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The Old Scout: In the Pawn Shop

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

The Old Scout came into the pawn shop, wearing an expression that signaled mild amusement. After 160 days, the long-awaited opportunity had finally come. Three Jumps to set up a backstory, make contacts, and cultivate friends were all time consuming, but even a mid-tech backwater could have pretty good investigation capabilities, if they wanted to. Parts were fun (and thinking about “Lisa!” brought a fond mental sigh) but it was still work, and a reminder of some of the less pleasant things that’d had to be done while on Active Duty.

The last hundred days had been relaxing. The locals had given permission to land the Snipe in the dunes by the shore, and it made a fine beach house for a detached-duty Scout. Soaking up the warm sunlight on the beach had also been relaxing, and the barely-clad locals who were doing the same provided some enjoyable scenery. Sometimes the opportunity arose for more than just looking, and one of the “space bunnies” could easily earn a ride with some smooth talking. A lot of them enjoyed the biweekly run to skim the local gas giant, a run the Old Scout made just to keep in practice. They’d both enjoy the excitement of the skim (and maybe some other activities), and then the Snipe would refine the fuel on the way home. Fifteen tons of refined fuel, sold to the starport, made for a lot of beer-and-pretzel money.

Paul was a local contact—one of a fair number—who’d become a friend. He owned an off-port pawn shop, and the Old Scout had (deliberately) become a good sounding board and information source when someone dropped off something that the local was unsure about.

This time, it was a ‘sea bag’ with an IISS logo on it. The bag was polymer on the outside and inside, with a foil-thin layer of crystaliron between them for extreme durability. Paul explained, “Kid came in and said it was his granddad’s. The old guy passed on half-a-year back, and they found a key for a port locker. I guess they were hoping it was full of cash or something, and rushed to see what was in it… and were disappointed in finding the bag. I didn’t like the kid’s attitude—zip in the way of sadness for the death of his ancestor, or any respect for something that had obviously been important to him. He had nothing but ‘how many credits can I get for it.’ I ran his ID, checked it with a cop I know. It’s not stolen. I gave him a kilocredit for it, since some of it looks valuable. Looking closer, I started worrying if I should be selling it, though—some of it looked like it might be classified. I decided to call you, see what you thought.”

The Old Scout nodded—trafficking in restricted hardware was something that’d bring the Imperials in, rather than just local law enforcement, and it was easy to understand why Paul wouldn’t want the hassle. The bag opened right up to a touch on the clasp, despite the layer of dust that still clung to it.

The Old Scout looked inside, and then raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Ja, Paul. I appreciate you calling me. Nothing here’s flat-out illegal, but there’s things the Service would rather not have just floating about.”

Inside, the Old Scout breathed a sigh of relief. This particular bag was supposed to be in a starport locker that had been rigged years ago to operate not only with a key, but with a code known to appropriately-briefed personnel. In the early days of the Imperium, as worlds were brought out of the Long Night, there had been more than one instance of a bit of backsliding, and an embedded agent finding himself stuck on a world with very little but his wits. Stashing caches here and there became standard practice, and retired Scouts were supposed to keep an eye on them. In this case, the man had died before he could pass it on to someone else, and the grandkid had pilfered it.

None of that showed on the Old Scout's face, though. “What you’ve got here is an old—about 40 years old—‘Do I?’ kit. The ‘Do I?’ comes from the section that issued it: Detached Duty Office/Intelligence section. I guess spelling it DDOI would make more sense, but there’s a joke about someone seeing the bag and saying, ‘Carrying that, you look like a spy!’ and the guy replying , ‘Do I?’”

Paul laughed, adding, “So what is this stuff, or should I even ask?”

The Old Scout picked though the bag, and put some things back in without answering. It was obvious that, by their being ignored, those were the things the Service would really rather not have on the street. This left a few things still on the counter, and the Scout said, “I can tell you about some of them.”

A fairly ordinary looking wristwatch—very much like the Old Scout’s own—was the first item of interest. Showing it to Paul: “All the normal spacer’s watch functions—auto-time reset on local beacons, barometer/altimeter, temp, accelerometer/INS. Plus the same PDA/smartphone functions that you’d find in an upscale watch. Enough memory for reference books, some movies. Little camera and recorder.”

Pausing as if thinking for a moment, the Old Scout pressed two buttons, then double-tapped another. The watch’s display changed to look like a little radar screen, which showed one other dot that was right in the middle of the reticule. “Something not so common: IFF transponder. The dot here is my watch. Handy for finding someone else without searching the whole building. Range is only a hundred meters or so, but it is handy. The Zho figured out a decade or two ago what freqs and encoding we were using, so that’s not classified any more. Obviously, it doesn’t work unless you turn it on, or the bad guys would have an easy time finding you.”

More fiddling, and another tap: “Backchannel radio transmitter. You can tap out didah code, and someone with a similar watch feels the pulse on their wrist. Same limited range, but useful.”

The Old Scout hit the mode button on the watch, and it cleared. Paul wondered if there were other …interesting… functions, but decided not to ask—he didn’t want to risk straining his friendship with the Old Scout by asking about what might well be secrets. If the watch was like one of those new hand computers Paul had heard about, then there’d be some kind of “app store” for it—maybe you synced it to a scout ship’s computer to load them?

A little folding knife was the next item of interest: it had a half dozen blades, including scissors, a fishhook remover, a file, and other esoteric things. On the side was the IISS logo. “A Scout Knife,” continued the Old Scout, with an almost-smile that indicated some private joke. “The blades look like normal steel, but the edges and spine are superdense wire. They put the wire forms in a mold, pour in molten steel, and then let it cool. The file is like a little wire brush of superdense, with the steel around it and just the tips showing. Given enough time you can saw through a jail cell door with it.”

Paul wondered at that example, then decided not to ask—the Old Scout was full of stories, and easily derailed into any of them… and he wanted to find out more about this ‘Do I?’ bag.

The Scout opened an attractive little accessories case, and grinned at the four cufflinks inside—“Heh, poser—he actually had all four. Everybody that actually used them lost at least a couple, and they were …somewhat difficult… to replace. It’s rare to find a kit that isn’t missing at least one. These two here, with the silver posts, are transponders. You can track them with the watch. They have a bit more sending range, though, so you can follow a truck while hanging back a ways.

“The other two, with the brass trim, are receivers—you can pulse them with the watch.” The scout didn’t say what they did when they were pulsed, but the studs for those cufflinks looked a little odd, and it took Paul a bit to realize that if you twisted the knob that held them in the buttonhole all the way off, the shaft looked a lot like a standard Imperial datalink plug. Plugged into a computer’s keyboard slot, they could send strings of text. Then Paul remembered getting in an old Marine explosives controller a while back, and it had the same connector. The cufflink would plug into lots of things…

The back of the same case had a bolo neck tie about a half-meter long. Paul had seen them worn now and then by Scouts when they wanted to dress up for some semi-formal occasion. There was a round clasp with the IISS colored starburst on it, with a funny looking clip on the back rather than the two holes that most bolo neckties had. The Old Scout continued, “Cord’s made of woven poly-steel. You won’t break it with anything normal. The clasp can be clicked a few different ways—normally, it goes like this so if you get the tie hung on something, you don’t hang yourself. Like this, it makes a slipknot, so you can trap game with it. Or whatever.”

Paul sensed the “whatever” was when you wanted to hang someone with it.

“Draw it down, and loop the running end back into the clasp, and it stays shut. Great for holding a bag closed, or keeping a couple of tree branches lashed when you’re making a lean-to. Here….” The Scout looped it around Paul’s wrist and clicked it, and Paul was struck by the realization that it closed a lot like a zip-tie, and that unlocking it was complicated enough that someone ‘cuffed’ with it wouldn’t be able to uncuff themselves.

“Like this,” unlocking it and fiddling with it again, “the clasp acts as a weight on the end, and it makes a dandy window-breaker. Or head breaker. I usually wrap it around my hand, like so, to keep a sure grip….” The Old Scout demonstrated, then stepped back, and in a well-practiced way, swung the weight in a figure eight. It was obvious that the dense metal clasp would hurt whatever it hit.

The tie went back into the accessories case, and a small case full of writing pens was the next item. Many spacers carried such things for taking notes, since there were a lot of places where doing things electronically didn’t happen. A common ‘spacer’s pen’ would write on anything, which meant you could mark your trail or initial a box in ways that electronics wouldn’t let you do on low-tech worlds.

“Normal pen, yeah. Oh, bug pen—these were fun, until the Vargr figured them out. It’s got a little magazine of near-microscopic bugs.

“Every time you click the pen open, it checks to see if one’s in its radius, and if not, it releases one. The idea was you ‘lost’ it, and someone would pick it up, carry it into wherever, and click it to sign in. Then they’d go to their desk, and click it. Then in a meeting… you get the idea. It spreads the bugs without the person who ‘found’ the pen even knowing. Didn’t last long as a really useful item—the Doggies tightened their scan protocols for their embassies pretty quick. Works OK against locals who don’t have the technical backing. Dandy Christmas present for your nephew if you think his Dad’s cheating on your sister."

Putting it down, the Old Scout picked up another and twisted the barrel, explaining, “Ink, stylus… flashlight. Laser pointer. Pretty common, you’ve seen these in a high-price office toys store. Handy, though. But if you turn the barrel here, turning on the laser pointer, and then turn the clip like this, the laser’s modulated by the little microphone inside. A ship’s scanners can pick it out pretty easily, since the atmo will spread it so much. Nice for a tight beam signaling device, like when you’re on a mid-tech world that can detect and home in on radio and you really, really want to ID yourself for pickup.”

There was more there, but customers were starting to come in. Paul wanted to hear more, but at the same time needed to tend to his store.

Both of them were momentarily distracted by the cute blonde approaching the counter. Then, the Old Scout shuffled the things back in the bag, saying, “I’ll tell you what… you’ve got a K in it. I know the Service would rather this stuff weren’t on the street. I’ll give you two, and hope that I can get reimbursed when I pass it up the chain. You’re up on the deal, and even if I get stiffed, I get brownie points and they are happy about me holding onto the Snipe all these years.”

Paul grinned, “Double my cost back is better than having Imperials here hassling me. It’s a deal.”

A few hours later, the bag and its contents were buried, and the ground cover pushed back over the disturbed ground. It still looked like something had been going on there, but it was far enough away from any roads or trails that accidental discovery by a person was unlikely, and there was enough rooting wildlife—especially one pseudo-pig-like omnivore—that it wouldn’t look remarkable after a few days. The Old Scout grinned in satisfaction, folded the entrenching tool, and thought about the little pool and waterfall a short distance away—that’d be just the thing for taking off the sweat.

Writing reports was probably the most obnoxious part of detached duty, but this one was both simple and satisfying: almost a one-liner, reading “Cache 11472 recovered intact. Placed in new location, coordinates attached. Assignment Complete.”

Cache 11472 had come to the Service’s notice when two messages arrived. First was the obituary for the gent who was the Covert Station Chief. The second was a notice that since locker 217-b-3 was now empty, the starport would no longer bill rental for it. The “it’s empty” got people more upset, because no one knew the order: had the locker been empted by the CSC? Was he on the run from something, grabbed the locker contents, and then got hit? Had he been hit to facilitate emptying the locker?

In the end, the ground car accident had actually been just an accident, and the emptying was a jerk of a grandson cashing in on what he thought was a legitimate inheritance… but not knowing had led to the Service sending someone in quietly to find out, rather than rushing in and spooking off any clues.

As the computer encrypted and sent the report, the Old Scout kicked back and skimmed the news, looking for a world that would be fun to visit rather than one ‘suggested’ when the Snipe was in at the Scout base. Getting the damage to the M-drive dealt with wasn’t a bad deal—recover a misplaced bit of lifesaving gear in exchange for a new drive to replace the one that had melted down.

The Old Scout had actually enjoyed this mission, and memories of Lisa, both her enthusiasm about the trip and how they’d enjoyed each other, would be long-lasting. It was time to move on, though. No mission could last forever, and this one was complete.