At a set of pre-arranged coordinates, Galactix brings himself out of FTL and comes to a stop in deep space. The location chosen is very remote; it is off any major travel lanes, even off travel lanes used by the more unconventional traders. There, he waits.

Razorback sits in a conference room on board the Galactix leaning back in his chair with his ears tilted back and his tail twitching behind him.

Galactix voice comes from overhead speakers. “I hope this meeting can resolve the conflict.” he says. “I am not a fan of galactic conflicts. They can get… messy.”

Razorback looks up as the disembodied voice speaks. He nods in agreement. “I have seen far too many,” he says, “War between Demaria and Sol would likely be wasteful, vicious, and long.

“Yes.” Galactix says. “The rest of the galaxy would be in turmoil, with worlds taking sides, profiteers trying to take advantage of the chaos, fingers pointing every which way. It is a frightening thought.”

“That seems to be precisely the aim of the gambit,” Razorback says quietly, steepling his digits and rotating his ears forward, “Many would benefit from a weakened Consortium. The criminal elements of the Fringe, the Parallax, not to mention whomever from the Ancient Expanse might wish to increase their influence here.”

Bluefang sits across the table from Razorback. He shakes his snout. “Might be shorter if the Consortium convinces other worlds to supplement their forces. Sivadians and Martians could hurt us too.” He huffs. “Or just imagine if the Nall try to capitalize on it.”

“Let us hope then that they are open to reason.” Galactix says.

“If it came to war, blood is thicker than water,” Razorback admits, “At best, we could hope to keep Sivad neutral. Mars would unquestionably side with Earth. With the exception, perhaps, of their Zangali population. In truth, we have few real friends. The Nall… the Nall might even offer to help us. I truly hope Demaria’s leaders would not be so foolhardy as to accept their aid.”

About that time, a Demarian diplomatic vessel approaches Galactix. The pilot requests docking permission.

Galactix responds, but keeps the channel piped into the conference room so that his guests can keep aware. “Permission granted, please use berth six upon entering the bay.” he says, returning his focus to the conference room. “It seems your delegation has arrived.”

Razorback nods, sitting up a bit, but remaining seated. The Cliffwalker seems more accustomed to this sort of meeting than one might presume of a wandering hunter.

A short while later, Stumppaw Sandwalker strides into the conference room, accompanied by an underclasser who is dutifully taking notes while the elder patrician speaks: “And so there she was, the lady of Whitecowl Manor, at the mercy of three Zangali brigands. They thought me outmatched, with just the one hand. Weren’t they in for quite the surprise?”

He cuts his narrative off at that point, reaching the head of the table and declaring: “Stumppaw Sandwalker, representative of the Demarian Senate. I gave up attending one of the most posh occasions of the Alhira social calendar this year to attend this rather more austere gathering. I trust you will make it interesting for me.”

“Welcome, Mr. Sandwalker. I hope that my accommodations are comfortable for your stay.” Galactix says. “I can provide refreshments, if anyone desires.”

The  Cliffwalker rises to his footpaws now, offering a bow to the arriving dignitaries. “I am Razorback, and this is my associate Bluefang,” he rumbles, “And I do believe you shall find what he has to tell the Consortium representatives well-worth the interruption.” One might note that he is almost completely disarmed, but for his two short swords. Nothing out of the ordinary for a formal function amongst Demarians, though.

“Bluefang…” The Sandwalker patriarch turns his attention to Razorback’s companion. “I would have thought you would be long dead by now.”

“No such luck,” Bluefang replies with a grunt. “I am not here by choice, I assure you.”

“Really?” Stumppaw gives a huff, scratching absently at the nub of his right arm. “The dead fellow at the hospital. The wrecked militia outpost in the desert. Those seem like they resulted from choices.”

Galactix takes a moment to monitor his systems while the arrivals converse, but he also activates his fabrication center and provides replications of Demarian wine and a set of goblets for the delegation. A panel opens in the table and the tray lifts up from below with a slight clink of the crystal.

“Please, have a seat, everyone,” Razorback says, gesturing towards the chairs. “Thank you, Galactix,” he says as he begins to pour the wine. “I do believe I must take responsibility for the outpost, Senator,” he admits, “One must sometimes damage property in the interest of saving lives. I do hope that the militia did not deal to harshly to the old warcat I met there. There was nothing he could have done.”

“And who are you?” Stumppaw asks Razorback as he settles into a chair at the table. His scribe remains standing, PDA at the ready. The old Demarian growls over his shoulder: “This one’s off the record, Pen. Outside.” The underclasser bobs his snout in assent, thus dismissed, and exits the conference room.

Galactix at this point remains silent, though attentive.

“Razorback, clan Cliffwalker,” the ex-noble repeats, “Merely one who would see the peace kept.” His ear follows the underclasser out.

“Cliffwalker,” Stummpaw ventures, like he’s sampling a fresh vintage that proves a little sour. “Not one of the well to-do houses, is it?”

“The Cliffwalkers do not compare to the Sandwalkers in that regard,” Razorback says with a faint smirk, “Not anymore, leastwise. But we do alright. I take it you and Mr. Rockstepper have met. That being the case, you should hear what has happened.”

“Their story is worth considering, Mr. Sandwalker.” Galactix says. “During our travel they recounted their recollections of the events, and based on my bio scan performed as they did so they are telling the truth.”

“Bluefang once worked as my bodyguard,” the Demarian noble replies, eyeing the assassin. “He left in search of more…lucrative…employment.” With a shrug, Stumppaw concludes: “I will hear what you have to say.” He looks to Razorback, though – not Bluefang – for elaboration.

An eyeridge quirks up at this information, but Razorback does not address it. “Very well,” he says, “To my understanding, to put it succinctly, Mr. Rockstepper here was hired to assassinate President Busby of the Consortium. When it appeared to him that it was a “set-up”, he went into hiding. He was discovered when he was injured during the flood in New Alhira some weeks ago, which is when, he says, someone was sent to kill him. I myself saw the result. It had been quite difficult for me to get in to see him, so I find the idea that the individual who was slain in his hospital room was up to no good quite credible.” He pauses, considering something before he adds, “No doubt you have been briefed on most of our activities since.”

Galactix returns to listening to the conversation.

“Indeed,” Sandwalker says. “No mean feat, getting past hospital security in Alhira. That would require some internal assistance. Plus, it appears that some elements of the Demarian Militia may also have been compromised.” He peers at Bluefang. “You never cease to be a source of trouble for me.”

Bluefang offers a shrug, then replies: “Everybody’s got their strengths.”

Stumppaw huffs, then returns his attention to Razorback. “So this conspiracy targeted President Busby and hoped to lay the blame on Demaria. You’ve messed that up. Soon, intelligence officers from the central Consortium government will arrive. What do you expect me to do about all…this?”

The Cliffwalker glances over at Bluefang for a moment before returning his attention to the Sandwalker. “I can speak only to the truth of what I have witnessed,” he says, “I can give no assurances that the Demarian government had no involvement. Presumably, you can do this. I have no authority to speak on behalf of the Demarian government. Presumably, you do. When the Consortium representatives arrive, someone should be here to answer their questions in that regard.”

“Oh, I am willing to back up your story,” Stumppaw responds. He tilts his head, whiskers twitching as he ponders. “However, I have concerns. A conspiracy of this sort suggests that I may be putting myself at risk to support you. Bluefang knows well enough that I already have an abundance of enemies on Demaria. If some of them are willing to kill anyone from a reckless bodyguard to the Consortium president, there’s no reason they would avoid eliminating me if it becomes a matter of convenience. I am hopeful that you can make the risk worthwhile.”

“Beyond bearing witness,” Razorback says, his ears leaning back a bit, “What is it you believe I can do to prevent this?”

“Honestly, at the moment, I have no idea,” the old noble answers. “But suffice it to say, you will owe me a debt.”

A smile breaks Razorback’s muzzle now and he sits back, a low chuckle rumbling from his chest. “I think not, my Lord,” he says, “Without me, Mr. Rockstepper drowned in a flood and you received no word of this plot until Sol was ready to proscribe sanctions upon your government. Unrest amongst the nobles who feel the pinch translates to general unrest amongst the underclassers they pinch in turn. This forces your government into unpopular capitulation, or retaliation against the Consortium. The Nall, who by all accounts, seem ready to find any inroads into the Consortium at the moment come up alongside you with their toothy little smiles and offer you a way out. An alliance. And when the dust settles, a Clawed Fist Talon stands on every corner of Alhira and you join your underclassers in the mines.” He lets all of that sink in for a moment before he continues. “All because I didn’t pull a lowly porter out from under a pillar. Interesting what small events the galaxy can turn on, is it not, my Lord?” he asks, “So with all due respect, my Lord, I owe you nothing.”

Bluefang just blinks, his eyebrows edging upward, silent in his approval.

Stumppaw Sandwalker, on the other hand, clacks his fangs together. His ears swivel back as he considers the Cliffwalker. And then he busts out laughing, smacking his good hand on the table. “I find that I am unable to hate you,” he says. “A rarity. Very well. When the intelligence agent arrives, I will vouch for your actions and your character. Satisfactory?”

“Quite,” Razorback says with a nod and a glance at Bluefang, “Galactix, I do not mean to be a bother, but have we heard something of an ETA from our friends?”

“I believe the term is ‘Speak of the devil?” Galactix says. “A Consortium vessel is entering sensor range.”

Indeed, the Consortium government vessel Brin – a Windsprit-class transport – makes its approach toward Galactix in orbit of Impiruil Baile. The pilot requests permission to dock.

Razorback fills up everyone’s wine glass while they wait.

“Permission granted. Please use berth five upon entering the bay.” Galactix sends, while preparing more refreshments to be delivered once the new delegation arrives.

A short while later, a pale-skinned balding man with a round head and full cheeks atop a lanky body walks into the room, clad in a black suit. He looks almost like someone dropped an infant in a taffy stretcher and then dressed him for church. He’s accompanied by two agents – one male, one female, and both armed with pulse pistols. The Consortium Intelligence Service representative inclines his head toward the others gathered and introduces himself: “I’m Interstellar Bureau Director Robert Colclough. Thank you for agreeing to this meeting. We appreciate your assistance in this matter.” He takes a seat at the table. “As you can imagine, President Busby is quite interested to learn more about this threat against him. Any information you can provide in this regard would be welcome.”

Razorback rises to his footpaws, offering a slight bow. “Indeed,” he says, “Please have a seat. This is Bluefang Rockstepper, and I am sure you recognize Senator Sandwalker. I am Razorback Cliffwalker.”

Galactix produces a tray of Scotch whiskey and glasses while also producing another bottle of Demarian wine which are delivered to the top of the table.

“Thank you for hosting this meeting, Galactix,” Colclough says. “The Stellar Consortium owes a debt of gratitude for your help.” He turns to look at the male agent, nods, and that agent produces a PDA that he hands to his superior. The director accepts the PDA and taps in a sequence on the virtual HUD. As he does so, he says, “The CIS has developed dossiers, surprisingly incomplete, on you in advance of this meeting. I’m here because I believe your concerns are credible and that you, personally, pose no direct threat to the president.” He gives a faint smile – looking for all the world like a gassy baby. “As you must know, we receive hundreds of ludicrous threats a day against President Busby and other Consortium government officials. Few of those reports match yours when it comes to body count, desert hikes, and building-to-building leaps.”

“Body count?” the Cliffwalker asks, an eyeridge quirking up, “I am aware of one body, Mr. Rockstepper says was slain in self-defense, though doubtless you have more information than I.”

“Oh, at least one sand eel and,” Colclough taps a virtual button on his PDA, bringing up the image of an old Demarian sprawled on the sand with a gunshot wound to the head. “Someone named Longleg Brashword.” Another tap leads to a series of images showing other dead Demarians, their bodies dumped either in the desert or the harbor. “Loose ends, perhaps?”

Razorback’s ears fold back tightly, but his muzzle twists into a snarl as he sees “Brash’s” corpse. “The others I do not recognize,” he says, “Mr. Brashword was alive when I left him, though I think it likely that we would need to get to the bottom of this in order to prove that. Do you recognize any of the others, Bluefang?”

“No, but,” Rockstepper leans closer to peer at the images. “They’re all wearing militia uniforms. Definitely someone getting rid of witnesses.”

Stumppaw clacks his fangs, scratching at the blunted end of his arm. “An unfortunate end for Brash,” the noble replies. “He served my house well for a time.” He tilts his head. “Are we to infer that he too was involved in this conspiracy?”

“No, I don’t believe so,” Razorback says, shaking his head contemplatively, “Though some relatives of his might be. He said they had been assigned some special detail to apprehend us. Though it is possible they are amongst the victims. Is that true, Mr. Colclough?”

“I am afraid so,” the CIS director confirms. “So it would appear that you two are – for the moment – the only surviving witnesses to this conspiracy. You were wise to flee offworld and seek asylum on Impiruil Baile. Had you not done so, I have little doubt your images would be part of this record.”

“So now, it would seem, we need to ascertain who ordered the assassination. Mr. Rockstepper, have you any leads? Other than who would benefit from destabilizing the Consortium?”

“Identities of those offering contracts are always masked,” Bluefang replies with a frown. “The money is transferred to accounts, the logistics are managed, the target is eliminated. It is unwise to ask questions. But…” He scratches the side of his snout. “The Demarian I killed in the hospital worked on a freelance basis for Lord F…” He doesn’t finish the sentence, whose interruption is punctuated by three quick bursts from the female agent’s pulse pistol. They strike him in the head and he topples over backward.

Galactix is quick to respond. In an instant, a defense cannon drops from the ceiling and fires a high level stun blast at the female agent. Others also drop, and zero in on the remaining Consortium delegates. “That will be enough of that!” Galactix shouts. “You were invited here under peaceful terms!”

Razorback is on his feet in a heartbeat, his claws and teeth bared. Watching the woman drop to the floor is all that stops him from leaping across the room. He calms himself to check Bluefang for any signs of life. Presuming he finds none, his voice rumbles with a low growl as he turns to Colclough. “So, Mr. Colclough, either you brought a double agent onboard, or you are one. Would you kindly explain to me why I should not rend the flesh of you and your agents?”

The second agent already has his weapon trained on the fallen woman. Colclough places his PDA on the table, then lifts his hands in the air. “I had my suspicions about Agent Wilkes. I wish they hadn’t been confirmed quite this way.” He assures Razorback: “*I*  came here under legitimate pretenses. She will answer for her actions. Perhaps she may even prove valuable as a witness against the president’s would-be assassins.”

Razorback’s claws retract as he sits heavily and looks over at his former comrade. “Sands….” he says quietly, shaking his head. He mutters something in near inaudible Demarese before turning towards Stumppaw. “I take it you can have someone get in touch with his family?” he says quietly, “Regardless of his previous choices, he deserves an honorable burial for this.”

“People in his line of work rarely have families,” Stumppaw replies, averting his eyes from the corpse. “But I will see that he is shown proper honor for his sacrifice.”

The male agent binds Agent Wilkes’ hands behind her back while she remains stunned and unconscious. Colclough gets to his feet, shoving his chair back. He picks up his PDA from the table. “If it’s any consolation, our signal intelligence suggests that this conspiracy may have dissipated as a result of your actions. Thus the frantic effort to eliminate witnesses. If Lord Fagin was behind this effort, perhaps he has thought better of it now.” He ponders the dead Demarian on the floor. “Small comfort, I expect, but you may have prevented a war.”

And that’s when his PDA pings with an alert from headquarters. Colclough frowns. “If only we had more time to celebrate such victories. Now it seems we’re on the verge of a shooting war with the Nall. If you’ll excuse us.” He nods toward the male agent. “Get her aboard the Brin. We’re being recalled to Earth.”

Galactix withdraws his defense cannons. “If it may help, my scans indicate Mr. Colclough is being truthful.” he says.

The Cliffwalker indeed seems to draw little comfort from any of this. “Fagin…” he growls, “That is a name I thought I would never have to think about again.” He dips his head to the departing agents, still not moving from the chair. “Travel safely,” he says.

Once the agents have left with the unconscious Wilkes in tow, Stumppaw regards Razorback with a grim look. His eyes shift once more to the corpse of Bluefang, then he asks Galactix: “Would it be possible to get some assistance taking the body to my vessel?”

“Of course, Mr. Sandwalker.” Galactix says, and a hovercart appears from the doorway.

Razorback rises up and lifts Bluefang’s body in his arms. A faint grunt of effort escapes him as he shifts the corpse onto the hovercart. “I do thank you for coming, Senator,” he says, “I only wish the outcome had been better.” He pauses for a moment before asking, “Am I still a fugitive on Demaria?”

“I was going to ask what was next for you, come to think of it,” the noble replies, rising from his seat. “I will see to it that any current alerts for your arrest are expunged.”

“You have my condolences for your loss, gentlemen.” Galactix says. “To have blood shed on my very decks is… shocking. If there is anything I can do or offer to assist in preserving peace, you have but to ask.”

“For that, I will grant, I may have to owe you,” Razorback replies with a mirthless smile as he begins to push the cart. “I still hope to be able to finish my business there. My grandfather’s rule of our House may yet drive it to ruin if I do not find a way to intervene.” He glances up to reply to Galactix, “I thank you once again, Galactix.”

Stumppaw nods as he watches the younger Demarian depart with the deceased Bluefang Rockstepper. “Well, if you require further assistance on Demaria, contact me. Perhaps we can establish a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“We shall see…” Razorback says, his ears swivelling back.
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By Brody

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