RECAP: Aboard the Gin & Tonic, 12-29-19

“Captain Black, Mr. Tamm.”

“Yes, Djinn?” This from Tamm. Both he and Black had that vaguely faraway look typical of individuals actively using neural lace.

“We have reached Mirabilis Lagrange sphere and are outside the volume’s gravity wells. I have been given clearance by Walk Into Light at Ascensio Station to engage jump drives and exit the system. Shall I engage the jump drive?”

Tamm looked at Black, who nodded once. “Yes, Djinn,” affirmed Tamm. “Let’s jump.”

“Affirmative, Mr. Tamm.” Without fanfare, the Gin & Tonic dropped out of realspace and ‘fell’ into jumpspace. From the outside camera feeding visual data onto the bridge monitors, nothing seemed to have changed except for the absence of stars where once they studded the black sky. Instead, a stream of mathematical data churned alongside the blank screens, as Djinn constantly modified the efficiency of the drives and charted the G&T’s course, making small hyperfast corrections that ensured the ungainly vessel made it to parsec 1734 (interstellar space, non-system), “Mr. Tamm, we have a minor fuel issue; I have resolved it.”

“Thank you, Djinn.”

“Of course, Mr. Tamm.”

Tamm turned to the captain. “I’ll start on the calculations for the jump to Greenpernt.”

Black nodded and leaned back in his chair. “And I’ll go see about our mysterious Mr. Kui Xing.”

“… so as I was saying, Weber, you can wax rhapsodic all you wish about the taste profile of Ishkurian Scotch, but the fact remains that until you’ve tasted some of the absolutely brilliant distillations coming out of Groombridge system? You can’t call yourself a serious sophisticate.”

Quillen leaned back in his chair and tipped his glass gently at Weber Jiix. Weber smiled and leaned forward. “You, my good man, are so gravely mistaken about that it literally causes me pain,” Jiix said. “I’ve been to Groombridge and while it’s a splendid place, their knowledge of how to make a decent scotch could just about fit into our recyclers.”

“Sadly, you’re simply wrong,” Quillen said. “The fact that you are educated in this matters lends some weight to your opinion, but the fact remains that Groomsbridge whiskey is widely known as superior – here, let’s pour a dram of each for each and side them by side. By this we shall know the truth- AAH Captain!” Kui Xing rose from the g-couch to shake Black’s hand.

“You are comfortable, Mr. Kui Xing?” asked the captain. “All your needs are being addressed?”

Kui Xing smiled brightly. “Indeed yes, Captain. My particular needs have been admirably met.”

“Excellent.” Black nodded once, then turned to Jiix. “Carry on. Mr. Doyle?”

The tall, rawboned security chief seemed to materialize near the door to medlab. “Captain.”

“Walk with a moment, we need to take a look at the jump drive.”

“Aye, Captain.” Doyle joined the captain and they both passed through the irises leading into the rear of the ship. Past the outer doors, the vessel took a very different tenor. the atmosphere was rife with nitrogen and and free monomers, giving it an ammoniac reek. The thrum of the drives (actually, the fusion reactor; the jump drives by their nature were completely vibrationless) punched rhythmically into their chests. The end result: an environment in which a spoken word would vanish completely a meter from the speaker. It was the perfect place, therefore, to speak without any possibility of being overheard. Black turned to face Doyle.

“What’d you learn?”

Doyle leaned forward. “We’ve got the thing, as ordered, downstairs in soft vacuum. Anything coming out of it larger than a virus – for which Djinn is scrying about every shake or so – is going to be crawling into micropressure at about eight degrees Kelvin, then passing two vac doors that have gravity bolts and can only be released by Djinn. And I’ve given him some very specific orders about releasing those bolts.”

“Good. What’d Djinn say about the scry on the box itself?”

“Not much.” Doyle raised an eyebrow. “High level, it’s got a fair amount of shielding, so a basic scry rendered back thin data. Djinn did say it’s definitely a cryo-generator, with it’s own capacitors although it’s drawing from our reactor now. It actually doesn’t pull that much power, which means whatever’s inside it has been inside it long enough for the internal power resource to be full, it’s only pulling maintenance juice.”

“What else?” Black narrowed his eyes. “Any clues as to what’s inside?”

“According to Djinn? One live something at cryogenic temperatures, surrounded by various sorts of shielding.”

“A person? A human?”

“Unknown,” said Doyle. “Could be non-Solomani, but size and shape is right for a sophont.”

“So this guy is paying us premium prices to bring what’s probably a citizen of somewhere to Greenpernt in cryosleep ?” Black frowned. “What’s in Greenpernt?”

Doyle shrugged. “The short version? A lot less law.”

Captain Black nodded sourly. A lot less law, indeed.

“Djinn, can you brief the Captain on the state of our passenger?” Security Chief Doyle said to now on in particular. “He has passed over.”

Inside Kui Xing’s stateroom, Dr. Wagner withdrew his fingers from the passenger’s throat, and raised one eyebrow at the pincam that Captain Black was surely using to monitor the proceedings. He shook his head slightly.

Djinn had earlier notified the Captain and Dr. Wagner that there was an anomaly within Mr. Kui Xing’s quarters, to wit: their passenger was not exhibiting any life signs; specifically the UMB controllers had alerted Djinn that the passenger was not using nitrox or producing carbon dioxide sufficient to factor into the calculations for producing life support. Basically, it was the UMB sub-routine alerting the ship that the crew’s guest wasn’t breathing anymore. Djinn had explained that, unlike the crew which he monitors around the clock, Mr. Kui Xing had requested only periodic monitoring and the disabling of pincams in his stateroom; Djinn of course complied. But during the ship-morning’s initial review to determine UMB usage for the period, the subroutine discovered that Kui Xing wasn’t breathing.

Security Chief Doyle had entered Kui Xing’s stateroom cautiously, suspecting some peril even though Djinn had not indicated the presence of any pathogens in the atmosphere. Always suspicious, Doyle looked for some sort of ruse, but there weren’t any – as Dr. Wagner was able to quickly ascertain, the man was simply dead.

While Dr. Wagner grav-gurneyed Kui Xing’s body to medlab, Doyle looked through the dead man’s possessions, seeking some clue as to what may have effected his demise.

“I knew this was too good to be true,” muttered the Captain.

In Kui Xing’s stateroom, Doyle expertly searched the dead man’s belongings. Most were pedestrian – clothing, a few books, toiletries of various kinds and origination. Doyle quickly found Kui Xing’s datapad, which Djinn confirmed was connected to ship’s network. Odder, however, were the two brand new datapads, placidly inert in their plastiseal security encasements. Doyle raised one eyebrow at these “burners” which, while not definitive were certainly illustrative, especially for a man with lace, with which Kui Xing certainly was equipped.

Odder still was a small locked case, with biometric security measures – fingerprint plus codekey. A case like this would have been more typically found, Doyle thought, at a governmental or high level corporate function. Here, in jumpspace, it was highly suggestive. Doyle held it up to show Jiix, who was standing outside the stateroom door observing the chief.

“Djinn, do we have tools?” asked Doyle.

“We do, Chief Doyle,” Djinn said smoothly. “And while the tools we have on board would be more than sufficient to open the case, it is very likely the case would be irrevocably damaged in the process.”

Jiix cleared his throat. “We can, ah, obtain a finger…?” Doyle grimaced.

Doyle retrieved the tools and bent to the task. In the end, Djinn was correct: a small laser cutter provoked a secondary security response from the case, which in turn required even more damaging efforts, and in the end the case itself was all but destroyed. But it disgorged some highly interesting contents: first, three sets of identity documents, suitable for Sol Cluster systems, all with different names but Kui Zing’s photograph and biometrics. The photograph in each packet was exactly the same. Each packet was accompanied by a biotech chip.

Further, in 1000-credit wrapped stacks, were 10,000cr in physical currency. This was even stranger than the identity documents, as the use of physical currency was so rare as to be nearly nonexistent, to the extent that in some of the cluster worlds, it’s use was actually illegal. The bills were brand new and issued from Greenpernt.

“Doyle,” came the voice of Captain Black over the intercom. “What have you got?”

Doyle put down the stack of new bills he’d been holding and visibly composed his report. “Body’s in medlab and Dr. Wagner is trying to determine what killed him – no word yet on that…” Doyle said.

“Djinn is giving me the play-by-play from medlab on my lace,” Black affirmed.

“Good.” Doyle paused. “I haven’t examined his datapad, and I definitely want to take a closer look at the cargo. I’m going to ask the Doc to look at these biotech chips, but beyond that we have Sol IDs, sealed ‘pads and hard cash. Very weird.”

“You’re telling me. Carry on, Chief.”

Doyle, with Jiix in tow, made his way to medlab, where the crisp smell of laser cauterization fretted the air. Inside Dr. Wagner had autopsied Kui Xing with a strangely precise sense of comprehensiveness. The Y-incision appeared as if by magic under the grim blue line of the autodoc’s surgical laser, and Wagner leaned over with a practiced air. He checked Kui Xing’s mouth for any residues, poison or otherwise, and found none. The petechial hemorrhages interested him, but he knew that that there were dozens of malefactors that could generate those little burst capillaries.

“Doc,” Doyle said from the door. “Found something I need you to take a look at.”

Wagner looked up from sectioning a sample of Kui Xing’s liver. “What have you got?” the doctor’s arms were gauntletted in long tyvek gloves, reaching well past his elbows, and a streak of barrier gel shined his upper lip and nostrils.

Doyle raised one biotech chip in his hand and extended it towards the doctor. Wagner looked, nodded, then bent back to his work. “That makes sense,” he said matter-of-factly. “Client’s got a biochip port, back of his head.”

Doyle frowned. He didn’t use lace as a matter of personal security, but he knew a fair amount about it. When someone with lace entered a network, there was a transactional discussion that took place – basically, the network ascertaining the identity, net worth, sexual proclivities, choice of cocktail, and general bonafides of the sophont, and the sophont receiving access to the network’s resources. These chips, Doyle suspected, would interfere with the key-lock sequence and override the normal identifying information – the “key” portion of the sequence – and replace it with new information. The likelihood (“working theory” Doyle reminded himself) was that these biochips, inserted before interacting with a network, would mimic the identify data associated with the documents in the case.

Basically, thought Doyle, this guy had forged identities in physical and digital formats. Three of them, each in itself both rare and expensive. “You got anything?”

Wagner sighed audibly, pulled his hands out of Kui Xing’s viscera, and leaned against the autodoc housing. “I’ve done tox and hemo screen, gastro contents, scanned for pathogens down to mid-sized virii – hell, I’ve even checked his fingernails for foreign DNA and endorphin/amino uptake. Tox was negative; gastro, negative. Zero abnormal or extraterrestrial pathogens. Gut flora and fauna was A-OK – for a dead guy – and his blood was damn near pristine, except for the aldehydes of some very expensive scotch. This guy was not murdered.”

Doyle raised one Spock-like eyebrow. “So what killed him?”

Wagner smiled. “Unless I find something very strange? Cerebrovascular accident.”

“He had a stroke?”

“Yep,” Wagner pointed at the remnants of Kui Xing’s sawn-off skull case. “It was a little one, but at exactly the wrong spot. The hemorrhage built pressure quickly over his oblongata, and he died quickly and peacefully in his sleep, like someone flipping off a light switch. His lace probably never had time to react.”

“A stroke.”

“This asshole died of natural causes, my friend.” Wagner grimaced sympathetically.

Later at dinner, the crew of the Gin & Tonic discussed their options.

“We could jettison him and all his stuff into space at the midway jump point,” Captain Black said. He scratched into his dark beard, knowing that this first assay would provoke others to bring forward their own ideas as to what to do. “We’d give up half the money, but no further complications than that.”

Jiix eyed the captain dubiously; Doyle nodded once. Dr. Wagner dished himself a second helping of ship-made rigatoni.

“Or, we try to locate his contacts and see if we can sell the cargo,” Black continued. Jiix visibly brightened at the prospect.

“Give me a moment,” said Tamm. “There’s something interesting I want to show you. Stay here a moment, I need to go into medlab.”

Wagner’s eyebrows practically lifted off his forehead, but the Captain just nodded to him and Tamm went into the lab. He was out of sight for a few minutes.

Then Mr. Kui Xing entered the room. The crew goggled for a moment, then Black said: “Tamm? That you?”

‘Kui Xing’ nodded.

“Motherfucker,” said Jiix with admiration. “How’d you do that??”

“I apologize, I wasn’t around him for enough time for me to get the voice correct,” said Tamm a little sheepishly. And it was true, the voice wasn’t right… but it was close. And the features – the epicanthic folds, the long round jaw, the frame – were spot on.

“This could certainly help us if we were to meet Kui Xing;s contacts,” observed the Captain thoughtfully.

“What’s going on?” said Doyle, clearly suspicious and sliding toward angry.

“I’ve never really done this before,” explained Tamm. “But I am able to change certain aspects of my appearance.” He say down at the table with the rest of the crew. “If we can figure out who this guy is supposed to meet? We might be able to close the deal.”

Doyle shook his head. “It’s a nice trick, and it might be pretty darn useful.”

Kui Xing’s datapad proved to be chock full of information. Most was various kinds of coded communiques, various nonsense text documents, some scrambled video, and an unusual amount of encrypted audio files. The latter were (foolishly) encrypted with keys that Kui Xing had kept on the same datapad (omg), so Black and Doyle were able to decrypt them with relative ease. Most were voice records asking Kui Xing to “pick up a package.” And in all cases, the “package” was a sophontish name. Often accompanying these were contiguous steganographic data layers containing dossier information about the named “package.”

There were several dozen names and dossiers contained within the datapad, going back several standard years.

Jiix looked thoughtful. “When I was still in the diplomatic corps, I was once present at a conversation where some people were discussing waht they referred to as shifting – they called it shifting, it was really kidnapping – a scientist from a rival corporation, in a different system. One of the items discussed was that there were people who were quite adept at doing this – capturing and transporting people.”

“What do you mean?” asked Tamm.

“Say that there’s this top scientist, working for a corporation in some system,” explained Jiix. “And there’s this other corporation, maybe a competing corporation, in another system that wants him or her to work for them. If he second group can get the scientist into their system, well, it’s easier to keep a person in-system than it is to get them there. So that there’s these people who’ll go get these people – scientists, diplomats, businessmen, whatever – and transport them to a different system and hand them over to a corporation or government for a fee. This guy looks like a fairly prolific professional kidnapper.”

Black and Doyle checked the timestamps on the dossiers. The most recent was a materials researcher from Mirabilis system, a man named Gideon Robinsohn, an employee of Famile Spofulam. Greenpernt doesn’t have need of materials scientists of this caliber… and so, observed Jiix, is probably simply a transhipment point, like it is for so many other things.