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Belgard/Egryn 138-1107

"Gin" exclaimed the Zhodani trader for the third straight hand. He pressed his cards to the table and sure enough it was another winner. I returned to the starport now and then to assist in various matters so I struck up a conversation with him over a meal in the canteen, trying to see if he knew anything. It led to a friendly game of cards.

I was sure the fiend was using some supernatural psi-power to fuel his play. He'd taken three straight games, from me, something that hadn't happened since my first year in the IISS. However, it wasn't as bad as that Hiver monkey on Glisten. At least he wasn't bumming my cigarettes.

"You know Herr Tredway," Iashedl began, "I've been reviewing the local news bases. I understand there's a small war going on here." His galactic wasn't bad. Aside from my occasional run-in with Belgardians, I was barely using my translator medallion lately.

I nodded and he continued with his thoughts.

"While my patron restricts my actions, we are both men a long way from home and in need of some help. Something in the form of cooperation. Something that would foster goodwill between us as our governments have often done with each other in the past."

Boy that's long past, I thought. Of course He meant the cooperation between the Consulate and the old Confederation, something that hadn't concerned me. I'd never let on that I was actually an imperial citizen. Most Imperials saw that relationship as a bit one-sided: the Swords needed the Consulate and not vice-versa.

"That seems logical," I said, waiting for the rest of his proposal.

"While it would be inappropriate for my patron to contribute men to your cause, we do have some equipment that we seldom use, that might be useful in NFTP's resolution of the violence here."

"Such as?"

"A small shuttle, equipped with a very nice sensor suite. We use it for hunting on remote worlds where expediency is necessary," he said meaning that when the Zhodani got hungry they didn't care how they got their food. How predatory. It also meant that they didn't pursue these means as a matter of course in their day-to-day living. How civilized.

"Could I see it?"

Within an hour I was in orbit with Iashedl inspecting the shuttle in the small craft bay of his freighter. It was about 5-tons, but fast and maneuverable. I had no idea what any of the readout-touchscreens did. The man boasted it did have a fine ground-scanning sensor suite and his pilot explained it could map terrain and identify shapes. Very nice.

"And what would you want in return for the use of this craft?"

"A modest fee and the assurances of New Frontiers and the Barracai Technum they won't come after us when this is all over. I believe the Imperials have a saying: live and let live."

I'd never heard of it, but the scouts had a saying: Keep your eyes open and leave the fighting to the marines.

But his attempt to find common ground made sense. I had no problem with it and I didn't think BT would either.

"Further," he stated, "I'd like the ability to bring my ship here from time to time and trade with the locals."

The Belgardians were tough to deal with. They hated outsiders -- at least those who weren't putting money in their pockets. I explained this to Iashedl who understood he'd have to supply his own grease with the locals and NFTP and BT would simply look the other way.

"How about Pa'an?" I asked. This was a nearby world where a Zhodani settlement was located. "If our ships put into Pa'an, I assume we'll get an equally warm reception?"

Iashedl laughed, but I could see he wasn't amused.

"And if we do any trading there, we'll use you as a middleman?" I added quickly.

That got him.

"Agreed!" he shook my hand enthusiastically. We were cementing things here and he was strengthening his position there, an arrangement nothing short of equitable.

So with that done, I spent the next three and half hours with his pilot logging the shuttle controls and learning how the sensors worked.

Dawn came early the next day.

I was so bleary-eyed from writing up the trade agreements with Masunn and getting them hammered out with Iashedl that I barely got two hours of sleep. After propping myself up I swallowed a pair of stim-pills, showered then got myself to the starport. A few years ago at this time I was pursuing the narrow duties issued by the IISS, now I had a hand in negotiating and drafting up agreements between trading partners. I'd come a long way. I didn't feel so tired.

The Fechter's commander had gotten a pair of techs to paint the Zhodani craft, since Iashedl had wanted any Zhodani cooperation to remain out of the picture as far as our enemies were concerned. The shuttle sported a fresh coat of primer identical to our own two cutters.

Iashedl had given me its unpronounceable Zhodani name, so I simplified things and christened her the Peekaboo.

I did a quick review of the notes I'd taken the previous day, then grabbed the trooper the brass had designated as my observer and we headed for Camp Alpha.

They were very glad to see us.

The previous night someone had killed six workers by blowing up one of the pre-fab huts at the site.

How it was done wasn't determinable, since we had no investigative or forensic services available to us. These guys were just soldiers. Apparently Belgardian authorities weren't interested enough either as they felt the money they were getting entitled us to occupy the ground, not commandeer their infrastructure in any way. It was obvious they were remaining as neutral as possible to minimize the possibility of Belgardian targets by the terrorists in their selection process. So far the bombings and killings were limited to off-worlders, their materials, except the workers at the camps. These were stray citizens who needed money. Arkesh wanted to minimize the effects of such tactics on the populace in their eventual return.

After giving the camp security officer a briefing we took the Peekaboo up for a few fly-bys and got the terrain mapper going. It took two hours but we generated a first-rate map, which we relayed to the Fechter via laser-comm. Then we moved to the second camp and repeated the process in half the time.

For the next six nights straight, we did over flights of each site at different times before we got lucky.

After the third day we'd gotten into the habit of setting down within a few miles of Camp Alpha and waiting for night to fall. We'd then get airborne and proceed to the target and fly in circles for a while, move to the Camp Beta and repeat the process. Naturally this was boring and predictable. The range on the sensor unit was enough that we could stay out of sight of the ground (we still had to use running lights in accordance with Belgardian law) and more or less out of earshot, depending on the wind.

We'd just concluded the second over flight of Camp Alpha and were heading to the other camp, when I suddenly changed my mind and decided to revisit Camp Alpha. It was after lights-out below and the FLIR unit beeped indicating that the expert system had found a possible target. The readout showed a figure moving away from the camp. We kept our distance and relayed our findings to the Fechter, which would coordinate the ground operations.

The figure moved off into the surrounding area, met with a pair of individuals for some time. After several minutes the single figure moved back to the Camp and right into the arms of the security detail.

Meanwhile, we followed the two others to a remote camp they had several miles distant. Just after dawn, using the port's troop detail and a cutter, the Fechter's commander sent in a strike team.

All were in custody within an hour, along with a treasure trove of local money, plastic explosive of various types complete bomb-making gear, a powerful radio and some weapons. They were recruiting the camp workers into selling out their compadres with the cash. The pair would supply them with the bombs or weapons, since they were already inside the camp they were invisible as long as NFTP looked outside and could conduct their subversive ops with a great deal of discretion and feel reasonably safe.

The troop commander made sure that the workers at both camps knew what was going on.

The locals convened their own lynching party and killed the collaborator we'd discovered at Camp Alpha. Again the word was spread, but we never found a second pair of suppliers for Camp Beta. Eventually the problems subsided entirely. The feeling was that after the first team had been apprehended the second must have gotten off-world.

I conducted patrols for as long as we had the Peekaboo, before finally shipping out with her. After four months I'd been recalled to Glisten and we'd stop at Pa'an on the way and return her to our Zhodani friend.

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