An old, wooden table sat in the centre of the room. The shafts of light emerging from the window struck its surface and made squares of yellow on the brown, but also hit a stray file sitting there. They illuminated a few words: ‘Centro Intelligence Service’ formed the top line, and underneath that were two more: ‘Project Mosaic’.
The door opened, but the three individuals already sitting around the table did not look up. In walked an elderly Detroni, holding his caffino carefully at shoulder-height. With a foot, he closed the door behind him, then sat down. Placing the mug beside his place, he opened the file that had been placed there earlier, and then took a long sip.
The figure at the head of the table clicked a pen and wrote down some notes on a sheet of paper beside him, while he kept looking at his own file. The other two section heads were similarly absorbed and continued reading- a Salsene and a Zyrothan.
Finally, the figure put down his pen and looked up.
“Right. Shall we begin?”
The others simultaneously closed their files and turned to him.
“Raki would like to excuse herself from this meeting- I got the notification last night. Eye should turn up, but we’ll have to see.”
The Salsene raised a hand.
“Eye claims to be stuck with the brick machine. He doesn’t think he’ll be here.”
“Alright. That’s fine- he’s better employed there than here.”
The head of the CIS looked at the section heads in front of him one by one and then picked up the file in front of him. The Zyrothan across from him leaned forward and placed her head in her hands.
“Mosaic is a go. You know what this means.”
Tanro raised his hand, again.
“Does that mean Spiral and Tapestry will have to be updated?”
“It does indeed. I have O on it right now. D is conducting the required tasks and making sure the plebs and tollers agree.”
The Detroni took another sip, then raised a finger.
“Go ahead, Dras.”
“What was the bait?”
“Information about Spiral, mainly. Not yet delivered, and it may never be, but we knew we were going to have to form links eventually. We’re not ready.” He looked over at the Zyrothan. “Harria, you look like you want to ask a question.”
She nodded slowly. “How did they manage to convince you of all that trash?”
“Because they’re not the only source. Tock and Irritate are saying the same.”
“Nutters who are several hundred years further into researching the matter than we are. I understand that it’s hard to believe, and I thought the same. I was only convinced after… after Passenger.”
She sat back. “I haven’t read Passenger.”
“And you may never do so. It’s not pleasant reading.” He turned his attention back to the others. “They have an outpost on the planet. We don’t know where, or when it was built, but we know they’re here. And that’s something we need to think about, because they may well have tentacles in the higher echelons of the CSA.”
He opened the file and took from it a few sheets- papers for staff members, with their photos and names, along with all the basic data.
“These are the ones we have found. Balak, Dario and Geoton are the highest-ranking, but they have seven in all. I can’t help but think they’ve put their entire team in with us, because their cells are small. Very small. Our fellows in the ice and the various porters haven’t found anything.”
“They know we know, of course. They won’t do anything and neither will we. It’s better that way, just like with the others. A mole who does his chores in the underworld is as good as any loyal one down there. We just know who to leave hints for to get the ball rolling. Right now, however, they will have to be the proactive ones.”
He flicked through the file absent-mindedly, and the put it down. Dras took a sip from his mug.
“We’ll see what the brick machine gives us. After that, it’s all rolling in the dirt. I have nothing else for you.”
The section heads stood and filed out, leaving Control sitting at the end of the table. He stood up, and the armoured door closed itself on cue. The window shutters dropped down, and there was darkness for a second, until the light turned on.
Control opened a filing cabinet and put the files back from the table, then stopped for a moment. He took a large, heavy key with a maze-like blade from his jacket and used it to open the bottommost shelf, then flicked through it for one of the items within. Coming to the right letter, he stopped and took out the report from Source Passenger. His expression became blank as he pulled out a paper from within, and began to read.
‘Document ASI-373 emission.’ He had often wondered about Passenger’s filing system. They didn’t quite understand it yet. ‘From Marshal-Relinquish…” Gingerly, he closed the file and placed it back inside the cabinet, then locked it and placed the key back inside his jacket. Was he doing the right thing? Obviously not- it said so- but for Centro?
He closed his eyes and regretted everything.
Aulus Savar d'Trenna woke up with a start. He stood quickly, and looked around the cave, scrutinising its layout and searching for anything changed. Satisfied, he opened his pack and took out a rail-rifle with his trunk, then affixed it to his shoulder. The autoloader whirred as it inserted a magazine.
The mini-repulsors signalled their activation by vibrating softly for a second. Armed and armoured, he moved cautiously onwards, grateful for the little rest he had been able to grab. He deactivated the portable repulsor which had been protecting him in his sleep, and put it back in his pack to recharge.
Once that was done, he turned on his communicator.
"This is Aulus. Do you hear me?"
"We hear you, Aulus. What's your status?"
"I got some rest, sir. Moving further into the tunnels now, predicted rendezvous with the team is in forty."
"They copy too. Everything seems workable, so I'll leave you alone for now. Over and out."
Aulus deactivated the comm and let the rifle's searchlight scan the area ahead. The ash-covered floor was a uniform fluffy grey, just as it had been from the entrance. The explosion had got this far, at least- it was a big one. However, there were still heat signs coming from further in, so they could assume that the Aoarus capsule had survived. And that probably meant that its occupants were at large, which was unfortunate.
He looked for prints, but could see none. Maybe the Aoarus were setting up defenses, or maybe they were preparing to get the capsule to self-destruct, in order to prevent the Aians from capturing it. It was what Aulus would have done.
The best-case scenario was that they had all been caught outside when the blast travelled through. However, Aulus had never had any confidence in optimism. Until he had found the bodies, they were to all intents and purposes currently pointing a devourer at his head.
It was strange, having caught such an advanced foe off-guard. He wouldn't have believed that they had managed to destroy an Aoarus cruiser if he hadn't seen it himself, and was currently mopping up what was left of its crew. They had something which command had said was important- something the Coatzl wanted. He wondered why the snakes hadn't sent their own team, being faster and all.
No matter. He stalked on.
General Sarrus of the Irihil watched with an emotionless face as the Tainted world below erupted into flame. Bombardment cannons pounded its surface, each making a massive splash of molten rock shoot up into the atmosphere and a cloud of dust shoot outwards in a sphere.
The flotilla doing the bombardment ceased firing, satisfied that the planet was purged. Enormous fires covered its surface, patches of bright yellow and orange that were quite pretty beneath the ash-choked clouds. Perhaps the planet's biosphere would never recover, but that didn't really matter as long as the Taint was gone.
He exhaled and sat back. All in a day's work.
A bronze-armoured Irihil walked in. "General Sarrus."
"Sir Altius." Sarrus saluted.
"Well done on that purge. Your twelfth, I hear?"
"That is correct, sir."
"You're one of the highest in that regard. You've been noticed in the Viya, and they're watching you to see if you're a candidate. Of course, you'd need a knighthood first, but it'd be a rapid transfer."
Sarrus nodded. "I thank you for your faith in me."
"Oh, you're an obvious choice. And well-liked. If anything, this is far too late, and you should have been pulled up over a year ago."
The young general smiled. "There was the little matter of Darion."
"Just a little hiccup. Forgotten now. But on to happier things- your fleet is to be sent to help out the Aians in some intelligence-gathering programme. An important one, that'll certainly look good on the application."
"I look forward to it."
"Good, good. You'll be properly in charge this time, so... do us proud."
Sarrus nodded. "As always."
Agent Silent Claw sat down at a round steel table in a small cafe just off sixtieth street. It was the table which was most sheltered from the eyes in the street, and the only one with a document delivery system built into its central column.
Putting his newspad down, he tapped the table three times in succession, very lightly, and then swiped his wrist chip over its length.
A rolled-up sheet of paper emerged from the table, and he picked it up. Surprisingly short, he thought, and then he began to read.
Odd. But it gave him everything he'd need for now.
He stood up, inserted the document back into the hole in the table, and pocketed his newspad. To Yrettum it was.
"Aulus!" The Daresk motioned for him to fall in.
The Aians assumed a v-formation, with Aulus and Hauon carrying their rifles at the tips, Athar and Urius bearing shotguns and SMGs, and then the Daresk, Latius, at the front with the squad's rail-LMG. Their torchlight illuminated the cave walls ahead, grey and silent, as they pushed on.
"Capsule is 50 metrons ahead. Go loose."
The formation dispersed slightly, increasing their spacing by a metre. There was a large cavern ahead, and plenty of dirt from the capsule's descent. The explosion did not seem to have affected the walls here, or at least there was little trace of charring and pulverisation.
Now inside the cavern, they fanned out even more.
"Lights out. Enhance view."
Within the helmet of each Aian, the photomultipliers got to work. Black became grey and grey became white, and little coloured circles scanned across their fields of view.
"I see it." Hauon whispered. "I can't make out any Aoarus, though."
"Could be inside, or behind a barricade. Watch yourselves."
There was a crash as a devourer shot hit the cave wall behind them, causing it to rot away in seconds, and it began to collapse. The Aians remained still as the rubble bounced off their repulsors, and then crouched down for their approach.
"Athar, Urius, flank them. Right side. We'll provide suppressing fire from behind these boulders."
The two flankers nodded, and set off at a run towards the right. The support team opened fire, shooting with intervals of a few secrends just to remind the Aoarus that if their heads stuck out, then they would be shot off.
About ten metrons from the capsule, Urius stopped and ducked behind a boulder. "I'll fire from here. Keep pushing forwards."
Athar nodded, and then leapt behind the same cover as a number of large, high-velocity swords shot past him. "If you could stop them from doing that, I'd be much obliged."
Urius trunk-smiled. "I'll do my best."
He put his rail-SMG up and began to fire bursts of four shots, towards the right-hand side of the capsule. There was a sudden movement as an Aoarus peeked around, and Urius fired off a chain of eight to get it back down. It seemed to understand.
Athar crept up to the capsule edge, with his shotgun up and his SMG ready to support it. The sounds of the riflemen firing became slower, and then stopped, as they began to move up on the left side.
A devourer barrel was pushed around the corner. Athar grabbed it with his telsons and yanked it from the Aoarus' grasp, then threw it far behind him. He took a step forwards, his shotgun exactly where the Aoarus would be, and fired two pellet shells into the creature's face. The other Aoarus was turning to point its sword launcher at him, so he let off a stream of fire from the SMG.
The bullets hit the Aoarus' heat field and were vaporised, releasing quick flashes of coloured plasma. In reply, it fired off its blades into Athar's repulsors.
The impact made him stagger backwards, but he quickly regained his footing and kept up the SMG fire. He trained his shotgun at the foe and selected a grenade round, then fired.
The grenade detonated a foot from the Aoarus' shield and the shockwave knocked it off its feet, slamming it against the capsule. It sprang back and leapt at Athar, three-quarters of a tonne working to push him to the ground.
He fought back, and cracked it in the external skull with the back of his telson, then rolled away from a punch. His shotgun missed this time, but he was ready for that and rammed his armoured tail into the beast's eye. It roared in pain, cursing loudly and incomprehensibly, then grabbed his neck with both hands and tried to squeeze.
The Aian's plate armour held comfortably, and he slashed one of the Aoarus' arms off with a scytheclaw, watching blood spurt from the stump. Shoving the creature onto its back, he raised a telson and then plunged it into the creature's heart, the sharp blade driving straight through the sternum and then entering its soft internals. The beast's flailing grew weaker, and Athar slowly pulled out his natural weapon.
It stopped moving altogether.
"I think that's that, Daresk."
"Good job, Athar. Back to the ship- we're to get a new set of orders."