2950-12-20 – Tales from the Service: The Assassin Influencer

Captain Sandra Ibsen scowled down at herself as Toloni’s lumbering ground-car lurched back into motion. She looked up only in time to see the two crisply uniformed security men in the rear canopy gawk at her as the vehicle rounded a corner and vanished up the street. Their surprise told her that they didn’t know about the plan which required Holy Tabernacle’s skipper to dress like a desperate socialite. They had very little time to learn, if things went according to the Hierophant’s schedule.

Gritting her teeth, Sandra held one hand in front of her face, cuing holo-displays in the smart-fabric of her detached sleeves to wake and show her the controls. With one final cringe, Sandra switched everything on. The already gaudy blue and green evening dress lit up with shimmering holographic fire, and dancing accents spun around her body and above the tapered hat into which she’d bundled her hair.

Several pedestrians along the street who’d stopped and stared when Toloni’s huge groundcar had rumbled to a halt now stopped and stared again. Sandra hated being stared at, but for the moment, it was part of the plan; feeling the reassuring lines of her sidearm tucked into the ruffled pouch below one arm, she adopted the most vapid, impatient expression she could conjure up and flounced down the street.

Toloni had had his drivers drop Sandra off around the corner from the headquarters of Bertolini & Thatcher Group, a small Maribel datasphere media company which seemed mainly to work as production contractors for the Frontier’s motley array of independent media personalities. According to Toloni, their person of interest was inside, recording live on a studio set for her fashion-obsessed audience.

Delilah Brahms-Walton was, by the standards of the broader Reach, a niche personality with a modest datasphere footprint, but with nearly ten million fans, mostly young women from relatively well-to-do-families, she was probably BTG’s most prominent client. Sandra had surveyed Brahms-Walton’s datasphere hub a few months ago, when they’d first linked her to Toloni’s several would-be assassins, and had been far from impressed. Brahms-Walton seemed mainly to reach her audience through live broadcasts to Maribel followers, which were then transmitted as recordings outside the system. Vapid, tittering, excitable, and shallow, she was pretty in that vague, elfin way that didn’t threaten other women or make them feel jealous. Evidently, her manner and looks did little to attract a male audience; almost nineteen out of every twenty of her followers were women.

As to content, Sandra had detected almost none. Though branding herself as a fashionista, Brahms-Walton seemed to spend almost no time designing, trying, modeling, or critiquing fashion products. Most of her broadcasts were of her chattering amiably about nothing for the camera lenses, interrupting herself excitedly so many times that no bit of gossip ever seemed to be described in full. She occasionally brought on someone to chat with, or broadcast from exotic vacation destinations all over Maribel. This last sort of show usually featured Brahms-Walton baring all in a skimpy swimsuit, surrounded by equally vapid, pretty, scantily clad young people, and it was stills from this sort of recording that had first linked her to the attempted killers.

The front doors to the BTG studio were smaller than Delilah expected, but once inside, the broad lobby with its tastefully abstract furnishings, tastefully-dressed, blank-faced receptionist, and tastefully unobtrusive security guard were far more in line with expectations. Sandra pretended not to see the receptionist for several seconds, until the woman waved slightly, and then pretended to be surprised, as if the woman had jumped up out of the floor.

“Love the look. Trying to book a studio, Miss?” The receptionist smiled.

“No, no, no. Delilah said to meet her here.” Sandra deliberately raised her voice’s pitch and lowered it’s volume. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

The receptionist brightened. “Oh, you’re going on with Miss Brahms-Walton? I love her so much. She’s going to love that outfit. Studio number three.”

Sandra looked around, staring down the two hallways disappearing into the building. “Three…” She easily spotted signage that would guide her there, but pretended not to. “Where’s that?”

“That way.” The woman pointed to the hallway on the left of her desk. “Take a left at the big arrow, then it’s on your right.”

“Thanks!” Sandra immediately turned to the hallway, then hesitated at its threshold. “Right at what?”

“Rob, can you show her?” Sandra could almost hear defeat in the receptionist’s voice.

The security guard peeled away from his spot in an out of the way corner and hurried up to Sandra’s elbow. “Follow me, Miss.”

Sandra followed the man, and as she did, she pretended to fidget with the cuff of one of her sleeves. In reality, she was transmitting a double-click signal to the head of Toloni’s security detachment. The groundcar, and Toloni, would arrive outside in a moment, but first Sandra had to pin down their quarry. Brahms-Walton couldn’t know she was about to meet Grand Hierophant Uberto Toloni until the last possible instant.

At the studio door, the guard stopped Sandra, then peeked his head in. “She hasn’t started her show yet.” He smiled at Sandra, looking her up and down. Though her attire was far from revealing, Sandra didn’t like the feeling of being inspected like that; it was something unknown among spacers, partly because they almost never dressed to draw the eye. “Do you need anything else?”

“Oh, you’ve been so helpful.” Sandra grasped his hand and lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “This is going to be my big break.”

The guard chucked and extracted himself. “You’ll do great.”

Sandra sent her double-click signal again as the man ambled back toward the lobby, then turned and went into the studio. Beyond a semicircle of recording equipment, Delilah Brahms-Walton lounged at a desk in front of a pastel-patterned backdrop, inspecting her intricate makeup. Her attire was no less gaudy than Sandra’s, a riot of gold and violet with a constellation of starburst holograms chasing each other around her thin frame. A lone tech scuttled between the various fixtures, clutching a slate.

Brahms-Walton glanced over to the door the moment Sandra came in, though given the elaborate outfit Toloni had given Sandra, noticing her was hardly a feat of observation.

Sandra waggled her fingers in a wave. “Hi!”

Brahms-Walton stood, a confused look crossing her face. She was taller than Sandra had expected. “Do I know you?”

“You don’t recognize me?” Sandra blinked and pretended to look hurt for an instant. “I suppose there were a lot of people. It’s me, Sissy! Sissy Ibsen? From Sioda Sands!”

Brahms-Walton made an exaggerated show of thinking back. “You do look a little familiar. Did-”

Sandra clapped her hands. “I knew you’d remember. We only talked a little, but you and Conrad-”

“You know Conrad?” A look of alarm crossed Brahms-Walton’s face. No doubt she knew that Conrad Nyquist had been captured on Vorkuta attempting to assassinate the highest-ranking Penderite.

“Know him! I was in primary-ed with him! Oh I could tell you all kinds of-” Sandra stopped short, as if remembering something, mimicking Brahms-Walton’s own style of delivery. “Anyway, he told me, after we met at Sioda, he said: Sis, Delilah said, if you’re ever in the city, drop by her studio. I was going to a party, but then I thought-”

“Conrad told you I wanted you to stop in?” Brahms-Walton frowned. “I didn’t tell you myself?”

Sandra, improvising, looked away. “Er, I kinda… had too much. Those blue drinks with the paper umbrellas, what were they called?” Sandra knew it was a universal constant that any tropical resort built by humans always served some sort of blue alcoholic drink with a little paper umbrella.

Brahms-Walton nodded; she clearly didn’t remember the trip in question entirely clearly either. “I love to have friends on the show, Sissy dear, but you’ve come on a bad night for it. Are you still going to be in town the day after tomorrow?”

Sandra looked downcast, but nodded. “Until next Thursday.” She turned to go, then stopped. “Er, have you heard from Conrad? He sent me some messages after he left on his business trip, but they… It doesn’t sound like him. Something about a priest?”

“He sent you messages?” Brahms-Walton was between Sandra and the door in an instant, her vapid, over-exaggerated mannerisms gone in an instant. “When? What did they say?”

Sandra shrugged, smiling wistfully. “Silly stuff. He rambled on for so long. It was nice to hear his voice.”

“Ninety seconds, Miss Brahms-Walton.” The tech, adjusting the controls of one of the bigger cameras, called out.

Brahms-Walton put her hands on Sandra’s shoulders. “Stay and watch the show. After, let’s have drink and catch up, and talk about bringing you on for the next show, okay?”

“Really?” Sandra bounced on the balls of her feet as much as her ridiculous platform heels would allow.

Delilah Brahms-Walton smiled reassuringly, but there was steel behind that smile. Sandra, still fairly certain her cover was intact, nevertheless shivered at the idea of pretending to be duped. “Anyone so special to Conrad is a friend of mine.”

Before our words once again grace this feed, the Emmanuel Feast (Christmas for Roman Catholics) will have passed. From all of us here at Maribel, both within this embed team and in service to the Navy which guards this world, we pray that this occasion is a time of joy for all of you back home. For the two thousand nine hundred fiftieth year, and for the third time of this war, we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, though peace yet remains a rare commodity.

There are many more fitting accounts for the season in my inbox, and we may diverge from Captain Ibsen’s account next week to tell one of these, if time and Naval Intelligence censors permit.

2950-12-13 – Tales from the Service: The Socialite’s Ambush

As Grand Hierophant Toloni’s hulking groundcar finally lumbered out of the rapid-fabbed tenement complex erected for the Penderite refugees, Captain Sandra Ibsen turned in her seat to watch the crowd’s somber waving. The lack of hope on their faces haunted her; these people had lost their homes on MacNeil’s End, and now the good news that their greatest pontiff had arrived to help them find a new place to live seemed not to have registered with most.

“They have been promised much since their world was lost.” Toloni, as usual, seemed to read Sandra’s thoughts. “Promises which were not delivered. When we embark them aboard Tabernacle and De Angelis, they will begin to smile again.”

Sandra nodded, still watching the crowd. A thin cordon of guards from the Maribel planetary authority held them back, as if worried they might stampede after Toloni’s groundcar, but that seemed the least likely thing in the Reach. “It’s just… They’re Penderites. Why don’t they trust you to do what you say?”

Toloni chuckled. “Sister Ibsen, where in our doctrines is absolute faith in men commanded? It is no sin to be wary.”

Sandra shook her head and turned reluctantly toward the view ahead. As the groundcar crested a low rise, the distant spires of the financial district of Maribel’s sprawling spaceport metropolis rose into view; the land closer at hand was a haphazard, imperfect grid of streets dividing low-rise buildings of all kinds, built seemingly at random wherever space was available. Above it all, a swarm of lighters, aircars, airtrams, lifters, patrol craft, and other aircraft flitted across a city-scape thirty-five miles across on its narrowest axis. The Penderites were lucky; the administration had put them at the outskirts of this miserable warren of humanity’s worst excesses.

“It is almost time for our next appointment.” Toloni flicked down a meta-lens mirror from the overhead paneling and playfully checked the intricate folds of his robe of office. “I confess I have not yet told you what your part to play in it is.”

“No, Your Eminence.” Sandra frowned. “Again, I must protest-”

“We will be entirely safe.” Toloni waved his hand toward the door at the front of their bubble-canopied passenger compartment, which Sandra knew led to the lower level of the groundcar’s interior. The vehicle, nearly the size of an airtram, contained a galley, a lavatory, and ample stowage for cargo. The forward canopy housing the driver and co-driver, and the rear canopy housing the security command post, could also access the lower deck via steep ladders. “You aren’t dressed properly for our meeting with Miss Brahms-Walton. The steward has something more fitting.”

At first, Sandra wanted to protest that Toloni had practically designed the Holy Tabernacle officer’s dress uniform which she was now wearing, and that if this was not sufficient attire for high-class company, that he should see to replacing it, but that familiar sly twinkle in the old man’s eye made her think better of it. Toloni wasn’t referring to more formal clothes – he was talking about a disguise.

Sandra stood and bowed slightly to the pontiff. “This is still a bad idea.” Steadying herself against the vehicle’s rolling motion, she headed down below, where she indeed found the white-clad steward holding a long black garment bag.

“I know.” Sandra waved the man away before he could speak. “Give it to me.”

The man handed over the bag, then scuttled out of the way as Sandra dragged it into the groundcar’s onboard lavatory to change. Designed for Toloni’s broad-shouldered frame, the lavatory was more than large enough for her to open the garment bag and stand back to get a good look at what she was going to wear.

“Of course. Of course.” Sandra spun on her heel, but paused with her hand resting on the door-latch, fuming, but knowing that no amount of storming upstairs to protest would do any good. Where Toloni, a widower of more than twenty years whose staff was almost entirely men – Penderite men at that – had found an outfit like that would be a mystery for the ages. Certainly no Penderite woman would ever wear such a gaudy, tech-flouting monstrosity. Sandra, of course, wasn’t technically a Penderite. She’d been raised by faithful of the Order, true, but no career spacer could ever hope to keep the tenets of Penderite faith.

Scowling the whole time, Sandra stripped off her dress-uniform boots, tunic, breeches, and undergarments. Shivering slightly, she knew she would feel no less exposed once she donned Toloni’s ridiculous concept of a disguise.

Assembling the outfit around her frame, Sandra was doubly annoyed by the fact that everything fit perfectly. Of course it would – it was smart-fabric which had been programmed with the very same parameters as her onboard uniform. The shimmering beetle-blue skirt hugged her hips all the way down to her knees without a single crease. The ridiculously gaudy three-part top, no part of which adequately covered her on its own, flattered her figure when assembled, and did more hinting at the presence of skin below than showing any of it directly. The detached sleeves, a pointless accoutrement so loved by high fashion back in the Core Worlds, seated snugly against her forearms like an aquamarine-studded second skin, and the various bangles, which she hoped were only gold-plated, threw off showers of light whenever she moved. She could feel the presence of tiny holo-projectors sewn into the get-up at several places, but they remained, for the moment, blissfully inactive.

At least, Sandra grudgingly acknowledged, the outfit had been designed for the rich heiress with some sense. Well concealed pockets in the ruffles below both her arms were more than large enough for her sidearm, and when she put her gun into one, it disappeared entirely.

Picking up the shoes – fiendishly tall platform heels which Sandra didn’t dare wear while walking inside a moving vehicle – and leaving the lavatory, Sandra shot a dagger-sharp glare at the steward, who was waiting outside. His mouth, open to say something already, clamped shut, and his eyes dove to the deck, where they stayed until she was past him and climbing back to the huge bubble-canopy.

“This is your idea of a disguise, Your Eminence?” Sandra gestured down at herself. “I look like an overgrown Centauri wood-scarab.”

“You look nothing like a Penderite, and yet the disguise is not complete.” Toloni, concealing his mirth very badly, gestured to one of the storage cabinets along the sides of the compartment. “There is some sort of cosmetics device in there.”

Sandra found a rapid makeup applicator, already loaded and programmed, waiting in the cabinet. “Do you know how much I hate these things?”

“They do seem the tool of the vain and technologically dependant.” Toloni shrugged. “If you would prefer to do it manually, the steward might have-”

“No, no.” Sandra sighed, then closed her eyes and pressed the curved surface of the applicator to her face. There was a brief sensation of heat and bright light as the device misted its pre-programmed makeup pattern onto her features, then a bright, cheery all-clear beep when it was done.

Flipping down one of the metalens mirrors, Sandra was unsurprised to see a thick, gaudy, layer of makeup as well as metallic blue eye shadow and lip-color. “Why do I need to be a harlequin?”

Toloni shrugged. “I am told this is the pinnacle of fashion here.”

Sandra shuddered, remembering that Toloni was trying to bushwhack a datasphere fashionista who would generally try to avoid a direct confrontation with the pontiff or any of his subordinates. “There’s no way I can pretend to be stupid enough for this to work.”

Toloni leaned across from his seat and lowered his voice, clearly enjoying himself immensely. “We’ll let you out a block away. Here’s what you need to do…”

Captain Ibsen’s account will continue next week. Having been to several high-society parties on Maribel, I can verify that outfits like the one described would fit right in.

The more devious side of Grand Hierophant Toloni is quite interesting here; in particular, it seems that he might be a bit less technology averse than he would prefer people to believe. True, he has plenty of henchmen who could help him arrange such an elaborate disguise, but most of them, as Captain Ibsen pointed out, are Penderites too.

Perhaps since the Penderites, unlike the Roman Catholics, have no doctrine of the limited infallibility of their head pontiff, he feels free to be flexible with the order’s strictures. The existence of Tabernacle itself seems to suggest this as the most likely explanation.

2950-12-06 – Tales from the Service: The Tabernacle at the Front

The Incarnation still has not made a major attack against Maribel. The last week has seen a small amount of skirmishing around mining colonies in nearby systems which primarily feed Maribel’s system economy, but it is my understanding that these were raid-scale actions, and that most featured only a single Tyrant-type heavy cruiser executing the sort of high-velocity, smash-and-dash mission which characterized the first phase of this war.

Though obviously these raids are intended to prevent raw materials from reaching refineries and slowing repairs to the numerous Fifth Fleet ships damaged in action throughout the latter half of the year, I see this as having little direct impact. Most of the parts and materiel used to repair Confederated Navy warships are shipped in directly from yards in the Core Worlds, and any parts common enough to be made locally probably exist in significant stockpile in Maribel and nearby systems.

Maribel is, after all, not properly besieged; no enemy effort has been made to interdict supply lines to the still-free part of the Frontier or into Farthing’s Chain toward the Core Worlds. Even the convoys heading for Sagittarius Gate remain largely untroubled.

I am still not sure why Admiral Venturi okayed this, but a most remarkable vessel arrived at Maribel today, diverting from its tour of the worlds of Farthing’s Chain. Holy Tabernacle, a starship built for and largely by the faithful of the technology-averse Holy Order of Penderites. Its stated purpose for coming here is to help relocate a significant number of Penderites evacuated from the small colony at MacNeil’s End, invaded by the Incarnation this past May. To that end Tabernacle arrived alongside a sizable hauler hastily refitted to transport refugees; between the two ships, the entire Penderite refugee community on Maribel can be transported.

Since we have seen Holy Tabernacle in this space before thanks to the contribution of its skipper, a Penderite-sympathetic spacer named Sandra Ibsen, I was hoping to see her contribute another account of mystery related to the plot to kill Grand Hierophant Uberto Toloni, the mortal leader of the Penderites. I was not disappointed in this hope. Captain Ibsen related a rather interesting incident that happened barely six hours after Toloni’s arrival on Maribel, which will require at least two weekly episodes to relate.

When Holy Tabernacle came to ponderous rest on Maribel soil, there was no eager throng waiting for its grand personnel ramp to descend, hoping to greet the Grand Hierophant of the Penderites with cheering acclamation. Other than two light aircraft swirling in for a landing nearby to deposit a gaggle of planetary officials and a couple of reporters, the salt pans outside the ship were empty for miles, gradually rising toward the Ueda Mountains which marched in pastel blue ranks to the south and east.

Beyond those mountains, Sandra knew, was Maribel City, the sprawling boom-town spaceport which boasted more citizens than almost every other planet on the Frontier, and more even than most of the worlds of the more settled Farthing’s Chain. She’d made landfall there once in her career as a merchant spacer, years ago, before the war, and even then it had been a freewheeling place, a city of vibrant commerce, but also of debauchery, where the fortunes of the Frontier were stripped away from their winners and relocated to more established interests.

“Not your usual sort of reception, Your Eminence.” Captain Sandra Ibsen shook her head, gesturing at the camera feeds. “Maribel’s no place for Penderites.”

“All the more reason why we must be here, Sister Ibsen.” Toloni clasped his hands together. “Fifteen thousand of our faithful doubtless care for the place no more than you do.”

Sandra bowed her head. “Of course. The ground team should already be unloading your caravan.” After five assassination attempts earlier in the year, she had quietly set the techs to modifying the Grand Hierophant’s huge ground-car, increasing its armor and adding an electronic warning system Toloni would protest, if he knew about it.

The Hierophant gestured to Sandra. “Join me. The crew doubtless needs you little while the ship is grounded.”

Sandra winced. “I’d… honestly rather not, sir. The last time I put my boots in this planet’s dirt, I regretted it.”

Toloni’s eyes twinkled over his characteristically enigmatic smile as he reached for his scepter of office, resting against the bulkhead. “Humor me.”

Sandra hesitated, then stood from her chair, pulled out her comms earpiece, and gestured to one of the other bridge officers to take over. Toloni was right; Holy Tabernacle didn’t need a skipper while it was resting on the salt pans.

As she joined him in the long spiral stairs that wound through the ship to obviate Penderites from using standard lift technology, Sandra snuck a look at the old man. “It’s about the assassins, isn’t it?” Everyone on board knew about the assassination attempts, of course, and most knew that all five of the would-be killers had been placed into the custody of Toloni’s honor guard, and held in Tabernacle’s small brig for months. Few knew that they had been offloaded into the dubious care of a Bureau of Counter-Intelligence task force which suspected Incarnation involvement in the attacks, and fewer still knew that the five men were all connected through a Maribel native, a datasphere fashionista named Delilah Brahms-Walton.

“I had hoped you’d guess.” Toloni nodded. “Yes, there has been a development. After we see to our displaced faithful, I have arranged a talk with our friend Miss Brahms-Walton.”

Given that Toloni used the ship’s comms only when he could not avoid it, Sandra assumed that his use of “arranged” here meant that the chief of his security detail had arranged it. “Is this talk going to be voluntary?”

Toloni shrugged, that playful look Sandra knew meant trouble appearing in his eyes. “I suppose we’ll see. It is a great opportunity for outreach to the masses.”

Sandra blinked. “You’re going to confront this woman in public? Your eminence, that’s suicide. I won’t let you-”

“Peace.” Toloni held up a gnarled hand. “It is already in motion.”

Sandra gritted her teeth and followed in silence; she wasn’t responsible for the Grand Hierophant’s personal safety on the ground, but she still would feel responsible if he were to come to harm.

At the bottom of the winding stair, a trio of garishly uniformed, rifle-toting honor-guards met Sandra and Toloni, snapping fine salutes before bracketing their master as he stepped out onto the landing and began the long descent to the ground. Already, the two aircraft had landed, and a knot of people were tromping across the salt pans toward the foot of the ramp, and already, a pair of honor guards waited there. Somewhere aft, the whirring of the vehicle lift told Sandra that the huge ground-car would be ready for its master soon.

At the foot of the ramp, Toloni thumped the foot of his scepter on the hard-packed dirt, then bowed his head in prayer for another safe landing. Sandra prayed as well, though hers was more of a fervent wish to return with Toloni to Holy Tabernacle as soon and as safely as possible.

2950-11-29 – Tales from the Service: The Pack Leader’s Hunt

Pack Captain Ojathl Khedru found the first three intruders on deck two, where they were making a sorry mess of Howling Gale’s main wardroom, pulling the trophies of Khedru’s many years as skipper off the walls, prying up the deck paneling, and cutting into the electronics box below the long table. This proved, if nothing else did, that they had fought Rattanai before – they knew that the rightful spoils of warfare were inventoried and stored there, as a reminder to the officers and crew of the benefits of loyal service.

Khedru crept out of the maintenance crawlspaces out of view of the wardroom door, leveled his flechette-thrower, then ducked around the corner low. None of the three humans were looking in his direction in that crucial instant, and three quick sprays from the weapon sent them crumpling to the deck, each shredded by a tight cone of razor-sharp ceramic projectiles which shattered on impact with a hard obstacle. The weapon, designed by Rattanai mainly for use against their own kind, was massive overkill against the far softer flesh of humans.

Knowing that someone might have heard the weapon’s barking report, Khedru moved into the room and took cover behind the big table, leveling his gun on the door. A fourth human walked in with no urgency in his gait or face, and had only time for his eyes to go wide before another burst of flechettes reduced everything above his shoulders to a bloody mess of jumbled bone, hair, and brains. Gore and a few flechettes spattered against the opposite bulkhead and his body tottered weirdly on its feet for a long moment before falling forward.

Khedru waited another long moment, but no more intruders showed themselves. Still keeping his weapon pointed toward the door, he reached over and patted the corpse of the nearest human until he found the weapon holstered under one arm. Unlike the flesh which stuck to it in gobs, the rugged plasma-coil handgun had suffered no obvious damage from the flechette-thrower, and seemed not to have an electronic safety. It was almost too small for his large paws, but Khedru forced one thick finger into the trigger guard all the same, pointed it at the corpse in the doorway, and pulled the trigger.

The resulting gout of yellow-white plasma ignited the air in a satisfying holocaust of fire, burning the corpse badly and leaving its uniform aflame. The weapon would probably not kill a Rattanai or even a human outright, but it could easily blind or, in tight spaces, asphyxiate by consuming all the oxygen faster than the atmospherics could replace it.

Searching the corpses for comms equipment and spare batteries for the coilgun, Khedru filled a pouch on his utility belt with both before ducking back into the crawlspace and pulling the hinged panel back into place, Khedru headed to the narrow ladder leading up to deck one, where it terminated in the tiny comms hub, a compartment which none of his crew ever needed to enter unless the comms equipment needed maintenance. As he eased open the panel and peeked into the closet-sized space, he found it empty; the intruders had predictably found it unworthy of their time.

After standing and massaging the soreness of muscles unaccustomed to squeezing and crawling, Khedru signed in on the comms hub console and disabled both the comms mediator and bridge control of the ship’s comms antenna. After dashing off a quick text-only message for Governor Trumbull detailing what he knew of the situation, Khedru turned the antenna off altogether. If he survived and retook his ship, there would be much glory and even, perhaps, spoils of battle; if he did not, Trumbull could tell the Confederated Navy what had happened, and they would pay someone else to avenge him.

Listening at the door for a full three minutes, Khedru heard nothing. Pulling the emergency catch to disengage the hatch’s electric drive, he slid it open manually a few inches and peeked out. The short corridor leading along the ship’s dorsal ridge from the astrogation dome forward to the bridge was empty and silent, and both those spaces were hidden behind sealed blast doors. The doors of the lift well, across from the comms hub, stood propped open by some sort of mechanical device, and the lift sat on this level. Its safety interlocks would prevent it from moving as long as the doors remained open.

With a gun in each hand, Khedru crept forward to the bridge blast doors. If the intruders had already gained access to the surveillance system, they’d see him and his stealth would all be for nothing, but he doubted they’d penetrated the ship’s systems that quickly. The slow and steady drop in atmosphere pressure suggested that they’d fiddled with the central atmospherics unit manually; systems control would have permitted them to evacuate individual compartments one at a time, suffocating his crew in a moment.

Of course, lack of control hadn’t stopped them from sealing the blast door, and neither a flechette thrower nor a human plasma-coil gun would do anything against that. A simple datasphere command to open the door returned an immediate error-code.

Khedru, however, was not going to be defeated by a simple door. He fished around for one of the comms devices he’d picked up in the wardroom. It would never fit in his narrow ear-hole, of course, but it didn’t need to. He didn’t need to hear, only to speak. Gingerly, he held it in front of his mouth and pressed one broad fingertip against the activation switch.

In perfect Anglo-Terran, Khedru parroted a near-perfect imitation of Governor Trumbull. “Er, I say, hello?” He rapped lightly on the blast door for emphasis. “My name is Trumbull. Your boys gave me this link and told me to crawl up here to tell you that they found us. Damned nonsense crawling up that little ladder if you ask me.”

After a short period, no doubt with the humans on the bridge calling over their comms to check the story and not getting as many responses as they would have liked, the little earpiece squawked a response.

Khedru couldn’t hear the tinny words without the device being in his ear canal, of course. He made his best guess as to what the question was. “The girls were being awfully friendly with them. Dear me, we’ve all been so frightened, I hardly blame them. We can’t thank you enough for-”

The blast door clanked as its mechanism began to release. Khedru, unsurprised that the way past a human’s brain was still through his reproductive organs, dropped the comms earpiece, crushed it underfoot, and pointed his guns in the direction of his command chair and the helm station, respectively. Most probably, there were more than two, but that would only make this hunt worth its glory and spoils.

While Pack Captain Khedru’s account continues in some detail, we will not be continuing it after this excerpt. After retaking his ship from the small boarding party of pirates, he and his surviving crew chased the foiled raiders away from their station, and returned to accolades and awards from the local governor and his people. Though these rewards were no doubt meager in terms of their value, the crew of Howling Gale probably valued them higher than the payout for their mercenary contract; after all, in most traditional Rattanai cultures, the spoils of a battle against a worthy opponent have greater value than the wages of more mundane service.

We still have not been invaded at Maribel, though the atmosphere here is such that an attack is expected any day.