2950-04-12 – Tales from the Inbox: The Assassin Collector 

I regret to inform the audience that, as of this feed item’s appearance, Fifth Fleet should be back in the Maribel system. 

With three battleships badly damaged enough to be out of the fight and heavy losses among the fleet’s anti-strike escorts, Admiral Zahariev elected to evacuate Confederated ground forces and all willing civilians from Håkøya and surrender the planet itself. A small number of civilians dwelling in remote areas of the planet and a small number of planetary officials elected to remain. The total number who refused evacuation is less than two thousand, but fleet staff has not released a list of those who stayed behind. 

Fast fleet elements were dispatched through the outer system to evacuate all civilian and military outposts. Some of those ships may still be in Håkøya as of this writing collecting the denizens of a few of the most remote habitats, but those chosen for this duty were selected because they are fast enough to avoid any Incarnation ships that choose to pursue them. 

Though most of the datasphere is describing the evacuation of Håkøya as a triumph of Confederated flexibility, this conceals the fact that the Navy could not protect one of the most populous and prosperous worlds of the inner Frontier from capture. The human cost of the loss of the system is very small, and little relevant military infrastructure has been lost by abandoning the system (though some was lost during the initial attack), so there’s no doubt that Zahariev made a cold-bloodedly good call in his withdrawal, but I still can’t shake the sense that if The Incarnation couldn’t be stopped at Håkøya, there’s no particular reason to expect we’ll stop them anywhere else. 

I’m trying to set up an interview with someone on Admiral Zahariev’s staff to discuss the situation once the fleet has finished forming up in Maribel orbit. In the meantime, this week I’ve found an account in the inbox of the movements of the ship Holy Tabernacle, whose odd origins have graced this feed before. 

[N.T.B. - Duncan’s concern is one all of us aboard Saint-Lô share. Håkøya is an open door from the Frontier into Farthing’s Chain, and from there, to Galactic West and even the Outer Core. The Navy can’t keep retreating forever and hoping for a better tactical position. Sure, the bastards got one hell of a bloody nose at Håkøya, but so did we.] 

As the boarding ramp descended toward the ochre Hopesway soil, Sandra Ibsen watched Grand Hierophoant Toloni rather than the crowd of thousands who had come to the salt flats to greet Holy Tabernacle. As the murmur of the crowd rose over the sounds of the ship’s mechanisms, the old man seemed to stand taller and lean less heavily on his towering scepter of office. In the seconds before he raised his hand to bless the assembled faithful, he seemed to shed two decades of his advanced age. 

At the sight of the pontiff, the crowd’s murmur bubbled over into a raucous cheer, and the front ranks, still standing at a safe distance from the just-landed starship, surged forward, as if to mob the gangway.  

The Tabernacle’s guards in their scarlet and silver livery didn’t wait for their leader’s permission to sweep past Toloni and Sandra to meet the crowd at the foot of the ramp. The first few times Holy Tabernacle had alighted near a large Penderite enclave, the well-wishers had overwhelmed the ship’s guardians, but they’d learned from the experience of dozens of planetfalls how to politely and safely screen the Grand Hierophant from being crushed by the faithful.  

Toloni lowered his hand slowly, then knelt at the top of the ramp, bowing his head in prayer. Sandra knelt alongside him, though she found it difficult to pray while being watched by so many thousands. Instead, her mind was on her plans to use the stop on populous Hopesway to restock the ship’s stocks of spare parts and various other necessities. There seemed no reason to trouble the Grand Hierophant with these worldly needs. 

Toloni’s prayers, whispered as always, were inaudible to anyone but God, but the crowd quieted and grew reverent. Sandra always wondered what a pious man like him still needed to pray for; Toloni never seemed alarmed or disturbed by anything, and everything he set in motion always seemed to succeed. 

When Toloni stood up, he started down the ramp. Sandra, master of the ship but stranger to the soil, stayed where she was.  

As Toloni reached the foot of the ramp, a ragged young man wriggled through to the front of the crowd and tried to shove his way past the guards. Sandra saw the flash of metal and instinctively reached for her sidearm. The brightly-attired guards, however, were faster. Before the gun could be brought to bear, one of their long, bayonet-tipped ceremonial rifles crashed down on his back, toppling him forward into the salty dust. The gun bounced several times, landing directly at the Grand Hierophant’s feet. 

In the sudden shocked silence, Sandra could hear the would-be assassin scrabbling backwards on his hands and knees even from forty meters away, but it was too late for him to avoid the guards, who hauled him to his feet. The cordon of crimson-cloaked men closed around Toloni, gleaming bayonets facing outwards toward the crowd in case another assassin might make an attempt, while two of their number hauled the unfortunate man up the ramp. 

Sandra relaxed and rolled her eyes as the guards dragged the struggling man past her. “What’s this, the fourth one?” 

“Fifth, Captain.” One of the guards replied without breaking stride. 

At the foot of the ramp, the guards had begun to relax, and Toloni stooped to pick up the weapon that had almost been used on him. With a deft flick Sandra had taught him, the old man ejected its magazine, cleared its chamber, and held it up, receiving a relieved cheer from the crowd. 

Sandra flicked on her comms earpiece, hoping that the Hierophant’s guardian angel – or his excessive good fortune – never deserted him. “Bridge, we’ve had another incident, but it’s under control. Attacker is in custody aboard.” 

“Understood, Skipper. I’ll notify the planetary authorities.” 

On the ground, Toloni was already addressing the crowd. Micorphones in the collar of his robe picked up his voice to be echoed by speakers built into Tabernacle’s massive hull. Sandra had heard the same speech on every world they landed on and had long since bothered to listen to each variation of the theme of gratitude for the welcome and a desire for the faithful to focus not on his presence, but on the unfailing presence of God, who did not need to board a star cruiser to visit them. His voice never quavered or broke; it was as if the attempt on his life had never happened. 

As the speech came to an end, Toloni led the assembly in a brief prayer before promising to visit each Penderite town on the planet. As he ambled back up the ramp flanked by two guards, the crowd began to disperse. 

Sandra met Toloni at the hatchway, holding out a hand to take the assassin’s gun. “Your Eminence, you really must stop collecting assassins.” 

Toloni placed the disarmed weapon into her hands carefully, as if it were a relic instead of a murderer’s implement. “They have no power to do what God does not permit them.” 

Sandra nodded, looking the weapon over. She found it to be a beautiful old-model HKR civilian rail-pistol that looked more suited for a wealthy collector’s wall than the hands of a pontiff’s would-be killer. “This is a nice piece.” 

Toloni smiled knowingly. “I will tell our guest that you approve of his taste when I talk to him.” 

Sandra shrugged and stood aside, twirling the disarmed gun as she watched the crowd dissolve. Toloni might not be worried about assassins, but she couldn’t quite manage to be as disinterested as he.