gear could do all along.  He adds that they have the budget to keep an exclusive arrangement for this world quite profitable.
    Kalida spells out that further trades would be important to them, of course, because one trade exclusively with them is not enough.
    The Colonel reassures her that they are very interested in further trades.  He says the units they've talked about are a good start, but they'll need other equipment, both heavier and lighter.  They want, he says, to be able to make a good first strike -- a capability this deal will provide, but making that strike more effective would certainly be a good thing.  If they could pull in a few gravtanks, that might be very useful.  At the same time, some simpler weapons that were up to normal grunt level that would give the guys in the field a good resistance suppression, that would be good.
    Kalida desperately wants to find some way to fail this, but can figure it out.  Misha calls in and suggests telling him they need to see a demonstration of the Colonel's ability to buy on a regular basis.  To her customer, she says, "How can we be certain that you actually have the means to continue to buy extremely expensive weapons and armor from us?  I would like some assurance that we don't come back ready for a second deal and you tell us you don't have the funds."
    "Would you like some references?" says the Colonel readily.
    "Yes, we would."
    "Give me an hour or so and I'll come up with a list of references for you.  You can go off, check them out, and come back ready to deal if you like.  I presume you're familiar with a bunch of the folks at Attica?  I've got a couple of very good references there that I think you'll like."
    "I'm sure that will do just fine."  In her ear, Misha says that they may not be familiar with the people at Attica, but they're certainly familiar with Attica itself.
    The Colonel suggest they drop back to the starport, and he'll contact them there shortly.  Kalida and Teri return to the ship, and Helia flies them back over to the landing field.

    Back on board, Kalida says, "That list of references will certainly be interesting to look at."
    Misha agrees, "I would love to see that list."
    "And I suppose you could just see a name on that list you just have a pathological dislike for, and refuse to deal with him anymore.  You are, after all, an unreasonable barbarian."
    "I am an unreasonable barbarian," smiles Misha.
    Helia brings Nightshade in to land at the starport.

    The Colonel contacts them again, and gives them a list of four people.  Robert actually recognizes one of the names -- a major arms dealer, supplier to the less reputable and more successful mercenary units that work outside the Imperium.  The Baron is quite reluctant to follow this up -- he has some enemies on Attica as the result of being too successful at gambling.  The Colonel, of course, is oblivious to all this and tells them to go off and check with these people, come back, and he'll have the money.
    The Captain turns to his crew.  "Well, that was fun," he says.  "Do you want to do it again, or move on?"  Misha adds that his plan was simply to take an inordinately long time to talk to this list of people, and if they ever run into this guy again, or come back here again, just say they found a better deal somewhere else.  In the meantime, they could do the same at one of the other starports.  After all, they came here in the first place explicitly to mess with the locals.
    But that leaves open the issue of where to go next...