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"Can I help you?" asked the shapely receptionist, crossing her legs for visible effect. The tiny black skirt and navel cutneckline left little to the imagination. But then one would haveto have a great imagination to top the package in front of him.

He reevaluated his opinion of the ultra modern style of reception desk in front of him. Composed of transparent alloys save for the small computer keyboard and readout in front of her, the desk was the perfect frame for the woman greeting him. A product of this high tech world, she was literally perfect. Gorgeous face, clinically athletic, sculptured features. Even the dimples and platinum blonde hair which was in vogue now. She could be off the cover of Modern Life magazine.

It was good to be back on a tech-one world again. For a while anyway...

"My name's Heimdall. Tarn Heimdall. I have a 1430 appointment with Mr Carlstone."

She smiled warmly, a blinding flash of white teeth.

"Have a seat, Mr Heimdall. Mr Carlstone will be with you shortly."

"Thank you," he said giving her his best smile in return. Not clinically perfect but all the teeth were his own.

The seats were comfortable but bizarre looking. Sections were as transparent as the receptionist's desk, which to Tarn gave it a fragile look he felt uneasy in. From his times on low-tech worlds, he'd learned to be careful where he planted his large frame.

Tarn took off his gloves and began to screen through a business journal on the chair's diskreader. It was two months out of date, but Tarn found an interesting article on Eugenics Stock Options.

He was still absorbing the article when he noticed the receptionist staring at him over the top of her vid-screen. Obviously she thought she was being nonchalant.

He pretended not to notice. Cyber limbs weren't very common on tech-one worlds. Tech-two for that matter. Not when clonal replacements were available...or even donor replacement to most people's way of thinking.

But they also required months of physical therapy and microchip adjustment to get to work properly. And he didn't feel like being laid up for 6-8 months.

Again the memory of losing the hand. Doing ground work while working for the FCI exploration corp. Nasty little carnivore got it before he'd been able to shoot it. And since there were no high tech med facilities in the frontiers, he'd opted for a cyber rather than journey back to earth and forfeit his contract options.

And now, years later, he was so used to the cyber that he'd feel a loss without it. Plus the time it would take to get used to an organic replacement.

And, he admitted to himself, he liked to see people's reactions. He had a cosmetic cyberhand but preferred the strength and reliability of the work model he'd favored for years.

As usually happens, he got stuck sitting for a good half hour before Carlstone was available. Then the VIP types were always like that. No one's time was valuable but their own.

He thanked the young lady and went in to see Mr Big. The inner office was a contrast to the ultra modern reception area he'd just left. Medorian style furniture and a huge cast iron desk. Imposing bit of work that was. Good psychology for a business tycoon of Carlstone's reputation.

He noted the tingle of a sensor web as he entered the room. That was one thing his hand didn't have--any built in weaponry. It barred entry to too many areas, not the least of which were the spaceports which were his second home.

A stocky little man in a gray business starsuit sat behind the desk smoking a fancy black pipe and typing furiously on a vid keyboard.

Tarn stepped up to the mammoth desk attempting to appear unimpressed. The man before him was one of the ten richest in the city-state.

"Mr Carlstone." Tarn acknowledged. He didn't attempt to shake hands. The oversized desk would require one to stretch over to do so, another psychological tactic. Simply standing casually, Tarn's mere size gave him a slight edge.

Not that Carlstone would be impressed. But he would be aware of the tactic. And that Tarn likewise was familiar with them

Carlstone hit the break on his keyboard and shoved the keyboard away from himself. He leaned back heavily in the massive chair, folded his hands and took a deep puff on his pipe.

"Tarn Franklin Heimdall. You match your reports. Physically."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Tarn replied.

"Not necessarily. I need capable, not big."

Tarn shrugged. "A man with your reputation, Mr Carlstone, would have done a background check. You obviously know my credentials."
Carlstone leaned back in his chair and continued.

"You served as a mercanary in various Border sectors for the next 12 years. Awarded three gold stars and a 9-point red cluster. Served on merchant starship 'Vega Stallion' for six years. Played key role twarting the terrorist attack on the space station on Ishtar-8."

"Returned to earth 12 years ago and took a position at Walden Special Investigators. Your personal specialty was missions to border and low-tech worlds. Opened your own branch office on New Peking 3 years ago. Which brings us up to date. Clinically, you're a dangerous thrill seeker and have a class 4 superego."

"Did I forget anything, Mr Heimdall?"

"No, Mr Carlstone. That's pretty much it." Heimdall was admittedly impressed. The Ishtar-8 incident was hardlycommon knowledge. "Except why you wished to see me."

Carlstone smiled again. "I heard of you from anassociate of mine. John Maxlowe. You worked for him two years ago on an embezzling case. The culprit is now doing 30-40 on the Juneau prison planet. Quite cold there I hear."

Again, Tarn shrugged. He wanted to know where all this was leading.

Carlstone continued, unabashed. "I have a job for you. Should be quite simple. The complication is the location. It's located on a Tech restricted world. Tech-five/R. Also it's Law Level restricted on weapons. Tech-six weapons or lower. Meaning..."

"Meaning flintlocks and swords. I specialize in these Border sectors, as you recall. No disrespect, sir but can we get to the meat of the thing." Carlstone blinked twice. He was obviously not used to being addressed that way in his own office. But he regained his composure quickly.

"Of course. That's why you were selected."

"Sir. I haven't been 'selected' yet. I need to know the case before I decide to accept it."

Carlstone stared at him again. Heimdall felt like a prize racing thark, being appraised by a vendor.

"Very well, Mr Heimdall. To the chase, as they say."

Heimdall sighed to himself. So he hadn't blown the deal. But it had been necessary to establish the ground rules.

"Are you familiar with the planet Aramis-5, Mr Heimdall?"

Heimdall nodded. "Never been there but I'm familiar. Tech restricted planet near Cadeseus. Backwards little planet - mineral poor and with only mediocre agricultural potential. Local government is a Theocracy if I remember right. Styles itself after Renaisance France but run by a board of Cardinals instead of a King. Enjoys Sector government sanction."

"Very good, Mr Heimdall. Although whether the board of Cardinals really controls much is up to debate. The district Barons also have considerable power."

"So I've heard. But what could Aramis have which would interest you?"

"Not a damn thing. But it does have something of interest to my wife. She bought a silly mansion on the god forsaken rock and wants to raise horses on the land. The place belonged to a noble family which fell out of power and whose blood line eventually died out. She paid far too much for it. Not that I can't afford it, but there you are: ten light years from the nearest tech-three world owning 90 square kilometers of dirt good for nothing but grazing."

"I myself am a member of the Orpheus club and wouldn't step foot on that barren mudball for half of Luna. If the Orpheus can't get it, it isn't worth having."

"But my wife is my wife. She's into this Renaissance noise that's going around. You should see our bedroom. Holy Bankruptcy, it's awful."

Heimdall nodded. "And your problem that you need me?"

Carlstone shook his head. "This is the confusing part. You see my wife went to spend a few months at the mansion. She loved the old place. She was even learning to ride horses, for Keynes Sakes."

"Well, she was in changing after one of her riding lessons and .... well, she saw a ghost!"

"A ghost?" This was the one thing Heimdall hadn't expected.

"Yes, a ghost! Well, she was understandably frightened. She didn't stop running until she was back in civilized space. She's been hypno-probed and recalls the incident perfectly. This was no hallucination."

Tarn stood up, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Mr Carlstone. You obviously have the wrong man. I don't believe in ghosts and I'm surprised you do. You'd be wasting your money paying someone to chase ghosts. Cut your losses and sell the old place."

Carlstone smiled and stood also. "Please sit, Mr Heimdall. I need a man like you. Who doesn't believe in ghosts and who can't be Paid to believe in them."

Heimdall frowned. "Then what Do you want?"

"Mr Heimdall, I love my wife. More than I admit sometimes. And someone deliberately frightened the hell out of her. I want to know why! I want names and I want locations. And I want to know how someone created the illusion of a flying transparent being wailing its heart out in broad daylight in a closed room on a tech-five world."

The man was turning red with anger. "Mr Heimdall, you've impressed me. You're not easily threatened. You've a reputation for performance. And, most importantly, I think you take pride in your work. A quality I respect. Name your price and the job is yours. I want these people. Get me their names and I'll do the rest."

Heimdall considered. "I normally charge 800 credits a day. Half that for days spent in transit. Plus expenses--all expenses, no questions asked. However...due to the danger of such a case to my professional reputation, my fee will be 2000 credits a day. I will also require standard disclaimer contracts per Walden contractual standards. And a contract of nondisclosure--which will apply both ways."

Carlstone nodded, immediately agreeing to the price and the terms. The price really seemed of little concern to him. Carlton had already reviewed Walden's standard contractual forms. Databasing the contracts up and actuating them took perhaps another 30 minutes.

The receptionist filled him in on the transit details. Staterooms had been reserved aboard an interstellar transport the following morning.

He would be travelling aboard a high speed freight cruiser which also had some class-b staterooms available. They would transfer at Cadeseus to a small short range transport to Aramis. Carlton would send a car to get him at his hotel.

All well and good. Time to catch some dinner and an electro massage at the club before spending the night reviewing all he could about Aramis.

The receptionist winked as he left. Very nice package. He had to admit, tech one did have its advantages.

Tarn Heimdall awoke minutes before the alarm next to him went off. He lay staring at it as it counted off the seconds til it sounded.

His hand came down instantly and he swung out of bed in an easy motion. A man of discipline, he lauched into his morning routine. A routine taking more than 10 but not more than 20 minutes.

He was halfway thru his shower when to chime for the door rang. Grabbing a towel, he called out.

"Computer, online door intercomm."

"Door Intercomm Online."

"Hello?" came a soft voice from the intercomm.

"Yes?" he replied.

"Mr Heimdall?" a female voice, recently familiar. "This is Ms Meiert from Mr Carlstone's office."

"Oh, Ms Meiert. I'll be right with you." The name wasn't familiar but he'd placed the voice. Mr Carlstone's receptionist.

He checked the door vid monitor and weapon scanner. It was indeed the delectible receptionist. Turning back to the bathroom he called out: "Computer, offline intercomm and open door."

"Door Intercomm Offline. Door Open."

The door buzzed as it opened for Ms Meiert. He heard her enter as he hopped back in the shower.

"Mr Heimdall?"

"Be with you in a minute. Relax and I'll be right out."

Under the scalding water, he heard her call from the outer suite: "Take your time."

He called back to her, "So I rate the royal treatment. I certainly wasn't expecting YOU to take me to the spaceport."

He towelled off and reached for a comb from the dispenser. A voice from the open bathroom door startled him: "Oh, I'm not just taking you to the spaceport." He cursed himself for jumping at the sight of her leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe. "I'm going with you to Aramis."

Startled again within 2 seconds. But he didn't jump the second time. Recovering, he wrapped the towel around his waist and finished combing his hair. He could see Ms Meiert in the NoMist Mirror. She was intelligently dressed in a pair of shorts and a silk shirt tied in front.

Casually dressed for a space flight. And still looking incredibly hot. He noticed her hair had changed from the platinum blonde to light brown with just a touch of red.

He gestured and said, "I approve."

She smiled. "Not for Your approval. But it is the norm on Aramis. My former colour would attact to much unfavorable attention."

"You sound like you've been to Aramis before."

"Once. I was along with Mrs Carlstone on her previous trip." She smiled again. "What's with the scars?"

He smiled back as he began to shave quickly with the Sonic Razor. He was well aware of the many tiny and a few not so tiny scars on his back, arms and legs.

"Got these in the Border sectors. Men without scars out there are considered Inners."


"Inner Circle. From Tech one and Tech two worlds. Effeminate."

"Effeminate meaning weak?" she replied.

"Different worlds, different standards. Roll with the punches, honey."

She smiled again, dimples flashing. "No offense taken, sweetie. Just asking."

He finished up and headed out to change. Ms Meiert didn't move when he came thru the doorway. Merely shifted a little to one side to let him pass.

He grinned back and got another smile in return. This could be an enjoyable little spacetrip.

Ironfist part 2