An old bottle of wine superimposed on an open-air marketplace
This time, we had the same group who had played when the IRC version began (although The Gryphon and I missed one session in between). Participating were The Gryphon as Brandon Richardson, founder and CTO of Bootstrap, Inc., a Confederate nano-tech company; The March Hare as Mason Bannister, a tall, dark-haired outdoorsman from Earth who works as a sort of park ranger; The White Rabbit as Sgt. Chen, a stocky Confed citizen and former member of the military; The Dormouse as Nantan "Nate" Itza-chu, an engineer from New Cibecue, a colony settled by White Mountain Apaches; The Court Wizard as Janice Moon, a professor of astrophysics from Great Eastern University on Granfalloon; The Punster as Grigory Nurtsen, a trim Rimhold citizen with black hair, blue eyes, and a perpetual 5-o-clock shadow; Batman as Iris MirWest, a computer hacker from a little station around a Brown Dwarf; Aqua Man as a mysterious character, "Al," about which little was known, including his name; and me as Margaret Jones, a well-respected anthropologist who has served as a presidential advisor on interstellar cultures.
The ship's captain (a non-player character, or NPC), had discovered what appeared to be a rare bottle of wine while the team was on a small Rimhold planet and had requested that the team find out more about it and determine whether a trade deal was worthwhile. The company that had hired them was interested in exploring all sorts of intergalactic commerce and improving trade relations. I should note that this version of Confed is set centuries earlier than the version we'd played before, so that many alliances had yet to be formed. Think of the series "Star Trek Enterprise" compared to "Star Trek: Next Generation."
First, the team examined the bottle on the ship. They determined that it was a good wine, and that the bottle and label that encased it were from a society of about medieval technology. Other than that, they came up with no useful information.
As the group headed for the busy open marketplace, Mason's voice boomed out, "Which way to the hooch?"
Iris peered into a few stalls along the way, declaring, "If I see plates with commemorative wheel car drivers on them, I'm leaving." Just then, she felt a hand in her pocket, took a deep breath and screamed "RAPE!" in Patois (the language spoken by Confed citizens but not by the Rimholders who lived on this planet).
The party noticed a wiry local removing Iris's wallet from her pocket. He smiled sickly, noticed the team reaching into their jackets and pockets, probably for weapons, and gently put the wallet back.
"Why don't you just run along now?" Janice suggested to the pickpocket. Meanwhile, Irish grabbed her stunner. As the pickpocket made a run for it, Iris yelled, "No, no... Don't run. Then you'll DIE TIRED!" She fired at the retreating miscreant but missed.
Al stopped her from firing again. "That's enough, Iris, really." Al stepped in front of Iris before she could snap off another shot in her annoyance at being pickpocketed.
Janice told Iris, "Realistically, were better off without apprehending that guy."
Iris spat out, "Apprehend? I want to wear his skin as a HAT!" Her visor was all fogged up from huffing.
In response, Janice said, "Yeah, but then we'd have to go through all the trouble of skinning him, and then the cops would probably get involved, and oh my god the paperwork. Better to just buy a new hat." Always practical, that Janice.
Once the pickpocket was out of sight, the barkers and come-alongs started singing again. Iris no longer looked like she was going to overload her suit's oxygen regulator.
Al informed Iris that it's generally bad form to shoot at locals who don't shoot first: "Mind you once they do start pulling out slugthrowers, all bets are immediately off."
Margaret put an arm around Iris. "You haven't had much experience with this sort of negative encounter, have you?"
Iris replied, "I'm from a station where everyone knew everyone."
In her best attempt to reassure her, Margaret said, "Don't worry, Iris. I know that it might be difficult to get used to being amongst strangers, but rest assured that the party stands ready to defend and protect you. We do, however, want to avoid drawing unwarranted attention to ourselves in most situations, so allow us to assist you in case you're threatened again, OK?"
In reply, Iris said, "It's more the unclean environments. I have to sterilize my wallet and pocket now...."
"Well, look at it this way," Margaret said breezily, "you'll gain all sorts of resistance to new diseases!"
The team noticed a small open-fronted shop here with a wooden sign depicting a wine bottle. There were crates of wine behind the counter, and a crate-like man.
Mason pulled out a picture of the wine bottle. They'd left the original bottle back on the ship.
"How can I help you?" says the man, in passable Empire German.
"Buddy, I sure hope you can help me," Mason said. "I need a bottle of this stuff." He produced the picture. "My mother in law had a bottle, and I just DROPPED IT. She will kill me if she finds out."
The man looked at the picture, holding it in a shaft of sunlight from a plastic-covered crack in the sheet-metal ceiling above him. "Oh, yes, d'Zeph. Quite expensive. I had another foreigner here who bought a bottle, she sounded kind of like you." That would be, of course, the captain.
Further, the merchant told him the wine comes from off world, shipped in by tramp freighters. "I never know when I'll get another bottle like it."
"It's not from Earth, though?" Mason asked.
The merchant laughed. "No, not from Earth." He presumed the mention of Earth was a joke, since as far as Rimhold citizens are concerned, Earth is long gone.
"Well, do you have another bottle?" Mason asked.
"I do," the merchant said, smiling. "I'm sure you, as a man who can afford to travel between the stars, can even pay for something this expensive!"
"How much are you asking for it?"
The shopkeeper told Mason, "Seventeen hundred." A quick mental calculation told Mason that this was ridiculously overpriced, even for wine from offworld. That is what a local earns in two months.
Grigory stepped in. "Truth to tell, I'm far more interested in where the bottle came from than buying a bottle. I've been told by the wine afficionados" -- he nodded at Mason -- "that this is good stuff."
As Grigory continued to talk, he let slip that the team was actually looking to market the wine: "We'd be moving the wine way away from here, so we wouldn't be competing with you ... and if it becomes rarer because we're buying some, that just increases the value of your supply. How much to tell us the source as a finder's fee?"
Meanwhile, Margaret perused the crates and boxes to see if she could find the one that the wine came in. One in the back was clearly labeled "d'Zeph." There was no obvious shipping label on it that might reveal where the box originated. Mason texted his comrades to took a look out back in the trash to see if they could find a shipping label.
The shopkeeper looked thoughtful as he replied to Grigory. "How do I know I can believe you? Vampires aren't particularly trustworthy, and you have a weird accent just like them," he said. (Vampires are a derogatory term the Rimhold citizens have for the Confed citizens, who have contracted the so-called "immortality disease" that extends their lives beyond a normal lifespan).
Grigory reassured him: "I'm from the Rimhold, not the Confederation. They just hired me as a local guide ... and they've played me fair. Besides, they're just trying to get a source for wine they really, really like. Is that the actions of a 'vampire'?"
Meanwhile, Iris booted up her wristcomp to scan for any planetary data on a d'Zeph and found nothing.
"They might be intending to compete with me," the shopkeeper says. "Vampires have fast ships. If the market floods, I lose my investment in this wine."
Grigory continued to talk to him: "But the wine is far more valuable to them sending it home -- selling it here would be nowhere near as useful as selling it back in the Milky Way. And we can buy your crate in the bargain ... at a fair price, of course. You've made your profit and have nothing to lose. And if we alter the market for the wine after that, well, you're the only one in the know about it. You make a profit, we make a profit, my friend here gets his wine ... we all win!"
Mason texted his comrades: "I can't help noticing none of you are going through the trash."
Janice texted back that it's less of a hassle to spend the company's money. "Plus if we spend enough of it they'll go out of business and we can all go home!"
The shopkeeper got a thoughtful look at Grigory's words. "Would you be willing to buy a whole crate for, say....three thousand?"
Meanwhile, Iris headed for a battered metal can around back, in a grungy, filthy alleyway. Margaret texted to Mason: "I'll do it. I've participated in enough digs not to be scared of dirt." She followed Iris into the alleyway to assist. Nantan positioned himself so as to block the shopkeeper's view of the alleyway
As she looked through the trash, Iris remarked, "I'm going to be in quarantine for a week."
"Only if you contract something highly contagious," Margaret told her helpfully.
Iris and Margaret managed to find some paperwork in an odd language that looked somewhat similar to the bottle's text. And lots of random junk. And some cigarette butts. And an apple core.
Margaret texted Mason: "I believe we have the paperwork." But despite the fact that the papers from the Dumpster might have given them the information they sought, Grigory intended to finish the deal, "getting the information honestly rather than through theft."
The shopkeeper got out a crate of wine with two bottles missing and the "Isan d'Zeph" name on the side. He leaned on the crate. "And you want to talk to Captain Hans Tiriat of the Pandora Vagabond. He brings me this from Arbormare." The Rimhold Chartered Company might have overpaid for the wine, but they had just paid a pittance for a wealth of information
While in the marketplace, Nantan took the opportunity to buy a locally-crafted bow and some arrows, while Margaret, who is skilled in fencing, bought an unbated foil, should they run into more difficulties that require fighting, like the adventure involving Four.
Back at the ship, the team gave their report to the captain. Then they looked more carefully at the paperwork they'd found. Margaret used Iris's hacked-together French translation program to figure out the language. She soon realized that the language was a melding of French and Italian, with lots of time-drift. The shipping document referred to Arbormare, and a star called Spark. And a city called Foranza.
The mention of "Spark" made Janice remember something, and she checked the star database. Information about Arbormare was long out of date. The information the team had access to, bought back at Ctesiphon, was actually from the Republic era and showed a city called Windward in the Windward Islands, with subsidiary mining towns around it, and claims that the planet has low gravity and plenty of minerals to mine.
Janice observed, "This information in the star database matches everything we concluded from analyzing the bottle and the wine."
Grigory agreed: "Plenty of minerals goes well with metal-rich ... this is sounding increasingly likely."
In order to confirm they had the correct information, the team decided to speak to the captain who supposedly had transported the wine. Margaret called the port authorities and talked them into giving her information about the ship, the Pandora Vagabond, whose captain was indeed named Hans Tiriat.
Al agreed to take the lead on speaking to the captain. He told the bored-looking woman in a red jumpsuit who answered, "We'd like to discuss some potentially lucrative business with him."
The screen went blank for a moment, then it blinked back on to a man in a local buisness suit, sitting in a small cabin. "Captain Tiriat here. To whom am I speaking, please?"
The moment of truth! "Mr. Hawser." He told the captain, "We're interested in some of the wine you recently transhipped to a fellow here. We're not from the Rimhold, and we'd be willing to compensate you for information on the world of origin for this wine."
"Hmmm," Captain Tiriat said. "Not from the Rimhold Empire or not from the entire Galaxy? I can't place your accent."
"Galaxy, sir. We thought to bring this back to the Milky Way proper."
"Huh. You're the first vam-- Confederates... whom I've met."
"We'll try not to bite," Al said. He chewed his cigar.
"Ha, I like you," Tiriat said. "Not too stuffy. So, would you be shipping anywhere in the Rimhold Galaxy?"
"Certainly not; we'd only be bringing it home. We're here for new and unusual things, and this is the first we've come across."
"All right," Tiriat said. "What kind of wine was it? The one with the tree on the bottle or the one that tastes like cleaning fluid?"
"The Tree one. The bottle and the cork were very interesting in and of themselves."
Triat replied, "Oh, yeah, that one has the coppertree stopper, doesn't it? We get that one from Arbormare. We don't stop there too often. They have a reputation for hard dealing, Republic tech, and barbarians."
Tiriat nodded. "Yes. They come out of the forests sometimes and threaten the coastal cities."
"Hm, thank you. Do you have coordinates for Arbormare?"
"I do have them, and of course I'll pass them over as part of our business transaction."
"All right. Do you have the address of the winery, as well?"
Triat said, "I do. It's a lovely place outside Foranza. However, you'll have to do your trading through the Princes."
"Oh, yes. The Princes of Foranza. Sharpest traders you will ever meet. They are the only ones allowed to have contact with star-traveling merchants like ourselves."
"How does the republic tech square with the barbarians?"
"You are from far away, aren't you?" Tiriat asked. "Anyone can get their hands on Republic tech, but almost no one can repair it."
"Interesting. Would you have information on the particular prince who deals in wines and other consumables of this nature?"
Triat told him, "The current Prince of Foranza is Timaso. He deals with everyone. You can't miss him. His customs agents will meet you when you land."
"I see." Then, following up on an earlier comment, Al said, "What sort of problem is there with repairing the tech?"
"Well, no one knows how it was made any more. We've fallen rather far since those days. I don't know anyone who can repair true Republic tech."
Such repairs, of course, would presumably be much easier for the ship's captain, who is from the Milky Way, and her crew.
The captain finally named his price: "In return for this information, I would like a point-five percent cut of your gross shipments out of Arbormare."
"Hmm. Well. I think you've given us a fair amount of information, and I'll happily compensate you."
Brandon, the one true businessman in the party, heard the terms and agreed to them: "Captain, we would consider 0.5% of shipped value from Arbormare to be fair compensation for your information."
Captain Tiriat smiled. "Excellent!"
"You can consider this a verbal agreement. We'll draft a written agreement for your signature."
The screen went dark. Captain Tarsus sat back in her chair. "Unorthodox. But effective."
Brandon asked her, "What's so unorthodox about doing business?"
The captain replied, "Handshake agreements across light years. That's very Confederate."
"Agreements and trade cross light years, why not other concepts?" Brandon asked.
The team received a package of information in a data format that couldn't be read easily. Thankfully, it posed no problem for Iris' computer skills.
Brandon was happy with the deal: "Hmm... with the right marketing and brand development, this could be very profitable."
As the team set coordinates to Arbormare, Iris was a bit worried about the term "barbarians": "Like red units burn your cities to the ground and wear fur loin cloth types?"
Janice replied, "I think they're more modern barbarians, who have looted laser rifles and dirty bombs."
Grigory pointed out that "barbarian" could be a matter of perspective: "It could mean that, or it could mean that they are just as civilized as the people living in the cities but are angry about their land getting stolen, or it could mean they use the wrong salad fork."
Referring to the poor treatment of his people, Nantan said, "Oh believe me, I can relate. My people [his Apache ancestors] have a long history of having their land stolen from them. If that is indeed the case here, I know how to deal with them."
And as Brandon and Captain Tarsus got into a discussion about the Confederate military and their demands on his nanotech company, in particular his reluctance to weaponize the technology, Tarsus set her people to work on setting up a jump to the coordinates for Arbormare.
A footnote on Al, a.k.a. Mr. Hawser, which Aqua Man revealed to the other players was another pseudonym, as in "Caspar Hawser." A quick Google search reveals that Kaspar Hauser was a notorious liar who claimed to have connections to royalty that were never confirmed.
Al's role on the team, the other members discovered in the session that The Gryphon and I missed, is to serve as "insurance." Namely, thanks to Al, the ship, The Kinetic Luck, carries: Hephaestus (model CL5-RWW ground-to-orbit shuttle); a basic landing and orbit shuttle; a C-19 Raptor interceptor and a fighter craft. So while "Al," a.k.a. "Mr. Hawser" still remains a cipher, his skills may very well become useful in the future.