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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue.

“Any of you ever hear about the Massacre at Kovitch, or Aarnsdorf, or Feln? The man we’re about to meet, that was all his work. General Ranjit Lloyd-Kurnikov of the Black Watch Battalion does not take prisoners, and does not accept surrenders. So don’t do anything stupid, or interrupt me while I’m conducting my business. I won’t be surprised or object if he shoots one of you just for looking at him.” The arms dealer known as Mr. Perkins glared at the gang of shanty-men standing in a rough line next to his truck. He hated visiting shantytowns but sometimes it was necessary to get short-term help. If you could call this help. Turgenev had little enough to recommend it without this lot.

Starports and the towns that grow up around them were the natural collecting point for vagrants, itinerant travellers and ex-space hands looking for work, or passage to the next system. When work was hard to find these men and women would dig in and build themselves ‘shanty towns’ on the outskirts of the port. These towns were wild, rough and dangerous, like the folks who populated them. Criminals found them useful as labor and cheap muscle. They were easy to hire, worked for cash, and nobody noticed their coming and going, or their not coming back.

And if he doesn’t shoot you for interrupting, I will, he thought. Gods, I can’t wait to get off of this backwater nowhere of a world. After this sale, I’m going to take a nice long vacation. If Kurnikov uses this thing as much as I think he will, the Glaudens will want to know where he got it.

One of the men, an unemployable laborer scraped up from the shantytown of a world with no discernible economy, raised his hand like a school boy. Mr. Perkins ground his teeth. “Yes?”

“I heard this guy was a general in the Alliance of Dormarc. What’s he doing way out here on Turgenev?”

They sure grow them thick around here, Perkins thought. “He got cashiered as a general for losing too many battles, so he formed a private army. Armies need weapons, which is why he’s meeting me. I have not met him before, but he’s known everywhere. All you have to worry about is following orders, and keeping your mouth shut, and you’ll get paid.”

The man raised his hand again. Mr. Perkins shut his eyes, resisting the urge to shoot the man right there. “Why are we meeting him out in the woods then? Why not meet here in town?”

Before Perkins could reach his sidearm, the gang boss smacked the man on the back of the head. “That’s enough outta you. We’re out here so the cops don’t spot us, see? What, you think the boss is going to pay the import taxes, or let the Feds grab up his gear? This way we all get paid, and get to keep all the cash, no taxes. And that nice work suit you’re wearing as a bonus. Now stow it and get to work.”

Maybe I’ll take this guy with me when I leave, or maybe just pay him more, Perkins mused. Not that I wouldn’t shoot him too, to cover my tracks. But I’d feel bad about it. Maybe.

Turgenev was off the normal trade routes so there were few Glauden Navy patrols to dodge, and lightly populated so much of the planet was uninhabited. The local technology was unsophisticated, which meant the starport would have a hard time detecting the cargo he had hidden inside a normal shipping container. Despite the advantages as a meeting place, Perkins was anxious to finish this and leave. He wanted to be far away from here to get beyond the reach of the Kingdom, if they should happen to find out how the General got his weapons. His supplier in the Lycosky Trade Protectorate had already vanished before his masters realized what he’d done.

With luck this was the only time he would ever meet this client. Perkins had spent twenty years in the fierce world of the equipment trade, where a level of ruthlessness was expected. Even so, Kurnikov made him edgy. The rumor was that the man had a pathological need to completely crush every opponent. The weapon in the crate would enable him to do just that, on a scale he would not believe possible. The results would not be pretty.

Perkins put that thought from his mind by reviewing his communications that had set up this meeting. Thirty million creds, his biggest score ever, were riding on getting this right. He scowled again. Time to eat something, and double-check his departure plans. He wanted his ship’s crew standing by to leave the moment he returned with his payment.

Several hours later, Perkins was still scowling, but not at his temporary crew. They were busy arranging the contra-grav trailer they had disconnected from his truck. The gang boss had that under control, and they were working with something close to efficiency, other than making too much noise. Good thing the clearing he had selected as the meeting point was miles and miles from any local habitations.

Now he scowled at the uniformed man standing before him. He was surprised how unimpressed he was. The general wore a fancy uniform, with lots of medals which rumor said he had awarded to himself. His dozen men also had complicated and impractical uniforms with matching head-dress. Helmets was too serious a word for the colorful array of wings, badges and ornaments. Their two vehicles were marked with Black Watch logos and no attempt at camouflaging. Lloyd-Kurnikov himself was not physically imposing, and the way he stared down that long pointy nose rankled Perkins’ pride. It did not escape his notice that all of the General’s men had gauss rifles slung by their sides.

Still, this was business, not a social call. The Liuciello-Drexell Alliance was losing its war against the Kingdom of Glauden for the newly opened planet Tomallo. The two sides were nearly even in technology and size of forces, but the Kingdom was all under one banner. The LDA couldn’t get its act together and coordinate their forces. Lloyd-Kurnikov did have a reputation for brutality, but more importantly he now had a reputation for winning. The LDA were bringing in this mercenary’s Black Watch to tip the balance in their favor.

However much the General annoyed him, Perkins was here to make a deal. He hoped that his most businesslike tone would mask his dislike of his client. He gestured towards the large storage box resting on a contra-gravity pallet, next to a large utility truck. The work gang flowed around it, disconnecting the pallet and setting it on its stand. Perkins’ gang wore much more practical jumpsuits and caps. Also, only the gang boss and the men he had selected as team leaders were armed.

“Let me get right to the point, General. Your current employers are losing the war and expect you to turn it around for them. You’re here because you want something that will give you a decisive edge before you go in against the Kingdom forces on Tomallo. I assure you that this will give you that edge.” He gestured towards his gang boss, who barked more orders.

The work gang opened the storage box to reveal a squat, semicircular machine covered in a shiny gold-colored metal cowling. Its surface was smooth except for a single operating panel on one side and a two-meter globe resting in the top center.

“It's very pretty,” the general sneered, “but I’m not impressed yet.”

Your eyes say differently, Perkins thought. But you’re trying to hide it. Probably he was going to try undercutting the price they had agreed upon. Fine, you get the full sales pitch, then. It cost me a lot of time, money and not a little danger of discovery to acquire this bit of hardware.

Aloud, he said “You will be. This is a Mark XIII Predator-series mobile meson accelerator. It’s capable of remote operation including free-flight; it can do two hundred twenty-seven kph at a height of ten meters. It can execute intelligent evasion patterns while conducting fire missions. The Predator’s range is limited only by the sensor data your battle computers can provide it. Meson accelerators can fire through any matter, including the planet we’re standing on. Standard yield is seventy-five terajoules at point of detonation, but its maximum tolerance is closer to one hundred TJ. You could destroy a troopship in orbit with this, instead of fighting the troops on the ground. Units on the ground won’t even know what’s coming until it hits them, and the primary blast radius is over twenty meters. Officially this device does not have a market value because it is not available on the legal arms market. We agreed on thirty million, considering the difficulty of acquiring the hardware in the first place.”

“And the Glaudens have nothing like this?” Lloyd-Kurnikov asked hurriedly, then frowned as he realized he betrayed his level of interest.

“Of course, they do, but only aboard their larger fleet elements as spinal mounts. And they have no suspicion that anyone who will be on the ground on Tomallo will have access to this technology. I acquired it from a vendor with connections to the Trade Protectorate. Nobody but the Big Four star nations have this kind of equipment on the battlefield. If we’re agreed, I just need to see the money, and I’ve got the master control codes right here.” He held up a computer memory card. Perkins’ team leader and two other men stepped forward, waiting to inspect the payment.

“Very well, I have your price. As you requested, in Protectorate-backed bearer bonds,” the general motioned to bring the money. Three troopers lumbered forward, each placing a large strongbox on the ground. Mr. Perkins’ gang boss opened the boxes which held neat stacks of official looking documents. He dug into each box, examining for fakes or dummies. Satisfied, he looked up and reported “All looks OK, boss.”

A sudden noise from the north side of the clearing caused heads to swivel. “Proximity alarm,” Perkins snapped to the gang boss. “Go find out what’s out there.”

“Right, boss. You, and you, come with me.” The gang boss drew his sidearm, pointing out his team leaders. The three men hurried towards the tree line and disappeared into the shadows. More of Perkins’ men started forward, but he waved them back. “We'll wait to find out what that was before we actually finish the deal,” Mr. Perkins informed the general. “As long as I still hold the operator codes, no deal has happened and there’s less for witnesses to witness.”

“Fine. But I’ll not wait long.” Lloyd-Kurnikov sniffed. A lieutenant approached him. “General, should we prepare to withdraw? He gestured at Perkins. “If this man’s security isn’t up to the mark, let him deal with it.”

“That will be all, Lieutenant. We move when I say we move.” Obediently the officer stepped back. None of his soldiers had even looked when the alarm sounded.

A minute crept by, then bursts of automatic fire shattered the stillness. Then voices were shouting orders, and a flare blazed skyward. Mr Perkins snatched at his comm unit. “What’s happening?” he barked.

“Ambush, boss! It’s the Feds, maybe a dozen of them! We’re …” the voice broke off as more fire rattled through the clearing. Then more shouting, and a grenade banged, shaking the foliage near the clearing edge.

“Give me the codes, we’re leaving!” the General demanded, snatching the card from Perkins’ hand. Lloyd-Kurnikov rapped out orders to his soldiers, who rushed to pack up the weapon. More shots rang out at intervals. His lieutenant unslung his weapon, but the General stopped him. “We have what we want. Set up a trailing defense with your vehicle half a kilometer behind mine. The weapon goes with me. Wait sixty seconds after we depart, then catch up.” The Lieutenant saluted.

“Oh, and Lieutenant, if anyone does follow you, do not hesitate. Exterminate them. These Federals are probably still using basic slug-throwers, and their armor can’t be a match for our weapons. No witnesses, Lieutenant.”

“Mount up,” Mr. Perkins announced to his remaining men. “What about those guys, boss?” a henchman asked warily.

“If they survive, I’ll give them a bonus. If they don’t, I guess I don’t have to pay them at all.” The workmen hastily loaded the crates of bonds into the contra-gravity truck and piled into the rear. The truck sped away into the darkness.

General Lloyd-Kurnikov sneered at the arms dealer’s hasty retreat. Despite the continued gunfire from the trees, their withdrawal would be orderly and at a standard travel pace, not a headlong flight like the criminals’. The interruption was a boon for him, anyway. He wondered how far Mr. Perkins would go before he stopped to count his money. Eventually he’d realize that he’d been undercut by several million credits. He cast a final sneer in Perkins’ direction, and climbed aboard his personal vehicle. “Driver, return us to the ship, the same way we came.”

As the two parties hurried off, the gunfire suddenly died away. Silence covered the glade for several minutes, then Captain Alex Kingsway, former Glauden Space Patrol navigator and recently Mr. Perkins’ gang boss, emerged from the brush. He tossed aside the cap Perkins had issued him several days ago. “All clear, guys, come have a look.” Scott Heath, Glauden Army medic, and Jake Radley, Space Patrol Engineer, joined Alex in the clearing, dropping Mr. Perkins’ gear into a pile. Scott hesitated to drop the auto-rifle which he had planted in the trees earlier that day. “Nah, we should destroy it all.” The gun, and a thermite grenade, topped the pile of gear.

Once the fire got going, Scott clapped Alex on the shoulder. “Pretty nice operation, I’d say, given that we only had two weeks to set it up. Nice work.”

“It’s not that there weren’t about a million ways that could have all gone out the airlock, and taken us with it,” Alex snorted. “I’d say it’s pretty close to a miracle we even heard the rumors about this deal in the first place.”

“I still wish,” Jake commented, “that we had time to contact Glauden Intelligence and let them handle it. I was sweating fuel rods from the time we hit planet-side.”

“Once we found out what the General was after, and when the sale was going to happen, there wasn’t time to contact the Kingdom. We were this close,” Alex pinched his fingers together, “to getting smoked when Perkins’ man started asking around about us. Our cover stories were collapsium-thin. Jake, you and I still look like Navy types no matter how long it’s been since we showered last.”

“I figured that you’d look too competent to be a shanty-man, Alex,” Scott replied. “All I had to do was look drunk, which isn’t hard. I got drunk a lot in the Army, so I knew I’d get picked.”

Jake chuckled. “Even guys with brains can have a run of down luck, and end up in shantytown for a while. They just wait for an opportunity to come along to get out again. I don’t think our cover was that poor, Alex. Besides, a guy like Perkins isn’t going to expect anything but stupid out of a shanty-man. I doubt he or his flunky looked that closely at anyone.”

“The easy part, I think,” Alex remarked, “was positioning ourselves to get hired when Perkins came looking for local muscle. Remember that one guy, Dunphy? I though he was going to fight me for the foreman job and ruin it for us. Once I convinced Dunphy to back off, it was easy to make myself gang boss, with you guys supporting me from the get-go.”

“Once you were the boss, getting all of our other gear into place for the set-up was pretty easy.” Scott conceded. “Except for that one close call with that shantymen Norbert getting nosy.”

Alex took out his comms unit and pressed a button, nodding in satisfaction as a green light came on. The comm began sending out a low-wavelength signal. “It’s working,” he reported.

Jake said “By now, Eddie should have a fix on the Predator’s position. Are you sure the homing unit was secure?”

Alex sighed. “Yeah, it’s right where you said I should put it. Can’t fall off, easy to overlook.”

“Okay, tell Eddie to take the shot.”

“Right,” Alex dialed the comm. “Eddie, it’s me.”

Eddie Howard, aboard their ship, the Standfast, clicked on at once. “No kidding, I thought it was the king.”

“Shut up. The target is under way. You got it yet?”

“Yep. Target is locked, warming up the turret now. Enjoy the fireworks.”

Jake drew a detector from his pocket and swung it around, until it beeped. “I’ve got a read on the signal. They should be over there.” He pointed towards the western horizon. “Let’s see if Eddie’s as good a shot as he says. This plan could still go wrong, you know.”

The three stood relaxing, watching the sky. A searing bright crimson beam lit the heavens for a moment, streaking down like the wrath of God. Seconds later, a thunderous whomp echoed through the clearing. Fire and smoke erupted skyward over the trees. Alex spoke into the comm again. “I think you got it, Eddie. Nice shot.”

“Thanks, but Jake’s locator beacon made it easy. Are you ready for a pickup?”

“Yes, sir. Meet you at the rendezvous in twenty minutes.” Alex withdrew another transmitter from another pocket and held it out. “Now for part two. Who wants to do the honors? I got the incendiaries into all three cases.”

Scott lunged, but Jake was faster. “Can’t let you have all the fun,” he laughed. “Besides, this part was my idea. And just like that,” Jake pressed the button with a flourish, “One arms dealer is out thirty million.”

“Seems a shame to torch that much money,” Scott grumbled. “I still say we could have stolen it, instead of using starfire.”

“No. I’m sure he could have traced it back to us. We needed to be able to walk away from this clean,” Alex replied. “This has hurt Perkins financially, but he’s still got his network of contacts, and he'll want revenge. Of course, once we can put Glauden Naval Intelligence on his trail, he won’t have time to worry about us.”

Kilometers away, Mr. Perkins and his men scrambled to get clear of the flames that burst from the rear of their truck. Seemingly out of nowhere, fire had engulfed all three crates, and rapidly spread to the vehicle’s interior. “Who in the nine hells loaded those crates onto the truck?” Mr. Perkins seethed. “Where’s my gang boss?” Then he stopped short, remembering he had left the man in the treeline dealing with the Federals. Probably got himself killed. After this I would have shot him anyway.

Perkins boiled. Seven months of work, several favors and thirty million in non-traceable commodities going up in smoke! The men of his gang stood staring in confusion, afraid to speak while Perkins raved at them, the General, and the world at large.

As the flames consumed the last of the truck, Perkins snatched up his comm unit and hit a preset line. “It’s me,” he snarled. “Find out where Kurnikov’s ship is docked. The bastard double-crossed me. Get our usual port controller to hold up his ship’s departure. And get me another truck.” He relayed coordinates then jammed the comm into a pocket. Finally an underling approached him. “What are we going to do now, boss?”

“We’re getting back to the port before the General does. If he thinks he’s going to get away with cheating me out of my biggest score in years, he’s dead wrong.”

“Uh, are we still going to get paid?”

The shanty-man never heard the shot that killed him.

The next day Mr. Perkins met with his contact at the starport. Finding the ship had been easy, but the Black Watch troops had been unwilling to give up any information, even at gunpoint. The argument had cost several of them and some of Perkins’ gang their lives, and still gave no answers.

The port officer showed Perkins some satellite data that answered the question. “You need not have worried, Mr. Perkins,” the man said. “I got a source in Orbital Control that says Lloyd-Kurnikov went nowhere.”

“The General was right next to the Predator when a starship in a low orbit had brought a fire mission down on it. Both Kurnikov and the weapon were destroyed,” the officer explained. “The ship’s not local, and I don’t know for certain who it was. The ship never landed at the starport. Its sensor and stealth technology were too good for our sensors to tell anything about it, other than it was there.”

“How in the nine hells did the Kingdom find out about the Predator sale?” Mr. Perkins yelled.

“Are you sure it was them, Mr. Perkins?”

“It could only have been the Glaudens. No one else would have been able to arrange that fire mission, and only the Glaudens would want to keep the Predator out of Kurnikov’s hands.”

Perkins’ assistant approached warily. “There’s one bit of good news, sir. I think I found out who it was that let it slip about the sale.”

“I very much want to have a talk with this person,” Mr. Perkins’ voice was liquid nitrogen. “Maybe, just maybe, he can give me a lead on who is responsible for this. Before I kill him.”