Kill the Courier
NEW FRONTIERS TRADING COMPLEX
SWORD WORLDS/BORDER WORLDS
Stalen Tredway walked out the New Frontiers office on Excalibur and into the pouring rain.
After being in the Human Client States for nearly a year, he'd finally been tasked with a job that returned him to the Swords. Upon arrival he'd been formally requested to provide an briefing for upper management about his activities and specifically his report of what had happened on Azald -- despite his forwarding them a fairly comprehensive electronic version via starship, months ago. They wanted to know what cooperating with Delgado had gotten them involved in, since his report raised several questions in their minds. So he explained the details of the operation in his own words, and eventually they asked him why he'd turned down the 10,000 credit bonus that Delgado had pledged for helping make the mission a success, and he told them.
He wasn't an assassin or a soldier.
There was an outside chance that NFTP might cashier him, but none of the company big-wigs present objected or even said anything. Oddly, they seemed to understand, or at least sympathize. He was more or less healed by the eight months of regular company duty in the sector after that, not that he'd really been seriously wounded psychologically. However he had changed, quieted down over the intervening period, and was slowly changing back. He'd kept a low profile and hadn't caused any further rifts. They dismissed him from the meeting and told him they'd likely have another posting for him by the end of the week.
Glad to be back, he thanked them and left.
The downpour didn't bother him, he had his wide-brimmed, plumed hat, a rain-proof static-cloak, gloves and boots. It was chilly but not unbearable, so rather than wait in the lobby, he called for an aircar pickup and went outside, partly to smoke but also so he could be alone.
According to his wrist-com's text display, the car service's ETA would be about twelve minutes. At fifteen he lit his second cigarette. Traffic was busy despite the weather, both ground and air.
Flying vehicles are a common site on Excalibur, but when an ultra-sleek, Rolen Politesse descends slowly and lands in front of you, it's somewhat hard to ignore, especially a bright red model. The windows were tinted so he couldn't see who was inside. The gull-wing style passenger door raised up and from his position, Tredway saw the bottom half of a feminine form in a long dress in the pilot's seat. A hand extended and motioned him forward. Whoever the lady was her finger-polish matched the car, and he bent down to see who needed his assistance.
His face immediately lost it's smile.
Hers hadn't, the greeting "Hello," issued forth, surrounded in her silkiest, smoothest contralto.
"No!" Tredway barked, almost immediately.
"It's good to see you, Stalen."
Stalen? She hadn't called him that since...well...ever. Even on their first combat-dinner-date, she'd been rather formal. The subsequent mission with Delgado had bombarded him further with a plethora of insults or the occasional I'm-just-teasing-nickname, because she gave him the impression she couldn't care less about him.
"Wish I could say the same."
"Need a ride?"
"That's all right, I have a car coming."
"I have a feeling your car isn't going to make it."
"Did you cancel my car service?"
She bit her lip, then nodded.
"How...oh, never mind," he flicked his cigarette into the flowing gutter. "Think I'll walk."
Tredway shook his head, took a step back and ran into something solid. And big. It was the corporal.
"Boss," he said, motioning towards the aircar with his clawed hand, "You get in," then gnashed his jaw shut twice in quick succession which reminded Tredway of the old Solomani expression: chop-chop.
Cornered, he stepped into the car. The door shut automatically and he watched as they pulled away leaving the corporal to stand in the downpour. The windscreen's super-wipers engaged and dealt with the raindrops.
"What about him?"
"He can handle himself," which was true.
"So," Tredway began, "What are you doing on Excalibur? Wait, let me guess: a contingent of Vegans saw me wearing a scuba mask last year while I was at the beach and thought I was making some sort of racial cyclops joke at their expense and you're here beat me to a pulp before handing me over to them for thirty pieces of silver."
A smile broke through on her face, "Very funny, Stalen. I always liked your sense of humor."
What he liked was that she was dressed in a body-hugging, black and grey number, covered with artsy swirls in an intricate pattern. It went down almost to her ankles. Sling-back pumps and fairly sexy stockings on her feet. Her hair was neatly arranged, flowing along her head into a well coifed, thick, but very chic, pony-tail. Underneath it all, climbing her neck was a black body stocking, over which lay a gleaming necklace that matched her earrings and bracelets. Around her shoulders was an elegant rain-proof wrap. But her eyes were the most devastating weapon in her feminine arsenal. Hypnotic pools of mystery surrounded by a subtle dash of eye shadow, more than enough to entice any pubescent male with half of a pulse. Her lipstick matched her nails.
"I suppose this is a disguise to lure me into a false sense of security?" he suddenly snapped open the compartment in between the pilot seat and his.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for a silenced pistol or a stunner."
Inside was a matching hand purse.
She shook her head, "Sorry, you're out of luck."
"Aha!" he snapped, intimating she meant him violence. She rolled her eyes.
"Is this yours?" he asked, meaning the Rolen. These things were expensive.
"No, a friend's."
"So, what do you want with me?"
"Nothing, just thought I'd drop in and see how my old friend was, maybe take him out for a drink."
"Aha! Am I going to wake up half naked and find a note from you in lipstick on my mirror?" after all, she was wearing a similar shade.
She laughed a little, having long since forgotten about the incident with the cutter pilot. "No. A serious, friendly..." the word "date" eventually emerged from the mesmerizing bank of fog in her throat.
"Yes, I thought the Gebirgsspitze might be nice."
Tredway knew it was, being one of the more upscale clubs in the city. The men he just left probably dined there. The corporal wouldn't have fit in.
"Oh, I almost forgot, I did bring something," she pressed a button and the compartment over his knees opened, revealing a thick envelope. "It's for you."
He peered inside. It was filled with imperial credits.
"There's ten thousand in there. Delgado asked me to..."
"I don't want it," and he put it back. "I'm not an assassin. You can tell Shrale what he can do with it."
During the intervening silence, the Politesse climbed up among the clouds. The auto-pilot responding to the route request, entered via her voice; ushering them towards the crosstown business cluster. The impressive golden spire of the 200-story, Himmel Dach building broke through. Up here the sun was shining. With a minimum of fuss, Harmony brought the car to a hover, then slid it into the parking shelf. As they walked to the elevator, she took his arm.
The ice queen melteth?
Tredway still didn't trust her.
At the insistence of his lovely companion, they sat at the bar, a bit of a let-down for Tredway since the club was setup with impressive furnishings. Her manner didn't change much: still playful-clingy-friendly even after they'd settled in.
A fairly lengthy discussion ensued over S-pills, scotch and hors d'oeuvres, which touched on recent events in their lives, with her even providing him with a glimpse into her private life, revealing she was learning to cook and play the guitar (although he couldn't imagine her using the instrument for anything other than clubbing some poor unsuspecting soul over the head with it).
Finally she came to it: "Are your pilot's credentials still in order?"
He had no idea what she was getting at.
"Would you consider working...with me...again?"
Whoa! He immediately shook his head.
"I told you, I'm not an assassin or a soldier."
"Well, I can assure you I have no need of either," which was true, since she was both herself, and had the corporal to back her up to boot.
At various points during their discussion she consulted with her makeup compact, usually while Tredway was speaking. She looked fine but on her last facial inventory, Tredway noticed that the mirror display alternated between that of her face and some sort of thermographic output, when she touched one of the little diamond studs on it's decorative outer rim.
Strangely, when done, she didn't change the course of the conversation, other than peering into the massive mirror behind the bar. Movement prompted her to abruptly turn away from him, in order to make sudden use of her portable communicator, in a semi-private fashion. He thought he heard her speak a string of fifteen or twenty numbers, before signing off.
Tredway caught the movement and then snuck a peek himself. A rather large, stocky fellow, going into the restroom, which was on the left, by the front door.
Whew! No one coming up from behind to club him into unconsciousness, besides that made no sense. She had him alone in the car, no need to bring him here if she'd planned violence.
The door to the bathroom opened again and the man who'd gone in, stepped out and nodded his head. Both Tredway and Harmony Frost were staring into the mirror and their eyes ping-ponged towards a table in the back. The nod was meant for the other man there, older, skinnier, but nicely tailored. The white-haired geezer promptly stood and made his way to the bathroom, exchanging places with the other one who took his seat.
After the older man had gone inside, she gave Tredway another clingy-touch.
"I think you should consider my proposal, we'd work well together," she said, patting his chest, in an affectionate manner before excusing herself to use the ladies' room.
Now where had he seen this before? No Vargr in the area, well visible ones anyway. The lights were still on.
Of course! She was working! And for once, he wasn't the target.
Ten minutes passed with no sign of Harmony Frost. This time Tredway had no intention of going looking for her, however his wrist-com buzzed shortly thereafter. A familiar, beautiful, pony-tailed head filled the tiny view-screen. He wasn't sure but it looked like she was inside a vehicle.
"Can you do me a favor?"
"I told you..."
"No, it's nothing like that. Go into the men's room. Please, Stalen. Just do it. It's safe."
Against his better judgement, Tredway stepped off his stool and strode the twenty or so feet to the men's room and entered, slowly. The place was gusting with cold wind.
Someone had cut a hole in the outer wall!
Despite the heavy gusts, his nose sensed the strong after smell of a powerful solvent, something he'd been exposed to in the scout service. It was used in evacuations and rescue drills to eat through virtually any type of obstruction. The scouts carried theirs in fairly large canisters. He was at a loss to understand how she'd secreted anything on that whimsical ensemble she'd come dressed in.
Aha! There was a fire extinguisher laying on the floor. Now he understood. It had been a setup.
Hovering just beyond the wind-whipped gap in the wall was a red Politesse, it's windscreen tint disengaged. From where Tredway stood, he could make out her form in the pilot's seat.
His wrist-com's speaker flared: "I left my pumps in there, could you do me a favor and collect them? They're Seiden-Schrittzers and cost me a fortune."
"I don't see them," he said, after pausing to look about. He stepped all the way into the opening to get a better look at the hovering vehicle, steadying himself by gripping the wall overhead, punctuating his response with a shrug.
He spotted the form of a white-haired man in the seat next to her, struggling, despite being securely bound and gagged. Tredway's mind briefly wandered, trying to imagine how she'd gotten outside with him, before her voice interrupted his train of thought.
"Try the ladies' room," she made a circular motion with her index finger, indicating he was facing the wrong direction. "Sorry about having to run. And think about my request."
"At least you didn't stick me with the tab." It'd been her treat.
Tredway turned around, preparing to exit, but found out that wasn't necessary. The layout of the bar was such that the two restrooms had been placed side-by-side. She'd cut a hole in the intervening wall first to enter and catch the target with his pants down.
So, he retreated, stepped through the gap and into the ladies' room just before someone had come through the same door he'd entered, undoubtedly concerned about their overdue friend.
Tredway spotted her footwear on the sink. The mirror bore a lipstick kiss, which matched the shade she'd been wearing. Yells issued from the men's room.
The courier snatched up Cinderella's heels with his left hand, while his right wiped off her au revoir with his hanky. Management would undoubtedly call the police when they discovered their new sun roof. No telling what sort of forensics were possible with lip prints these days.
He placed her shoes under his cloak, then he quietly slipped out of the ladies room, and out of the club before anyone got the wrong idea about him.
For once it was kind of nice not being the yarn the cat toyed with.
GRAM CLOSE ORBIT
THAT SAME NIGHT
Damian Grumm prepared to meet his guest.
Actually he had already met his associate, but under different circumstances. After being shot by a female who had somehow infiltrated his crew, he'd fallen and broken his arm in three places, and to add further injury to insult, torn his rotator cuff too. Instead of leaving Gram with two hundred cases of some of the finest champagne in the sector, he'd woken up in a great deal of pain, in one of his ship's staterooms while his men, who had also been overcome and trapped with him, were busy cutting their way out with a plasma torch.
His injuries had been too much for the ship's medic to tend to and he was forced to spend a humiliating string of days in the bright, sterile enivronment of the Gram downport's emergency ward. It hadn't been cheap either. While recuperating he and his eyepatch-wearing, first officer Roach, spent the time reviewing the Abbadon's security videos. They already knew Tredway and Blau, but hoods had been hiding the faces of the others. Subsequent shots revealed the person responsible for shooting him was a stunningly beautiful woman and her companion, a saurian.
Being mad as hell was an understatement, Damian Grumm immediately enlisted Roach to find out who these contemptible vermin were. A local investigator was brought in and he subsequently identified Harmony Frost and the corporal. For an additional incentive he also put Roach onto a rather nasty individual, with a reputation for violence: someone named Lopter; who at the time was finishing up the last half of a two-year sentence in Steinwand prison for assault. So they hired an attorney, and found out who was eligible for visits and where the prisoner was kept. Lopter wasn't cleared for visitors, but that wasn't a problem for Damian Grumm. Roach got on the list to visit another inmate, and used a ground truck to park in the visitor's parking inside the prison grounds, only a few hundred feet from the nearest cell block. He never intended to go in. He reported his truck as broken and was it was given clearance to remain overnight, thanks to the attorney who had arranged the visit. Roach had hooked the Wraith's portable, isomorphic projection unit inside the van with a pair of sufficiently large powercells and the ghostly image of Damian Grumm entered the prison well after dark and conducted a personal interview with his potential employee.
Lopter had been quite shocked when he found himself face to face with a ghost-like vision, composed of what looked like the soft, glowing embers of a dying fire, but shaped like a man. Speaking to Damian Grumm in the darkened wing of the cellblock was one of the strangest things he'd ever done, but potentially very profitable which mitigated the circumstances. A well paying job would be a great way to start his rehab. He had a Beowulf-class free trader, the Thokk, which his partner had taken coreward, into the Vilis subsector, to do some smuggling. Grumm hadn't bridled when he explained he was still inside for several months; the merchant-prince was more than willing to wait. In the meantime, Lopter would get word to his partner that they had a sizeable booking in the Swords and he could start the ball rolling, and be back here in time for Lopter's release.
That was seven months ago.
The galley's double-door slid apart. It was Roach with Lopter's partner. Sitting in the dark, Grumm's viewpoint was that the lighting from the outer passage, silhouetted those entering. Damian spotted the outlines of two people...er...one person and some...thing. Roach was about six feet tall, Grumm himself was four inches taller and knew how his stature compared to that of his minion. Whatever this was, it was at least a head taller than Grumm, and had large, pointed ears.
His normal procedure when receiving worthy visitors was that they came to him. However, with his pulse already racing, he broke tradition and moved forward, reversing the chamber's dimmer switch.
"Incredible!" he hissed, "Magnificent!", forgetting his self-control and studying his huge, hairy guest up close in the brighter light. It was a cross between a man and a Vargr. A giant, horrible, Vargr. Yet not. No Vargr legs, but the legs of a man. From the waist up he looked like a monstrous canine. When Grumm's studious exuberance continued, the man-beast let out a low growl.
Grumm quickly got hold of his curiosity and withdrew a step.
"I have the one named Blau," it grumbled, its voice a mixture of man and beast. Roach, who had fallen a step behind as well, nodded. The human tossed Grumm a hand-comp with a streaming video feed of the Abbadon's cargo bay. They'd just finished loading a small, cargo container, and verified that the cryotube inside held the inert form of Jothar Blau.
Grumm's rictus-grin of satisfaction surfaced, "Very good. Who's next?"
"Can't find Tredway, so I grab girl and lizard," The dog-man-beast said. "Sixty days, maybe more."
Grumm was ecstatic. First the appearance of the beast and now one of the culprits. One down and three to go. Plenty of time to plan the preliminary festivities for a long overdue airlock party.
He couldn't wait to talk to Lopter once he was released next week.
He had to find out where he'd gotten such a genetically-diverse specimen. The mercenary hadn't mentioned anything about his partner other than his name: Garm.
HARMONY FROST'S RENTED APARTMENT
The daily routine had settled in for Harmony Frost. She was here thanks to a pair of requests, one from Shrale and one from a private company. Delgado's meeting wasn't scheduled until the end of the week and the other was tomorrow. According to the briefing, all done by recorded video, someone had kidnapped a child of one of their executives following an ugly custody battle and had disappeared with them into Vilis. Blackhawk had scheduled her to meet a company representative in person, a pickup job once their starship landed and Tyrfing Down and conduct the preliminary interview. She would then evaluate the situation and apprise Blackhawk. Grab and gabs, as they were known in her trade, were necessary. She'd been able to make several of her own bounty recoveries thanks to similar work by faceless third parties. Now it was her turn.
Her five mile run that morning was brisk, she finished up by pausing out front as usual. A minimum of people were in the area: the fat letch across the street who always gawked at her. A garbage truck parked down the road, and a couple out for a late morning stroll. She shifted the multi-view sunglasses she normally wore into IR mode and re-scanned the area. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Something brushed against her ankle, then mewed. A cat. A beautiful black one with a simple collar and incredible emerald eyes. She'd seen it every day for the past few days, perched in the branches of the tree that stood next to her living room, however this was the first time up-close. It had seemed to be studying her, usually there watching her replenish fluids after her runs. She petted it, then went inside.
In the kitchen she pulled out one of the bottles of water positioned in the front of the refrigerator. She always drank after running, a common practice among exercisers. She cracked it open then put it back down as the sweat beading up on her forehead required a towel. She spotted the package on her bed that had arrived yesterday. It had slipped her mind and went and got it. Bringing it out into the kitchen.
Inside it were several replacement units: a verifier (a ranged lie-detector), perfect for the interview; three small cans of slipspray (spray-on-demand, synthetic ice); a tacscanner (hand-held radar); and a neural activity scanner, something she hadn't seen since her days with G2. This had two units: a laptop-sized processor and a wireless wand, hand-sized. There were data displays on both items. She plopped into her chair near the window and put in the info-chip for the NAS, listening to its audio.
According to the info-chip the NAS could sense and classify lifeforms within range by scanning the makeup of their nervous systems, piping this over to an expert-system which would then offer a likely analysis of the data.
Following the instructions she activated the wand unit and pointed it at herself. SPECIES HUMAN, INTELLIGENCE HUMAN.
A familiar sight greeted her eyes: the cat was back in the tree, watching her. She walked over to the window, opened it and scanned the cat. SPECIES FELINE, INTELLIGENCE HUMAN.
Great. Her brand new toy was already malfunctioning.
She tossed it down, grabbed her water and lay down flat on the sofa. She was about to drink when she noticed the cat had suddenly climbed to a higher branch, appearing in her line of vision. Her eyes locked on the water bottle as she brought it towards her mouth.
Wait a minute...
She lowered her hand with the bottle, sprung up and walked into the kitchen, grabbing the towel she'd left there, keeping the water bottle with her. As she dabbed her forehead, she looked in the mirror-like chrome of the kitchen's oven and noticed the cat had changed positions again. She returned to her original position on the sofa and grabbed the NAS.
The cat had moved yet again.
She raised the bottle to her mouth and feigned taking a drink.
So the device wasn't malfunctioning! The damn thing was intelligent!
She paced around the room like she normally did during her wind-downs, scooped up her sunglasses, then drew the curtains. She activated the tacscanner and left it on the edge of the counter. Continuing her routine, she waltzed into the bedroom and started the shower.
The data-link from the tacscanner beeped on the HUD-glasses Harmony Frost was now wearing. With the shower going, she didn't hear the door open, but the tacscanner showed her that something had entered the front room via the door and was approaching her bedroom.
From her position behind the night-table she saw an indescribable monstrosity appear in the doorway of her room moving with the practiced flair of an assassin. It wore military-style pants, had a web-belt strung around it's waist and stopped abruptly: sniffing the air with its horrific, fanged snout.
She was covered in sweat!
She lost her cool, panicked and fired a burst with the ACR she was holding. Two bullets struck the wall and at least two struck the beast near the hips, the bottom half of an altered combat environment suit taking the slugs after ricocheting off some equipment he had hanging there. With a speed that belied it's size, it rolled backwards and sprung up suddenly, doing a backflip on top of the counter, landing like an acrobat from some hellish circus! It fangs were bared and a combat knife had moved from its ankle sheath to its left hand. It had been expecting an unconscious victim, not a gunfight with automatic weapons.
Harmony Frost charged after it but had no interest in facing it down. A second, longer burst from her ACR ripped a nice swath across the back wall of the kitchen, aimed in the general direction of the beast's skull. Once again it's unbelievable reflexes engaged and it rolled off the counter and dropped safely behind it before the bullets rended its flesh. Harmony dashed for the door which was open, her feet kicking something in the process. An object slid across her rug and ended up on the WELCOME mat outside. It reminded her of an old-style combat computer. She scooped it up as she dashed out and down the nearby stairs.
Outside on the street was the garbage truck pulled up even with her building. A nervous Vargr leaned against the back, smoking a stogie, waiting for his partner to bring out a trash can with special contents. He took one look at the ACR and ran, since he'd only been paid to drive.
So Harmony took advantage of the situation and borrowed the truck to escape.
END OF THE WEEK
Thanks to Blackhawk, Harmony Frost had been taken out by the port security to meet the Delgado ship when it landed. She'd alerted them to the fact that the local meeting had been a lure for a trap. The security company backtracked the communiqués while she had lain low, but it was going to take time.
Delgado's Annecka-class courier, Kuldrin, had just jumped all the way from Vilis. After spending three days in seclusion, this would be Harmony's first time surfacing since the attack. The courier wasn't streamlined so passengers and crew reached the planet via a gig.
She cornered Shrale at the end of the gig's ramp, and convinced him to go back up with her.
"Well, this is a surprise. I had expected to meet you at the hotel not here."
"Yeah, I know, but something has come up," she dropped the hand-comp she'd retrieved after the gunfight on the nearest passenger couch, right in front of the Vargr. "I had a visitor a couple of days back." She described her attacker to him along with the smartcat. He regarded her with a great deal of interest.
"No one or anything I've ever heard of. There are black clinics that do experimental genetic research," was his response.
"This wasn't an experiment," she countered, "I got the feeling that this creature wasn't just a random mutation."
"And this?" he held up the hand-comp.
"It dropped off the thing's belt during the excitement."
He looked it over. A large model, popular in the Swords. It resembled a hand-spotlight: large, bowl-shaped top with a flat panel display and a thick handle of high-impact plastic, dirty and worn with use. From the base of the handle jutted a ring, with which it would allow it to be fastened via a cord for hands-off carrying. The ring was partially broken.
Shrale turned it on, and it booted. He spent nearly twenty minutes holding the device in some sort of focused trance before he informed Harmony Frost that her attacker was someone named Garm. Much like Blau's computer, there were a number of messages on it. Her assassin had been trying to capture her alive on behalf of a friend named Lopter, who was acting as a go-between for a man named Damian Grumm.
Slowly the pieces came together.
"Apparently this Damian Grumm fellow has made a list of four targets: you and the corporal, and Jothar Blau, who seems to be accounted for. That leaves Stalen Tredway."
Tredway she thought. Where was he? Her mind began going over options and scenarios. Too bad. She'd just started to like the guy.
2 WEEKS LATER
While Harmony Frost was dodging enemies, Tredway jumped to Biter, via Sacnoth. New Frontiers had branched out to handle profitable consulting duties in certain markets that dealt heavily in freight. He and a team of twenty seven were present on the agricultural world doing hands-on training before they'd head coreward into Vilis. He'd function as a courier and also be pressed into service as a pilot, should the need arise.
One of the first things he did was ask Excalibur to forward all messages to him there. They had his timetable and once things were complete on Biter, they'd forward them coreward to Vilis.
Unified Products had a remote facility near one of the mountainous regions of the upper continent. Here it was still warm but much nicer than those farther south. From this point, half the consulting team was getting a close-up look at automated lumber extraction and cutting-edge recycling methods. They'd need them as once they got to Vilis, Unified, living up to its name, would form a conglomeration of companies which had been given the go-ahead to implementing harvesting natural resources on a remote world. A great deal of the work was automated, but it also required a wide range of technology, and all that had to be transported from orbit to the planet, plus the resources would be moved into the interstellar market.
So Tredway spent the next six weeks learning what equipment was required, what support gear it required, what manpower went with it and how it was going to be phased into the Vilis operation. All of that taking place in between shuttling personnel to Unified's various sites around Biter.
100-PLANETARY DIAMETER MARK
X-BOAT MESSAGE DATE OF PREPARATION: ??? ADDRESSEE: CAPT G ESSIG C/O MERCHANT VESSEL THOKK SOURCE: TYRFING DESTINATION: GRAM SENDER: H FROST SUBJECT: BUY OUT I UNDERSTAND YOU'RE INTERSTED IN 4 PARTICULAR ITEMS, ONE OF WHICH YOU ALREADY HAVE POSSESSION OF. I CAN PROVIDE YOU WITH TWO OF THE REMAINING THREE IN EXCHANGE FOR CERTAIN PERSONAL CONSIDERATIONS, WHICH I'LL COMPENSATE YOU FOR WITH CASH. 100,000 CR. JUMP TO MJOLNIR IN 7 ??? WEEKS AND I'LL HAVE THE GOODS FOR YOU. I TRUST YOU CAN COME UP WITH SOMETHING CONVINCING FOR GRUMMPY CONCERNING THE MISSING ITEM. RF: 1487.200 MHz
Lopter eyed the readout from the pilot's seat of the Thokk, pausing to scratch his head. He closed his eyes in frustration.
"Well," he began, "NOW WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAND-COMP!" finishing up with a yell that echoed around the vessel's bridge and turned his face red. He threw his headset against the forward viewport in anger.
Sitting in the other crew seat was Garm, his snout twitching at his partner's comments. The beast thought back to that day in Harmony Frost's apartment and the gunfight. He still had two massive bruises on his right hip where he'd taken the slugs from her automatic weapon.
Lopter's voice dropped a few decibels. "Now we can't land on Gram!"
Luckily he'd radioed down for messages once they arrived, otherwise they might be facing more ACR fire.
The Thokk's travel itinerary had been among some of the other data that the Delgado people on Tyrfing had come across. The two kidnappers had sent Tredway several communiqués on behalf of Jothar Blau, summoning the courier to Gram, where Blau lived. Naturally they'd planned to snatch him then save Harmony Frost and the lizard for last. But when you arrive at a system and get a message from someone you're hunting AND who shouldn't even know you're there, it's a bit nerve-wracking, especially in this dangerous line of work.
"She also knows my new alias," he complained, meaning Gunther Essig.
"We leave?" asked the monster.
Lopter gave him a murderous look. He stood, paced around the bridge until he'd mulled this over, then pulled down the mic and activated the intercom so his orders could be heard, ship-wide.
"Hafr, Karle come to the bridge. Sandro transfer the extra fuel, then prep the gig. You're going down to the planet and do some looking around," he eyed Garm. "I want you to check in with the men at Blau's place, see if they have Tredway."
It was potentially throwing three of his crew to the wolves, not to mention a multi-million credit Ariklon-class runabout, but he didn't want to go back to jail. Lopter figured by the time the two men reached the bridge, he could concoct a cover story. He'd tell them that, and as far as they knew, it would be the truth, in case they were arrested or taken prisoner and talked. Subsequent exploitation of that knowledge would misdirect anyone using it. Pretty standard fare in his line of work.
So he told the men that his plans had changed. The Thokk would wait in orbit and they'd prep for an orbital refuelling then set their sights on Joyeuse for a possible smuggling job there. They were to check in via the orbital radio twenty minutes after landing at Gram's starport. Sandro, the runabout pilot, stared long and hard at him but said nothing, just short nods. He knew what was happening, the others didn't. Lopter had an collapsible fuel bladder filled with LHYD for a second jump-2 in the cargo hold. Sandro knew if he saw the Thokk again, it'd be several weeks from now, if at all.
Lopter gave Sandro three thousand credits and he and Garm escorted them to the runabout and made sure they launched. Shortly thereafter the mercenary got on the radio and placed an x-boat relay to the surface to Damian Grumm, using a plain-language code they'd agreed on.
There was a good chance that Mjolnir would be a setup and if it is, he wanted to make sure that he and Garm would have help.
2 WEEKS LATER
UNIFIED PRODUCTS REMOTE BASE CAMP 6
Stalen Tredway left the 5-ton, Morgan-class shuttle. He'd just flown nearly twelve thousand miles in a sixteen hour envelope. He wasn't exhausted, but he was getting there.
The last radio dispatch had been a strange one: Remote Base Camp 6 had wanted him there early in response to a possible emergency situation...which they were vague about. Something to do with a personal emergency for a couple of the other employees who might need to be airlifted to the starport for an emergency jump out.
As he'd found out in the scouts, his place wasn't to wonder why, just do. So he did.
Base Camp 6 was quiet. Four modular huts built around a pair of larger storage facilities.
Darkness had almost fallen and it was over ninety degrees out, thanks to an atmospheric anomaly. He paused to light a cigarette then made his way towards the main hut.
Inside he was greeted by a stranger sight. There were eight people inside, all sitting on the floor, against the same wall, knees drawn up and heads down.
"What...what's going on?" he asked. No one said anything, or even looked at him.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and a figure seemingly disgorged itself from the wall and moved towards him. It held an ACR. The figure disengaged the cybersuit's instant-camo system and removed its helmet.
"What are you..."
"I'm sorry. I've gotten myself into a terrible situation and I see only one way out of it."
"You need my help? I'm on assignment..."
"I know," she said cutting him off. "You're coming with me and I'm afraid I have to insist."
Her other hand drew the snub pistol from the holster on her hip and she shot him.
Shrale examined the twin cryotubes sitting side by side in the Annecka-class courier's cargo hold. The facial ports on the tubes had just begun to frost over but he could still make out the forms of the corporal and Stalen Tredway.
Using a multi-scanner and a gravitic imager he got the same results on both: high-resolution outlines and bio-readings comparable to each species in hibernation.
"I hope this is worth all the trouble I've gone through to help you my dear," he said.
Harmony Frost said nothing, just stood there, arms crossed, staring at the two tubes, hoping this would be the end to all her worries.
She'd have an answer in less than forty hours, as the Annecka-class courier was already in jumpspace, heading for Mjolnir.
1 WEEK LATER
Despite the bright sun and the tiny population, Damian Grumm loved Mjolnir. He was so happy he'd discovered this little bit of nothing. What was most appealing to him was the fact that the entire place depended on water from a single external source, this from talking to the port locals. He could make a fortune here, after muscling out the current supplier naturally and taking over. He could see improving the local's position by selling them water wholesale and letting them profit heavily, then he could hold back at critical points and make lateral moves with others, preferably one of the military leaders. It could lead to opportunities in other parts of the subsector. But first he had a little revenge scenario to play out, then onto bigger and better things.
In his message, Lopter hadn't exactly been truthful, he'd simply told Grumm that his men on Joyeuse had found and grabbed the others and they'd be awaiting their arrival by a third party ship. Both the Thokk and the Abbadon had spent the previous week here, in port, waiting, the Thokk's scanner watching the channel specified in Harmony Frost's message.
Finally the message came. There was a cargo container floating in space, just beyond the 100-planetary diameter mark of Mjolnir. Inside were the corporal, Tredway and 100,000 credits cash. She'd expect him to hold up his end of the bargain or an x-boat message would find it's way to Skull and Damian Grumm's friends, with the truth. With no other options, Lopter agreed. She explained the money was hidden inside Tredway's tube.
Thirty minutes later both the Abbadon and Thokk made orbit.
The ghostly form of Damian Grumm appeared inside the container. It was dark, but light from the cryotubes and his own electron form were more than enough. His emotion of anticipation ran high as his projection approached. Something was wrong. There were only two tubes. It had been suspicious enough that there was no ship here to rendezvous with, just the container. Initially, both the Thokk and Abbadon ran sensor sweeps from extreme range, but found nothing at all within three million miles. Then they moved to within a kilometer. Scans of the container showed nothing out of the ordinary. Imaging came back normal and nothing extra in the tubes. Grumm viewed the life-sign readouts from the tubes, which meant they seemed to be functioning normally.
Damian Grumm's isomorphic projection conducted a yelling match on the bridge of the Thokk, as it appeared there after inspecting the container's contents.
"WHERE IS THE WOMAN? WHERE IS THE SHIP?"
"My men must have had trouble with her," barked Lopter. "This was all they could get. They probably knew we'd be angry with them and didn't want to hang around."
Grumm continued his tirade, and cut back on the money he was offering Lopter and Garm for their help. Lopter made a good show of trying to negotiate it back up, but even with the pay cut and the money from Harmony Frost they were still going to make out like bandits.
So Lopter, Garm and Roach suited up, deployed a capture net and winched the container aboard the Abbadon, recovering the cargo with the help of its crew.
Lopter and Garm remained aboard, they wanted to watch the lizard and Tredway's reaction to waking up and seeing Grumm, as well as figure out a way to grab the cash. The mercenary was pretty certain he could take out Roach and Garm could snatch Grumm with one hand, threaten to break his neck if anyone else interfered. They all gathered around the tubes.
"Revive Tredway first," the mercenary suggested. Waking the lizard would only mean another person to deal with.
Roach started the wake up cycle and they watched the face of Stalen Tredway, it remained immobile, despite the green light indicating consciousness after a few minutes.
The recorded voice of Stalen Tredway suddenly could be heard...
"Gentlemen, you've just tripped a 7-second relay pulse which is hooked up to a portable nuclear device in my cryotube. I'm afraid this concludes our business. Bang, you're dead.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha..."
Which was followed immediately by a tremendous explosion.
1 WEEK LATER
Jothar Blau awoke from his eight week slumber party to find himself surrounded by Stalen Tredway, Harmony Frost, a medic and half of the Gram starport police SWAT team who had raided the storage facility that had been mentioned in Garm's hand comp.
"You're all right. We've freed you from your captors."
The police were herding two of men Lopter had left to watch the storage locker into their prisoner-mobile.
A pair of hands helped Blau out of the cryotube.
"What about that dog-face, and that other monster...Damian Grumm," Blau rubbed his bruised jaw. "He was part of this too."
"All gone, though I want you to know it cost me my life," said Tredway. They'd watched the bright flash of the nuclear explosion via optics at extreme range, before moving in and using active scans, which of course, detected nothing.
"What?" Blau was clearly confused.
The courier took Harmony Frost's arm, "The good part is I died laughing."
DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER -- From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman: "Don't shoot the messenger. Don't blame the person who brings bad news. This idea was expressed by Sophocles as far back as 442 B.C. and much later by Shakespeare in 'Henry IV, Part II' (1598) and in 'Antony and Cleopatra' (1606-07). The word kill may be used as a substitute for 'shoot.'" Related saying: "Don't shoot the piano-player; he's doing the best he can. Don't hurt innocent people. Originated in the United States in the Wild West, around 1860. During his 1883 tour of the United States, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) saw this saying on a notice in a Leadville, Colorado, saloon. It is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, but neither Wilde nor Twain has ever claimed authority."
Less of a focus on Tredway in this installment as I wanted to emphasize his reclusive nature after the events in The Seven Seals, which I felt was appropriate. Also a slight reversal of roles with Harmony Frost joining the ranks of the hunted.
And yes, if you're noticing similarities between Harmony Frost and the corporal to Maria Charles and Septimus Lither from BITS 101 Travellers you'd be correct, though it wasn't quite as intentional as it may seem. I gravitated to those characters almost immediately when I got that book, but never put them into any PBPs or scenarios. I also liked BITS Serabi Genetics which I felt added a little chocolate sauce to Traveller's vanilla taste (ala GURPS BIO-TECH), so I went overboard yet again with first, Garm (a variant of the Chronos-series bioroid) and then the smartcat, both from the fabulous GURPS sourcebook. It's all David Pulver's doing ;)
More speculative technology: I figured a pair of mannequins and a Distortion Field inside the cryotubes could hide the nuke and provide the false readings required. All of it being equipment Shrale would be familiar with and could easily obtain.
The Annecka-class Corporate Courier is from 101 Starships, while the Thokk is a Beowulf-class Free Trader modified to jump-2.
The ending was borrowed from the Charles Bronson/Michael Winner's oldy The Mechanic. Damn, talk about irony. I guess that makes Tredway an assassin after all :)