Monday, November 13, 2017

Part of the Bargain                                

314-1105, Bandalor, Bandalein City

--from the personal journal of ISB Agent Hanson Griggs

The target is dead, run to ground on this low tech world.  I shot the equifeline he was riding first,  following the blood trail to the outskirts of the city.  Dr. Oscar Faulk was waiting for me, hoping that an ambush like the one that had brought down my partner three cycles ago would buy him another escape.  But I was ready for him.  I shot him three times through the bowels, watched him bleed out while he begged me for mercy until finally, either hopeless or spent, he went silent and expired.  I left him and his mount for the scavengers and walked back to the city, my passage veiled by the morning fog that is so common here.

Now all that remains is to find what he made; what he’d tried to hide from the Imperial Science Bureau; what he was trying to sell on the black market for terrorists and traitors to the Imperium to use upon the innocent.  Damn him for his speed, stealth and ruthlessness.  Damn him for taking the life of a good friend.  And now damn him that he let someone else know what he’d made, what it could do.

I know he made contact with the Yellow Sail Syndicate – ruthless bastards, all; just like him.  He was desperate, of course.  He might have even known they had no intention of meeting his price, but would simply murder him once they had been assured it would work.  But what else could he do?  All of his plans had fallen apart.  Three cycles on the run is enough to wear most people down who aren’t used to the grind.  And after he’d killed Astrid, he knew that I would never give up the chase.

Now, there’s just one last loose end to tie up – two of them, technically.  If I’m lucky, I can take out the team that the syndicate sends in to retrieve the packages before the starport authority’s security steps in my way.  I have to wait until they move.  I don’t know where he hid them.  He refused to tell me while he was dying.  I can’t blame him for that.  Sad to say, after watching Astrid die in my arms, killing him was my first priority instead of the mission.

Hopefully, the price of my vengeance won’t be at the cost of the mission…

314-1105, Bandalor, Bandalein City Starport

Atopia swore softly as she looked over the outbound cargo contracts boards.  “Not one damn cargo for offworld,” she said as she reviewed the computer terminal screen for the third time.  “There’s not even speculative freight to purchase!”  She threw her empty coffee cup against the bulkhead in frustration.  It caromed off the wall and floor, skittering to a stop on the deck somewhere behind her.

She heard the familiar tread of Baron Harper behind her as he stopped to pick up the cup.  “You know,” he said, “if you want more coffee, you could just ask.  You might break a perfectly good cup, otherwise.”

“They’re supposed to be unbreakable,” she said without turning around.  “And whenever we hit port, there’s supposed to be cargo and passengers!”  She logged out of the network and rubbed her eyes.  “I just submitted a payment of a half-million credits to Omni Financial try to get some breathing space for us, along with passing out bonuses to the crew for the hassles we’ve been through lately.”

“On behalf of the crew,” said Harper, “we thank you for the bonus.  It is most welcome.”  She heard him pull something from a pocket – paper, perhaps.  “As for your other problem, I might have a solution for that.”

She turned her chair around to face him, plucking the folded paper from his outstretched hand and opening it up.  It took her a moment to read it through.  “’Bandalor Starport Storage Unit Auction’?” she asked.  “Where did you get this from?”

“From one of our middle passengers,” he replied as he took a seat next to her.  “Apparently, he specifically came to Bandalor to bid on some of the lots for this particular auction, which happens to be at midday tomorrow.  It was all he could talk about – all the way from Paquin, every time I saw him.”

She nodded slowly, her mind already turning over potential profit scenarios as she perused the list.  Harper smirked and rose from his chair.  “Well, I can see you’re busy,” Harper said as he left the computer control room.  “I’ll bring you another cup of coffee as soon as the brewer can make it.”

314-1105, Bandalor, Bandalein City Starport, Cargo Facility

--from the personal journal of ISB Agent Hanson Griggs

Dammit.  Dammit all to the Nine Hells!  It’s all blown up in my face now.  There’s security crawling all over the storage unit facility, plus they have one of the canisters AND one of the Yellow Sail Syndicate in custody!  The incompetent dolts can’t even rob a storage facility without bollixing it up!  They triggered a simple broadcast alarm that brought every guard in the area running and I couldn’t get a clear shot at any of them within the confines of the building.

I tried doubling back to wrangle the other canister, but there were already starport authority workers milling about, so I couldn’t even scan the units for my prize.  And of course, with the planetary laws being what they are on Bandalor, none of the guards was carrying lethal weaponry.  Before the sun rises, I’ll have to hunt down the other three thugs who escaped, make sure the one in custody can’t talk to anyone about what he knows, and then find that last canister before the auction at midday.

I’ve had to hit the stims again to keep going.  I’ve been living on them ever since Astrid was murdered.  I can feel the wall coming, that feeling that the body is going to give out soon, but like a damned fool, I keep running at it headlong, hoping beyond hope I’ll crash through instead of splatter across its unrelenting face…

315-1105, Bandalor News Service

“Good morning!  It’s six o’clock and time for your morning news brief from B-N-S, a proud subsidiary of the Bandalor Filter Mask Corporation!  I’m Tamara Keenan reporting.

“Topping our news this morning, three suspected members of a subsector criminal syndicate known as the Yellow Sail were found murdered in an apartment in the Midridge district late last night.  Details are sketchy at this hour, with the Bandalor Service for Law Enforcement releasing just a notification of the deaths and they are being investigated as a homicide.

“Given that all three died of gunshot wounds, the common sense assumption is that they may be related to another shooting death on the outskirts of the city the night before.  That victim has been identified as 31-year-old Doctor Oscar Faulk, a former member of the Imperial Science Bureau’s nanotechnology research division.

“According to the TAS News Service, Doctor Faulk was wanted for the murder of another member of the Imperial Science Bureau, committed three cycles ago on Landor.  Local authorities are speculating that a bounty hunter may be responsible for all four murders, though the B-S-L-E has stated that its investigation is ongoing.  No descriptions of any of the suspects have been released.

“In a related story, the person arrested by the Bandalor Starport Authority last night for the attempted theft of property from the Bandalor Starport Storage Unit Facility has died.  The death was reported just an hour ago by the B-S-L-E.  There is no word on the cause of death, and officials have promised a full explanation once an internal investigation is completed.  The victim’s name is being withheld pending the notification of relatives.

“On a lighter note, the Bandalor Starport Authority has stated that the incident at the Storage Unit Facility will not delay or affect this cycle’s abandoned unit auction, set for today at midday.  Just a reminder to travelers and residents alike: starport operations will be suspended from one hour prior to the auction’s start until one hour after the auction’s conclusion.  The BSA apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause and thanks you in advance for your patience.

“That’s the news for now, but I’ll be right back with the weather forecast after this message from the Bandalor Filter Mask Corporation!  B-F-M-C: The mark of quality, the pride of dedicated workmanship, and the commitment to continued excellence!”

315-1105, Bandalor, Bandalein City Starport, Storage Unit Facility

“One hundred and twenty thousand,” said Harper calmly.  He could hear the rest of the crowd of bidders groan as he said it.  He and Atopia had won five of the previous nine lots already, but this one was the most expensive lots so far.  Atopia had practically drooled on the paper when she saw the lot contained a displacement ton of vacc suit parts and kept giving him the okay to drive the bid higher.

Only one of the bidders had hung in with him – a man with a prodigious mustache, and an expression that became more stern as the bidding continued.  “One-thirty,” he said, not even looking at the auctioneer.  His gaze bore straight in on Harper who smiled in return.

“One-forty,” said Harper as he turned his attention back to the auctioneer.

“Thank you, Your Lordship,” said the auctioneer with a nod of his head.  “The bid is one hundred forty thousand credits to you, good sir!  Do I hear one-fifty?”

Atopia cast a glance to the side.  The watcher was still there.  The middle-aged man in the rumpled business attire looked like he hadn’t slept in days.  Every time she looked his direction, he had pointedly looked away.  She could see Tabitha slowly edging toward him, having circled around the crowd.

“One-fifty-five!” said the bidder as he barely repressed a snarl as he said it.

“One-seventy,” replied Harper with a smile and a nod to the auctioneer.

“One-eighty!” shouted the bidder once again.

Harper paused, glancing over at Atopia.  She covertly displayed two fingers to him and nodded.  He nodded in return and smiled at the bidder.  “Two hundred thousand credits,” he said.

The bidder wilted, then slashed his fingers across his throat while looking at the auctioneer.

“Two hundred thousand for lot ten!” called the auctioneer.  “Two hundred thousand, going once!”

Atopia saw that Tabitha was standing beside her watcher now.  She could see the young lady say something to the man, who startled visibly, then bowed and seemed to be apologizing to her.

“Two hundred thousand, going twice!” cried the auctioneer.  “Last call on lot ten!”

Atopia saw Tabitha smile and point toward her while the watcher shook his head.  He turned toward Atopia and gave a small wave, mouthing the words “My apologies.”

“SOLD!  Lot ten to His Lordship, bidder thirty-one, for two hundred thousand credits, Imperial!” shouted the auctioneer, who bowed politely.  Harper nodded in return as the people around him applauded.

The watcher beat a hasty retreat as Atopia’s comlink warbled.  She touched the earpiece and immediately heard Tabitha’s voice.  “The name he gave me was James Harrison,” she said.  “I’ll head back to the ship and link in to the starport’s library computer system.  If anything turns up, I’ll be in touch.”

“Take Valo with you,” Atopia replied.  “There’ve been five murders on this world in the past three days, which is more three more than they’ve had in the past decade.  With the planetary police force tied up in the investigations, I won’t have any of us become number six.”

“Copy that,” said Tabitha.  “You watch your back as well.”  Atopia turned to Valo, but the former Scout was already moving through the crowd to catch up with the ship’s resident computer savant.

“Lot eleven is up next,” called the auctioneer with a broad smile.  “We all know what it contains, so who would like to start the bidding?”

316-1105, Bandalor, Bandalein City Starport, aboard the Silver Dawn

--from the ship’s log of the Silver Dawn

Expenditure: Payment to Bandalor Starport Authority for seven auction lots – Cr 282,500
Expenditure: Longshoremen Service was paid Cr 25 per dton for 44 dtons to load ship – Cr 1100
Expenditure: 44 dtons of unrefined fuel at Cr 100 per dton – Cr 4400
Note: Berthing Fees waived for assistance rendered to Starport Authority
Total expenditures – Cr 288,000

The technical glitches at the starport have continued into today.  I allowed the BSA to use Silver Dawn’s communications array for space traffic control.  Valo kept an eye on the technician while running the digital information network.  After three hours, the starport had the backup arrays working and left our vessel.

We’re heading to Belgran, then on to Paquin, and hopefully on to Narmada after that.  While I have a full hold, I’m short on passengers.  Right now, the four low berths are occupied, but I only have one middle passenger, and that’s the mysterious Mr. Harrison.  He claims he’s a low-ranking bureaucrat in the Imperial Science Bureau who’s checking up on some agricultural research projects in the subsector.  Since he’s using a gold credit voucher embossed with the ISB logo, the story washes for now.  However, Tabitha was unable to conjure up any information about him.  She also reports that the local computer system was glitchy and slow.

Harper says we should wait one more day before departure so he can query the local government about additional passengers, so that’s what we’re going to do.  I need some more revenue after all the credits I spent to fill up the cargo hold…

- from the personal journal of ISB Agent Hanson Griggs

I managed to neutralize the remaining nanites in the cylinder the local police force confiscated from the syndicate member they caught and I subsequently killed.  In a bit of welcome luck, the policy the Yellow Sail members keep of not talking to police worked in my favor – he didn’t say anything about what he was trying to steal.  Unfortunately, the dolt must have dropped it when he was brought down by stinger rounds from a security force shotgun, since the security seal was broken.

I’m hoping that the more primitive backup systems used on Bandalor will keep the residents from having any serious outages of power or vital services due to nanite infestation.  The really good news is that they’re non-replicating.  The bad news is that I can’t tell them how to shut down the nanites without compromising my mission.  Any starships affected by this problem will certainly be lost in jump space, allowing the ISB to keep this particular project a secret.

I’m tempted to lie down and sleep now.  This ship won’t be departing from Bandalor for another day, after all.  I’ll need to be on my toes so that I can exploit an opportunity to use my sine wave microwave emitter to neutralize the contents of the other container without being caught in the cargo hold. It MUST be here.  It isn’t anywhere else – I’ve checked the other lots.

Yes, I will sleep now.  Hopefully the recurring nightmare of watching Astrid die will stay away now.  The work is almost done at last…

319-1105, aboard the Silver Dawn, in hyperspace between Bandalor and Belgran

Atopia pounded on the cabin door.  “Mister Harrison!” she shouted.  “Mister Harrison!  Are you all right?”  There was no response.  With a sigh, she punched in her command override code into the cabin’s keypad lock.  The door unlocked with an audible click but didn’t move.

Hawk was nodding with a frown when Atopia turned to him.  “I’ll have to do it manually,” he said.  “Please stand back, Your Grace.”  Hawk went to work opening an access panel next to the cabin door.

Atopia turned to Harper.  “When was the last time anybody saw him outside his cabin?”

“Breakfast this morning,” he replied.  “He was rather chipper for a change, like he’d finally gotten a good night’s sleep.  When he didn’t show up for midday, I packed him a box lunch, but he didn’t emerge, as far as I knew.  And now it’s dinner time and again, no show.  That’s when I called you.”

Hawk threw a lever behind the panel that caused the door’s hydraulics to hiss as he relieved the pressure.  He then pulled the door aside with his hands.  After he got it open a crack, he peeked in and then pushed it closed.  “Lights and gravity are off in there,” he said as he unpacked something from his tool box.  “I need you to clear the passenger deck and close the iris valve behind you, just in case we have a quarantine situation.”

He donned a clear, soft transparent plastic headpiece with an elastic collar and slung a small air tank over his shoulder before starting to force open the door again.  Atopia touched the panel beside her, causing the iris valve to sphincter closed.

“I’m no doctor,” said Hawk over the intercom, “but Mister Harrison is room-temperature dead.  He’s turned a shade of blackish-blue. Atmosphere sniffer says CO2 level is twelve percent.”

“That’s asphyxiation,” said Harper.  “A level of ten percent will kill someone in thirty minutes.  Life support malfunction is my guess.”

“There wasn’t anything wrong with the life support in here,” growled Hawk.  “I gave it the full Monty before we left Paquin.  I didn’t want Her Ladyship complaining about the sulfur smell from that planet’s air processors for a week.”

“Her Ladyship appreciates that,” said Atopia.  “What about the other issues like no lights or gravity?  Or why the computer monitors didn’t alert us to the problem?”  The lights aboard the ship flickered for a moment before steadying.  “Also,” she continued, “just what in the Nine Hells was that?”

“It’s almost like the problems they were having at the starport on Bandalor just before we left,” said Valo over the intercom.  An alarm sounded through his microphone.  “I’m picking up power glitches all over the ship now.”

“Are there any in the engineering section?” asked Hawk.

“Negative,” replied Valo.  “They all are confined to the upper deck forward in the forward port area of the cargo hold, for now.  No vital systems are affected, as of yet.”

“Hawk,” said Atopia, “get Mr. Harrison’s effects from in there.  We need answers now and I’m willing to bet he’s got them.”  She shot a look at Tabitha.  “Still think he’s a low level bureaucrat from the ISB?”

Tabitha shrugged.  “I asked him a question or two,” she said.  “If you wanted me to play inquisitor, you would’ve had to help me kidnap him.”

The computer geek cried out in frustration when she saw in personal effects.  She had a helplessly confused expression on her face as she held a blank journal book in her hands.  “What kind of writing is this?” she asked.  “I’ve never seen it before!”

Harper took the book from her and snorted.  “Cursive Anglic,” he said.  “They still teach that to kids from low tech worlds like Kolan, my homeworld.  Let me translate for you.”  The lights flickered again and shot the overhead panels a dirty look.

Hawk pulled a chemical light stick from one of the pockets on his coveralls.  He quickly snapped it and shook it before handing it to Harper.  “Just in case,” he said as he stalked back toward the passenger deck.

It took nearly a half-hour for Tabitha to get the information she needed form Harrison’s / Griggs’ journal.  “It’s electro-parasitic nanites,” she said.  “They attack semiconductors by cutting the microscopic circuitry.”

“Good thing our ship’s computer systems are optical,” said Valo.

“Not as good as you think,” said Tabitha.  “A lot of the other subsystems aboard still rely on semiconductors.”  The lights died completely in her area.  “Life support, power systems, lighting, artificial gravity, things like that,” she added.

“All the stuff we need to live,” replied Hawk.  “And we’re still about five days from a breathable atmosphere at the earliest.”

“By then, they’ll be all over the ship!” exclaimed Atopia.

“No,” replied Tabitha, “they’re not self-replicating.  But a few can go a long way, apparently.  They’re small enough to ride air currents when they’re seeking out power sources to attack.”

“So how do we stop them?” asked Valo.  He was about to say something else when alarms started going off inside the ship.  “Belay that answer,” he said, “Everybody grab an emergency breathing apparatus from the ship’s locker.  CO2 levels are climbing.  The main air processor just shut down.”

“Fortunately, our dead friend from the ISB owned a microwave projection device,” said Tabitha, “which is typically used to shut down nanites in the lab.”

“Yeah, but will it work?” asked Hawk. His voice was muffled from the breathing apparatus.

“If it doesn’t,” said Tabitha as she donned her headgear, “when the nanites get to the power plant and shut it down, the normal space bubble we’re using to survive hyperspace will collapse.  When that happens, we will be converted into decaying disassociated subatomic particles and be scattered across another dimension.”

“Ugh,” said Atopia, “you could’ve said ‘we all die’ and left it at that.”

Fortunately, the gadget from Griggs’ possessions worked very well.  Working from the engineering compartment and moving forward, the ship was soon out of danger.  Hawk worked quickly to get life support up and running again, then spent the rest of the trip switching out damaged electronic components, with help from Tabitha.  Valo and Atopia worked to quickly locate and neutralize the nanites contained in the other cylinder.

“So we’re not doing any more auctions, right?” asked Harper sometime later.

“You have to expect trouble when you get something good for a cut rate,” replied Atopia.  “It’s just part of the bargain.”

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