Cattle and kinsmen and yourself too must die...
“Agent, we may have a problem.”
“No, sir, we don't.”
The voice that responded to me did not come from either the headset I wore, nor the loudspeakers. It was a familiar voice, though unexpected. Saito did not make eye contact with any of the assembled on 'his' bridge as he took a seat at the pilot's console. A few quick key presses, and the ship suddenly stirred to life with a thrumming that had been absent for over a week.
His voice doubled into my ears through the headset. “Agent, I suggest you make good time back to the ship. We're lifting in an hour.”
“What? Saito? Löjtnant, what's going on?”
“That is a very good question, Agent. Pilot, would you mind explaining things?”
“Well for one, you're going to have to start saying which agent it is you're referring to, Löjtnant.”
I had known there were other agents amongst the Third, and almost certainly amongst our own number. Kavellrist had not spoken of the matter in some time, and I had not pressed the situation. The cause of the sudden dereliction from the Major's plans became clear. 'Stealing' the Muninn
had always been in M.I.M.I.R.'s plans.
I felt as a child amongst professionals in that moment, and yet somehow comforted by this. I knew by the look that Saito gave over his shoulder that we were all stumbling through this masquerade.
Tech Darwin did not seem pleased. “Which agent
“I'm sorry, Tomiko, but I would have...”
“Wouldn't have, shouldn't have, and didn't. Don't apologize to me. Apologize to the Löjtnant for not telling him who you were when you said you would.”
I resigned myself to the confusion that had reigned since we arrived on this planetoid. Somehow, I was beginning to feel comfortable in it. I reclined in the seat, only to find Danica peaking through the bulkhead. Darwin and Saito had begun arguing over the minutiae of orbital burns, and I could only shake my head.
Kavellrist's voice broke through the awkward din. “This is all quite informative, but could we focus for the moment? I'm at the vehicle.”
I straightened in the chair. “Go ahead, Kavellrist. What's your plan?”
The line of unrecognized script reminded me how fragile that might be.
“Well...” The hiss of depressurization and a shuffling of fabrics came through the speakers. “...These things work on line of sight. Even if I can't figure out how to get the last known coordinates, we can at least plug its azimuth and altitude into the Muninn's
Darwin perked from her previous mood, and faced the console I sat at. “...that'd at least give us something to work on, a star system if nothing else. I could plug it in at the maintenance tank.”
I interrupted. “But in this case a star system might not lead us to who we want. This
is not exactly a public-knowledge facility. What then?”
“We deal with that when we get there, Löjtnant.” The sounds of pressurization again. “Once we're off this forsaken rock, I think we'll have contacts waiting on our every breath. I think I've got the...wait.”
“You said this thing was out of action sir. It looks like shit on the outside, but in here...I wish we could bring this thing home.” There was a pause, and the sound of shifting papers. “I'll give the old man this: he may have been a pack-rat, but he certainly knew what he was doing. These machines look clean off an assembly line.”
“I think we've enough charges of grand-theft to our heads for today, Agent. Get the data and get back here.”
I was satisfied for the moment, but my eyes returned to the trouble on the communications computer's screen. I tapped at the glass curiously, hoping something might change the script into more legible wording.
Saito spoke up as if on queue. “That won't help, Löjtnant.”
I paused, considering the pilot. “Saito, you wouldn't be able to read this, would you?”
He spoke haltingly, as if each syllable were something sacred. “Hví ertu hér eða hvat gørir þú– It means 'why are you here, and what are you doing?' Do you remember your Beowulf
, sir? There were a people in it, called Skjǫldungs. They were the hands of the king, the 'royal family' of the Danes.”
“Vaguely.” It had been years since I had last read the epic poetry of Terra. Much of it dated back several thousand years, but Beowulf
was one of the few still handed down amongst the people of Rasalhague.
The connection escaped me. Saito continued.
“There are other stories that deal with the Skjǫldungs. Just as there are other stories to accompany them, there are other peoples that call themselves skjǫldr today. At least two, I think we now see.”
“Two? The Republic, but who else?”
“Someone long forgotten, for most. I hope my Norse is not so rusty.”
Saito tossed a runed stone into my lap. I studied the thing, then stepped away as the agent motioned towards the chair. It was a Petra after all, and I had indeed found the second of the M.I.M.I.R. agents.
I watched as he carefully typed, then retyped a message into the text field. “Ek gøri mér skjaldborg, bokki sæll.”
“Skjaldborg. That seems familiar.”
“Shieldwall. 'I am gathering a shieldwall, dear sir.' It's a pun. In the story, the man was buried in the ham-bones of a feasting hall, up to his neck. Skjaldborg can also simply mean 'protection,' but bones don't protect you.”
“And who would these skjǫldr be, Saito?”
“I don't know what they'd call themselves, now. A group left Memmingen for the periphery about five-hundred years ago. There's no way to be sure, but they at least have a knowledge of Norse.”
“Any idea how far out they are?”
“A week, at most. This was a wide-burst message. Only the Precentor would be listening, and he did say we'd have company. They're likely to be at the nadir jump point much the same as we had been. However...”
“There's no telling if they're after something in particular. They could be here to trade with the Precentor. They could be here to kill us. They could also be somewhere entirely different.”
“I hardly think that a group not heard from in over five hundred years would be bent on invading, Saito.”
“True enough, but what if they were friends with the Precentor? Or if they don't want anyone hearing from them. Or about them?”
I nodded, settled against the bulkhead nearest the console, and was about to think over the situation when a peal of laughter came from across the bridge.
Danica was pointing at Saito and I, one hand trying to cover her mouth as she laughed.
“You–you two! You're ridiculous. So serious about all this.”
There was a pair of thumps from the lower decks. Kavellrist was arriving, and Tech Darwin skirted off the bridge to see to securing the Jenner
Danica was still laughing.
“I don't find anything funny about this, Danica. We could very well die without a solid idea of what–”
“You haven't had a 'solid idea' since the moment you touched down. All respect due, sir, but I think you're both over-thinking things. Look at what you did when you got here, what you've done since. I know exactly how easily we could all die. You didn't.
If you knew there was an Atlas waiting for you, would you've charged into the fight like you did? Or would you have pulled back, tried to string them out? Nibble at what they had since there was so much more of them than you? Don't you see? They were ready for that. You did what they thought you'd never do by coming in close where they weren't ready for things.
They wanted me to track you down and wait, hold a lock and get missiles in to soften you up, then walk that big piece of shit in on you, corner you, and finish things off.
I don't know who these folks are that we're going to get to seeing, but the last thing they'll expect is a direct confrontation, isn't it? If they're really here for your blood, give it to them. If not, then we have less work to do. Either way, someone's gonna have to shed.”
I could hear Saito mumbling, “damned valkyrie.” But for all that she might be, Danica struck deep at what Third Lance had been. We had too often been the damned valkyries, swooping in to remove the best of our enemies. How many times had it seemed like luck?
“But you don't know who they are?”
“No sir. The Precentor did all the work for trading and luring. Most traders wouldn't land. They were the smart ones, so they knew to just be even-handed with them. The dumb ones that landed, they had to drop everything they had, usually.”
I could scarcely believe what I was being told. “The Precentor was helping the pirates? How would we have not heard of this?”
Saito interrupted. “Would you go around telling everyone that 'ComStar' tricked you into getting robbed by pirates? Who would believe you? Even M.I.M.I.R. thought there was simply a black market dump here. With the Republic hiding everything, what recompense was there?”
Danica nodded. “Most of the stupid ones were too embarrassed to say anything. They were just happy to get off the planet in one piece. They took in a good haul for a while. Snakes, sir. Hiding in the grass and waiting.”
Saito nodded in agreement.
I offered a smile before speaking. “There will always be snakes. We're just going to have to root them out. But there's an old saying, 'buy a sword when it's rusty.'”
Both Saito and Danica looked confused.
“When you've made it better, when you've made it whole, you've put your mark into it. It's yours, even if someone else crafted it. The Precentor called himself ComStar, but put his mark on these pirates. The Republic put its mark on this whole planet. For what it's worth, they bought that rusty sword.”
I pointed directly at Danica.
“Now I see this sword sitting in front of me. It was rusty, but I can see it's got a certain sharpness. I think you've more than taken the mark of this unit, Danica. That Raven
is yours. Use her well. You'll take the open slot. Saito, I think it's time we get going.”
Saito grinned and moved back to the pilot's console. A siren sounded throughout the Muninn
There was a happy bustle to the decks. Even Njavskard seemed happy to stow gear as I passed her. I could not help but be happy to leave this hell-hole, even if nothing was yet guaranteed.
was already secured in its harness by the time I reached the bay. He and Tech Darwin stood around a small terminal hologram-pool generally used for wiring diagrams. Now a star-chart was displayed and the pair had a dour look.
“So is this going to give us an idea of who the Precentor was talking to last?”
“Aye, Löjtnant. Aye, an idea.”
I stepped closer to the tank. It showed a general overview of the coreward half of the Inner Sphere, what would be thought of as north on a planetary map. I watched as a red line traced from the edges of the periphery into the interior of the Republic. Spinward by rimward, it ended in the gap between the F. R. R. and Kuritan space.
I stared at the chart speechlessly.
Kavellrist nodded, as if to confirm my confusion. “Aye sir, there's nothing there. Nothing clear from Gunzburg to the Kuritan border at Kaesong. Just barren space, stars in a nebula.”
The bay's loudspeakers came alive with Saito's voice. “All hands, secure stations. Five minutes until launch.”
We each stepped away from the holo-tank silently. I returned to the bridge and strapped into the communications seat.
As the Muninn
hummed and rumbled to life, lifting from the tarmac, a trio of beeps rang from the console, and a set of coordinates flashed on the communications console.
...but one thing never will die, fair fame of one who has earned it.