2949-01-12 – Tales from the Service: The Tinker’s Tyrant 

Mavuto Hintzen passed the time by solving geometric puzzles on his one active display. It was all he could do until Nate showed his face, but when the enemy did show up, he planned to make them regret it. 

Mavuto had been at Adimari Valis, where a gallant scratch force of mercenaries and fleet auxiliaries had held off an Incarnation fleet, albeit not for long. He’d seen the enemy’s cruisers wheeling in precise formation, stabbing at the tangled squadrons of antiquated mercenary ships which stood before them and then coyly withdrawing like a buncg of Heraklean dawngliders toying with already-maimed prey.  

He’d watched those brave mercs die by the hundreds through the viewpanels of the creaking freighter on which he’d booked passage off the doomed world, and he’d seen in their deaths something incredible – he'd seen a chink in the seemingly-impenetrable armor of the mighty Incarnation fleet. 

Since the day Mavuto and his family had arrived at Maribel, the focal point for refugees streaming in from the borders of the Coreward Frontier, he’d worked hard to get where he was now, sitting at the helm of a heavily modified light hauler at the edge of the Berkant system. Finding the resources he needed to realize his vision in the refugee-choked system hadn’t been easy, and learning enough about starship systems to implement his crude diagrams in metal and plastic had been a challenge all its own. He dared not let anyone help too much, lest they see what he was doing – not even his fifteen-year-old son Adaan, who knew the most, could quite grasp what he was helping his father build. They would know soon enough – or he would take the secret to his grave. 

That the Incarnation would come to Berkant once more was not in doubt. The residents of the green world knew it too – with several minor colonies nearby stormed by the invaders, a stream of private haulers carried Berkant settlers toward the safety of Maribel and Håkøya in anticipation of an evacuation order which had not yet come. 

Mavuto had placed himself far from this stream to avoid notice, picking the spot he thought the enemy most likely to appear and putting his ship into its most invisible state. There he’d waited for five days, with only the display and its puzzles as his companion – even the ship’s voice assistant software had been shut down to conserve power. The machinery he’d installed in the ship’s hold would give him one chance to exploit the nearly invisible weakness built into the Incarnation’s ships – one chance he could only use if he got close enough. 

As he switched from one puzzle to the next, Mavuto saw the gravitic sensor readout in the corner of the screen tremble and immediately dismissed his idle games. He’d tuned the system so that it would only register an incoming star-drive large enough to be his prey – the Incarnation’s Tyrant-type cruisers. Confederated Navy heavy cruisers would trip the sensor as well, but the Navy wasn’t about to dispatch heavy cruisers to doomed Berkant – they were still scheming ways to rescue the poisonous barrens of Margaux from the enemy, leaving the refugee stream at Berkant guarded by a few mercenary-operated carrier conversions wholly unprepared to fight even a single Tyrant. What would stop a lone Incarnation ship from sweeping up dozens of the ponderous liners and haulers plodding toward the safety of the jump limit? Once they had, what could stop that ship from leaving, carrying thousands of prisoners into captivity, or into worse? 

The sensor indicator trembled again, and this time the tremble built into a wavering cascade of data before settling back down. Though he was without the aid of a visual plot, Mavuto had no trouble reading the data stream when he played the disturbance back at one-quarter speed. His prey had arrived – and it had arrived close enough that he was almost on top of it. 

Flipping the switches haphazardly installed into his pilot’s station back at Maribel, Mavuto started warming up the apparatus, then cautiously woke the hauler’s bow camera cluster and instructed it to scan nearby space. The sinister, wedge-shaped void where the Tyrant’s hull occluded the stars appeared right away. Gingerly touching the controls for the custom-built ion thrusters he’d installed, Mavuto nudged his little hauler forward. The Tyrant would probably sit still for a few hours, watching the flow of traffic and optimizing the course it would follow through the system. If it charged in right away, he was out of luck. 

Fortunately, Incarnation captains lacked the individual flexibility to be so rash, even if that rashness was the correct move to make. The Tyrant’s gravitic drive remained silent in the minutes after its star-drive jump as its sensors drank in everything they could about the system’s vulnerabilities. Even if any of these implements had been turned outward, they likely would not have seen Mavuto’s hand-altered hauler moving in – he too occluded stars, but far fewer. 

The great shadow of the cruiser loomed larger, and still there was no sign he’d been seen. Easing off the ion thrusters, Mavuto checked the indicator lights on his armrest and flipped a few more switches. He was almost close enough – it was time to see the gap in the Incarnation’s armor once more, and this time, to bury a blade in it. 

Mavuto Hintzen sent in some rather sensational claims about his ability to disable an entire Tyrant cruiser with a weapon that could fit in the hold of a small, short-range hauler. The interesting thing about these claims is not that he sent them – tall tales are quite standard fare for the inbox which supplies material for this text feed, and much time is spent sifting through obvious falsehoods to get to plausible accounts. 

The interesting thing about Mr. Hintzen’s account is that it was censored in my inbox by Naval Intelligence before I could even read it. Suspecting this too was a trick, I contacted a few people in the Maribel Naval Intelligence unit, and discovered that the sections redacted were in fact legitimately redacted by intelligence agents. They would not speak about the supposed weapon (whose details were among those things hidden from even me) described in the account, nor of whether it was as successful as the account claimed. 

All I can say is that Mr. Hintzen is not dead, so his account of testing the weapon against an enemy vessel near Berkant can be one of three things: a fabrication (in which case, why the censorship?) an account of failure (in which case, how did he escape?) or an account of success. 

[N.T.B. - My bet's on that this is a fabrication, but the account comes too close to describing an actual weapon that's in the works that N.I. doesn't want Nate knowing about. Possibly the man did see something strange in the contested space over Adimari Valis - but we'll probably only know what caused N.I. to clamp down on this story after whatever's being cooked up in Naval research installations sees the light of day.]

2949-01-05 – Tales from the Service: A Veiled Behemoth 

The Seventh Fleet formation which arrived at Maribel a few weeks ago has departed as quickly and unexpectedly as it arrived. Strangely, it left in company with a motley assortment of mercenary units and privately chartered haulers. Due to interest in its whereabouts, I should not fail to mention that Grand Azure was one of the vessels that departed with this group. The vessel which gathered more attention than this little frigate, however, is the mercenary cruiser Rolf Holzmann, one of the few full-sized warships in service purpose-built for mercenary service. One of the larger vessels fielded by the infamous Sovereign Securities company, its presence on this side of the Reach is unusual – Sovereign's main theater of operations is the Rimward Frontier. 

Many in the system speculate that the operation these vessels are engaged in is some sort of training mission, but since the force contains several of the best-outfitted private military units still operational in the theater, a simple training mission to sharpen green crews on the Seventh Fleet ships seems unlikely. 

One of the larger private vessels in this flotilla, the mercenary carrier Mayumi Milka, is the mobile home of three independent strike squadrons. Karleen Schwartz, one of the pilots of Blondie’s Buccaneers aboard the “Milky May” is an avid reader of this feed, and though her account of a strange encounter on patrol is some weeks old, the departure of the Buccaneers and their carrier on a mysterious errand with Seventh Fleet seems an occasion to bring it to your attention.  

Karleen Schwartz suggests the anomaly was some form of previously unidentified life-form, but I find this unlikely; every living organism yet discovered adapted to the extreme conditions of hard vacuum, even inside a star system, are quite small. Perhaps the object they encountered was a colonial mass of many smaller organisms (something like an earthly Siphonophore) or perhaps it is an artificial construct – a badly decayed Dutchman perhaps. To my knowledge and hers, neither the Navy nor scientific interests are able to send an expedition to learn more while hostilities in the area continue. 

Karleen Schwartz sat back in her cockpit and frowned at the instruments. What they told her didn’t make any sense. Either the weapons of her Acuity interceptor were bleeding static charge into the sensor systems again – a problem the mechanics back on the Milky May had assured her they had fixed – or there was something out there. 

Frowning at the displays in front of her, however, did nothing to dispel the seemingly contradictory impression they conveyed. After verifying that the issue was not transient, she switched on her radio. “Buck Lead, I’m getting some odd sensor data here. What about you?” 

“Could you be more specific, Three?” 

It was just like Igor, Karleen knew, to reply in a way which told her nothing, but demanded additional information from her. That his response should have been expected did not make it any less aggravating. 

“I’m reading weak infrared and S-band emissions.” Karleen struggled to keep the annoyance out of her voice – after all, the Buccaneers were theoretically in a combat area. “The instruments can’t pin a source; they say it’s coming from everywhere.” 

There was no reply for a few seconds, and Karleen used the time to run another sensor diagnostic. Since she was keeping station only about two hundred meters behind Igor’s Princeps gunship, anything she was seeing on her sensors should show up on his as well. 

“Buck Three, I’m seeing something weird too.” Farrux, pilot of the squadron’s other Acuity, filled the silence. “My grav flux reading just went flat, and I’m picking up S-band in all directions too.” 

A zeroed grav-flux reading was as strange as omnidirectional electromagnetic radiation – that would be normal in deep space, but the squadron’s patrol path through the uninhabited Moehler system could not reasonably be described as passing through deep space. 

Karleen’s hope that the anomaly was a mechanical fault in their nearly-identical strike rigs lasted only until Igor came back on the line. “Three, Five, I’m also experiencing some strange sensor behavior. Two, what about you?” 

Regina’s reply from the cockpit of Buck Two was immediate. “Nothing out of the ordinary, Lead.” 

“I’m still reading normal.” Gundahar on Buck Four chimed in. 

Given that Two, a relatively vulnerable strike bomber carrying ship-killer munitions, sat at the center of the formation, and Five was currently the rearguard, the fault couldn’t be based on location. Karleen, annoyed, whacked the display showing the successful completion of the system diagnostic. She had no idea what was going on, but the aging, temperamental computers of their strike rigs was as likely a culprit as any she could imagine. 

“Think it might be some new trick of Nate’s?” Farrux asked. 

“More likely some unmapped local particle cloud. Not what we’re here for.” Regina was usually dismissive of Karleen and any pilot more junior than herself – that is, anyone but herself and Igor, as they were the only two founding members of Blondie’s Buccaneers who hadn’t been killed yet. 

“I don’t think so.” Igor, at least, seemed to be taking the problem seriously. “I’m going to – woah!”  

The computer-illuminated bulk of Igor’s big gunship pulled a hard maneuver, changing course unexpectedly. Karleen didn’t have time to disengage the formation autopilot before she felt the sinister weight of dampened acceleration herself – by the time she regained manual control, her rig was facing back the way it had come. 

“Lead, you all right?” Karleen checked her heads-up display. Igor’s Princeps reported no damage or faults. 

“Damned thing came out of nowhere. Anyone else see it?” 

“I have nothing on sensors.” Karleen double-checked. “We’re still alone out here.” 

“Not on sensors, Three. Visual contact.” 

This assertion seemed more insane than the zeroed grav flux readings on Five’s board – how could something get so close that it could be seen with the naked eye without showing up on the sensor plot long before? Karleen pulled her control column to wheel her agile craft around, trying to pinpoint the spot Igor had been when he’d been spooked in the featureless interplanetary void. Unlike Regina, Karleen assumed that the squadron leader had in fact seen something out his forward canopy. 

“I’ve got nothing.” Gundahar wouldn’t have said anything unless he’d already swept the powerful sensors of Buck Four across the area. Assuming the competence of the squadron’s reconnaissance expert, Karleen ignored her instruments, instead scanning the darkness through her own transparent canopy. 

At first, she saw nothing along Igor’s previous line of travel. Proceeding forward slowly, Karleen tumbled her interceptor slightly, to allow her eyes to scan a greater wedge of space. 

At first, the oppressive darkness kept its secrets, but slowly, the palely luminescent mass which had appeared so suddenly to Igor came into view. Proceeding at patrol speed, it had probably winked into view before him in an instant, but Karleen’s slower pace allowed her to see the veil-like streamers which sheltered the object peeling away as she drew closer. Though superficially resembling nothing but a cancerous mass, Karleen thought she saw an odd symmetry to the object. Each moment, as it turned slowly before her, she changed her mind between thinking it the most hideous thing she had ever seen, and the most elegant. 

“Lead, I’ve got visual on your anomaly.” Karleen hit the switch to activate her gun-camera, then began streaming the footage to the rest of the squadron. “It’s big, I’ll tell you that. No damned clue what it is, though.” 

“That makes all of us, Three. Back on out of there, those tendrils are folding fabric. If you get too close to one-” 

Karleen still couldn’t pick the object up on most of her sensors, but she realized with alarm that Igor was right. She was too close to the slowly rotating object – if one of its streaming arms drifted too close to her ship, the veil of spatial distortion which followed might tear her rig to pieces. Cautiously, she engaged reverse thrust and backed away, and watched as the object vanished once more. 

“There’s something you don’t see every shift.” Gundahar broke in. “Still not much on sensors. Want me to go in-” 

“Negative, Four.” Igor’s voice had the hard edge he used whenever there was no room for discussion of his orders. “We’re going on with the patrol. Whatever this thing is, someone can come find it later.” 

2948-12-29 – Tales from the Service: The Martyrdom of Father Thomas 

Kev Trujillo watched Father Thomas step forward to face the inquisitor. Unlike the men who had gone before him, both now lying in pools of their own dark blood and reeking viscera at the sable-uniformed officer’s feet, the chaplain showed no sign of hesitation or fear.  

The Incarnation infantry officer who had brought the prisoners forward smiled broadly, and took a step forward as if willing to play a part, but the inquisitor waved this over-eager subordinate backward before tucking a wayward lock of his golden-blond hair behind his ear. 

“Thomas Nyilvas of Chateau Diamante on the world of Nova Paris in the system of the same name. Do I have that correct?” 

Thomas Nyilvas didn’t even glance at the inquisitor in his finery; he knelt down to the whimpering form of Wasi Winton, face already pale in the harsh sunlight from blood loss. Whatever the Padre said to the mortally wounded private, Kev couldn’t hear it over the wind whistling through the rocks and distant roar of battle. He guessed it was a shortened form of the usual Spacers’ Chapel last rites. 

The inquisitor, not used to being ignored, stared blankly at the kneeling form before him for several seconds. “Thomas Nyilvas, do I have your identity correct?” 

“No.” Father Thomas removed his hand from the faltering grip of Private Winton and stood. “That is my name, but my home is not Nova Paris.” 

The inquisitor laughed. “Ah, yes. Nova Paris was destroyed, wasn’t it? Such a pathetic failure of a faltering regime to protect its own. Yet you serve the dithering fools who let your home fall to ruin.” 

Just as Kev hadn’t known that dead Private Du had been Hyadean, the allegation that Father Thomas was one of the few living children of Nova Paris was a surprise. The Padre being older than almost every F.D.A. trooper, it was quite possible he had been old enough to be offworld at the time of the massacre. 

“I do not serve the Confederated Worlds.” Thomas Nyilvas shrugged. “That should have been obvious. Really, sir, I must question the quality of the records you’ve stolen.” 

The inquisitor blinked, perhaps legitimately believing that the Padre was some other Thomas Nyilvas. Why this clear identification was important, Kev couldn’t fathom; perhaps even in a mocking show-trial the chip-headed zealot wanted to make sure he had the correct victims. “If that is so, then please state your allegiance and your place of origin, so you may be processed correctly.” 

The Padre turned away from the inquisitor, locking eyes with Kev across the open bottom of the dry, rocky valley. Kev saw something in the set of the chaplain’s jaw and the way his eyes almost seemed to flash and glow in the harsh light of Margaux’s sun that he hadn’t expected – the Padre was up to something. 

“I can state neither to your satisfaction, sir.” 

The officer guarding the prisoners scoffed loudly, and most of the onlooking Incarnation soldiers seemed either amused or confused. 

The inquisitor glared at his audience to silence them, then circled Father Thomas warily. “You are so confused that you do not know? Perhaps then your coming here was fortunate.” 

The Padre shook his head. “You misunderstand. I know my allegiance and home beyond doubt. It is you who will not be satisfied by my answers.” 

“I am the judge of that. Speak.” 

“I serve your King.” The Padre shrugged. “And I will continue to do so long after your Incarnation fails to stave off extinction.” 

The inquisitor’s blade reappeared, singing brightly through the air until its tip rested lightly on Father Thomas’s throat. “Speak in facts, charlatan, not in riddles and paradoxes.” 

Kev smiled. Father Thomas was smarter than he let on – or perhaps he had some prior experience locking horns with Ladeonist ideologues before the War. How winding up the sable-clad young officer would help, he couldn’t say, but seeing the smug inquisitor frustrated was a victory all its own. 

“Your cause, sir, is to delay extinction – the death of the collective humanity. A noble cause, but one doomed to fail.” Father Thomas held out a hand below the blade. “My cause is to bring humanity across that dark sea of extinction, one at a time. It is to that far shore I claim allegiance.” 

The inquisitor scoffed. “Your mysticism will save no-one.” 

The Padre’s hand remained extended. “It is no mysticism. Let me show you. Do you not want to learn how to cheat death?” 

Kev suddenly noticed that the weapons of the Incarnation onlookers were raised, aimed squarely at Father Thomas. Even with their implant-assisted aim, the soldiers couldn’t burn the chaplain with their laser carbines without also incinerating the inquisitor. Perhaps they too knew this – or more accurately, whatever force had directed them all to move in unison – knew this. Most had the glassy-eyed look of machines which Kev had come to associate with direct control of Incarnation troops through their implants by a superior. 

“You cannot cheat extinction.” The inquisitor’s blade pushed Father Thomas back a step, but it was clear he was curious. “It is the fate of all species. The order of things is decay and loss.” 

“Cheat extinction? Why cheat extinction when you can cheat death itself?” Father Thomas stepped back until his shoulders rested against the side of the inquisitor’s towering vehicle. 

The soldiers in the ravine all reached forward to flick the safeties on their laser carbines at once, and the eerie sound of a hundred latches clicking into the fire position echoed across the rocks. The inquisitor, hearing this sound, turned away from the Padre to see the peril he’d brought on himself by entertaining Father Thomas. 

Kev glanced to the soldiers nearest him and saw that they were ignoring him and the other prisoners – even the officer who had hurled so much scorn earlier seemed to be possessed by whatever force was bent on the destruction of the chaplain and the curious inquisitor whose show-trial now lay in shambles. Nudging the men next to him, Kev gestured toward a steep cross-cutting defile only twenty meters away which might offer some cover to any who could reach it. One by one, his remaining men began backing away from their distracted captors and creeping toward this escape route. 

The inquisitor held up his free hand. Whatever network linked the Incarnation troops’ implants, his sudden uncertainty and fear suggested he’d been cut off. For a man who lived always with the information gathered from the senses of hundreds of others, suddenly falling back on one’s own senses alone must have been a horror beyond imagining. “What is the meaning of this?” 

“Your orthodoxy is brittle indeed, if my pathetic mysticism threatens it.” Father Thomas, blade still at his throat, smiled, though he surely knew his death was imminent. 

Kev, seeing that he was the last of his men still in place, turned and made a sudden dash toward the rocks at the same instant the soldiers fired. The tearing, sizzling sound of laser-beams ionizing the air and incinerating flesh followed him into the defile as the possessed troops incinerated the tainted inquisitor and his chaplain prisoner in a convergence of hundreds of beams. 

Satisfied that the threat to its ideology was destroyed, whatever power controlled the Incarnation troops turned their attention to the fleeing prisoners, most of whom had already reached the defile. 

“Scatter! Go!” Kev shouted to the others, most of whom were already scrambling up the rocks to the relative safety of the Causey surface above. Behind him, Incarnation boots thundered into an eerily synchronized pursuit. 

Most interpretations of Kev Trujillo’s story suggest that Thomas Nyilvas triggered some sort of automated defense mechanism within the Incarnation datasphere, locking down all nearby Incarnation personnel in an automaton state to prevent them from processing what he was saying. How he knew to do this is anyone’s guess, and surely the Incarnation will revise their algorithms to prevent this from being exploited in the future. It is doubtful that even if he had been given a freely-listening audience that any minds or hearts would have been swayed. 

Trujillo and two others survived their pursuers to return to the Ishkawa Line alive. Interestingly, though Nyilvas’s death was a certainty, I have seen some analysis of the story suggesting that the young inquisitor might have survived – inquisitors are after all universally equipped with the implants and nanotechnological augmentations of Immortals, giving him the speed and reflexes to stand a chance of escaping the crossfire. Perhaps he too will turn up at the Ishkawa Line in weeks to come, but I doubt it. Even if his faith in the Incarnation’s cause was shaken, inquisitors, as a sort of secret police within the Incarnation armed forces, seem to be selected for their loyalty. 

2948-12-22 – Tales from the Service: The Show Trials before Father Thomas 

The Fifth Fleet received a batch of reinforcements yesterday at Maribel - a convoy of warships and logistics vehicles put in from the Core Worlds. While I cannot for security reasons describe the full list of vessels that arrived, the replacements were led by the recently-refitted heavy cruiser Holt Danaev, and among the various lesser warships were the first batch of the new Hoel-class fleet destroyers, the tender Saina Kavi with its squadron of six stealth assault cutters, and a number of frigates and corvettes. The new ships are, oddly, a mix of the newest and oldest types in Navy service – Danaev was commissioned only ten years after the Terran-Rattanai War, and Hoel, the lead ship of its class, entered fleet service only nineteen months ago. 

Also arriving at Maribel in the last few days, though apparently not assigned to Fifth Fleet, is a detachment of old fast carriers recently pulled out of mothballs, along with an escort screen of equally venerable frigates and destroyers. These vessels – AlacrityEnduranceEnterprise, and Vigilance, long since withdrawn from front-line duties, are of Terran-Rattanai War vintage, and they have been assigned to the new Seventh Fleet, whose formation was announced by the Admiralty a few weeks ago. This formation, mostly older vessels being brought out of mothballs and crewed with new recruits, is still being filled out – its battle line has not been designated, but will probably focus around the ancient battleships Tranquility and Penglai, both of which were being prepared for careers as traveling museum ships before the opening of hostilities on the Frontier. 

What the first batch of Seventh Fleet units is doing at Maribel isn’t yet clear. Perhaps the idea is to take over the defense of Maribel from Fifth Fleet units, or perhaps there is another mission these vessels have been assigned. Most press releases surrounding the activation of the new fleet indicate that this formation is being prepared to take over duties from either Second Fleet or Fourth Fleet on the Silver Strand border, freeing these veteran formations to join the fight against the Incarnation. 

This week, we continue our story of the death of Father Thomas Nyilvas (Tales from the Service: Captive with Father Thomas), whose Emmanuel Feast sermon was a popular feature on our datacast hub at this time last year. 

The Incarnation officer stared hard at Father Thomas for several long seconds, and in the silence, the distant roar of strike-craft tearing through the planet’s atmosphere echoed into the grotto.  

Kev Trujillo, noticing that a fist-sized rock had appeared in Private Winton’s hands, got the young man’s attention and dissuaded him with the slightest shake of the head. There would be time for suicidal escape attempts later. 

The silence broke with a sharp, braying laugh from the officer. “A priest is always a fool.” Snatching a long knife from its sheath on one of his soldiers’ belts, the thin-faced man flipped the knife into the air, then tossed it down at Father Thomas’s feet. “Choose your executioner, and I will show you your error before he cuts your throat.” 

Father Thomas bent down and picked up the knife, turning it over in his hands. Kev, certain the priest would choose him, felt an icicle of dread stabbing down his spine – he had killed Incarnations soldiers many times, but he could not kill Father Thomas, not even to save the lives of his own men. 

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. The Padre flipped the knife over and held its handle out toward the officer. “Do what you will to me, sir, but do not pretend that the fault lies with anyone but yourself.” 

The officer snarled and raised his hand, as if to issue a command to shoot Father Thomas and the other prisoners. Kev didn’t want to die, but he knew being sliced and burned by Incarnation beam carbines would be a quicker death than he would find on a torture-table or in the hold of a hellship, so this development seemed a welcome one. 

After hesitating, the officer lowered his hand slowly, visibly furious that his game was being denied. Striding forward, he snatched the knife from the Padre. “Bring them.” 

The six soldiers tromped forward and muscled the eight Confederated captives into a double line, then marched them out of the grotto into the blinding sunlight beyond. Even before his eyes adjusted, Kev heard scattered, formulaic jeering from idle Incarnation soldiers who the formation of prisoners passed. The chipheads on the front-line weren’t exactly specimens of remarkable creativity; Kev had heard all the insults now thrown at him at least a dozen times before, shouted across the shifting front-line by day or booming from vehicle-mounted loudspeakers at night. 

When Kev was able to look beyond the sun-hardened soil below his feet, he saw a boxy ground vehicle sitting on six huge wheels parked in the center of the camp. Three light point defense lasers had been mounted on its roof seemingly at random, probably to repel marauding Pumas and Yerens, but the canyon was so narrow that only the most precisely aimed bomb or missile could thread its way down to the camp at the bottom.  

Atop the big vehicle, a cheery-faced young man in an ostentatious gold and sable uniform sat, his legs dangling over the side. Kev’s heart plunged into his soles; he had heard horrible tales about the Incarnation’s shadowy inquisitors 

The youth smiled kindly at the prisoners, and perhaps those who did not recognize the uniform might be fooled into thinking that this Incarnation officer might be more accommodating than most. “Private Wasi Winton, please step forward.” 

Kev winced. Winton hesitated, but two of the soldiers pulled the private out of the line and dragged him up to the side of the vehicle. The youthful soldier struggled feebly, but with dozens of armed Incarnation soldiers watching the inquisitor and his prey warily, there was nowhere to go even if he broke free. 

The inquisitor stared at Winton for a few seconds, then spoke again. “You are the Wasi Winton of the town of Colburg Pass, planet Tranquility, Three Two Ori system, correct?” 

Visibly shocked, Winton nodded mutely. He didn’t seem to know the significance of the young officer’s uniform, or what this intimate knowledge of his history likely meant was coming. 

“Tranquility, the planet of rebels and scoundrels, the planet of thieves who profit off the decay of their species. Your ancestors sought only to amass wealth when they gave the star-drive's fire to the incautious, ignorant masses.” The young man shook his fist in the air. “This mere boy is steeped from birth in the evil which set the clock ticking on humanity’s extinction – he has, throughout his life, even engaged in celebrating it.” 

This time, the invective thrown into the fray by the lookers-on was no more creative, but it carried a terrifying amount of emotional energy. Kev glanced around and saw murder in the eyes of the Incarnation troops. 

Winton squirmed against the arms of the men holding him in place. “I didn’t do any of that! The Ori Revolution was hundreds-” 

The sable-clad young officer jumped down, landing lightly despite a fall of almost four meters. Kev decided the inquisitor probably possessed the extensive body modifications of an Incarnation Immortal. “Private Winton, can you honestly say that, steeped in the culture of your degenerate home, you would do any different?” 

Winton stared down the officer for several seconds, and Kev was proud of the relatively timid young man’s bravery. When he did at last speak, the young private’s voice rose loud and clear, without cracking. “I think I would, you chip-headed bastard.” 

The young man’s friendly expression vanished, and he looked over to the officer who’d fetched the prisoners from their cave. “Let the record show this man chooses his ancestors’ sins.” 

Winton’s head whipped around to face the inquisitor at the same time as the inquisitor’s arm flashed out, inhumanly fast. There was a wet tearing sound, and a spray of crimson droplets glinted in the air, and Winton crumpled to the ground, shrieking and trying in vain to hold in the viscera spilling from his belly. The blade in the inquisitor’s hand – it hadn’t been there a moment before – had moved so fast it hadn’t even had time to wet itself in the man’s blood. 

The Padre tried to run forward to Winton’s side, but the officer and two soldiers brought him up short. “You stay here. His sins against mankind do not entitle him to a quick death.” The hollow-faced officer grinned. “You will hear them all admit sins graver than the petty misdeeds they confessed to you, and then you will watch them die.” 

“Private Yeong-Hwan Du.” The inquisitor flourished his blade, then stowed it – in his sleeve, Kev thought – with a gesture too fast for the eye to follow. “Please step forward.” 

Private Du didn’t force the soldiers to drag him. The big private stepped out on his own, knowing that he was going to his death. Most probably, he had wagered that death by being eviscerated was far less creative than what his captors would do to him otherwise, and Kev suspected this was only too correct. 

The inquisitor once again made a show of examining the man set before him, even as Winton whimpered and moaned in the dirt nearby. “You are the Yeong-Hwan Du of the settlement of Jiahao on planet Xianping, Hyades system, correct?” 

Kev hadn’t realized that Private Du was Hyadean, and knew immediately that the choice of these two for a mockery of a hearing back-to-back could be no accident. 

Du raised his chin. “I make neither defense nor apology for the actions of my ancestors, Inquisitor.” Evidently, he had recognized the uniform, where Winton had not. 

The fresh-faced inquisitor waved a hand. “I must know if I am identifying you correctly, Private.” 

Du scowled, then nodded. “You are correct.” 

“Hyades, the proud and powerful cluster which wants only to be left alone, even when extinction stares us all in the face equally.” The inquisitor raised a finger. “Your ancestors saw the perils of the Ori Revolution, it is true, and they might be commended for that, if they had acted out of altruism to stop it. Instead, humanity fought itself for a hundred precious years, when already doom could be seen coming.” 

Du squared his broad shoulders. “Get to the part where you swing your blade, Inquisitor. Your chattering is torture enough.” 

The inquisitor’s pleasant façade faltered, if only for an instant, and the malice which flickered forth in that split second seemed to Kev the most perfect impression a living human had ever made of a demon. He turned away, as if to continue his harangue, but Yeong-Hwan Du leapt to tackle the smaller man in sable. 

With Immortal speed, the inquisitor spun, and his blade flashed once more, this time in reflexive self-defense. The Hyadean private fell to the ground, a river of blood fountaining from his cleanly sliced neck. Kev Unlike Winton, Private Du had earned a quick death. 

The inquisitor and the officer standing in front of Father Thomas shared a meaningful look as the former cleaned his now-dirtied blade on the dead man’s uniform. 

“Father Thomas Nyilvas.” The inquisitor once again flourished the blade and stowed it, too quick to follow. “Please step forward.”