Unfinished Business (A TGG Story)

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Unfinished Business (A TGG Story)

Post by MarshalPurnell »

March 17th, 3127
In orbit of Nothaburi,
Nothaburi System,
Outer Rim, HAB-1

“Another independent freighter coming in from the Frontier,” Crewman Alejandro Rosauro announced from his seat. And then he stifled a yawn. “Wanna ‘sign them a boarding vector, sweetits?”

At the terminal across from communications, Crewman Svetla Maleeva bit down on her tongue. The insufferable jackass had been harassing her ever since she had been assigned on board. “Plotting their course now,” she replied icily. The ship’s sensor fed directly into her terminal, letting her see the extant orbital traffic. She quickly evaluated the position of the new arrival and assigned one of the standard stations to it, with the computer crunching out exact instructions. “Vector prepared, captain.”

Notwithstanding the nautical tradition of calling the ship’s commander captain, the cutter was very much a civilian vessel and Senior Inspector Karda Brodsky was a bureaucrat, not a military man. As such he paid little heed to the growing and obvious tension between the two crewmen, and merely waved his hand in response to Maleeva.

Alejandro interpreted as a sign to proceed, and transmitted the coordinates to the ship, identified by its Imperial transponder as the merchantman San Elmo out of Bellaterra. Their bridge responded, and the 40 kilotonne rated freighter began coasting into orbit as the cutter turned her attention to the other three ships already waiting to be inspected. The San Elmo transmitted over a manifest, which Rosauro downloaded to the briefing pad queue for Junior Inspector Sakombi before his team departed on the shuttle to inspect one of the earlier arrivals. And then the bridge crew went back to their bored routine as a minor customs station hanging on the edge of nowhere space.

By the time Junior Inspector Joseph Sakombi was outbound towards the San Elmo with his crew, two hours had passed. The utilitarian transport shuttle was cramped, with a section of security personnel and his own technical team of four crammed into a passenger compartment that boasted little more than steel benches. He was hunched over between two of the larger security men, and reviewed the manifest transmitted from San Elmo with no great deal of attention. Granted, the Bureau of Customs Inspection provided prize money for contraband impounded and ships seized, but his section alone searched a half-dozen vessels every day with only minor infractions ever cropping up.

“At best, we’ll find some spacer’s horde of borloi or crazy tabac,” he said, speaking to Technician Armand Bernier sitting on the bench directly opposite him. “Standard tramp freighter, operating just across the Line transporting commercial goods for raw materials. Most of their circuit will be in Imperial space within a decade or so at this rate.”

“Ah, routine is not so bad.” Armand shrugged. “The sooner in, the sooner out. Nothing else queued up, so we can spend the rest of the shift relaxing.”

“It would be nice to make my fortune and get back to the Core, though.” Sakombi’s eyes suddenly narrowed as he noticed a rather interesting line. “Unclassified Other, thirty examples.” He whistled in appreciation. “Well, this one might be more interesting than any run we’ve had in a while.”

The crew settled in for docking, attaching restraints as the shuttle began the delicate maneuvering required to match orientation with the orbiting freighter. There was no “bump” to tell them that the attachment was complete, only a green light indicating that the transfer section behind them was connected to the other ship and had finished pressurizing. The inspection team lined up, two security personnel ahead of Sakombi, who in turn led his four technicians and the rest of the security section. They passed through the airlock corridor in silence, with the forward security personnel stepping onto the San Elmo first.

They were greeted by the captain of the freighter and the two other individuals listed on the crew roster. All three were scruffy looking Frontier types; Sakombi could tell the captain and owner simply by the way he stood out ahead, offering a weasel-like smile and an insincere handshake. He looked warily at the two armed security guards, but stepped forward to Sakombi.

“Captain Solan, at your service.” His handshake was firm, too firm, as though he were trying not to crush his hand but wasn’t quite used to it. “I’ll be pleased to show you around my pride and joy here.”

“Thank you, Captain Solan,” Sakombi replied with false sincerity. “I’m Junior Inspector Joseph Solan, of the customs cutter K-39845.” Sokambi made a show of checking his briefing pad. “Your manifest seemed to be in order, but of course we need to examine the Unclassified Other property and clear it. That can take some time, so perhaps we can start there while the security people examine your ship’s structure?”

Solan flashed him a thin smile and lightly bowed in a show of acquiescence. “As you wish, Inspector. That’s a new type of personal com I found out on Nouvelle Toulon. Looks like the natives have gotten a little more sophisticated lately. I imagine you’ll need to prod the things a bit, check the programming, but I don’t expect they’ll present too much of a problem in clearing. Dunno if there’ll be much of a market for them here, not so sophisticated as the models out of Kyoto, but they are a might lot cheaper. Anyway, since you’d want to see them, I kept them stored in my own quarters where you can get to ‘em easier.””

Sokambi nodded. Unknown biological imports would almost certainly have to be quarantined for quite some time. Technological imports would attract a lot less scrutiny, though if the outsiders past the Frontier had developed significantly more technical expertise the Sector government would have to be notified and would not be happy. But it would also be the sort of thing to make a name for himself with customs...

“Armand, stick with me. We’ll inspect these perscoms.” He waved the rest of the party away. “The rest of my inspection team know their jobs, but if you could have the rest of your crew accompany them...”

“Naturally.” He nodded to the other two men in his hire, who prepared to follow the three uniformed technicians to the main cargo hold. “And if you’ll follow me, Inspector...”

Solan took off down a corridor to the right, followed by Sokambi and Bernier. The grey walls along the way were marked by spots of mold and discolorations associated with an inefficient life-support system. The ship was at one with the shabby appearance of the captain and his two crewmen, and all too familiar among Frontier traders. Solan, the Junior Inspector mused, had probably shuttled goods back and forth across the border for decades without ever earning enough to get ahead of his expenses. It was a common story, and the anticipated expansion of the Imperial border would force them to move on to other regions. Once the systems they served were all within the Empire the insurance rates for corporate transport would decline sufficiently to make service out here profitable, and men like Solan could not compete with the cartels and their efficient megatonne freighters.

Finally Solan stopped before a door, right where the corridor ended. He flipped open a keypad and entered his access code. Armand watched as he did, and quickly realized the truth of the matter. “It’s a biometric pad,” he whispered to Sokambi. “The code is only for show. He accesses it with his fingerprints and a blood vessel scan. An old smuggler trick.”

That put Joseph on his guard. But Solan quickly ushered them into his not quite palatial quarters. A bed was strewn over in the far right corner, with a little table set up by the entrance with two chairs. Knick-knacks and pictures decorated the walls, and a pile of packaged grey blocks in the near-right corner by the door.

“Welcome to my humble abode.” Solan picked up a thin, grey plastic square from the table, and handed it to Sokambi. “Have one out for ya. The button at the very top turns it on, and the keyboard explains itself. It only has a holograph overlay display. no tri-dee projection. Like I said, it’s kind of primitive.”

Joseph turned the thing over in his hands, trying to find the screws to open it up and look at the circuitry board inside. He was greeted with the same smooth plastic finish as on the front. His brow furrowed as he turned it over again, perplexed. “This isn’t anywhere near enough sophisticated to be a solid-state piece of equipment.” Pressing the power button yielded only an orange flat-screen, barely better than the very earliest holographic displays of the 21st century. “And you say these were cheap?”

Solan shuffled a bit. “Well, yeah... compared to Imperial equipment they were.”

The Junior Inspector did not like the hesitation in the man’s voice. He sensed prevarication, and suspected the captain amended his statement to cover something up. Something he hadn’t thought of before. “And just how much did these cost you?”

Solan whetted his lips, and slinked back a bit. “Well, they didn’t cost me anything per se, I just traded an old spacesuit, damn thing was always breaking down, but I guess they were going for a hundred florins in the marketplace.”

Armand coughed discretely, and Joseph handed him the mysterious perscom. “One hundred gold florins, for this thing? A Matsutomo 500 would cost barely more, with full projection capability. Those are dirt-cheap, and have flooded the market even out beyond the border line. If everyone on Nouvelle Toulon is stuck purchasing these you could make far better money filling your hold with consumer electronics than with seed-stock, steel, and other low volume goods.” He placed the perscom back on the table, and looked intently at the merchant trader.

“Well, I dunno, maybe the guy got the better of me...” Solan held up his hands. “I just wanted to get rid of the damn suit, and there was a guy willing to trade...”

Suddenly and without warning Sokambi pulled out his service needler and smashed the perscom with the butt of the weapon, as hard as he could. The plastic casing shattered into pieces and a green ooze seeped out onto the table, and into the floor.

“What the hell!” Solan suddenly stood straight up again, and leaned into Sokambi’s face. “You can’t do that! That was my property, and I have rights!”

Sokmabi glared at the trader, and he backed down out of his personal space. “The regulations allow for the destruction of part or all of a shipment of Unclassified material as part of processing through Customs. You should know the rule book inside out by now, Captain Solan. Now what I want to know, is what the hell these things are.”

Armand had taken out a pair of tongs from his workbelt and lifted the flattened perscom gingerly. The green ooze continued to seep out, and pieces of the casing fell off to reveal a pink-tissue substance criss-crossed with crude wiring. “I believe our dear captain has misclassified obviously biological material. That is a serious infraction. Most serious.”

“I didn’t... I had no idea...” Solan objected. “They were sold to me like that...”

“I think the constabulary on Nothaburi will have a great many things to discuss with you, Captain Solan.” Joseph said, grimly. “I am contacting Senior Inspector Brodsky, but it is safe to say your vessel will be impounded and the contents subject to quarantine. You have already lied to us once, Captain Solan. I would urge you to cooperate with the authorities so it will go better for you.”

Inside the privacy of his mind, Sokambi rejoiced. Now this could finally get him somewhere in the Bureau! And then he remembered the paperwork that it was all going to require, and it soured his sense of triumph a bit. Still, that was all part of being a member of His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s bureaucratic Empire, and as Joseph looked over the quivering Captain Solan again and took a bit of pride in a job well done.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

June 2nd, 3127
Novgorod, Sibirsk,
Sibirsk System,
Outer Rim, HAB-1

The onion-domes of Russian settlers dominated the capital city of Novgorod, with even the administrative complex of the Sibirsk Sector Fleet styled in Muscovite aesthetics to blend in. But the Kremlin, as it was referred to by the locals, covered nearly six acres just outside the city and dominated the skyline even from the downtown districts. The planet’s autonomous Siberian political authorities did not like being overshadowed by the reminder of Imperial authority, but the large military garrison it hosted and hordes of civilian jobs it maintained made it a vital piece of the local economy. And they had at least managed to convince the Empire to place the sector civilian government administration in Annskya; the monument to bureaucracy was twice the size of the Kremlin.

Deep inside the Kremlin, just above the blast bunkers where the war-room would be located if the system came under siege, an inconspicuous briefing room hosted three individuals. The conference table holotank displayed a thin sheen of tissue, with primitive writing and a circuit-based electronic interface wrapped around the front. The image zoomed inward, passing through the representation of an individual cell, into the nucleus, and finally expanding a strand of DNA. The two clearly junior civilians looked on impassively as bits of data filtered off to the side, and the display went into some depth on the chemical makeup.

Director Janacek likes his presentations, the male civilian spoke to the woman standing beside him. Like most Evidenzbüro investigation field agents, they were both telepaths. Paul Tsang had been out in the Sibirsk Sector long enough to have developed a jaundiced view of his higher-ups in the area, and had never particularly liked bureaucracy in the first place. If we had any real enemies out there they’d kill us all while we were stuck attending holograph briefings.

“As you can see, the level of sophistication involved is incredible. Whoever created these... devices must have a strong technological base.” Janacek looked grim. “That does not bode well for the progress of the Empire into the outsider systems. And it might also presage a threat to the Empire.”

“Excuse me, Director.” The female agent interrupted. “The unit described in our briefing papers wasn’t very sophisticated at all. The use of a DNA computer was evaluated by the boffins as self-limiting.”

“The problem is that it shouldn’t exist at all,” Janacek responded, levelly. Brenda Reilly, being a cute redhead, had his tolerance far more than her partner did. “That is why I am dispatching you to the Nothaburi System, to investigate this matter further, and to pursue it across the Frontier if necessary. You’ll be provided with the usual expense account and alternate identities, and a contact beacon for Imperial forces. Governor Thawan has assured the full cooperation of the Nothaburi Constabulary in the investigation, and the Bureau of Customs Inspection is on the lookout for any similar devices coming in over the line. I’ll relay any updates to you through the usual channels. ”

“I’m not a biologist, and neither is Brenda,” Paul noted. “We might need someone familiar with this sort of technology. Or at least the basis for it, like a geneticist, if we find more of it or have to use it.”

“There’s no one in the Empire who could be an expert here,” their director responded, ignoring Paul’s addendum. “Nothaburi has plenty of genetic labs to analyze any samples you bring back, and this organic technology seems to be packaged in user-friendly ways. And most importantly, there are only so many florins left in the supplementary personnel budget, and I do not deem this mission to require expending any.” He wagged his finger at Paul. “And you had better keep a watch on your receipts this time. The sector oversight bureau was most displeased by our last accounting report, and you were personally responsible for 8% of the unaccounted excess! So, unless the fate of the Empire is at stake, I don’t want to see you hiring your own expert or shipping out on the fastest vessel cost be damned, and certainly no more wasting Terran-export Spumante just to charm a drug lord.”

Brenda meekly raised her head. “That was me, sir.”

Janacek looked momentarily flummoxed, and after a short, embarrassed silence, picked up his thread. “At any rate, watch your budget. Tickets have already been procured for the RS Arcadia IV, a second-class mixed passenger and cargo vessel departing for Nonthaburi in three days. Once you arrive you will debark at the Saovopop Starport outside the capital of Samphanthawong, where Inspector Ton Samrin will meet you.” The holotable, activated by the name, displayed the heavily Asian features of the Inspector. “Inspector Ton is a thirty year veteran of their smuggling and commerce crimes department, so he should be an old hand at dealing with the likes of the erstwhile Captain Solan.”

The holograph morphed into another, obviously Caucasian face. “You are not authorized to use extraordinary interrogation techniques unless given specific orders from Sibirsk intelligence command.” The two telepaths nodded. Extraordinary techniques meant invasive probes and memory reconstruction, pulling data right out of an unwilling subject, and were highly restricted in use to the direst of circumstances. “There are two crew members of his freighter San Elmo in custody, but we believe that Solan is the only one of the three who knows anything of use. The Thais want to charge them all with smuggling, but if absolutely required for your investigation the Viceroy will pardon one or all of them in exchange for cooperation.”

“I don’t think it’ll be necessary,” Paul replied. “I’ve read the report from the Customs Inspector who discovered the things. This guy had to have been some kind of idiot. Getting him to talk all he knows should be child’s play for the local authorities.”

“Be that as it may, it will remain an option if you need it. Captain Solan or one of his crew members might be useful as a guide or something in that nature.”
And after all, it cost the department nothing if the Viceroy issued a pardon. “Once you have completed your investigation on Nothaburi, you will need to locate transport to Nouvelle Toulon. The destroyer Chilehurst will be arriving one or two weeks after you, and departing to Nouvelle Toulon about the second week of July. We have secured the sector fleet’s permission to send you in aboard her, if you complete your tasks on time. She’ll be showing the flag and policing the outer approaches of the system against piracy. If you do not, you are authorized to draw funds for a steerage ticket on one of the local freighters plying trade routes to the planet.”

The hologram changed to display a bluish-looking world, covered in clouds. “This is Nouvelle Toulon. It is an Earth-type world, more temperate by average, with slightly less land-mass and density, so gravity is at .94 of Terran standard. A hospitable world, with relatively few important resources and which is considerably retarded technological development. It was settled during the Interrgnum by refugees fleeing the core, from a French base, but subsequent waves of immigrants fragmented the original government. It stands divided into a handful of empires, and large number of minor states and cities. The Empire is a predominant influence in the largest of the empires, the Maritime Alliance, and in the main trading port of Marseilles. At present the level of economic and cultural penetration is extensive, and incorporation into the Empire is a matter of years, at most.”

“What contacts do we have on world, sir?” Brenda spoke up, as he was taking his time getting to the relevant points.

“Ah, yes, just getting there.” Janacek adjusted the hologram display again, once again presenting a face, this one thin and pasty, with a rat-like mustache and beady eyes. “This Prefect Vendrome, the present exarch of Marseilles. He is in our pocket, and a major conduit for Imperial penetration of the world. You will be given credentials, and allowed to operate out of his Palace of Customs, where you should be able to cover the entire southern continent. The northern continent is much less developed, and dominated commercially by enclaves of the Maritime Alliance. We’re still evaluating which contacts and sources to activate there, and will provide an update through our embassy in Marseilles once that is finished. Given the manner in which Marseilles dominates interstellar commerce, we do not believe exploring the rest of the planet will be necessary.”

The briefing went on for some time, with little real information passing between the Director and his two agents. Finally, Janacek deactivated the holotank, and dismissed them. On the way out, the two agents walked side by side in an unnervingly synchronized fashion for their civilian façade, and attracted more than a few stares from military personnel in the hallways. They, however, were communicating through their talent and mostly ignored the others passing by.

I don’t like the reliance on Exarch Vendrome, Paul sent. If this stuff is coming through Marseilles someone in his staff is probably on the take. It’s an invitation to be burned.

I don’t see what Vendrome has to gain with such a petty smuggling ring, assuming they’re even doing anything illegal, Brenda responded. The Director is worked up about this, but the technology doesn’t really threaten us or our position.

Organic computers didn’t come from nowhere, he argued. And wherever that is has to be sophisticated enough to be dangerous, at least to us. It may be an economic tendril from some alien group a bit too widespread to just lock down in their own system.

Like the Delphinians were?

Yeah, like the Delphinians. Paul broke their connection for just a second as a passing lieutenant brushed aside him. Brenda could pick up a sudden, repressed flash of anger. Anyway he continued it may mean another major war out here on the Frontier, or at least given the Outsiders more options than returning to the Empire or staying in poverty. Neither of which will look good when news reaches Earth. The Viceroy is probably leaning heavily on Janacek to find out what’s going on, but that’s not going to push the desk-sitter into being more free with his budget.

At least Nouvelle Toulon looks like a nice place to visit. Picturesque. Not a desert world like Abydos. They had spent six months in the narrow habitable band on that world, dodging sandstorms and ingratiating themselves to the local organized crime syndicates. It had been a miserable experience for both. Vendrome looks like we might need to splurge on spumante and other luxuries if we want his full cooperation.

Paul smiled openly. Yes, well, we have to do for Emperor and State, accountants be damned. If Janacek doesn’t like my receipt collection, he can fire me. It was a joke, of course. The telepaths serving the Evidenzbüro as field agents were too valuable to be dismissed, ever. They could be terminated for turning rogue, or imprisoned for crimes, or even reluctantly released into civilian life, but they were never let go.

I guess we have a few weeks to brush up on our covers, Brenda sent. Independent traders and lovers, again. She was bemused, and let Paul feel it. Lucky me that’s an easy cover to work into.

Well, there really wasn’t much else to do on Abydos... Paul winked. And you’re lucky I like redheads.

Like any woman couldn’t fit that description with a bottle and thirty minutes. Brendashrugged. Just keep in shape so I don’t have to ask Janacek for another partner.

And then Paul sent an extremely rude image of what he was going to do to her later tonight. That broke their synchronization as Brenda fell into a fit of giggles. “Oh God,” she sighed, as military personnel turned to stare at the couple. “Let’s get home and put that imagination of yours to good use...”

No one is ever going to accuse us of not fitting in character, Paul joked. He stepped back to put his arm in Brenda’s, and they began going down the list of equipment they would need to requisition. But as they continued down the hall, their rather obvious smiles continued to bewilder those they came across. Neither agent cared.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

June 14th, 3127
Samphanthawong, Nothaburi,
Nothaburi System,
Outer Rim, HAB-1

Saovopop Starport looked like one of a hundred different yet same facilities that Paul had seen in the Outer Rim. Coming down on their shuttle he had seen the wide swath of ferrocrete landing spaces, and the specialized loading/unloading towers for commercial traffic. They had veered off somewhat to the west, where the main passenger hub waited. A squat, ugly utilitarian ferrocrete structure, it was surrounded by embarking and debarking annexes that fed into the cavernous interior. A traffic control tower sprouted up in the middle of the structure, linked to sophisticated sensors planted kilometers away, and well out of the flight-line. It was boring enough that Tsang wondered whether or not a window seat was really worth it, but that was the way of things; out on the frontier, function trumped form.

The landing itself was smooth in a way that centuries of Imperial passengers had come to expect; the shuttle was something of a flying brick, with the raw engine power and sophisticated control computers to fly through even the roughest turbulence without trouble. The counter-gravity drive that kicked in at low levels insured a smooth transition to the parking, and allowed the pilot to line up with his assigned disembarking port with complete precision. The worst part of the flight, as usual, was the rush of hundreds of tired, anxious travelers to get off the shuttle, and despite the helpful efforts of the plane attendants the crush was inevitable. Brenda took the brunt of the shoving and pushing, but by the time they were streaming out through the port and into the facility proper, he felt bruised enough.

They petered out to the promenade on the first floor, where the mulling crowds waited to pick up their baggage, made transportation arrangements, or sat down and took a meal from one of many kiosks serving the spaceport. Tsang stopped by one and picked up a couple of sticks of grilled satay, one beef for himself, and a chicken for Brenda. “Eat,” he said, handing it over to her. “You passed on the sandwich and I can tell you’re starving.”

“That’s... alright.” Of course you can tell I’m starving, dear. She nibbled gingerly at the piece closest to the top of the skewer. “It’s warm, but good. Did you get some water?”

Paul grimaced. “On second.” He went back to the kiosk, and came back with a couple of plastic cups filled with mineral water, and his own meat-skewer held between his teeth. He passed on a cup to his partner, and took out the satay. “There you go. Now, seen Inspector Tom waiting around for us?”

She was taking a quick sip of water, washing down the spiceness of the satay, when she saw an older Thai man in the blue uniform of the planetary Constabulary by the main exit. “Over there, dear,” she pointed. “They should have delivered our bags to his auto already.” She smiled. Official business has advantages.

They began walking over, and saw the Thai policeman pull out a perscom from his uniform pocket. After presumably verifying their pictures, he began moving through the crowd to meet them. “Mr. Tsang, Madame Reilly, I am Senior Constable Inspector Tom Samrin.” His German was passable, but heavily accented and came across as almost sing-song, an odd effect indeed with the heavy Teutonic language. He offered both a short bow. “I am here to convey you to Capital Station 27, where the suspect Captain Solan and his crew are being held, and to assist you in the investigation as far as possible. Your bags were taken to my groundcar after the shuttle landed, and your ministry has made arrangements at the downtown Tai Kruang hotel. We can stop by the hotel on the way to drop them off, if you prefer.”

Paul took the lead dealing with the inspector, as he frequently did with authority figures. “That’ll be fine, Inspector Tom. We’d like to get started interrogating the suspect as soon as possible, but we could use a little rest after our trip. And I’d like to see what the accountants decided would suffice for accommodations.”

“It’s not so bad,” Tom said. “Tai Kruang isn’t a luxury hotel, but it is clean and presentable. It’s a favorite for discrete smaller businessmen and the average escort.” He nodded, and smiled slyly. ‘We watch it to keep tabs on the smaller services, make sure competition doesn’t get too violent.”

“Ah, of course.” Paul grimaced. “Well, I don’t expect Janacek has a sense of humor, so it was probably the cheapest hotel within easy reach of your station. Not that it isn’t going to be a bit awkward.”

“Ah, fah,” Tom dismissed. “You farang worry too much about appearances and propriety.” He pronounced the last word oddly, as though dredging it up from an old grammar lesson. “You need to be worried about karma, but if you want to get enlightenment you have to be a monk. For the rest of us it’s all about enough balance to get to a better station on the next turn of the wheel.”

“That’s not quite what my Church teaches, but we are intelligence specialists,” Brenda replied, giggling. “We’ve been in close quarters before, and no one in our line of work can be... naïve.”

“Precisely, my lady,” Tom smiled. “If you’ll follow me, we’re parked right out front.”

Nothaburi’s Class K sun was weaker but closer than Sol, which with the higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere made the planet notably warmer than Terran standard. After leaving the climate controlled interior Paul felt the heat hit him, with oppressive humidity rendering it even less bearable. Tom seemed cheerfully oblivious, and ushered them towards a black constabulary sedan. The planet was advanced enough to have native manufactures, though the rounded styling suggested the strong influence of the Bentley and Tinning Corporation’s classic sedans. The archaic wheels suggested that the native economy wasn’t that sophisticated, though the use of a fuel cell system eliminated a lot of the worst aspects of BTC’s ancient prototypes.

Paul opened the back passenger door for Brenda, who stepped gingerly inside and sat down. Her modest gown ruffled a bit as she shifted position,, and she frowned just a bit. It was nowhere near as practical as a field uniform or undercover attire, but when dealing with local authorities, propriety took precedence over comfort. Paul joined her shortly in the back, sitting lazily with legs crossed, while Inspector Tom slid into the driver’s seat on the left.

“It will take maybe twenty minutes to get downtown, depending on traffic,” he noted. And then the Thai constable turned on the engine, and a soft humm filled the background. Brenda and Paul tried to relax, and had a conversation of their own about living arrangements at the hotel. Tom was concentrating on the drive, though he was occasionally puzzled when one or the other Imperial agents would suddenly start laughing, or when Brenda blushed red. He knew they were telepaths, but he had never meant any before and so wasn’t quite prepared for their... oddities. Then again, all farang were weird.

Half an hour later Tom had arrived outside their hotel and the two agents checked in. Porters arrived to take their bags up and the pair was soon in their seats again, with Tom starting back on the way downtown. The downtown area of the capital was the most developed part of the planet, and displayed the high-rise buildings and gleaming condominium blocks that marked a moderately developed Rim city. Here and there exotic golden temples and huge statutes of the Buddha and protective deities stood out, reminding Paul and Brenda that they were on a world of the Kingdom of Siam rather than one of the colonies held directly by the Emperor. As they took in the sights Tom turned down one of the main thoroughfares and into the far right lane, and into a parking garage underneath a rather slab-sided marble building.

“Welcome to Capital State 27,” he said as he put the ground car into park. He twisted around to face the back seat passengers. “Right through processing, then I’ll take you to the interrogation room. I don’t think it will take you two long to get whatever you need out of the smuggler.”

They were led through the garage into a security room, where Tom passed a biometric scan to enter the station through the processing room. He took them past mostly-empty holding cells out into the front, where suspects were being entered into jail systems, and officers were taking complaints from civilians. It was merrily chaotic, with men and women shouting out and gesturing wildly, or slumped over in seats, as uniformed constables stood by impassively. Tom led them into another corridor, to the first set of doors on their left.

“Our interrogation room,” he explained. Inside was a ubiquitous steel desk and sets of chairs, with a tray nearby stocked with tea and water. A scruffy looking Caucasian man was seated, slumped-shouldered at the desk, obviously tired and defeated. “For the last time, I don’t know nothing about the boxes...”

“So you have said, Mr. Solan,” Tom replied. He took a seat in front of the merchant, and bid the two agents do likewise. “There are new agents who wish to hear your story. Perhaps they will believe you.” He shrugged, feigning indifference. “So, let us start from the beginning, again.”

Solan sighed, slumped down even further, and started on his narrative. “I’ve been doing the run between the Thai settlements and the near outside colonies like Nouvelle Toulan for damn near thirty years now. Ship in goods like steel, seedstock, agri tools, an’ so on, stuff the outsiders can’t produce, and take in some raw materials and crafts and stuff like that. Hasn’t ever been all that profitable, but it kept me above my head and the San Elmo in repair, mostly. I was on the return leg of the circuit, left out in October last year, and stopped off in Marseilles to look and see if I could pick up some deals before heading in to Nothaburi. One of my crew decided to leave, so I went out to see if I could recruit a hand to take his place, and I went out to the grand marketplace, off the Landing Boulevard from the spaceport.”

He looked at Tom, miming a request for a glass of water. The Thai inspector stood up and went over to the refreshments try to pour one out of the decanter left over on it. Once Solan slaked his thirst, he continued.

“There wasn’t anything criminal or the like about it, I thought. I noticed a few of those percoms, hadn’t ever seen any of that type, and asked around about ‘em. Never did get a replacement for Yuri, at that. Anyway, I thought I could pick some up cheap, stow em away in my cabin as a bit of personal steerage for a bonus I wouldn’t have to give over to the creditors. Didn’t really get anywhere for the first few hours, no one really seemed to know where they came from or how was selling them. So I was ready to go when I got approached by one of the dock inspectors, telling me there was some trouble and I was wanted in the Mighty Old Palace.”

“That would be the Palace of Customs that houses the Exarch’s administration?” Tom asked, verifying for the recorders.

“You know it is!” Solan snapped. “Anyway, I met with some muckity-muck there, said he represented the people selling those perscoms on the side. Mostly they wanted cash for ‘em, but he said these people were interested in anything techy. Anything at all. So I volunteered I had an old spacesuit, one of those advanced Boehm models with integrated holodisplay and sensors and all that. Hadn’t worked in years, didn’t think it was worth anything, but he said that’d do fine for these people. Said that if I could bring in trinkets like that, anything more advanced than an integrated circuit, he could supply those cheap boxes to me in volume. So yeah, I said okay. Figured it was something shady, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it.”

The telepaths nodded in unison. Thus far, everything he said was the truth. Paul wanted to probe deeper, get an image of which official Solan had met with, but they couldn’t do that under their present restrictions. So instead, they waited for Solan to finish.

“You gotta believe me, I didn’t know nothing about the goo or whatever was inside,” he pleaded. “Just thought it was some kind of cheap knockoff, you know, someone trying to undermine a corp out here, I dunno. Don’t even have one myself, the ships’ all I need. So we arranged a meeting out by the San Elmo’s dock, and he gave me a palate of them and I handed over my spacesuit. I didn’t figure I’d get much of a look over by customs, so I wasn’t expecting to get the third degree by officer hardass there. If I’d known they were biologicals I’d have never taken them on.”

“More or less accurate,” Paul confirmed. “He’s not really of any further use to us.” The Viceroy’s pardon can stay with the Viceroy, no?

Leave him to the Thais Brenda responded.

“That will be all, thank you Inspector,” Paul concluded. “We’ll be in touch if we need to follow up, but I think it unlikely. Our leads take us to Nouvelle Toulon, which is expected. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.”

With that, Paul and Brenda rose and bowed to the Inspector. Tom returned the courtesy, and motioned for Solan to stand up. Together, they filed out of the interrogation room. Paul and Brenda were already making discussing travel arrangements.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

August 14th, 3127
Marseilles, Nouvelle Toulon,
Nouvelle Toulon System,
Frontier Space, HAB-1

The destroyer Chilehurst had been late, which had left Brenda and Paul with time to further research Nouvelle Toulon before leaving Nothaburi. They talked to the independent traders serving the area in low class dives, consulted the local Commercial Guild and the on-planet branch of Lloyd’s Shipping Insurance, and purchased a number of books and holo-articles produced on or about the world. From what they saw, the planet was not much more advanced than 21st century Earth in the best areas, and significantly less so in broad swathes of the main continents away from the reach of the spaceport at Marseilles or the water-borne shipping monopoly of the Maritime Alliance. There seemed to be little of value intrinsic to the world; certain religious sects that had fled there produced high quality furniture in demand in the Sibirsk Sector, and gold and other valuable metals were as common there as on most habitable worlds, but its main importance was as a friendly clearing-house for contracts and goods further into outsider space.

As Brenda had commented after reviewing half the material they had collected, the keystone was Exarch Vendrome and Marseilles. By keeping the customs rates low, and not asking too many questions, the hereditary Prefects of Marseilles had made their spaceport attractive to shipping out of Imperial space. Despite their vast accumulated wealth and influence as a source of technological diffusion on the world, they had never given in to the temptation to go empire-building themselves. As a result the city was respected as a neutral ground, and close ties to the commercially inclined Maritime Alliance meant that goods coming in from the spaceport could reach every corner of civilized Nouvelle Toulon. The authorities of the city had been receptive to Imperial influence for decades, happily taking bribes and gifts to look the other way as the delicate process of reintegration with the Holy Roman Empire commenced.

Pierre Jean Prefect Vendrome had shown no sign of changing the policies of his ancestors, though he had a reputation for being particularly avaricious and unpleasant to deal with. Janacek, in an update to their orders received just before leaving, had precluded bringing the Imperial consul in Marseilles into the loop. Neither he nor the Sector military command wanted to involve the Foreign Ministry in the investigation or even hint to the diplomats that anything was amiss. It was another case of bureaucratic point-scoring and Paul had simply rolled his eyes at the order; they would not be able to consult with the one knowledgeable and presumably trustworthy Imperial official on the world. Brenda had been more expressive for once, though at least working out the tension afterward had been...enjoyable.

Transit aboard the Chilehurst had been cramped and uncomfortable, with little privacy in the junior officer bunks. They had their own beds, but had to share them with fourteen ensigns and lieutenants, all of them highly polite but most also obviously interested in getting to know Brenda. The one lieutenant with the most active imagination was much more interested in getting to know Paul, which had given Brenda a great deal of material to needle her lover with and which had left the male telepath distinctly uncomfortable.

Having someone hate me or want to kill me, that’s one thing. That... is quite another, he had signed over to her, one evening.

Brenda had been distinctly unsympathetic. Now you know how all female telepaths feel.

As a vessel of the Royal Navy the Chilehurst also had one of the worst messes that Paul had ever had the misfortune of encountering, full of bizarre names and odd concoctions that only the English could mistake for food. The sausages that filled most of their curious dishes were okay by themselves, but the English insisted on dousing everything with gravy, and they boiled their vegetables into mush. Tsang had spent the trip pining after the crisp stir-fry of his Chinese cuisine, though Brenda had perversely relished what she had called a taste of home. She’d been up ridiculously early to attend the godawful heavy breakfasts the English specialized in, too! How anyone could eat like the British and not get sick regularly still eluded him. And if he never had another greasy plate of “fish and chips” in his life...

At least the arrival on Nouvelle Toulon had gone smoothly. Chilehurst had been detained by a minor skirmish with one of the pirate vessels skulking on the trade routes between the Outer Rim and frontier. Paul and Brenda had half-expected more trouble, but instead had passed the voyage bunkered down quietly or venturing out to the exercise room maintained for the officers. They’d also further reviewed everything in the ship’s database about the sector, though most of the information available was specialized to the anti-piracy nature of the ship’s patrols. It had gotten Brenda interested in a possible connection between the smuggling network on Nouvelle Toulon and some of the larger outsider pirate gangs, but there remained too little information to speculate with any accuracy. By the time the ship sent them down on the ship’s yacht Paul was seriously beginning to feel stir-crazy and Brenda was on the verge of losing patience with him.

Getting down on Marseilles had improved both their moods. The sky was blue, the city was in a mile Mediterranean climate zone, with a sparkling ocean nearby, and had all the rustic charm of a real Frontier settlement rather than a subsidized colonial venture. The refugees had had build in their native styles from stone and the local wood-analogue, which came from native plants all but indistinguishable from trees in appearance and environmental role. The spaceport was much closer to the city, within the limited field generator brought by the original French refugees, close enough to allow transport by one of the favored indulgences of the city’s elite; rickshaw.

Paul had rounded up a group of coolies waiting outside the spaceport exit to take their baggage, while Brenda sought out a larger palanquin-style carriage. Our expense accounts goes far here, might as well enjoy it she had signed to an momentarily stunned Paul when he returned. She was dressed according to looser styles of the city, a silk and gauze ensemble that marked the city’s prominent independent women, and from her vantage point above the heads of six locals winked lasciviously at him. “Come up here and join me, lonely sailor boy,” she invited, and then giggled at their private joke.

We are lovers Paul signed. It’s all for our cover if Janacek reviews the receipt...

Paul paid the men in the local script, generously, and directed them to take the carriage to the Palace of Customs, the exarch’s residence by the sea. The coolies would follow along behind, holding their baggage over their heads in a cliché of antiquity. They pulled back the curtains on the palanquin and enjoyed the sights of the city as the convoy proceeded at its stately pace and their two lovers, every so often, nuzzled and fondled each other. Their path took them through the Grand Marketplace, a cloth-bazaar teeming with people and the human-powered conveyances of the elite, as merchants with piled boxes and small kiosks hawked their wares. After a slow journey though they reached the Grand Boulevard, the broad concrete avenue sweeping through the center of the city and terminating at the sea with the Palace of Customs.

The white marble palace was in the Mughal Revival style of the late 24th century, and stood out among the heavily European style government buildings and mansions that lined the sides of the boulevard. Its white domes soared above the city’s skyline, which was mostly limited to three stories otherwise, and provided a brilliant sight when viewed head on. Fountains and a well-manicured garden covered the space around it, which with the sapphire sea framing it from behind presented a vision of heaven. The extravagance was a legacy of an earlier exarch, and even as a breathtaking work of art the distortion it introduced into the city was jarring.

There was no obvious gate at the front of the palace, and the palanquin and porters went on to the lawn towards the main entrance to the compound. They were halted by a liveried official waiting at the gates, and put down the palanquin gently for the two to dismount. Paul stepped out gingerly, and pulled out his letter of credentials to show to the official, who looked it over carefully.

“You are the Imperials that the Lord Prefect has been expecting,” the official grudgingly conceded, speaking in the elegant, archaic French of the planet. “I am Assistant Chamberlain Henri Ducard, at your service. His Excellency has assigned you quarters in the main palace, as a show of favor for your Empire. Your bags will be taken in by our men, but the Exarch has requested your presence before his throne before you settle in. If you will follow me...”

Ducard did not wait to see if Paul and Brenda followed, and took up a strident pace as he entered through the main doors. The Imperial agents strained to keep up and maintain their dignity compared to the fleet-footed underling, and passed through the palace entrance with its grand staircases and bustling floor without taking much of the décor in. Both telepaths could feel the sense of contempt that the Assistant Chamberlain held for them, but without more intensive probing would not be able to pinpoint why. Instead, Paul fumed silently while Brenda tried to gather in something of the ambient mood of the palace.

The throne room was an audience hall in the West Wing of the palace, at the very end of the corridor and hidden behind two curved wooden doors decorated with arabesques. Ducard knocked on the door, rapping three times, before it opened inward. Lines of people stood to either side of the hall, with a red carpet passing in the center of the hall through them to a raised dais. Prefect Vendrome was seated there upon a marble throne that dwarfed the thin, sallow ruler. His white uniform, with blue epaulettes and yellow aiguillette, presented a martial air that belied the true commercial source of his power and prestige. He looked down the carpet towards the new arrivals, and nodded.

“His Excellency bids you present yourselves before him,” a court announcer to the side of the Exarch boomed out. Ducard moved forward, credentials in hand, with the unspoken command that the two telepaths follow. They did, this time at a slower pace suited to their surroundings. Ducard approached the dais and there kneeled before the Exarch, and held out the credentials for him to examine. As the two Imperials were halfway to the throne they too halted and bowed from the waist, as their protocol briefings had warned them to do.

Vendrome took up the papers and looked them over lazily, before handing them off to the Chamberlain to file. “Honored guests, please approach,” he commanded. As Paul and Brenda made their way forward, he continued. “Your sector authorities have requested the aid of the Exarchate of Marseilles, and this we will gladly give. Let everyone know that I, Pierre Prefect de Vendrome, am a friend of the Empire and all civilized powers, and everything that you request will be granted.” He smiled, thinly. “Within reason, naturally. I wish I could answer myself where these biological computers are coming from, since whoever is bringing them to this world has not paid the proper duties on them or rented my warehouses and docking spaces.”

Brenda spoke first, to exploit the somewhat obvious lust that she felt coming off for the Prefect. “Thank you for your generosity, Your Excellency. Your friendship with the Empire will be repaid many times over.” Which was true, more or less. When Nouvelle Toulon was brought back into the Empire the Prefects were at least on course to be Counts and rulers of their own continent. “We would like access to your palace security records, since our investigation has pointed to elements that might threaten your continued peace and safety.”

Vendrome paled notably at her words. He was not popular among his subjects, and he knew it. “You shall have the full cooperation of my bodyguards and Colonel Vincere of the Palace Guards. I eagerly await a briefing on this situation, perhaps later tonight?” There was a hint of suggestion there, despite his concern for his own life. “But I imagine you would like to settle in to your quarters, yes?” He clapped his hands, and another liveried servant emerged from the mass of spectators to his right. “Ducard has other duties, but young Gustav here will see to your comfort. If there is anything you need there, simply ask and it will be done.”

Gustav bowed from his chest, respectfully but not subserviently, at the telepaths. “If you will follow me, madame and monsieur.” He led them out, towards residential East Wing,, and they were able to appreciate the many murals and objects d’art displayed along the way. The net effect seemed more like a luxury hotel than a grand palace, but it was going to be a very comfortable stay for them both.

Moments later, Vendrome stood up from his throne and declared an end to the day’s audiences, ordering his bodyguard to clear the room of spectators. But he stayed, as did Ducard, and soon enough his chief of bodyguards and the head of his personal regiment, the Palace Guards, were ushered in. So too was the Chef de Gendarmerie of the capital, and the Marseilles spychief. They remained in closed debate for some time, before the meeting petered out.

Ducard left unhappily. The Imperial busybodies had chosen a perfect threat to get his illustrious ruler conscious about palace security. It was going to be a lot more difficult to meet with his associates in the palace, or to leave it himself. He resolved to arrange a proper thank-you for the two spies as soon as possible.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

August 20th, 3127
Marseilles, Nouvelle Toulon,
Nouvelle Toulon System,
Frontier Space, HAB-1

The oriental stylings of the Palace of Customs had extended to the copious use of manpower and indulgent supply of luxury furnishings. Brenda had found the use of the masseuse provided by Prefect Vendrome particularly welcome, and had spent several hours over the week having her back and neck kneaded and her body pampered. The light breakfast, provided in the room by servants bringing trays of fruit, pastries, jams and coffees were a welcome and necessary impetus for the two telepaths to drag themselves out of the silken sheets of the decadently soft king-sized mattress. There was a sheltered pool in the back of the palace, and sea-grottos below it where the Exarchs held frequent private parties for the city’s elite. Most of the high tech amenities taken for granted even on an Outer Rim colony world were absent, but neither agent missed the entertainment holotank or virtual relay communication network.

Still, they had not been entirely remiss in their mission, and as they sat down to another breakfast at the dining table in their room, Paul began plotting the day’s activities. The security review has a few questionable characters coming freely into the palace, enough to worry Vendrome. Which means he’ll be out of our hair while we conduct our own investigation. Even as he signed, he spread an citrus-tasting native jelly on a piece of freshly baked and buttered bread.

Brenda was finishing off a sweet Swedish pastry, and waited until after savoring the gooey treat to reply. Vendrome is concerned with contacts between the city elite and his own bureaucrats. He hasn’t made looking at the more humble visitors a priority. Typical blind spot for people like him.

You don’t think he’s involved, the? Paul asked. She had been spending a lot more time with the erstwhile ruler of the city than he had.

Oh, God no. He’s venal and corrupt, but I’ve been sensing a real concern for his own position here, not a desire to cover up anything. Paul could feel, too, a brief flash of discomfort conveyed by his partner. If this goes on much longer I may have to have sex with him. The thought made Brenda queasy, and she didn’t filter it out for Paul either.

Needs must he replied stoically. But I have a feeling about today. This merchant, Caparara, has been hanging around the palace every Wednesday for months, never does much of anything except loiter in the audience hall our just outside until just after His Pomposity is done. The only time we’ve seen him talking to anyone is asides with our good friend Ducard or a couple of the officials with the spaceport management board. He’s registered as an art dealer with a major warehouse in the Grand Marketplace, but none of the people we’ve been mixing with seem to know anything about him or what he sells.

An art dealer successful enough to need a warehouse, but no connection to the socialite elite? Brenda took an orange from the tray on the table, peeling it with a fluid motion of her nails. “Suspicious, suspicious,” she said aloud. And so we go pay Mr. Caparara a visit today.

They finished off the breakfast, leaving the tray for the servants to take away, and showered together before dressing for a day outside. Paul chose the less conspicuous wear of a day laborer, cheap textile cloth brought in less developed areas by the Maritime Alliance, while Brenda once again chose the look of the city’s great dames. The palace staff provided another palanquin for her, to maintain the appearance, while Paul would trail behind in the crowd, just somewhat out of sight but always within easy shouting distance. She would engage Caparara up front, as a potential new customer after a sudden elevation in her husband’s status, while Paul provided security and perhaps burgled the warehouse. There was nothing subtle in their approach, but the situation hardly called for it. They’d either break the situation open or exhaust their best lead.

As usual, the marketplace was bustling with activity. The porters of Brenda’s palanquin had an easy time forcing their way through the throngs of humanity, save when another member of the city’s elite was passing through in the opposite direction. Paul had to shove and push his way against surly patrons and cursing merchants to keep up and then just barely. At one point another laborer, a larger dockworker, reared back in fury at Tsang, ready to pound his face in, and the telepath had needed to quickly apologize while exerting some calming influence on the man. It had distracted him, and he finally lost sight of the palanquin, but he knew the way to Caparara’s warehouse and wasn’t unduly concerned.

He stepped past stalls overflowing with native and terran fruits, and street-food vendors steaming noodles and soup for the working-class laborers working in the area. The aroma of roasting meat competed with the grinding of herbes de Provence, even at the early hour. Paul decided to risk his talent’s notice by projecting a subtle aura of inapproachability, allowing him to catch up before Brenda got too far ahead. It went well, until he turned right onto a side-street leading down by Caparara’s site. Then, suddenly, he noticed a presence on the back of his mind, which seemed to be consciously struggling against the slight suggestive presence he was projecting.

Paul looked around, trying to see who it was. There were too many people in the area to pinpoint the precise source of that vague feeling, so he had to rely on his instincts to pull the person out of the crowd. Fortunately, the aura was working well enough to keep a subtle flow of people around him, and this person was actively trying to approach. He gave a quick look over his shoulder, and quickly had it. It was another big guy, though nowhere near so developed and muscled as the laborer who had threatened him earlier. The clothes were a bit stylish for a workman but still retail-quality at best, rather than tailored or produced off-world with modern techniques. The figure screamed thug, and Paul decided to probe a bit deeper.

FOLLOW! The psychic command was made directly to the thug’s subconscious, beneath the level of thought that he could acknowledge or question his sudden compulsion. Paul pushed through the crowd, dropping his generalized presence in favor of concentrating on his newest subject, and looked for an isolated alleyway between two other warehouses. He found one and detoured through it, where he could really get to work.

The first step was to immobilize the thug, which was child’s play for an experienced telepathic agent. The thug had no ability and lacked the mental discipline to put up even a façade of resistance. His emotions broiled close to the surface of his thoughts, dominating his personality except when his simpler appetites demanded to be satiated. Paul picked up a little of what he had been doing in the past days and quashed his sense of revulsion. The man before him was a shell, in so many ways, and Paul briefly considered forcing an aneurism in his brain to rid the universe of one more parasitic piece of trash. But a suddenly urgent piece of information came lose from the thug, and the telepath had no time to deal with the situation. Instead he instinctively pushed him into an unconscious state. The sudden collapse of the man to the ground attracted attention, but Paul backed away slowly and deliberately, as though he had every right to do whatever he was doing. He didn’t even need to reinforce it with his power.

Brenda love, it’s a trap, be careful! he sent out, the psychic equivalent of a scream. The thug had been packing a dagger to take him out, while more associates of his smuggling gang waited inside Caparara’s warehouse to ambush and murder Brenda once inside. Caparara himself was just a patsy and he would be “killed” in the same gas explosion the crew was going to use to dispose of the evidence and bodies. He broadcast the information he’d gotten out of the thug as quickly as he could, and prayed that Brenda wasn’t already caught unaware.

He pushed and shoved through the marketplace in a fury, with no heed to the outraged yips of the bystanders. He cursed himself for falling so far behind his partner, and felt a flash of pain inside him. If anything happened to her, it’d be his fault...

Brenda picked up his distress, and signed him back. Please Paul, I’m a big girl. I can take care of my... She cut off, suddenly, and Paul felt his stomach try to turn over. The severed link meant she was either unconscious or there was another telepath severing it. Neither was a good sign at all.

The front of Caparara’s warehouse was marked by the overturned palanquin, fleeing porters, and Brenda, thank God, huddled up against a pair of barrels from a nearby stall, firing her personal sidearm at a window in the warehouse. Braving any snipers, Paul zig-zaged over to her, pulling out his own Parabellum service pistol. He tried the connection, but he could clearly feel something dampening down on it, a presence more powerful than either of them alone.

“Well thanks for showing up Paul,” she greeted as she fired off another round of fire. The magnetically accelerated slug smashed through the window frame. “They weren’t expecting us to be telepaths, so whoever they have up there didn’t clamp down fast enough to keep me from picking up the ambush. But he’s good, real good.”

Paul nodded. “He’s got two of us now, and has to cover his accomplices. You keep the pressure on, and I’ll see what I can do about him in mental combat.” Brenda nodded, reluctantly, and Paul kneeled down behind the boxes, making sure he wasn’t exposed to the fire from the ambush party. Fortunately their weaponry was no more advanced than the omnipresent chemical slugthrower, so he would be safe while he concentrated. He shut off much of his conscious brain, and extended his mental aura outward...

There we go. The source of the dampening field was a powerful telepath, but a very distracted one. Paul decided to start with a direct bore into the mental defenses the enemy had up, forcing his aura through strength of will into a blow designed to kill. As expected the enemy was able to react fast, very fast, throwing up the standard mental blocks of recited numbers and patterns. More than enough to deflect Paul’s suggestion, and it gave the opponent some time to prepare a counter of his own. Paul ran through prime numbers in his head as he matched his will against the enemy’s. He could feel the pressure on his brain increase, his thinking getting fuzzier, stalls between numbers stretching out dangerously.

But it distracted their enemy, too much. With his attention focused on Paul, he withdrew the protection extended to the three other, far less intelligent thugs with him inside the warehouse. Brenda saw her opportunity and dropped down into her own trance, feeling out and shutting down the consciousness of the gunmen. And before the enemy telepath could react to the situation she launched her own strike through Paul’s aura, again aimed at a kill. The telepath pressing his own attack failed to respond in time, and his body shut down permanently as Brenda reduced his brain to a fried out mass of dying neurons.

“Thanks of the help,” Paul said weakly, as his eyes opened at last. A trickle of blood ran down from his nose, and his mind-aura remained weak. “Would have been gone in another ten, fifteen seconds.”

“Stay here, Paul.” Brenda was exhausted, too, but Caparara was inside and still alive. “I’m fetching our target and we’ll see what he has to say. The gendarmerie are going to be here shortly and I want him in our custody before then.”

As predicted a squad of the local police stormed down the street running by Caparara’s warehouse within minutes. Dressed in the white uniforms of the old Bourbon service and armed with longarm slugthrowers, they looked like an archaic form of military rather that peacekeepers. They found Paul slumped over by the barrels, too weak to stand up, and pulled him up before screaming at him. When Brenda emerged with Caparara they pointed their firearms at her, and the sergeant strode up to demand what was going on. Whatever Brenda told him shut him quickly, Paul half-observed. The sergeant shouted more orders, and suddenly he was being supported up fully. And then he slipped off into unconsciousness.

An hour later, in the Palace of Customs, Assistant Chamberlain Joseph Ducard was preparing to leave in a hurry. He had packed a suitcase with a change of clothes and piles of Maritime Alliance thalers, and had burned incriminating papers in his fireplace.

“Those goddamned fools!” He was in a rage. His business associates had acted like complete morons, trying to ambush the Imperial agents openly. He had suggested a simple poison agent, slipped into their tea or breakfast one morning when he was certain a reliably bribable attendant was on duty. “Shooting out by the Grand Marketplace! What arrogance!” And whoever it was he had really been dealing with, had been a telepath. He didn’t think the mindfreak had messed with his head, but he wasn’t certain and felt queasy.

He didn’t even notice the door open. Inside stepped one of the bodyguards of the Prefect, the hereditary servants of Vendrome’s family. Shortly afterward the man himself entered fury evident on his face as he rapped his hand on a table nearby.

“Your... your Excellency...” Ducard was caught by surprise, more papers in hand ready to burn. “What brings you by my humble...”

“Shut up, you traitor,” Vendrome commanded. He nodded to his bodyguard, who advanced on Ducard. “A smuggling ring operated out of my palace, my territory. Without my approval or knowledge. It sets a very bad precedent.”

“To hell with you, damned fool!” Ducard finally found the courage to shout, even as the heavily muscled bodyguard grabbed him. “You’re giving this world to the Empire! For what, some more money and another fancy title? I worked with friends, associates, morons who thought to delay the day. You’ll regret this!”

Vendrome walked over to where Ducard was being held by his man, and belted the now former Chamberlain across his jaw. “I am the power in Marseilles! Not the Empire, not the Alliance, not your friends, and not you! And now I will hand you over to those Imperial agents, and you will tell everything.” He seemed to gloat at the thought. “Yes, your mind will be sifted through, all your petty secrets exposed for my pleasure. And when they are done, your head will grace the Marketplace Gate alongside the other traitors you reveal.”

Ducard struggled more furiously, and spat at his ruler. Finally the bodyguard applied a sleeper hold on his neck, and he drifted off into a short unconsciousness. His nightmare was just beginning.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

October 18th, 3127
Outsider Quarters, Citadelle,
Citadelle System,
Frontier Space, HAB-1

Paul flipped over the next three cards, hoping for something he could use. Instead he got the three of diamonds. That made it clear he wasn’t going to complete the solitaire set, and so he gathered up the rest of the deck on the crude iron desk and started over. It was one of the few diversions available to him as he waited for his new smuggling contacts to meet up with him again.

Ducard had talked, as promised. Details had been ripped out of his head, faces taken from memory, records located and the whole off-world smuggling route compromised. Paul tried not to feel uneasy at what he’d done with the traitor. It would have been patently illegal in the Empire, but Marseilles had not been the Empire. A least he and Brenda had refused Vendrome’s demand that his former chamberlain be mind-wiped and reduced to a drooling retard, as a court jester for the vengeful Exarch. Instead Ducard’s head had graced the Grand Marketplace’s gate. And for what it was worth, the measures had been eminently effective at accomplishing the main purpose of the investigation.

“Paul Bedrun” had emerged from the Marseilles underground, wiping out the local smugglers involved with Ducard and seamlessly taking their place. Their off-world contacts had not been suspicious about the situation, and instead had proposed a new deal to continue bringing their organic technology into the Frontier and the Outer Rim territories of the Empire. Indeed, Paul smiled thinly, Janacek had had no idea of the scale of the effort being involved, and that was something he could conclude from the limited details their mysterious new partners had been willing to discuss. The odd thing, the really odd thing, though, was that their partners wanted examples of Imperial computer technology to pay for their own cheap knock-offs. They were willing to provide the organic perscoms and other units for incredibly cheap prices, while paying extortionately for even last-generation electronics and computers. That too had been revealing; it suggested to Paul that obtaining the Imperial technology was the real point of the exercise, and destabilizing Imperial economic influence in the Frontier was only a side-effect.

Though not an unwelcome side-effect, to judge by how their liaison on Nouvelle Toulon had talked about the Empire.

The door in the front swung open, metal hinges squeaking loudly as they had ever since they’d been set up here. It was a small office, and Paul could peer up at his desk to see who was coming in, without needing to squint or stand up. Brenda was entering, again, with a brown paper bag full of something. Probably groceries.

She approached, pulling an apple out of the bag as she did. “I went by that local market again. Paul, it’s really incredible. From what I can tell they don’t use any technology more advanced than beasts and steel plows, but that place is always overflowing. And look at the size of these fruits!” The apple was the size of a grapefruit, though Paul had long gotten over his initial shock at the fact. She brought out what looked like a grapefruit... and was really an orange.

“Nothing new, Brenda,” he replied, and took her offered apple as she sat down in front of him. Biting into the fruit he found it firm, moist, and as delicious as any variety he’d ever had. “Obviously these guys are really, really good at genetic manipulation,” he said, in between bites. “I’d think Janacek might want samples of this stuff, but you know how hard it’s going to be getting fruit past customs...”

Brenda giggled a bit, and adjusted her hair as she settled down. “The crew’s still intact. We haven’t had any desertions yet, thanks to our hosts.”

The Outsider Quarters, as their contacts had called the small city, were dingy, rundown, industrial-looking squalor. There was a cursory security presence at checkpoints, designed to keep the “outsiders” inside the ring. Their various merchant liaisons left the city by the evening and were impossible to get in touch with before their scheduled hours in the Quarters. Neither of them had any idea what their hosts did for utilities, but busing in technicians as needed seemed likely enough. The masters of the area did allow in rural peasants to come and go as they pleased, which seemed exceptionally odd until Brenda had covertly scanned one and discovered they were mostly illiterate and commonly left to their own devices by the authorities.

“Still haven’t heard anything from Merchant Factor Li,” Paul commented. When they’d shown up in an old civilian freighter, with letters of introduction from the Marseilles based representative of the planetary authorities, they had been put in touch with Factor Li. He had confirmed the details of the new contract and had handled all of their docking and storage arrangements, and had promptly disappeared. Paul had managed to get in touch with him from time to time, only to be told that processing the new contract with his superiors was causing a delay.

Brenda began peeling her gigantic orange with her nails. “We need to find something to do before we lose our minds.” She resisted the temptation to sign Paul, or suggest the bed in their live-in quarters in the back room. Whoever had been involved in the attempted hit on Marseilles had been a very powerful telepath, and it was reasonable to suspect there would be more around. So they weren’t using their powers openly except in the direst circumstances. “Not that there is anything here. I get the impression the Citadelle authorities really don’t like tourists.”

The door squeaked open, again. Paul and Brenda turned to face the new arrival. A tall, cadaverously thin man in what looked like homespun brown robes emerged, and stepped inside gingerly. He seemed to be afraid of approaching the vicinity of the two outsiders, and it didn’t take any special use of their talent to realize he was distinctly uncomfortable.

“You are Paul Bedrun and his...” The monk seemed to halt for a moment, as though considering the right word to use. “Woman?”

“That’d be me,” Paul replied, and pointed to Brenda. “And she’s my woman. One of ‘em, anyway.” He ignored her pouty lips and the oh we’re going to get even look on her face, preferring to remain in character. “Now, who’s asking?”

The monk nodded, which turned into a polite if insincere miniature bow.”I am Parfait Bénézent, the spiritual advisor and overseer of the village of Carcassone, outside of the environs of this... place.” He seemed to hesitate for a bit, before continuing on. “My brothers are aware that many ignorant seamen congregate in this area, without the slightest influence for enlightenment. I have been inviting such souls to attend our service tonight, so that you might have a chance of rejecting the trappings of your sin and loathsome materialism. “

“So, you want me to sit in Church while you preach about how damned I am, is that it?” His eyes narrowed a bit. And then he smiled. “Done enough of that to keep my old man happy, when he was around. Sure, nothing else going on around here. But your brothers with the guns might have other ideas, Parfait?”

Brenda pretended to be disappointed, rolling her eyes openly at the monk. Good going, Paul. At least we can get out and see the surroundings. She kept the thought to herself, though, rather than risk the sending. Paul would be smart enough to handle matters without the encouragement.

The monk nodded slowly.” Parfait is my title, not my name. The warrior brothers will be notified of your intentions. Some of them will accompany you to... avoid outrages with the peasantry. We will be meeting at the marketplace at the 16th hour, if you wish to attend. Please dress... and behave... respectfully.”

“You saying I’m not respectable?” Paul suddenly demanded, and the monk seemed to fold in on himself. “Only kidding. Alright, we’ll be there.”

The monk muttered something pretending at a polite exit, and backed out of the office. The door squealed close with what Paul thought was a decidedly relieved not. “They really don’t like us much at all, do they?”

Brenda shook her head. “I didn’t get the impression that Parfait Bénézent dealt with anyone but his peasants. I think I scared him as much as you did.”

Paul chuckled, and looked over Brenda’s outfit. It was a modified jumpsuit, same as his, but it hugged her figure rather tightly. “Probably afraid you’ll tempt him away from his celibacy or something. Evil foreign woman out to steal his essence.”

“If this keeps up,” Brenda warned mockingly, “you’ll be keeping all your own essence. Now let’s go find what ‘respectable’ clothes we can and get ready to see what this Parfait preaches.”

Several hours later, both of them had changed into something that wouldn’t have automatically marked them as dubious figures on a normal Imperial world. Paul was wearing a subdued business suit, and Brenda had switched out into a Sunday Dress of the sort suitable for attending Mass. They’d met with a very small group of seamen, most of them still in their jumpsuits, and often grumbling about the complete lack of anything else to do in the Quarters. True to his word the Parfait had shown back up, still in his brown robes, and accompanied with a squad of black uniformed guardsmen.

It was the first time Paul had seen any of the soldiers up-close, and they looked... very, very fit and tall. Probably not a one was under six and half feet tall, and their black uniforms failed to conceal ripples of bulging muscle. On the other hand they had only odd looking black field hats on, and their weapons looked like primitive slug throwers rather than the mag-rifles of Imperial soldiers. They looked on impassively as Paul looked them over, seemingly oblivious to the curiosity of the outsiders.

The Parfait led them on foot to a checkpoint at the outskirts of the city. Wagons pulled by a massive and unfamiliar looking beast of burden waited. The outsiders were gathered aboard, comfortably fitting on two of the large hay-transports tugged at by the... oxen? They moved at a slow pace down a dusty road, followed on foot by the guardsmen with Bénézent ahead. Along the way they passed fields planted with rows of wheat, left unattended by peasants who lined up along the side of the road or fell into line with the convoy. Their destination loomed before them after about twenty minutes of slow progress down the road, as the fields gave way to a medieval looking village, and a tall wooden lodge at the very end of the road.

The Parfait disappeared around a side entrance, and the foreigners and peasants alike were crowded inside through spacious doors in the front. The interior was just as sparsely done as the outside, with rows of wooden pews facing a central dais at the very back, presumably where the Parfait would speak. The building did boast real windows, unlike the rest of the village as far as Paul had seen, but the thatch roof was clear proof that it was a product of very low technology. The general impression of being thrust back into the Middle Ages was only upset by the complete lack of an altar or any icons and ostentation among the monkish Parfait. Of course, that was only to be expected, as Paul realized exactly what they were dealing with.

“Bogumils,” Brenda whispered into his ear. The heretical anti-materialist, Gnostic and Buddhist influenced sect that had been driven off Earth after the AI Wars, and had invaded from unknown space centuries later to collapse the first Empire. The chaotic fighting that had followed had drawn in the Ssi Rissan and dozens of other alien marauders and rent humanity into dozens of pieces, before a resurgent dynasty had emerged off Earth. The Bogumil fleets had settled down in the Outer Core and were smashed, their settler populations forcibly assimilated, and their homeworlds sought out and conquered. But isolated settlements and remnant cells still turned up from time to time, and no one was certain their organized government had been destroyed. It seemed not.

The Parfait emerged from the shed constructed on the side of the lodge, still in his plain brown robes and holding the black leather Tome of Knowledge that represented the public Gnostic teachings. His sermon, though, was more of a lecture to the peasantry.

“You know that this flesh is sinful and yet you continue to breed, continue to strengthen the demiurge!” He was thundering now, no longer the timorous corpse that he had been back in the Outsider Quarters. “You fail to support those sons and daughters among you who may find enlightenment, out of petty jealousy. You may be damned to rut in the fields like animals, living your lives without comprehending the truth behind this veil of reality, but our Searchers can find those who have the talent to see beyond. You must not hide your children or deny the results of the Tests. If you cooperate, even though you are unable to restrain yourself to seek enlightenment, your soul may yet reincarnate in a more benevolent form. You may eventually be able to renounce this world and the many temptations of the devilish architect who created it, to embrace the spiritual reality of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

He went on in the vein, calling out members of the congregation by name and chastising them for their sinful addictions. But then he turned to testimonial, his own. “Remember, I was once like you. Deceived by the demiurge, and tainted by the disgusting flesh and its appetites. Hunger, luxury, pain, comfort, avarice, lust all are simply means by which the world keeps you chained in the darkness of ignorance. Your true soul-self is denied the inner contemplation necessary to reach the real truths of creation. I was enlightened by the death of my lover Marcuse, and sought out the consolation of true knowledge. That was my first step to the purification of soul and mind that the secret teachings of our true God provide. And only one who has put aside this world could hope to understand such utterly terrible truths!”

After another twenty minutes of ranting by the a religious fanatic, Parfait Bénézent called forth the sick. They emerged, and he demonstrated his powers, providing “vials of healing” to dull pain, sooth fevers, calm coughs, and in general deal with just about every ailment the peasantry boasted of. After the “benediction” was over, the Parfait had two of the peasants bring out the only representative image allowed in the lodge, an ancient holographic picture of what looked like one of the Shanghai AI Core’s killbots.

“This is the devil!” The Bogumil clergyman was now frothing in rage. It took Paul a few minutes to realize that he was talking about the holographic display, and not the reminder of mankind’s most desperate hour. “This filthy, wicked technology brings the demiurge’s false order into this universe! It delays the soul-releasing entropy of the cosmos decreed by the true God! See it, be tempted by it, resist it! Resist all those who would use the lies of material advantage to resurrect the technology! The heretics and unbelievers who hold our homeworld consort with the demon, allow the agents of the demiurge to be released, persecute us for speaking the truth, and uphold order over entropy! Hate them! They lie to you, deceive you into being locked into an everlasting cycle of slavery to flesh!”

The whole “service,” if it could be called that, lasted for an hour. Most of the peasantry seemed little affected, but the “benediction” explained why they showed up. Afterward, as the mass of people milled out, the Parfait approached them, politely asking as to how they found his teachings. Paul brushed him off, and was quite glad his persona as a hedonistic, atheist smuggler let him. The guy was nuts and his theology insanely dangerous stuff, as long experience had shown. But instead of being luddites, they were trying to destabilize Imperial expansion and get new samples of the “demon technology.” Whatever was going on was clearly a much bigger threat to the Empire than Janacek could have hoped for. He hoped the director didn’t regret it.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

October 24th, 3127
Outsider Quarters, Citadelle,
Citadelle System,
Frontier Space, HAB-1

It had been well over a week after their visit to the Carcassone lodge before Paul and Brenda were contacted by anyone else in authority. A gruff messenger had arrived at the offices set aside for their use and presented an old fashioned letter envelope, sealed with red wax. Having passed on the envelope the messenger disappeared, leaving the two Imperial agents to open and read the missive inside. Brenda had used a knife concealed in a side-flap on her jumpsuit to slit open the seal, and read the letter aloud.

“Factor Theobold Li addresses the veiled outsider Paul Bedrun with greetings and wishes for his future enlightenment. Factor Li will visit the aforesaid Bedrun at the twelfth hour of the fifth Day of the present week by the Citadelle calendar to confirm the contract between the two parties. Delivery of the agreed-upon quantities of merchandise will begin immediately after such confirmation is made. Signed, Theobold Li.” She sat the letter down on the desk, in case Paul wanted to examine it. Instead he had merely leaned back in his chair.

“About time we started getting somewhere.” He yawned as he stretched out in the seat. “Have to round the crew up, I guess, tell them to be standing by. Can’t wait to get off this planet and back to civilization.” And at this point, Paul was prepared to extend that definition to cover even Nouvelle Toulon.

“Leaving that up to me, sweetheart?” Brenda smiled. “Then you can prepare for the meeting here. Make sure we’re ready for anything.”

Paul nodded, slowly. “It never hurts to be ready to leave quickly.” They’d brought along some weapons, of course. Having those to hand, unobtrusively, would be a good idea. A bit paranoid, but then they were rapacious, amoral smugglers dealing with a planet of religious lunatics. “Meet back here by the, hrm, twenty-first hour? Should be early enough to brief the crew about our special preparations, but late enough they won’t want to wander off afterward.”

“Go buy some wine or beer from the peasants then,” Brenda suggested. “If we have booze on hand they’ll drink it and sleep in the ship. Hopefully to be sober by twelve tomorrow...”

Paul began to laugh, and then snorted. “Probably not, but I’d rather have a hungover crew than no crew. Should have plenty of time to pick up a couple of barrels of that fermented fruit juice or whatever from the marketplace. It’s not that bad once you get used to it.”

“Try not to get too used to it,” Brenda warned as she slid out of her own chair. “I’ll be back by twenty-one, and I don’t want you tipsy. We’ll have a lot to do with the crew.” And then she gave him thin-lipped, promising smile. “And if you’re good with them, we’ll have a lot more to do before we get some sleep.”

That had been yesterday. Paul’s alarm woke up both lovers in the early morning, at the ninth hour by local reckoning, just after sunrise. Paul had gently disentangled himself from the pale nude form of Brenda, rolling over to shut off the alarm by their nightstand. He briefly considered waiting on her to wake up to have another go; he’d obviously recovered from last night’s activities. Instead, he got up out of the bed and wandered over to the tiny bathroom the little apartment/office boasted and started turning the archaic knobs required to control running water to the shower. As he waited for it to reach a comfortably warm temperature, he stood back and looked at himself in the mirror. He was a little bloodshot, and the irritating stubble that covered his face, courtesy of some European ancestors not too far back, demanded shaving. He really needed coffee. Pity he’d have to go to the ship to get any...

A pair of thin, freckled pale arms slipped around his waist, and he felt Brenda sliding up alongside his back. “Not going to let the shower go to waste, are you?”

He didn’t. After they had washed and prepared for the day, they had gone out to the peasant marketplace to pick up some fresh fruit, bread, and cheese for a light breakfast. After dropping off the produce they’d checked in at the ship, and made sure the crew was awake. Their hired captain had been reliable enough for once and had them up, doing routine maintenance and preparations for either loading cargo or leaving suddenly. It was nearly the eleventh hour by the time they returned back to the office, and once there began straightening up a bit for meeting Li. They started on the breakfast at Paul’s desk, hastily wolfing down the simple but hearty meal ahead of the Factor’s expected arrival.

They had finished clearing off the desk when the appointed time came, and then passed. The authorities had not previously demonstrated any particular regard for punctuality, so the delay was not surprising, but it was irritating. Paul pulled out his deck of cards and offered them to Brenda.

As she started dealing for a game of Bezique, Paul momentarily reminded himself of the preparations they had made. His pistol was strapped under the desk, while Brenda had hers under her chair. There were a pair of old fashioned grenades hidden away inside the desk, a probably useless EMP scrambler held in his pocket, and boxes stacked up to provide cover for a run to the back and the exit from the apartment. The warehouse attached to their particular berth was just down the alley outside their office, which was covered by debris and trash. They’d be able to alert the crew if any problems arose, giving them minutes of notice to prepare to leave and hopefully letting them get out of orbit before the local defenses could respond. There was a lot of traffic in the system, but none of it seemed to be military, and they’d have the Imperial Navy beacon aboard to signal help or at least vengeance. It was paranoid, Paul admitted as he took up his hand of playing cards, but paranoia had kept them alive in a lot of ugly situations.

After what felt like an hour and half the door squeaked open, and Paul and Brenda put down their cards. The Bogumils disapproved of games of chance, but neither Bedrun or his woman would take such things in account. Instead they lounged back, staring at the entrance, as a tall, green-robed man of Eurasian descent entered, followed by a couple of the black-uniformed guards from the night out to Carcassone. They recognized Li, of course, and Paul simply waved over to him rather than show respect by getting out of his chair.

“Hey ho, Theo. Let’s get this party started, shall we?” He motioned Brenda to bring up another chair, by way of invitation for Li to join them at the desk. “Not that it isn’t a lovely planet, but I want to get the hell out of here, y’know.”

Li smiled tightly, and stopped to bow with false respect. “I understand that outsiders find our austere ways difficult. There was only a last minute issue that arose, that I have invited Auditor Truffant to...

A red-robed acolyte entered, vaguely feminine in appearance but with her face and features hidden beneath the darkness of her hood. Paul suddenly felt a pressure on his mind, and reacted instinctively, slamming up defensive shields while reciting prime numbers in his head. The woman suddenly jerked upright by the entrance, and pointed to the couple; “They are telepaths! Spies!” And then everything went to hell.

Paul swiftly felt for and released his pistol, in a smooth unconscious motion that avoided alerting the Bogumil telepath. He pulled it up over the desk top, aimed at the red-robe, and squeezed the trigger in a fluid series of motions. In front of him Brenda had already taken out her knife and was tossing it at one of the guards. In seconds, blood was freely flowing in the office, Li was running out and the Bogumil guards were falling back and opening fire with their own primitive sidearms.

Paul tried to squeeze the life out of one of the tall guardsmen, but found himself encountering unexpected resistence. They aren’t telepaths, but they’ve got some seed of talent and the training to block probes, he signed to Brenda. And then he shot the nearest one with his pistol, before ducking down behind his desk. He pulled out the grenades from the desk, thinking they might come in handy later. Brenda had in the meantime dispatched the last guard, but Li had fled the scene with only a wound.

We need to get out of here! Brenda didn’t tone down the urgency racing in her mind. They’ll be back, and they’ve got telepaths of their own, and it’s too difficult to take out the soldiers with our powers.

I know, I know. Paul stood up, warily eyeing the scene. The red-robed telepath was laying sprawled on the floor in a pool of her own blood, obviously dead. So were the two guards Li had come in with, while a short trail of bloody footprints tracked out through the now-ajar door. Let’s get going...

Brenda was skirting behind one of the piles of boxes when a new round of automatic gunfire entered in through the door. Lines of bullets slammed into the heavy wooden box she was just behind, spraying her with splinters. She peered out from behind it, trying to get an aim on the Bogumil security forces attacking them. And then she felt a strong presence casting down a general miasmic aura on the area, and she had to struggle against it even as more of the black uniformed security forces bounded into the room accompanied by a smoke grenade.

“Fuck it Brenda, run!” Paul shouted above the din, and began firing into the swirling mists. She hesitated, and then she felt him push her out towards the back, even as the aura of the other telepath became overwhelming. Brenda’s rational mind switched off under the assault, and she began running as fast as she could for the back door. Behind her the sounds of fighting continued.

Paul didn’t need to turn his attention from the onrushing security forces or the enemy telepath to know Brenda was gone. He was covering her, buying time for her escape, and that was what mattered. He dodged as best he could as bullets whizzed by, and made tumble for the better cover of the boxes that Brenda had fled from. If he could get out to the back...

The intensity of the other telepath’s assault stepped up, and he had to think about his defenses. That cost him fractions of a second on his reflexes, but that was enough. The first bullet slammed into his exposed shoulder, feeling like a sledgehammer, and sent him reeling backward. Other bolts slammed into him as the soldiers rushed forward under the cover of their unseen ally, and he finally sprawled back into the floor, feeling helpless as his life’s blood leaked out. The security forces were on him shortly afterward, but he still had his mind, and tried a direct attack on them. A weak, feeble effort, but one they didn’t expect and which held them for a few fleeting, precious seconds. And then he laughed, softly, raspily, such that one of the enemy soldiers looked down at him quizzically.

“You want...” he stopped, hacking up blood. The effort was more trouble than it was worth, so he used the last of strength to bring out the grenade he’d already armed. The Bogumils didn’t have time to react before it exploded, killing all the soldiers stunned with him and sending the rest in the room reeling against the force.

Brenda felt the explosion, too. She was out in the alley, running towards their warehouse, when she was suddenly hit with the certain knowledge that Paul was dead. It staggered her, and she nearly slipped in the muck on the ground. Her already beating heart felt like it would burst out of her chest, but there was just no time. She picked up her speed, and hoped that the Bogumils had been hasty in planning their attack.

She saw two of the black uniformed guards rushing at her from the other end of the alley, from past the warehouse. Her heart leapt up into her throat, the futility, the failure of it all hitting her as it seemed...

They were running away! She could feel their confusion and fear, and she saw a group of her own crew chasing after them, armed with clubs and pistols. She stopped her run, pulled out her pistol in a smooth action, and shot one of the fleeing guards down. The other one tumbled, and two of the larger jumpsuited spacemen were on him with their clubs. She ran to meet the group, and saw the captain of their hired freighter waiting for her.

“Came in and tried to confiscate my ship!” he thundered, his voice trembling with rage. Then he saw her heading towards them and tried to take on a soothing tone. “Oh, and welcome back. Where’s Paul?”

She started to answer, but her voice cracked up. Instead, she shook her head.

“Gotcha.” The captain looked around, nodding as one of the crewmen finished off the prone guard. “We’ve gotta get the hell outta here. Ship’s ready to launch as soon as we’re all aboard, and we’d better make it happen now.” Brenda nodded, and let herself be led by the crew through the warehouse, towards the grounded freighter waiting on a concrete pad beside it. They hustled her aboard first, and strapped her down in an acceleration couch in the crew mess as they finished up preparations to leave.

She could feel a telepathic presence, several of them, trying to invade and hinder the crew. She could also hear the pitter-pattle of small arms fire against the composite hull, as futile as mosquitoes biting at an elefaux’s armored skin. She did what she could to reassure the crew, reinforcing their sense of urgency and trying to clear their minds. Fortunately the enemy telepaths were weaker, further away, as though whoever was in charge had decided not to allow them to be risked. She didn’t have to fight long before she felt the first pressure of acceleration as the ship surged upward as quickly as its gravitic sump could maintain. So quickly it some acceleration was bleeding over into the crew, and the physical pressure became a crushing weight, even as the psychic assaulted stepped up. She ran through the opening paragraphs of van Rijmen’s novel Sirocco as long as she could, reinforcing her blocks until she finally faded off into unconsciousness.
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Post by MarshalPurnell »

May 7th, 3128
HMS Chilehurst, Citadelle Orbit,
Citadelle System,
Outer Rim, HAB-1

Another flight of Bogumil fighters was added to the holotank plot in the Operations Center as the defenders of the planet launched one last, desperate attempt to break through the Imperial blockade. Shuttles and smaller craft had already taken off from the planetary surface, with the rest of Chilehurst’s flotilla herding them into a kill-zone of missiles and long-range energy weapons. On the other side of the planet several squadrons of frigates would perform the same task, making sure that no targets escaped the system. Given prior history and their reputation for religious fanaticism it was assumed all the Bogumil craft represented potential suicide attackers, and so no quarter was given to any enemy spacecraft. The addition of the fighters made things more dangerous, but not that much so.

The Chilehurst opened fire on the fighters as they rose above the curve of the planet’s atmosphere, flaming them down with lasers as they appeared. Their primitive inertial compensators and launch out of the gravity well left them highly vulnerable to the light-speed weapons at close range. The fighters in turn launched missiles as they could, and while Chilehurst took several hits none of them were particular fatal. The Bogumils had lacked the mass and time necessary to concentrate a fully effective strike, and in consequence might as well have thrown their assets away.

An approaching shuttle did reach uncomfortably close to the British destroyer before being torn apart by an anti-ship missile, but in thirty minutes the battle was over. It had been a one-sided massacre, with superior numbers, capabilities, and technology all telling on the Imperial side. Pulling together such a coherent force on the very margins of the Empire had taken months, but once it was unleashed the outsiders simply had no ability to stand up to it.

Brenda Reilly waited on board the Chilehurst in an honored guest quarters, as the personal representative of the sector’s intelligence director. She had taken to wearing the black, stand-up collared business-cut suit that marked out a senior operative, and hid her eyes behind a pair of dark sunglass. It was fitting for her position, but the black symbolized something else entirely to her. She ground her teeth as she waited for the bridge to contact her, to let fill her in on the situation and allow her to get to work extracting information on the scope of the Bogumil threat. She looked grimly forward to ripping out data from the brains of the monks and Parfaits and Enlightened Ones present on the world below.

Finally, the holocom in her room chimed, and she activated the device by remote. Commodore Richard Hawksworth, the Royal Navy officer in charge of Destroyer Flotilla 457 and commander of the invasion, greeted her. “We have cleared out the last of the space-capable resistance forces on Citadelle, Madame Reilly. My chief of staff has prepared a briefing for myself and senior offic3ers on the remains of the operation, to be held at 14:00 hours today. Your attendance is requested.”

Hawksworth had not added welcome, and it would have been a lie. The civilian intelligence services and the military had an up and down relationship. Still, she smiled politely and nodded. “I’ll be there. Thank you Commodore.”

“Quite welcome,” he replied offhanded, before deactivating his end of the connection. It wasn’t quite rude, since he was running the flotilla and the operations of a small fleet, as well as overseeing the actions of Sibirsk Sector’s XIII Expeditionary Corps. But he certainly wasn’t wasting an excessive amount of time on politesse, either.

A couple of hours later she entered the ship’s Operations Room, a cramped briefing space reserved for flotilla operations. Like most such facilities it had a ring of seats before a large holotank, with a speaker’s platform right in front of the tank. Commodore Hawksworth was up at the front, in the lone spacious seat reserved for the senior officer on board, and his Chief of Staff, a fussily precise Lieutenant Commander that Brenda had disliked from the first. A trickle of officers filtered into the room with her, and she grabbed a seat by the back, intending to observe rather than be observed. As the appointed hour came, with the room still less than half-filled, Hawksworth rose to address the group.

“We’ve finished clearing out the last bit of space based opposition forces,” he repeated, hands clasped behind his back and staring sternly at the assembled crowd. “That will leave our role relegated to continued blockade and support of General Lowenstein’s corps. Lieutenant Commander Devereaux will brief us on the issues involved. If you will, Commander.”

The briefing officer activated the holotank, which expanded outward to format a three-dimensional representation of Citadelle. Symbols filled the planetary surface, and Devereaux went on to explain them. “Most of the planet is rural and agrarian with almost no technological content. The peasantry in these areas has been mostly apathetic, though we have encountered some fanatical and completely futile resistance in certain areas. Pacified areas are marked with the blue cross.” Most of the planet was marked with such a sign.

Devereaux activated the controls to zoom in on a particularly large peninsula on the main equatorial landmass of the Western Hemisphere. It was the rough area where the Outsider Quarters had been, and where Paul and Brenda had noticed several other cities from orbit. “This is the Carentan Peninsula, where the leadership caste and industries of the Bogumils are concentrated. There are three main cities here, the northernmost of which we believe to be the administrative capital. There are also two spaceports, here and here,” he said, adjusting the holotank display to highlight two areas, one of which was the Outsider Quarters. “Resistance inside the cities has been particularly fierce and well-organized, with civilians as well as their genetically engineered warrior caste joining in the fighting. We estimate there are about one million of the higher castes living in the cities, and they may very well have to be...”

He trailed off as Commodore Hawksworth’s perscom began letting out a loud beeping. Only the most urgent communications would have been allowed at this time, so the flotilla commander stood up and exited off to the side of the room to take the call. With the interruption over, Devereaux decided to continue on.

“Orbital support of our troops has been made difficult by the tendency of the Bogumils to take cover inside the cities, and to close to close quarters with our own units. Their relatively primitive weaponry and lack of support assets has kept casualties down, for the most part, but their willingness to resort to suicide tactics has caused several incidents. There is also reason to fear that their warrior caste members will melt into the peasant population and conduct a low-level insurgency, but that is not particularly a problem for us. Rather, we must focus on General Lowenstein’s planned offensive next week, to sweep the outer two cities and cut off the capital from further reinforcement.”

Hawksworth entered the room again, clearly agitated. Devereaux halted, and Brenda could feel the tension in the room. Something was wrong.

The Commodore went over to his Chief of Staff, whispering to fill him in on the situation first. Brenda could see the younger officer acknowledge, and bite down on his lip. He left the podium afterward, and headed out the door. Hawksworth took his place at the speaker’s podium, and addressed the crowd of officers.

“I have just taken a communication from General Lowenstein. It seems that the Bogumils have detonated dozens of powerful fission weapons within the boundaries of the three cities that Lieutenant Commander Devereaux was lately briefing you on.” Hawkworth fiddled with the holotank’s remote again, tying it in to the ship’s sensors to retrieve data on the event.

The filtered view of an orbital reconnaissance platform came on the holotank, creating an oddly flat and colorless view of the planet’s surface. Shortly after the view was established as the Carentan peninsula, three bright flashes reached out from the rough sites of the three technological centers.

“It was obviously some form of mass suicide,” the Commodore continued, shaking his head sadly. ‘They may have deliberately melted down fission power plants in the city beforehand to further poison the general area. We have no idea how many of our people were killed outright, but radiation controls will insure only a handful of freak deaths on our part. The consequences for the peasant population in the area, and indeed for the planet’s ecosystem do not bear easy reflection.”

Brenda felt a wave of unease and even nausea sweep the assembled officers, though she felt only disappointment. It was only natural for the Bogumil leading classes to prefer death to surrender, and the method was probably ideological; the ripping apart of the basic material of the world was a symbol for blessed entropy in the Tome of Knowledge. The peasantry would suffer horribly, but the real problem was that there were going to be very few if any survivors familiar with the broader organization of Bogumil space. And she had no doubt this planet was part of at least a vest-pocket empire rather than a simple lone holdout.

Hawksworth dismissed the officers back to their stations, with a pledge to monitor the situation. “Lieutenant Commander Devereaux will be coordinating with XIII Corps on putting together an assistance plan, and I will be in touch with sector command.”

They filtered out, a low hum of private conversations dominating the room as they did, until Brenda found herself alone with Hawksworth as he headed for the exit. He acknowledged her with a polite nod, and halted for a bit. “I suppose you may return to Sibirsk as soon as practical, Madame Reilly. I doubt we’ll need an interrogator for or further telepath support now. Whatever information we could gain is blasted into atoms.”

Brenda shook her head, deliberately and slowly. “Their leadership is, I’m sure. There may be survivors from the cities. Refugees, or just the lucky ones not too poisoned to be saved. We can piece together more information on their social structure and technological capabilities from them. If anything the Evidenzbüro will need a larger presence in the system to sort through the human debris.”

Hawksworth looked dubiously at her, but knew there was little point to arguing. “Do you really think we’ll know what they were up to?”

“We have a good idea already, Commodore. I think you’ve already noticed how weak their defenses were. They’re behind us, technologically, and they know we’re pressing up against their borders.” She laughed, softly. “All of the outsiders know we’re going to keep pushing against them, swallow them up as we can.” Murderous, pitiable Ducard had seen as much. “The Bogumils know how the Empire will react when we get to grips with them. So they want to delay that day as long as possible, and try to catch up with us as much as they can. Even if it means swiping demon technology from us.”

Hawksworth nodded. It made sense, and he was willing to accept the hypothesis as a reasonable one. “Which means the Frontier may become a lot more unsettled.”

“One thing we do know they’ve been able to do is genetic engineering,” Brenda noted. “They have very powerful telepaths and some degree of resistance capability among their so-called Enlightened classes. And we know they’ve infiltrated Outer Rim planets before. It may not be only the Frontier that becomes unsettled.”

With that thought planted, she took her leave. She’d have to write a long report to Director Janacek, of course. And then she would have business to attend to on the planet below.

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