HUMAN CLIENT STATES
JTAS SYSTEM DATA-SUMMARY ITEM: PLANET AZALD DIAMETER: 6,600 MILES DENSITY: 5.0 G/CC OR .92 EARTH STANDARD (MEDIUM IRON WORLD) ATMOSPHERIC COMPOSITION: OXYGEN-NITROGEN
Yadda, yadda, yadda...
POPULATION: 28,000 MOSTLY HUMAN SPECIES ALLIANCES: COLONY WORLD WITH TIES TO THE BERROLD SODALITY (QV)
With a flick of the switch Stalen Tredway replaced the local planetary data-summary on his hand-comp's screen with the graphics display frame which revealed the CA-260 and BD-52. The face of the salesrep at the information booth twisted into a momentary mask of mock pain.
"Still using combat armor?" he rolled his eyes before adding, "I hope your boys don't eat or drink six hours before they get suited up," exaggerating the point that there were certain sanitary considerations for soldiers wearing combat armor for long periods of time. "Ah, your squad gunners use the BD-52, now that's not bad. It's Imperial so there's plenty of parts, if you've got the patience to wait for them not mention the cost. The Imperium is at least 20 jumps away from this part of space. That's one expensive supply line to have going."
Tredway nodded and took back his hand-comp. The consultant punched a few buttons on his terminal and then spoke into his head set. The flat-screen display brought up an unusual looking set of power armor.
"Meet The Zelica, latest and greatest from Arrdv Utitur and..." he held his hand up after Tredway's face moued, "I know what you're thinking: it's Vargr. But..." the display animated and the legs and helmet split off and were replaced by human parts. "It's interchangeable with human sectional pieces, that way if your squad or platoon is a mixed bag of nuts, you can swap out the cashews. Plus, it's twenty-five percent cheaper than the BD-52's list."
Tredway looked unimpressed.
"The problem with my people is that they're traditionalists. They do have a mixed bag as you put it, but when it comes to hardware, especially for repair and maintenance they want to make sure there's a steady supply of parts available, not to mention reliability."
The consultant cocked his head and conceded those were points he was familiar with.
"I'm not saying," Tredway continued, "That they wouldn't purchase a few units for testing or as a stop-gap, but by and large, when they make a commitment, they don't want to be left holding a bag of nuts either. Have anything Imperial...at all?"
The consultant tapped a few more times on his input device, whispered into his mic and waited. The screen spat out a tabular display, with a large section highlighted in flashing yellow.
"Well, as a matter of fact we've got some Imperial cans in the system. Unfortunately that ship hasn't arrived yet. She's tagged for tomorrow...AM..." He scanned his inventory screen, two of them weren't highlighted. He covered his headset mic and tapped the consultant next to him. They talked for a few moments, until the roar of a 30-ton ship's boat flying a few hundred feet overhead drowned out everything.
The information booth sat about two hundred meters west of what was actually a parking lot, but now doubled as a small craft landing field. Over sixty small craft, most of them modular cutters were parked here, lined up side by side, like an old Solomani school bus yard. The roar finally died down as the tubular ship banked east and then rose up quickly into the sky. Tredway kept an eye on it, then turned back to the consultant. He and his neighbor had resumed their brief tête-à-tête.
"Good news and bad news," he reported. "Like I said the ship with the Imperial cans hasn't arrived yet, but, Leko," he craned his head towards his neighbor, "Came down on a cutter with a hardware rep who had cargo spliced with four or five other shipments," his finger pointed to the two, unhighlighted entries. "He saw two Imperial cans aboard her."
"Great!" called Tredway, rubbing his hands. "When can I see them?"
"That's the trouble. No one here can demo that inventory, it's not ours. I'm afraid looking at it won't really offer anything more than a tri-v spec sheet. The other thing is that I don't know which cutter it's on, or where it is."
Leko, looking up from his cubicle, shrugged.
"Awe, come now...surely you want my business," Tredway tried to appeal to the customer always being right.
"How many units are you interested in?"
"Eight," said Tredway quickly, "But, I might be able to swing twelve. If I can get a good, long look at them, I can submit a maintenance recommendation too, providing I've got some hard data. Seeing it up close and personal, will catch the brass' eye."
The consultant wasn't impressed, twelve units wasn't worth his rummaging through the cutter pilots with Leko, it'd be wasting sales time. There was a steady stream of customers and his job was to move current inventory, not help a cheap prospect conduct a research project.
"Well, I'll see what I can do. Look, if you're going to be here in three days, why worry about it? Just enjoy yourself. I'll be here for the duration. Once the cargo gets off loaded and consolidated with our inventory," he tapped his terminal, "I'll be able to point you right to it. Come back and see me."
The consultant stood, gave Tredway's hand a limp shake and then went on to the next customer needing help.
Walking away, Tredway fished out a cigarette, examining the long row of cutters and other small craft gathered at the make-shift port. The former parking lot's asphalt had been covered by special, super-dense, metal plates so these high-tech, beasts of burden could use the lot for off-loading cargo and passengers with a minimum of wear and tear on it. The scene reminded him of a scout depot he'd been to on Vreibefger, but not nearly as cold.
Tredway chided himself. He should've said twenty, not eight or twelve. He could've bumped it up to thirty with that part about the maintenance. That would've guaranteed the consultant's interest. Too late now. Well what was three days? It was three days longer than he'd like to stay here. So he thought it over and came up with another way to shorten this wild goose chase.
The entire wild goose chase had begun after leaving the Abbadon. He'd started out as the prisoner of the lovely bounty hunter Harmony Frost, along with his friend Jothar Blau. They'd just stepped into the airlock on a Kinunir-class vessel when the lights went out. In fact, all the electronics inside the airlock went out including the computer-controlled ACRs, flashlights, you name it, all except the timer on the sleep-gas grenade that Shrale had secreted in the air duct.
Shrale. The super-spy operative of Delgado.
Boy what a pain. Not a pain in the physical sense like Harmony Frost, but one of those guys who never seemed to run out of options.
Tredway remembered waking up in the battle-cruiser's sickbay, finding himself splayed out on a medbed along with Harmony Frost, Jothar Blau and the corporal, each reclining on a medbed of their own. Then Shrale entering and informing them they were his charges now. He went over that he'd been in the room when Blau had come in disguised as a waiter, and how he'd watched the corporal change bags with Harmony Frost before the police arrived. Then, later, he'd followed her to the port and listened to her deal with a ship captain that agreed to jump her, the corporal and Tredway (and Blau), out of the system. How he and his men had approached the ship crew and offered them the chance to jump out or be blown to bits. It was a no-brainer, so they left, after providing Shrale with the rendezvous coordinates, hailing frequency and code phrase naturally.
Harmony's reaction to all of this was a first-rate temper tantrum, claiming her reputation was ruined, not to mention her loss of income. Of course the mega corporation couldn't care less. The corporal took it pretty well. A saurian, he just sat there quietly, munching a food bar, watching it all unfold like some futuristic soap opera.
However, over the course of the next few days Delgado had changed its stance, at least towards Tredway and New Frontiers. While they too had been targeted by the slanderous communications which New Frontiers was technically responsible for, the entire incident really wasn't much overall, but, never-the-less, something they had to look into. When Delgado's extra-Imperial analysts noticed how their recent problems spinward dovetailed with New Frontiers' presence there, they were willing to drop all formal charges and suits, providing New Frontiers would cooperate. So faster than you could say Human Client States Tredway was reassigned.
As for Harmony Frost, Delgado regarded her as just another mercenary. Shrale, however, seemed to appreciate her style. She could be reimbursed for participation in this scheme if she and her partner were interested. He could intercede on her behalf.
Eventually Delgado's true reasons surfaced: during the past year a Delgado starship carrying many millions of credits worth of inventory vanished in the HCS. The mega corporation had lost almost fifty highly-trained, valuable employees in that incident, never mind the monetary considerations. Delgado didn't think it was an accident, but there was only one way to be sure. The region was rife with corsairs, pirates and mercenaries of all racial compositions and when some of the technology re-surfaced, the company's suspicions seemed to be confirmed. But they needed to be certain. People were put on the project, but they still needed help, since it wasn't their bailiwick.
So, they offered Tredway and Harmony Frost a job. Tredway was placed on "Special Assignment", and Miss Frost, dead broke and jobless, finally agreed. Delgado promised a ten thousand credit bonus if the mission was deemed successful for those who made it out alive, which seemed to indicate the two points could be mutually exclusive. Not necessarily a great motivating factor.
At any rate Tredway was certain of one thing: the corporal would have done it for more food sticks.
Harmony Frost and Tredway moved into the HCS sector, split up and starting hunting. After a little over three months, contacts put them onto a colony system in the interior portion of the sector, named Azald. The colony made extra money every quarter by allowing arms merchants from the surrounding subsectors to conduct a massive mercenary arms show where they sold all sorts of equipment, to all sorts of buyers. It was a small place overflowing with thousands of rich soldiers and mercenaries all here to see and buy equipment, causing it to quadruple its population during each event.
So that's what Tredway was doing here: insinuated into the crowds, posing as a buyer for his company. He had enough experience with mercenary organization and procedure from both the scouts and New Frontiers. He wasn't the perfect man for the job as far as Delgado was concerned, but he'd do.
DROP POINT BAR
And that experience with the scouts had shown Tredway a number of things, including that pilots were an eclectic bunch. When you put together the infrastructure required for an arms show, and have dozens -- no, scores -- of pilots involved hauling sentients and cargo, they have to go someplace when they're not buckled-in. Since they tend not to follow scholarly pursuits, they usually flock to a watering hole.
Tredway spent thirty minutes at the Drop Point, the sixth, make-shift tavern he been to tonight. He was almost out of Sobriety-pills. He wanted to track down the pilot who knew Leko.
"Yeah, I brought him down the week before the show opened, why?" asked a fellow in an orange crew-jumper at the bar.
Another blank look.
"Well, he's been putting me off. I got into a card game with him two nights back and he didn't have enough cash with him. So I let him slide on the table stakes rule thinking he was a good guy. My hand made me greedy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not bad mouthing the guy, but its been two days and the prick won't pay. He keeps telling me he left his roll on the cutter and that he'll get it to me any day now."
The blonde-haired man shook his head, "He never mentioned anything about a roll."
"Well, I had a few drinks with him yesterday and he said something about stashing it in some battledress units that were part of the cargo." Tredway tossed down a shot, and followed it with a long exhale. "Well, I suppose if someone did help me find it, I'd have to cut them in. Two thousand credits is a lot of money," he added, appealing to the man's entrepreneurial spirit. "At this point I'm just interested in knowing it's there, so I can sleep."
The pilot's eye raised, "I guess I actually don't know him that well, so he might have stashed it without telling me," which prompted Tredway to spring for another round.
"I'll be back here tomorrow night," said the courier after a second shot. "Maybe you could check in the meantime?"
"I can't promise anything."
Tredway shrugged, "At least you're honest," wadding up a bill for a tip, tossing it dejectedly on the bar, giving the impression he was fed up with the whole situation, then left.
Outside, alone in the night air, he activated his wrist-com. "BRAINMAN calling HOTMOMMA, BRAINMAN calling HOTMOMMA, come in, over..."
The small display lit up and Harmony Frost's face appeared, for some reason she looked agitated. "Stop calling me that!"
Tredway smiled, Harmony Frost kept him at a distance socially, so he'd fallen to teasing her in little ways to make their working relationship bearable. "I told you: I'm EAGLE, you're BEAGLE. Over...", she continued.
"Rrrruff. Made contact with GOLDENGOOSE, six feet, one-seventy pounds, blond, blue eyes, wearing dark blue jacket and orange jumper, over..."
"Oooh, sounds like a real man, over..."
"Your glove might have to sit this one out, over..."
"Very funny, BEAGLE. Think he's wearing a cup? Over..."
Tredway winced. "We'll see if he takes the bait. Stand by. BEAGLE Out."
So Tredway fished a cigarette out of his pocket and had a smoke. Halfway through it the pilot walked out, alone; flagged down a passing APC and hitched a ride, leaving Tredway behind, so he radioed ahead to EAGLE.
"This your tub?"
The pilot spun around, before spotting the figure coming around the nose of the modular cutter. It had a sexy, feminine voice and ran its hand along the underside of the ship's solid nose.
"Yeah, I'm the man in charge," his manner eased once he got a good look at her in the moonlight. Long hair down, even in olive drab, she was enticing.
"This thing wouldn't happen to have a shower would it? I'm here on assignment and my brainless CO bought a bunch of survival gear and he's making us test it. I've been sleeping under a tree for the last three days, six clicks from town, no bath, no toilet..." she grabbed the ends of her hair and examined them cross-eyed, before flinging them back over her shoulder. "I must look like hell."
"Well," he said, patting the hatch, "It's got full facilities and one nice, cozy bunk," he pretended to mull the situation over. "I suppose I could let you test it out."
Harmony gave him a playful look. "How thoughtful. All the other guys in my squad are jerks. I wouldn't mind spending a night away from them either," she walked past him, further down, taking in its length, before turning around. "Especially if it means a shower and a comfortable rack." She stretched slowly as if she were ready for bed. "You think you could leave the hatch open? I want to go back and stuff my bag with a few blankets, make it look like I turned in early," she came forward. "Now that I think about it, I don't feel so good."
The pilot stepped close, intercepting her. The upright position of his zipper indicated that her pre-flight recon had aroused his interest.
"Turns out I'm a medic, and I would prescribe a shower and bed rest," he half-whispered, before moving in.
Harmony pulled away from his kiss after a second, nimbly dancing around him. It wouldn't do to let things get out of hand prematurely.
"Hold that thought," her smile looked demure but wouldn't have fooled a blind man. Then she sniffed her underarms, "God, I can wait to get out of this pickle suit," gave him a girlish grin and a quick wave, before suddenly running off into the darkness, calling out: "I'll be back!"
The pilot watched her go, his mind percolating on the last few words out of her mouth. He bounced up and down on his toes twice then activated the cutter's hatch via remote and went in.
Inside, he suddenly realized he had no idea of her name and that frankly, it didn't matter. He'd get that later. He had to see if, thanks to that sucker at the bar, Leko had left him a two thousand credit present...then a little clean up for his new bunkmate. The cutter was a mess.
Harmony Frost gave the pilot two minutes before she returned. He'd left the hatch open, so she simply scaled the drop ladder and went inside. She could hear a faint series of thumps coming from the deck below. She unbuttoned her top halfway down, undid the quick fasteners on her boots and slipped them off, then her fatigue bottoms. Her bikini briefs were camo, but it was doubtful he'd notice that detail. She slipped a hip flask from the pocket where she normally kept her auto pistol then went down and made her surprise entrance, explaining she changed her mind and wanted to shower so she could "turn in early."
Fifteen minutes later, Tredway, who'd finally arrived was now anxiously loitering near a utility building a hundred meters away, when he observed the interior cockpit lights of the cutter flash on and off twice.
"Slutta-Hari strikes again," Tredway said as he reached the cutter's lower deck. "You seem to have a thing for pilots."
Half-naked Harmony Frost had the unfortunate soul by his ankles and was dragging him into the bunkroom. His jacket was already off, so she only had to deal with his boots, jacket, jumper, and shirt, before craning him over her shoulder, and flopping him, unceremoniously, face-down into the bunk in his skivvies. His forehead thudded against the wall.
"You really know how to hurt a guy," mused Tredway.
"Don't you forget it," she said, realizing he was staring at her rather shapely, bare legs. She snatched up her fatigue bottoms and plunked herself down on a crate.
"When I came in, I caught him in the forward locker," she stuffed her right leg through first, then the other. She buttoned up her top and dashed barefoot, to join Tredway, who had started forward without her.
He sniffed twice as she passed him along the access way, "I don't recall you wearing perfume for me my dear."
"I'm not your dear," she snapped, "I took a shower while he had a drink to get into the mood." She stopped suddenly, fished a tube of lipstick from her pocket, backtracked to the bathroom and dashed off a good-bye note with it to lovey-dovey on the mirror, indicating she had to leave suddenly and regretted not being able to say goodbye; before punctuating the feminine missive with a lip-stick kiss, which Tredway had to admit was a nice touch.
When she came back she handed the courier the hip flask she had stolen from him. His eyes bulged.
"MY GOOD SCOTCH!" his hands went immediately to his cloak's secret pocket. Empty. He'd made it a point before leaving the Swords to stock up on Young Brothers, easily the best in the subsector. He didn't want to be caught unprepared like on the shuttle. The larger bottles went by a different route, but he kept his little friend filled for "emergencies on the go" as it were.
"How did you...?" He had never mentioned it.
"I scanned you with a gravitic imager on Trefont," she said, mentioning a planet more than a month distant. "I know all your secrets," her eyes dropped from his face to his midsection.
Tredway grumbled, that was hitting below the belt, literally. He unscrewed the flask's top and sniffed.
"Don't drink that," she interjected, "Unless you want to wake up next to him...wearing lipstick...sweetheart."
"Touché," he went to the sink and poured it out. "I take it tonight's activities will be a blur in the young man's mind, tomorrow."
"Hence the note," her voice dripped with extra sarcasm.
During the planning stage of tonight's little maneuver each had composed their roles separately. He never knew exactly what she had intended. Of course neither had he the first time he'd encountered her. He flexed his left foot at the ankle.
The two made their way to the forward locker. Inside were two units of Imperial battledress. Like the pilot, she dragged them feet first out on the cargo deck.
"There's seven seals," and Harmony Frost broke open each one: head, chest, waist, each arm and leg. Then repeated the process on the other suit.
Tredway carefully passed a nano-scanner over each seal in turn, resetting the sensor after a complete scan of the full suit. Their serial numbers all matched, meaning these suits were intact and hadn't been parted-out. They certainly looked new. Crosschecking with his hand-comp revealed they were among the massive database of numbers of lost gear provided by Delgado. It was their stuff all right.
While replacing the battledress Harmony Frost's portable communicator buzzed.
"It's the corporal, the listening post picked up something."
With the massive air traffic to and from orbit, the surrounding area near the colony/city was a no-fly zone. This was made clear to all comers and most of those attending had brought ground vehicles: wheeled, tracked, whatever; to get around with. The sponsors had placed dozens of pre-fabbed structures, including a temporary sensor/air traffic tower to keep things safe, near the cutter landing zone. Small craft picked up orbital customers every thirty minutes, shuttling them in between the planet and their ships. This meant a steady stream of flying ships during daylight. Only certain ships were cleared to send down their own small craft and it wasn't cheap.
Harmony Frost and Stalen Tredway didn't have a ground car or ATV, so they had to jog the three miles or so back to the town. A quarter mile south from there was a minor industrial area and the locals had several large warehouses organized around a series of dirt roads. Situated forty five feet above ground, atop the roof of the western-most warehouse was the corporal, along with a few modest items of high technology: a laser listening device, a digital recorder/combat computer, a radio/scanner capable of reaching orbit, along with some sidearms and of course food and water. Three duffels of personal gear lay nearby.
A mercenary conference was actually the perfect place for a group of spies to operate, since they could do so more or less out in the open -- if they were careful. In this case the inventory on the roof was all equipment that they could have bought here or bartered for and could justify they were testing it. However, just to be safe they didn't tell anyone they were up on the roof, and they certainly didn't mention that they were lasing the top-floor windows of the city hotel, an eight-story building, that jutted up, six miles distant; which the arms-show sponsors had rented from the locals to use as an HQ. Security was pretty tight at the actual site, but no one had thought to mirror the windows or put up laser sensors. The no-fly zone, meant the corporal spent day and night on the roof, relatively certain of not being discovered, tasked with keeping the recordings going and fighting off boredom.
He was a saurian, who are good-sized creatures; his Mutt to Harmony Frost's Jeff, and they did seem to complement each other. Despite the difference in size and sex, it was clear the lady was in charge. During a quiet moment, Tredway had gotten him to reveal that Harmony Frost had been an E5 in the army and even worked with G2 before being busted out for punching out horny fellow soldiers; the last one being a first lieutenant, whose uncle was a general. He thought about his own close encounter with Miss Frost in that alley on Gram and he felt his stomach muscles contract. At any rate, her G2 friends set her up with Blackhawk and she went into the bounty hunting business. When the corporal mustered out the following spring he joined her.
At that moment, Harmony Frost was listening in on a conversation in progress.
Tredway passed the saurian a bottle of water.
"I think she like you," the corporal said through the maze of his sharp teeth.
"Hey, DIPSTICK," Harmony motioned for Tredway to come over.
"See," the corporal gave him the thumbs up.
Considering his size and maw of sharp teeth, Tredway decided against giving him the finger, used a pleasant smile instead and moved over to the computer setup.
"Honey, I thought I was BEAGLE."
"Cute," she had one earphone pressed to her head, "Every time they use the word CONOVER it activates the expert system's data analysis feature." She asked Tredway to see what the database on his hand-comp had. CONOVER was simply listed as an ex-mercenary, and a passenger on the lost ship, with no addendums.
"Looks like this rig does more than just record conversations," he said.
After a few minutes the screen flashed, informing the operator that the system had prepared an encrypted file which needed to be dispatched immediately. Delgado had provided a freighter sitting in orbit which could function as an x-boat and jump out with important messages. In fact the serial numbers of the battledress they had recently collected were already earmarked for that very same thing. They had planned to wait until light, but with the alert...
So Tredway downloaded the encrypted file, combined it with the other message, and cranked up the orbital radio. After the broadcast he compared the size of the database on the combat computer with the one on his hand-comp. His was one one-hundredth the size.
The courier looked at Harmony Frost, "So tell me sweetheart, why do I get the feeling that our gracious employers haven't told us everything?"
"Easy there, BEAGLE." Her tone had no venom in it for the first time in a long time. "Did the scouts tell you everything?"
The burst transmission reached the 400-ton Kunogis which was orbiting almost 10,000 miles from the planet. The antenna reeled in the signal and the entire broadcast was recorded, in the twenty five second stream of data from the surface. The event tripped the computer which signaled the com-officer, who in turn relayed the news to the captain.
Five minutes later the captain and a pair of solid looking individuals wearing civilian attire listened to the entire, uncompressed, message.
"Looks like the brass' hunch was right. Conover is not only alive, but will surface here soon," said the captain. "Is it enough to establish complicity?"
"We'll need to see if we can setup a time to meet with him," this was from the older man with close cropped hair and a clear military bearing.
He turned to address the man on his left, who had a similar appearance, "Lieutenant, assemble Alpha Squad for a night departure. I want us to be in position before he gets dirtside."
The lieutenant nodded and left, leaving the major and the ship's captain to strategize how to setup the delivery.
Tredway woke from his light doze from what his subconscious had perceived as movement, namely the roof of the warehouse where he and the corporal were situated.
Harmony Frost had left an hour or so earlier to tend to nature, or so she said. When she didn't come back Tredway spoke to the corporal who didn't seem the least bit worried.
Having popped a few stim pills over the previous days, the courier had become less alert once his system had become sated. When the cumulative effects of exhaustion had finally set in, he'd taken one of the duffels and propped it against the back lip of the roof so he could use it as a pillow, while the corporal maintained a more vigilant watch. He kept still, cracked his eyes and gazed out. He observed the corporal, no more than a meter distant, looking over his shoulder towards the other end of the roof. Something had caught his attention, too. Tredway had slept with his 7mm auto pistol in his lap, so he grasped it, altered the setting of the safety and then sat up, turning to point the weapon in the general area of the disturbance.
He could see three, large shadowy figures, casting an indistinct outline against the starry night sky. Four more figures descended quickly behind these, flying down in a controlled fashion like a ski-jumper making a pin-point landing. The roof jounced slightly again.
The corporal clasped Tredway's gun hand suddenly, forcing him to lower the pistol.
"They're ours," he hissed.
"Indeed," said Tredway, when six of the figures kneeled in place, while a single one came forward.
The specter of solid black, trod up and Tredway could make it out much better up close. It was someone inside a suit of Redding battledress, usually ticketed for Imperial Marines. Issued for high-combat areas, and invulnerable to small-arms fire, his pistol would have been useless against it. The face-plate lit up in a soft red light. Tredway doubted it could be seen at more than a few feet, if that. He could make out the eyes of the operator which seemed to belong to a human.
"Corporal," the helmet's external speaker activated, and the voice was slightly louder than a whisper.
The saurian nodded.
"What do you have for me?" he ignored Tredway completely. The two moved over to the combat computer. Tredway tagged along too.
The corporal activated the combat computer and a series of schematics displayed in the same soft, red light as the battledress leader's faceplate. From what Tredway saw, it reminded him of the LIDAR readout aboard the Abbadon when he'd scanned the Kinunir-class battle-cruiser beyond Gram. After that, more detailed schematics followed, obviously a different format, composing a virtual, tri-v image of the hotel, it's interior floor plan, down to the thickness of it walls, windows and doors. Notes and calculations appeared with references to specific points on the structure. This wasn't LIDAR.
Apparently Harmony Frost still had that gravitic imager. The first day they'd landed she'd insisted on taking a walk near the grounds of the hotel with a briefcase he'd never seen her use previously.
When the brief slide show finished, the figure in battledress nodded, a plate on his chest slid back which revealed what looked to be a pair of lenses. Tredway was pretty sure he was getting a complete download of the data via what was probably an IR lasercom. The soldier remained crouched there for a good two or three minutes which led Tredway to believe it was simply too much data for the burst transmission to handle. From the beginning the emphasis had been on secrecy and stealth.
The battledress figure moved back to the others, no doubt to disseminate the information. The corporal hunched over the combat computer and began deleting it's contents via a touch-pad. Looked like Delgado had what they wanted, but why send down a squad of battlesuited troopers?
Tredway got his answer shortly, when the corporal finished his electro-scrub of the unit. The saurian brought up the only data file left on it: a tri-v display of the Delgado logo. He left it on-screen.
"Time to move out," the corporal informed Tredway. He only grabbed the three personal duffels leaving all the sophisticated gear in place. He handed one to Tredway. So they were leaving all this gear. The logo was a message. But how would they know to find it here?
The other battlesuited figures had moved to the front. Their suits were different from their leader in that in addition to having a gravity flight pack on their backs, they each had what resembled a suitcase. Taking turns assisting the soldier next to them, they unbolted these and set them up along the lip of the roof facing the hotel.
Tredway and the corporal had descended the rope ladder they'd been using to move between the ground and roof since setting up here. Tredway had no idea what was in those cases. He wasn't sure if the corporal did either, but was fairly certain that if he did, he wouldn't tell Tredway.
The next morning, just around the time for a late civilian breakfast, Tredway, Harmony Frost, and an older man gathered in the cockpit of a 20-ton civilian gig that bore medical markings. When Tredway and the corporal had left the warehouse, they'd headed for the small downport at the parking lot and eventually to the gig. Harmony Frost was already inside, sleeping while the pilot and the older man reviewed some readouts. It was pretty clear to Tredway they'd elected not to inform him of a great deal of their plans.
Since no one bothered to introduce Tredway or the corporal to either of the men in the ship, the courier found an empty acceleration couch across the cabin from Harmony Frost and tried to sleep.
At various points in time during the night and after sunrise, the pilot's scanner picked up radio traffic from the makeshift tower, and he would make an announcement over the intercom: red or green. So far all had been red.
The last one wasn't and the green signal was given and repeated. This got the others up and forward. It was as close to an invitation as Tredway was going to get so he went too.
The pilot was focusing the craft's sophisticated PESA on the hotel, which was almost a mile distant.
Shortly thereafter, a cutter dropped down from orbit and landed on the hotel's grounds. The resolution of the scanner was so fine that you could make out the weapons carried by the small army of armed bodyguards that it discharged. They quickly formed a cordon around it, remaining in place while a group of four VIPs were escorted into the building by hotel security troops.
Harmony Frost looked at the old man, "Conover?"
He said nothing, just looked at her and then retreated to his seat before returning with what resembled a combat engineer's remote detonation panel.
The device had seven circuits, and after activation, all showed green. Below that was a switch with the head of an angel next to it. The old man pushed it then shifted his view to the sensor display.
Several explosions rocked the hotel moments later, followed by several more, then several more after that, until seven raucous, choruses of thunder had sounded. From the sensor's multi-mode display he could distinguish what looked like heat trails of missiles flying in via reactionless thrusters, coming from the general direction of the warehouse Tredway had spent the previous night. The ground shook mightily and multiple plumes of smoke rose from the blasted building and it's surrounding crater, forming a single, thick, dark column in the sky. The entire structure had been razed to the ground.
From the looks of the trajectories, they'd flown up into the radar net and the tower's sensor system would reveal their launch location.
The man placed the panel under his arm, "Get this bird in the air!" he barked to the pilot.
Everyone hustled back and strapped in. The gig lifted off, banked south in the general direction of the warehouse. After a minute, Tredway could see they were no longer moving, but hovering. The old man in charge had the corporal open up the side hatch. In flew the seven members of Alpha Squad, all in Redding battledress, minus the cases their hard points carried the night before. Once inside each cancelled their instant camo feature and their sky blue surface shifted to a standard camo display. As they took seats on the acceleration couches, Tredway noticed each man had a bugle or trumpet insignia programmed on his right shoulder.
Once the hatch was closed one of the troopers reported to the old man in charge.
"Everyone present and accounted for sir," no salute.
The old man nodded, a grabbed the cabin communicator by his seat, called the Kunogis, to announce that Operation Omega was complete.
From his viewport, Tredway kept an eye on the massive plume of smoke, until Azald had fallen away. He wondered how many people had been inside the hotel. He turned and studied the sleeping face of heavenly, Harmony Frost.
He thought about his first run-in with her, then the cutter pilot and now this. He realized, under the right circumstances, it would only take a flick of the switch, and she'd blow him sky-high.
This one's an idea I had going for quite a while, and finally refined it enough to use in a story. It's not terribly cerebral but it does contain some rather standard Traveller fare: remote location, high technology, lots of soldiers and of course a bang-bang ending.
The story was to show Tredway that his saviors (Delgado) weren't really too much different than his original enemies, Harmony Frost, The Merchant Prince of Skull Damian Grumm, or for that matter the victims in the hotel.
I dialed back the comedy, feeling that it shouldn't always be the I LOVE TREDWAY show ;)
Oh, and a big thumbs-up to AC/DC for their inspiration on Flick of the Switch.