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.
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?"
"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!