Freedom Still Ain’t Free (9)
Chapter 8: Freedom Still Ain’t Free
So, with Farzam’s good word, I got odd jobs in the Agora, lifting, moving, guarding and being an all-around general-purpose laborer. As my reputation grew in the Agora, I wound up taking on more security and bodyguard jobs, and ended up with about ten Firebirds by the end of two months work. It was slower than I had hoped, considering I had to pay for food and lodging, and with the high level of transients living on the planet, rooms were at a premium.
By this time, I had checked into the Muster. You’d think that a guild full of mercenaries and slavers wouldn’t be too picky as to who they take on, but you’d be wrong. The Muster has a great benefits package, and the Muster guys are the ones that get all the best jobs they filled. Instead of using Muster people for the lowest level jobs, they use temps, independents needing a little cash. These temps get no benefits, and they definitely don’t get into the Muster. The big stumbling block to my getting in the Muster was a rock-solid rule they have: only freemen can be in the guild. While it might have been possible to lie and get in, the Muster uses an extensive set of contacts in House Torenson to provide background checks on all their potential candidates. My alias at the time was Salvador du Roc, a yeoman from House Li-Halan, and I had my doubts as to whether my story would hold up under the scrutiny of House Gossip, which was my little name for the Torenson. So instead, I kept working independently, trying to scrounge up a big enough stash to maybe bribe my way into the Muster.
My break came in the form of one of the local underworld figures, Nasir ibn Mazdak. Nasir was a big man in artifact and drug smuggling on Criticorum and his offer was one I couldn’t refuse. I had apparently whacked some of his guys while fending off an attack on one of my principals and he told me that he would forgive this affront if I would guard his idiot son (his words, not mine) while on a trip to Kish. I didn’t know what his kid was doing going there, and I got the impression that it wouldn’t be healthy to find out. I agreed, because I really had no choice, and we left for Kish in the middle of the night.
The trip to Kish was uneventful. Nasir’s son, Zal, was an all right kind of guy. We didn’t hit it off or nothing, but he wasn’t an arrogant little prick, and he was a hell of a card player. We said right from the start that none of the games would be for money, but I owed him something like 12,000 pretzels by the time we landed on Kish. Most of the time on Kish was pretty boring, for me that is. Zal was having a grand time, party after party with his dad’s underworld buddies, women, liquor, just a rip-snorting time, with me hovering in the background, waiting for whatever reason Nasir sent me with him.
Well, the deal was why he had sent me. One night, Zal met up with some Ur-Ukari folks. This was the first time I’d seen them up close, tall, thin, like what you might think of an elf looking like, but an elf in the Yakuza. Pale-skinned, light haired, with scar-tattoos all over their freaking bodies, these guys are plain scary. And their eyes…black, like all black, and they got this way of looking at you, like you don’t matter even a little bit. Anyway, Zal hooks up with these guys, and while I’m standing real close, hand on my gun the whole time, these guys talk to Zal in mutters and whispers, so that I can’t tell what it is they’re giving him. It was in a tiny box, whatever it was, and the box that Zal gave them was a hell of a lot bigger, and full of diamonds.
The deal done, Zal makes for the exit post-haste. We get out into the night, and he starts moving faster. I asked him what was wrong, and he said something about having a bad feeling about them guys. Turns out he was right, because no sooner had we reached the skimmer than bullets started flying out of the bushes near where we’d parked. Nasir had hooked me up with a loaner shield, and his kid and the other goons with us had them too, and it was a good thing. The night lit up with flashing energy shields as we started returning fire into the darkness. Suddenly, the skimmer goes clang, as it drops unceremoniously onto the ground. I turn around and see the Ukari from the deal, one of them with his hands outstretched, eyes glowing green. I open up with my pistol on freak boy, and his buddy steps in front of him. The bullets bounced off this guy! Flat out bounced off his skin! I’m freaked now, because these guys just ain’t natural, but it’s just me over that way noticing them, and the rest of the guys were shooting up the darkness real good. Groaning, I grabbed my axe and hauled ass right for the freaks.
Iron man drew a long knife and stepped up to engage me. Maybe all his efforts had gone into training in whatever demon magic he did, because he was not equipped to handle the rough stuff. I dodged a lunge and crushed in the side of his head with my axe. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice his buddy stepping up. Next thing I know, I’m lying flat on my back, feeling like a brute had kicked me in the ribs. All the guy did was touch me! Zal finally noticed what I was doing and started blazing at this guy with a blaster pistol. Lightning boy jumped off to the side and pointed at Zal, and suddenly Zal’s pistol stopped working. Laying on the ground, I pulled out my pistol again and peppered that Ukari. I emptied my clip into him and then got up and ran over to finish the job with my axe. I didn’t stop whacking him until his body was in a couple of pieces.
About this time, I headed back for the rest of the group. Two of the goon squad were down with bullets through various important bits, but the firing from the bushes was almost done. I figured, what the hell, I’d been lucky so far, so I borrowed a page from the Hazat training manual and charged wildly into the bushes, firing a borrowed submachine gun. By the time I got there, whoever had been helping the Ukari had split, save for one human that had been providing covering fire. He did his job. The rest got away, but he paid the price as I shot him full of holes. After I was sure no one was left, I came back to assess the damage.
Zal was fine, not a scratch on him. One of the remaining goons had a minor injury, and the other two were dead. I ran back to the shack, checking to make sure that no one else was in there. While there, I grabbed the chest of diamonds and headed back to Zal. He asked me how many of the diamonds I had swiped while ‘securing’ the chest. I told him none, and it was the truth. You don’t screw with a guy like Nasir ibn Mazdak.
He counted the rocks, just to make sure, smiled at me and told me I wasn’t as dumb as I looked. We stripped the bodies of the dead goons and the Ukari for anything of value, then got in the skimmer and made our way back to the spaceport. Meanwhile, Zal’s rustling in the box of diamonds. He hands me a small bag, hands the other guy a small bag, both full of diamonds, says real loud how it was a shame that the Ukari had made off with the diamonds before jumping us, but that at least we’d gotten what we came for. Zal kept about two-thirds of the rocks, but this was a hell of a lot less than what he could have kept, so me and the other guy were pretty happy. Of course, the warning was implied, stick to the story, that’s why you get the rocks.
Back in Acheon, Nasir heard that story and smiled a lot. Whatever the hell we got for him was obviously worth a hell of a lot more than a box of diamonds, and his boy not having any cuts or bruises made him even happier. He threw a big party, and while we’re all drinking up a storm, he called me into a corner.
“Sal,” he said, “you’ve done me a great service. Fighting Psi-devils is a very dangerous thing. Zal could have been killed, and he’s my only son.”
“Jeez Nasir, they was tryin’ ta kill me just as much. Wasn’t nothing special, just doing my job,” I replied, playing humble. Those guys had scared me pretty good, and I was just happy to be alive.
“Nevertheless, I owe you. You have repaid the debt of honor and then some. You have saved my honor, and you have saved my son. It is only fitting that I repay you. Ask, and it shall be yours, providing that I can do it.”
I sat there for a long time, mulling it over. Most of the things I came up with would wind up getting me stuck on this planet, relying on the continued kindness of a crime lord. I finished a drink, and then said, “Get me into the Muster.”
Easier said than done.
Nasir worked on getting me into the Muster for a month and a half. I told him everything about me, so that he could work on the sticky part of me being an escaped serf. He did have numerous connections in the Muster, but they all told him the same thing, I had to be a freeman, or at least I had to ‘become’ a freeman before that could happen. Since Torenson provided the background checks for the Muster, Nasir started working on that angle. One day, Nasir called me into his office.
“Good news, Sal!” he said, smiling and handing me a package.
“What is this?”
“Go ahead, open it,” he said, pouring us each a drink.
I did. In it was a declaration of release from serfdom, forged to look like Lord Loveridge had granted me freedom for heroic service to the cause of House Hawkwood, and along with it was a small seal, that I could have sewn into something or wear as jewelry that showed that I was now a freeman, for real, or for as real as a forgery can get you. Nasir handed me my drink and we toasted my new status.
“There’s just a couple things, Sal,” he began, and I had the feeling I wasn’t going to like what followed, “First of all, you can never go back to Ravenna. If you are recognized, it would go badly for you, since this is, of course a forgery.”
I nodded, that seemed logical.
“The second thing is this…it took me a lot to get this for you. I now owe a couple of Torenson favors, and it took more money than I cared to spend. I know it’s a debt of honor, but I am also a businessman. I may require something of you in the future…something small, but something you’ll need to do for me.”
“That’s fine, Nasir,” I agreed, relieved, feeling that that was well worth the benefit of freedom.
I would find out later that that turned out to be a bigger favor than I had feared, but not through any fault of Nasir.
Anyway, I was now free to go and join the Muster. I bade Nasir a fond farewell and went to outfit myself as a man would need to be outfitted if he was serious about joining a mercenary guild. It was a trip back to Farzam, who cut me a deal on what I needed. I bought a shocker axe, a regular battle-axe with a high-powered electrical attachment to further incapacitate people, an assault rifle and five clips, some polymer knit armor and some fragmentation grenades. All told, it ran me about 800 Firebirds, which was close to all I had left. I then went to visit the Muster recruiting office.
After a two-month stint of doing odd jobs hunting bandits on Criticorum while waiting for the Muster to check my background, they swore me into the Guild, after collecting my entrance fee to pay for said check, which held up, thank the Pancreator. They then shipped me off for proper training as a Muster soldier. There was a tense wait for me in the starbase at Gwynneth, a Hawkwood world that would later give me cause for much misery, but then it was off to Bannockburn, and my new life as a professional soldier.
[Edited by Leonidus on Jul 21, 2004 at 04:56 PM]