One of the tricks to a successful infiltration is not to admit that you’re caught even when you clearly are. Confidence and simply looking like you belong where you are can cover a wide variety of tells that you’re an intruder. Generally I use invisibility to cover the rest but, when the people looking to capture you are seated directly to your left and directly across from you, disappearing into thin air can look somewhat suspicious.
“So do you get motion sick too?” Darius asked the women as he took his seat and completed our little dining table foursome.
“Motion sick?” the senior agent asked. Technically the two women were probably here posing as a couple, but their body language did not say “romantic evening” at all.
I saw alertness in both their eyes and a deference from the younger woman towards the older one that could have been shyness except for how she examined me when our eyes met.
A shy person will often look away when presented with direct eye contact. The younger agent didn’t flinch from my gaze though. She looked me up and down, blinked in exactly the manner I do when I’m taking a quick peek with magical vision, looked me in the eyes again and then glanced away only when I failed to present any aggressive signals.
That took all of three seconds. Time enough for someone trained in evaluation to do a quick scan and get a reasonable sense of the person they were evaluating, at least in terms of whether they were a threat.
A paranoid or anxious person might have done the same thing, but the young agent’s gaze had been clear on another point too. Whether or not I intended to threaten them, she wasn’t afraid. I knew that feeling. I also knew the broken bones that came with that kind of arrogance. I was lucky enough to enjoy the services of some galaxy-class healers though so I hadn’t yet learned my lesson about treating everyone as a potentially serious threat.
Plus, to be honest, it was kind of fun to dismiss big aggressive guys as not worth my time. It inevitably annoyed the hell out of them and the brawls that followed were usually short and extremely one-sided. As someone who’d been threatened by big aggressive guys everyday when I was growing up, I still got a kind of childish glee from feeding them their own front teeth.
Neither of the women seated across from Darius or I seemed like people I would be feeding anything to though.
“A lack of motion sickness is one of the benefits of these tables. We can eat while staying nicely on the ground,” Darius said.
“They’ll also offer a better view of the new recruits,” the senior agent said.
“Isn’t that why the flying tables will be flying though?” I asked. “To see things better?”
“What most people want to see is Her Royal Majesty,” the senior agent said. “So the table’s flight path is set accordingly.”
“You sound very familiar with how this is arranged, you must be locals?” I asked. Questions were safer than statements since questions could never be lies. Without any anima spells on them, I knew the agents couldn’t personally be under the effects of a true seeing spell, but I also knew that Royal Security wouldn’t be working an event like this without support. The agents at our table might not know immediately if I lied, but when they reviewed the logs of the evening I’m sure our conversation would have all sorts of annotations on it.
That didn’t mean that I couldn’t lie of course. Regular people lie all the time. I just had to be careful and clever with the lies I told.
“I take it you’re tourists then?” the senior agent asked, playing the same game I was.
“Fari, want to come pretend to be me for a while?” I asked on our telepathic link. I could be careful and clever with my words but I could also be impatient and I was pretty sure that if I gave into the urge to punch either of the agents in the face and make a break for it, we’d be swarmed by enough of the Royal Security Forces that they’d need a mop and a bucket to take me into custody.
“What’s up?” Fari asked.
“We’re sitting with a pair of women who I’m pretty sure work for Her Royalness,” I said.
“Have they started interrogating you yet?” she asked.
“They just started,” I said. “But Darius is deflecting it with small talk.”
“Good,” she said. “I’ll see if I can set something up with Ilya then. We’ll need to be careful not to raise their suspicions though.”
“That’s going to be tricky,” I said. “They’re going to think to ask why the fate weave sat them next to us sooner or later.”
“Well sure, tricky is why they send us in isn’t it?” Fari asked. In her own way, my best friend has just as much hubris as I do, which is probably one of the reasons I love her so much.
“We’re here on business travel,” Darius said. “But we’re kind of making it a well deserved vacation too.”
“You have good timing,” the senior agent said. “The Review only comes once per year.”
“Is that why there are so many guards here?” I asked, gesturing to the men and women in the beautiful and pointless armor. “I thought Abyz was the safest planet in known space?”
“It is,” the younger agent said.
“Safety comes at a cost though,” the senior agent said. “The more mundane precautions we take the less we risk overconsuming the natural Aetherial magics that provide us with our little piece of paradise.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Darius said. “Is that a problem with large natural disasters though? My home planet was subject to megaquakes a few years ago and after seeing them, its hard to imagine any amount of Aetherial magic keeping everyone safe.”
“We don’t have a problem with such things on Abyz,” the senior agent said. “We have plenty of resources for our needs today, but as good stewards, we try to make sure they’re preserved for the next generation as well.”
“That sounds very enlightened,” I said.
“We try to set a standard for galactic society,” the senior agent said.
“How did a philosophy focused on consequences arise on a planet where people don’t need to fear the results of their actions?” I asked.
“We didn’t always have the weave to fall back on,” the younger agent said.
“Yes, it’s a modern invention,” the senior agent said. “Just under a century old. Our society developed its traditions and values in a much less forgiving age.”
“And you’ve managed to retain those values across several generations of prosperity?” Darius said. “That’s an impressive achievement on its own.”
Impressive wasn’t the word I would have chosen for it. More like “unnatural” or “constricted”. Cultures change and grow over time. It’s the reason that despite millennia of violence and bloodshed across the stars during the era of the Galactic Warlords, we’re starting to see real progress across the million worlds of the Crystal Empire in just over twenty years of peace.
The Crystal Empress united the galaxy as much as she conquered it. The popular narrative paints an image of the Empresses as an unstoppable force sweeping aside the legions of warlords who stood against her. As Captain Hanq is evidence of though, many of those Warlords simply joined her cause, and hundreds of thousands of other worlds joined the Crystal Empire out of the belief that they’d benefit economically from the transaction.
Abyz had been one of those world. A “quiet convert” where no fighting had been required to bring it into the fold. Partly that was because the Queen of Abyz signed the treaty as a direct act of royal will. No debates had been necessary, or requested, or allowed.
In exchange for joining the Empire, the Queen was required to restructure her advisory council into a parliament that provided representation to all of the people of Abyz. A check like that on royal authority didn’t go over well on most planets but the Queen had pledged her firm belief in it at the time.
The cynic in me noted that the Empire had fought a brief war in a neighboring star system and broadcast the whole thing for everyone in a three jump range to see. Daimos, the neighboring system to Abyz, was the strongest military power in the immediate region. The Imperial forces had allowed Daimos the opportunity for a sneak attack, and had pre-published their entire battle plan. Despite those advantages, Daimos was utterly disarmed, without casualties on either side, in under an hour. I was pretty sure that had an impact on the Queen of Abyz’s thoughts on resisting Imperial rule.
“We’re an ancient civilization,” the senior agent said. “The fate weave is just one benefit that we gain from that. A stable society is another.”
“Is that why tourists can only stay here for so long?” I asked. “They would make things unstable?”
“There’s no danger of that,” the senior agent said. “As you see with the new police recruits, we can keep things well under control.”
“Do you ever have tourists go missing here?” I asked. “I’m guessing there’s got to be a temptation to stay longer since everything is so nice?”
I tried to be clever with that question since I needed information on what had happened to Yael and Zyla. My explanation would show up as a lie to any truth seer since I didn’t, in truth, believe there would be many people who would risk permanent expulsion when leaving and returning on a new entry visa was relatively straight forward. It was the kind of lie that someone might use to cover up their own curiosity about staying longer themselves though so I thought it might be safe.
And, of course, I was wrong.
“No one goes missing here,” the younger agent said and looked me in the eyes. I could almost see the wheels starting to turn in her head as the questions about who I really was rose to her awareness.
Her senior partner, perhaps due to greater experience was a step ahead of her though.
“Interesting that you bring that up though,” the senior agent said. “We had a disruption just yesterday and we’re still looking for the person responsible.”
“A disruption?” I asked.
“Yes,” the senior agent said. “While they can’t harm us, there are those who seek to cause chaos anyways. They’ll engineer elaborate jokes like replacing all of the whipped cream on the desserts with shaving lather or replacing the evening’s music with an illusion of donkey’s braying.”
“We’re trying to find someone like that,” the junior agent said.
“Who would do something like that?” I asked, thinking that it seemed like a pretty childish manner of protest.
“Misguided off-worlders perhaps,” the senior agent said. “One’s who might have fallen in with the wrong crowd and been misinformed as to the penalties for such acts here.”
“That sounds like you take stuff like more seriously than other places do?” I asked.
“We do,” the senior agent said. “But we’re more interested in who is ultimately responsible for those sort of acts. If the other people involved cooperate, their sentences are usually very minor.”
I thought back to Halli and the scam they had worked out to sell convicts into virtual slavery. Would that count as “minor” in the eyes of the agents here? It seemed an unlikely prospect for explaining Yael and Zyla’s absence if only because I would expect them to be able to break out of a jail in less time than it took for someone to put them into it.
“I can’t imagine anyone wasting their vacation on silly pranks like that,” Darius said.
“Some of the ‘pranks’ can be more serious than others,” the senior agent said.
“Are we actually safe here then?” I asked, wondering how they would chose to lie to me.
“Of course,” the senior agent said. “Just because someone has decided to try to disrupt things, doesn’t mean they can succeed.”
“We have all plenty of guards covering every corner of the building,” the younger agent said. “And the Central Authority building was planned with security in mind. It’s the perfect venue for tonight’s Review.”
I’ve made the mistake of saying things like that myself. It’s called tempting fate and as soon as the words were out of her mouth I saw the younger agent become aware of the roll that fate had bound her to play.
I wasn’t in any danger from the explosions that triggered right on her final syllable so the slow ache of cold that gathered in my chest felt odd.
The rest of the guests, barring my fellow crewmates, reacted poorly to all of the glass on the lower floors blowing outwards from the room. The explosions that caused the shattering glass also left the air filled with a noxious, though non-lethal, smoke that I had to cast a quick Physical spell to avoid breathing in. From the coughing and wheezing that I heard all around me, I guessed that most people didn’t have the same survival training that I’d been given.
The next round of explosions triggered the same sort of panic and screaming, but this time they came with a more definite stab of danger.
“Protect the guests!” both the senior agent and I said at the same time.
I turned to look at her and saw that she’d done the same thing I had. Both of us were covered in Void anima shields, and she looked a lot more familiar as a result.
In the smoke I heard voices calling out other orders. Then I heard the screams.
Whoever set off the bombs wasn’t any more restricted by the fate weave’s prescription against violence than I was.
“You are under arrest,” the senior agent said.
“Trust me, you don’t have the authority,” I said. “There’s people being hurt right now. We stop that, then we work out what’s going on here.”
I saw her hesitate for a moment but another scream decided the issue and with a nod from her, we plunged into the smoky center of the room to face whatever it was that fate hadn’t had in store for us.