CHAPTER 2: CROSSED FINGERS
Tebun Office/Mertactor 014-1107
I've been posted to Glisten. Thank god.
After returning with Blau, I'd spent two weeks on Excalibur, handling mostly intra-system jobs, which weren't too bad. New Frontiers had a fleet of mercenary cruisers which they use to protect their interests beyond the subsector and I spaced out on the Starblade, heading rimward into District 268. My official posting was to Mertactor. It took a bit over six weeks to travel there. New Frontiers has a tiny presence in the system, due to the fact that several other larger opponents called the subsector their territory, namely Arkesh Spacers and McClellan Factors. Things had gotten so bad violence-wise, that New Frontiers had no official office, instead it ran its affairs from a tiny two-room "suite" (I was told horror stories of how the original office was burned down, presumably an arson arranged by these cutthroats). I spent two weeks there doing crossword puzzles and sampling local cuisine, since the place was little more than a way-point for transferring information between the home office and the frontier.
Both opponents had large accommodations at the port and were apparently in bed with each other, to some degree, since I heard no reports of violence. Both moved with a significant military presence, whether it was executives surrounded by a cordon of bodyguards, or their merchant ships landing with armed escorts.
Finally, just when the tedium was getting to me, I received an xboat communiqué for something that required my abilities. The following morning I was at the Bank of Mertactor when they opened, meeting with the bank manager. He filled a pair of large suitcases with over two million Imperial credits and I warily made my way to the starport, looking over my shoulder the entire time. There, I boarded a small runabout. The communiqué from the home office was simple: deliver the suitcases to the head of the trade delegation at Glisten and await further instructions. Apparently this was some sort of regular arrangement, and I happened to be the one in the area to carry out the mission. It just took so long for the fund's to arrive. The fee to transfer the funds electronically from Excalibur to Glisten was prohibitive, so an arrangement with a friendly financial institution on Mertactor was crucial. They converted the request to cash, and it was taken to Glisten by courier, namely me.
In orbit we approached a magnificent yacht, The Esmerelda -- obviously not built in the Swords, and went aboard her. I was welcomed by no less than the captain himself and given guest accommodations unlike anything I'd ever experienced. Captain Bergdorf informed me we would enter the Glisten system within a week. Definitely not a Sword Worlds' ship. Indeed, during the trip I found out that the leader of the trade delegation, Arnulf Hviti, had the yacht constructed at Bilstein Yards within the Glisten system.
Arrival at Glisten was unceremonious; we simply docked at the diplomatic complex, where I was shown to quarters, and after a few minutes was ushered into the delegation's offices -- with both suitcases of course. There was a minor mix-up, as Hviti's assistants tried to take the luggage, which I informed them was unsatisfactory. The communiqué I'd gotten at Mertactor had been quite specific about my giving them to the delegation leader personally. I returned to my quarters with the money, before receiving a brief call from the delegate's secretary, informing me that my presence would be required at a party they were giving that night. I would be introduced to several people in the delegation as well as other business acquaintances.
I accepted, then carefully locked the suitcases in my closet and went out to find a Watchdog sensor to guard my precious cargo.
The party was quite elegant and I felt a bit out of place, so I remained in the background, watched my Ps and Qs and was overly polite about everything. The delegate's assistant introduced me as an employee of New Frontiers and I met members of the Barracai Techum, Bilstein, Ling Standard as well as a host of smaller, local businessmen.
There were cliques of course, and I eventually gravitated to a fairly large one, that was dominated by a heavy set man, who was quite a storyteller. His tales ranged from gambling to trading. There was also an attractive lady who seemed to be following me around. Actually, she seemed to flit from group to group. I engaged her in conversation briefly before she had to leave.
Drink flowed all around and I stepped out of the room onto the balcony to enjoy a smoke and relax. It was unusual to step outside and yet remain indoors, but that was life in an arcology. I was soon joined by the story-teller.
"Call me Finger my good fellow, Finger," the stout man ordered.
"Stalen Tredway," I offered him one of my cigarettes, he nodded and I lit it for him.
"So first time to this fabulous place, eh?" He didn't wait for me to answer, instead kept going, "Quite different from anything from the Swords. Remarkable when you think about it."
The balcony door opened and another man joined us.
"This is Oleg Pendry of the Barracai Technum," Pendry offered his hand so I shook it.
"New Frontiers is a good company, we've made some inroads together," Pendry commented briefly. "We'd like to expand the relationship."
I commented that it was a jolly-good idea, something my superiors should pursue. Pendry countered with how we shared the same opponents.
Finger broke in, "I think I might be able to help you gentlemen. I have contacts locally, at Banfi specifically, who don't mind sharing private information, such as when certain company's ships make port in the system. I could easily forward such information onto either of you."
Finger slipped something into my chest pocket then left, leaving his offer mysteriously up in the air.
It was getting late and I decided to call it a night. In the elevator, I examined the item. A small holodisk, the size of a coin. I placed the disk on my nightstand. I was tired and would look at it in the morning.
I'd never played cards with a monkey before but I suppose there was a first time for everything. I'd shot dice with Vargr, thrown darts with Aslan and even did some skeet shooting with a Droyne sport, but four handed poker with an ape was a new one.
The little bastard kept mooching smokes off me too. Some aliens have no respect for human addictions.
Actually he wasn't a monkey, but a Za'Tach, or Za'Tchakh, or something. The little weasel was from the Hiver Federation and kept drawing to inside straights and making them too. I suppose that was what was most frustrating. That and the fact that the little bugger always seemed to have jacks or better as well. The hand ping-ponged a bit, but my flush took his full house in the end. I was sitting comfy now.
"Molkie," Finger poured the Za'Tchakh a drink, "We've a little proposition for you."
I'd examined the disk Finger had given me over breakfast and was shocked to discover it held a complete duplicate of the data from the computer built into my survival watch. All my timetables, ship information and basic employment records had been downloaded somehow onto the disk. After the data had passed, a hologram of Finger appeared with an admonition to seek him out to learn more. Now, I wear my watch constantly, never remove it unless sonic cleansing facilities aren't available. I'd worn it to sleep last night and could've sworn the only way to get at it was that someone had entered my locked room without setting off the Watchdog unit and messed with it. Possibly someone with the training of a Zhodani commando -- you know from the holo-vids: teleport in, mind-lock me into oblivion and do their deed. But the two million was where I'd left it and surely an intruder wouldn't have missed that. Plus the fact that Finger had given me the holodisk, BEFORE I'd returned to my quarters. If for no other reason, I was intrigued, so I showed up for Finger's poker game tonight. Turned out the pretty woman at the party had some sort of super-surveillance device in her purse. She'd been just touchy-feely enough to snatch the data from my watchcomp. Pendry was there too, no doubt Finger had done something similar to him.
The monkey pointed at my cigarettes, then grabbed the pack with his left foot after I nodded. He popped one into his mouth, sat forward in his chair and Finger shot me a stare, so I raised my lighter, somehow resisted the temptation to set his head on fire, and lit his smoke.
Finger's face mushroomed into smile, "I understand Cross has another SQUID."
Molkie took a long drag and nodded, "M. Cross. Yes, he has that equipment." The baboon's galactic was a little awkward, but I'd heard worse.
"I understand it's much more advanced, ummm, sophisticated, and that it works from a greater distance."
Aha! Well that made sense. This was an item the imperial intelligence services used to remotely interrogate computers, I'd had heard about them in the IISS. Apparently the Hivers had one too.
"We, that is, myself, mister Pendry and mister Tredway would like to, uh, rent it."
"Herr Tredway," I corrected. The momentary flash in Finger's eyes told me he wasn't amused by my interruption.
"Arrangements is possible."
"Very good!" Finger's face went slack, "How much?"
"Depends on plan."
"Yes, SQUID is device designed for manipulation, M. Cross wouldn't allow otherwise," Molkie took another long drag, and exhaled. "Submit plan. Will see if worthy then approach M. Cross for approval."
Finger glanced at Pendry and me. We both nodded.
"Very good Molkie. I'll have the plan to you first thing in the morning."
"Not morning. Now."
"Now?" Finger glanced at Pendry blankly. "But I'm afraid we need time to..."
Molkie brushed the fur up on his left arm and revealed a wristcomm hiding there. He punched a button and within a few seconds a trio of hulking Ithklur stormed into the room.
The little monkey sat back, took a drag on the cigarette and exhaled.
M. Cross had rented his remote SQUID to us for four days. Four extremely nerve-wracking, sleepless days through which I rehearsed over and over the speech I was going to recite to the head delegate once he returned. I would naturally offer to repay the money I'd taken back, providing they wouldn't prefer charges against me.
And I'd been so happy to leave Mertactor. Hell, I was probably going to end up there on permanent assignment.
After the Ithklur arrived, Finger launched into a fair but somewhat haphazard course of action that we would use in employing the device. He theorized that an inordinately large amount of traders carried personal comps. We would simply follow them to public places and activate the device. The Za'Tchakh thought it was a fine proposal and demanded immediate payment.
Apparently approaching M. Cross was just a formality.
Pendry, a high-placed official in the Barrachai Technum had responded to the grunts of the Ithklur bodyguards easily enough: he exchanged a look of concern with me, then produced his personal handcomp and arranged a fund-transfer of sixty thousand credits, covering his and Finger's portion of the "rental fee."
Then all eyes fell to me. I had no such funds available.
Molkie didn't like that.
A few minutes later I'd brought my new Ithklur friends back to my room and "borrowed" thirty-thousand credits from the money New Frontiers Trading Partners had entrusted me with and paid "my share".
We returned to Finger's place and within a half hour, were the proud possessors of M. Cross' advanced SQUID.
I immediately placed an anonymous call to the delegation and asked when the chief delegate would arrive. Five days. There was still time to replace the money before he was to take charge of it.
I crossed my fingers.
Did I say "fingers?" I really didn't mean that.
"Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector," explained Finger as the three of us nervously watched one of the young ladies we'd hired, take a table nearby. Pendry's people had supplied us with information that three Arkesh ships and six owned by McClellan Factors were in port and their crews often ate here. The device was small enough to fit in a large purse.
The lady at the party was a Hiver groupie. She'd struck up a conversation with Finger then shown him her little trick. She then repeated it with everyone there and Finger and Pendry had been intrigued.
"She was with the Hiver?" I asked. Finger and Pendry nodded.
"And this Hiver is a master manipulator?" Finger and Pendry nodded again. The wheels of manipulation had been turning but we'd never seen, or heard them. Well, with any luck either would Arkesh or McClellan.
And we were adding another set of wheels to it all. Somewhere M. Cross was laughing. I guess Hivers laugh.
We weren't. Neither Arkesh nor McClellan employees showed at the restaurant. Either they weren't hungry or they were eating elsewhere because none came. More painful still was that not far away were a pair of Ithklur, ever vigilant, following us around, keeping an eye on M. Cross's device.
This went on for another day, before we got lucky and the device paid off.
Arnulf Hviti's assessor was impressed after analyzing the datasheets we'd extracted from the McClellan employees, so much so that I was immediately informed he was requesting that I be New Frontier's representative and attached to his delegation. Knowing the data was of limited scope, I tried to let the man down easily but he'd have none of it. The Hiver vessel had spaced out with the SQUID, the day he'd returned, but Finger, Pendry and I had already collected almost a half-dozen disks filled with various data from Arkesh, McClellan and several other sources. It was enough data that I could stretch out the distribution of it for a while.
Finger's idea of having the woman carry the SQUID while interviewing for jobs within the two HQs was brilliant. That, combined with restaurant hangouts and nightclubs, gave us plenty of data.
So, over a period of two and a half weeks I exchanged information, for an advance of funds, which allowed me to payoff the "loan" I'd made and then some. Hviti's men were peddling some of it themselves, since portions dealt with peripheral data concerning Trexalon and local belters.
In the meantime, I sent communiqués to the home office, and several to NFTP leaders in nearby subsectors. According to the data there were openings beyond Imperial borders and NFTP would surely be interested in exploiting them.
The next night I joined Finger and Pendry for a small celebration, before the pair left. Finger was heading to Mora and Pendry was spacing out on a BT ship bound for the Outrim Void.
It had been quite a wild ride. I'd paid back what I borrowed, still had enough left over for a healthy return on my investment and was now attached to a plum post.