CHAPTER 3: WELCOME TO BELGARD
I was three steps from the bottom of the passenger ramp when the bomb exploded. I had thought my assignment to this trading outpost would be a bright spot on my current tour, especially after the information I'd gained at Glisten, but things had suddenly -- and noisily -- disintegrated.
On my right and to the northeast, a cloud of black smoke roiled two meters above the ground. Then there was a great groaning sound of shearing metal and the Marava-class starship heaved to the port as it's landing struts collapsed. Within 30 seconds a half-dozen men in combat armor ran past me and up to the side of the nearest hangar. A man wearing a port security uniform called to me, waving me towards him. I clasped the huge suitcase with Cr 325,000 in it and lugged it as fast as I could. I'd been assigned another paymaster job, for NFTP mercenaries working here.
"Stay next to the shed," he unholstered the handgun at his hip, waited as the cloud of smoke broke up then jogged up towards the hangars, where the other troopers had gone. Another handful joined them, followed by a wheeled ATV that roared up the narrow access roadway. The Belgard starport was unusual in that its landing pads were housed in between cramped clusters of metallic hangars which stored freight. The ATV's rear door opened and four more armored men poured out, plus a civilian.
The man looked around, spotted me and jogged over.
"I'm Trader Masunn. Welcome to Belgard."
By next evening I was aboard the Fechter, an 800-ton mercenary cruiser New Frontiers had dispatched to Belgard. After examining the information the Hiver device had extracted from our Arkesh rivals, management had determined Arkesh was leaving the region due to fiscal and logistic problems: namely their trade war with McClellan Factors, Baraccai Technum and other locals was forcing them out of the system.
Baraccai Technum was emerging victorious, at least so far, but the trade war had taken its toll on them as well. Stretched to their limit, BT was forced to share the region with "friendlies" -- groups that would trade and not war with them. Besides, BT had its hands full with McClellan Factors.
At any rate, the Fechter reached Belgard approximately three weeks before me, remaining in orbit helping guard NFTP interests at the port, lest Arkesh's starships return. The locals held some animosity towards this development, but the reinstatement of trade boosted the local economy, since New Frontiers was bringing a half-dozen extra subsidized merchants and free traders into port. What was causing friction was the fact that New Frontiers hadn't implemented the same payoffs as their predecessors and the locals were trying to get their point across. It was also apparent Arkesh had left behind a subversive infrastructure in an attempt to salvage their previous status quo.
"According to the Port Authority inspectors the blast followed a few feet off the plane of the ground," the leading sergeant drew a diagram on the dry-erase board. "Emanating from this cargo container and across to the trader. It severed the service shed at about chest level and chopped off the ship's landing struts, both fore and aft."
"Sounds like TDX," said one of the fire team leaders. I was present because I'd witnessed the blast.
The leading sergeant continued, "Part of the blast ran up a cargo ramp and into the cargo hold. They were unloading some ground vehicles. It killed the ship's cargo master, and six laborers, and damaged most of the remaining cargo."
With the pay delivered to the mercenary contingent, I was supposed to remain posted here for five months, assisting them in any way they saw fit. Since I was a newcomer, I was pressed into service as a civilian observer, which meant I was to remain at the port and report anything untoward.
As a precaution, the troop commander issued me a machine pistol from the Fechter's armory.
As the days passed additional problems arose. The Fechter held three squads of eight troops, two of which guarded the planet's natural resources (zuchai crystals). After the bombing, command assigned an additional six men to the port, to raise the profile of security for NFTP traders there. This seemed to work, as there were no further attacks over the next three days. However it prompted action in other spots. In a concerted move, sniping attacks commenced at the remote sites, resulting in the deaths of several workers and causing work stoppages. The NFTP mercenaries were shielded by combat armor, but the local workers had no such protection. This forced the commander's hand further and he began rotating his details in a random fashion. This didn't faze the subversives, who seemed to be well informed. Wherever NFTP was weakest, whether at the starport, or at the frontier sites or in between, the terrorists struck, starting fires, kidnapping workers or destroying equipment.
I turned up some interesting facts. The port's database matched a starship on the SQUID data that Finger had obtained on Glisten. A free trader named the Coreska, which fronted for Arkesh, had left port on the day of the bombing. Her cargo manifest was unrevealing but she carried two passengers who were both from Trexalon in District 268. I looked into the passports of the two passengers, I found their paperwork was unaccounted for. I discussed this with the Fechter's captain, the troop commander and chief trader Masunn, who concurred that the Coreska had likely transported both the explosives and bomb makers. It also meant someone within the port authority was working for Arkesh or the terrorists, no doubt why they'd been so well informed.
The troop commander immediately began formulating a plan to flush whoever it was out, and I began planting misinformation in specific places at different times. Unfortunately, this revealed nothing and events proceeded pretty much as they had.
I discovered how the terrorists knew our moves.
Apparently Arkesh had equipped their terror column with a fair amount of sophistication. I was hiking back from a wooded area near the port when I spotted a flying object. No larger than a dinner plate, the craft hovered and raced about, following a squad of our troopers patrolling the port grounds. It remained in the area for a few minutes before disappearing among the buildings. I alerted the duty officer immediately.
Further talks with the Fechter command group and the starport tower confirmed that their search radar only worked at an altitude above the building tops of the port. Small flying objects could also be confused with avians, so ground control simply ignored these blips. The discovery of flying spies was passed along to each of the squad leaders at the frontier posts as well.
It was also unknown whether the craft was autonomous or remotely piloted, or how many there were, so I was enlisted to find out what I could.
We shot one of the spy-drones down today. Since our enemy could follow our troop's movement, the commander began varying his assembly areas, mostly inside hangars where observation could not be conducted easily.
By assembling a pair of squads outside the hangar, having them march inside and board a cutter (going out the back), he made it look like the troops were boarding cutters which shuttled them to remote areas, all the while leaving behind a pair of squads, who slunk through the port alleys to hunt their aerial adversaries. This was expensive in terms of fuel, but necessary. I took up spotting from the tower and coordinated my findings via radio to the hunter teams: four crack shots armed with laser rifles. These were the only men allowed to fire, since the regular troopers all carried ACRs and couldn't shoot without having misses rain down upon other portions of the port and the surrounding areas. The troop commander and I determined a likely spot where the spy-drone's control post was -- a copse of trees just east of the port.
The spy-drone was eventually felled and the Fechter's speeder dispatched immediately to scour the surrounding area, but no suspicious persons or remote control unit was found.
Port engineers examined the spy-drone and determined it was an remotely piloted unit, but with a limited endurance. The spy-drone relayed its findings via an optical sensor (which had IR and night vision) by encrypted transmission. Despite the tiny transmitter, it could still reach a listening post within a five to ten mile radius, which was too big an area to patrol without abandoning the port.
I remained at the port to watch for more spy-drones, but no others appeared. The spy-drone explained a lot, and was likely that each of the terror units in the remote areas were probably employing similar methods. After three days of relative peace and calm, I was sent to Camp Alpha, far to the north.