PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 22 of 44 )
“ Der Entrichete Preis Ist
("LOYALTY IS THE
PRICE PAID") ”
Corvette A-T10001 Mountain Carp
Keiko Gan's personal Corvette
En Route to The Masa System, Union of Border Worlds
1500 Hours ; 08 Feb 2681 (2681.039)
Sir, as per milady's wishes, we have joined up with the 360th and are en route to where Sutari Fleet was last reported," the captain of the corvette briefed her only passenger, a rough-looking man. Dressed in what would be considered freelancer's garb, a long duster that could conceivably hide anything from a heavy Archer to an assault shotgun, he seemed both relaxed and ready for action.
A thin smile spread on his face as he half-listened to the captain while mentally checking his equipment. His suit, while appearing to be standard-issue, had been improved with reinforced plates of armor protecting vital areas. The small bulge of a knuckle-duster made the man's left pocket seem larger by comparison to the others. A vibro knife in the man's right boot, an assault Archer, and a regressive blade rounded out his arsenal. Of those weapons, the most distinguishing item was the blade, as only one armed force in the galaxy made use of regressive blades. Loyalist Marines.
Another tight-lipped smile crossed his rugged features. He was a former Loyalist Marine, but his loyalties had not been impaired by his retirement. Neither, the captain noticed, had been his combat instincts. Even though the passenger was facing the viewport, it was evident from his overall appearance that he was somehow noticing what was going on behind him. The man turned away from the vast emptiness of space, which had always fascinated him, to study the captain.
The Captain, like the new breed of Tanfen's youth, had been brought up steeped in corporate culture and that of the Families, as well as Eastern philosophies and beliefs. She was was young, barely in her late twenties. Her voice showed deep respect, in accordance with how to treat one's elders. He knew he looked like someone in his early thirties, yet the skipper treated him with extraordinary politeness. He nodded slowly. "Thank you, Captain. Please continue. Inform me of any changes."
Main Offices, Porhen Chemicals
Landreich Prime, Union of Border Worlds
About The Same Time (0900 Local Time)
The office doors were opened as usual at nine sharp, as on every other day. Like any other branch of Porhen Chemicals, this facility offered its products for sale to other companies wholesale. It also offered to provide custom batches of whatever chemical product a purchaser desired.
Like any other day, and as if treating any other client, the receptionist at the front desk smiled and stood up to welcome the group of people entering the front doors.
However, her smile died a painful death when the lead person in front held up a piece of paper. "Good morning ma'am. Marshal Derlin of the Union Drug Enforcement Agency. We have reason to believe you have been illicitly manufacturing narcopentathol for illegal distribution and use."
The receptionist, as well trained as any at TPRO, gave him a polite, yet disbelieving, smile. "I believe you are mistaken, sir. Please let me call my..." she reached forward to thumb the intercom.
Another man stepped forward and clamped down on her wrist. "Don't."
The PKS guards, alarmed by the visitors' actions, stepped forward, moving in their bulky suits of body armor like lumbering golems. They were stopped in their tracks when the last of the retinue trailed in through the glass door. Homeguard units, under official sanction as local enforcement officers walked in, grinning at the guards, as if daring them to try anything. One of them held out the badge of a law-enforcement officer. As if deliberately adding insult to injury, the symbol of their planet of origin blazed into the PKS guards eyes like a dazzling sun from their shoulder flashes. "Laifen 15th Light" They were all Tanfenners! Of all the possible Homeguard units to be tapped by the Union, this group just "had" to consist almost entirely of Tanfenners, bar the marshal and a few deputies.
The faces of the security guards contorted with anger as they realized the full extent of the situation. The smooth man released the receptionist's hand and took out another piece of paper. "You are also charged with patent infringement, due to your production and distribution of Maleduris, which is still patented for the next two years." With a malefic grin, the man nodded, "this other warrant allows for the seizure of any and all stocks of the drug in your possession. May we see your inventory records, please."
The receptionist smiled, but inwardly, she was seething. No doubt the marshal was a Union lackey, but the other man, the bastard who had delivered the second warrant, was a Tanfen Law & Justice attorney, one of their so-called "attack lawyers." This search and seizure warrant, as well as the patent infringement notice, was a double pronged attack meant to disrupt production schedules and ruin deadlines. Not to mention that Porhen did indeed manufacture a generic version of the Maleduris drug compound, though not under license (why pay one's enemy for it when it could be had for free?).
She was a bit surprised that the Union had actually gave a damn; it was no secret that many big corporations had chose to set up facilities in the Union because the cash strapped UBW often turned a blind eye to shady dealings, provided that peace was not disrupted, taxes were paid, and that national economical output was increased. Of course, the UBW despised drug dealers, to an extent that any dealer or smuggler with drugs had a hard time when caught.
Still, though - it was unusual for them to slam down that hard because of a patent violation. Granted, narcopentathol had medical uses (surpassing morphine in pain negation), but since no established corporation would even think of selling it on the black market, it made no sense for the UBW to jump Porhen on this. Unless, of course, they had been set up by Tanfen. The receptionist's mood fouled in the next few moments. True, this was a gray area where laws were concerned, but a skilled lawyer could turn the whole thing into a disaster. This unfortunately was going to be one such disaster.
The Homeguard troopers/Law enforcement officers fanned out as they begun searching the whole office and the factory nearby with relish. The attack lawyer followed the marshal as they begun claiming and seizing evidence. If everything would go as planned, Porhen would lose the production capabilities of this facility, thus ruining part of the profit margins in the Union for months to come. Not all wars in the Blood Feud were fought with guns, swords and blood. Wounds could be inflicted in other ways. This was one of them.
Heliopolis Starport, Departure
Outer perimeter of Porhen Spaceways Reception Area.
0800 Hours, 09 Feb 2681 (2681.040)
In the dark urban hive of Heliopolis, someone was being marked. That someone was a Porhen sympathizer, as well as a cousin of the House von Trisp. Of late, he had been of use to TISD, as a minor fount of information, more to confirm facts than to give new ones. He himself did not know the connection-TISD used a cutout to facilitate the transfer. Relatively useful, but no longer. Reports indicated that he seemed to be remarkably remorseful at his actions, and seemed about to turn back and inform the House nobles of the Corp's actions. That could not be allowed. However, Tanfen officials had soon realized that having him removed permanently was not the best solution. They already had their hands full dealing with the full brunt of Porhen's efforts, and couldn't spare more appropriate personnel to handle him. It was already a relatively open secret among the three Government's intelligence communities that two of the galaxy's largest corporations had just decided to up the ante and slug each other into the ground, making it easy to point fingers at either one. There were other, more devious methods of dealing with him. A decidedly dangerous, if minor pawn in the Feud.
The air was thick with the scent of coolant, sweat and the acrid stench of steel and metal. People were moving shoulder to shoulder in the confines of the massive urbanopolis, unheeding of the fact that two of the galaxy's major mega-corporations with a family feud to end all feuds were even now squaring off against each other, as well as the fact that an inhuman enemy was attempting to bring their species to an end note in the book of history. The 'double' man was easy to spot in the filth of the hive; his business suit and neat haircut made him stand out in the shabbily dressed crowd like a beacon in the night. He gazed nervously around, anxious to board the Porhen shuttle that would take him to the Palace of Eternal Dusk on New Charydbis, where he would spill his guts to the Lord President and the PKS of Tanfen.
He did not notice that he was being followed by a pretty girl clutching a shopping bag. Though she looked like any mugger's favorite target, she seemed to pay no heed. She exuded an air of 'mediocrity', as if she was simply one of the crowd, going about her business. Her business, however, was even now hurrying to board the shuttle. A pickpocket that tried to get hold of her shopping bag was snapped back into the crowd, howling amidst the pandemonium of roaring starship engines and human noise as he came back with four broken fingers. It was over so quickly, no one took notice that the girl had quietly, without breaking step, grabbed the man's fingers, and snapped them clean at the joints with uncanny hidden strength. The jostling tide of humanity pushed the would-be thief away, howling piteously to the uncaring crowd, as the girl surged ahead, and seemed to disappear.
"Berkin bitch, she broke my hand! She bro...!"
The man wiped his brow with a silk handkerchief before touching the briefcase locked at his wrist to assure himself that it was still there. So far, none of Tanfen's TSF thugs were around, and if he reached the Porhen run part of the starport, he would be guaranteed protection by the PSC. The Tanfenners were ruthless, but they did not dare to impinge on their benefactors, the governments. They would not dare risk a shootout or a diplomatic incident here.
He paused to scan the crowd. No one, no sinister figures in dark glasses or suits; all seemed to be the main majority of the planet's poor working class citizens. The man breathed a sigh of relief, not noticing that somebody had come close to him. His heart leaped in his throat when somebody bumped into him, and his suitcase opened of its own accord, spilling his treasured noteputer onto the ferro-concrete. "Are you crazy?" he shouted, shooting nervous glances at the people surrounding him.
The girl who had bumped into him shot him an apologetic look. "I am sorry, sir. Let me help you with your stuff."
He fought down an urge to push her away when the young woman bent down and picked up his noteputer. The man noticed a big, golden ring on her finger, and saw that the ruby on it somehow, miraculously, fitted snugly into the port needed to connect two noteputers, but her hand had moved away before he could make heads or tail of it. "Be careful, that is a very valuable - "
"Sorry, sir. Here you are."
He nervously fumbled the noteputer, toying with the idea of switching it on, just to see whether or not it still worked. No. He did not have the time. "Thank you." He gave her a brief nod and turned back into the queue, inwardly counting the money he would receive for the information he was about to deliver. The girl walked away, a smile on her pretty face. It had been so very easy, and much more delightful than simply snuffing somebody out.
Her target smiled nervously when two bulky men appeared next to him, seemingly out of nowhere. "I have what your boss wants, but I -- "
"Our boss," the bigger one interrupted him, revealing crooked teeth in a none-too friendly smile. "Let's hope that it is worth it. You are being awaited on Charybdis, my friend." The other bully, slightly smaller but with several facial scars that only made him appear more intimidating, merely grunted. "Let's go. We have a shuttle to catch." They jostled him out of the line.
"Wait a minute, I thought we were going to take the shuttle that is going to lift off in half an hour! We don't have time for your games -- "
The shorter of the two brutes turned his head fractionally. "Shut up, Erich," he said casually, placing a heavily scarred hand on his shoulder. "You told our boss that you didn't want to arouse any attention, which is why we are going to take another shuttle."
Erich suppressed a sigh. Those two were most likely ordinary thugs, but with his boss, he could not be entirely sure. He plucked at his expensive business suit in an attempt to salvage his pride. My cousin will have the asses of those two bums hauled over coals once he realises what I have gained for him, he consoled himself, a small smile crossing his face. They approached another terminal, where a young woman awaited them.
"Herr Ernst Froehlich and companions?" she asked, smiling at Erich.
"That's me," he proclaimed, his ego soothed by the way she looked at him. He sized her up, toying with the idea of asking for her number. No, that would have been demeaning. Better to drop a hint that she might want to phone him. He opened his mouth to make an appropriate suggestions, but one of the hired thugs that escorted him cut him off by taking the three tickets.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said politely, inclining his head fractionally. He put an arm around Erich's shoulders and gave him an affectionate squeeze. "Could you call ahead to make sure that Herrn Froehlich's medicine is on board? He gets ill during take-offs, you see."
Erich Froehlich flushed when he noticed the look of pity that replaced the young woman's smile. He mumbled his thanks, waiting until they had been allowed to pass before turning on the bully who had ruined this opportunity. "I'm sick and tired of your lack of manners," he hissed, though his show of courage was somewhat ruined by the fact that he could not bring himself to look his tormentor in the eye. "If you have an axe to grind with me, then wait until our job is done!"
"See, Frank?" the man said, his mouth twitching. "This pup actually has some teeth. Good." He turned his scarred face to Erich and leaned closer. "I am utterly sorry if I have managed to shoot down your chances of dating that girl, my friend, but orders are orders, and we were told to expect Tanfen to do something about your returning home." He started picking his nose. "However, they'll be looking out for a real gentleman, who's either alone or with a few peers." The thug withdrew his index finger, pretending to be immensely interested in his find. "Remember, Herr Froehlich: you came to us. Frank and I are the ones who'll have to haul your ass out of the firing line if anything happens, so you'd damn better not talk to us in such a manner again. Got it? Ja?"
"Verstanden," Froehlich whispered, thoroughly cowed by the taller man. Yes, I have understood that you are a bully. I am going to tolerate your behavior as long as I have to, but not a minute longer. As soon as we reach our destination, I will see to it that you receive just punishment for your transgressions. You will pay dearly for offending a noble member of the House of von Trisp.
He smiled when the shuttle loomed up in front of him. It was a sleek design, obviously manufactured for speed, not endurance, but that was not important, as a modified frigate was waiting for them in lower orbit. Though it was not obvious to the casual observer, the design was obviously Andorran, more specifically, from the Porhen Andropolos Kurolos Andorras Shipyards, one of Porhens many subsidiaries that competed directly against Tanfen.
"Good day, gentlemen." A young, crisp-looking man awaited them in the doorframe of the shuttle, saluting smartly. The gray of his uniform contrasted with the red shoulder flash and lapel pin that showed him as a member of Porhen's Public Relations Branch-TPRO's nemesis in the war of minds, words and hearts. They also proved excellent service personnel. "I am your steward. If there is anything I can do for you to make your flight a pleasant one, do not hesitate to let me know."
Erich opened his mouth. "Bring me half a bottle of Scotch," he ordered, secretly delighted by the morose expressions of his guards.
"At once, sir."
Erich looked around him with pride. He was, obviously, a man to be respected. Froehlich entered the shuttle, his mood brightening considerably when he noticed that it was one of those plush designs that sported every kind of amenity a man might wish for. Erich turned left and walked into the area reserved for passengers, running his slim hands lovingly over the cushioned chairs. He chose one and seated himself, glancing out of the small window before taking a closer look at the box that popped out of the seat ahead of him. It contained a monitor which allowed him to watch TV, or play computer games, or even make long-range calls (though a footnote informed him that such calls would have to be cleared with the shuttle's captain first).
"See, Erich? That's the reward for those who do not lose faith," one of the bullies, Frank, told him quietly. "It's nothing more than a taste of what will be yours if the data you carry are indeed as important as you claim."
Erich instinctively tightened his grip on his noteputer. "I will give this only to Alfons von Trisp," he said calmly, refusing to look at the thug.
"As you wish," the man said calmly, completely unperturbed. "Now, you'd better fasten your seatbelts, Erich. The shuttle's been cleared for take-off."
Erich pressed a few buttons, watching with glee as he received a clear picture of what was going on outwards. Cameras mounted in the shuttle's prow give me a first-class look, he thought, once again impressed by his own importance. However, the maneuver was rather unexciting - after all, what was so very difficult about taking off with a shuttle?
He said something to that effect to Frank, who had just poured himself a mineral water. The man laughed. "Erich, I guess you don't know jackshit about flying, right?" He shook his head when Froehlich opened his mouth to protest. "Listen, buddy, stick to what you know. One of the best ways to get your head handed to you is to start babbling about something you don't know enough about. So, I suggest that you take a close look at your data, so that there are no disappointments when we arrive."
"Attention," a metallic voice announced, "We will rendezvous with the frigate Goetterdaemmerung in two hours."
Erich reached for his noteputer and opened it, then decided that he had better things to do than going over his notes. He had spent weeks on collecting those data, and he had made backups - which was necessary, since his memory was not nearly good enough to allow him to keep in mind what he had picked up. That's why I was recruited by Tanfen in the first place, he thought sourly. They thought that somebody with my reputation would never be taken seriously enough to be considered a spy. They had been right - up till now. He flicked a few switches, enjoying himself tremendously while watching trash sit coms.
Two hours later, a claxon started to blare. "Attention, we have reached the Goetterdaemmerung. We are docking now."
As if they have to tell us every single move they make, Erich thought, his mind fixed on what he was watching. A faint surge went through him, and he glanced out of the window. The shuttle appeared to be docked to the frigate, which had picked up speed and was hurtling towards the closest jump point. It should not take them long to reach their destination - and the best thing was, the Tanfenners could not know that he was aboard this ship.
Somebody roused Erich from sound sleep. "Time to go, pal," Frank said quietly, patting his cheeks.
Erich Froehlich opened his eyes and gave him a scathing look, which was promptly ignored. "Are we-"
"Yes, we are gonna land shortly, so belt up and shut up," Frank told him, a trace of nervousness in his voice.
Erich interlaced his fingers and waited, enjoying the sight as they entered the atmosphere. The airport came in view, and his heart leaped with joy upon sighting the tall, beautiful buildings. How could I ever turn my back on Porhen? He wondered, surprised to discover that tears were glittering in his eyes. It was so very good to be at home again. He waited in his seat until the shuttle had rolled out, as he knew that appearing overly eager would have left the wrong impression. He was not the proverbial prodigal son. No, he had come back with information that would enrich Porhen - and hurt Tanfen, which was a boon.
The steward appeared as if magically summoned, a nervous smile on his face. "Herr Froehlich, you are being expected."
Erich shot from his seat. That had to be his cousin, Alfons. He scrambled out of the shuttle, paying no heed to his surroundings when his gaze fell on a black hover car. Alfon's car. The two bullies flanked him, grim smiles on their faces that matched his. Judgment day. Soon, they would pay for their petty slights, even thought they had undoubtedly forgotten about those already.
He was hustled into the car, which was dimly lit. A broad-shouldered man waited for him, stretching out his arms in a cordial greeting.
"Erich! Damned good to see you, my friend!" Alfons von Trisp gave his cousin a hug. Erich noted with unease that Alfons's eyes remained as cold as those of a fish, even while embracing him. He held up his noteputer even before being asked.
"I have gained detailed files about Tanfen's future transactions - and I am absolutely sure that they don't know about my theft! I copied them, then wiped every trace of my manipulations - "
"Splendid," Alfons interrupted him, putting on a pair of sunglasses. He scratched his bald head-a wise choice in the boiling hot climate of New Charybdis, though for the life of it, the Noblewomen of the House were adamant at keeping their hair long and stylish. His baldness only emphasized the family features of the House - the arched eyebrows, and the hooked nose, and high cheekbones, which both gave an air of superiority, and the (to Family Tan, Gan and Lai) profile aspect of a buzzard. "If your information turns out to be as vital as you claim, you'll be richly rewarded, mein Junge." Erich smiled. Alfons, who was only ten years older, had always insisted on calling him 'my boy.'
Alfons von Trisp gestured to the two gorillas to join them. "Good work, you too. I hope you weren't too hard on him, hmm?" He received chuckles and smiles in response, which he registered with an odd smile.
Erich opened his noteputer and switched it on, then typed a few commands. "There. I've got it." He turned the noteputer so that Alfons could look at the screen. "I have learned that Tanfen is going to invest heavily in those firms. It seems that somebody high in Tanfen is convinced that those firms are going to do well in the next year."
Alfons von Trisp pursed his thin lips. "None of those are weapons manufacturers," he observed. "This company, for instance, is, according to your information, on the verge of finishing their tests on a new civilian-style transmitter/receiver." He grunted. "Does not sound like a potential gold mine to me."
Erich sighed. "Alfons, there's a war raging out there. A war. Do you know what people want to know? How their loved ones are faring, for instance. News companies are gonna spend billions on new equipment! This is the chance we've been waiting for!" He paused, forcing himself to calm down. Alfons was not easily excited; only reason would win him over. "Same with the other companies! They have made breakthroughs in civilian technologies, that's right, but some of those will directly contribute to shape the post-war era!" He stabbed at another portion of the screen. "See this? Vastly improved prostheses! They look and feel like the real thing! A perfect replacement for those who have suffered cell damage on such a scale that you can't grow them another limb! And the list goes on, Alfons! If we don't act now, then Tanfen is gonna hand us our heads!"
Alfons fell silent, chewing on his lower lip while fixing the PDP noteputer's screen with an icy glare. "Very well," he said finally, "Forward those data to my stock exchange experts. I want them to snap up as many shares as they can hold of."
Erich grinned happily. "Consider it done."
An hour later, he was seated in a very comfortable chair, a glass of expensive champagne in his hand, his feet on a cushioned stool. He let his gaze sweep his new office, which was perfect. His desk was made of the finest walnut wood, while the computer on top of that was state-of-the-art, a prototype that would not be released to the public before next year. About the only thing he lacked, Erich decided, was a beautiful woman - and there would be no shortage of that, for it was he who had contributed to his cousin's wealth in a major fashion -
The door was thrown open. Frank and the other bully came in, their faces reminding Erich of thunderclouds ready to spit.
"Get up," Frank snarled, his hands clenching and unclenching.
Erich did as told, utterly confused by their hostility. "What is it?" he asked defiantly. "You have no right to push me around like that - "
They grabbed him by the arms and hauled him out of his office. Froehlich tried to resist, but their strength was such that he could not even slow them down. They hauled him into an elevator, with one of them keeping an eye on him while the other punched the appropriate buttons.
Erich shrunk under Frank's withering gaze, utterly confused. Someone must have screwed up, he decided, and now he would be called upon to get them out of the mess. It would not be easy, of course, but then, he was a man to be reckoned with, and thus...
"Ah, you have found him. Excellent. A good thing, isn't it, that my cousin was not bright enough to leave after springing this little prank on us."
Erich froze. He had often seen his cousin upset, but this was the first time he had ever been at the receiving end of his fury. "I don't know what you mean," he said quietly, trying hard not to betray his fear. His quivering voice gave him away.
"You don't know, eh, Erich?" his cousin enquired, an edge on his voice. He wiped sweat from his bald head with his left and waved a piece of paper at Erich with the other. "Take a close look at this, you traitor."
Erich Froehlich accepted the document with trembling hands. He perused it quickly, then looked up, fear shining bright in his eyes. "I didn't know that! I swear it!"
Alfons seated himself and put his feet on the table, a terrible smile on his face. "Come on, mein Junge. You don't really think that I would buy that story, do you?" The smile vanished, to be replaced by a mask of fury. "You must have known that all these firms were on the verge of bankruptcy! True enough, Tanfen had negotiated about acquiring options to buy the lion's share of their shares, but they did not do so. In fact, when we started snapping up everything we could, they dumped what they held!" He put his feet down and stared at Erich, his fingers drumming on the smooth wood of his desk. "I've been had, Erich. I don't like that very much. Your stupid advice to pick up Regalia Inc shares was-"
"Regalia Inc?" Erich shouted, almost collapsing when his legs turned to rubber. "I can't remember having told you to buy their shares!"
"En contraire," Alfons von Trisp countered, his dark eyes as lifeless as those of a shark. He turned to his computer terminal and punched in a code. "Do you deny that you made us buy these worthless shares?"
Erich studied the screen, bile rising in his throat. "The girl," he whispered, horrified by the revelation that dawned on him.
Alfons slammed his right hand down onto the desk. "Dammit, Erich, don't think that I'm gonna accept your pathetic excuses. It was you who screwed up, not anybody else."
Erich Froehlich shook his head. "No. No, cousin." He relayed the story of how that girl had bumped into him. "She touched my noteputer with some kind of crystal. My best bet is that she somehow corrupted that data..." He rambled on, glad to have somebody else to tack the blame on. Alfons listened, his face completely devoid of expression.
"Not good enough, Erich," he said finally, steepling his fingers under his chin. A predatory smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Still, you have done your best, which is why I will reward you." He glanced at the two thugs flanking Erich, who nodded imperceptibly. "You will be made commander of Task Force Raider Seven," Alfons announced, his eyes sparkling with an emotion Erich could not place.
He leaned back and continued. "Still, you should consider yourself fortunate that you are with your own House, instead of with the Families, since you yourself well know the price of betrayal in the Families."
Froehlich heaved a sigh of relief. Commander of a Taskforce. Not a bad job. He'd not have to actually go out with the fliers, of course, as his position would be honorary only. "Will I keep my new office?" he croaked, shuddering when relief flushed through his veins like hot water.
"Office?" Alfons echoed, raising an eyebrow. "What makes you think that you'll need an office?" he smiled cruelly. "As commander of Task Force Seven, your place will be on its flagship, the frigate Walkuerenritt." He paused. "Be advised, though, that we are going to step up our operations against Tanfen. Your force will figure prominently in our counter-attack." He rose and gestured grandly. "I have given orders to your ship's crew that they are to spearhead the attack -- for the glorious honor of our House."
Alfons von Crisp studied his sprawled form. "Let us hope that the Tanfenners have more spine that this piece of garbage," he observed dryly, "or I might have to dishonor my family by killing him myself."