Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Sentinel Gate Affair, Episode IV: A Fine Day for a Parade

Continued from our last episode, Step Into My Parlor.

          Elaine Lisa, The Duchess of Pain Court, walked silently through the warrens between the old starport and Proserpine's great eastern hub at New Chouteau. Her companion, the Terran Inquisitor Augustus, seemed as brooding as the quiet streets around her.

          Once the area had doubtless been a thriving commercial district. Back when places like Landing, Lesperance, and New Chouteau had been independent cities on a young world. But that was many centuries ago. Now Proserpine itself was the great metropolis of the Rim, and there were but two continuous smears of settlement engulfing nearly half the land area of the world; colloquially called the Eastern Sprawl and the Southern Sprawl. The western half of the larger and more temperate northern continent had been set aside as an agricultural preserve in an attempt to feed the massive population.
          "If you're looking for information," Elaine said, "this is the place to find it. The Old Mud House, down the street, has a Spacer's Rest where there's nearly always a poker game or some such going on. The proprietor is a friend of mine. There's not a rumor he won't have heard."
          "Really?" Augustus queried. He looked a touch skeptical. "The Council on Mother Terra requires information from a spacer named Frei. He's the only surviving witness to an event on Mars that cost a great many lives and many farthings from His Majesty's treasury. We should like to learn what's become of Frei and what he knows about the event."
          Elaine smoothly answered "If Antoine can't find him then he's not here."
          "We shall see," replied Augustus.

. . . . . . .

          A few minutes later they were standing in a warm, if dusty restaurant. The odor of baking bread and meat filled the air.

          "You  really should have a pie," Elaine said. "There's nothing else quite like it this side of Pain Court."
          "Pain Court is a place?" Asked Augustus.
          "Of course it is. An old French colony. Well, creole, really. I suppose you Terrans wouldn't regard anything out this way as French. Not much left but names. Some places. A few of the older families, like mine. I won't pretend I speak much French, though a few folks out on the smaller moons still do. Kind of. And we've learned some new things living out here. Like Antoine's pie."
          "So long as Antoine has the answers I want the rest is trivial to me."
          "Suit yourself," Elaine replied. "Your loss is my gain. Antoine, give me one with sausage, mushrooms, and anchovies if you please."
          "Coming right up, Duchess," Antoine said. "You and your friends want anything to drink?"
          "I'll take a pint of the brown. Get Augustus here one as well. Maxine, what would you like?"
          "I'll take a pint of the pale," the pink haired woman replied.
          "Got it!"
          Antoine began to turn when Augustus interrupted.
          "Before you begin preparing food and pulling pints I require some information."
          "What you want that's more important than filling your tank before you lift off?" Asked Antoine.
          "A man named Frei, a spacer, Gordon Frei, was reported to have passed this way."
          "Ain't heard none of him. He didn't pass this way."
          "Our agents tracked him to Moab," Augustus added.
          "Can't get there without passing here first," Antoine quipped.
          "Our agent is a reliable fellow."
          "Hell he is, if he said anybody got to Moab and I ain't heard about it," Antoine growled. "'Been in the vac too long. Soaked up something he shouldn't have."
          "And what of the xenos? Tales are spreading that xenos and mutants are welcome here."
          "You got a problem with muties?" Antoine almost spat.
          This was not going well, Elaine thought to herself. It shouldn't really have surprised her that the man was a typically xenophobic southerner. So many Terrans were. Particularly those as took holy orders. But how on earth was she going to keep the fellow under control if he found out about the . . .
          "Come now. We'll be going."
          Augustus spun on his heel and Elaine tripped slightly in an attempt to keep up.
          "Max, would you apologize to Antoine for me and pay him? I really wanted that pie."
          "No pro . . . "
          "There's no time for this at all! We need to lift off for Moab immediately!" Augustus barked, cutting Maxine off.
          "He's my contact and my friend," Elaine countered. "Even if you don't want it, I need the information he provides. I've no idea how your Frei could have gotten to Moab without passing Proserpine, but . . . there's really no other explanation." At this she paused a moment. "Maybe he came from the west. Red Route 1 is new enough Antoine forgets about it every now and then."
          "I've heard rumors of that," said Augustus. "But we really must be going. If the information isn't here we'll have to find it where Takara left off. To Moab!"
          Elaine's blood ran suddenly cold. She hoped Augustus hadn't noticed the shiver. Good lord, it was the third anniversary of the treaty; Pax Day folks were calling it. Every mutant and xeno in the system was going to parade right down main street and this Terran wanted her to take him right to it. If Frei weren't the causus belli Commodus was worried about the Treaty of Proserpine surely would be. She had to get word to him somehow.
          As soon as they got back to the starport Elaine turned to Augustus and said "If you'll excuse me I need to get Le Bonne Soiree ready to lift off." Augustus nodded. "Maxine, would you show Augustus to the cantina? And pick up something hot for me. I'm famished. Frenchy, I'll need your help." Maxine and Augustus turned and walked down a hall as Frenchy and Elaine went ahead to the ship. They grabbed some forms from the operations shack and walked quickly across the apron to the Soiree. Elaine mounted the stairs first and opened the hatch. As soon as Frenchy was aboard she closed it and dogged it down firmly.
          "Christ, I was worried that wouldn't work. Frenchy, you have got to get a message off to Commodus. Is he on planet?"
          "I think so. And Jackson's still in Landing getting supplies. As long as he checks his mail he should be able to do it discreetly. Maybe even get us a reply. What do you need me to say? I'll send it while I'm filing our flight plan."
          Elaine thought for a moment. "Tell Commodus we have a problem. Augustus wants to see Moab and every gob and orc and frog and elf and, Christ, that idiot will probably believe the dwarves and ogres are mutants. They'll all be in the Pax Day parade and that will blow the gigue. He'll think it's last year's fish on Fat Tuesday. Tell him I'll feign mechanical trouble once we hit warp space and try to drop out in deep interstellar to delay things a bit, but he's going to have to move fast if he wants to keep this damned Imperial mole from digging up our tomatoes."
          "You want me to quote you on that?"
          "Yes. No. Damn it! Use your judgment. Just send it."
          "Done. And Elaine?"
          "Yes Marc?"
          "I love you."
          She brightened up at this.
          "Of course you do! And if I didn't love you too you'd still be scrubbing toilets on Starship Rock, so don't you ever forget it."
          "No ma'am. I will not!"
          Frenchy turned at this, undogged the hatch, and walked back to the operations shack. Soon after he could be seen disappearing into its interior as Augustus and Maxine emerged from the terminal carrying bags and several steaming mugs.

. . . . . . .

          A short time later Jackson arrived at the Proconsular villa gardens. Commodus was out enjoying a leisurely stroll.

          " . . . And she's worried Augustus will hurry back to earth and start that war you're worried about. The Terrans have always been . . . delicate."
          Commodus pondered a moment.
          "Well, it can't be helped then."
          Jackson stared blankly a moment and rubbed his chin. "Sir?"
          "I won't endanger the peace over some damned zealot fool still listening to the half mad gibberings of some ancient Terran messiah. I won't give up our peace just to prevent their war. If it's one or the other, we fight for what we have here and hope for the best. Hell, does anyone even really know what that fool said when he could still talk? Why are we still following someone dead since the reconquista? How long ago was that? Ten thousand years if it's been a day."
          "Looks to me like they're still flying warp riddled hulks from then, too."
          "Maybe, but they have quite a lot of them." Commodus thought a moment longer. "No, it won't matter. I think we have to just wait and see how they react. If they want war we just make sure it's too costly for them. They do rather have their hands tied up in other places. And their navy is large, but not infinite. I'll get a message out to our friends. See if we can count on them. De Bayamon, I think, is entirely reliable. Probably Ganbaatar as well. The elves are more of a mystery to me. And how Durgul Gutzlug will see this is anyone's guess, but I won't turn on him."
          "So I tell Elaine to do nothing?" Jackson asked.
          "For now. Let him see what he sees on Moab. Let Elaine ingratiate herself to him. We're going to need eyes and ears on Earth if we're going to act fast enough to survive a civil war."
          "All right," Jackson answered. "If we're going to admit heresy and treason we might as well do it with our eyes open."
          "The emperor is an old man and the succession is in question. I'm not sure who has the clearest advantage on the High Council right now. But for this, I might have sat on the thing myself."
          Commodus looked almost wistful at that last thought. Apparently even here the lure of the Umkarri Palace, the golden hall, and the Throne of Earth was strong. Jackson bowed ever so slightly, turned, and hurried back, to the ship. By the time he arrived two pushers were already secured alongside. Elaine ushered him aboard into a G-chair, the launch-back tipped the stack up, and they blasted off for the orbital fuel platform where the pushers would break away, they'd tank up, and transit to warp space for the trip to Moab. He'd have to brief Elaine in transfer orbit.

. . . . . . .

          The trip was short, and uneventful. After they dropped into atmo they flew for a short while on final to the shuttleport. Augustus glanced out a viewport and saw an impressive crowd gathered below on the capital city's main drag.
          "What, may I ask is the occasion?"
          "It's a local holiday," Elaine answered. "There's to be a military parade."
          "Oh!" Augustus brightened up. "A most excellent use of resources. It is good to demonstrate the extent of His Majesty's Imperium to his citizens. Show the strength of his divine will. Isn't there a marine legion based here?"
          Elaine fought hard to retain her icy calm. "Yes, Father. The Crimson Dragons under Imperial Commander de Bayamon have made their camp out past the Moab wastes for several centuries now. No doubt they will be a part of the parade. Along with the Logansport First and contingents from Burgkhan Kaldun Prime and a variety of other local worlds."
          "Most interesting indeed!" Augustus grinned.
          This would not end well.

          The Master of Ceremonies was a local dwarf whom nearly everyone called Tambourine Tim. Augustus made no mention of his short stature. Perhaps the distance and the podium hid it. Or Augustus was unconcerned with mere dwarfism. Elaine could only hope. Next to the platform Antoine's brother Merkur had arrived and set up an outlet he was calling "Tony's Pie Palace." Numerous xenos were scattered through the crowd. Elaine saw several quite clearly just in the gang around the pizza table. But Augustus seemed untroubled. Perhaps he wasn't even aware they were locally afforded the status of people. Maybe it was easier for a zealot such as Augustus to simply not see things, situations or people of which or whom he disapproved, at all.
          Soon the parade itself pulled into view. Nepenthia Rex-Avis Wadsworth led the procession from astride her favorite tank. Odd that the Queen of Peace and Beauty should ride a tank and carry a gun, but it was an armed peace on a border world in an unquiet universe. A peace whose very existence might require militant re-enforcement from time to time.

          In the first car behind her were none other than Colorado Rex-Avis and her beau Sir Stanley. They wouldn't wish to be anywhere else on a day like this. While their part in engineering the peace had been fairly quiet, they nevertheless had a great deal of influence, at least on Moab III.

          Behind them was Commodus himself. He must have taken a clipper or fastboat of some kind to beat them by enough to appear in the parade. Elaine had to admit, if you were going to court a war, it was best to make a solid statement.

          Further visiting dignitaries rounded out the first element of the parade. Dame Astrid, Elaine believed it was. She hadn't met her personally, but she was a member of the same order as Sir Stanley; the Royal Order of the Flowering Lamp.

          After the VIP section came the Logansport First As the senior unit on the planet they had the place of military honor.

          So far Augustus had taken everything very much in stride. But the elves and dwarves would be following along. And the frog-folk had sent an embassy, as she recalled. Even if he missed the elves he'd surely catch six foot tall amphibians with technicolor skin.

          At that Augustus began blinking rapidly. The stream of squat dwarf soldiers seemed only to shock him even more. Particularly when a band of privateers, looking for all the world like pirates followed on their heels. 

          De Bayamon and the Crimson Dragons did little to settle his nerves, as their participation in the affair made their approval all too clear. 

          When the first greenskin rounded the corner he very nearly had convulsions.
          "That's it! Get me off this accursed rock! I don't even care if Frei IS here! I'll be back, and I'll cleanse this sector if I need to bring ten legions with me!"
          Elaine silently thought "Only ten? The first emperor lead a thousand in the reconquista. And all the galaxy was little more than frontier moons and subsistence farms at the time. You might want to reconsider your available forces. Especially if you aim to get them past my ship." But she wisely kept her counsel to herself. For now she was a spy, not a grand admiral leading a wall of shielded cruisers to block the Terraist advances. Against her better judgment, but at the orders of Proconsul Commodus she took Augustus to the spaceport, loaded him aboard the Soiree, and took off for the Tartarus Gate where an Imperial fourth rate galleon and a pair of galiots waited.

. . . . . . .

          Augustus boarded the shuttle in disgust. These people were mad! It glided silently across the space to the Armentarius, which had apparently relieved Periastron while he was away. It looked less comfortable, but it would no doubt do, so long as it had the communication suite required. Shortly a dull thump announced davits securing the shuttle, which was quickly swallowed up inside the boat bay. Augustus hurried down the acom tube to be piped aboard.
          "You, there!" He pointed to an able spacer first class standing next to the airlock. "Can you take me to the coms suite?"
          "Of course sir," the young man said, leading him forward immediately.
          Once he had the tightbeam officer to hand he began barking orders.
          "I need you to get a beam to the nearest waveless station for immediate dispatch to Lord Simon of the Terran High Council. Tell him I will require an armada and ten legions. Twenty would be better if he can spare them. I'll need drop ships, bomb ships, and sufficient supply for an extended campaign. I'd guess at least six months, so plan for a year to be safe. Tell them I'll need all the intel on local strength they have. And tell him the Crimson Dragons have turned heretic and are to be condemned and excommunicated immediately. You can add Proconsul Commodus to that list. He should be ejected from the Great Cursus, apprehended, and publicly executed for treason and heresy."

. . . . . . .

          Meanwhile off near Moab the erstwhile heretic Proconsul Commodus sent out his own messages aboard a galleon of the new style his forces were calling a shielded cruiser; TSS Perun. They were to contact the elven fleet in the west and seek their aid. Similar messages were in transit to the dwarves on Burgkhan Kaldun Prime. Since it seemed clear his official governorship would shortly be revoked (if it wasn't already) he dispensed with his formal title and simply signed with his own name and personal title: Lord Christoff Whye.

          In the vastness of space, even with the convenience of warp transit and waveless communication, it would take time for the Holy Terran Empire to react to the news and set their plans in motion. Christoff simply hoped it would be enough time to outwit them. He didn't need to beat them. He just needed to make conquering the Rim too expensive for them to afford the distraction from more pressing threats in the galactic south and east. The bugs had been beaten back to Alessi 5, but they'd held the Wishing Well Cluster unchallenged for centuries now. Surely that would limit the Terran commitment to war on a far distant frontier, even if the current emperor's connection to Earth was less personal than in centuries past. For now Christoff could only hope.

. . . . . . .

          This concludes another episode of the Sentinel Gate Affair. Until next time, dear readers. Thank you for joining me on our journey. To be continued!

          The Composer

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Rogue Thrust

          Early on in the year of Papa Nurgle's (tm) Plague Rat Special I had the grand ideas of running a campaign. There has clearly been some tension between his High Holiness the Emperor of Space (or at least his closest advisors) and the provincial governments way out on the northern frontiers in and around the Tartarus Rim. And so the orbital shipyards here in Vide Poche set about the task of both creating and responding to this threat. (Always best when you can work both sides of an equation. At least until the Empress of Everything looks at the bottom line of not one, but two astral building programs.)
          But it turns out that I am still somewhat of an extrovert. Summer has been the hard season for me for a good ten years now, but 2020 . . . well, it's been special. And extroverted musicians locked in their homes get even more melancholy than usual, which means they get even less done. Thankfully winter still provides some relief. There is light at the end of the tunnel. And in the meantime there are at least some spaceships that I got done in the Spring before I crashed and burned a little.

Miniature Spaceships

          So to get things rolling again I set about adapting all that loveliness to a nice set of fleet-scale space combat rules. Most of the miniatures above were, of course, either crafted for or adapted to GW's 90s space combat game Space Fleet. (The ships on the right actually owed their origin to an earlier company whose molds Citadel bought at some point. This wouldn't be their habit later on, but it's not uncommon for smaller miniatures companies even now.) But me, I like Ground Zero's Full Thrust. I've been playing it forever, albeit intermittently. And it's a pretty simple and elegant rules set. It plays fast and clean. So why learn a new one?
          *whisper whisper*
          What, you say? People expect Gothic Battleships and Ironclads to behave certain ways?
          *whisper whisper*
          And to recreate that in another game you're going to have to at least minimally understand how the first one worked?
          Well, shoot. Okay. I'll at least read the original ship data sheets and see what I can learn before I make my own cards for another system.

. . . . .

          Thus did I set off on the long journey of learning at least a little about an ancient GW game I'd never once played in order to halfway knock it off in a different game system with a remarkably different philosophy of how things should work; to stitch the materials of a dark space comedy into a light space opera. Space Sondheim meets Space Mozart, if you will. It can be made to work, but not without effort, compromise, and some understanding of those original materials.
          First, I had to learn the Sondhei . . . I mean Space Fleet. And what I learned was weird and quirky. Everything is a different speed. Everything has weird abilities. I sketched things out, realized everything was wrong, read through everything again, sketched everything out again, and still screwed it up. What you see below is about the third draft . . . and it's still wrong. But it's at least a gameable wrong, so we have a start. With second draft stats I set about making first draft ship sheets. Which were of course wrong. And not very sexy. So I fixed them up and sexed them up and arrived at something almost usable.

          In the end I decided that sexy wasn't as important as legible for gaming purposes. Stark black silhouettes look great on a computer screen, but they don't work as well when you're crossing things off on a sheet of paper. So I went back to an outline version (albeit a somewhat improved outline) and arrived at the third/fourth draft you see below. It's still not perfect, but it works. It should make good sense to anyone familiar with Full Thrust. Further, it should incorporate some of the odd quirkiness of Space Fleet. (As much as I can preserve.)
          The eventual goal is to pit an enormous, but ancient and ossified space empire against a bunch of upstart frontier rebels with new ways of thinking and possibly fighting, but with much more modest resources to project their ambitions of self-determination. (We will studiously avoid considering the process by which the upstart rebels become the ossified empire until an as yet unspecified future date. Wash, rinse, and repeat.) But first you have to have rules that work. And what better way to test them than pitting some related ships of known capability against one another? By that means we arrive at the tableau you see below. Actual dice were rolled. Ship data sheets were printed on real paper and marked up with real pencils as imagined laser fusilades were exchanged at decidedly sub-space distances.
          And I got my tousche handed to me. How does that always happen? You might get the idea that I'm a lousy tactician, but I prefer to think I suck at dice. I'm going to chalk it up to my opponent having Old Ironsides front and center there. I drew Ye Olde Gothicke Novel. Didn't stand a chance. ;-)

          I expect more will come later. Jay Bobson, my friend and erstwhile sparring partner, has bought some new spaceships. As have I, as it happens. And we hope to try out ideas for fun and mayhem as we are able. And maybe even game out that conflict between the Spaceish Armada and the Plucky Frontiersmen. Thank you for reading along. Until next time!

          The Composer

Thursday, January 7, 2021

2020 In Review

2020 has been . . . 2020. And may there never be another year quite like it. But in spite of all that (and I do mean in spite) I at least got a few things painted. Not so many as I might have in a normal year, but I am making no apologies for 2020.

So here's the rundown beginning with 28mm vehicles:

1: The Half Jimmy

2: The Eldar Skimmer

2020 was in many ways the year of the farm animal on Moab 2. I painted up lots of 'em. (Probably more than anything else, save possibly scatter terrain. More on that later.)

1-6: Noiffen

7 and 8: "Babe" Blue Oxen

9-11: Terror Birds

12: Mr. Donkey

13-20: Pigs in Space

21-23: Also goats in Space

I did also get some people painted. Not tons, but enough.

1-4: The Duchess of Pain Court and her Boudoir Noire.

5: The Pieman

6: The Ringmaster

7-9: The Sushi seller, the pilot, and the honeymooners.

10: A Goat with a Gun
(I'll leave you the little preview of 2021 as a teaser for what comes next.)

To this we can add a fair bit of scatter terrain, including the pizza kitchen seen with the pieman above, the carnival barkers platform, and . . .

Ore bins, hazmat casks, 50 gallon drums, wheels, road cases, beer kegs (all local brews) and even a few wine casks. (I should really post about that. Meant to. Got distracted by plague.) All manner of loads and a couple of shipping pallets
(not pictured) to hold them.

Last but not least I painted a whole new collection of spaceships, many of which have not as yet appeared elsewhere on the blog. And while these have o-fee-shul GW names I'm ignoring that in favor of fun:

1-8: Space Swords (which are not cancelled)

9: Space Galleon With Fun Gun

10-11: Space Galleons with Pokers

12-13: Poncy Elven Sailboats in Space

Like nearly all great empires Games Workshop got their navy started with ships designed by and purchased from foreign builders. And since these would be those I'm going to utterly ignore what GW thinks these things are and make it up myself. After all, that's what the Caster of Nottingham did before me!

14-20: Space Destroyers and Space Cruisers with Balls!
(Ignore the home-build. Though maybe if I add balls . . . )

21: Space Battleship with Balls

22: Big Honking Freighter with More and Bigger Balls

It really was not a banner year. Adequate, but only because the first six months punched above their weight output-wise. But then . . . 2020. Oh boy! Will that ever mean the same thing again? Hindsight is surviving 2020 and looking back and saying "Nya nya! I'm out, you sneaky plague rat!" 2020.

But the tally:
2 vehicles
23 heads of space livestock
10 people (It started so well!)
22 spaceships. (Might actually have been 23. I think there was a little atmospheric shuttle lost in there.)
A lot of scatter terrain. (Not going to count. It was all pretty quick. Though putting local brew labels ont things did take a little work. And I created my own space label logo. Maybe that'll come up when I do the scatter terrain catchup post.)

It's not terrible. But not what I'd been hoping for. As to 2021? I make no promises. Let's survive what I hope is the tail end of the plague, find our mojo, and move forward.

Congratulations living through all of this. May none of us ever again live in such interesting times. ;-)

The Composer

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Sentinel Gate Affair, Episode III: Step Into My Parlor

. . .  Said the Master to the Spy.

Continued from our last episode, A Bounty on the Mutant.

     The bounty hunter Tommy Takara waited near the hulking guards in the catacombs beneath the palace for what seemed a dog's age before their subtle separation heralded the arrival of the two cardinals tasked with the inquisition into what they called the "Frei matter."

     Takara was glad he was accustomed to industrial worlds, as the atmosphere was dank and acrid. In fact, the two high lords both wore masks and respirators so large their faces were either completely, or nearly completely obscured. Even in armor that was clearly ceremonial they looked surprisingly formidable. He was not eager to deliver disappointment to men such as these. While the first fellow stroked some kind of animal the second waved a greeting and began.
     "I understand you have returned empty handed."
     "Yes, your eminence. A team of local operatives found Frei and moved him into the hinterlands before I was able to secure him," Takara answered. "After that I quickly found my transit permits had disappeared."
     The air hung silent for a long moment as Takara sweated over his fate. Eventually the first fellow, the taller one with the . . . cat Takara decided, spoke out almost inaudibly.
     "Do you care to add anything before we dispatch you?"
     The word hung in the air like an axe.
     Takara swallowed before he replied. "No, your eminence. My failure is my own responsibility."
     "I'm not seeking excuses," the cardinal continued. "Merely information. What else did you observe?"
     Takara thought long about his reply. If his information was useful perhaps he would still have breath when this audience ended. Maybe even a career.
     "There seem to be quite a few parties interested. There was a second bounty hunter. Some kind of orc. Or troll, maybe."
     "And he was permitted to search freely?" the shorter cardinal interrupted.
     "Yes your eminence. It appears there is some kind of peace between the local officials and a wide variety of xenos. Maybe not trust, but tolerance. Orcs were allowed access to the administrative seat. It wasn't even walled."
     Takara paused for a moment. "Go on," prompted the quiet cardinal.
     "The operatives who secured Frei are apparently a rather well known local group. They've done a lot of work for the Rex-Avis clan in the past. And Rex-Avis seems to have some association with the Proconsul."
     "Anything else?" the shorter cardinal queried further. (Though the difference in height probably came down mostly to the size of their hats.)
     "No your eminence. I think that's all."
     The quiet man dismissed him with a nod and Takara was happy to take his leave of the place. And he made a note to himself not to accept any more jobs from the bloody cardinal electors if he could possibly help it.

. . . . .

     A short time later the two prelates turned to welcome a gentleman with heavy grey armor and a data pad.
     "Ah, Augustus. Thank you for coming," said the shorter cardinal, waving once again.

     "It seems we have need of an inquest, and we would like to ask you to lead it."
     "Absolutely, your grace," Augustus replied confidently and rather more familiarly. The two cardinals were old associates of the grizzled investigator, who was himself sworn to the service of Holy Terra; a priest inquisitor in the Imperial cult. "What do you require of me?"
     "We need you to investigate rumors of apostasy in the north; in the Tartarus Rim. Perhaps the whole of it. The very highest levels of provincial government may not be keeping full faith with Terra. There are even rumors of peace with hostile xenogennimous races, which would be a most foul heresy if it were true."
     Augustus merely nodded at this and tapped a few notes into his pad before the cardinal continued.
     "We will dispatch a force to support you, should our fears be true and invasion necessary. We cannot immediately spare much more than a squadron; a few galleons and cruisers. But they should suffice to hold any local forces at bay until the Armada can be mustered."
     Again Augustus nodded. "Do you wish me to await this force? Is it prepared?"
     "We will send you aboard the flagship, IMS Periastron," the shorter cardinal continued. "You should probably approach in secret. Perhaps leave the squadron near, but outside the province. Lord Simon will provide you with a list of suitable contacts with ships that can carry you the last few parsecs. Most likely tramp traders, but reliable and known to us."
     "Very good," Augustus said. "I pray all the fates and his Divine Majesty will smile upon you in my absence, and that they will grant this enterprise good fortune."
     "Calm spaces and prosperous voyage my friend," the cardinal replied.
     With that the three bowed slightly and made their individual ways to their appointed tasks.

. . . . .

     When Augustus reached orbit, he found a small, but formidable force awaiting him. The Periastron was a little older, but she was still a powerful warship. With her he saw the Furious class great galleon Sacrosanctus, two Comitatus class cruisers, and several smaller escorts.

     For the most part the journey was smooth. They encountered no serious storms in transit space, and much of the journey was within the boundaries of Imperial NavAid control. Only in the far galactic north was the skilled reckoning of a bound navigator required. With the aid of arcane half-alien implants in their brains, bound to them and passed down through families and guilds, navigators were able to sense the subtle metaspace currents travelers called "the warp." And indeed, Augustus found the act of looking out his porthole in transit space deeply unsettling. The other ships in the squadron seemed warped and distorted; almost monstrous. Barely recognizable as ships at all when they were visible. So he was glad when Periastron once again dropped into normal space. Ironically, it was there that his troubles began. Upon warping out the fleet found a soldified gas tanker, presumably servicing some automated mining platform.

     The commodore immediately fired a warning, seized the vessel, and took the crew into custody. Neither EM nor gravitics had shown anything that looked like a transmission. Upon inspection, there was nothing in the tanker's memory banks, but those could be scrubbed easily enough. It probably wouldn't change much if the Rimmers knew there were a fleet nearby, but it would make investigation more . . . challenging.

. . . . .

     Proconsul Commodus was deep in conversation with Marcus Camber when his chief of staff interrupted.
     "This had better be good," Commodus muttered.
     "Sir, we just got a waveless flash from a rim flagged tanker: DePCoPro Vacuum 2. It seems an imperial fleet has taken station on the border. Vac 2 shot out a coded tightbeam to a gas platform that they were servicing that had an automatic waveless reporting feature that mostly sent tech information back to corporate. The report came through buried in the regular data, but according to the timestamps it seems like this probably happened about six hours ago."
     He handed the Proconsul a flimsy with the basic details. Commodus examined it for a moment and Camber observed silently.

     The tall official pondered to himself. He wasn't prepared for open rebellion against the Terrans, but he also didn't care to sacrifice the tenuous peace he was building to political expediency in a far away and notoriously xenophobic court.
     "What do you make of this, Alex?" he asked.
     "Not much sir. There's really nothing in the report beyond the seizure itself and some probable ship IDs. Unless they were really paying attention to their EM and gravitics they may not have had any warning until the first coms came in and they popped up on visual. I doubt there was much time to react. I'm pretty impressed they got off what they did. Given everything I can't imagine the Terran intents are completely peaceful and above board. But what their aims and reasons might be . . . Your guess is as good as mine."
     After a brief pause he added "Hell, your guess is probably a lot better. Have we done anything since Project Iowa that would set the council off?"
     Commodus was honestly rather annoyed at the timing, but he tried not to let it show. "Clearly we have," he answered slowly and evenly. "Or they wouldn't be here. I have an idea, but I'd like to keep it close to my chest for now. I'll read you in later, Alex."
     With a nod, he dismissed the aide and turned to Camber. "Marcus, we have a problem. And we're going to need eyes and ears. Who do we have?"
     "That can operate in the south? Maybe the Duchess," he answered.
     "Can you get word to her? Call her in?" Commodus asked.
     "Not personally, no. But Rex-Avis might be able to."
     "Dear lord, I'm getting tired of this. Do we have to run all our ops through her?" Commodus let his cool demeanor slip a bit at this last part.
     Camber, who was personal friends with Colorado Rex-Avis thanks to his gibsonite ventures on Moab III, let the jab slide. "Well, she and Ursaline-Drakemore have built a hell of a network on their own dollar. We're deeply lucky she's on our side."
     "I begin to think de Bayamon and the Dragons answer more to her than to me!" Commodus huffed.
     "They're both on Moab, sir. While we're usually on Proserpine."
     Commodus had to grant that point. "Very well. Send word. And by the way . . . Thank you. And Rex-Avis. I'd appreciate a more redundant operational structure. I hate relying on a system so apparently susceptible to a single-point failure. But I am truly grateful for your help."
     Camber nodded at that. It was a small apology, but it was an apology. "Very good sir. By your leave . . . "
     Commodus waved him off and Camber hurried below to the code shack to make a secure transmission. Soon after Sergeant Maxim Wether was on a Logansport terrace opposite Sir Stanley Ursaline-Drakemore.

     Wether had arrived in Logansport in a great hurry. "Sir Stanley, I urgently need to speak with Rex-Avis."
     Sir Stanley replied calmly "I'm afraid she's out of the system at present."
     Wether looked a little surprised at this. "Oh?" he asked.
     "She got an invitation to observe a fleet exercise near Starship Rock," Sir Stanley answered. "Not the sort of thing you turn down. She's not expected back until next week."
     "Starship Rock is actually perfect. Commodus is hoping she can contact the Duchess," said Wether. "Do you have a secure line of communication with her? It's really quite pressing."
     "Of course," Stanley replied. "Follow me."

. . . . .

     Starship rock was three jumps and a good several parsecs distant, but the entangled particles of a secure waveless network made transmission nearly instantaneous, with the lag between repeaters being the only delay. Waveless required linked sets, and their use tended to produce localized high energy radiation that could be detected, but the sets were slowly catching on, making communication across galactic distances much simpler than it had been even just a few years ago.

     And in barely any time at all, Rex-Avis and the notorious Duchess of Pain Court were face to face in an abandoned section of the starport terminal.

     "Elaine," Colorado Rex-Avis began. "Thank you for coming."
     "It's no trouble at all. I owe you one for sorting things out with Commodus and Snakeskin. I really had no idea Penny was his daughter."
     "Water under the bridge," said Colorado. "And the official story was quite useful. I'd been trying to talk Commodus into peace for years, but without a lever he wasn't willing to go there."
     "Well," replied the self styled Duchess, "I'm glad it worked out. It really was not what I envisioned. And getting bested by a gob doesn't really help your reputation any."
     "Snakeskin is pretty special, even as gobblins go," Colorado replied. "Anyway, it was actually Commodus that wanted your help."
     "Oh really?" Elaine replied. "I'm just glad not to be rotting in jail. I'm really genuinely surprised he's willing to speak to me."
     "He's looking for a spy, not a friend."
     At this Elaine grew more visibly interested. "That is not at all what I expected."
     "There's a bunch of Terran warships gathering just south of the Rim," Colorado said.
     "I know," Elaine replied flatly.
     It was Colorado's turn to be caught flat footed. "How on earth would you have heard about that?"
     "They called me."
     "You can't be serious?" Colorado said, utterly shocked. "And who, precisely, are they?"
     "An inquisitor named Augustus. He wants me to pick him up and play nanny for him while he's on Moab looking into something or other."
     "Oh ho? Is that why they're here?" Colorado began to put the pieces together. Moab meant it was more likely related to Gordon Frei than Project Iowa. They really needed to slow the pace of diplomatic incidents. She was privately glad it wasn't Inquisitor Guimar this time. That man had been a complete boor. Though . . . this did mean the present fellow was more likely to be at least somewhat capable. Which would complicate matters.
     Colorado spoke again. "Commodus is hoping you can ingratiate yourself to the Terrans. Maybe pretend you're still on the outs with the local Spacing Guild, smuggling and tramping as you are able. Your network is . . . formidable. Especially in the French sector."
     Elaine could only agree with that. She nodded for Colorado to continue. "It's a pretty thin cover, really. But it sticks at least somewhat close to the truth, which makes it easier. And we're short on leads in that direction, and coming perilously close to conflict. It will be dangerous. Of course. You are welcome to use your judgment to feed them whatever information to which you are privy you feel is necessary to win their trust, just so long as it's short of causus belli."
     "I'll do what I can," Elaine answered. "I should get back to the Boudoir," she said, as she turned. "If I'm to pick this Terran monk-spy up I'll need to get back warpside chop chop."

. . . . .

     A few day's spacing later the Duchess of Pain Court and her Boudoir Noire were outside the Tartarus Gate meeting an imperial, by god, galleon. One of the big ones with the huge temples tacked on all antique style. A real first rate, by the look of it. Maybe even a bona-fide relic from the Terran Reconquista. (They kept ships that long, she'd heard. Maybe they'd plum forgotten how to build them and didn't care if hull plates rotted out from warp radiation. Or maybe they just plassed them over and pretended they were fine. Hell, maybe they really did make them better back then like the oldest spacers sometimes said. Though Elaine rather doubted the truth of that.) Anyway, there it was, right on time. Marked up with a big red V and a stripe. Probably squardon markings, she decided. One stripe for the commodore and two for the flag? Ah, who knew how the Terrans did things. Didn't really matter anyway. She wasn't fighting it, just meeting a launch to carry the contents a few jumps back into what passed for civilization so far north.

     And just like that Inquisitor Augustus and the Duchess were planetside in yet another bland pre-fab starport terminal. What was it the princess had said in the classic play? "Aren't you a little short for a storm trooper?" Yes. That was it. She'd had the chance to play that part when she was a girl on Vide Poche. Fun little roll for a ten year old girl. She smiled at the memory.
     "So Augustus," she said. "Where can I take you first? I love a good mystery novel and I hope you will let me help you solve yours."
     "That, madame, is precisely what I'm hoping. We have so few reliable contacts this far north. And his majesty, may he live ten thousand years, informs me you have a solid network. We can, of course, make the matter worth your while."

     "It will be my pleasure," Elaine smiled. It would, she realized. This should be the most exquisite fun.

. . . . .

Thank you dear readers for joining me on this adventure. It's shaping up to be a wild ride. Please do tune in next time for episode IV of the Sentinel Gate Affair: A Fine Day for a Parade.

The Composer