. . . 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.