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Chapter 26: Unofficial Business Freight is the blood in the veins of Human society. It moves everything from where it starts to where it ends and everything starts somewhere different to where it ends. Freight goes everywhere and the Forwarder goes where fright goes. The rig felt remarkably still for a floating facility, the submerged ballasts resisting the swell of the waves. Even so, the Forwarder felt unusually sensitive to the movement... Too long in space He thought to himself as he looked out over the azure horizon. The Independent Freight Association has over a hundred such floating facilities across the globe, the cost of what land wasn’t reserved for homing people, or growing crops to feed them being so high. The Association didn’t make their locations public but he was quite sure the likes of Octancorp had mapped them all and captured movement around them... to some degree at least. He recalled a statistic he’d heard once about how less than zero-point-one percent of all the data collected by Octancorp’s surveillance programme was actually viewed by a real person; the rest was just... filed. They were looking, but watching?.. The two were not the same. It made him cautious, however. If you think no-one is watching, you get careless... And then you make a mistake and real people start looking through all that filed data. Octan’s Regulations Enforcement Department had been a constant niggle in his operations. He’d had to ‘sign their charter’ just like all the rest... What choice did they have? Tramp freighters were starting to be worth more as scrap than a way of moving cargo. There had always been freight lines to compete with but these mega-corporations were a different beast. Octan had the brute resources to push any operator out of the market... and their livelihood. “Work with us” Octan had said to those who wouldn’t apply for ‘employee status’... They had described it as an offer... It was taken as a threat. And so, one by one, they all signed in terms that did all but bind them at the wrists. Some fell in line and made the best of it, others... like him... and a certain red-haired Woman, he thought with an involuntary wry smile, didn’t like being told what to do. That’s what R.E.D. was for; external contract enforcement. It was because of them, the once head of the I.F.A. now worked out of a shipping container and never stayed put for too long. It was because of them that it had taken so long to get back to Earth avoiding all of the checkpoints and ultimately the corporate blockade at the anomaly that was ‘keeping everyone safe’ from the radiation in Andromeda. His return had been for a single purpose. He had managed to contact, discreetly, the president of a renowned starship manufacturer. Cylbruda Starworks were known for their high-end premium models in the freight and civilian markets but they had never created a bespoke military design; their rugged and manoeuvrable C118 Quadstar had been adapted, even by Octan for ‘defence roles’ but the original was an orbital utility vessel used for towing. The manufacturer had, at times, proudly boasted that it built for trade, not conflict... But times had changed and even they acknowledged the threat posed by large corporations building their own fleets. The process had been slow; Cylbruda took pride in their work and progress had also been hampered by the need for secrecy, from the corporations, from him. But it had been worth the wait. He just hoped it would be worth the investment. He’d been there nearly an hour by the time it arrived, soaring gently overhead at a low subsonic cruise. It performed a wide arc - customary for a visual approach and leaned back to arrest its forward motion, revealing in full detail the large antimatter rotors that kept it aloft and the array of weaponry that adorned the central body. On final approach, the lower extenders retracted, the landing gear deployed and the drooped nose that was a hallmark of Cylbruda design slid out and upwards through a mechanism that kept it vertical and reduced the clearance that would be required for the ship to land. The upper section of the nose now obscured the pilot’s forward view though the pilot was likely using his side view and instrumentation at this point anyway but the Forwarder immediately considered the protection it afforded the cockpit on approach... He had a feeling that was a feature, intentional or otherwise that might prove its worth. With a heavy ‘gerchunk’ the craft settled on the pad, a reverberating shudder passing through the floor and into the Forwarder’s legs. Finally, he could take a moment to look at it properly. He’d seen schematics and images during development but it wasn’t the same. Now it was... real. He heard the electric whine of the ramp opening at the rear of the craft and after a few moments, a figure appeared. Phalen Lux was an I.F.A. pilot, very skilled but with what most considered to be some kind of personality disorder, though no-one could agree on which one. He was skilled but prone to erratic behaviour so he was generally only assigned to the more... ‘unpredictable’ missions. He seemed to live in his own Universe and didn’t ask difficult questions. It was for those reasons that the Forwarder specifically requested him for this; not the delivery - a mere taxi run but it was what would come next that contained the most unpredictable element of all... A red-haired Woman with a bad knack for survival. Phalen greeted the Forwarder, doffing the tip of his cap which the Forwarder immediately noticed had a visor fixed to it above the peak. A useless addition, he thought, noticing that there was no way of lowering it down as the peak was in the way. It puzzled him for a moment... It didn’t make sense but then, there were many things about Phalen Lux that only made sense to Phalen Lux. “Mr Forwarder.” He said by way of a greeting. “How is she?” the Forwarder asked, his gaze raising to the ship. Phalen turned and looked with him, returning to the Forwarder after a moment. “Something special.” He said, a bright glow of excitement in his eyes. “She’s a bit heavy in atmo but in space... With the extenders deployed... She can dance.” “Good.” The Forwarder replied. “Better give me the tour then.” It took the best part of an hour for Phalen to show the Forwarder everything his new ship had to offer from armaments and flight controls to fuel management and the minimal amenities. “So what’s the plan?” Phalen asked as they returned to the payload bay from the cramped cockpit. The Forwarder recalled his conversation with the man in the suit... The man who had no name, or at least none he was willing to give. “Make the arrangements” he had said... He had spoken to the Forwarder several times and it had always felt like he was using the Forwarder to to execute some small part of a greater plan that would never be explained to him. That was the idea he thought. His mind turned to the significant events of the corporate fight for control over Andromeda - the execution of John Hannibal on Donwarr that ended the Quarrel. Kawashita’s relentless pursuit of the Dust Demons and M.A.N.T.I.S. putting a bounty on the head of one of their own executives... Could the man in the suit have been the architect of it all... and me a pawn. Surely not. It was easy to dismiss the notion as ludicrous though, and that worried the Forwarder; those were the most dangerous notions sometimes... And this, he thought, would be the most dangerous yet. If Phalen did not succeed, she would find him... She knew how. He did not find the thought of that confrontation palatable... They’d worked together for so long, they knew each other so well. How could he do this on the whim of a man in a suit?.. “The plan...” He replied to Phalen, trying to hide the reluctance he could feel was in his words. “... is to kill Yseult Brenneaux”.