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How M Grinch Manipulated Christmas


The forty-ton Ziiguysna pinnace dropped out of space and down towards the planet. It flew in a graceful circle, ever lower as it descended on the snowy spire of Mount Tepmurc-Fotros. Thanks to a particularly nasty blizzard, the pinnace pilot was flying blind, but the high-tech sensors more than compensated. Nestled amongst the snowy peaks of the mountain crest was an equally high-tech, steel fortress, which the Hive Federation had constructed as an embassy to this region of space. The pilot, a human, snapped the thermograph on as the craft neared the elevation of the mountain peak. A navigation beacon swept it towards the top-most opening on the domed roof, before stalling slightly in a hover and then slipping inside the metal monster and down without so much as a bump.

"Cahjeng Iluteach Ahvochy" the pilot announced over the loudspeaker.

The passenger compartment held six currently, five of them rather large, green, scaled brutes known as Ithklur and the other a smaller, furred creature. The Gurvin didn't move, waiting for three of the Ithklur to gather their weapons and form up outside in the landing bay. It was a formality, but always done none-the-less. The other two waited inside with him. A clicking/chirping noise echoed in from the pinnace's aft exit, and Molkie the Gurvin claimed a briefcase from the empty seat next to him and shuffled out, ignoring the security team. The bay was relatively dark, and gusts of wind blew into the opening, pushing up tufts of Molkie's fur as he walked from the pad to a nearby metal hatch. He paused, passing one of his furry hands over an oval sensor. The hatch received the subcutaneous implant's transmission and it opened in response.

Molkie stepped into the elevator and waited as it dropped him down some sixty floors to the middle of the structure, which were the technical boundaries of the Manipulations Club. Non-members like the pilot referred to the entire structure as the club, since in their eyes all Hivers were more or less the same. From the elevator Molkie passed through a series of corridors until he was bearing east by a conventional compass. A large sealed double door barred his way. A series of glyphs admonished possible entrants that the room was "members only" and another pass of his implant in front of a similar oval plaque guaranteed his admission.

To a Solomani, the appearance of the Manipulations Club could best be described as a giant cave, littered with boulders - except, in this case, each boulder was a Hiver easy chair. The room was big and dark, looking more cavernous than usual, because tonight it was empty, the regular occupants absent except for a single Hiver in a booth near the large view screen on the left-hand side of the room. That Hiver was M Grinch, the only Hiver currently in the system.

M Grinch had made sure of that, by using one manipulation to get the others to leave for a few weeks while he conducted another. By emphasizing the absence of orders, he'd convinced the others that an order had been given. It was real "you-have-to-be-a-Hiver-to-understand-it" type of stuff. Molkie didn't, but he was still learning manipulation. The effect would be apparent to the participants in due course, and by that time, M Grinch would have everything all mapped out for them. Molkie could appreciate that part, since it had happened to him on a few occasions.

Molkie approached, aware that the building's security system had been recording him since his arrival. M Grinch probably had the pilot and the Ithklur in the bag too. Well, that's how things went in the Federation. He stopped at the booth and with military precision presented the case to M Grinch, like a flag at a funeral. Then he waited... patiently.

M Grinch hadn't bothered to shift his eyestalk from the screen where a steady stream of information was presented. The display was grand, some three meters high and a good six across. M Grinch was sitting perpendicular to where Molkie stood anyway. The display stopped, shifted, then a portion of it cleared, before a section was replaced by a new mosaic of Hiver glyph-data. Molkie took a sideways glance and spotted a complete list of those Manipulators Club members who had left, with flight information and departure times for their trip. Below that he noticed an entry for the pinnace he'd come in and schematics of it along with a video frame, which was streaming in a real-time view of the pad and the Ithklur who were still on sentry duty there, but bunched up and fraternizing. No doubt they hated the cold weather. Below that lay a series of cascaded frames containing each soldier's service records and next to that were a complete readout of the times and recorded data from the building's security doors, the elevator and the door sensor from the hallway outside. A single rectangle with the elapsed time broken down to the Do'oh flashed and M Grinch watched it until it reached a certain count. At that moment all of the data disappeared and the Hiver rotated his booth to face Molkie. M Grinch studied the Gurvin with a steady eyestalk.

Around the base of it's neck was a brand-new, Federation Hiver neck-comp. A series of glyphs flashed on it. Molkie nodded then pressed the release buttons and the briefcase snapped open.

Inside was a strange scepter-like device and a smaller electronic unit. Actually the scepter had the earmarks of being an electronic device as well. The smaller thing was a SQUID - actually the SQUID - the one used by M Cross for a secret manipulation on Glisten. M Grinch had picked up several markers - one of them Molkie's, as it turned out - from locals who had been owed money. In exchange for credit, the Gurvin let the secret out of the bag, or at this stage, out of the briefcase. The Hiver neck-display flashed and was replaced by another set of glyphs which prompted Molkie to palm the unit. He positioned the SQUID to best establish a link with M Grinch's neck-comp, pressed a button on it, and began to upload an astonishing amount of data. The transfer took only a few seconds, however. One of the Hiver limbs moved towards the strange looking electronic scepter and the long tentacled hand slipped around the thick oval end, falling into the grooves along it.

The neck-comp flashed again and Molkie placed the SQUID on the ground, took five steps back and waited. Pointing the scepter at the floor, the Hiver revealed the scepter to be a weapon, as a bright beam issued forth from the handle, which now was obviously the barrel, or emitter. The beam vaporized the SQUID in a flash. It was no longer needed since it had been holographically scanned and its likeness could be used during the Revelation Phase. The nebulousness of the props would add a healthy air of mystery to M Grinch's final story-telling.

Molkie stepped forward and held out the case so M Grinch could replace the weapon. The Hiver booth rotated back to its previous position and the display on the wall went blank, before being replaced with hundreds and hundreds of frames containing all sorts of data. M Grinch rotated himself so he could observe his analysis program as it inventoried each, translating them into the Hiver-glyph format from the Imperial source data, before highlighting some with a green frame, and blanking out others. After a few moments the blank frames dropped and those remaining were re-arranged into a table-like display. There were one hundred fifty-four. The booth rotated and Molkie saw the Hiver-glyphs spelled out "adequate". This time Molkie took his own hand-comp and linked to the neck-comp for his own download. One by one the frames on screen disappeared as they made their way into Molkie's storage device, a beep signaling the completion of the task.

Molkie saw the glyphs shift on M Grinch's display.

"Begin Phase Two. Dismissed."

So the Gurvin retreated back up to the landing bay, pausing in the access hall to smoke a cigarette. No doubt M Grinch was observing him.

According to M Grinch, the Hivers knew next to nothing about the Aslan. He'd come to The Beyond to change that, via manipulation naturally. Now they did know the Aslan possessed a strong sense of honor, but since they approached everything from that point, it stood to reason that no one knew what they'd do in the case of being faced with dishonor and furthermore, what if a dishonorable act wasn't done by them, but involved them, by seeming to come from them, but didn't?


Well, so was Molkie, but the pay was good and M Grinch let him smoke cigarettes outside the club. It was no doubt another manipulation, but it didn't do to dwell on these types of things.

So since he wasn't an actual club member or a Hiver, Molkie had to retreat to the two thousand-ton starship the Federation had in orbit around Sustok, and the small, but reasonably comfortable stateroom he had there. Hot showers six times a day and all the cigarettes he wanted insured the Gurvin's cooperation. Even the Ithklur envied the midget fur ball.

In between all of this he was to organize the comm-account information just given to him by M Grinch. It had been stolen by a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector) which was a scientific label that meant: super-surveillance device. Basically you could steal data from a running computer by just being near it.

Molkie was to organize the stolen data into four groups. These would be fed into a surreptitiously altered version of a management software product that Aslan companies preferred and sold by making each a tempting offer, seemingly on behalf of the software vendor.

Then it'd be onto Phase Three and collecting data on Aslan usage, discovery and finally their actual reaction and subsequent actions. Phase Four would be documentation and publication of the entire incident to club members and finally to the Federation Council.

M Grinch had theorized it was a full, six-year project, which meant Molkie would be set for quite a while.


Being a female Aslan, Toshuku was the Head of Finances for her clan's business. She prided herself on being thorough, but it wasn't until the company's fourth-quarter audit that she noticed something strange. The company's comm-traffic had gone up by almost 15%, but there was no corresponding rise in bills. Thinking it was a mistake by her subordinates, she ordered a review. The numbers came out the same.

In response to this, Toshuku had them track down a smattering of the traffic to see what it contained. The calls had originated from the company, but it was utilizing a third-party account to do so. That seemed unusual and dishonest. Furthermore when each of the subsequent transmissions were read, their contents shocked her and her subordinates. Apparently the management software they were using was conducting its own dirty tricks campaign against business rivals. Somehow it's artificial intelligence had scanned all rivals, then setup about defaming and slandering some and even going as far as cancelling orders, changing flight plans, only the tip of an extensive list of the tactical icebergs that were in it's digital arsenal. They were grossly unmentionable acts, and no Aslan in their right mind would ever conceive of using them.

No wonder business had been up, but at what cost for the clan? Their honor?

So Toshuku met with a clan advisor, someone used to dealing with barbarian outsiders, but they came up empty, thinking of enemies that would want to help them. Of course this wasn't help in their eyes. So, the advisor took a cross-section of the data and focused on it, deciding she would find out more about the individual accounts and see what sort of dishonorable, disgusting insect might crawl out from under whatever she turned up.

Then the clan could take appropriate action and kill them.


Stalen Tredway made his way aboard the atmospheric shuttle by pressing through the crowded aisle as quickly as he could. Despite the crowds he enjoyed Christmas travel, one of the few surviving Solomani traditions left in the Sword Worlds, including those worlds forcibly separated from them and called the Border Worlds. He'd just jumped in from an eight month tour in the Human Client States far to spinward where his company, New Frontier Trading Partners, did the majority of their business. At a recent company gathering, his boss, Rolf Heltänzer had wished out loud about how he longed to return to the Swords to toast Christmas and the New Year. Stalen had stepped up to bat, offering to make the trip in his stead, promising to purchase enough of Joyeuse's sector-famous Lumineux Premier champagne so he could bring Rolf's wishes in person with the proper style and decorum to each of the home offices on Gram and finally Excalibur.

In this case Rolf's wishes would be heralded by two hundred cases of the sparkling product, which he felt was called for, in the holiday tradition of giving.

Everyone thought the idea was a great bit of momentary humor on Tredway's part, except Herr Rolf who had stared strangely at him for several moments before clapping him on the back and proclaiming it to be a capital idea. So now, instead of dodging a steady throng of Zhodani, Vargr, and other local aliens in that barbaric, far-off sector of space, Tredway found himself smack in the midst of humans, who were by and large of Solomani stock, and it was comforting. It'd be fun playing Santa Claus... even in the midst of the season's inclement weather.

"Nice move," he congratulated himself as he slipped into his seat on the edge of the aisle. Rolf could be a hard one to read at times, and the look on the others' faces after the boss sanctioned his idea had made it that much sweeter.

Speaking of sweet, as in sweetheart, two rows in front of him, on his immediate left, also taking the aisle seat was a strikingly beautiful female, who was placing her things in the overhead compartment. Long, straight, raven-colored tresses that dropped halfway down her back, and a thin, toned, build but still curvy. She was youngish as well, no more than middle thirties, and the rather staid business outfit she was wearing still flattered her. Her face was gorgeous, her hair parted and sloped along the left side of her head. She stretched back and put her hair into a pony-tail, turned and spotted Tredway staring at her. Luckily he hadn't started to drool yet. A small smile touched her face briefly before she turned and took her seat.

"You're on a roll," he whispered to himself, before intercepting a stewardess who was making her way aft. "Scotch, rocks," he said indicating in Swordic, that she should bring two. Too bad he didn't have a case of Rolf's private stock with him; it was being shipped separately. With her looks he'd toast to her, anytime.

Now he had another reason to be glad he'd signed up for this connector flight rather than drop straight down into the tangled mess of Gram's massive starport. Christmas wasn't that much fun. Rumor was the orbital wait time was four to five hours minimum. Bum-boats had their advantages, especially when they get you around a long, boring wait.

Of course, Tredway wasn't the only man with eyes aboard the shuttle. A steady stream of men made their way aft to use the restrooms and more than a few of them noticed the fair lady and attempted to make time with her.

After the fourth victim left with with a stake in his heart, Tredway found himself cursing under his breath the stewardess, who as far as he could tell, must have bailed out. Finally she returned. The scotch was a no-name brand, the glasses weren't very festive and the ice looked like it had been scraped from the bottom of a freezer. He bargained for pair of nice glasses held by a traveller on his far right then set himself for approach.

Miss Perfect Pony-tail had vanished.

People often meet in unusual ways and this turned out to be no exception for Tredway. As he mulled over how he'd handle the situation an incredible pain suddenly shot up the side of his leg, blossoming from his ankle. As he reached down, he instinctively looked up to glare at the incredible klutz who was responsible for wounding him, when he met eyes with the dark-haired, pony-tailed, fancy-femme he'd been ogling over since taking his seat.

It was her. She had kicked him. Hard.

Speaking of ogling, the woman's eyes had grown to the size of a Droyne's and it was obvious by her reaction that it had been an accident. The pain faded almost immediately for Tredway, but he kept a grimace on his face to milk the incident for all it was worth. Apology turned quickly to embarrassment and Tredway was as gracious as possible, but forced his advantage by insisting she have a drink with him. He took the two holiday tumblers he'd finagled, and limped to the aft salon with her in tow. Of course it wasn't a salon, but a prep station for the stews. A twenty credit note ensured the stewardess had better things to do.

So in between spilling lousy scotch into their glasses, Tredway got Harmony Frost to introduce herself in a more mainstream manner and the two of them got to know each other as well as two people could, given the circumstances. Her beauty was only half of it as the courier found her voice damnably haunting, a deep, husky tone that didn't just make noise, but rather caressed one's ears and hypnotized you like a soulful, romantic crooner. No siren's song, rather a soft, fog bank that made you want to cuddle up with the nearest member of the opposite sex available, which of course was her.

After the second round she returned to her seat and her laptop computer, mentioning she had some spreadsheets that needed her attention.

Tredway remained, had a third belt, decided against jimmying open the flimsy liquor cabinet in order to find the real scotch and returned to his seat taking in the view two rows up, on his left. After a few minutes she turned, noticed him, smiled and gave him a small wave.

He whistled softly and had to consciously resist flexing a bicep.


Exiting the men's room at the Gram Südgabel Annex, Tredway paused to put on his gloves. A quick survey of the crowded terminal had groups of people everywhere, but he had little trouble picking out Harmony Frost, like a hungry lion scopes out gazelle at a watering hole. She was at a public comm-booth, sitting on her luggage and gesticulating in a semi-hysterical fashion. When she ended the transmission she dropped her head.

He did think about beating his chest once or twice, but that might take too long. Nature was ringing the dinner bell and it wouldn't do to dawdle. He had to settle for licking his lips.

Tredway suddenly grew wings, and, like a hungry vulture, swooped in. It was a better analogy anyway, given how much air travel he'd had in his 35 years.

"Trouble Miss Frost?"

Her head shot up and her mouth fell open when she saw who it was. It was clear she wanted to tell someone something but was unsure of whether she knew him well enough at this point to confide in him.

"Come, come my dear. After all, we're friends. Besides you know I can handle pain," punctuating the last word with smile.

That little quip broke the ice, her laugh was genuine.

"All right. My connecting flight got cancelled. I'm stuck here for at least 48 hours." Tears suddenly welled up in her eyes. "And... I can't find a hotel room and I have no idea of where I can go..." she looked down at the floor.

Changing his tack by using his head, Tredway embraced her lightly, like a friend would.

"Don't worry, I insist you come with me." He placed his hands on her shoulders and made her look at him. "I was going to have an uneventful dinner alone, now I can have a new friend dine with me. Date?"

A hanky appeared in her hand out of nowhere and she straightened herself up and sniffled, "Date."

"Excellent! Is this all you have?" he asked, meaning the two suitcases she was perched on. She nodded.

Using his wrist-comm he dialed New Frontier's travel agent. No one was there but the office had an AI program on call at all times, that could handle what Tredway had in mind: car service and a hotel. He winked at Harmony Frost and waited for the lilting, synthesized feminine voice on the other end of the connection to finish it's greeting before stating his account number and request out loud.

The car service buzzed him twenty seven minutes later, in the middle of a mesmerizing discussion of Miss Frost's likes and dislikes concerning food, wine and entertainment. They left together in high spirits.

Nothing could ruin this evening.

Unless it was the well-dressed Vargr who'd been standing behind Harmony Frost pretending to use the next comm-booth. Neither Tredway or the girl had even noticed him.


The Hungriges Geflügel had a reputation for preparing scrumptious chicken recipes, as well as maintaining an intimate atmosphere. Jothar Blau, a friend of Tredway's and a private investigator New Frontiers employed on occasion, had confided to Stalen, that five out of six of his infidelity cases dined there.

"Order the Huhn Gaspar and bring a wide aperture lens" had been his recommendation. Tredway was finally happy he could utilize his friend's wisdom, despite not having infidelity in his heart. Same concept, different organ.

The holiday crowd was out, and the two stood in the bistro's vorderer along with many others drinking. Sobriety pills insured they couldn't over do it.

"Tell me about your business," was first from her lips. So Tredway launched into his current role as a courier with New Frontiers, something he'd touched on in the salon. He skipped over stealing rival businesses' data with a SQUID, something he and a few other associates had done on Glisten, but did mention his run in with terrorists outside of the Imperium. He tried not to lay it on too thick. It was one of those pleasant situations where most of it was true. She was very intrigued about communications, specifically x-boat accounts and inter-sector relays beyond imperial borders. It seemed a bit odd, and rather specific, but maybe her S-pill wasn't up to snuff. He'd known people in the scouts that could metabolize them quickly.

By the time they took their seats he'd explained that New Frontiers setup their x-boat accounts, by keeping a separate one for each subsector of space they were currently in and employees only used that one during jobs, that way the company could be reasonably sure someone wasn't masquerading as them and pulling a fast one. That seemed to trigger something in Miss Frost. She had the momentary look of a gazelle caught in headlights. Stalen offered her another S-pill and she quickly excused herself to use the ladies' facilities.

Well, no matter, there was still the prospect of an enjoyable evening ahead and it was reasonably early. She'd rebounded well from her travel disaster, no reason why this should be anything major. The travel agent had arranged will-call tickets at a show downtown, and while not a top-notch production it would still be entertaining. Tredway took a look around at the other patrons: family, friends, adulterers, all enjoying themselves during the holidays. He barely registered the Vargr in a sports jacket and turtleneck seated alone at a dienst-table near the kitchen. It took a few minutes but Harmony Frost returned and seemed happy. At least until she looked over Tredway's shoulder and focused on something or someone near the kitchen. She excused herself immediately, again.

Tredway was speechless. He looked back but saw nothing, but an empty utility table and the kitchen door swinging shut.

Ten minutes later Tredway went looking for her. He found a barmaid and had her scope out the ladies' room.


Yes, she explained, it was empty and freezing, someone had left the window open.

"The window open?"

The woman gave him a look like anyone would to someone who kept repeating what they said, and left. Tredway adjusted his collar, took a quick look around and stepped inside the ladies' room. Empty. He snapped open the window, which led to a dark alley. He went through, and turned left. Two figures were about twenty paces ahead, whispering. One of them had a pony-tail and was putting on a glove. The other stood facing.

"Sweetheart, what in the hell is going on here..." Tredway had no sooner said the words than he realized who the other figure was: the Vargr he'd glimpsed earlier. As Tredway came in close, Harmony Frost moved decisively. It was a half-spin and a lightning fast thrust-slash-uppercut, all complemented by a nice, well-timed flex of her hips, rotating with her upper body to deliver the punch. The weighted glove helped too. All the air in Tredway's solar plexus left him in a single, split-second, burning gasp of pain, causing the courier to drop immediately to his knees in a half-body spasm. Harmony Frost pirouetted around, her other leg lashing out in a spin-kick, keeping the Vargr back. Her rear-end was a few inches from Tredway's nose, a position he normally wouldn't mind, but at the moment wasn't able to fully appreciate. Her gloved hand fished out an automatic pistol from the small of her back, nearly identical to the place Tredway kept his. Of course he didn't have his with him. It was in his suitcase at the hotel, not that he could have really utilized it accurately anyway.

She thumbed off the safety, cocked the weapon and barked a few orders, none of which Tredway understood, given that he was wheezing like a lion who'd been kicked by the biggest gazelle at the watering hole and who'd then gotten stuck underwater, forced to hold his breath, for a minute longer than he should have. I guess the original analogy was more apropos.

Things eventually became clearer and he heard her call: "Back off! He's mine, Shrale!"

Normally Tredway would have found this flattering, a beautiful woman ready to fight for the pleasure of his company, but this wasn't the way his fantasies conducted themselves - normally. He was often on his knees, but the woman generally wore less clothing and there were never any Vargr involved. The hairy one that was involved in this... nightmare... tried a few feints and their combat dance continued.

Tredway summoned all his strength, lunged to his feet, staggered back, bouncing off the walls of the alley, before falling back through the window into the ladies' room, surprising an elderly dame in the process. A shot sounded outside and the woman ran out, shrieking. He just managed to lock the bathroom window as a shadow crossed over it and then crawled into the nearest empty stall, pulling his legs up, and thrusting them out to keep the door shut. His breath had finally returned more or less to normal.

Shortly thereafter, the door to the ladies' room crashed open.

The Geflügel's stalls were a bit more private than those at the starport or other more modern facilities. Each had curtains that covered almost to the floor. He recognized the tips of the pair of shoes as the same ones that had kicked him on the shuttle, meaning they belonged to Harmony Frost. Fortunately they were flats and she wasn't tall enough to peer over the open top.

"Tredway?" she called, banging her pistol on the stall's door. Her voice was unmistakable, but had lost a bit of it's haunting sexuality on the courier. Tredway speed-dialed his travel agent, turned up the volume and let the lilting voice of Fredericka the AI, do the talking.

"Allo? Wer dort ist?" Tredway thumbed the mute.

"Excuse me, ma'am," came a quick reply and footsteps moved away and he could tell she was searching each of the remaining stalls. A curse followed then he heard the door open and close. It was suddenly quiet. His ploy had worked.

Tredway remained in place thinking of what he might do-do. Out of frustration, he spun the toilet paper roll around twice then dialed his hotel. He had them send his bags to another hotel near the starport. It was a good bet they'd head back to his hotel to see if he was there. If he'd checked out, they might follow the bags, meanwhile he'd go elsewhere.

He waited twenty or so minutes, until a few ladies who'd come in after the incident had finished their business then quietly slipped out of the window. This time he went in the opposite direction, found a taxi and headed for a safe house that Jothar Blau had taken him to once when they been dodging Zhodani, the last time he'd visited Gram.


In contrast to the business area near the starport, the roads here were narrower and the buildings less crowded. Jothar Blau had rented this place because it was set away from the surrounding structures, giving it more privacy, enough in fact that Tredway could break in without anyone noticing.

Blau finally arrived, pausing at the kitchen window to examine the damage. He was less than pleased to see Tredway.

"Couldn't you have called from a public place instead of damaging my property?" were the first words out of his mouth.

Tredway gave him an apologetic look. He hadn't really thought about too much other than keeping his head down and remaining out of punching range. His stomach still ached. What was worse was that he had no idea what he was involved in or why.

Blau swept up the broken glass.

"Have you got a gun?"

"Ho, ho, ho!," shot back Blau, "Merry Christmas to you too. I suppose you need money, ja?" Tredway's facial reaction told Blau that he thought it wasn't a bad idea.

"Look I'll pay for all this," he added quickly, when he realized Blau wasn't amused.

"You're not kidding." Blau turned and waived over his shoulder. They went into the bedroom and Jothar pulled a small safe from the closet. Inside were several thousand credits, a few sets of false credentials for Blau and two automatic pistols.

Tredway took the 10mm caseless and a spare clip.

"I'll expect New Frontiers to reimburse me for this," he thumbed towards the damaged window, "All of it."

This time Tredway said nothing. Jothar counted out two thousand cash, and the pair moved back to the front room.

"I'll need to get some tools from my office so I can close this up properly," said Blau, before covering the window with a flattened cardboard box and heavy tape. "I have some equipment there."

He started out the door, pausing to ask: "Are you coming?"

Tredway didn't feel like being alone in this situation, so he nodded. When they got to Blau's aircar, Jothar had gotten control of his temper.

"So give me the details," he said evenly, just as the car took off.


Coming up the stair, Blau halted about a dozen steps from the top. What was odd, was that the passage remained dark. Normally, the stair's IR sensor detected movement in the stairwell and lit them automatically, something the tenants had kept on the super about. The elevator seemed to be perpetually broken, so this was their saving grace. Thanks to his profession, Blau often kept irregular hours and was used to climbing lit stairs.

Jothar prodded Tredway in the dark and the courier produced his pistol, then handed it over as the private eye hadn't armed himself, despite what had transpired recently to Tredway.

"I'll go up," whispered Blau, "You stay on the landing."

Blau moved up as quietly as he could, keeping to the leftmost edge of the stair. Despite the darkened stairwell, light filtered in from the street outside via a front facing window. The door to Blau's office was open a crack and soft flashes of light reached the wall near the doorway. As he got close, Blau heard the unmistakable chime of his desk-comp booting up.

Tredway stepped into the recessed doorway of an office in the back. Here, the shadows were deep and he had a clear view of Blau's doorway. He watched the private eye nudge the door open further and move inside.

Sitting at the desk was a hairy figure, his snout bathed in the glow of the desk-comp's screen as it displayed information. The investigator thumbed off the safety and stepped inside hitting the light switch.

"Don't you move!" ordered Blau, pointing the automatic at the desk.

Nothing happened as the lights never came on.

The figure at the desk hadn't moved but the screen display seemed to freeze, then the screen went blank and the curtained room was completely dark.

"I think you know why I'm here," said a gruff voice in galactic, the accent was unmistakably Vargr.

After a few moments, the lights suddenly flashed on and the chair where Jothar Blau had trained his weapon was empty. Standing next to him, holding a knife to his throat was a Vargr, wearing a dark sports jacket, black turtleneck and staring him down. This must be Shrale. How he'd covered the distance without making any noise was incredible.

"I have no wish to harm you," the Vargr whispered. His other hand snapped up and took the pistol from Blau. "I need the help of a good investigator," he was no longer whispering. "I was referred to you by a common acquaintance, Stalen Tredway." The Vargr didn't give him the chance to play dumb.

Pocketing Blau's pistol, he then folded the switchblade and stepped over to the edge of Blau's desk. Jothar could flee but realized that violence wasn't the Vargr's plan. The canine gestured to the chair at the desk and Blau took it, while the intruder remained on the edge calm, cool and collected like he was holding all the cards in a two-handed, poker game.

"I know you're friends with Tredway. He's sent you over a dozen x-boat transmissions in the last eighteen months, from various ports of call around the Swords." The computer flashed on suddenly and the frames containing x-boat messages appeared, highlighted in a greenish glow. The investigator had no idea how Shrale could control his computer remotely, or how he'd by-passed it's two-fold, security features.

"I came here immediately after that blow-up over at the Gef-, Gef-," his tongue kept slipping out the side of his snout trying to use Swordic pronunciation so he finally substituted the galactic term: restaurant. "You can inform your friend that while the story he told Miss Frost is entirely plausible it won't deter me or my sponsor. I plan on being at New Frontier's office tomorrow when they open and present them with my request for his arrest as well as serving them with a subpoena for any relevant data concerning their business communiqués."

"For what?" asked Blau.

The Vargr slapped down a pair of printed documents, copies of the instruments he'd just mentioned. Apparently Tredway, and by proxy New Frontiers, were about to be named in a slander and ethics suit brought by the Delgado megacorporation.

The Vargr leaned forward to look Blau in the eyes. "The IR sensors in the stairwell detected TWO heat sources when you came up," he said quietly. "I have no formal powers of arrest or require any. I plan on letting the city police handle this. However I don't want Harmony Frost interfering either. You tell your buddy to be at New Frontiers office pronto tomorrow morning and we'll handle this in a civilized manner."

Suddenly, just as the Vargr bared his canines at Blau, all the lights went out, including the computer-screen, returning the office to pitch blackness. When they came on a few moments later Shrale had vanished and the 10mm auto-pistol that Blau had come in with sat on the edge of the desk where the Vargr had been, spinning slowly in place like a top.

Maybe Shrale was holding all the cards.

Blau called to Tredway who entered cautiously, he hadn't seen anyone leave or heard anything either. The investigator explained what had transpired.

"Well, you still have a few hours of freedom left," offered Blau before adding, "Unless Harmony Frost snatches you up first."


Despite his age, Blau looked good in the waiter's suit. Most of the bellhops and waiters at the Grüner Wasserspeier were in their late teens, or early twenties at most.

After leaving the investigator's office the two had made for Harmony Frost's room at the hotel, forgetting all about repairing the broken window at Blau's safe house. During the aircar flight over, Blau had Tredway access his Blackhawk mercenary database and get info on Harmony Frost, whose dossier revealed her to be an ex-trooper who was now pursuing fugitives in the Marches as a bounty hunter.

"You sure can pick 'em," Blau did his best Solomani-billy accent for effect, but even he had to admit, her merc ID photo was worth a second gander.

Of course Tredway had no inclination to blindside New Frontiers with what was happening in the morning, so he made a couple of wireless calls and roused the company's chief counsel and they transferred scanned versions of Shrale's documents to him, along with the sketchy details of what they did know.

"It's highly unlikely that Delgado will proceed in full until you're in custody" was the advice of the distinguished, but tousled-haired attorney Ehrlenmeyer, in the aircar's view screen. "They're not the type to go off half-cocked. However they might try some sort of publicity stunt, but we can counter it by denying the charges and keeping you out of sight. Tell me, have you used your credit cards since you've been back on Gram?"

Tredway acknowledged he had, to purchase shuttle tickets, the travel agent's car service, the tickets for the show, but the incident at the restaurant had forced him to leave before paying for dinner. He went into as much detail as he could.

"A gunshot in the alley outside the restaurant, and one of the guests heard it, good! I'll make sure I've got copies of the police report before dawn. If there isn't one I'll see that one's filed. We'll obtain a list of all credit purchases made at that establishment that evening and have a solid group of witnesses. I'll make sure the company pays for the dinner you didn't eat. We'll make this look like it's the work of an unethical and illegal group of publicity hotheads trying to frame a valued and law-abiding employee and stain our good name. We'll fight fire with fire!"

Ehrlenmeyer's momentary zeal subsided and he added, "Best if I don't know your whereabouts, from now on. I'll remain in contact with Blau. We can't do anything about this Shrale character's presence here on Gram, but we do have friends on Excalibur, since it's our home planet of operations. It might be wise for you to get passage there. You'll have to delay at least until I can get an x-boat communiqué out to HQ. I'll make sure he's denied entrance once you surface there. After that you should be safe. Remember: I don't want to know where you are."

So after signing off they flew to the Grüner Wasserspeier, where Tredway had graciously arranged board for his foxy, femme fatale. Blau could gain access to any of the common suites simply by wearing a waiter's uniform, which had the requisite security chip sewn into the garment, something even the greenest private investigator knew. None of the trusted employees could misplace their access keys or give them to outsiders, at least directly. Blau knew a security man there who looked the other way on matrimonial jobs. At any rate, if she was still there her bags would be there and they could plan accordingly.

She was there all right, in the bathroom, showering.

Blau took up a pot of basic and six cups, and simply entered without knocking or announcing himself. This caused the lights in the bathroom to flash, the hotel's way to warn guests. On the bed were her suitcases. He spotted her hand purse and slipped a tracer pin along the edge. They would have the local police arrest her, making sure the lady at the Hungriges Geflügel who'd run for her life was available to identify her as being in the restaurant that night. When Miss Frost had stormed back into the ladies' room, someone had to notice, especially if she was carrying a pistol in plain sight.

The shower shut-off suddenly. The door to the bathroom cracked and half of Harmony Frost's soaking-wet face poked through.

"Who the hell are you?"

"Höfliche Kaffeemadame," Blau presented the tray and clicked his heels together in an old fashioned manner, plastering his best smile across his face.

"I don't want it... get out! Wait I'm sorry. It's been a rough day. You'll have to give me your number so I can tip you."

Blau had no idea of the real waiter's ID number. He rattled something off, put down the tray and started to leave. When the bathroom door closed he paused at the bed and snuck a peek inside the opened briefcase on the bed. No frilly nighties or lingerie, just a pistol, an ACR, ammo, a night suit and night vision gear. Apparently the lady was going out on the town tonight, loaded for bear.

Blau left, wondering how she got all that hardware past customs at the starport.

As soon as the outer door closed Harmony Frost appeared in her robe. The tray had no billing sheet. She called the front desk and her steel-trap mind recited the phony ten-digit code that Blau had made up. Not only had the hotel not sent her the coffee but they had no employees with that ID. After hanging up, she removed a small sample kit from her makeup bag and sprayed the tray, revealing four sets of nice prints. Then she grabbed her portable communicator.

"I think the target just reconned my room. We'll need to implement Phase Two. Understood?" There was an acknowledgement on the other end and Harmony Frost shut it off. She noticed the flap on her bag of weapons had been moved. She opened it but found her seven millimeter pistol there, along with everything else, so she casually went back into the bathroom to finish drying her hair.

03:02 HOURS

Jothar Blau's wrist-comm buzzed, it was an update from Ehrlenmeyer giving him the latest information, so he transferred it to the house's comm-set. Tredway stepped back out of camera range, but close enough to see and hear. The two had fixed the broken window shortly after arrival and spent the rest of the time, drinking coffee, playing cards and alternating between watching recorded holo-vids and the local news.

According to the New Frontiers attorney the police had been happy to arrest Harmony Frost - in more ways than one. First were the incidents at the Hungriges Geflügel: the gunshot, the scared woman and the beautiful, bounty hunter storming the restroom with an auto-pistol, but technically that was all in a day's work. What really pleased the patrolmen was her answering their knock on her hotel room holding nothing but a towel, apparently she never got dressed after Blau left. Of course this ruled out a hand search, but one had to take things as they came, besides that was a matron's job. So they took her to police HQ after her subsequent dressing in some rather tight casual wear.

Later, just as Counsel Ehrlenmeyer had strategized, both the woman in the restroom when the shot was discharged, and other guests had sworn to the fact that the woman in custody was the person who'd dashed into the restaurant, gun in hand, and searched the ladies' room, before leaving.

"Well, they'll be holding her for questioning for the moment."

Ehrlenmeyer replied that the only charge was that of a public disturbance, since no gun had been found.

"But that's crazy!" Blau sat up, "The suitcases in her room were filled..."

"The suitcases in her room contained clothes, that's all, no weapons. She has declined to make any further statements until she has legal counsel. So far she hasn't hired anyone. I'm pressing the police to limit her comm-calls but frankly they're not listening. Since they found no weapons and she cooperated by giving an initial statement that she was outside, heard the shot and found the pistol then saw what she thought was a wounded figure enter the ladies' room she went in to help, rushing out after because there was no one there. She's claiming to have left the pistol outside. Someone else must have taken it. As a registered mercenary, she's got a permit to carry a weapon. It looks like she's broached no laws."

Blau looked at Tredway.

"That's not all. She's claiming a man masquerading as a waiter entered her hotel room while she was showering. The police have sent a forensics team to fingerprint the tray the man entered with. She's proposing that she's being framed by some unscrupulous third party who followed her from the restaurant."

Blau shook his head. The tables had turned.

"I've signaled the Excalibur HQ with our request and the x-boat dispatch should leave at 0900 hours this morning for Excalibur, keeping it as brief as possible. From this point forward, I don't want to know where you are, either of you, for I can no longer assist you. Clear?" Ehrlenmeyer signed off.

"Sounds like she's had some seasoning as a bounty hunter," remarked Blau. Things weren't resolved but they were still free. "I won't be able to use my aircar anymore, especially if the police are looking for me and my fingerprints. Looks like I'll be using an alternate identity and all that cash after all."

Tredway stared out the broken window, "We'll need to arrange passage off world."

"Yes, but how? All the major ports use facial recognition software in their security systems. We'll be spotted if we enter any terminal."

"My travel agent can arrange passage and I can request it be in the name of a third party," explained Tredway, "Or for that matter you could too. But you're right: how do we get the tickets and onto a starship without being seen?"

09:16 HOURS

During overflow periods - and Christmas holidays certainly qualified - Gram's starport had taken to relegating certain craft to orbit, in that unless they had business on the planet, like loading and unloading cargo, they remained off-world. While not fool-proof, this practice helped ease both crowding and security concerns, but did place an extra-burden on orbital customs. Ships in orbit were allowed to send down small craft to recover crew at liberty but were on the "honor system" about reporting any intermediate cargo or passengers they might acquire while doing so. Small craft gathered on a grassy field nearly a thousand meters from pads for larger vessels. Here, security was virtually non-existent.

The pair had asked their air taxi pilot to set them down on a dirt road a half-kilometer beyond the auxiliary landing field. From here they made the trek on foot and a simple chain-link fence had been the only physical obstacle. Ground snow wasn't too bad despite intermittent flurries since dawn. Twice during the taxi flight Tredway's wrist comm buzzed with a text-update from his travel agent, concerning reservations off-world on some passenger liner. The pair concluded it was Ehrlenmeyer's staff laying a false trail to aid their escape.

As a courier for a freight company, Stalen Tredway was familiar with starport overflow protocols, as this arrangement existed in various forms where ever spacecraft went. The trick was finding a ship with a crew that wasn't overly honor bound. So far, no takers. It had been twelve consecutive denials, as none of the crews were headed rimward.

The thirteenth was a cheery-looking, black, pock-marked, 10-ton pinnace, with an equally cheery-looking shuttle pilot: tall, thin, scraggly long hair, dressed in an all-black spacesuit with a matching black eyepatch on his left eye. An unlit cigar jutted from the same side of his mouth. With the wind whipping up, he didn't seem to appreciate the seasonal charm.

"Whaddya want?" the cigar never moved.

"Passage, off-world."

"We don't take passengers."

"We've got cash and we're willing to be generous, what with the holidays and all."

The man launched an impressive globule of cigar-juice-spittle in response.

"Are you deaf?"

Tredway and Blau decided to leave, making it about a dozen steps before Tredway touched Blau's arm. The two turned back to the pinnace.

"Perhaps we can make a different type of arrangement?"

The pilot moved his cigar to the other side of his mouth, then fished a crowbar from the nearest utility compartment.

"Instead of credits I was thinking of a trade," explained Tredway, hands raised. "I have one hundred cases of Lumineux Premier that I don't need." Actually Tredway had arranged for two hundred cases to be trans-shipped, but didn't want to sabotage Rolf Heltänzer's Christmas plans completely. There was still an outside chance that New Frontiers would have a janitorial opening in the new year.

This stopped the pilot dead in his tracks. Eyepatch brought the crowbar up to rest on his shoulder, using his other hand to access a hand-comp on his belt. He spoke a few phrases in a language neither man understood. Tredway was pretty sure he was checking prices. The cigar drooped along with his jaw, and his good eye widened momentarily as it viewed the data. At three hundred credits a bottle it was all profit for a freight crew... and that was the price within the subsector.

Eyepatch recovered quickly, "Show me."

The black, pock-marked shuttle lifted off, setting the trio down a few minutes later near the port's freight storage yards where Rolf's shipment was being held. Tredway used an electronic access key-code to open the storage hangar doors.

There it was.

Once again the cigar drooped and Eyepatch stood there nodding. He inspected a few crates at random. Thirty seconds later he used the voice link on his hand-comp to contact the mothership in orbit.

"Wraith calling Abbadon, Wraith calling Abbadon, come in, over."

"Go ahead, Wraith, over."

"Request permission to bring up two passengers, over."

"Very funny, Wraith, over."

"Seriously. They're offering one hundred cases of Lumineaux Premier, over."

The radio went silent. The Wraith's pilot didn't strike either man as the stand-up comedian type. "Repeat, over."

And he did, adding that he was staring at it all and from what he could tell it was the genuine article.

There was a longer silence before the next reply, which sounded like the same strange language the pilot had spoken into his hand-comp earlier. It prompted Eyepatch to open a storage compartment and retrieve a thick disk with a pair of rubbery hose connectors. It attached to the hull of the pinnace with a deep "thunk" and he plugged the two thick hoses into a pair of external power couplings, then activated the device.

Appearing suddenly like a ghost was another bizarre individual, a tall, emaciated human, wearing what looked like a cross between a cape and a bat's wings. The rest of him was dark clothing, undoubtedly black if the pilot was any indication. This fellow was semi-transparent and when he moved it looked like silk curtains rippling in the wind.

"Hologram?" Blau asked one-eye.

"Isomorphic projection," was the reply, "It utilizes electron entanglement, Bell-state measurements, quantum teleportation..."

Blau raised his hand, indicating he didn't require a physics lesson.

Tredway's text-messager went off for the third time since they'd landed. He stopped gaping at the ghostly figure and studied his wrist-unit. It was yet another confirmation message from his travel agent about different ticket reservations. Ehrlenmeyer's staff was working overtime, cranking up their billable hours.

Watching the projection was mesmerizing. It swept across the intervening space like a winged demon, gliding gracefully in the air, circling over the crates of champagne several times. Whoever it was, they were obviously enjoying themselves. After a few minutes he finally landed. The face constricted into a rictus-grin of almost diabolic satisfaction.

"Gentlemen," it hissed, "Permission to come aboard is granted."


Tredway had heard stories of the Merchant Princes of Skull, but this was his first time meeting one.

Damian Grumm sat perched on his overblown chair/throne at the head of the dinner table. The galley, if one could call it that, had all the charm of a mausoleum: soft lighting, plenty of shadows and organ music. Tredway felt like they were attending a funeral service. The chamber's ceiling was a fresco depicting the Grim Reaper offering to ferry freight in exchange for bars of gold. It fit the current situation almost to a tee.

Grumm had insisted on his pilot bringing up the two passengers first, along with one of the opened crates of champagne, so they could toast the deal in person. They would wait with him while Eyepatch returned to the freight yard, along with a pair of helpers to load the rest of the cargo. The helpers aboard the Abbadon were just as creepy as their master: humanoids of an indeterminate nature, cloaked in dark robes with cavernous hoods. Tredway had qualms about the lot of them going out in daylight, but greed conquered any supernatural restrictions they might possess.

Forty-five minutes later the pinnace docked with the Abbadon and Tredway and Blau found themselves flanked by two hooded figures brandishing ACRs.

"Did you get all two hundred cases?" asked Grumm.

One of the mysterious, cloaked figures nodded.

Damian's hands came together in a soft clap, "I'm afraid this concludes our business gentlemen," Grumm's rictus-grin had grown larger than the one after he'd conducted his fly-by-inventory of the champagne. "Escort them to the airlock." Apparently making lots of money was only topped by double-crossing vulnerable clientele.

The figure on Tredway's right changed hands, producing an auto-snub pistol and fired, striking Damian Grumm right below the iconic skull-patch on his chest. Grumm rocketed up from his seat, his eyes bulging, and he ripped open his fancy, undertaker's suit, before collapsing on the table, face-first.

The hooded figures pressed their ACRs into Tredway's and Blau's sides to emphasize they were still in control.

One removed it's hood, revealing the angelic visage of Harmony Frost.

"How in the hell..." the words slipped from Tredway's mouth in a gasp.

"Your travel account, genius. The text-messaging system on your wrist-comm uses the satellite positioning system to confirm delivery." She rattled off Tredway's account number, then the phony waiter ID that Blau had given her in the hotel. "Being a certified bounty hunter makes one privy to all sorts of public information," she flexed her eyebrows twice for effect.

"I saw the end of your parley with these goth-freaks at the freight yard. You took off before the corporal and I could do anything. However we were monitoring their radio traffic and we knew they were coming right back for the bubbly. You'll be happy to know all but one case is still planetside and secure."

She snapped up one of the unopened bottles on the table.

"Corporal," she said to her robed partner, "I figure we'll celebrate in style once we rendezvous with the extraction ship." Her gaze turned back to Tredway. "Don't worry, once I turn you over I'll reimburse you for this," she put the bottle back down, then wiggled on her weighted glove, motioning for him to come with her.

Tredway's stomach muscles clenched involuntarily.

"I had to zotz the guy with the eyepatch. From what I understand from your dossier is that you're a pilot." He'd also mentioned it to her when he told her the story about the terrorists on the shuttle flight. "I'm taking you up to the bridge. You get this tub to the rendezvous coordinates and I won't have to hurt you..." she licked her lips suggestively, "Sweetheart."

It was a full, six-hour burn at 1.1 gees to get the clunky Abbadon to the rendezvous point. There, another vessel, a much larger one, was waiting. LIDAR revealed it to be a Kinunir-class battle cruiser and it was all lit up like a Christmas tree. The ship had no transponder signal, so they didn't know her name, but the radio scanner picked up a hail from it on the L-band with the correct contact phrase.

Frost and her corporal locked the Abbadon's crew in a stateroom and jammed its electric door. They left a plasma cutter so they could eventually get free. By the time they did, Frost, the corporal and their bounty would be long gone.

The larger ship exposed an inflatable docking passage. Frost had Tredway and Blau's hands in plastic wraps behind their back. She stuck a bottle of champagne in Tredway's half-fastened jacket; after what had transpired, the courier certainly felt like toast. The four of them went into the airlock, and waited for it to cycle.

Then the lights went out.


Author's Notes...

Stalen Tredway and Jothar Blau are repeat characters from the Courier story.

Harmony Frost was inspired by both Veronica in Agent Cody Banks & Abbie Carmichael from Law & Order. She's the believable "bright, beautiful & tough girl that can play with the boys" character and sometimes you're unsure if she's a protagonist or antagonist, but you still watch. Also an NPC in another space RPG, but a fun one.

Shrale is actually a psionic character from another space RPG, but Traveller/GURPS offers similar psi-powers thanks to his Unusual Background: Raised by Droyne. He's a spy, based off Colonel Flagg from M*A*S*H who had the annoying ability to appear and disappear mysteriously, often with the lights going out. Obviously his role is less comedic than his TV counterpart.

The gothic-heavies who work for the Merchant Princes of Skull have been something I've always wanted to do, but never really got around to in any detail. I did use them once in a PBP many years ago, but it was just for a lead-in. OK, the Isomorphmic Projection device is probably over-doing it, but David Pulver had fun in his campaigns with speculative technology, so why not me? ;) Yeah, Tredway might run afoul of these guys in the future...

Alternate title was "The Dog & Pony-Tail Show", but, yeah...

Naturally I could fall into a complex and convoluted trap what with going into great detail with the Hiver Manipulation and the Aslan parts of the story, but rather than go into extensive detail peripherally, I concentrated on just the main characters for this story, and providing the reader with enough to understand their predicament. The ending is a "blind-sided cliffhanger" but I felt it fit, at least for what I wanted to do with this portion of the story arc. I have a few ideas on where it might lead...

I apologize for my poor use of German, I utilized Google's language tools to give it a bit more Swordic flavor than my usual straight English, the execution might leave something to be desired. Don't take it personally.