(3) The MacGuffin
The Nightshade Campaign (119-1122)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Shark sighs and replies in a very bored voice, "Not
"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
On cue, the whole crew pull out their guns.
impressive display of gauss pistols. Misha says, "Leave the car,
"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
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
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
Trow just looks puzzled.
Shark suddenly starts laughing to himself.
He's figured out that the box probably contains a bottle of their
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
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
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
"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.