Chapter Three: Getting an Edge

The message leaves us astonished.

“Kidnapping? Who kidnaps people on Titan?” I say.

Yeah, we’ve all heard of kidnapping. It’s a common enough plot device in the Earth dramas we watch. But Titan isn’t Earth. Mainly, there’s a mentality difference: No one on Titan fucks over another guy with a kidnapping. We have other ways.

Besides, on Titan there aren’t any little cabins deep inside lonely forests, and there aren’t enough abandoned warehouses that the police couldn’t search all of them in one day. And forget about taking someone off-moon against their will! Of course, you could undramatically hide somebody in your apartment, or the back room of your business, but the life system monitors could pick that up as quickly as anyone bothered to look.

But who would do that? Who’s desperate enough, knows enough, and thinks like an Earthling—or a virty addict?

We’ve just finished explaining this to each other, and have fallen silent, starting to mull on it, when Floro calmly declares, “It’s Jabe.”

“Jabe’s what?” I ask.

“Jabe’s the kidnapper. He’s got the information, he’s an Earther, and he uses too much virty,” replies Floro. I guess that’s what makes a good science officer, looking at the data and coming up fast with a hypothesis that fits it.

“Bullshit!” the rest of us say simultaneously, then we all shut up. None of us can think of why it’s bullshit, beyond liking Jabe.

“Actually,” Floro fine-tunes, “it could be Dr. Phoumsavanh, or even Kuarahy himself. Their psychology says it’s unlikely, but not impossible. But Jabe contacting us puts him at the head of the line‑up.”­

“If he’s the kidnapper, what do we do?” asks Janos.

“The best other suspect, as well as our only remaining contact who’s already in the know, is Dr. Phoumsavanh,” Floro suggests. “I don’t know any mutual interest she has with Jabe besides investing in our ship, and she’s old enough to be his grandmother. It’s not likely they’re buddy-buddy in skullduggery.”

“Let’s get hold of Soudavanh,” says Janos.

“Sure, but let’s plan what we’re going to say, and do,” I caution.

For the next two hours we play some more what-if games. That’s as long as it takes to exhaust the info we have to work with. We decide the best approach is to play dumb: We message Dr. Phoumsavanh that we haven’t been able to contact Kuarahy, and let her report back to us what she finds out. You could say that slows our response to the crisis, but we really have no response—this whole business is so off the charts! Playing dumb is the only way we have of finding out where Phoumsavanh stands. We hope we’ll be able to tell from her response if she’s also involved. After we send the message, we have hours and hours to decide what to look for and, depending on what we find, how to react.

“If she’s in up to her eyeballs, we should hang them both by their thumbs,” says Nacho.

It’s then that I have my terrible thought. “Gentlemen, we have to go back.”

“Go back where?”

“To Neptune. Go back and bring out some more Ruby.”

The others look at me like I’m crazy, and I don’t blame them.

“Jabe’s expecting five kilos of Rubyzin. We may or may not give that to him. We may or may not hide it. But no matter what happens to Jabe and Kuarahy and the professor, the word will be out that five non-REI kilos are ready to hit the streets. The element of surprise that we can bring to this party is extra Ruby.”

“We put the base in mothballs,” objects Janos. “It’ll take us days to turn around and get back. We didn’t plan on this at all.”

“We got out on time from the Ooze,” Nacho points out, “which means we have our full safety margin to play with. Plus, we know what we’re doing now.”

“Well … we think we know what we’re doing.” That’s Floro. “You don’t suppose after just one journey there, Neptune can’t surprise us? Still, I agree we badly need an ace in the hole, and having secret Ruby gives us one.”

“What about Hurtado-Domicó?” I ask.

“It’ll still be there,” says Nacho.

* * *

On our dash back to Neptune we review what we’ve learned about getting Rubyzin out of Neptune. We also review everything we have on board and in our heads about Jabe Kalanov, Soudavanh Phoumsavanh, Ph.D., and even Kuarahy Javier.

It may be significant that Jabe is new to Titan Colony. Of course we knew that when we let him invest in us about a year ago. He was a handsome rich boy straight from Earth, with inherited wealth. If he was kind of strange, well, you needed to be strange if you were going to be attracted to our project. So up until now his strangeness has seemed like a blessing. What we hadn’t realized, but now discover, is that he likes being high profile—we get a lot of hits on his pictures in the gossip sections of our stored Titan Colony newsfeeds. Even more interesting, Kuarahy is nearby Jabe in several of the pictures taken after our departure.

“You could imagine them chewing over their mutual investment in us once, maybe twice. But not half a dozen times over the months without any new data,” says Janos.

“Maybe that was it at first, and then they just hit it off. Hell, maybe they started sleeping together,” suggests Floro.

“Nope,” says Nacho, “Kuarahy doesn’t swing that way. And I don’t think Jabe does either.”

“So maybe Jabe’s just got him on a tight leash somewhere,” I say.

“If that’s the case, do we care?” asks Janos.

“If being on a tight leash means he can rip out Kuarahy’s still-beating heart, we do.” That makes us all pause for a moment. Kuarahy’s been on our team for years.

“So true,” Janos says, “but … couldn’t he do that to him even if he weren’t kidnapped? Couldn’t he do it to any of us … given the proper tools and motivation?”

“Sadly, I think you’re right,” I admit. “That’s why we have to get this Ruby into the marketplace as quickly as possible. As long as it’s something special, we’re special targets. Man, being a multi-billionaire is a lot more dangerous than I thought it would be!”

On the way we hear from Phoumsavanh. I don’t open the message until we’re all four gathered in the mess room to hear her. She seems to be choosing her words very carefully.

“To the Albumasar. I have received your message and made inquiries.

“Kuarahy Javier has reportedly had a serious accident and is in a coma. I’ve just seen a video of him. He’s being taken care of under Jabe Kalanov’s supervision. I hadn’t planned to visit him … didn’t seem much point while he’s unconscious. He’s supposed to be in the clinic at Casa Vicente, that new resort they’re putting up next to Thuong Methane Lake. But when I called there just now to get the room number to send flowers to—I thought there ought to be some for him when he woke up—they insisted there was no such person there. Which has set me thinking.

“I’ve sent a message to Kuarahy’s sister, Porasy. Maybe she can clear all this up. Perhaps he’s already back here in Titan City 1, with his family taking care of him. Or maybe not. When I became a professor emerita of archaeology here, I knew I’d never conduct a dig on Titan. Maybe I was wrong.” Dr. Phoumsavanh gives us the sort of eager, mirthless smile that I’m sure has terrified generations of both grad students and journaloggers.

“Jabe says he’s been in contact with you.” At this point she seems to pick her words even more carefully. “If there is anything I can do for you that Jabe can’t seem to handle, please let me know.

“Phoumsavanh, out.”

We watch the video a couple times, just to be sure we get it right.

“Well, Jabe does seem to be the problem, and Phoumsavanh does seem to be clear of it,” I say.

“It could be an act,” objects Nacho.

“I don’t think she’s acting,” Janos says. “She’s exactly like that.”

“It could be part of something real elaborate,” I say. “But this whole situation feels more like a desperate act being committed on a low budget. If Jabe had infinite resources, he’d have hired a pirate ship or ambushed us at the docks. There are a dozen other plans that would be more surefire but more expensive.”

“Jabe would have gotten a ton of money if our return had simply gone smoothly,” Floro points out. “Why do this?”

“Either he’s been real stupid the past few months,” I suggest, “and he’s way short of money now—rich kids do that sometimes—or this has nothing to do with money and everything to do with something else … a woman, a slight, a cause. There’s an old spy acronym that might be of help here: SMICE. It stands for Sex, Money, Ideology, Compromise—meaning being compromised, so blackmailed—and Ego. Those are the five common motives for betrayal.”

“So … what do we do?” asks Janos.

“Well … Jabe and Kuarahy are a Titan problem,” I say. “We’re headed to solving a Neptune problem. We either hand this off to Phoumsavanh, hand it off to someone else, or sit on the Titan issues until we finish with Neptune. Neptune is spooky enough that I don’t want us distracted while we’re there.”

We all think for a bit.

“If this is a SMICE problem, should we get a SMICE expert—someone with a spook background?” asks Janos.

“I don’t keep a lot of spook friends or acquaintances,” says Nacho. “Does anyone here?” Silence answers him.

“I didn’t think so. We’re engineers. I’m not sure what we’d end up with if we just searched for ‘spook’ or ‘secret agent’ or even ‘private detective’ in the directory. I do know it’d take a lot of time to come to trust whoever we found. That’s not where I want my attention now. I vote we hand this off to Phoumsavanh. We trusted her enough to take a lot of money from her, and now she seems like she’s being a straight arrow.”

There’s some more discussion, but we can’t come up with anything better. Floro prepares a video to send back to Phoumsavanh to tell her what we know and worry about. We all appear in it and give our opinions. We want to give the professor as full a picture of the problem as possible. That done, we go back to worrying about how to “double-dip King Neptune” and come away with our lives—and a double king’s ransom.