033/034-1117 – Boilingbrook – Adar/Hinterworlds

Boilingbrook – Adar/Hinterworlds 0801 A9C9751-D 700 Na G0 II

I didn’t do much today.

I posted our trade cargoes and managed to sell most of them, but I did that without leaving my room. Once that was done I was at a bit of a loose end, so I started looking to see what I could do.

The population on Boilingbrook is mostly confined to the Floaters. That’s what they call them by the way; calling them “balloons” or “domes” or even “floating cities” marks you as an off-worlder. They have any kind of entertainment you may want on the various floaters, but nothing outside. There were local races where competitors took one-person floaters out and tried to be the fastest to circumnavigate the planet in the jet streams, but that was about it. There were a few tours to the surface, but being immersed in hydrogen sulfide clouds and enduring sulfuric acid rain was not my idea of a good time.

They also had a few factory complexes where they built the floaters, some to expand locally and some to ship off-world to other planets. There were tours to those but they were really just oversize factories; not something high on my list of sights to see.

So I just watched net vids for a bit. It was the typical mix of galaxy-wide programming that came in via the X-Boat network and locally created stuff. Sometimes I preferred the local programming but here I couldn’t get past the high-pitched voices.

I wondered if the voices on the off-world programming sounded comically low-pitched to the locals. Probably.

Eventually I gave up and wandered downstairs to the hotel bar. It was relatively early still, by the clock anyway, but it was the local “off-day”. It was fairly dark outside and there weren’t many people in the bar. Fine with me.

A waitbot came over as I sat down. I ordered an Imperial Boil and a basket of tama leaves, then pulled up local data on my comp. I idly looked through the local tours and sights but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for them. I sighed and flicked off my comp in annoyance.

I wasn’t mad at Saahna. Well, not really. But I was a bit irritated that she wouldn’t confide in me with what was bothering her. I seemed to have something to do with that datastick from Fugitak, but that was hardly the first clandestine cargo we had carried. I wondered what it was.

“That bad, huh?” came a voice from beside me. I looked up to see a young man, barely of registration age, standing beside me. Without invitation he sat down on the next stool

“I’m not looking for company,” I said, more irritated than I should have been. He was clean-shaven and bald, wearing a sleeveless shirt and vest and cargo pants with boots. There was a complex tattoo on his upper arm and, despite myself, I tilted my head to get a better look.

“I’m not either,” he said. “I’m looking for a business partner.” He noticed my gaze and, with a frown, pushed a cuff up his arm to cover the tattoo. I looked away awkwardly.

“What kind of business partner?” I asked, waving the waitbot back over. “If you’ve got cargo you want transported we’ll probably be posting our next destination in a day or two.”

He shook his head. “Nope. I need someone on-planet.”

The waitbot arrived and I ordered another Boil. He ordered a Stemilk for himself. I raised an eyebrow at that. Stemilk is a K’kree drink that is basically fermented algae. What salad becomes when it gets left out in the sun too long. It was intoxicating but beyond that I couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about it.

I said nothing until the waitbot returned with our drinks. I took a sip of mine as he took a long swallow of his and coughed. I shook my head.

“OK,” I said, finally, when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to volunteer anything more on his own. “What is this about?”

He took another drink, grimaced, and set it aside. “I need someone who can get into someplace and be accepted there. Someone who has been there before and so won’t be scrutinized as closely.”

I frowned. “We only hit atmosphere yesterday; I haven’t exactly been to a lot of places.”

He smiled slightly. “Besides the Uptown Downport?”

I frowned further. What was this about? I took another drink.

“There didn’t seem to be any restrictions on who they let in. Why not just go there yourself?”

He made a snorting laugh, gesturing down at himself. “Do I look like someone who they would let in?”

I shrugged. “They let me in.”

He laughed at that. “You’re a ship’s captain. A Free Trader. That opens a lot of doors that us grounders can’t access.”

I sighed. “So what is it that you want?”

He reached into a pocket and pulled out a wafer-thin device. “Just take this in there and stick it somewhere. Under a table, on a wall, whatever. It’ll camouflage itself to fit in. That’s all.”

I looked at him skeptically. “Why? And what is in it for me?”

“You don’t need to know why.” He pulled up something on his comp and flicked it to me. “And that’s what is in it for you.”

I looked at my own comp. There was a voucher there for a High Passage; 10 k-Creds.

“We haven’t even said where we’re going yet.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Do the job and you’ll have a passenger. Don’t and the voucher won’t activate. That’s all.”

He glanced at the Stemilk then got up, shoving the stool back into place. “It’s your call.” He left without looking back.

I sighed. Had Captain Anna put up with stuff like this? I drained my beer and called over the waitbot, handing it my glass and waving away what was left of the kid’s Stemilk. I looked at the menu quickly then ordered what looked to be a seafood pie and another beer.

When the waitbot left I pulled up the voucher on my comp again. It looked valid, but it wouldn’t activate until the passenger entered a pass-code upon boarding. Not entirely unheard of but I had only seen it done that way a couple of times before.

There was something about the whole encounter that seemed wrong. The kid was too young, obviously didn’t like the drink he had ordered, and I could only get paid if I accepted someone onto my ship after doing something, that while maybe not illegal, was definitely on the questionable side. Either I was dealing with someone completely incompetent, which I doubted, or they were doing everything they could do to confuse me. At which they were succeeding.

My beer and seafood pie arrived and I took several minutes to eat. I was hungrier than I had realized. That taken care of, I pulled out my comp again.

Normally I wouldn’t bother the crew with something like this. As I had told them at the on-planet meeting, we had done any number of weird deliveries or questionable actions before. But something had set them off this time.

OK, something had set Saahna off. And I didn’t know what it was, or why, but I didn’t want to alienate her further. So I composed a message describing my latest encounter and pinged the crew with it. If they were unhappy with me doing things without them then they couldn’t complain if I kept them informed about what was going on. Then, for what could only be described as irritation, I sent a second copy of the message to Dr. Korvusar.

I didn’t expect to hear back from anyone. Not directly, anyway. Varan pinged back that he didn’t think it was a good idea, but none of the rest of the crew responded. I had been hoping to hear something from Saahna, but wasn’t really surprised. I was about to head back to my room when my comm buzzed. I answered.

“Can you send me a copy of that voucher?” It was Dr. Korvusar’s voice.

I hesitated. “Sure… I guess?” I paused. “I don’t know why I sent that to you; I just thought you might possibly be interested.”

“I’m on your ship for the foreseeable future,” she said, sounding annoyed. “Of course I’d be interested.”

I hesitated, wondering if my impulsive decision had been correct. “I needed everyone’s input on this. You aren’t crew, but you’re with us for a while so I figured you’d want to be involved.”

“Very,” came the reply. There was a long silence. I almost thought that she had disconnected, then she spoke. “Are you going to do it?”

“Do what?”

“Place the scanner.”

I had assumed that was what she had meant, but I decided not to acknowledge. “No. I’ve already stepped in enough since getting here; I’m not going to get myself further into whatever is going on.”

There was a pause. “What does your crew think?”

I sighed. “Varan isn’t keen on the idea. Saahna isn’t talking to me. Haven’t heard from anyone else.”

“You know what you need to do,” she said.

I looked around. The bar was still fairly empty.

“I know,” I replied. “Something is off about this. And I don’t need to let someone on board my ship who might be determined to make sure there are no witnesses.”

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about that,” she replied. “Too obvious.”

I sighed. “So what do you think I should do?”

She laughed. “Why are you asking me, Captain?”

“Because you know something!” I said, angrily. “I have no idea what I have gotten myself into, but I think you do. That’s why you were so determined to travel with us! What the hell is going on?”

There was a very long pause.

“Do you trust me? And are you sure you want to know?”

I hesitated at that. Did I trust her? Finally I replied.

“If I didn’t trust you I wouldn’t have let you on my ship. And I know you know more than I do. You know I know your background; you even called me on it. So, what is this all about?”

There was another long pause. “Travellers come here to see the floating city factories, right?”

“I guess?” I said, irritated.

“Take the Boilingbrook Tours tour to the Mastodon factory tomorrow. You can still sign up.”

“What?” My irritation was now obvious.

“Just take the tour.” She abruptly terminated the call.

I sighed and looked around. The bar was still relatively empty, even for an off day. I waved over the waitbot to pay my tab and discovered, to my irritation, that my visitor earlier had left his bill for the Stemilk to me. I became more determined to not do what he wanted and headed back to my room.

Once there, I booked a tour to the Mastodon Floater Factory through Boilingbrook Tours. Now I’m going to watch local net dramas until I fell asleep.

034-1117 – Boilingbrook – Adar/Hinterworlds
Boilingbrook – Adar/Hinterworlds 0801 A9C9751-D 700 Na G0 II

This morning I grabbed an aircab and headed for the Boilingbrook Tours office. There were a number of people there, clustered into a few groups based on where they were going. I found my group and wandered over, carrying a coffee bulb I had grabbed from a communal bin nearby.

There were three people already there, a young couple both excitedly looking at something on her comp and an older woman fiddling with the settings of the imager she was carrying.

I looked down at mine. It was an older model that we kept on the Grayswandir; used to document the arrival state of cargo when it looked damaged and we wanted to prove we weren’t the ones responsible for its condition. I was also in civilian clothes instead of my ship’s jacket; I had decided to play down my position for today.

I walked over to the lone woman. “Nice imager.”

She glanced up at me then back down. “Thanks.”

When she didn’t say anything more I stuck out my hand. “Derek. Derek Kodai.”

She didn’t even bother to glance up that time. “Good to meet you Mr. Kodai.”

I frowned. “Sorry, just trying to get to know the people I’m on tour with.”

With a sigh she looked up. “I’m sorry Mr…. Kodai was it? Look, you may be excited about this, but I’m just here to document it for the local net. ‘People travel parsecs to see big factory! What brings them here?'” She frowned, then turned the imager towards me.

“So tell me, Mr. Kodai. What brings you to Boilingbrook?” Her demeanor had changed instantly, she was now friendly, but professional.

I frowned. I hadn’t expected that. “It’s Captain Kodai,” I corrected.

She gave a professional smile. “Of course… Captain. So, our factories here even attract starship captains?”

I was irritated, but did my best not to show it. “Every planet has its own unique attractions. On Carifor it’s the massive canyon created when the Selian Sea spilled over into the Mian Basin. On Tomaian it’s Asonda’s Tower; where the eponymous artist built a 200 meter structure of hand-forged glass. And on Jalanda there’s the skyway, an intricate series of cableways covering hundreds of square kilometers. Here? You have one of the largest factory complexes in or near Imperial Space! Of course that’s worth seeing.” I smiled politely.

“Thank you, Captain Kodai.” She lowered the imager and glared at me for a moment, then sighed. “Well played, Captain.”

I shrugged. “I figured you didn’t want me saying that we’re stuck here for a week and I had to do something on my downtime.”

She sighed and nodded. “I suppose.” She hesitated, then extended her hand. “Kori Methasa, Betharan Prime News.”

“Betharan?” I thought. “That’s in the northern stream, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “I’m surprised, most Travellers don’t know our local geography.”

“I run a Free Trader. The more I know about where I’m going the more credits I can make.”

“Oh. Always about money, isn’t it?” She frowned.

I shrugged again. “It’s my job.”

“And this is mine.” She sighed. “Or, at least, all they want me to talk about anymore.”

“Oh?” I was genuinely curious what she meant.

She flushed slightly and looked away. “Sorry. Forget that.”

She suddenly busied herself with her imager. I frowned as a thought came to me.

“When did you get this particular assignment?”

“Late yesterday,” she said in annoyance. She suddenly looked up and glared at me. “Why?”

I hesitated. The timing matched up. Again I wondered who Dr. Korvusar was. Really. She had told me to go here, and someone had told Methasa to come here. Coincidence?

Any further thought was cut off by a blare from the speakers as we were welcomed to Boilingbrook Tours. We listened through the usual announcements then headed towards the airbus designated for the tour we were on. There were about a dozen of us total, but I noticed that everyone seemed to be in couples or groups except for me and Methasa. On the airbus I sat down next to her. She looked somewhat annoyed but didn’t say anything.

I sat in silence for a while. We were rapidly heading away from the floater and heading to the northwest, nothing visible but the clouds. I couldn’t really see much; I had taken the aisle seat and Methasa was staring out the window. I could have moved to an open window, there were several, but I had a nagging feeling I was supposed to talk to her.

The driver came over the speakers and started telling us about the factory we were heading towards. Apparently we would get a tour of this facility, then get lunch at a floater nearby, then stop at a second factory before heading home. It sounded like we would be landing for the first part of the tour soon.

I glanced back at Methasa, who was still pointedly looking out the window. Was she who I was supposed to talk to? I sighed. I wasn’t ready for this IBIS cloak-and-dagger stuff. I wondered if Captain Anna had ever gone through this sort of thing.

The first factory we visited turned out to be owned by Ling Standard Products. Of course it was. One of the biggest megacorps in the Imperium would naturally have their fingers in anything that may possibly produce even more profit for them. The tour took about two hours and, I admit, it was fairly entertaining despite being mostly dry, technical data. Our two tour guides, a man and a woman, were both adept and entertaining speakers. I made a note of one or two of their jokes to try to remember to use the next I was giving a tour back on the Grayswandir.

We boarded the airbus to head for lunch. This time I took a window seat and gave Methasa some room. The floater we headed towards looked like a long ellipse, several towers extending above a dome that covered the main vessel. A few dozen smaller ovoids trailed along behind it, some attached, and a slight wake showed that the entire thing was under power.

Lunch was at a place called the Wilted Mermaid. It was high in one of the towers and we had a good view of the floater and the entourage of other, smaller habitats and ships that followed it. I learned that this floater was named Retourn and that it slowly made its way around Boilingbrook. It was apparently popular with retirees.

I had eaten an utterly forgettable fried skewer-thing that was provided by the tour, then went and ordered an Imperial Boil from the bar. Looking around, I saw that Methasa was alone at a table looking through recordings on her imager. She had been interviewing various tourist and factory workers during the tour and pointedly ignoring me. I walked over and sat down across from her.

“Anything good?” I asked, popping the cap and taking a drink.

She sighed and looked up at me. “I’m sorry, Captain… Kodai was it? I’m working at the moment.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, I can see. But I was asking some questions last night and the person I was talking to told me to take this specific tour. I get here, and find out that someone told you to take this specific tour as well. I think you and I need to talk.”

She froze for a moment, then carefully put the imager down on the table. I did notice that she flipped it on, even though it was aimed well away from me. “Who are you?” she asked, quietly.

I shrugged. “Exactly who I said I was. I picked up a private delivery back on Fugitak and was asked to deliver it to someone here. I run a Free Trader, it happens. But I’ve apparently stepped into something this time and I have no idea what it is. I tried to find out anything and all I’ve gotten in return were instructions to go on this tour. And then I find you and learn that you got assigned here, after my discussion. So… let’s talk.”

She frowned and looked away. I could tell she was thinking. Finally, she reached over and turned the imager off before looking back at me.

“Do you know have anything to do with someone named ‘Jestin’, by any chance?”

I hesitated. Apparently I was right. I nodded. “Yeah. That’s who my delivery was for.”

“Have you met him?”

I nodded again. “Yeah. Two days ago.”

She leaned forward, suddenly excited. “Where! What was it! What did he say?”

“Whoa!” I said, leaning back. “I don’t know what is going on here. What have I gotten myself into?””

She frowned, clenching her teeth. Finally she spoke. “You have no idea who Jestin is?”

“No!” I said, a bit louder than I intended. I glanced around but no one seemed to be paying attention to us. I leaned forward and told her about my getting the datastick on Fugitak, my delivery of it here, and the later encounter where I was given the disc.

When I was done she leaned back, looking upwards. A long enough pause went by that I was about to say something when she suddenly leaned forward again.

“Do you still have that disc?”

I hesitated, then shrugged, pulled it out of my bag, and handed it to her.

She turned it over in her hand a few times, examining it. “You know this is a scanner.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I figured that much out.”

She nodded in return. “Yeah, obvious. But this is a good scanner. A really good scanner. This will even do a biometric scan of anyone within about 100 meters. Anyone in the Uptown Downport. Someone wants to know what is going on in there and who doing it. Very badly.”

I lowered my head, shaking my head and closing my eyes. “Great,” I said, finally. “Who wants info there that badly?”

She was staring into the distance herself. Finally, she spoke. “You know your Imperium is in trouble.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed and leaned back. “Seriously? That’s what this is about?” I shook my head. “The Imperium has been around for over a thousand years. It has survived longer than any other government we know of. Ever. OK, maybe the Hivers predate us. But who counts them?” I shrugged. “Why is everyone making such a big deal out of this?”

She looked at me coldly. “Because while a lot of people think like you, a lot of other people don’t. You’ve on this tour. You know that our reputation, and our economy, is based on Boilingbrook’s manufacturing capability. Now, what happens if the Imperium is no more?”

I shook my head. “The Imperium…”

“Is just another institution!” she said, sharply. She looked around herself to see if anyone else was paying attention. When it became obvious that no one was she leaned forward. “The Prime Minister is telling everyone not to worry, that our economy will continue to prosper, unaffected by whatever is happening in Core.’ We aren’t an Imperial planet’, she keeps saying. But that won’t help us when we’re in the middle of a three-way war between the Imperium, the Solomani, and the Hivers. And the K’kree will probably show up.”

I sighed. What was she talking about? “The Solomani, and the Hivers for that matter, know better than to interfere in an Imperial-dominated region. Trust me, I run a Free Trader. The Imperium will always protect its trade network.”

“And if the Imperium can’t even protect itself?”

I laughed. “Yeah, right.”

She leaned back and looked at me for a long moment. Finally, she leaned forward again.

“There are… rumors that things are getting worse. That the Imperium is pulling fleets back to protect its core sectors and leaving the periphery to their own devices. Ral Ranta and the Coalition both have interest in us here. We prefer to remain independent and the Imperium likes us being independent. But, if the Imperium withdraws from the area….”

“You think that will happen?”

She nodded. “Yes. I do. I have… sources.”

I frowned. “OK. For the sake of argument let’s assume that’s what people around here believe. What does that have to do with me, the Uptown Downport, and whoever this ‘Jestin’ person is?”

“Jestin is a bit of a mystery, to everyone,” she said. “He’s someone who has a lot of influence but who prefers to stay two or three levels in the background. Most people think he’s a crime lord. Others say he’s a merchant prince. A few say he’s an Ancient. All anyone knows is that he seems to have access to a lot of contacts and resources, but no one can tell where it comes from. Or won’t admit to knowing if they do.”

I shrugged. “So? There are shadow brokers all over Imperial space.”

“Because he’s really good at it?” She looked at my beer and waved over a waitbot. When it had brought her one of her own, and another for me, she resumed.

“There is increasing sentiment here that Boilingbrook needs to align itself with the Ral Rantans or the Coalition. Others of us don’t really trust the Ral Rantans or the Anubians and want to stay independent, but that would require that we build up our own planetary defenses and none of our politicians want to be responsible for either raising taxes or cutting Basic to pay for increasing COACC and Patrol funding. So most people are just hoping that the Imperium’s problems will blow over and we can continue to enjoy their protection without having to pay for it.”

“So where does Jestin fit into this?”

“He wants us to be independent. He’s given support to several system representatives and even the prime minister to support that. Several of them have suggested talking to a few other the other non-aligned worlds about setting up our own joint defense league. Places like Fugitak, where you said you just came from. Someplace that can ‘maintain the ideals of the Imperium while being our own selves’.”

She took a drink and continued. “I published a story about him and his goals and immediately got demoted to doing ‘sophant interest’ stories like this. Someone doesn’t like the idea that the Imperium is having problems any more than you do.” She tilted her head. “Maybe you should keep that in mind.”

I frowned and thought for a moment. “OK,” I said. “Maybe there is more going on here than I realize. Maybe. I’ll… do some research.”

She nodded. “Do that.” She handed the disc, which I had forgotten about, back to me. “Make up your mind about what you want to do with this. Beyond that? Be careful.” She drained her beer and stood up, picking up her imager as she did. “And I think it’s about time for us to get back to the airbus.”

We stopped at another factory but I trailed along near the back of the tour, barely paying attention. The two guides here made most of the same jokes the first pair had; apparently they were going off of a script. And I quickly discovered that when you’ve seen one floating city factory you’ve seen all of them.

I did talk to Methasa again. I had seen her doing her interviews and she had been reviewing clips from the imager on the flight back. I stopped her as we were disembarking from the airbus.

“Want to grab another beer before heading back?” I asked with a smile.

She gave me a look indicating that she had heard that particular line a few too many times. “Thank you Captain Kodai, but I need to get this footage edited before the next broadcast. Maybe next time you’re in-system?” She smiled politely.

I shrugged inwardly. “It’s a date!” With a final smile, I went outside and grabbed an air-cab to my hotel.

Once there I debated what to do next. Contact Dr. Korvusar and see if she would tell me anything more? Head over to the Downport and either plant the scanner or contact Jestin?

In the end I did nothing. Went down to the hotel bar and had a few beers and a few baskets of tama chips. Percy would complain about my diet when I checked back in on-board, but it could deal with it. After a while I went back up to my room and to bed.

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