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Excalibur/Sword Worlds 265-1106

I signed the agreement.

It would have taken me another two years at least to make second lieutenant if I remained in the IISS. The recruiter I met on Lunion convinced me with a thirty-three percent pay raise. My duties were still basically the same, travel as a courier, but the equipment would be a lot less. I had to admit in the scouts the pay wasn't much, but the equipment was top of the line, most of the time. However the pay raise, coupled with my grasp of Swordic, not to mention my translator medallion, sealed it. So I took my last ride on a scout ship, the Tinaak, a fast-courier; jumped to Biter, then Sacnoth, and took a connector liner to Excalibur.

My new employers, New Frontier Trading Partners, advanced me Cr 300, so while waiting for my certifications to roll-over locally (my pilot's license and gun permit for the non-Border Worlds) I did some sightseeing and some much needed shopping. Dress is different here, a bit more formal, with cloaks and high boots the norm. After a few days I'd come up with four varicloth suits, a set of arachnoweave armored silks and a kevlar cloak. Oh, and I can't forget the hat. My old buddies would've gotten a great laugh out of it, a small, plumed cap, that was the style in the Border Worlds, but it did allow me to fit in. New Frontiers was owned by Baron Rathmann, a minor noble in Excalibur's technocracy, and a bit of a formalist. Needless to say the company was made in his mold.

By the end of the week, I'd been given my first duty.

"We need you to travel to Gram and deliver something to a contact we have there," supervisor Daranley explained. Daranley oversaw the courier branch which liaised with just about every other branch in New Frontiers. "He's gathered some information for us and we'd told him we'd evaluate it, then pay him proportionally. The information was good and we'd like you to deliver his pay and a message: New Frontiers would like to retain his services for an operation beginning next month."

Daranley handed me a paper with numbers on it and a tiny data disk. Normally, monies could be disbursed via electronic means, along with messages, unless of course you didn't want to leave a trail. I assumed the first long sequence of characters after the bank's address was an account and an amount, which is precisely what it turned out to be. The data disk was encrypted. I placed it in my "special" hiding place; a small, flesh pouch I had surgically implanted years ago.

Gram/Sword Worlds 272-1106

In the scouts, I'd gotten into the habit of setting my wrist comp's travel and news daemons to work as soon as I landed. It was almost evening on Gram, so I organized my luggage first, found a travel locker and placed my clothes inside then found the nearest restaurant. The money case never left my sight. I tied my data cloth into the Gram port net and had located the address given to me, along with travel options. I felt that with luck I could make the delivery, spend a day waiting for an answer then be back in jump space in two days at the most.

But, the fellow wasn't there.

I spent the rest of the day at the port, before taking an air-taxi to his location. Even if he wasn't there I wanted to familiarize myself with the area. Gram's a bit of a dreadful place, with pollution from heavy industry tainting the atmosphere of its cities. I'd procured a filter mask at the port, gathered my luggage and found a place to stay nearby.

Jothar Blau, the man I was trying to contact wasn't there the next day either, so I did some sightseeing. This part of Gram was old and heavily populated, lots of four and five story apartments and office buildings, most of which showed their age. The streets were narrow, crowded with ground vehicles and parked air cars. I made a run to Blau's office late in the afternoon, just to see the place.

The building was in fair shape, despite the elevator being out. I was carrying Cr 20,000 in an armored attaché case and it seemed to me a man who makes this kind of money could afford something considerably better. His office was on the second floor, one of four and a simple door with opaque glass that proclaimed BLAU INVESTIGATIVE SERVICES. All in all, fairly dreary compared to the New Frontiers complex on Excalibur.

The atmospheric taint was light today so I paced around the front of the building, smoking. I was on my third cigarette when an air car descended and parked across the street. A balding man of average build exited and crossed towards the building. According to the description Daranley had given me, this was Jothar Blau.

He was less than enthusiastic about my introduction and looked around nervously. There was no one about so I explained fully who I was. He warmed up a tiny bit and herded me up the stairs ahead of him so he could watch me. Once inside, and after he'd seen the money he became very friendly.

"Ha ha. I knew it would pay off! I'm sorry, your name again please," Blau's smile transformed his face from the craggy, stony facade into that of an amiable man.

"Stalen, Stalen Tredway," he shook my hand -- again, then strolled over to a cabinet near a window that overlooked the front of the building.

"How about a drink Herr Tredway?" He produced a brandy snifter, a tray, and two glasses.

"Yes, that's fine. My employers would like to hire you again," I retrieved the data disk from my special hidey-hole, then my smokes. "Do you mind if I smoke?"

Blau said nothing, he'd turned to bring the liquor over but was frozen, staring through the window, watching something outside.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" I repeated, but Blau remained in place briefly, before replacing the tray back on the cabinet, and making a quick search of his desk for something.

He cursed softly, then turned to me, "Do you have a gun?"

"Excuse me?"

"A gun, a pistol," he repeated. "I left mine in my air car."

I nodded.

"Good," he dashed over to the door, killed the lights and secured the lock. His voice became a whisper. "There's two men coming up the stairs. If they come in, shoot them." He snapped his fingers as the sound of footsteps echoed up the stairwell. I reached to my belt holster in the small of my back and retrieved my 7mm auto pistol.

The footsteps grew louder as they walked past the door, their shadows darkening the glass briefly, then disappearing. Perhaps Blau was wrong.

He wasn't.

They were checking the other offices on the floor. A few moments later two shadows were darkening the glass on his office door. There was a brief silence followed by a metallic grinding. I moved behind Blau's desk.

The entrance to the office was actually a tiny hallway which leads into his office proper. I pointed my pistol towards the door and Blau slunk back quietly and nodded.

I was in a bit of a quandary. I could understand shooting someone who trying to rob me or gain access to company goods, but I wasn't quite sure about what to do concerning this situation. I suddenly noticed the data disk I'd left on the desk, grabbed it and waited.

The grinding stopped and the door clicked open. I took a deep breath, then fired.

I placed the bullet into the wall near the inner doorframe, thinking it might indicate to the prospective thieves they should retreat. The shadows snapped back from the doorway and I was relieved...until the door was kicked open and a burst of automatic fire exploded into the wall above my head. Apparently Blau's antagonists were prepared for this type of situation. I ducked down behind the heavy wooden desk quickly, which probably saved my life.

They were prepared all right.

Not only did they have automatic weapons, but flash grenades as well. As I knelt, my eyes were averted and the loud bang and bright flash of light made me aware of what was happening. I rose up and fired into the cloud of smoke three times, unsure of how well my aim had been, mainly because I was now deaf.

I was breathing hard as the smoke cleared. One of them was lying face down in the tiny hallway, barely moving. Nervously, I shifted right, so that I wasn't in the direct line of fire from the door, but could still cover the entrance. My mind wondered if they had other grenades -- the explosive kind, but it seemed unlikely.

Blau hadn't been blinded by the flash either, since he'd slid across the room and was slicing through the weather sealant on the window frame and had his back to the doorway when the grenade went off.

He said something to me, which I didn't catch, then waved with his hand. I crossed over and helped him remove the window and the pair of us went out and down, dropping from the decrepit balcony to the ground.

We headed towards the back alley, crossed carefully to the buildings behind it and made our way to one of the buildings on the next street. I was relieved to remember Blau had taken possession of the attaché case full of money, ending my employer's obligation to him, and that I'd grabbed the data disk.

Blau used a lobby phone to arrange a taxi and we waited anxiously until it came.

"They were Zhodani," he explained as we left the taxi. We'd taken a short ride in the air car and our hearing had returned. The taxi waited outside as we entered a small apartment a few blocks away -- a safe house as Blau explained it.

"Zhodani?" I took a deep breath then lit a cigarette.

"Yes, I uh, uncovered a little hidden business they had going on Mjolnir," he pulled open a closet and uncovered a safe hiding beneath a draped blanket. "The Gram military is trying to wrest the system from Gungnir." He dialed the combination and opened it, retrieved several stacks of credits and a handgun. "This was a few months back. They must've have finally rundown the passenger manifests on outgoing transports from the starport there."

Blau piled the money and his gun into a duffel, threw in some clothes, before returning to the taxi.

"Looks like I'll take up New Frontier's offer, and start a little early," he said as we were whisked away towards the starport.

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