A Nall shuttle delivers Colclough and the two Demarians to the surface of the planet Odari – homeworld of the merchant-minded Odarites.
The weather is chilly on the landing pad, just below freezing Fahrenheit in what amounts to a balmy summer day in the city of Ikikir.
“I usually pack better than this,” the CIS agent mumbles through shivering lips as he makes his way down the ramp from the shuttle.
The Nall – including the commanding officer – go no further than the airlock hatch when faced with such temperatures. They seem satisfied to let Whiptail, Razorback, and Colclough go on their merry way.
Though fur is an excellent insulator, Demar is a desert world. Still, hailing from high in the mountains, Razorback might have less trouble than most Demarians acclimating to the colder temperatures. He shakes off the urge to shiver, and points to a motel of sorts right off the spaceport. “A good start if we are going to collect our thoughts, and determine our next move, no?” he says.
On the other hand, Whiptail has been a desert dweller his entire life, and although fur does offer protection, he’s in obvious discomfort as he disembarks from the shuttle. “Anythin’ to get outta this here cold.” he says. “I think better when ma teeth ain’t chatterin’.”
“Once we’re checked in, I can reach out to my contact here in the capital,” Colclough replies, hugging himself against the cold. He turns once to glance back at the Nall shuttle as it departs, then resumes his path toward the main building of the spaceport.
“Well enough,” the Cliffwalker growls as he stalks towards customs. “Can you trust this contact of yours? Or are we risking the same fate we experienced on Demaria?”
“With everythang we’ve had to put up with so far, I ain’t discountin’ it.” Whiptail says, following along.
The interior of the spaceport isn’t much warmer than the exterior – the Odarites like their environment pretty cold. The agent’s teeth chatter as he leads the way toward the kiosk, where a representative from the Odarite Merchants Guild awaits.
Before reaching the counter, he tells Razorback: “Our contact on Demaria wasn’t the problem.” He then manages a smile for the Odarite and taps his fingers on the countertop. “Hello.”
“Identification,” click-clacks the Odarite.
Colclough offers an ident card with the name JESSUP, CALLUM P. and an address in the city of San Angeles on Earth. The Odarite scans the card and then inquires: “Purpose of visit?”
Colclough replies: “Business.” He shivers in spite of himself.
“Any goods to declare?” the Odarite demands.
“None at all,” Colclough answers.
“Enjoy your stay,” the Odarite clacks. He then swivels his compound eyes toward the Demarians. “Next?”
Razorback considers this for half a moment before presenting his resident “alien” ID from the Hekayti Empire to the Odarite. In days gone by, the document was dubbed an “Outverser Card” as it was the only official ID that could be obtained by the residents of Comorro. Worth a try.
Whiptail digs into his own pocket and pulls out his Demarian ID card. As he presents it to the Odarite, it’s apparent that the card is for the Demarian guard reserves, showing his full name, WHIPTAIL ROPEDANCER.
The customs agent reviews both cards presented by the Demarians. His dark round head rotates at an angle as he regards the ID presented by Razorback. “A rarity,” he says, “one of the few I’ve seen. Fascinating.” His glittering eyes fix on Razorback. “Anything to declare?”
“Nothing at all,” the Cliffwalker says with a nod, ready to follow Colclough as soon as the Odarite allows.
“Proceed,” the Odarite replies. He then regards Whiptail and asks: “Anything to declare?”
Whiptail shakes his head. “Nothing.”
Once the Demarians are cleared, Colclough leads the way to the neighboring hotel where he books four separate rooms under the name of Yanuth Coral, and then a fifth under the name of Brilliant Sparkman. The concierge scans fingerprints and retinas of the three guests.
“And now I’d like the roof suite,” Colclough says with a smile. “Under the name K’ikikik.”
Once that’s settled, he walks toward the elevator.
Razorback looks over at Colclough and his rather elaborate room rental procedure. “So …” he begins as they enter the lift, “Might I inquire as to where we will actually be staying?”
Whiptail raises a bushy eyebrow at the number of rooms. “That’s kinda what I’d like ta know. Expectin’ company?”
As the lift doors close, Colclough presses his finger on the scanner and the elevator starts climbing toward the roof suite.
“We stand out just a little on this planet,” the CIS agent replies. “The rooms I just secured were, in fact, a pre-determined message for my contact here on Odari.”
The lift stops and the doors open on the rather nicely appointed suite. Colclough steps out of the lift. “If he’s still friendly, we’re in good shape.”
“It may also have garnered the attention of most of the local crime lords,” Razorback says, looking around the new rooms. The soft couch calls to him for a moment, but instead, he moves to investigate each door, his nose and ears keenly attuned to anything out of place. Once satisfied no assassins are present, he comes back to the main room. “I need a bath,” he states.
“I need a friggin’ nap.” Whiptail says, and heads over to lay down on the inviting couch. “These old bones may still have miles left on ’em but I ain’t too good with the long haul these days.” he says, settling in.
The CIS agent walks to one of the picture windows that offers a view of the city in the mouth of a massive cavern at the middle of Queen’s Peak. The room is about 150 feet above ground floor. Nothing but shorter buildings on any side. He glances toward the stalactites about 200 feet above the building. Someone might be perched up there, with abundant effort. He raises an eyebrow and turns to walk back toward the wet bar. “Anyone thirsty?”
“A red for me,” Razorback says, almost absently, “I’ll be back before it’s done breathing.” And he disappears into a bathroom, where water can be heard running moments later.
“At this point I’ll take whatever’s strongest.” Whiptail says with a sigh.
Colclough pours drinks for himself and his companions. He leaves Razorback’s on a table near the bathroom, then delivers a glass to Whiptail. He walks back to the bar to retrieve his drink and takes a sip.
He speaks aloud: “Room, news holovid. Consortium Broadcast. Live feed. Demaria. Real-time.. Mute.”
A holovid array activates, with multiple shafts of light forming the core of the image generator. The broadcast feed shows chaos in the city of Alhira – smoke and fire, people screaming, soldiers in atmosphere suits trying to contain the madness. The banner across the bottom with the CBN logo declares: MASS DEATH INCIDENT BLAMED ON UNKNOWN CONTAGION.
True to his word, Razorback is back within a few minutes, doing his best to dry his mane with a towel not designed for Demarians. There is shedding. The Cliffwalker takes up the glass, sniffing it carefully before taking a sip. His eyes come to rest on the display, causing his brow to furrow deeply, his ears disappearing into his mane. “There will be blood for this,” he growls, “And if a member of your organization is behind it, even a rogue agent, the Consortium will drift perilously close to chaos. Secession will be openly discussed, if not recommended.”
Whiptail narrows his eyes as he watches the footage. “Yer right there, young’un. This ain’t gonna pass.” he says, taking a swig of his drink, swishing it a bit in his mouth before swalling. “Wow..” he whispers with a cough, then shakes his head.
“Suffice it to say, I am incredibly perturbed by the recent turn of events,” the CIS agent says. He paces in front of one of the windows. “In my line of work, a certain amount of treachery and deception is to be expected. But someone wiped out my team on Demaria – along with a substantial chunk of the civilian population in Alhira. They tried to kill me, and you by extension. When we arrived at the Line of Pain, the order to kill us on sight had already arrived. Now we find ourselves alive because of the Nall, but how long we survive is an open question. The answer is largely dependent on whether my friend remains an ally.” He stops, staring down at the sprawling city. “This was not the work of a rogue agent. It was a wide-ranging, coordinated effort, most likely from the highest levels.”
“Then why?” Razorback asks, swirling the wine in his glass, “Why would someone in the highest levels of your government seek to destabilize relations with Demaria?”
Whiptail manages to fight off sleep as the conversation gets interesting. “More’n just Demaria, with stuff like this goin’ on, it’s gonna be chaos everywhere.” he says, taking another sip of his drink. “Fingers are gonna be pointin’, it’s like somebody wants chaos.”
“I hesitate to speculate,” Colclough replies, his brow knitting. “I agree that chaos and dissent are the goal, but I am as yet unclear about the motivations behind it.” His frown deepens. “Running through scenarios in my mind, though, is causing me no shortage of discomfort.”
“You certainly do not exaggerate on that count, Mr. Colclough,” Razorback replies. “Our survival is not my concern for the moment, though,” he adds after another sip, “Our time is come or it is not. But chaos is not something our corner of the universe can survive. There are far older and far darker powers in the galaxy than those which are immediately apparent.”
Whiptail shakes his head. “This is gettin’ past mah thinkin’.” he says, taking another sip of his drink. “I’ve seen low, I’ve seen high in mah years, but this, this here, this takes the cake.”
The room’s door alert chimes. Colclough opens the cabinet doors beneath the wet bar and removes the plasma rifle that waits there. He checks the weapon charge, aims the barrel at the door, and then tells Razorback: “Let’s find out if our visitor is friend or foe.”
Razorback holds up a digit until he can cut the lights in the room. “Go ahead,” he says, backing into a shadowed corner.
Whiptail remains on the couch, but draws his pulse pistol and hides it under a pillow, aimed at the door.
“Open,” Colclough says, and upon his voice command, the door slides open to reveal the silhouette of a round-headed insectoid with glittering compound eyes. None of his multiple claws appear to be gripping weapons – although, of course, they might be used as weapons themselves.
“My larval ascenscion celebration is several cycles hence, friend Colclough,” the Odarite states, clicking mandibles as he tilts his head. “If this is a surprise party, it is premature.” He notes the rifle in the agent’s grasp. “I see you found the party favor. I meant to leave a pointy hat for you too.”
Colclough nods, then looks toward Razorback and says, “Turn the lights back on. Three’s a friend.”
“Oh, I’m not Three,” the Odarite corrects. “I’m Six.”
“Six? What happened to Three?”
Click-clack. “Four happened to Three. And then Five happened to Four.”
“Life is harsh in the OMG,” Colclough notes with a whistle.
“Five’s last words were something to that effect,” Six agrees.
The Cliffwalker slips out into the light from the windows to flip the lights on. “May Seven be long in coming, then?” he asks.
Whiptail re-holsters his pistol, for the moment staying quiet.
“The Queen forbid, I hope not,” Six says. He ventures a step into the room and the door slides closed behind him. “Nevertheless, it may be best if I avoid the windows.” He regards Colclough. “You’re in trouble.”
“It happens sometimes,” the agent replies. He sets the rifle on the bar counter. Then he walks to a chair and sits. “Usually not this bad, though.”
“It is becoming a comfortable state of affairs,” Razorback says blithely, “Do you have any information as to why?”
The Odarite shakes his head. “My usual channels have gone silent on this situation. What I can tell you is that the contagion outbreak seems to be contained to a few city blocks of Alhira. Not enough to wipe out the city, but enough to prompt a crisis, a lockdown, and Vanguard intervention – at least in the short term.”
Whiptail sits up on the couch. “So they ain’t targetin’ anybody specific… they jest want chaos.” he says with a frown.
“That the event and our arrival coincided seems unlikely,” Razorback growls, taking up his glass of wine and pausing in thought. He stares out the window for a moment before continuing, “If I wanted to destabilize relations between Demaria and the rest of the Consortium, creating chaos, like the biological attack, and the underclasser revolt is not enough. I would need the Vanguard to be brought into the conflict. Perhaps to establish order, in a circumstance where order is already tenuous.”
Colclough nods in agreement. “And if the Vanguard is called in to manage a tense and hazardous situation, it creates opportunities for conflict with the Demarian Militia over authority. Putting a further strain on Consortium relations.”
“So tha question is… who’s pullin’ the strings?” Whiptail says. “Call me a cynical ol’ cat, but I wouldn’t put it past some ah them nobles to want to put things back to tha way they used to be.” he says, staring down at the floor for a moment. “Ya gotta admit, since we done gone and joined up with the Consortium, they ain’t all powerful now.”
“Maybe,” Razorback says, “But the Militia is disproportionately made up of Underclassers, likely to support a revolt as they did…” He stops there for a moment before trying again. “Friction between the Militia and the Vanguard is likely to appear to be the Nobles using the Consortium to keep the Underclassers in line.” He growls, rubbing the bridge of his muzzle. “This speculation gets us no where,” he says, “We need real answers, before we die for a truth we never knew.”
“You are unlikely to get those answers here,” Six replies.
Colclough sighs. “And we mustn’t forget the fact that my own agency sought to eliminate me.” He frowns. “The rocket taking down the shuttle could’ve been dismissed as a terrorist incident, but we would be dead right now if not for the timely intervention of the Nall.” His gaze sweeps the room, then settles on the picture windows offering their view of the cavernous city. “We can’t stay here. And I think it’s time we part ways for a little while.” He regards Six with a steady stare. “Can I rely on you to get them new identification and passage to a world of their choosing where they might be safe?”
The Odarite bobs his round head and clacks his mandibles. “I can do that.”
Whiptail nods slowly. “I fig’r that’s gonna have to be how it is..” he says. “If these folks are willin’ to kill everyday folks and then try to kill you, I doubt they’d even bat an eye at wipin’ out an old feller like me.”
“I am not confident that any world in the Orion Arm would be safe for long,” the Cliffwalker says, “Though likely we would need to stay in the Fringe if the Consortium government is compromised.”
“Give it some thought,” Six replies. “When I return, you will have new identities and I will see that you have passage to your chosen destination.”
Whitail nods slowly. “I’ll take jest about anythin’.” the old Demarian says. “My only regret is I may die away from home, but sometimes ya gotta take what comes.”
“If we could be placed on Quaquan, preferably landing somewhere relatively remote,” Razorback says, “We will likely avoid detection for longer than most other places.” He nods to Colclough, “Until you need to make contact.”
Colclough nods to Razorback. Six makes his way toward the door, which slides open on his approach.
The CIS agent stops, turns to Whiptail, and gestures with a thumb toward Razorback. “You’ve done well to fall into this one’s company, I think. I know this is a grim, difficult situation, for all of us.” He looks toward the Cliffwalker and says, “But something tells me the experiences he’s had over the years make him uniquely qualified to handle this sort of crisis.”
The Odarite chimes in: “And listen to me, if you want to live. But the Queen knows: never trust me.” His mandibles clack in amusement before he disappears into the hallway.
Colclough frowns: “I don’t find such comments helpful, honest as they may be.” He tilts his head, then says, “Be safe, until I can reach you on Quaquan.”
Whiptail nods to Colclough. “I’m still breathin’, so that’s somethin’.”
“Unique to be sure,” Razorback says, his fangs bared in a grim smile, “As to qualified, that remains to be seen.” The Cliffwalker sighs, looking around at their lack of belongings. “Off we go, then,” he says.
“Never thought I’d be gettin’ the grand tour of tha universe at my age.” Whiptail says with a grin of his own.
“Count yourself fortunate it is this universe only,” Razorback mutters with only a hint of sarcasm.
Whiptail raises an eyeridge at this. “Other universes?”
“A long story,” the Cliffwalker replies as he gets ready to leave, “For which I hope we shall have plenty of time.”