Retired Colonel Jakob Longcoat arrived at the swank Vilani restaurant exactly on time. The place was up-scale, somewhat out of his social class but he didn't mind. It was good to see how the upper classes lived from time to time. Being of pure Solomani or Terran as it is called closer to Old Earth made him stand out in these traditional Vilani trappings. The Vilani people hadn't even opened this region of space to humanity, the Zhodani were out here already when Solomani explorers first entered the region of space what would become known as the Spinward Marches hundreds of years ago. But the upper crust was nothing if traditionalist in their cultural tastes.
The nearness of the Sword Worlds to the Imperial sector capital had just a bit to do with their preference of Vilani styles over Solomani too. During the collapse of the Terran Empire, a number of Solomani refugees made their way all the way from Earth to the Spinward Marches. They were able to colonize a region of the Marches now known as the Sword Worlds subsector. The Sword Worlders had been a thorn in the side of Imperial expansion since the earliest days of exploration in colonization in this sector.
But all the history of how and why things were the way they were, was of little interest to Longcoat, he was here for only one thing, to meet his contact. Longcoat glared at the apparently full-blooded tall Vilani male that was stepping toward him.
"Sir, may I help you?" the lispy voice with just a touch of taught upper crust accent irritated Longcoat, but he remained focused. He looked past the aristocratic flunky and scanned what he could of the clientele. There off in the distance parked in a corner was his contact, Gruman Hannarii, a broker from the starport.
"No thank you mate, I'll be helpin' myself if you don't mind." Longcoat smiled at the taller man and stepped through the crowded doorway into the main dinning floor. He purposely swung his long leather overcoat over his right hip to show the concerned dinners that he was not armed despite his rugged worn appearance.
Longcoat made his way to the alcove where his contact was seated and smiled at him as he seated himself. "Citizen Hannarii why did you insist on this as the meeting place rather than our usual spot?" Longcoat queried as he looked over his shoulder at the still nervous nobles and near-nobles watching them now very closely.
"Colonel, my clients are picking up the tab for this ticket, so enjoy. Besides, they wanted to see you in person without giving themselves away." Hannarii smiled back at Longcoat as he sipped his Reginan vintage wine.
"So the patron is here, now?" Longcoat focused on Hannarii.
"Yes, they are here. Watching us as we speak right now. Hearing everything we say too, I might add." Hannarii's smile was smug. Longcoat guessed he enjoyed being the plaything of the elite like the chief steward at the door.
"May I take your order, sir?" a waiter asked at Longcoat's side. Longcoat quickly ordered water then waited for the waiter to leave.
"All right, have it your way, then; I hope they enjoy their game. What have you got for me, Hannarii?"
"Something you'll enjoy, Jakob, something with long term potential."
"How much is it going to make me, Gruman, is what I want to know. I have expenses, too."
Gruman Hannarii smiled at that comment; like all starport purchasing agents, he had done his homework. He knew that Longcoat squeaked by only spending on the average 750 to 1,500 Imperial credits monthly to get by on; that was only half of what most of the people seated around them spent. One of the things that attracted Hannarii to Longcoat was that he was very cheap for what he had to offer.
"Jakob, I have a client that is sending some material that you would be very familiar with to a nearby world. The material is very expensive and our client wants to ensure it is delivered to the party it is intended for. The merchandise is of a type that you are uniquely qualified to handle. So, your services might be needed to assist the receiver in its use. Just initially, of course. But the long term arrangement is in the shape of reccurring deliveries of similar merchandise to the same receivers."
"How much 'merchandise' are we talking about Gruman?" Longcoat's interest was piqued.
Gruman leaned forward to share the information in a lower voice, "The special cargo consists of eight tons worth of Advanced Combat Rifles (ACR-10) in 200 cases of 10 rifles each. 40,000 ACR-10 9mm discarding sabot and high explosive caseless rounds valued at approximately 2.1 billion credits. 200 combat environment suits (TL10) packaged in individual sealed bags. The ballistic cloth CES-10 is valued at Cr1500 each, and, as you know, is used in tactical nuclear, biological, and chemical environments. The cargo also includes ten 300-kilogram, drum fed Auto-Cannons that fire 20 mm discarding sabot or high explosive caseless rounds. Ten tons of cargo is allocated to auto-cannon ammo. Total estimated value: 2.2 billion credits."
"Good lord, Gruman, are you serious?" was all an astonished Longcoat can offer.
"Deadly serious," returned the smug purchasing agent.
"Who can afford to bankroll that kind of purchase and delivery?" asked a still surprised Longcoat.
"Obviously, someone with higher connections than either of us," smiled back Gruman. "Longcoat, don't be so provincial; look around this room. Throwing around billions of credits is nothing to some of these people. Yeah, it's hard to find a single one of them that individually has that kind of money to spend, but most of these people are part of some kind of larger network or corporate bureaucracy. That is what the Imperium is, networks on networks of contacts and financial interactions. A couple of billion credits is nothing in an interstellar economy that encompasses tens of thousands of worlds and trillions upon trillions of independent sentient beings."
Leaning back in his chair, Longcoat interrupted, "Lay off, Gruman, I knew you were a loyalist but I had no idea you really believed that propaganda the nobility lays on everyone."
"The Third Imperium has lasted over a thousand years Longcoat, it's not propaganda," protested Hannarii.
Laughing, Longcoat waved his hand to dissuade Hannarii from continuing and turning their negotiation into an argument.
"OK, the Imperium will rule forever, there we are, all good loyalists again. Now tell me more about this ticket."
Hannarii caught his breath and looked beyond Longcoat at someone off in the distance. Longcoat fought the urge to quickly turn and look but he realized it would be hard to pick Hannarii's watcher in the crowded room. "You're right, Longcoat, here is the deal. I'll arrange for this cargo to be transported to the world of Ruie..."
"RUIE?" Longcoat interrupted. "Ruie is interdicted by Imperial decree, how are you going to find a ship to haul weapons to an interdicted world?"
"Ruie is 'interdicted' by the Traveller's Aid Society, not by Imperial decree. It's an independent world with its own political troubles, nothing more. Granted, a high-population world that close to the border is unusual, but not entirely unheard of." Hannarii paused to ask, "Have you been to Ruie before, Longcoat?"
"Yeah, a few times, it's a screwed up place to do soldiering. They have an organic contaminant there, a spore of some kind in the atmosphere. The locals call it "The Red-Spot". It gets into your skin and causes the worst irritation. It's not fatal, but the irritation makes you wish it were. Anyway, that and the physical characteristics of the place, no, its not a soldier's favorite place to work, believe me."
"What else is so bad to make you not want to return there?" a curious Hannarii asked.
"Well, for one thing the place is so darned crowded, they have over seven billion humans there and none of them agree on anything. They only have moderate levels of technology, so they are all trapped there on the surface of that rock of a planet. Seven billion humans, Hannarii, all trapped on the same slime-ball of a world." Longcoat sipped his water before continuing, "No wonder your client is shipping two billion credits worth of guns to them; your client obviously wants to kill off a few of them. It'll do the galaxy a world of good to have a few less Ruians." Longcoat laughed quietly to himself before telling Hannarii to continue.
A slightly surprised Hannarii continues, "Our client wants you to supervise the security and delivery of the merchandize. He will pay you 10,000 credits up front and an additional 10,000 upon completion of the delivery, with the promise of more contracts if you're successful."
"Only 20,000 credits? Your boss is cheap," complained Longcoat.
"Look, Longcoat, you're talented, but you're not that talented. And, be honest, you wouldn't know how to spend the credits if they gave them to you, anyhow."
The comment brought evidence of those talents to Longcoat's eyes, "20,000 credits to take responsibility for over two billion credits in merchandice, what's to keep me from pirating the cargo and selling it myself, Hannarii?"
A smug Hannarii simply stated, "A second team will be trailing you, Longcoat." Hannarii's face changed to concern as he touched a spot behind his left ear, then he got back to the negotiation quickly, obviously shaken.
"Look, Longcoat, you're good at working for colonials that pay for small budget operations and give low bonuses. It's time to break into the big leagues, to start working for the people that matter on a sector scale."
"Matter on a sector scale?" echoed Longcoat.
"I misspoke myself, what I meant to say is that if you want to avoid dying in some colonist's farm field somewhere, you need to start being one of the members of that network I spoke about before. This is your chance. You do this for my client and it will open doors of opportunity for you to prosper." Hannarii waited for a few seconds before continuing; "Look at yourself, Longcoat. You're a retired colonel from some colonial army. You live off of a few hundred credits a month. What are you doing here on Regina, the crown jewel of the subsector if not arguably the entire sector itself?"
"I was a colonel in the service of the Efatan Colonial Army you son-of-a..."
"Now, Longcoat, temper. It would not be seemly to loose your temper during a simple negotiation, now, would it?" interrupted Hannarii. "What kind of name is that anyway, 'long coat'? Is it Solomani?"
"Stow it, Hannarii. When do I get paid?"
"Now, as soon as you put your thumb print on this data pad." Hannarii removed the thin plastic computer interface device from his inside jacket pocket. It was a standard contract-recording device used Imperium-wide for legal transactions. As soon as Longcoat had pressed his right thumb against the device Hannarii replaced it in his jacket and withdrew another one similar in appearance. He handed the second data pad over to Longcoat, and then he withdrew a credit data chip and handed it over, too. "Your detailed instructions are on the pad, your credits are on this chip." Then Hannarii sat back in his chair, smiling. "My communications network address is in the information on the data pad; contact me when you've had a chance to go over the mission requirements. I'll be your mission purchasing agent broker and responsible for outfitting your team."
"I know, but we all have to earning our wages in the best way we can, don't we, Longcoat. Don't take too long to study that information, and don't share this with anyone you don't intend on bring in to the deal. It will be rough on both of us if you do." Hannarii smiled broadly at Longcoat. "Now unless you intend to spend some of those new credits to eat here I suggest you get back to your part of town, Jakob."
Coolly Jakob Longcoat stood and looked around the room; despite his years of experience as a mercenary he was not able to pick out anyone watching his meeting with Hannarii. He was aware of the multitude of people starring at him as he moved slowly through the upper-class clientele of the restaurant. He nodded at the Chief Steward as he left the entrance and walked out of the building.
He walked to the row of taxi grav-carriers and climbed into the first one in line. The pilot turned and got his instructions then lifted the flyer off and headed back toward Longcoat's part of town. The gravitics in the taxi's floor plating negated any sensation of flight or acceleration that Longcoat would have felt as it sped over the city below. Longcoat just sat back and enjoyed the view from the windows of the anti-gravity vehicle. Regina was the jewel of the subsector; it was no mystery why the early colonists in this region of space settled here, nor a mystery why the nobility had established their estates here so long ago. What was a mystery was how he had ended up here.
He was an Efatan by birth, a native of the Imperial world of Efate, coreward in this same subsector as Regina. Efate had similar physical planetary conditions to Ruie: high population world tainted atmosphere but in its case low oxygen content. His homeworld was governed by what is commonly called a self-perpetuating oligarchy. In other worlds a group of the so-called upper class nobles that ensure their wealth not only continues but increases as well.
Unlike Ruie, Efate enjoyed what is considered to be average Imperial technological growth. This allowed for the full use of Imperial-level technology and all it had to offer. Efate also had been the nexus of Imperial settlement and had grown into a high-population world. Being a high-population world within the Third Imperium had brought traditional responsibilities. Efate's economy and culture dominated local less developed worlds surrounding it. This influence was felt subsector wide. Naturally the Imperial military established its presence on Efate early on in the world's development. In addition to being the primary base for the Imperial Navy in the region, Efate was also the primary source for recruits for the Imperial Army as well.
Colonel Longcoat applied to the Imperial subsector academy on Efate many years ago. He graduated with honors and accepted an Imperial commission in the Colonial Army of Efate as a cavalry officer. The Efatan Army is responsible for defending the Efate system from external attack, but also supports Imperial Army's subsector mission. Efate is geographically near both the Zhodani Consulate and Vargr Extents' border, two sometimes-hostile foreign powers.
Longcoat's career took him down the Spinward Main deeper into the Imperium. The Spinward Main was a series of star systems within a parsec of one another forming a trade lane that jump-1 starships can travel from the core-end of the sector to the rimward end. During his twenty-standard years of Imperial service Longcoat had seen tours of duty wearing both the colonial uniform of the Efatan Army or the Imperial Army uniform on worlds such as Uakye, Whanga, and Knorbes. During that time Colonel Longcoat's appreciation of the Imperial nobility and their class-conscious culture continued to wane. When faced with the option of returning to his homeworld a retired veteran, or continuing to ply his trade as a mercenary in the backwater colonies, the choice was obvious.
"Ruie..." Longcoat muttered to himself, "It had to be Ruie." He activated the data pad as his taxi continued its trip toward his section of the city. The display on the pad's screen displayed the following entry:
1809 RUIE C776977-7 N Hi In 701 Na M3 V Ruie (Regina:Spinward Marches/1809) C776977-7 N Hi In 701 Na M3 V Diameter: 11360km (7100mi) Density 0.98 Mass: 0.657 Orbit: 0 (0.2 AU) G: 0.858 Day: 6.95 hrs Year: 52.312 days Atmo: 0.8 Natural Weather (Taint: Biological [Native Spore], Industrial Pollutants) Temp: -34.725 (-17 to -77) (Season -16 to -93) Agriculture, Compounds; Agroproducts, Non-Metals; Parts, Durables, Consumables, Weapons; Recordings, Software, Documents. Conservative/Stagnant; Competitive/Neutral; Fragmented/Aloof Legal 7-6A867, Tech 73-76778-7776-87-8 M3 V Primary: Mass 0.39 Lum: 0.35 Orbital Ecc: 0 Seismic Stress: 0.95 The total world population is about 7,000,000,000. The three largest cities (and the respective capitals of the power blocs) have populations over 100,000,000. 48 other first-tier cities are over 50,000,000 each in population. 216 second-tier cities have average populations of 5,000,000 each. The Cromors Union and Jingarlu capitals boast class C ground starports, while Nebelthorn's primary facility is a class H spaceport. Orbital cities are present, aligned with Jingarlu and the Cromors Union. There are three major power blocs. Nebelthorn is an autocratic state with a high law level. The Cromors Union is a Civil Service Bureaucracy, with several Administrative Councils enforcing an extreme law level. The Cromors Union is allied with the similarly-governed Jingarlu. Ruie is a balkanized, industrialized, and very autonomous world just beyond the borders of the Imperium. A former Lost Colony, it had worked up itself up to tech level 5 by the time it was rediscovered by the Scout Service 31 years ago. Of its three major powers, Jingarlu and the Cromors Union are now at tech level 7, and open for trade with offworlders (subject to local laws and customs). Both of these nations are very receptive to Imperial citizens and the commercial contacts they bring. Certain other areas, however, are hostile. One of these is Nebelthorn, a nation ruled by the same family for over 120 years. The rulers, the family Eldenn, keep tight control over all offworld (and most international) contact, using various methods (nearly all distasteful) to discourage it. Nebelthorn's only notable resource is petrochemical in nature, and the country has prospered by selling oil and related products to other industrial customers on planet. Following Imperial re-contact, offworld merchants began selling hydrogen fuel system components and related vehicle technologies to Jingarlu and the Cromors Union, Nebelthorn's largest trade partners. The loss of trade with Jingarlu and Cromors Union led to a 12-year economic depression in Nebelthorn. The Eldenns have blamed their plight on the Imperium, and their country has been posted as an Amber travel zone by Imperial authorities. Ruie orbits a dim M-class main sequence star. The system has no asteroid belts, and only a single gas giant that is patrolled by the Imperial Navy infrequently. Ruie itself is a moderate-sized world, somewhat smaller than Terra, with a surface gravity of 0.875 G. The otherwise standard atmosphere is contaminated with industrial pollutants, and also biologically contaminated with a microscopic spore that causes severe irritation in humans when exposed. The hydrographic percentage of the surface covered by standing water is 60%. The population of Ruie is quite high, estimated to be approximately seven billion inhabitants. The planetary government is balkanized (no central world government). The planetary law level is rated as being moderate (7) overall, though the leading nations of the respective power blocs all have significantly more restictions. Ruie's tech level is comparable to pre-Stellar Terra, approximately 1970 on the dominant Terran calendar. If Ruie's technology was more developed it could easily dwarf Regina's position as being the economic hub for this part of the subsector. Therefore Regina's commercial interests are keenly interested in the internal politics of Ruie and the control of the planet's various markets. A similar phenomenon occurred on old Earth in the mid-21st century when the Chinese economy modernized and the United States and the European Union competed for a domestic market share. Politically the planet has broken into two power blocks, the modernizing pro-Imperial alliance; led by Jingarlu and Cromors Union. The second is an anti-Imperial coalition led by Nebelthorn that seeks expulsion of all Imperial influences and a return to a pre-contact economy. There are a number of small sized countries on Ruie that are under the influences of these two large power blocks. The vast majority support Nebelthorn's position due to the control of Imperial based technology by Jingarlu and Cromors Union for their own economic benefit. Territorially, the Cromors Union is the largest country on the planet spreading across an entire continent. The countries of Jingarlu and Nebelthorn share a common border on the planet's most fertile region. Unfortunately the toxic Ruie spores is most commonly encountered in this region too. Jingarlu and Nebelthorn share borders with a number of smaller countries that are spread over their common continent. The common technology level on Ruie is TL7, comparable to Old Earth in the 1970s. Trade with Regina and the Third Imperium has been ongoing for nearly thirty standard years. However, the level of actual trade of durable goods is quite small due to Ruie not being visited by major corporate transport ships. Ruie primarily trades in electronic commodities such as information, music, and entertainment media. Synthetic pharmaceuticals are also in great demand by Jingarlu and Cromors Union traders. These commodities are transported between Ruie and Regina via J-1 subsidized merchant ships and free traders. Ruie supports two class-C starports, one is located in Jingarlu and the other is located in the Cromors Union. The Cromors Union is the most secure is the two planet based starports. Class-C starports provide routine quality support, unrefined fuel (water), and reasonable repair facilities. Unfortunately the rendezvous point for our clients' cargo recipients will not be at either one of these two facilities. The military capabilities of the anti-Imperial coalition is as expected for TL7 development. Infantry equipment consists of automatic assault rifles, and a variety of light support weapons like shoulder fired rockets and grenade launchers. Artillery is generally self-propelled on tracked vehicle frames. Air defense artillery uses radar to direct fire more accurately. Air defense missiles are awkward to use and rely on initial lock-on radar for target acquisition and tracking. Military aircraft consist of helicopters for close ground support; jet aircraft are used for interceptor and air superiority missions.
Longcoat turned off the data pad screen and leaned back against the seat of the taxi. What was he getting into? Although he initially was impressed by the value of the cargo he was now charged with the protection of, in the grand scheme of things it was a drop in the bucket as far as Ruie was concerned. Hannarii, damn his soul, had said this was only the beginning, the beginning of what?