Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Nine Tenths of the Law Session Twelve

Wherein a plan comes together.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Jonah said to his crewmates. “We go to Baron Otello and somehow get him to think that we’re Federal Marshals, and we suspect one of the members of Desdemona’s crew has been engaged in smuggling. We tell him we don’t want to attract any media attention, and that we don’t want to cause his operation any trouble, and if there’s a way we can have some plainclothes officers just go quietly to the ship, bring some investigation equipment with them, gather some evidence, and then leave, and oh yes, if he doesn’t mind calling ahead to the ship so there’s no confusion, then we’ll just pop in, take care of our business, and pop out.” He smiled. “Nobody needs to know about it, and there will be no media attention, and no scandal if he co-operates. And we, well we’re here to let him know because we figured that courtesy dictated that we let him know what’s going on before his yacht gets raided publicly.”

YJ smiled. “I think that’s a good plan. We just need to sell it.”

“We need to get our hands one someone who can talk,” Jonah said. “Like Quinn.”

“Who’s stuck in space, if you’ll recall,” YJ said.

“Well, we might want to drop off some full oxygen tanks at the shuttle, and pick him up at the same time.” Jonah replied.

“Doc here’s the slickest talker of those of us who are still around,” Worth said.

Jonah nodded. “And I’m wondering if we can do it without flashing badges, because I can get us badges, but they might be tagged.” He had buried the two stolen Fed IDs back on Beylix.

“So we put together some fake badges, we flash them quickly to the secretary, but it’s not like we’re trying to hide the fact that they’re fake, it’s because we’re trying to avoid having the wrong people see that we’re cops there to pay the good Baron a visit.” Jonah explained. “Once the ball gets rolling, once one person believes us, it gets easier. If the secretary tells the Baron ‘there’s two cops waiting for you,’ then that’s spreading the lie before we even walk in the door, and he’s more inclined to believe it. He calls ahead to Desdemona’s crew and tells them there are cops coming to do a sweep, and let them in, then the ship’s crew is already predisposed to believe we’re the Law.”

“This is true,” YJ said.

“That being said, it could all go terribly wrong,” Jonah continued.

“That never happens!” Worth deadpanned.

“So we show up at the Desdemona with a bunch of cases of investigative gear, but that’s just full of our guns and supplies.” Jonah said.

“Well, the original plan was to get on the ship as a replacement crew, and then just hijack the ship,” YJ said. “But it also included getting the Captain to let us on board. We can do it as cops.”

“So we ask the Captain to clear the ship because we don’t want anyone interfering with our investigation,” Jonah replied. “Then, after the ship is cleared, we turn to the captain, draw down on him and tell him to get lost.”

“So we just need to fashion some fake badges, or quickly obtain them,” YJ said.

“Quickly is going to be a problem,” Worth said. “We’re running about half speed right now.”

Jonah frowned, thinking the plan over. “As far as Fed badges go, everybody knows what they look like, right? So maybe we find some obscure wing of the government, but one that still has some authority. No fancy metallic Newtech badges, just bureaucratic ID cards, like customs agents or something.”

“Right, it needs to be something benign, yet annoying,” YJ said.

Worth’s eyes widened. “Audit them!” He said. “We can be auditors.”

“Or from the Port Authority, so we can explain the specific need to get on the ship.” Jonah said.

YJ grinned. “So we can be auditors from the Port Authority!”

The Doc cleared his throat. “What about the Federal Astronautics Administration?”

“The FAA?” YJ said. He nodded. “I hate those guys.”

“Why not kill two birds with one stone?” Jonah asked. “Say we’re agents from the FAA charged with the task of auditing the pilot’s license and the Desdemona’s flight records.”

“A random audit that happened randomly,” YJ said. “Standard FAA operating procedure.”

“And extremely annoying,” Jonah said. “Enough so that they want to get it out of the way and never want to see the auditors again. The Baron won’t want people to know about an audit of his personal flagship, so a super-discreet investigation will benefit him.”

YJ slapped the galley table. “Let’s ready up them badges!”

“First we need to figure out what FAA ID cards look like,” Jonah said.

“And that, my Logistics Officer, is why we have the Cortex,” YJ said.

Jonah nodded. “Good thing we swiped a lot of business attire back on Beaumonde. That’ll help.”

Doc Tulsa began researching the ins and outs of FAA activity while Jonah got to work transferring high-resolution images of FAA IDs to the supply of cardstock he kept on hand, while working up some phony documentation for good measure.

“We’re going to need at least two agents,” Jonah said. “And Worth is clearly out.”

“I resemble that remark,” Worth growled.

“The Doc for sure,” Jonah said, snapping a mug shot with his camera. “As long as he stays on his meds, and I’ll volunteer.”

“Just make sure your tattoos are covered up,” YJ said. “And make me a badge too, I wouldn’t miss this.” He thought for a moment. “And if this is a full audit, then surely we’re going to have to bring an FAA mechanic along.” He indicated Worth.

“Good thinking,” Worth said.

After a few hours of work, Jonah reappeared with the ID cards.

Worth picked his up. “Parvinder Singh?” he read the name on the badge. “Seriously?”

Jonah grinned. “I’m FAA Investigator Mitch Stevenson, the Doc is Investigator Orville Redeker, and Captain, you’re Investigator Terry Pratchett.” He passed out the cards.

“Lovely,” YJ said, looking at his mug shot adorning the freshly laminated FAA ID. “So, we claim that we need to check the pilot’s documentation and go over the ship’s logs to make sure that they haven’t been tampered with or forged, which will require us to go on board.”

“And in the meantime, we’re going to be trying to abscond with the Desdemona,” the Doc said. “What do we need to take control of the ship while it’s in the air?”

“You’ll have to eliminate all fail-safes they might have for regaining control, up to and including taking out any engineering people who might still be hanging around.” Worth said.

“And that’s why we need to ensure the ship is cleared before we go on board.” Jonah said. “First though, we’ll need electronic lockpicks, which I have.”

“And didn’t we pick up an interruption spike back in that load of trash from the Resort’s vault?” Worth asked. “You can bypass computer security systems easy with one of those.”

Jonah nodded.

“Then there’s the matter of the ship’s pulse beacon,” Worth said. “Legit or not, it’s going to be sending out a ping to anyone who’s listening. Getting rid of that is important.”

“Do we really need to worry about that?” YJ asked.

“Depends on when we decide to turn the tables,” Worth said.

“But if we turn off the pulse beacon, the consequences are what?” Jonah asked.

YJ frowned. “If the Alliance detects a ship that isn’t running a pulse beacon, it’s an immediate secure and detain order.”

“Look, we do have a few pulse beacons from the Vault,” Jonah said.

“I could gimmick one to throw off the Alliance or anyone else trying to track her,” Worth said.

“But why would the Alliance be looking for a ship that’s been repossessed legitimately?” asked YJ.

“The Baron’s probably got a lot of friends in high places,” Jonah said. “So what we need to do is make things confusing so the pulse beacon throws off any pursuit we might encounter.”

“Then we don’t want to fly without a beacon,” YJ said. “That’s a dead giveaway. We’ll just want to fly with a clean beacon.”

“And once we’re far enough away from the Core, there won’t be a lot he can do to stop us,” Jonah said.

“Yeah, we’re going to fly on that phony beacon all the way back to McKittrick as far as I’m concerned.” YJ said.

“Once we drop Whitaker off, we can send McKittrick a wave that we’ve got Desdemona.” Jonah said.

“We can say that we had to avoid communications until now, and that now that the heat’s died down we can send a message from a safe location.” YJ said. “This whole operation needs to look benign in the sense that we have to prove we’re auditing the pilot’s performance and the ship’s logs, because that’s our red herring. We know the Baron’s not making payments on this ship and we know he can afford to, so there’s something about this ship that we haven’t been told about.”

“There are so many things that could go wrong though,” Jonah said. “What if the Baron offers to send the pilot straight to us?”

“If he sends us the pilot, that’s fine.” YJ said.

“But wouldn’t we need a new plan?” Jonah said.

“The plan is: here’s the pilot, and here’s my poison dart. If the dart has to go into the pilot, then the pilot’s no longer a problem.” YJ shrugged. “Maybe we convince him that running away and keeping silent is the better part of valour.”

“So we’re back to waving a gun in someone’s face,” Jonah said. “That doesn’t necessarily get us on board.”

“We need to get on board because the logs are on the ship, and we have to investigate the logs and the ship to ensure that the pilot’s license and what he’s flying is all by the numbers.” YJ said. “That shouldn’t raise any red flags. All we’re here to do is confirm that what he’s flying and where he says he’s flying it is legit.”

“Can we make a long list of parts with serial numbers that need to be verified?” Worth asked. “Because that could give us carte blanche to get all over the ship.”

“We need to focus on Engineering, which is where we’ll be sending Worth to swap the beacons and secure the power supply, and the bridge, where we’ll need to use the interruption spike.” YJ said. “Once we’re in space, if we encounter any opposition, we can do things our way, or the depressurized way.”

“Gimme one of those pulse beacons,” Worth said. He began to reprogram it, changing the ship’s ID to Darla.

Shenmue continued towards Osiris. Like all Core worlds, it had a boatload of traffic surrounding it, and the ship was shuffled into a holding pattern in high orbit. Traffic Control and the Port Authority customs expeditor began peppering YJ with questions while the crew watched the same sunrise every 30 minutes.

“And what is your business on Osiris?” the traffic controller finally got around to asking, after determining that they weren’t pirates, welfare bums, or Reavers.

“Our boat is in rough shape and we require touchdown for repairs,” replied YJ.

After an interminable wait, they were cleared for landing in Capital City, and YJ brought Shenmue down through the planet’s atmosphere, heading towards the planet’s urban cores.

The traffic controllers dogged them all the way down. “Firefly Shenmue, would you like to declare an emergency?”

“What are you talking about?” YJ replied, checking his dashboard for obvious signs of trouble.

“Well, I ask because you appear to be trailing debris on approach,” the traffic controller said, a little too smugly.

“Oh, hence the great thanks for allowing us to land on such short notice,” YJ said, rolling his eyes. “If we don’t turn into a fireball before we land, that should be fine.”

The Doc blinked in his seat. “How do you guys feel about just getting a new ship?”

“Well,” Jonah said. “We’ll have Desdemona soon.”

Traffic Control ended up diverting Shenmue to an auxiliary landing area outside the City’s centre colloquially known as the Crash Pad, and YJ brought her in for a landing with a shade more difficulty than he was used to – the deferred maintenance and jury-rigged repairs were finally taking their toll on the hardy Firefly.

Their contraband stowed in the many troublesome nooks present on board a Firefly-class tramp freighter, the crew debarked and got in line for Customs. All, that is, except for Jonah. Once the customs officers found out he didn’t have a Social Control Number, he was whisked away to a holding area as an undocumented alien and grilled about the nature of his visit to Osiris. The customs agent was a burly man with a cigarette tucked behind his ears and suspenders tucked around a considerable bureaucratic belly, and who smelled of corned beef and cabbage.

“Listen, my ship is here only for repairs, and I will be going into town, very politely, I might add, to spend a bit of money in your local economy, and then, without causing any trouble, I will be boarding my ship once repairs are completed and leaving Osiris behind,” Jonah said, his liar’s smile firmly affixed to his face.

He was issued a single entry visa, good for 24 hours and renewable up to 72 hours, provided that he check in via Telefonix with an immigration officer. The visa cost him double the entry fees paid by his crewmates.

When he rejoined his shipmates, they meandered through the customs and arrivals lounge area, which featured floor to ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac, where ships of varying shapes and sizes, including Shenmue, were arrayed. Beyond the spaceport, it was high-density city as far as the eye could see. Several layers of hover traffic buzzed between glittering office spires, each skyscraper’s outrageous design trying to outdo that of its nearest neighbour – an architectural arms race that left Capital City looking like all the glass and steel in the world had been used in its construction. There was a heavy Alliance presence in the spaceport – armed Federals walking around, their purple-tinted armor shining under layers of carefully applied polish, their collars starched.

As they passed a lounge area featuring several comfy-looking sofas, someone cleared their throat.

“Gentlemen, a moment of your time, please.”

The throat clearing hadn’t done much to remove what sounded like a handful of gravel from the man’s airway. The crew turned to see a sharply dressed man with a high quality suit and equally high quality comb-over standing near the window. With an expansive wave of his arm he indicated Shenmue outside.

“Nice ship you have there, and I’m impressed that you managed to land her in once piece.” Suddenly he was laughing hoarsely. “Of course I’m kidding.”

Worth reached for his pistol only to find an empty holster. Jonah waved him off.

The nattily dressed man stepped forward. “I’m here today representing Dietrich, Drexler and Dirks,” he paused, as if that assertion would explain everything. “We’re a shipping brokerage firm who looks out for the little guy. Operating an independent freight hauling business can be tough, and Triple-D, well, we get that. We’re one of the few firms that will advance credit to independent shipping operators such as yourselves. Why? Because we believe that interplanetary commerce is what holds this ‘Verse together. Now,” he smiled, “which one of you is the Captain?”

There was some jostling in the ranks before YJ stepped forward. “Out with it, man.”

The fast-talking extended a greasy hand. “Cassius Billings is the name, but my friends and clients call me Cash. Why? Because that’s what I’m offering you this very day. Cash to fix up your ship, get her flying straight and true again, and maybe sand some of the, ah-“ at this point he regarded Worth and Jonah – “rougher edges off your operation. I can even get you insurance for cargo runs, and let me tell you, there aren’t brokerages willing to take that chance, not that it’s an off chance, but you know how it is, being independent operators…”

“We know how it is,” YJ said.

“Exactly,” Cash said. “Listen, I love the way you put that ship down, but seriously, I mean, you were trailing debris several miles behind you. And I see that, and I say to myself ‘here’s a guy who could use some of our help.’ Our E-Z Pay Low-Rate program promises a short-term loan with low, low minimum payments. In a few short months, you’d be free and clear. We think financing arrangements should be like doctor’s visits: quick and painless.”

Worth scratched his mustache. “How big is your operation? Like how many in your outfit?”

“Well,” Cash said. “We’re fully staffed, you know, we’ve got a few.”

Jonah whispered in Worth’s ear. “Do they have the power to do anything if we just take the money and leave?”

“That’s what I’m getting at,” Worth whispered back. To Billings he said, “How many planets you operate on?”

Cash smiled. “Our operation extends as far as our brokers can travel.”

YJ smiled thinly. “So, what is it exactly that you’re selling, Cash?”

“Well I’m glad you asked,” Cash said. “For starters, discounted rates at top-level dry docks. We can recommend skilled labour and get you discounts there to get your ship up to snuff so that the Alliance won’t be demanding hazard departure permits on your way out, and in the event that the Alliance inspects your ship and finds grounds to impound you for safety violations, we know which wheels to grease to make sure you get out of impound fast. Basically, you’re one signature away from having your ship serviced and repaired by experts. We only work with recognized suppliers and quality after-market parts, unless you want to take care of those things yourselves. I hear the impound court only has a three month backlog, and now and then they actually do reverse their decisions on appeal, if the plaintiffs have made the necessary repairs. So, ballpark, what do you need to get your boat shipshape again?” He asked.

“I dunno,” said YJ. “What do you think?”

“Well, I’d have to do a site inspection,” Cash said. “But I’m sure it wouldn’t be too onerous a figure.”

“Oh, I see,” YJ said. “But you should know that our cash flow has been stranded lately due to an unfortunate encounter with some meteors.”

“Oh, it’s always meteors, isn’t it?” Cash said.

“It is,” YJ agreed.

“They’re out there in space, those objects,” Cash said. “Well, we make collateral quick and painless too, just like doctor’s visits. We know your ship represents your investment, and we’re happy to have it represent our investment as well. Of course that’s just a formality, I mean we both know you won’t default, and we won’t foreclose, but we need to have something on paper just in case.”

“What’s the name of your company again?” asked Worth.

“Dietrich, Drexler and Dirks,” Cash said with a winning smile.

Worth excused himself and went to the nearest public Cortex terminal, beginning a search for Cash’s employers. Dietrich, Drexler and Dirks had a functioning Cortex site at least. There was animated stock holographic video that showed a 5-minute anime movie of a down on his luck freighter captain turning his luck around thanks to the kind people at DDD.

“Why don’t you leave us your business car and we’ll think about it, and get back to you?” YJ asked.

Billings gave his comb-over a flip. “Absolutely,” he said, producing a card and handing it to the captain. The business card featured an animated GIF of Billings’s smiling face, complete with a ‘ting’ sound effect as his teeth sparkled with each repeated wink and smile.

Billings put his hand up to the Bluetooth headset screwed into his ear, as if taking a call. “It’s been a pleasure talking business with you gentlemen,” he said. “I hope to hear from you again soon.” Then he was off, introducing himself to the next shabby-looking set of spacers walking through the arrivals lounge.

“So, are we going to take our hover mule, or hoof it?” YJ asked.

“What kind of FAA inspectors are going to show up in a cab?” Jonah asked.

“Better a cab than a beat-up, shot-up bright yellow hover mule,” Worth said.

“Hey, that’s a Government Issue shot-up bright yellow hover mule you’re talking about,” YJ said.

“We need to make an appointment,” Jonah said as they left the spaceport. YJ ran a search for the address of the Iago Group, the constellation of businesses owned by the Baron. According to the mobile map, Iago called an impressive looking officer tower in the centre of Capital City.

“Can we get weapons first?” YJ asked.

“Let’s get the wheels turning on our scam first,” Jonah said. “The black market on a place like Osiris is going to be hard to find and we would have to part with serious coin to get the hardware we want.”

The crew rode Capital City’s clean, efficient, and comfortable mass transit hover train to the stop nearest the Iago Group’s headquarters tower. The building’s lobby was ultramodern, with angular furniture and the sound of a waterfall echoing across the marble floor, even though the crew could see no waterfall present. At the far end of the lobby, near a bank of elevators, was a large bean-shaped desk, behind which was a small secretary.

“Welcome to the Iago Group,” she said sweetly. “Do you have an appointment?”

“We do not,” said the Doc. He presented his ID card. “Inspector Orville Redeker, Federal Astronautics Administration.”

“How may I help you?” the secretary asked.

“This is a courtesy call,” Doc Tulsa said. “For Baron Otello. We are here to do an assessment on one of his ships and its pilot.”

“It’s that time of year again,” YJ interjected. “I’m Agent Pratchett.”

“Didn’t you get the Cortex message?” Jonah asked. “Agent Stevenson, at your service.”

Tulsa continued. “So we need to pay Mr. Otello-”

“Baron Otello,” the secretary corrected.

“We require access to his Quicksilver-class cruiser, designated Desdemona, for an audit, and verification of the pilot’s records and license for Captain Arlen Maitlock.”

The secretary blinked. “Well, that’s all very interesting, but do you have an appointment?”

The Doc frowned. “We do not have an appointment, as this is a courtesy call. Often these audits of luxury starships, they can be a bit bothersome. If Baron Otello prefers that we show up at the dock with a media crew unannounced, that’s fine by us.” He lay Jonah’s fake affidavit on the table’s surface, which immediately took a copy of it. The secretary waved her hand across the interactive surface, sweeping the digital facsimile over to another section of tabletop, which began an analysis of the document’s contents.

The secretary sighed, as if she had been having a long day. “My, this sounds all very official and important. Unfortunately, the Baron is indisposed. However, I can probably put you in touch with the Baron’s principal private secretary, and perhaps you could explain the issue further to him, if that’s agreeable to you.”

“Can you verify that Desdemona will be in port for the next few days?” Jonah asked.

The secretary smiled. “Oh, I’m sure I can’t find that out for you,” she cooed. “This isn’t Scheduling and Logistics. You’d need an appointment for them too.”

The crew was ushered over to one of the sharp-cornered couches near the invisible gurgling waterfall where they cooled their heels for a time. After about half an hour of wondering what the secretary’s tabletop computer was doing to their sketchy affidavit, they were ushered into an elevator and whisked to another waiting room.

The office they found themselves in was fabulously well appointed, with Earth-that-Was artifacts under glass, and shelf after shelf of books that smelled of rich mahogany and leather bindings. The crew sank into the overstuffed couches arrayed before a magnificent teak desk, its surface inlaid with a glowing active multimedia display.

Just as they were making themselves comfortable, a heavy wooden door swung open on one side of the room and an older man strutted in, his careful gait suggesting that his bones might break at any moment. His back was ramrod straight, as though someone has swapped out his spine for a length of lead pipe. He had styled white hair and a drawn expression indicating professional distaste on his long face. He was engaged in a conversation via an earbud communicator.

“Yes, please inform the Member for Hera’s southern hemisphere that his agricultural subsidy bill will have the Baron’s support before it is sent to committee for further discussion, provided that we can come to terms on the issue of bauxite tariff exemptions,” he said to the unseen party at the other end of the line. “Yes, I’m sure that the Baron would be more than happy to discuss this matter further during your meeting next week.”

He removed the earbud and placed it carefully inside a waistcoat pocket before he stepped behind his desk, staring down his considerable nose at the men seated before him, a completely insincere smile on his face.

“Now then, I’m terribly sorry for keeping you gentlemen waiting. My name is Declan Jenner, and I am Baron Otello’s principal private secretary. I understand you were quite insistent on a meeting, but I’m afraid that the Baron himself is currently indisposed. However, I would be more than delighted to dispense with you personally today. How may I help you?”

“That’s quite all right, Declan,” Doc said.

“Mr. Jenner, if you please,” Jenner said, a faint sharpness creeping into his voice.

“Sorry about that,” Doc said, shifting in his seat. “I’m Inspector Redeker of the Federal Astronautics Administration, and my associates and I are really here more as a courtesy call. The FAA recognizes Baron Otello as an upstanding individual, and whenever the audit order comes in, we generally like to arrange a private audit situation, as we don’t always like to barge in on luxury vehicles unannounced.”

Jenner’s smile began to fade.

“I’m sure you’ve seen our affidavit already,” Doc continued. “The audit of course really has nothing to do with the Baron himself, it’s an audit of the pilot and ship records as per standard FAA practice. We need to audit the pilot’s log, ship’s log, the equipment that the pilot is flying in, to certify and make sure it is up to regulatory standards, both safety and environmental. Nothing to worry about.” He smiled at Jenner.

“Oh yes, quite,” Jenner said, toying with a digital copy of the affidavit on his desktop. “I was under the impression that the Baron’s fleet was up to date with the Federal Astronautic Administration’s audits. We submitted all paperwork and submitted to all required inspections before the close of the fiscal cycle.”

“I’m Agent Pratchett,” YJ said. “Our expectation is that everything will be compliant, however these audits do need to be carried out randomly.”

“Randomly? My word.” Jenner looked flustered.

“And if everything is up to speed as you say it is, then it will be quick and painless and we will be out of your hair as soon as we can,” YJ continued. “The FAA takes utmost care when it comes to the piloting of luxury yachts especially for the important individuals like the Baron.”

Yeah, he’s going out a window, Jonah thought to himself.

“The Baron owns and operates several vessels, are you sure that it is the Desdemona and its captain which you wish to inspect? I can assure you that Captain Maitlock’s flight record is impeccable.”

“We believe that it will be, but all the same…” Doc said.

“Well I’m sure that we can clear this up in fairly short order,” Jenner said. “It may take some time, however, to ensure that the Desdemona and Captain Maitlock are in the vicinity, as it were. Tell me…”

“We can go to them, if it’s an inconvenience, we wouldn’t want to trouble you.” Jonah spoke up. “Er, I’m Agent Stevenson.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to put out such fine bureaucrats as yourselves,” Jenner said. “Tell me, where does the FAA have you staying while you are here? Some third-rate bureaucrat EconoLodge?”

“Well you know the taxpayer’s dime doesn’t stretch very far, as you can imagine.” YJ said.

“This is of course quite true, and it is nice to know that the good members of our civil service, civil as they are, are not taking things to extremes, however, I would be remiss if I did not offer to put you up in some form of lodging while you are discharging your duty.” Jenner said. “As a gesture of goodwill on the part of the Baron, allow me to offer you free lodgings at the Osiris Arcadia.”

“We greatly appreciate the offer but unfortunately we must decline. It would be considered a conflict of interest.” Doc said.

“Oh, come now.” Jenner said.

“As much as we’d like to accept it in the eyes of our supervisors and general public, it may not look favourably upon your organization or ours.” YJ said.

“It’s a business conduct issue,” put in the Doc.

Jonah began to stare daggers at the Doc and YJ. The Arcadia was one of the few 7-star hotels in the ‘Verse, its suites costing more per night than most people made in a year. Its amenities were the stuff of legend.

“Surely you can allow-” Jenner said.

“No we cannot.” YJ said forcefully.

“Oh, certainly, just a day or two, your supervisor wouldn’t know, you wouldn’t even have to submit receipts, as there would be no receipts to submit, if you catch my meaning.” Jenner said.

YJ put on his most officious expression. “We appreciate the generosity of the Baron and his estate, however we have sworn a duty to the Alliance to uphold Federal aeronautics law, and we take this as a gesture as co-operation and let’s leave it at that.”

Jenner seemed taken aback, but nodded sagely after a few moments. “I understand you’ve sworn to uphold the regulations and ordinances of a very high power and the Baron of course respects all members of the civil service in their duties, so in the fullness of time we will do our best to comply with your request. Do you have the number of the local branch office of the FAA where I might be able to contact you in the event that Desdemona and her captain present themselves as scheduled?”

“Absolutely,” YJ said. “Here is my card.” He laid it on the table, which immediately took a copy.

“Very well,” Jenner said. “I thank you gentlemen for your time. Rest assured that I will work to comply with the Federal Astronautics Administration and I will be in touch with you shortly.”

“Oh, we look forward to your call,” The Doc said.

“Yes, quite,” Jenner said as he stood up from his desk, the door through which the crew had enter opening automatically.

“Good thing we set up that spoofed Cortex number,” Jonah said as they exited the office building.

They began heading along the crowded pedestrian boulevard. Active media displays seemed to cover every available space, crowding the air with multicoloured holograms speaking English and Mandarin simultaneously. The locals seemed oblivious to the visual pollution.

An advertisement for a cigar company caught Worth’s eye. A hidden scanner detected Worth’s Social Control Number and immediately personalized the soundtrack and storyline for him. As he turned to check it out, he saw a reflection in the mirrored surface of the ad-space. A man was following them through the crowd.

“We’ve got a tail,” Worth said quietly. He kept facing the ad, which grew more titillating with every passing second, now that it had captured a viewer.

Worth stopped. “We’ve got a tail.” He kept facing the ad, which grew more titillating with every passing second, now that it had captured a viewer.

YJ immediately knelt down as if to tie his shoelaces. Jonah took a few steps forward, and then turned to face YJ as if continuing a conversation while waiting for YJ to straighten up. Behind his sunglasses, he scanned the crowd for Worth’s tail. The Doc continued walking forward a few steps before realizing he was alone.

“Brown hair, average height, solid build,” Worth murmured.

The man, who was wearing a tailored suit smoothly crossed the street at a convenient pedestrian scramble, and continued on without batting an eye.

“He knows he’s been made.” Jonah said.

“Do we follow him now?” YJ asked.

“No, we’re civil servants. Why would we be following anyone?” Jonah asked.

“Then what should we be doing?” The Doc asked.

“We can’t rely on this Jenner to give us the information we need. Let’s go to the Port Authority and find out where Desdemona is.” YJ said.

At the Port Authority, rather than test their covers against those who knew way more about the FAA than they did, YJ used his captain’s credentials to gain access to a database of ships currently in port. “If she’s filed a legitimate flight plan, it might be on file,” he explained. He went to the nearest terminal and queried the ship’s ID string. According to the readout, Desdemona had departed Osiris on September 16, two days before they arrived on-planet.

“So the ship left two days ago, and the Baron’s ‘indisposed,’ eh?” YJ said. “‘Registered arrival on Ariel, September 17.’ Another Core World,” he sighed. No further flight path had been filed. So we have to make a decision.”

“Do we want to go to Ariel?” Jonah said.

“Yeah, but then we need a brand new plan, also Desdemona could be on its way back. We don’t know.”

“And if it’s a stop-off…” Jonah said. “Did you notice how nervous the secretary was that it was the Desdemona out of all the Baron’s other ships?”

“Yeah, there’s something up with that.” YJ said. “Assuring us over and over that everything was fine. I think that we need to keep up the cover. You, however, need to check in with the immigration officer.”

“That’s fine. Ship still needs to be fixed.” Jonah said. “That was our original excuse to be here.”

“Should we call that joker Cash Billings?” YJ asked.

“You know how that’s going to go.” Worth said. “Shenanigans.”

“Absolutely, but the question, how do we get our ship fixed?” YJ asked.

Worth shook his head. “It would draw the least amount of attention. If anyone sees us working on our ship, then our cover’s blown, but if we have an independent contractor working on the ship, then.”

“Yeah, we can’t work on it.” YJ agreed. “And I also wonder, is there a way we can find a way to not pay him back? Somebody to persuade him that this isn’t the Shenmue, and that we aren’t the crew of the Shenmue, if we can convince him that we aren’t who we say we are, there’s a good chance we could rip him off and disappear.”

“Also we can see if he needs other favours. Shifty guys like him need favours, and we do shifty favours.” Jonah said.

“Or maybe there are other services that Triple-D offers that we might be able to take advantage.” The Doc said.

The crew did find a third-rate EconoLodge, and even then the accommodations were way better than what they were used to on board Shenmue.

“If we’re being followed, as it appears to be, let’s act like civil servants.” YJ said.

“We’ve been approached by a guy who sounds like a legal loan shark.” The Doc said. “I might be able to make a few calls and see if I can find someone to help us out.”

“Go ahead,” YJ said. “Friends in high places, then.”

“Let’s also call Wild Sky, so she doesn’t have a traumatic event when strangers show up to fix the ship. Maybe we can get her to take all our valuables and illegal items like anti-materiel rifles to a place where the contractors won’t find them.”

“No heavy lifting,” Doc said. “She might pop a stitch.” He thought for a moment, then came up with a name. “Tao Barker, works for a company called Khonsu Medical Ventures.”

“He’s a doctor? A rich doctor?” YJ asked.

“We’re going to have to meet with him face to face.” Doc said.

The main office was located in a highrise overlooking a fashionable portion of Capital City’s skyline, giving the crew a bird’s eye view of the hover traffic that weaved around the towering structures. The meeting room was minimal in its décor, but maximal in its use of open space, which no doubt cost a pretty penny per square foot.

“Horatio Tulsa, the one that got away.” A silver-haired gentleman in a dashing suit crossed the shag carpeting energetically. Barker was an older man, probably in his mid-60s, though still in good shape, with silvered hair and a dashing suit. The crew had never seen someone so happy to see Tulsa before. Barker ushered them over to a lavish desk that looked like it had been cut from a single piece of quartz, all the while shaking Tulsa’s hand.

“We thought we had a sure thing with those clinical trials a few years ago, didn’t we?” He chuckled at the memory. “I’d say more but our NDAs are still in force, even after all that happened. Win some, lose some, I guess.” He slapped Tulsa on the back and turned to the crew.

“Well, you must be Tulsa’s associates,” he said, nodding. “So tell me Horatio, to what do I owe the pleasure of the surprise visit? I thought you had decided to hit the outer rings and stay there.”

“Yeah, well the outer rings took their toll and brought us back for a taste of civility, to detox, if you will. A bit of cabin fever from being out there too long.” Doc said. “But you’ve always been straight with me and I’ll be straight with you. Obviously I wouldn’t be here unless I needed something from you.”

“Yes of course, well I knew you weren’t here to discuss nondisclosure agreements,” He leaned forward. “Because I couldn’t discuss them.” He laughed at his own joke.

“This guy kills me.” Worth said under his breath.

The Doc’s attention wandered over to a tray laying on a side table nearby. “Is that hypoxamine over there?”

“Eyes front, Horatio, right here. Yes, you said you needed something from me?” Barker asked.

“Right,” the Doc said distractedly.

“And I’m assuming it’s not a prescription,” Barker ventured.

“No, no,” Doc said a little too quickly. “Well, a prescription of sorts, but not for me or a patient, but for our ship.”

“Ah, I see.” Barker pursed his lips.

“It’s in rough shape, and we ran into someone but you know based on everything I learned from you about reading people, bedside manner, you know.” Doc rambled.

“Oh stop it.” Barker said.

“We did a little searching on it and figured well rather than take a little risk, and end up in possibly a less than desirable situation, it’s all about who you know.” Doc continued.

“Yes I suppose,” Barker said.

“Obviously if there’s anything we could do, we’d appreciate it, if not, we’ll do as we always do, and soldier on, but if there’s any services I could render in exchange I’d be more than willing to…” Doc said.

Barker leaned back in his office chair. “Well you know Horatio, I would love to help you but you do know my policy. I’m a venture capitalist and I can’t part ways with my capital without expecting a reasonable return on my investment. And under normal circumstances, you and I having a discussion like this, I don’t think given your recent history I would want to throw good money after bad. However, that’s not a no.”

He opened a file folder that had been sitting on the quartz desk. “That medicine you were admiring over there on the sideboard? It’s actually a very promising medication. It’s called Drexaline 29. It can fight what’s known as Systemic Necrotizing Sclerosis. SNS. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? You may know it by its colloquial name, Blister Rot.”

“Oh yes.” Doc’s eyes widened.

“Yes, well, Blister Rot has colonists dropping like flies on half a dozen moons out on the Rim. And if Drexaline works, it would be a breakthrough right up there alongside Pescaline D, the drug that’s got Bowden’s Malady arrested on Regina.” Barker leaned forward. “You see, we’re running a field trial out on the moon of Blackwood, orbiting Blue Sun. There are three settlements there under quarantine. If I were to repair your ship, I’d need you in return to take the next shipment to the settlements and inoculate the population, pick up the results from the last round of treatments and send it back to our sponsor. But the money I’d be forwarding you for repair of your ship wouldn’t be a loan, it would be a payment for services rendered.”

“Absolutely,” the Doc said as YJ nodded. “Also, do you still have a penchant at all for diagnostics?”

Barker raised an eyebrow. “Diagnostics you say? Well it depends on the circumstances.”

“I have a very unique patient, it’s got me a little stumped.” Doc said. “Suffering from a form of amnesia. If you were up to a challenge, I’d be more than willing to let you take a look at my patient.”

“A challenge, you say? Well you know me, Horatio, you’ve piqued my interest. Perhaps if you do this, we’ll take a look at your mystery patient.”

“Yes, let’s get all the paperwork in order, and I’ll arrange a meet and greet.”

“Paperwork, yes, well there’s a little bit more to it than that.” Barker smiled.

“Well, whatever you need to do, to get us the information we need. Who, what, where, when.”

“Well yes of course I’ll make sure you gentlemen are properly briefed.”

“When we say paperwork, we refer to simple instructions.” YJ said.

Barker stood up and picked up the tray from the sideboard, upon which was a rack of small vials and a hypodermic injector.

Doc’s hand started to shake.

“Just to allay any of your concerns about Blister Rot, I do have more than enough serum here to inoculate you and your shipmates. Once the medication is delivered to your ship however, it will need to remain in cryostasis until it is ready to be administered. I hope that’s not an issue. But certainly feel free to vaccinate your crew before you leave," Barker smiled, and produced another file folder. "And let’s see about signing these nondisclosure agreements, shall we?”

“Terry Pratchett will be happy to sign this one.” YJ said.

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