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Episode 10 Page 17

By:  Wynn

"I'll be in my office. If anyone needs me... tell them to take care of it themselves.”

     Commander Balest ignored the sour glare his secretary directed towards his back as he took the stack of envelopes from the corner of her desk, well-accustomed to that sort of attitude. When one lived and worked in an forsaken backwater like Vulsia, they needed something to fear and hate in order to focus past the daily tedium. He was content serving that role; he had less desire for the admiration of his subordinates than for the gratitude of his superiors. He, at least, knew the importance of their easily-ignored outpost, and the benefits that came from pleasing his masters. And, for the matter, the price of their displeasure.

     As he stepped into his office, Balest closed the door and locked it before crossing the room and depositing the bulky envelopes onto his desk. He allowed his eyes to wander over the room as he took his seat, noting with swelling irritation the smear of mud on the small table beside the door. His second-in-command was fond of sprawling out in the thick chairs around that table, idly amusing himself while Balest fought to focus on his task. 'Pompous flyboy,' the commander sneered. 'He won't make it far in our organization if I can help it.'

     Scratching behind his canine ears as he fought to return his mind to the task at hand, Balest scowled down at the papers his secretary had delivered to him, realizing how many of them would require him to actually read them. Reports, endless reports; his fellow Bloodstripes on the outpost often joked that, even if the rest of the universe forgot them, someone somewhere would send them reports to sign or throw away. As he glanced at one envelope after another, Balest found himself nodding to that notion; if bureaucratic bullshit was bullets, Nathia would be able to conquer the universe just from a bad week's worth of reports.

     Still, some letters had their purpose. Casually exiling several of the envelopes to a far corner of his freshly-shined desk where they would wait in glaring silence for his attention, Balest finally found the one he had been expecting. This thick envelope, marked with the same vertical red stripe as many of the missives, seemed almost indistinguishable from the mass. Still, one difference had grabbed Balest's attention: the seal, marked with the crown of Nathia, had been applied sideways. It was perhaps less than subtle, he mused as his finger tore the crown in half, but it did have a sort of brutal style to it.

     Inside, safely nestled amidst a cradle of concealing paper, was a selection of thin, finger-width data cards. This was the real prize, and the other part of task on this far-flung outpost. These encrypted cartridges arrived several times a week, and it fell to him to distribute them to the rest of their operatives in the nearby system, hidden in the myriad other reports he was forced to answer. In turn, those operatives would send their own communications to him, and he could surreptitiously send them forward to his own contact, the information gradually making its way back up the chain of command. While he was only one link in the chain, he knew well how important his task was; after all, secrecy was a hard thing to maintain amongst the hounds.

     Balest pulled out one of the data cards, rubbing it carefully as he stared down at it. He knew better than to try to slide it into his own computer to read its contents; each one contained several programs that would ravage any system that accessed it, unless the proper passwords were quickly delivered. He only knew his own codes, and suspected that the cards would note any attempt to read them anyways. Better to have to pay for a new computer system than to be discovered snooping where he was not wanted, he mused with a shiver. He could only imagine what happened to those who got too curious... he probably didn't want to know what was on the card anyways. Nodding, Balest replaced the card with its brothers, instead pulling free a letter nestled beside them.

     His eyes quickly devoured the words it contained, a dark grin spreading across his face. It seemed that his recent visit from the prissy 'Mr. Gold' had already begun to resonate through their organization; the general orders were to hunt for the girl and the ship carrying her, and to take both as quietly as possible. He skimmed over the descriptions of both, remembering them from the information he had received from the effete agent. Further down was a command to keep all of the attention of their erstwhile allies; high command would be making its own decisions about how to handle their deal, when that time came.

     Beyond that was more orders, many of which hardly applied to someone stuck on an isolated dump like Vulsia. Still, reading over these notes always gave Balest a rush, a feeling of belonging to something greater. Their group was powerful, he knew, and their opponents wouldn't realize that until it was far too late. That day wouldn't be too long now, Commander Balest promised himself, and then he would finally get his rewards for everything he had done for-

     A shiver raced over his skin, and Balest irritably lowered the letter. Had those addle-witted cleaners left his window open again? Turning towards the breeze, he hesitated as a sharp pain drew a hissed gasp from his lips. Alarmed, he struggled to glance at its source, awkwardly angling his neck to stare at his right shoulder. What was that? Fumbling, he drew the small object away from his shoulder, wincing as he felt the needle at its tip pull free from his skin. Murky confusion made him stare blankly at the tiny capsule. The dart was black, and hollow, and a thin dark fluid oozed from its blood-coated tip. What the- The room lurched, and he flailed to grip at his desk, his fingernails digging furrows into its polished surface. Something was wrong, he had to... help, he needed help, someone to...

     His eyes dimming and his breath gurgling in his chest, Commander Balest slumped forward over the envelope, the last report he would ever have to read.

      “Sorry, pal,” a soft whisper offered as the window slid completely open, allowing the dark-clad form to slip into the room. “Nothing personal.” Balest fell back without protest as the other dog-eared man pulled at his shoulder, exposing the envelope he had died clutching. A faint grimace was hidden behind the mask the assassin wore, and he instead reached for the other missives, quickly flipping through them. That cursory scan was enough to prove that Balest still held the one he needed, so the man bent over him, slipping it from his nerveless fingers.

     A glimpse inside revealed the precious data cards, and the black-swathed man nodded to himself. He had been afraid that the information he needed would have already been ferried further down the line, but it seemed he had caught it before it had gotten too far. For not the first time, he wondered if there might not be a better way to intercept the enemy's orders, but such was a concern for someone besides him. No, his job was to go where he was pointed and kill whoever he had to kill, and that was enough for now.

     He reached down to also take the letter the Bloodstripe had been reading when he had been shot, scanning over it quickly. He had to get out quickly, before someone noticed his small craft a mile outside the small spaceport or someone burst in and discovered the body sitting beside him, but something he had glimpsed had caught his attention. The orders looked to be the same as the last ones he had captured, except something new about a girl and a spaceship. Oh, and there at the bottom... orders to hunt a rogue Guardsman, and to capture him and his possessions without notifying anyone else connected to Nathia. The name in particular stood out: Bullet Ruissir.

     He needed to get this back to his boss as soon as possible. The assassin glanced once more at the corpse of Commander Balest before turning towards the window, slipping out and sliding it closed behind him. Moments later he was racing through the woods that surrounded the outpost, letter locked in his grip as he hurried towards his ship, determined to see this news reach its proper destination.


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