(POV: Frank, in a bar on Aramis)
Frank Fornne eased back in his chair and watched his friend leave. Sandy stood up and removed his Corps jacket from the back of the stool before throwing it around his shoulders. He slapped Frank on the back. "Thanks for the drink."
"Yea, man, anytime. It was good to see you."
"It was good to see you, too. You've been around the base so long that, well, things just aren't the same without the Rock."
Frank smiled at the use of his old nickname. He still wasn't sure that he had done the right thing by taking his retirement. Especially now. He threw his hand out and pumped his friend's hand, "I'm going to miss you, Sandman."
"You take care, Rock."
With that, his friend turned and left the bar, and Frank leaned back over his drink. He had known Sandy for several years, and this wasn't the first time the two had shared a bottle of scotch at the Happy Spacer. Frank had a hunch that Sandy might have a few answers for him, and he knew that he probably wouldn't like what his friend would have to say. Frank had been right on both counts.
The Mammoth had slammed into Aramis' rocky surface after taking almost an hour to burn its way through the planet's corrosive atmosphere. Frank had never seen a scare like that come over the city. Leedor's news media had confirmed that the crash was the worst disaster that Aramis had ever seen since it was colonized almost 800 years ago. Two meson guns, big ones, Type J, were reported to be aboard the Mammoth when she went down. Frank, like the whole planet, had been glued to the city monitors. Drive failure like that didn't happen every day. There must be a reason for it.
Frank stared through his drink. The ice was beginning to water it down, but his mind was on the events of the previous 10 days. There were just too many coincidences. After talking with Sandy, he knew that he had stumbled across something. He didn't have all the answers, but he new it was something big. What the hell had he gotten himself into? He asked the bar tender for a stylus and pulled his napkin to make some notes.
Sandy had commanded one of the teams that surveyed the wreckage of the Mammoth. That's why Frank had called him in the first place. Just as Frank had thought, there was no evidence of the meson guns. They had found a metal common to the interior elements of the guns, but research teams confirmed that the metal fragments were not from manufactured meson guns.
Point #1. Two Type J meson guns stolen? Primary suspects--Vargr Corsair Bands?
Yea. The Vargr. They had been the bane of the Imperial Navy for as long as Frank could remember. They were the first ones that Frank could think of that would have the balls to do something like that.
But, it was a little too complex an operation for the Vargr. It was a little too delicate. "I mean, what a set up," thought Frank. Someone would have had to engineer the removal of the guns before rigging a 5000 ton freighter to decay in orbit and hit a the planet. Aramis' atmosphere is highly corrosive, so they were probably banking on the atmosphere hiding the fact that the guns were missing. On top of that, the drive failure was slow, taking almost 45 minutes to impact on Aramis' surface. This gave the crew enough time to be rescued by the Navy. No. That wasn't the Vargr's style. They would have hit the ship before it got to orbit, blown a whole its side, stolen the guns, and made sure that there weren't any witnesses. Maybe it wasn't the Vargr. If not, then who. Frank thought but could not come up with a better suspect.
He moved on. What about that Chief Engineer? She stood to loose her license for the drive failure. She'd never find another job again. Frank wrote this down.
Point #2. Jelika Chan--incompetent, scapegoat, or conspirator?
There is a substantial credit amount attached to the loss of a ship as big as the Mammoth. What about the ship's ownership? It was an Akerut Lines freighter. Akerut Lines is a subsidiary of Tukera Lines.
Point #3. Akerut or Tukera Lines? Instigator or victim? One or both?
Thinking of Tukera led Frank to the Marquis of Aramis. The Marquis was married to Lady Arianne Tukera, a blood relative of the Tukera family. The Marquis is known among the nobility on Aramis to grant favors, concessions, and jobs for monetary consideration. If he was involved, then this was really big. The Marquis is the ranking noble in the subsector and the head of government on the subsector capital.
Point #4. Marquis Leonard Bolden-Tukera. Involved?
What about the other events of the last 10 days? These were what prompted Frank's curiosity in the first place. It seemed like a lot of coincidence had occurred in two short weeks, so what's the connection?
Point #5. Shawn Grey--What was his intention as he approached the group?
Nobody had a better view of the attack on Shawn than he had. Frank was sitting in the same bar stool he had when Shawn was attacked, so he turned to see where Shawn entered and where the Kai-lek were sitting that night. The man was taken by surprise. Shawn didn't know what hit him. He was looking to approach the table in the corner where the group was sitting. Why was he making contact with the group?
And, what about the Kai-lek?
No. Frank dismissed them. That didn't smell right. They were too small time. The Kai-lek are only a small colony of a few hundred people located only in this system. Besides, the cult would have no interest in meson guns. It didn't fit their pattern. They were just in the right place at the right time to catch Shawn Grey. They only wanted their urn back.
The Kai-lek encounter did prove that Grey was a thief, though. Frank added the note to point #5.
Was Shawn a big enough thief to steal two meson guns?
And this guy, Gamenga? He owned a shop with many rare collectibles. Shawn had his card in his pocket that night, and he must of thought it was important. It was one of the only two things that he managed to gurgle through his slit throat as he laid on the floor of the bar dying of 24 stab wounds. On top of this, Gamenga hadn't been in his shop for several days. Frank thought about it. That was around the time of the Mammoth's crash. Then Gamenga was back running his shop.
Point #6. Urkinu Gamenga--Shawn Grey's fence? A big enough fence to handle two meson guns?
Then there was the wallet. The guy sure was relieved to see that the note was still there. He didn't even care about the 1000 in cash. So, he's thankful, invites Glyn to dinner, then hauls ass off planet within an hour. The note in the wallet mentioned a trip to the Scangen system in the Vargr Extents. Well, here's the Vargr again. If the Vargr are involved with the guns, is this a coincidence? "I doubt it," thought Frank.
Point #7. Roet Bannerji, captain of the Wolblutn--what's his involvement?
Frank also remembered that when Glyn first called to return the wallet, the first mate told him that captain Bannerji was at Sternmetal--another of the megacorporations. If the captain is involved, then is this a connection as well? Could Sternmetal be the captain's employer?
Point #8. Does Sternmetal have anything to do with all of this?
There was another connection with Bannerji--the guy who contacted Glyn from the TAS. Ulrich and Glyn had lunch with him. He said that he was a former business partner of Bannerji's, and he was looking for him. His calling card that he left with Glyn had an address at Junidy starport. Frank thought about the note in the wallet. Junidy was one of the planets mentioned. That was enough for the next notation.
Point #9. Eneri Giilaan. Why does he really want to find Bannerji? What business have they been in together? And, what is the connection at Junidy?
Frank had run out of room on the front of the napkin and flipped it over to write on the back. He ordered another drink and started to think of the latest development and strange occurrence of the last week. It was that damn Vargr that he had found almost beat to death outside the Happy Spacer. Yea, the Vargr again. They kept popping up.
He thought about this guy, Gvoudzon. Frank could not see a clear connection, but the Vargr's story was just too bizarre to not include it in his thoughts. It was the icing on the cake. The man had been a courier of secret transmissions between two Vargr corsair bands. One of those bands was now one of the biggest and most aggressive pirate operations in the subsector. The whole base had been alerted about them back when Frank was in the Corps. This was more than enough to tie Gvoudzon to the list of points he was making.
Frank flattened out the napkin and tore off a corner that had gotten wet. This was going to take a lot of room. Then he began to recount all that the Vargr had told them.
Point #10. Gvoudzon.
--He spent 12 years as a gunner, then a navigator, then a Force Leader for a Vargr corsair band--the Kforuzeng.
--The Kforuzeng was too blood thirsty for him, so he jumped to another Vargr band, the Aegzaeng. He was with them for 8 years.
--The Kforuzeng is aggressive and began to grow. Today, it is one of the largest Vargr corsair bands in this sector of space.
--The Aegzaeng was forced to deal with the growing influence of the Kforuzeng and opened relations to the opposing band. Since Gvoudzon had spent several years with the Kforuzeng, the Aegzaeng made him one of their couriers between the two groups.
--About 6 years ago, the Kforuzeng instituted a new covert communication system--the brooches. Messages, digital film, or microcomputer chips could be secreted in these and worn innocently as jewelry. Gvoudzon carried many of these back and forth between the Kforuzeng and the Aegzaeng.
--About 8 months ago, the Kforuzeng absorbed the Aegzaeng. Gvoudzon was on a courier job to Junidy when he heard the news. He wasn't about to go back to the Kforuzeng after he had left, so he headed deeper into the Imperium away from their reach. The brooch never made it to Junidy.
Frank paused for a moment. There was another mention of Junidy. First, it was Bannerji's note, then Giilaan's card, and now the brooch. He would make sure that he told the captain about this.
--Gvoudzon wound up on Aramis and has been here for about 3 months. Not having gone back to the Vargr Extents to retrieve his possessions, he only had a few hundred credits. A short time after he got to Aramis, he ran out of funds and had to pawn everything he had of value--his rifle, his pistol, and the brooch. He had found a secret compartment on the brooch to discover what he was carrying to Junidy, but the compartment was empty. He assumed that his mission to Junidy was to drop off the brooch so that it could be returned with a communication at a later date. The brooch being empty, he didn't think it was of any value besides that of a piece of jewelry, so he didn't have a problem pawning it with his weapons.
--It wasn't until he went to retrieve his property from the pawn shop that he began to suspect that the brooch may be more valuable than it looks. The pawn shop had sold it to the Museum of Aramis before the time limit was up for Gvoudzon to buy it back out of pawn.
--Gvoudzon went to the museum to get the brooch, but they denied that they had it and through him out of the building.
--That same night, he was attacked by humans. They searched him for the brooch and tried to beat him into telling them where the brooch was. He didn't tell them, and they were scared off by the approach of Frank, Too, and Daeus outside the Happy Spacer.
--He has also noticed people watching him outside his apartment and at work in the spaceport.
--The Vargr is convinced that the brooch is important and valuable to someone. He refuses to leave the planet without it, and he wants to get it back before the humans who attacked him find out that it is in the museum or the museum personnel ship it somewhere else.
Frank finished and looked down at his 10 points. Normally, he would have gone to the authorities, but he didn't have anything but some unanswered questions, a few hunches, some coincidences, and some very thin connections. The connections were so thin that they were anorexic. He had nothing substantial but enough to let him know that something big was up. The meeting with Sandy had clenched it. The guns really were missing. It wasn't just speculation anymore.
He folded the napkin and finished his drink. He didn't know what to do now. He didn't know what to think. Breaking into the museum here on Aramis, his home for several years, wasn't what he would consider a good idea, but, at this point, that seemed the only way to get closer to some answers. He didn't have enough information to invite that kind of trouble, but, at the same time, he didn't know if he would be sorry for not doing it later. Meson guns were powerful weapons. He hated to think what they could do in the hands of the wrong people. Hell, there was even a chance that the government of Aramis was involved with this.
There were too many questions and not enough answers. His head began to ache.
"Hey, buddy, can I get you another drink?"
The bar tender startled him and broke him out of his train of thought. He stared at his empty glass a moment without responding, and the bar tender seemed to shrug at having another drunk on his hands.
Frank ebbed back from the cerebral world, and his eyes lost the glassy stare. It occurred to him exactly what he needed to do right then.
"Yea, I'll take another. This time make it a double"
The bar tender only nodded then turned to make the drink.
Frank stopped him. "And, give me four of those headache tabs, will ya?"