Infinite Worlds: I-Cops!

Roger Burton West
13 June 2006

Table of Contents

1. Characters

1.1. PCs

Sandrine Duclos, small, dark, intense and French with a passion for finding things out. (Image of Edith Head, played by Karen Gilham)

Jack Hendricks, a cop on the edge. Known for his excessive violence, but also for getting the job done. (Image of Rutger Hauer, played by Dave D.)

Lucius Black, a noble from Nostradamus who's rededicated his life to fighting the Reich. (Image of Christian Bale, played by Dave D.)

Basil McMurdoch, doctor and psychologist who sees the infinite worlds as case studies. (Image of Omar Epps, played by Phil Masters)

Kryztof Smith, a forensic tech specialising in Polish history. (Image of Neil Duncan, Played by Ingvar.)

Josef Weinbrenner (played by Dave C.)

1.2. NPCs

Captain Clayton Washington, I-Cops Justice Division - the group's long-suffering boss. Currently kept off field duty by ulcers and other stress-related conditions not uncorrelated with the teams he has to supervise.

Gerry Curtis, a Centran agent run into on Steel, Gotha-12 and Ramesses. Captured in the latter location.

Rosa Dupont, a Vulture Team tech scavenger who had an unfortunate experience on Steel. Later met on Ramesses.

Nazihah bint Mirvat, an AI scientist from Caliph (now working for Homeline).

Blaise, Dominic, Francis and Hilaria, Cabal agents of the Amonis Albioni lodge. Encountered on Azoth-7 and Gotha-12.

2. Events

2.1. Fireball

Session: 16 April 2005

Captain Washington calls our heroes into his office for their assignment. He pulls up a hologram of a man dressed in a powder-blue and black uniform: "This is Lieutenant Charles Bradshaw of the Royal Space Force on Lucifer-5. He's also one of our agents there. He's also, as of a couple of hours ago, a cloud of plasma at a hundred thousand feet over the Atlantic; his spaceplane disintegrated during reentry on approach to the London Spaceport.

"They don't have reentry accidents any more - they've been doing this for thirty years and the technology's pretty mature. So there are three options: one, this is a genuine if unlikely accident. Two, it's sabotage by one of the other powers, in which case it's a remarkable coincidence that it happened to be one of our agents. Three, it's sabotage by Centrum. Odds favour the last one, and that's why we're sending you in. We're using other assets - which I am not at liberty to describe to you further - to get you cover as the investigating officers. You'll translate out to the Victrix orbital station as soon as possible. Oh, and Hendricks... that gun of yours is too different from anything they have. You'll need to leave it behind."

Smith quietly tidies up his paperwork and gets kitted up. Hendricks reluctantly leaves Gun in a locked box in the armoury, and withdraws a Webley-Wilkinson service pistol instead.

Hendricks drives, and the conveyor comes to rest more or less in the right place... then tips to a forty-five degree angle, before falling back into place with a loud clang. The cops emerge into a locker room, then leave into the spaceplane disembarkation room where they're met by a Lieutenant Harrison. Harrison's energetic and nervous, but seems reasonably efficient.

After they've set up in an unused office in the gravity section of the station, their first recourse is to the maintenance records of the spaceplane. It appears that Bradshaw complained of control problems on the ascent from London, and the cable runs and aerodynamic control surfaces were replaced.

They call in Corporal Simmons, the maintenance tech in charge of working on the plane. He's very chatty, and explains that control run problems are quite common on the Wyvern-class planes - control replacements are the most frequently-performed maintenance procedure, and entirely routine. Simmons' record shows that he's been promoted more times than most soldiers manage over their entire careers; his disciplinary record is correspondingly poor. He explains, when questioned, that he doesn't deal well with authority, and tends to speak his mind. In this case, he reckons that the obvious cause is sabotage, probably by Germans.

The I-Cops head up to inspect Maintenance Slot 17, where the plane was worked on. Smith examines it for things that might be out of place; in the centre of the slot is a trace of an acrid-smelling lubricant. Testing it on rubber rings in the spares rack proves it's corrosive, too - Hendricks identifies it as something used elsewhen as a gun-barrel cleaner.

Most of the time, though, Hendricks has been keeping an eye on the rest of the maintenance bay, as the lifts carry various spacecraft down from and back to the zero-G hub of the station. There seems to be someone over in the shadows looking over at him, but he fades into the background before he can be clearly identified.

Up in Traffic Control, it's pretty hectic. The chief plays back the audio tape of the incident. It's clear that Bradshaw had very little warning of the problem, and once things started to go wrong the end came very quickly.

Quote: "They've got atomic rocketships in 1938. I think we'll allow them to have invented the tape recorder a few years early."

The team finally visits the chief of security on the station, a Wing Commander Fforde, who appears to be interested primarily in minimising the amount of paperwork he has to do - if they can take care of things quietly, themselves, this will be much more convenient all round. Hendricks asks whether there's an artist on the station; Fford doesn't know of one, and points out that his officers tend to be more interested in small etchings...

Simmons, summoned again, turns out to have a certain basic artistic talent; he makes a sketch of Hendricks' recollection of the person he saw watching him earlier, and is instructed to distribute it to the tech crew as a person to be apprehended - with the promise of fifty pounds and a bottle of something nice to the one who catches him. This produces quick results... within half an hour, Simmons is found unconscious and taken to the infirmary. Hendricks and Smith recognise the symptoms of a sonic stunner, but that's not a technology that this timeline's developed yet...

Hendricks gathers the maintenance crew together; it transpires that Simmons has had tales about Great Deeds (and promises of money and bottles of something nice) before, and wasn't taken all that seriously this time. It is made abundantly clear that he was acting under orders; Harrison is sent to get a bottle from the Mess. Shortly after the crew disperses, there's the distinctive sound of a stunner, and the chase is on - through the corridors of Victrix, which are not the most spacious of places or the most conducive to long sight-lines. As Hendricks and Smith chase the figure, they notice something out of place: a bomb attached to the wall, bearing various admonitory notations along the lines of "CAUTION ASTRONIUM ENHANCED DEVICE" (or rather, the equivalent in German). Hendricks takes a look at the device and the ticking timer, draws on his (non-existent) knowledge of bomb-defusing, and breaks the glass on the front of the timer; then he glues one of the shards into place to prevent the hands from getting any closer to zero.

The chase continues - the saboteur knows the station, but Hendricks and Smith are faster. They corner him, and Hendricks attempts to shoot the stunner out of his hand. This is rendered more difficult by the lack of stunner, so Hendricks blows away his elbow instead, then closes and pistol-whips him - though not in time to prevent him from clamping his jaw shut, and a smell of almonds follows.

Hendricks takes the saboteur up to the infirmary, and tell the orderly to arm himself and keep anyone else away from the bed they're using. The saboteur has an implanted stunner in his left hand (now dissolving); Hendricks takes the arm, just to be on the safe side, as well as fingerprints from the other hand and a retina scan. The body is stuffed into a body bag, and disposed of via the nearest waste hatch.

Meanwhile, Smith very gingerly dismounts the bomb from the wall, and carries it slowly and carefully to an airlock. He waits until the rotation of the station will throw the bomb away from Earth, and cycles it through.

Some sort of explanation needs to be given to Fforde; they claim that the saboteur was an anarchist, intending to damage the station so as to raise tensions between Britain and Germany (which apart from the "anarchist" part may even be true).

The team returns to its conveyor, and softly and suddenly vanishes away...

2.2. Calculating Clock

Session: 18 June 2005

The mission is to Echo 402, where it's 1625 local time: and it's to Germany, which is in the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

In the real world, in 1623 Wilhelm Schickard invented his "calculating clock", the first mechanical calculator. It didn't come to anything, though he corresponded with Kepler to some extent, and only with the later development of Pascal's Pascaline (1643) did mechanical calculation gain prominence. However, in this world Rene Descartes has left Paris to travel to Tuebingen, where Schickard is working, apparently because there is a new and better calculating clock under development... and Johannes Kepler has apparently returned there as well, which he didn't do historically.

This clearly needs to be looked into, so the team is put on a suborbital flight to Stuttgart, where a projector stage is being constructed. With a load of local costume and luggage, they are translated to 402, where their first business is to camouflage the conveyor and lurk near the road in order to flag down a convenient wagon. After some hours, a farmer turns up heading for Tuebingen, and is persuaded to carry them and their luggage there.

On arrival, the team checks in at the Goldener Adler, as a dilettante nobleman-scholar (Weinbrenner) and his wife (Duclos), retinue (McMurdoch as a servant and Smith as a tame scholar) and Landsknecht bodyguard (Hendricks). Apart from some minor arguments with the local wildlife, they pass a peaceful night... except for Hendricks, who goes out "intelligence gathering" with the other Landsknechten (bodyguards to the various scholars who've arrived here recently) in the rougher part of town, and after a drinking challenge from a Thuringian wakes up devoid of loose valuables.

In the morning, they visit Schickard's workshop, where they find him and his assistant Stefan Froese working on a table-sized calculating machine. Hendricks pokes at the machine, and is warned off by Froese; the others, led by Weinbrenner, ask about its capabilities, and are told that it's planned to make this machine able to run a sequence of calculations with one taking its inputs from the previous outputs. (Telling the machine what calculations to run in what order, of course, will be a trivial task.)

Since Kepler is expected later in the afternoon, the team spends some time in the University library, confirming that the construction notes for the Mark I calculating clock are present but nothing more recent.

On their return to the workship, Johannes Kepler is engaged in an animated discussion with Schickard and Froese about the ability of the new machine to generate thoroughly detailed, accurate tables of planetary motion according to the theory of nested Platonic solids. Duclos takes the opportunity to examine some of the gears that are being used; Hendricks talks to the Landsknechten who are escorting a new delivery of parts from Stuttgart, and they both learn that much of the money behind this project is coming from Duke John Frederick of Wuerttemberg; apparently he's interested in better gun-laying systems than are presently possible. Smith overhears Froese telling Kepler, though he's somewhat embarrassed about it, that the ideas for the current project came to him in a dream...

Our heroes take their leave, and buy one of the last available clocks in town (the clockmaker, like all his colleagues, is engaged in making gears for Schickard's project). Weinbrenner files down some of the standard-sized cogs, aiming to commit some subtle sabotage. He and Duclos break in that night: he replaces some random gears in the mechanism, the details of mechanical computing being a bit beyond him, while Duclos heads upstairs and doses Froese (who sleeps above the workshop) with Eraser to keep him asleep while she searches for what prove to be two loudspeakers and a radio receiver concealed in the carved headboard of his bed. She cuts the wires, in such a way as to make it look like a natural accident, and installs cameras and microphones of her own both here and in the workshop.

Smith, who's been keeping watch outside while this was going on, spots someone who seems to be keeping an eye on him; Duclos attempts to double back on him as they head into the rougher part of town, but he's too cautious to be caught. They pick up Hendricks (who's heard a variety of rumours, both that people are queueing up for calculation time on the machine once it's finished and that some madman thinks he has a way of getting ships to fly; he does his best to suggest that this is all a ramp on the part of Schickard and his assistant) and head back to the inn.

Weinbrenner hires a workshop just behind the one Schickard is using, and starts to gather black powder with the aim of constructing a shaped explosive which will destroy the machine; Hendricks heads back to the conveyor to pick up a few grenades to use as primers. All of the team members move in. That night, they pick up a radio transmission - apparently describing the basic concepts of software design - and get a decent bearing on it. Meanwhile, Hendricks has been followed on his way to what's becoming his usual tavern, but this time Duclos is tracking the follower; when Hendricks returns to the workshop, the shadow picks up a horse from an inn and heads for the bridge that leads out of town to the south.

The next night, Weinbrenner and Smith go a few miles to the west of town to try to generate a cross-bearing on the signal. While they're away doing that, someone kicks in the door of the workshop where the others are staying; it's three men, in local garb but with sophisticated automatic rifles, who proceed to try to shoot up the workshop. Hendricks drops one with a head shot and seriously wounds the second, but is caught by his return fire and badly injured; it's up to Duclos and McMurdoch to deal with the last invader. The watch appears, after a suitable delay, but is persuaded that since this doesn't involve any citizens of Tuebingen it's not a problem that needs formal involvement.

When Hendricks is patched up a bit by McMurdoch, he regains consciousness and recognises the guns used by the attackers: not Centrum weapons as they'd been expecting, but Stg 03 assault rifles, typical of the crossworld-travelling Nazi forces on Reich-5.

Quote: (Weinbrenner) "Can we drag them around a bit behind the conveyor?"

Once the other two return, an informal interrogation is conducted. It transpires that this Raven Division strike team was aiming for an entirely different timeline, but its jumper was shot by a local almost immediately on emergence. The Hauptsturmfuehrer has been conducting this operation in the hope of attracting the attention of someone with a conveyor, which they could use to get back to a more hospitable timeline nearby. He and his last remaining man are holed up in the woods to the south of town.

The explosive charge is rigged, and McMurdoch and Duclos go to abstract Froese from his bed (and remove all the high-tech gear from it) - he knows too much for this echo, at this point, and they'll recommend that he be sent to Coventry. Weinbrenner and Smith finish rigging the charges and take Oberfeldwebel Daum with them; the other Nazi will provide a convenient body to back up the idea of an alchemical accident destroying both workshops (though Hendricks takes the time to shoot him cleanly rather than leaving him to be caught in the blast).

The agents meet up again in the woods, Hendricks lagging somewhat behind because of his injury, and Duclos sneaks round the woodcutter's cottage where the remaining Nazis are holed up. She stumbles across a grave marker reading "Ulrich Vorfelder", and theorises that this might be the Nazi jumper.

McMurdoch constructs a firebomb from his issue equipment, and Hendricks lobs it to set fire to the thatched roof. Unfortunately the windows are larger than they appeared, and two figures jump out at the back and head into the woods. Smith, McMurdoch and Weinbrenner head off after them. The first exchanges of fire are inconclusive, but eventually one of them is brought down; Smith pauses to check his status (badly wounded, but not critical) while the other two chase the Hauptsturmfuehrer. This is cut slightly short by the howling of wolves; it seems that he was already somewhat wounded, and given the chance to bring down easy prey the wolf pack goes for it in spite of his brief burst of defensive automatic fire.

McMurdoch dispatches him with a shot to the head, and they return to the others: they have two Nazi prisoners, one of them a senior NCO, as well as Froese, who seems to be a victim of circumstance. They head for a farm, both to get some breakfast (it's now changed from "very late at night" to "early morning") and to buy a wagon for their trip back to the conveyor. This is accomplished with some of the last of the team's stash of local currency, and they head back into the woods in order to bring a somewhat overloaded conveyor back to base.

2.3. Steel Dream

Session: 20 August 2005

Washington looks happy to see Hendricks.

"Twelve years ago, the robots rose up and attacked humanity. Eight billion people thought they'd win easily. The thirty million who are still alive aren't so confident. This is the world we call Steel."

"The robots have high technology, so the Scouts send in teams under the Tech division to pick out what they can, make it safe, and bring it back here. One of those vulture teams hasn't come back."

The team is going in to Zone London, near Milton Keynes, to get the tech team back or at least find out what happened to them. There are some constraints; any air movement, and any radio transmission for more than a second or two, will draw hostile attention. Generally there are three reactions from robots: ignore, report, or attack. Since options 2 and 3 are bad, staying out of their sight is a good idea. There's some talk about helping the surviving human resistance, but nothing formal has been set up yet.

After a small orgy in the armoury - McMurdoch loads up with a dinosaur rifle, both he and Hendricks take grenade launchers, and everyone takes armour-piercing ammunition for their service pistols - the team departs. They arrive within sight of the other conveyor, which is still camouflaged, and investigate. It hasn't been disturbed since the tech team set out. Apart from the usual litter, there's a sketch map (probably imported from another parallel, or pre-robot rebellion) with likely high-tech concentrations circled. They decide to follow this route, and look around to see where they're starting from.

Quote: "The sign - the bit of it that hasn't been blasted with what looks to have been a flamethrower of some sort - reads 'Welcome to Newport Pagnell Services - Now Fully Open'."

The team sets off into the Milton Keynes exclusion zone. There's a gap in the wire fence, carefully bridged so as not to set off alarms, through which they pass. They soon find robots at work, apparently replacing damaged or missing parts of the factory and maintenance complexes they're passing; when they get to the first concentration site, there's clearly been a great deal stripped off. They also pass occasional patrols of small robots, apparently looking for intruders.

About half-way to the second site the smell of corpses becomes apparent. They approach cautiously, and find the bodies of three of the six-person tech team, including the leader and his second. There's clearly been a major fire-fight here, with bullet and laser scars all around; it looks as though the foe was about human-sized or slightly larger. While the bodies haven't been disturbed, some of their equipment has been taken; the thermite charges have gone off on what's left.

Continuing, in the hope of finding out what happened to the other three, the team comes across a human planting explosives at the base of a transmitter tower. They both surprise each other, and duck back behind cover. Hendricks goes forward to try to make contact, and finds himself ambushed; the other clearly thinks he's a robot infiltrator disguised to look human, and Hendricks' normal manner doesn't seem to help.

The others come up to defuse the situation, and the saboteur explains what happened - two of the team were captured by the robots, and the third escaped to be rescued by the resistance (of which he's a member). The team give him some code phrases, and he agrees to contact the surviving free tech team member (Hickman) to try to establish bona fides, first showing them to a relatively safe spot.

After a few hours (during which the explosive he planted on the transmitter tower goes off), he returns, and leads them to the local resistance base, in what was once Bletchley House. There they make contact with Hickman, who seems very keen on helping the resistance as much as possible without endangering the Secret. He introduces them to Walter Henderson, leader of the cell - in his late forties, balding and with glasses - who's entirely willing to help get the others out of the prison camp to which they've been taken but is very concerned about likely reprisals against local civilians.

As a first step, though, the team members explain that they need to recover the bodies of their comrades to give them proper funerals. Henderson clearly thinks this is a bit excessive, but introduces them to Gerry Curtis and his two friends, who felt similarly on a previous occasion and should be willing to help. They are; but they have pronounced Centran accents...

Hendricks and Smith sneak out that night to prepare a fake campsite, where the body bags can be left near the conveyors without revealing them to the Centrans. This seems to go well, and the next day they set off, pick up the bodies, and run straight into an exterminator robot. They open fire, first Hendricks with his rifle (which bounces) and then the others with pistols (which do even worse). Grenades seem somewhat more effective, as does shooting for exposed sensors and weapon mounts. The Centrans fire with rifle-format gauss weapons, which are easily as distinctive to the I-Cops as the I-Cops' own service pistols undoubtedly are to the Centrans. Just as McMurdoch's got his rifle out and ready, Hendricks' shots finally hit a vital location and the robot shuts down.

They depart in haste, having agreed a truce at least until their respective team members are rescued from the prison camp. The body bags are dropped off, and they return to the resistance base having decided not to mention the earlier fracas.

They head down to the prison camp site, and take up surveillance positions. It seems that there are about fifty prisoners, with several robots guarding them. In the morning, twenty of them set out (with two trusties and one robot), apparently on a foraging expedition in the ruins of the nearby town. They split up to search, and Hendricks makes contact with Joseph Offield, the tech team member who's present. Offield gestures at the bulky collar he's wearing, making explosive gestures, and Hendricks prepares to disarm it with a pin; Offield freezes in shock, then tries to get away, and by the time Hendricks has caught him the disarming idea has been quietly dropped. Offield gives a description of the camp's layout, and explains that he hasn't seen Rosa Dupont, the last team member, for about a day; he thinks she was taken to the medical lab. Sneaking in would be a severe challenge.

In spite of the likely consequences, the team decides that an assault is the only way to get its people out - the Secret is paramount! With some help from the Centrans, they arrange a power failure to deal with the electrified fence and laser towers, then jam communications to prevent any word of the attack getting out. Hendricks drops grenades on the minefield to clear a path through it, and McMurdock blows down the fence, allowing the prisoners out and giving Hendricks and Gerry access to the medical lab.

They come up against three robots, though they aren't as tough as the one met the previous day. Hendricks shoots, ineffectively to start with but gradually improving and eventually destroying one; Gerry uses the distraction to sneak round another of them, jam his gauss rifle into its neck joint and dry-fire it to wipe the robot's memories; and McMurdoch takes out the last one. Hendricks gets severely shot up in the process.

Quote: (GM) "This wouldn't have happened if you'd been wearing the same armour the rest of the team has."
(Hendricks) "Armour is for wusses."

Nonetheless, as the prisoners (including Offield) flee, he heads to the medical lab, enters, and then freezes in shock for a good ten seconds: it's not so much the robot dissection table, looking remarkably like the industrial assembly units seen earlier, but Rosa Dupont's head in a jar... turning to look at him, and mouthing frantically.

He picks up the jar, only to find it connected to the wall by a variety of cables. Torn between two duties, he disconnects the battery from his gun and attempts to jury-rig a power supply to the jar. He then conceals it under his coat, not wanting the others to freeze inopportunely, and heads back out.

Henderson is very concerned about reprisals, but with no memory logs of just what happened - and a few "transformer explosions" to clear away the evidence - this shouldn't be too horrible.

Hendricks tries to keep the jar concealed, but fails miserably; the others seem to take the sight in stride. The jar does seem to have a self-contained life support system, but there's no indication how long this will last, so the team heads back quickly to the conveyor - losing track of Hickman in the process, as he seems determined to go native - and jumps home.

The news of active Centran agents doing the same thing makes it much more likely that formal aid will be given to the human resistance on Steel. Rosa, after the Infinity agents prove who they are by exchanging keywords, explains that she was being interrogated in virtual environments; she's fairly sure she didn't give anything away. Her jar is attached to a basic exoframe to allow her some mobility, while Infinity looks into options for regeneration. And there'll be a follow-up mission to pick up Hickman.

2.4. Battle Cry of Freedom

Session: 25 September 2005

The Jack Hendricks Stress Centre has its newest patient: Jack Hendricks. (Before now it's only dealt with people to whom he's caused stress.) Once he's feeling a bit better, he's transferring to I-Cops Special Operations.

In his place, the team's getting a rookie. Lucius Black was picked up on Nostradamus - he was getting people out of a Reich prison camp, and those people happened to include some I-Cops. Given a choice between Coventry and the Patrol, he jumped at the latter. He seems very French but otherwise unobjectionable. His personnel jacket mentions "special talents"...

Captain Washington looks thunderous. He's tossing a small cylinder from hand to hand, and throws it to the team as they come in. It's an aerosol insecticide, with a cartoon of a bug flying away in terror - as well as one of a black man flinching away from it. There's an obvious conclusion to be drawn, and he confirms it: this is from Dixie-1. It was picked up by one of the on-station agents in Atlanta a few days ago. It's an LPG propellant under an organophosphate insecticide; the latter is not the problem...

Dixie-1 hasn't previously invented gas-propelled aerosols. This might just be a legitimate invention by the locals, but it could also be a sign of one of the tourists who've gone missing at various times since Dixie-1 was opened up to exploitation. The mission is to determine the origin of the aerosol, and recover any outtimer who might be behind it. There's a substantial permanent Patrol presence on Dixie-1, so there may be a possibility of getting local paperwork and so on.

The conveyor arrives with a loud bang, a thump, and the sound of vomiting from Lucius. When the I-cops emerge, they see that it appears to have been dipped in wood ash. However, it has arrived as planned at the Atlanta station, based in an industrial facility in the southern suburbs. The chief of station, Jasper McNeill, appears to have gone a bit native - he's wearing rather more lace and frills than would be considered normal for Homeline, at least - but seems pretty sharp even so.

The aerosol was found a week ago in a grocery store, and appears to have originated from Crosswell Insecticides, but no address is given. Lucius and Sandrine set up as a husband and wife team of business people from Louisiana, with Kryztof as their man of business and Basil (gritting his teeth) as their servant. For initial familiarisation (and learning to cope with the midsummer heat), they take an hotel room in downtown Atlanta, then go out to a local department store to find out whether any other gas-aerosol products are available. They don't seem to be - the Crosswell insecticide is the only one out so far, and the black clerk who serves Basil reckons it's still finding its market.

They return to the hotel and call Crosswell, who are based in the industrial suburbs outside town, to arrange a visit and discussion of a possible business venture in Louisiana. They take a taxi to the site, which contains a large factory building with a variety of pressurised gas and liquid storage tanks outside; Caleb Crosswell, in his fifties, greets them and shows them around. He wears a mask on the factory floor, unlike his workers, but his trembling hands suggest that it's not all that much assistance. He talks with Lucius and Sandrine over mint juleps, while Kryztof and Basil deal with his man of business (tawdry financial matters being no concern of gentlemen).

Until recently the company was making hand-pumped aerosols, sticky fly-paper, and so on. He was looking for a way to branch out, spoke with Lampeter's company - he describes him as "the Southron Edison" - and decided to licence the pressure-can idea. It's meant a bit of costly expansion to the factory, but it's selling very well.

A little more asking around reveals that Lampeter Developments is based in Athens, a university town about fifty miles outside Atlanta. The team hires a car, one of the luxury sort rather than the smaller but faster sports cars that seem generally popular, and set off to take a look. The traffic system of the Confederacy is untrammelled by such restrictive things as speed limits or formal rights of way, and Kryztof finds it an exciting new driving experience; the only restriction on speed comes when he gets out of Atlanta proper, and finds maximum speeds enforced by potholes.

Finding Lampeter is easy; it appears to be the town's largest employer after the University of Georgia. It's getting quite late in the day, though, so the team makes an appointment for the next afternoon and splits up to gather other information. Basil follows the sound of the good music (sung with more enthusiasm than strict accuracy, but this is the Blues) to find the slaves' part of town, which is also where the good food is. He chats with the bartender of the East Side Bar, and finds that while Lampeter pays his employees well many of them don't stay long and tend to leave town afterwards. There's a fair bit of ill-feeling towards him. The slaves, of course, don't have this option, but while the actual injury and death rate is low he's still not a master that people would choose to have.

Kryztof heads for a mid-grade restaurant and club, and chats about high-tech licencing. It seems to be Lampeter's primary business - they develop prototypes and principles, and sell them to other people who will do the actual manufacturing.

Lucius and Sandrine separately hit the high-grade places; Lucius ends up in a student-revolutionary establishment (somewhat quiet due to the lack of most of the students in midsummer), while Sandrine is in a more conventional bar and restaurant. They both learn that there's a certain amount of discord below the surface - it's all very well to be paid a decent salary, but when somebody's spent six months bringing a new product up to where it can be sold it would be nice to get some fraction of the profits - or at least one's own name on the patent. There are a great many inventions coming out of Lampeter's company, several a week, and while they mostly tend to be incremental improvements to existing technologies there are a few oddities (like the stapler) which seem to be the result of inspiration.

The team members meet and drive back to Atlanta to spend the night. In the morning, they return and do some research; Sandrine checks the University's library for Lampeter's academic record (he started to publish papers in the 1950s, on a variety of subjects, but this tailed off sharply after 1960 when he founded the company), while Kryztof looks into the shareholding on the basis that an outtimer might be a silent partner - but it seems that the company is wholly owned by Lampeter.

During the meeting, all the I-cops are aware of the careful PR that's gone into the design of Lampeter's office - it's clearly intended to suggest a barn being used as a workshop, rather than the centre of a large business. Lampeter claims to have invented the aerosol can himself, though the I-cops are privately sceptical. He doesn't seem to have many ideas about other ways in which it could be exploited - they're working on paint, apparently, though the nozzles are getting clogged, and while the scope for cosmetics seems potentially large the high spray pressure and the smell of the propellants are preventing immediate progress.

After the meeting, Lampeter shows them round "one of his laboratories", and the feeling of careful arrangement is even stronger; everyone is happily working away and pausing to have high-level technical conversations. He introduces them to James Sanders, who's in charge of the aerosol project; Lucius whispers to him that the cans might not have been invented by Lampeter as is claimed, and he responds "well, they certainly originated here". When Lucius hints at the possibility of a job, though, he steps back and comments on something entirely different. Sandrine plants bugs here, as she did in Lampeter's office. Kryztof talks with Lampeter's financial secretary, and notices the combination of high initial cost and profit-sharing arrangements; he makes excuses about having to raise more money before a commitment can be made.

As the I-cops leave the meeting, they narrowly avoid an impromptu road race passing along the street in front of them. On returning to the car, they listen in on the bugs; Lampeter is saying to Sanders "you know, they'd never buy it if they knew who'd really come up with it". Sanders agrees, then says jokingly "Hey, Thomas, had any more great ideas lately?" "No, sir", replies an obvious black man's voice.

The team splits up again. Sandrine parks the car in a secure site so that she can keep listening to the bugs; Basil heads into the part of town where he was last night, to try to track down "Thomas"; Kryztof and Lucius hang around to follow Sanders and his secretary May-Belle, respectively. Sanders unfortunately heads straight home by car, but May-Belle goes out with some friends to a bar called the Big Shot. Lucius asks her to dance, using all of his quite substantial charm (and a subtle Apportation spell to lift her off her feet, making up for his lack of dancing talent), and eventually walks her home. Events ensue. He tries subtly to find out more about the origin of the spray can design, but doesn't get anything useful; at the same time, he gets the impression she's trying to find out from him just why he's so interested. He eventually "breaks down" and gives her a story about how his wife controls all the money and is constantly pressing him to expand the fortune further...

Meanwhile, Basil has asked the bartender at the East Side where Lampeter's servants tend to gather when they're allowed nights out, and heads for Murphy's Bar and Grill. It's a large place, pretty loud and rowdy, with a large-screen television on the wall showing the jousting leagues. (If they have to watch white folks' sport, it might as well be something where they're getting hurt...) He talks to a couple of people, and is eventually introduced to Thomas Bay. He apparently got the design from a Bill LaRocque, a white man who was slumming in here a few months ago; he started off trying to get the slaves to throw off their chains and join his Sons of Freedom (some sort of abolitionist/revolutionary group), but when he was roundly ignored he started drinking heavily and eventually babbled about how the spray-can was "supposed to have made me rich". Thomas managed to prod him into revealing more details. He was last seen heading off towards Atlanta.

William LaRocque is one of the names on the "missing tourists" list; he disappeared three years ago from a trip to New Orleans.

Basil, Sandrine and Kryztof head back to Atlanta for the rest of the night.

While May-Belle is sleeping, Lucius has a quiet search of her apartment. He turns up a miniature camera, apparently of local manufacture, and decides to leave it in place; he also leaves a bug in the room. In the morning, he catches a train back to Atlanta, looking appropriately penitent for the benefit of the hotel staff.

Finding LaRocque is the new priority. Lucius and Sandrine check the liberal newspapers and political parties, and find no references to LaRocque but several to the Sons of Freedom, who are being blamed for several recent race riots as well as a number of bank robberies; Kryztof shows around a file photo of LaRocque, without any recognition, then heads back to Athens to plant a relay and recorder for the bugs; Basil checks the papers for signs of outtime propaganda at work, without success. In the evening he heads into the black part of town to ask around after LaRocque, and finds that "Crazy Bill" has been working his way through the bars on the south side.

The next day, Basil checks those bars while the others wait some way off in the car. He finds LaRocque a little before 10pm, holding court at The Earl. The place is due to close at midnight, so he hangs around in the hope of grabbing him then. A wave of silence starts from the doorway, as two white men in grey ("not a uniform honest") suits come in. They go over to LaRocque, handcuff him, and take him out.

Basil starts to follow, but they get into a car and head north. He finds a phone and calls the others with the description and licence plate; they pick up the car (oddly, there aren't many roads into the black part of town) and tail it, not to the nearest police station as expected, but towards the airport. Lucius mutters something, then tells Kryztof who's driving "I need to get closer"; Kryztof manages this, perhaps erring a bit on the side of subtlety, and Lucius mutters again. The car swerves back and forth, and crashes into a fire hydrant.

Lucius jumps out, draws his gun and covers the other officer (the driver's unaccountably fallen asleep). They get the handcuff keys and take LaRocque, cuffing him (and the officers, who seem to be Confederacy Security Police - the equivalent of the FBI - rather than a local force) with their own strip-cuffs first. LaRocque is raving, along the lines of "you can stop me but you can't stop the cause". As they leave, LaRocque drops his French accent and for the benefit of the cops tells Kryztof "Schnell!"

Basil meanwhile makes his way out of the black part of town, and back to the I-Cops office, noting at a distance the police cordon that's been thrown up around the crashed car.

LaRocque is hauled back to the I-Cops office, and are about to put him into the conveyor when one of his ravings attracts their attention. "It'll all end in fire - just a few hours from now." Lucius exerts his force of personality and LaRocque breaks down; the Sons of Freedom have put a bomb in the cargo marked for tomorrow morning's stratojet to Washington DC.

The team heads out to public phones. Basil calls in a warning to the airport, while Sandrine contacts the local police. They also dump the car and pay the balance of their hotel bill, returning as pretty much every cop in town seems to be heading for the airport. They jump home.

It turns out that the bomb was a nuclear one, but was found and disarmed in time; the Sons of Freedom are being rounded up. May-Belle is another Confederacy Security Police agent...

2.5. The I-Cop from Atlantis

Session: 29 October 2005

As is becoming traditional, Captain Washington is tossing an object from hand to hand and throws it to the team as they enter his office. It's a turbine blade made of reddish metal. He explains that this is a titanium-orichalcum alloy, with about nine times the tensile strength of titanium alone; it gets used in jet engines and spaceplane bodies, and orichalcum alone is a room-temperature superconductor that's being used in advanced computer design.

Or it would be, if there were a reliable source of the stuff. Unfortunately it's only found on one world, also called Orichalcum; it's a benighted sort of place, low-tech and infested with magicians and gods. Given the local mana conditions, it's considered a high risk to send Black there, so he'll be staying behind for this mission.

The people who own the land the orichalcum is buried under value the stuff both for decoration and for fuelling magical devices, so getting hold of it in anything more than trivial amounts is very difficult. The Patrol has low-key operations here, mostly trying to stop Centrum's backing of Athens and Khem (Egypt) by backing Atlantis and Themiscyra (the Amazons). Agents mostly use cover identities as Amazon or Khemite traders, since those places are far enough away that running into "fellow countrymen" isn't usually a problem.

One of Infinity's agents, Asteria, made contact with a mine supervisor named Glaukos (in Mestoron, a neighbouring principality to Atlantis itself) who claimed to be willing to divert shipments of orichalcum. The mine is about three days' travel from the city. Asteria took the usual precautions; the offer seemed to be genuine. She went to the mine with a caravan to hand over the money and pick up the first shipment... and vanished. Some of the slaves who'd gone along to move the metal got back two days ago; they reported that mine workers had attacked the caravan, and not being equipped, trained or paid for combat they fled.

The mission: find out what's happened to Asteria and rescue her if possible; attempt to secure a supply of orichalcum.

The team kits up with shortswords (bronze surface, carbon/steel core) and chitons (with ballistic cloth weave). They also carry a selection of well-hidden first aid kits, not wanting to risk relying on local healers, as well as translation expert systems (Atlantean is in some respects proto-Greek, which gives the linguistic analysts an interesting time, but even classical Greek isn't close enough to be useful).

They're put on a suborbital spaceplane to Gibraltar, then flown out on a tiltrotor to a ship in the Atlantic that's holding on the position of the island of Atlantis. (Most of her mass is devoted to station-keeping thrusters and computers to drive them.) The conveyor's set in a superstructure some twenty feet above sea level.

McMurdoch handles the transit without problems, and the team arrives in the city of Atlantis. On consultation with Diomedes, the station chief, they decide to set up as traders selling wine and low-grade jewellery, and to leave in the morning with a couple of pack mules. Most of them will pose as Khemite, though duClos will be an Amazon bodyguard - not only are they relatively welcome here, but it allows her to wear practical costume and carry a weapon without raising undue interest. The team spends the afternoon getting used to the city, with its clean-limbed bronzed youth, grey-bearded philosphers, street-corner orators, extensive white marble architecture, and other fine sights.

The trip to the mine goes relatively smoothly; the roads are rather better than expected at this technological level, though having to dive off them every so often as a charioteer comes past at high speed doesn't help matters. Most of the other people on the road are farmers going to or from the local markets. Stopping for the night at inns presents no problems, and soon enough the team is approaching the mine. It's clearly a slave operation, with five supervisors in charge of about a hundred slaves. One of those supervisors, Vassilis, welcomes the traders; he seems to be the second in command. It soon transpires that wine is going to be of more interest than jewellery; this is a very isolated posting by local standards.

The mine site is an open-cast pit with very little tunnelling. There are two barracks for slaves and a smaller hut for the supervisors; a few large storage sheds are nearby. As the team passes, Sandrine overhears voices from one of the slave barracks (which would presumably normally be empty during the day); the language is very idiomatic, but the translator just about manages to render it, along the lines of "I wonder if this lot are the backup for that other spy".

The team establishes a camp site with that hut between them and the main supervisors' area. McMurdoch talks with the supervisors, getting their measure; Glaukos seems a bit uneasy.

Before dinner, McMurdoch issues anti-alcohol pills; later on, he gets out some offworld brandy and offers samples. Conversation is mostly in the form of anecdotes. One of the supervisors has a badly-set leg, which he's quite happy for McMurdoch to re-break and set properly when the latter offers his medical services, but the supervisor is rather the worse for brandy at this point and McMurdoch declines. One of the others makes a very polite and somewhat nervous pass at Sandrine, and doesn't seem too worried when he's turned down.

On retiring to the camp, the team sets up watches; Duclos uses a long-range microphone to eavesdrop on the supervisors, where she hears other voices accusing them of being drunk ("call yourselves Atlanteans?"), though the supervisors reckon that these traders probably aren't spies.

During Smith's watch, about 2am, someone comes sneaking around but doesn't cross the perimeter.

The next day, Duclos and McMurdoch take the mules and trade with the local villages to establish a cover story (and a reason for spending another night at the mine); Weinbrenner and Smith sneak up the hillside to observe the mine. They see five men who clearly aren't slaves but haven't been introduced; with long-range microphones they pick up their conversation, along the lines of "how much longer do we have to wait for these follow-up spies anyway".

During that evening's meal, Smith happens to be outside relieving himself at the same time as Glaukos, who breaks down somewhat. He's in some trouble: his orichalcum-selling operation has been found out, the last foreign spy has been sent back to the capital, and he's next as soon as the soldiers decide there's no follow-up coming. He'd really like a way out... Vassilis interrupts before he can say more.

The team leaves in the morning, giving Glaukos another amphora of wine and whispered instructions to relieve himself behind a particular bush later in the day. Someone does seem to be following them; Weinbrenner splits off to try to ambush him, but soon realises that he hasn't been as stealthy as he expected and the follower is now trying to ambush him. By sneaking further into the bushes he reverses the situation, and hits the pursuer (one of the five non-overseers) with an ampoule of Eraser followed by a hard kick; he goes down after a second or two, and Weinbrenner ties and gags him.

Weinbrenner and Smith head back to the camp to extract Glaukos. Vassilis accompanies him, but with a couple of Eraser hits and a few good kicks he goes down. He does manage to shout first, but the I-Cops are able to get Glaukos away ahead of the pursuit.

Once the team has reunited, they decide to turn their mules loose (keeping the things valuable to them but abandoning most of the trade goods and gold), poke them to make them run, and get off the road. Shortly after they've done this, a chariot passes at high speed.

Glaukos and the captured soldier (Athanasios) between them fill in several gaps. Glaukos has been under suspicion for some time, and Vassilis was planted to keep an eye on him. When Vassilis found out about the orichalcum sale to Asteria, he called for help, and one Orestes came with five soldiers. They disguised themselves as slaves, and ambushed Asteria when she came to pick up the metal. Orestes took her back to Atlantis, but since it was expected that there'd be some follow-up Glaukos was left in nominal charge of the mine.

Glaukos is turned loose to make his own way to a port (he attempts to get the team interested in helping him further by saying "what a pity it is I shan't be able to get back all that gold I buried", but this falls on deaf ears). The team heads to Atlantis via back roads (using Glaukos' directions, then asking locals for further information).

Demetrios explains that if Asteria was brought here as a prisoner there's only one place she'll be: the prison is attached to the guard barracks, on the second (tin) ring of the central city. Mostly prisoners don't stay there long - they're executed or sold into slavery - so most of the other prisoners there are likely to be political of some sort.

As the team is casting about for a practical rescue mission, it appears that someone may have beaten them to it: murmurs in the street are that a thunderbolt has struck the prison. They go to investigate, and see a pall of black smoke and smell the distinctive aroma of black powder (well above the local technology). Those who were a bit closer to the event say that the cult of Set either freed or took the prisoners.

The team returns to Demetrios'. The cult of Set is apparently a large-scale proscribed organisation, which the government has been trying and failing to eradicate; it's known to indulge in human sacrifices, and there's apparently a major unholy day coming up. Reports of the number of missing prisoners vary between twenty and thirty, with anywhere between one and a hundred cultists having been involved.

Early the next day the team returns to the site, and Smith tests for explosive residue. As well as the usual potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur, in the relevant ratios, there are traces of salt and of iron sulphate. This doesn't ring any bells, though McMurdoch eventually realises those ingredients could be used to make strong acids. A few prisoners were killed by the explosion, but Asteria doesn't seem to have been one of them.

Since the cult is supposed to operate in the worse parts of town, which aren't actually all that large and are mostly concentrated on the docks, the team decides to check some of the worse sort of tavern for any possible leads. Smith does most of the talking, and finds a merchant who's confused. He's just sold a lot of saltpeter and iron sulphate to an Athenian merchant named Philippos - obviously Philippos has cornered the market somewhere, but he has no idea where...

He gives the location of Philippos' warehouse, and the team goes there unmolested (four alert and well-armed people are not a promising target for footpads even in this part of town). The warehouse is dark, so they break in; as they get inside, Weinbrenner hears faint chanting, which his translator renders as an invocation of one Imhotep. Definitely not in period...

The warehouse seems on further investigation to be set up as a primitive chemical laboratory: five robed figures are moving around, dry-distilling iron sulphate, pouring powders into reaction vessels, and generally creating large quantities of quite strong-smelling acids. There are several light fabric bladders present, one of which is being filled with gas and floating. At one end of the room is a cage containing the missing prisoners.

It's time for action. Duclos and Smith step forward brandishing swords (holding their pistols ready for action in their off-hands), with McMurdoch behind them. Weinbrenner remains in the shadows, taking aim on one of the figures. When challenged, the two nearest cultists turn round but don't otherwise react; while the team members are deciding what to do, a ball of fire bursts around them, singeing Duclos and Smith and knocking McMurdoch off his feet.

Weinbrenner shoots the cultist he was aiming at, and the others join in the fight as they're able to get their pistols switched to their weapon hands. One burst goes slightly astray and a prisoner's hit, but the five cultists are soon dealt with. Unfortunately (depending on one's perspective) the fire started by the fireball is spreading...

The team breaks open the cage and gets the prisoners out. Asteria is performing first aid on the one who got shot, whose arm has been broken; McMurdoch helps. The other prisoners are happy to disperse into the city, and the team heads back for Demetrios' house and the conveyor. On the way, Asteria explains that the cult was planning to deface the statue of Poseidon, in his temple in the middle of the city, by lofting aqua regia under hydrogen balloons. They seemed to be Sons of Imhotep, which is a known faction of the Cabal.

McMurdoch takes the controls, and the team heads back to Homeline.

2.6. Better than the World

Session: 20 November 2005

The Prophet said, 'A single endeavor of fighting in Allah's Cause is better than the world and whatever is in it.'

-- The Qu'ran - Bukhari:V4B52N50

Captain Washington looks grim. "I've been ordered to provide a team. I think you have the best chance of surviving."

The mission is a trip to Caliph, the very-high-tech Islamic world that's just embarking on a major war. The general police of Infinity has been to keep hands off, in spite of the tempting local technology, since the consequences of a world like Caliph getting hold of cross-time capability would be... substantial. There's been some effort to persuade Centrum to adopt this policy as well, though it seems largely to have failed; as far as is known, Centrum is doing its best to turn the war apocalyptic, on the basis that poking through the rubble for neat bits of tech will be easier than stealing them from a functioning society.

There is a researcher called Nazihah bint Mirvat, specialist in djinn (local AIs), who has expressed a willingness to come and work for "a small country outside the dar al-Islam" - in practice, Infinity, though of course she has not been made aware of this. She's aware that there will be no communication or hope of return; she's looking for a bolt-hole to hide from the war, especially as her employers (Zaghawi Associates, who've just declared themselves an independent orbital caliphate) have worryingly large numbers of traditionalist scholars who are likely to make her position untenable.

The mission is to travel to Caliph and provide assistance to the operative in place, one Bassam bin Rihaz, to make sure Nazihah is able to come over without hindrance. Bassam would prefer not to act openly, since getting a tenuous place in the local society has taken a while and it would be a pity if all that work were to be lost.

There's one thing in the team's favour: it's the time of year most traditionally favoured for the hajj, so Nazihah can travel from her usual home in near orbit without arousing suspicion - and with fifty million pilgrims passing through Mecca there may be a bit more laxity than usual on identity checks. Another point is that there appears to be no magic at all on Caliph, so the locals won't be expecting Black...

Conventional weapons seem likely to pass most inspections (which will be looking for high-density power sources rather than explosives). The squad also carries stunners in hidden compartments in their luggage.

The trip in takes several stages: a cross-quantum transfer to an empty world on Q6, travel to the site of Mecca, then an in-quantum transfer into a sewer on Caliph itself. (This way, if the team has to leave in a hurry, there's no problem with waiting for a projector operator at the far end.) They're met by Bassam, who welcomes them and explains that there's a slight complication: Nazihah realises that she won't be able to come back to Mecca, and wishes to complete the hajj before she leaves. Therefore, he'd like the team to keep an eye on her while she does it. He's not entirely happy with the idea of non-Muslims doing this, but the alternatives seem to be worse...

They will pose as converts from the (mostly non-Muslim) kingdom of Firanj. Bassam leads them to the run-down madrasah that serves as the local Infinity office, and they pick up new identification and pack a week's worth of food. (Given that most transactions are electronic, there's not much scope for participating in the local economy. This won't be unusual, though - the alternative is to buy from monopoly vendors, so many people do carry their own food.)

In the morning, the team heads to the airport to pick up Nazihah as she comes off her flight from orbit. She seems to be talking with someone; McMurdoch reckons that this is not an unwelcome conversation, though it's not someone she knows well.

Quote: (Black) "Hi ho, hi ho, it's round the rock we go."
(Weinbrenner) "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to hajj we go."

The pilgrims, who have already changed into ihram, pile onto a fleet of airbuses to head for the Great Mosque; Black is the only one who manages to get onto the same vehicle as Nazihah. As they circle the Kaaba, they notice a few pilgrims bringing water to the others; one of these talks to Black (who indicates that he's taken a vow of silence rather than try out his translator-assisted Arabic), then later talks with Nazihah and her companion for a few moments, though the team is unable to overhear anything significant.

After the tawaf and the walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah, Nazihah's companion goes with the majority of the pilgrims to Medina; he has an argument with Nazihah about this, as she appears to consider this not a proper part of the hajj. She goes instead (with the team following) to the tent-city at Mena, where the local tech level really starts to become apparent to the I-Cops; flying cars are one thing, but a lightweight tent that's cool in the heat of the day, warm at night, and comes with hot and cold running water and (apparently) mains drainage is another matter entirely.

There are several of what appear to be police at Mena, and rumours talk of sickness in the camp; these are mostly dismissed as impossible. Nazihah talks with quite a few people during the evening and the next morning; although the ihram hides their occupation and level of wealth, several of them seem to be of a distinctly military bearing.

The pilgrims continue to the hill of Arafat, and spend the afternoon there, then go on to Muzdalifah. During the evening, Nazihah gets into a minor brawl with one of the people with whom she has been conversing, and the team manages to discern that he's calling her a traitor; all of them except Black (who's hanging back in case he needs not to be recognised later) come to assist her, and the other person backs down somewhat shamefacedly.

In the morning the return trip begins, to Mena and the three pillars representing three temptations by the devil. As the crowd is milling around, Weinbrenner notices a red dot as of a laser sight on his chest; he throws himself to the ground, and MacMurdoch hurries over to help. They pass the word on to the others; Smith is next to be targetted, and he similarly manages to get out of the line of fire, which seems to be from some low hills to the south-west. However, the next target is Nazihah herself; the only person close enough to do anything about it is Black, who throws himself into the path of the beam while attempting a shielding spell (which fails). He is shot through the abdomen with a military laser rifle, but somehow manages to remain upright (though in severe pain). The others hurry over; Smith gives him immediate aid, while MacMurdoch assists Nazihah, whose arm has been slightly burned by the (somewhat lower-powered) exiting beam.

Black charges towards the source of the attack, but falls over from shock and blood loss a couple of seconds later. Smith follows him with the bandages. Both Black and Nazihah are taken on stretchers (they may float and be easily directed by one hand, but the function is obvious) to an aid station, where they're patched up. Meanwhile, the crowd (very angry at this obvious attack in a holy place) heads towards the low hills; a figure rises on a lift belt, followed by a hail of stones, and gets away.

When he gets a chance, McMurdoch talks to Nazihah and subtly suggests that he and his colleagues are looking out for her; she gives the impression that she understands what he's talking about.

Black is inspired to write a poem about the experience he has just had, and it's a very good one. It's somewhat less good once it's been fed through the French-to-Arabic translator...

That night, Weinbrenner spots someone approaching the pilgrims' camp at a stealthy crawl. He sneaks round behind the intruder and ambushes him. He was carrying a long-arm, which appears to be a laser rifle consistent with the one that was used earlier; it's clearly very old. He also speaks even worse Arabic than the I-Cops' translators. Black and Smith attempt to intimidate him into talking, but it doesn't work well, so they inject him with Crediline; he relaxes immediately and says in Centran-accented English "Ah, you're I-Cops. Nobody else uses that formulation." He suggests that they not push matters too hard, "unless you can run ten metres in less than a second". Smith tries more formal interrogation techniques, but the prisoner doesn't reveal anything beyond the fairly obvious fact that he's a Centran agent. Black puts him to sleep with a spell, and Weinbrenner backs off to fifteen metres then shoots him in the head with a silenced pistol. The implanted bomb was rather more powerful than he had implied, and Weinbrenner is hit by a fragment (a fragment of what isn't entirely clear). The team manages to appear to be shocked pilgrims much like everyone else present. They hide the broken-down laser rifle (less power pack) in the hidden compartments in their luggage.

In the morning the police begin to check everyone's ID. The I-Cops try to leave, but a police aircar rapidly catches up with them. They cannot of course find records that match the team's fake documents, but they dismiss this as a typical result of the overloaded system. McMurdoch talks with them, playing the "ignorant foreigner" card, and manages to persuade them that his party is not of any particular concern.

Back at the camp, Nazihah is praying as she has been before, but looks rather more nervous. The group makes contact, Black surreptitiously passing on his translated poem, and she seems to relax somewhat (though the poem confuses her no end).

The pilgrims return to the Great Mosque and make the final circuits of the Kaaba. Nazihah talks to the person who was bringing her water on the first day, and seems very relieved by what he has to say; she gladly goes along with the I-Cops as they return to the madrasah (she even manages to ignore Black's attempt at seduction, with a "nice try" smile). She's a little more puzzled when they go the sewers, though she assumes that this is just an unconventional form of ground vehicle. When she sees the interior of the conveyor, she points out that she has clearly gone entirely mad and therefore should just relax. Once they've shifted back to the empty Q6 world, several of the I-Cops try to explain some of the basics of the cross-world theories, but there's very little common ground. They return to Homeline safely. It seems that Nazihah's conversations were attempts to persuade some key military figures, several of whom she had met through her work, to refrain from wholesale destruction of civilian targets; she thinks she may have had some success.

2.7. The Rights of Man

Session: 18 December 2005

This is an urgent mission to Reality Orczy (on Quantum 6). The local date is August 1793 (or Thermidor of Year II, depending on political sensibilities).

A few hours ago, someone took a shot at Armand Chauvelin, chief agent for the Committee of Public Safety. That in itself is not unusual, but the Infinity agent in Paris happened to see the weapon he'd used as he was being arrested: it looked remarkably like a Baker & Alvarez .591 Express rifle (aka "dinosaur rifle", that being what it's built for). Nobody on that world should even know how to use one, much less actually have the thing.

The shooter is now in the Salpetrière, one of the prisons of Paris, and will probably be executed soon. It's not known just where the rifle is. Mission objectives are to get the rifle back, find out where it came from, and stop it happening again. A copy of the complete Scarlet Pimpernel series is available for download; the team skims it on the suborbital plane to Paris. (Lucius becomes visibly agitated as he learns the history of this alternate version of his country.) The conveyor has been stuffed with a random assortment of costumes, coinage, and other things they seem likely to need.

They decide to set themselves up as free-thinking petits bourgeois, cousins originally from Normandy, who have just returned from the colony of Haiti now that a reasonable government is in power. (This explains their servant, Basil.) Sandrine will adopt male disguise, as usual. Headquarters have managed to dig up two magazine-fed "flintlock" pistols; Lucius and Kryztof carry one each, while the others will rely on their concealed ISPs. Short heavy swords are also handed out for those who (unlike Lucius) do not already have a suitable hand-to-hand weapon. They have passes for Paris, current at least as of a few days ago; however, passes have a tendency to become invalid very suddenly.

The team jumps in about ten miles out of Paris, into reasonably deep woods. They walk to the inn that's nearby, where an unwashed innkeeper (with tricolour scarf) greets them with a surly grunt. He's willing to sell them horses, though, for only three or four times a fair price. (The two team members who are entirely unskilled in riding both do better than those who are trained. Someone back at HQ makes a note to cut back on the training programmes.)

There's a queue as they approach the Barrière du Roule; everyone both entering and leaving Paris is being searched. Fortunately, high-tech concealment can cover the medical kit and other equipment. They pass along the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré, then find a guest house in the Faubourg St Germain (making the standard bribe to the concierge to "forget" to report them for a few days).

If the rifle was issued legitimately, it'll have a transponder. Kryztof and Sandrine check for a signal, and get a general eastward bearing; that's not consistent with the Salpetrière, but might well be pointing towards the Île de la Cité.

For the moment, the best bet seems to be to get a feel for the mood of the town and any rumours. The main talk is of tomorrow's Fête in Honour of the Constitution, apparently to be a massive spectacle, but the attack on Chauvelin also gets mentioned. The firer is apparently to be charged both with attempted murder and with witchcraft, since his weapon was of no human agency; it's said he even fired through a brick wall! Chauvelin himself is said to be taking a different view, forbidding all mention of witchcraft and looking into the matter of the weapon himself. As for the firer, one Maurice Levet, he's a former tanner, not too bright and with no particular history of royalist tendencies (not that anyone would be likely to admit it to a stranger if he had, and they hadn't turned him in for it).

The team enters the Faubourg St Victor to visit the Salpetrière. They bribe the (young and rather bored) guard at the front gate to let them in to jeer at the lunatics; Basil manages to restrain himself from pointing out those who could trivially by cured by fixing their vitamin or hormone deficiencies. Levet is less entertaining than most; Basil spots that he's in opium withdrawal. According to the guard, he hasn't said much apart from "mort aux aristos" since he was brought in.

A cry goes up in the street: the Marquis de Rémy has escaped, hidden in a cart of rotten vegetables! The guards rush to the main door to try to find out more, and Basil takes the opportunity to talk to Levet. He asks where Levet got the opium; the answer is "l'Ange d'Or", which turns out to be a drinking-house rather than a person. Levet doesn't remember anything about a shooting: one moment he was having pleasant dreams, the next he was being arrested. Basil slips him some fast-sober, and suggests he keep repeating his story to the guards.

The team's next visit is to said Golden Angel (which is clearly trying to move up in the world; its sign has recently had the name added in letters, rather than being purely visual). The smell of opium smoke is noticeable in the street, though it appears on the surface to be a normal low tavern. Lucius attracts attention by looking rich, allowing the others to take a careful look around without themselves drawing notice. This place seems to operate as an informal brothel (upstairs) as well as the other function. There don't seem to be any anachronisms in the place - the dentistry of the staff is appropriately poor - other than the simple presence of opium, which is rather too early to be historical (particularly in its smokable, rather than pure resin, form). Basil goes back to the yard under cover of relieving himself, but doesn't find anything of interest; Sandrine heads downstairs to find a guard who insists on her handing over a fair amount of gold before she'll be allowed in to smoke. (When asked how people are expected to get such wealth, he comments that all it takes is the arrest of one aristo and getting to his house before anyone else does...) It seems that the opium comes in by wagon, but the guard is disinclined to talk. Sandrine hands over coinage; she's given a pipe and shown to a couch. She palms the drug and fakes a stupor.

Meanwhile, Lucius heads upstairs with his petite amie; he learns that there are some storerooms that only the boss is allowed to enter. Once he returns, the others retrieve Sandrine and head back to their guest-house, taking more readings on the weapon's transponder on the way.

Sandrine analyses the opium - it's very pure, suitably diluted for use but with a single strain of vegetable matter rather than the usual mixture of materials. Kryztof reckons that the weapon is being kept in the Palais de Justice, though (perhaps fortunately) above ground rather than in the Conciergerie below. Much discussion ensues, with Lucius favouring a direct approach to Chauvelin while the others prefer to get in more subtly. Both plans are put into practice. The group talk their way past the sentries on the bridge leading to the Île de la Cité by claiming they have an urgent message for Citizen Chauvelin; one sentry is sent with them to the Palais de Justice. A guard there carries Lucius' note (saying "I know the identity of someone in whom you have an interest", with a scarlet pimpernel folded into it) to Chauvelin, who returns the order to bring him up. Lucius persuades the guards that the others were only there for his protection, and needn't be included in the invitation, as they try to fade into the background (with varying degrees of success).

Lucius is escorted up to Chauvelin's office, where he identifies the outline of the gun under a hastily-draped cloth. He explains that, since the Pimpernel is known to have agents everywhere, only one guard should be present; Chauvelin agrees, and the other guards leave. Lucius begins: "There is a man associated with Lord Villiers, one Edmund Blackadder..." and there's a crash as the lamp is overturned and the room is plunged into darkness. A shout of "Help! Murder!" arises....

Meanwhile, the rest of the team has managed to sneak round to a disused side door of the Palais de Justice. It's chained outside; Kryztof picks the lock. It becomes clear that it's bolted inside as well, so Kryztof applies (what turns out to be rather too much) thermite. They get inside and block the door with a chair to try to make their intrusion less obvious, then head for Chauvelin's office just in time to see the two guards normally stationed at the foot of the stairs disappearing up them to give assistance.

Lucius remembers where the gun was, grabs it in the dark and leaves the fight to get on with itself (dodging round the guards as they come in). He runs downstairs, being caught a glancing blow by one of those same guards as he's flung out through the (now closed) door. The team departs in haste, and they leave through the side door then sneak back to their lodgings.

The team sleeps in late the next day. They decide to stake out the Golden Angel to try to find out where the opium's coming from (a conveyor wouldn't fit easily into the small rooms of the Ange d'Or). Sandrine and Basil trade off watches to keep an eye on the gate leading to the inn yard, while Kryztof keeps a comms watch for radio traffic and Lucius looks out for anyone watching Sandrine and Basil (and hears that Levet was guillotined as part of yesterday's festivities). A day later, there's a burst transmission followed a few seconds later by a response from the Ange; a few minutes later, a cart arrives. The team gathers up its equipment and horses, and follows the cart as it leaves Paris by the Barrière Fontainebleu.

The trip is four days into and up the Loire Valley, and remaining stealthy while following is obviously a problem. Basil is on point when he comes round a bend to find the cart stopped and someone shooting at him. He ducks just in time, but falls off his horse and crawls for cover. The others charge up, or try to - only Lucius manages to stay mounted. He exchanges fire with the first attacker (who's certainly using a modern firearm), while the second tries to shoot his teammates as they approach on foot. Lucius is shot twice and critically wounded, but hits his attacker; Basil and Sandrine draw their ISPs from concealment, but by the time they're in action Kryztof has finished off both attackers (one of who is also critically wounded; the other is unconscious but stable).

Basil immediately starts working to save Lucius' life; it takes a while, but he manages to stabilise him. Kryztof has less success working on the mortally-wounded attacker. Lucius and the other attacker are bundled into the cart (with the attacker cuffed), and the horses are gradually collected from where they've run off.

Kryztof and Sandrine interrogate the attacker, who's prepared to talk (especially given the promise of a nice safe prison cell rather than being exposed to his colleagues' idea of punishment for having talked). He's working for the Outfit, helping smuggle opium to Paris in return for gold; there's a cave further up the valley which leads to Crichton, a Quantum 7 world known mostly for its remarkable assortment of dinosaurs.

There's clearly a lot more investigation to be done here, but for the moment there's a badly-damaged I-cop to be treated; the team heads back to the conveyor and Homeline.

(To be continued.)

2.8. Il est facile de voir que...

Session: 14 January 2006

But while other members of the Infinity Patrol try to locate the other end of the nexus portal on Crichton, there's a more urgent mission for (some of) our heroes. On Azoth-7, instead of the Industrial Revolution they had the Alchemical Revolution: in 1693, Isaac Newton discovered the Philosopher's Stone and unlocked the crystalline resonances of the universe, giving control over the lower angels. Now the four great powers (Britain, Spain, Venice and Prussia) glare at each other and exploit the powers of the gemstones of Earth and the other worlds to which they can now travel.

Those other worlds became accessible when Newton interpreted the writings of Giordano Bruno. Infinity is quite happy to let the Azoth-ers travel within their own pocket universe, but wants very much to keep them confined there rather than letting them spread elsewhere; one of its major tasks on Azoth-7 is to obtain any stray manuscripts of Bruno's that turn up.

And one has. Some previously unpublished appendices to De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi have shown up in Toulouse, where Bruno worked for most of his life, and (since France is part of the British Empire) will shortly be taken to London for Newton to study. That's something that Infinity would really rather not happen. Oh, and there are sometimes Cabalists after manuscripts and gems too...

Infinity's London agent, one Wilfred Todhunter, welcomes the team; he explains that money is difficult to obtain, since one of Newton's interests is in counterfeiting and Infinity hasn't been able to produce currency that will pass alchemical tests. The fastest way to get to Toulouse is probably to translate back to Police-3 and use a high-speed transport to carry the conveyor there, then translate in again. Before that, though, they decide on their covers - a scion of the nobility (Sandrine in male disguise as "Henri") with his tutors - and take a stroll around London to get over any culture shock: it's much as expected, though with rather fewer beggars and less sign of disease, and of course with the occasional flying-machine passing overhead.

Once in Toulouse, they are slightly surprised by a crack and rumble, along with a pillar of fire reaching to the sky. Well, it is a centre for research into the fliers that travel to other worlds... They walk into town, getting a lift some of the way with a carter who has got used to the noise though he still complains about it, and find an inn for a late lunch. They walk around the city of a while, not really getting much further on their mission, then ask their innkeeper for his recommendation of someone who might be amenable to discussing his research with the young nobleman; they're pointed to one Giscard, out at the flying-field where the research now takes place (giving less risk of blowing up parts of the town, or boiling the river).

It's clear that the flying-field is split between researchers with their test vehicles and actual launches; there are rather fewer of the latter, but they are much less inclined to blow up. Giscard and his establishment both look a bit run-down, though his workshop is full of small gems; one of his creations floats around the room as he talks with the team. If only he could get larger gems, he explains, his vehicles would out-perform all those of his rivals; for now he has to do paltry tasks to bring in money, like transportation and healing. He fails to hint sufficiently broadly at the possibility of patronage to get anywhere with the team.

As the team looks at the other experimenters, they see two black-clad priests and a nun talking earnestly with one of them; the lead priest points out that a design which does not partake of the divine nature is intrinsically flawed no matter how effective it may appear, and it will let one down. (The prototype behind his victim falls to the ground at this point.) The team members talk with him briefly; he seems very earnest but basically sensible. He's not opposed to the use of angelic powers for flight, just to particular designs. He points out that even the great Giordano Bruno was capable of falling into error... It's noticeable that in the priests' peregrinations they're seeing a lot of the inside of each workshop, and might even be looking for a particular item.

There's a more friendly response at the Societé Avio-Théologique du Sud, which is large enough to employ a guard on the door. The chief philosopher is happy to show "Henri" around, and explains his revolutionary concept: building craft to a proven design, rather than continually changing the design to make it better. (He throws the credit for this idea to Newton's commentaries on Bruno, but it's clear that he came up with it himself.) It seems that he mostly sells to the Government, and (alas) they fit weapons to many of his craft; he hasn't yet found a design that resonates incompatibly with crystalline energy projectors, though he's trying. He found the manuscript himself, concealed between pasted-together pages of another book he was working with, though it's now under guard in the Hotel de Ville. He did make some notes on it before he handed it over, though; after all, it may be years before Newton comes up with anything based on it.

He introduces himself, somewhat belatedly, as duClos, and Basil suggests that "Henri" once knew a talented young lady of that name; this is clearly a slight gaffe, but serves as a pretext for distracting him in conversation while Sandrine photographs the notes. It's not clear from immediate observation whether this manuscript relates to parachronic theory, but she can't rule it out.

The team heads back into town, and takes a look at the Hotel de Ville. It's pretty solidly built, and the gendarmerie is close by. As they're finishing their meal, there's a sound of shouting followed by a crash of breaking glass as a figure flies through the front window, only to hover in mid-air and point a jewelled rod back inside. He's wearing clothing that's ornate even for this timeline, including an unreasonably large feathered hat. Someone shouts at him: "Pierre-Simon, you can't get away with this!" He replies: "I seem to be. And the blind man is laughing at you all!"

An angelic flier passes low along the street, and he piles in and departs. Basil grabs a passing taxi, and yells "follow that angel" - but it's too fast for him, and even for the authorities' own fliers (their amplified shouts of "we know where you live in Paris" don't seem to deter the escaping Pierre-Simon).

They return to the ground and ask about what's been going on. Pierre-Simon seems to have quite a few fans among the locals; he's one of the chiens du ciel, the sky raiders who preyed on Spanish merchant ships and are now building up a certain amount of Robin Hood mystique among those in France who don't appreciate English rule. Apparently he even took time to kiss the governor's secretary on his way out with the manuscript... oh, and his surname is Laplace.

The team returns to the conveyor, translates out, and their pilot heads for Paris-equivalent at top speed. On the way they uplink the scan of duClos' copy of the other duClos' notes, and send a burst request for information about Pierre-Simon Laplace; it appears that even on Homeline he was never a modest man, and was unusual in his time by regarding mathematics as a tool to be used in pursuit of some other goal rather than as a goal in itself. This is probably not a good person to allow to have the manuscript...

Back on Azoth-7, the team heads into Paris. "Henri" asks around among the students, and (with a critical streetwise check)is rapidly pointed to Laplace' secret workshop (as opposed to his public one, which is already surrounded by British soldiers - clearly there's an angelic communication system in place). They lie up and wait for contact. Around 1am, an angelic flier passes overhead (glowing brightly, as they do); a small, dark figure drops away from it, landing quietly in the street nearby. He heads into the workshop; the team follows, but the door is secured and the gems around the lock suggest that it's likely to defeat mundane attempts to pick it.

As they're considering their next action, another group of people (similarly imitating drunkenness to the casual observer, though not as well) comes along the street. One of them is clearly following the pendulum that he's swinging over a map. The team retreats; the newcomers gather around the door, take various substances from their pockets and put them into and around the lock, then enter without difficulty, leaving one of their number on guard. Sandrine attempts to hypo him with Eraser, but he's alert enough to parry her; he draws a glowing dagger, she retreats to tempt him out into the open, but he stays in the doorway (calling for "Blaise" and "Francis").

Basil and Kryztof arrive, point their guns at him, and tell him to drop his weapon; he refuses, holding his dagger up protectively. Indeed, it might have protected him from bullets or fists, but it doesn't do anything when Sandrine knocks it out of his hand and sends it a few yards down the street. He surrenders.

Basil is the only one to hear another body landing in the street behind him; he turns round. It's another of the newcomers, a woman with a drawn rapier; he tells her to drop the sword, but she attacks instead; Basil dodges and fires a burst from his pistol, but misses.

Another newcomer is behind the guard in the doorway, and he suggests a parley before things get too far out of hand; gradually, and with noticeable reluctance from the woman with the rapier, weapons are lowered. They all head into the workshop, then upstairs into the living area. Laplace is sitting, apparently unharmed; Sandrine mentions that his impressive gesture has drawn perhaps more attention than he was expecting, but he replies that he's used to being the centre of attention.

The newcomers introduce themselves as Blaise, Dominic, Francis and Hilaria of the Amonis Albioni lodge, which the I-Cops recognise as one of the more sane (at least relatively) parts of the Cabal. Blaise wants to keep the original of the manuscript, but is quite happy to let Laplace ("our associate", though clearly not of long standing) have a copy. Basil explains that the I-Cops want to make sure there are no copies left behind in Azoth-7, which is clearly something of a sticking-point. Blaise admits that the Cabal clearly already has a form of parachronic travel, and that improving this is not their objective in wanting this manuscript; Sandrine asks what their objective is, and he explains that ("not wanting to be patronising") she probably doesn't have the vocabulary to understand.

Laplace is not prepared to give up at least a copy of the manuscript; he's agreed to deliver it to "the blind man", who turns out to be Leonhard Euler - "almost as great a mathematician as I", who even predicted that the manuscript would soon be found in Toulouse. Basil explains that the manuscript really can't be allowed to get into general circulation. Laplace can't negotiate on Euler's behalf, but he is prepared to transport both the I-Cops and the Cabalists to St Petersburg so that they can meet him. He has an experimental flier; he's never flown it with this many people on board, but this shouldn't be a problem...

As indeed it is not: Europe rolls past far below, and in less than ten minutes they're approaching the Neva delta, St Petersburg, and a certain house in the poor quarter. The workshop here is filled with geometrical solids, starting with the Platonic polyhedra and progressing to stranger shapes, some of which don't look as though they entirely belong in three-dimensional space. The team and companions are greeted by a somewhat irascible man with a stick, who moves as though he keeps it more for hitting people than for support; Laplace is uncharacteristically deferential and apologetic to "Master Euler", who is really not at all enthused by the idea that Laplace has brought friends. He seems to stare with his gemstone glasses, even though his eyes are closed shut behind them.

Euler explains that what he's hoping to discover from the manuscript are the resonances of a number of foreign star systems that have not yet been explored. He has found one or two on his own, but none that will support life; since each system's gems seem to have their own unique properties, he wants to keep them to himself while he works out what can be done with them. He's certainly not prepared to agree to keep the manuscript a secret until he knows what's in it, though he refers to Newton as "that dilettante" and is scarcely more polite about Leibniz ("he can't even find me here").

The I-Cops realise that they're up against a fairly intractable situation: starting a war with the more sensible part of the Cabal, and assassinating major historical figures, are both things which generally seem like Bad Ideas. Much discussion ensues; Blaise thinks that the manuscript probably doesn't refer to cross-world travel, and that even if it does the gemstone alchemy techniques won't work outside the Azoth-7 pocket. Eventually Basil extracts an agreement from Euler to use the manuscript wisely and to keep the results to himself at least for the moment, and away from Newton and Leibniz in any case (which Euler was planning to do anyway); Sandrine takes photographs of the pages until she is sure she has good images. Euler duplicates the manuscript by placing it under a wire-frame tetrahedron and pulling it and the copy out from under a wire-frame cube on the other side of the room, then gives the original to Blaise. The Cabalists leave through a door that wasn't there before and isn't there afterwards; Laplace gives the I-Cops transport back to Paris (mentioning of Euler, "one day he may even approach my own brilliance"), and they return to their conveyor and Homeline.

2.9. The Rights of Man (part 2)

Session: 11 February 2006

The prisoner captured on Orczy has been questioned, and has given up everything he knows. Unfortunately that's not much; he's a soldier for the Outfit, who were shifting opium from Crichton to Orczy, but while he's pointed to the warehouse-bunker they were using on Crichton it had already been abandoned. The other Outfit people on Orczy are being watched, but the only remaining lead to the matter of the rifle seems to be the rifle itself. It was registered to one Edward Orvis, an accountant with White Star Trading who's had some outtime experience as part of his job; he's currently four weeks into a six-week "guard stint", a thinly-disguised dinosaur-hunting holiday, on Marsh-3.

Research Station 217 on Marsh-3 is nominally operated by the Societé Paléontologique, as it's more or less on the site of Lyon in France. In practice, like many outtime operations, it's an international endeavour. There are four scientists and one administrator, all on long postings, and five guards, who usually stay only about a month each (but who contribute to the upkeep of the station).

A new directive has come down from on high: the Interworld Council is concerned at the level of "fraternisation" between agents of nominally opposing powers. As Washington points out, they'd be a lot happier if all foreign agents were shot on sight... but they are behind desks, not going out on missions.

The team adopts identities as conveyor maintenance personnel (Weinbrenner and Smith) and their "guards" (duClos and McMurdoch), the latter presenting themselves as satisfying some basic auditing requirements while making the most of the timeline's local fauna.

They jump into Marsh-3 and are greeted by Dr Pierce, the senior scientist on the station. She's glad to see them, even before they explain that they're there because of reported problems with a particular model of conveyor; after six months in a swamp, she's glad to see anybody. The station is a basic patch of cleared ground with modular buildings inside an electric fence... and a tall concrete wall. As Pierce explains, "we've seen those films". She takes the team to meet Cheng Kun, the station chief and main administrator; they then stow their personal luggage and get to work.

Weinbrenner and Smith work on the emergency conveyor, noticing that some of its components show a bit more wear than they really ought to given that it's supposed to be on emergency standby. They replace some from their spares box, for later examination. They also check the conveyor's internal log, but there's no recorded activity. They plant a couple of audio and one visual bug, just in case. duClos checks the station records ("to justify our trip out here") with Cheng's approval, and finds them suspiciously clean - it's not as blatant as "no wastage at all", but they certainly look as though they've been faked. McMurdoch talks with Cheng about the station, asking whether the nine people here are all that there are; Cheng replies that Edward Orvis is out on a personal safari and has been for a couple of weeks, but he's due to check in tomorrow by radio as he does every couple of days. He could be called in an emergency; is this one?

On further questioning, Cheng explains that solo trips aren't entirely uncommon with "guards" who want to bag a prime trophy. He didn't think Orvis seemed like a real survival type, but he had the basic skills and signed the disclaimer.

There's a communal dinner and a certain amount of story-swapping; the "maintenance people" have a lot of stories about I-Cops they know, but they're reasonably subtle about it. McMurdoch scans the faces for signs of stress; Cheng seems to be a bit worried, but a sudden audit might have that effect on almost anyone. The team members put intrusion alarms on their doors and go to bed.

duClos wakes up with an aromatic cloth of some sort pressed to her face. She struggles, but her attacker is quite strong; she breaks free by falling off the bed, then shouts to wake the others. She knocks the attacker over, and they struggle briefly in the dark before he gets away. By the time he's got to the corridor, Weinbrenner and McMurdoch are up, and since the attacker - Cheng - is outrunning them Weinbrenner calls for him to stop then shoots. He misses, but McMurdoch doesn't, and Cheng goes down.

McMurdoch patches the rather severe wound as the other station personnel turn up in various states of shock. Dr Pierce turns out to be missing, as does the emergency conveyor. Sandrine catches the smell of destruct tabs, and sees that there's been a hasty attempt made to destroy paper records in Cheng's office; she's able to salvage most of them, and works through them over the next hour or so. It seems that Cheng and Pierce have been running an illegal hunting operation by letting selected hunters "go off on safari on their own", while actually sending them on the conveyor to Crichton - which has a rather larger assortment of interesting things to shoot at, even though nobody's officially supposed to be there. McMurdoch triggers the emergency contact beacon for Orvis, and isn't entirely surprised that nobody answers; with more checking of the records, they realise there's a locator beacon on each of the station's jeeps, and find the one that Orvis supposedly took a few hundred yards from the camp.

The team shuttles to Police-7, taking the station crew with them in a series of jumps since a larger conveyor isn't available. They load up with body armour and heavier weapons, then get the conveyor shifted behind the closest hill to the camp site and head for Crichton to see what sort of force Pierce has run back to. After a certain amount of trekking through fairly thick jungle, they find a path and then a patch of cleared ground; duClos climbs a tree for a better view, and spies the usual electric fence, a low wall, and a large encampment with several buildings, ten jeeps, and gun towers, all hidden under the jungle's heavy canopy. This is clearly more than a single team can be expected to cope with, but there isn't any immediate sign that the enemy is clearing out; the I-cops retreat to Police-7 and call for help.

It's not really a big enough problem for Special Ops, but a few tactical teams are made available to transpose in and grab everyone; the planning takes about another day. The team goes in with the second wave, once most of the shooting has stopped, and take a look at what proves to have been a Triad operation. Pierce was picked up, and both she and Cheng separately confirm that Orvis was one of their "special" customers; he was killed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they were still deciding how they were going to cover it up. They're both puzzled by the matter of the gun, though; they assumed it had been stamped into the mud or swallowed, along with everything else he'd had on him.

This seems to be a dead end. While the team's on Crichton, they check the Outfit opium warehouse, a few hundred miles away near the nexus portal. It's been fairly thoroughly abandoned, but looks as though five or ten people might have been based there. There's no sign of tracks nearby (beyond the usual dinosaur tracks that are everywhere on Crichton).

The next step seems to be to see what can be learned on Orczy; the Outfit people there have been cut off from their outtime supply for several weeks now, and are probably starting to get a bit desperate. The team returns to the countryside outside Paris, gets hold of a cart full of vegetables (possibly paying a record price for such a thing), and enters the city disguised as a pair of farmers and a pair of sailors. They dispose of the vegetables, then get a load of manure under which they plan to hide the Outfit goons. They confirm with the Infinity observers that all the targets are still in the Ange d'Or; there are eight of them, though it's not known how many may be locals. Weinbrenner rigs a pair of black-powder charges to blow the doors in; he and Smith go in through the front door, while McMurdoch and duClos hit the back.

The fuses on the charges sputters, fizzes... and stops. Weinbrenner and McMurdoch dash forward, drop in flash-bang grenades (that they were planning to use inside anyway) and retreat; that does the trick, and the doors are blasted apart. There are still a few patrons in the front room, as well as three of the staff; another comes up the stairs from the cellar at the back, and is caught at gunpoint by McMurdoch and duClos. He says that there are only two customers in the cellar, for times are hard; McMurdoch goes down to check, and pulls his head back quickly as someone shoots at him with a modern firearm.

In the main room, a grenade comes down from upstairs; everyone dives for cover, though Smith is a bit slow and is scored by the shrapnel. Weinbrenner points out that the three staff already in the main room are hostages, and the two upstairs surrender. Meanwhle, McMurdoch has called for the two in the cellar to surrender; they don't respond, until he calls in English rather than French, at which point they're relatively glad to be cuffed and taken up. They're all outtimers, no locals; they don't even complain too much about having to hide under the dung-pile in the cart.

As the team leaves Paris, the gate guard seems unconvinced by their story; he prods the pile with (someone else's) pike, but there's no sound. He lets them go. Once they're safely away, McMurdoch applies antisepsis to the newly-wounded Outfit man... back at the conveyor, McMurdoch goes ahead to get hold of a larger conveyor, and everyone's brought back to Police-6.

Interrogation reveals that the Outfit men reckon that they've been betrayed by "Zukowski". It turns out that Toghrul Zukowski is a swagman of some sort, who turned up on Crichton (with the rifle) and made himself useful to the Outfit. He came up with the idea of assassinating Chauvelin so that the Committee of Public Safety would be looking for the assassin rather than trying to trace the source of the opium coming into Paris. They know he got out, though - he assumed the identity of the Marquis de Rémy, whom the Pimpernel got out of Paris while the team was last present.

At this point Zukowski's trail seems pretty cold, so the team reports in and heads back to base.

2.10. Operation Long Spoon

Session: 4 March 2006

For the first time since the team's known him, Washington looks worried. The mission is to Gotha-12, a hell world on quantum 6 - one of the nineteen worlds that suffer from a mutated pneumonic plague that takes hold in any group of people larger than a thousand or so and turns them into mindless hunters and scavengers, known colloquially as "zombies". In this particular line, the plague hit about three hundred years ago, and technology is just barely able to support windmills and basic gunpowder weapons.

Infinity's normal policy is to do some research on the plague but mostly keep their hands off - apart from anything else, most of the survivors on Gotha lines tend to be very distrustful of strangers. A few traders manage to stay alive carrying goods and messages between fortified villages.

One of those traders is Carl Newbury, Infinity's agent in place. He's heard some disturbing rumours recently about zombie migration patterns; normally they don't migrate at all, but several bands seem to be converging on approximately the site of Vienna.

The team picks up a variety of heavy weapons (mostly ICWs with grenade launchers), an airborne drone, and a conveyor-equipped HMMWV-2 with an electrified exterior and a heavy machine gun mounted on top. They shift out to Police-6, then into Gotha-12.

McMurdoch runs the conveyor, as usual, but the conveyor arrives three feet low, stuck in the ground. McMurdoch and Black dig it out, getting the remnants of soil from where they're packed closely around the parachronic field grid, and they set off for the rendezvous; they park the vehicle out of sight in trees, and wait for Newbury to arrive.

He does, on horseback, and they take him to the vehicle to talk in relative safety. Although he hasn't witnessed the zombie migrations himself, he's heard reports from several different sources, starting about a month ago (of events that had happened three months before that, around the beginning of spring; news doesn't travel fast). He's triangulated the various locations and directions to derive the destination area, but it's not especially accurate.

The team leaves him a radio transmitter, then jumps back to Police-6 and arranges for a relay unit to be put in place in case they need to contact him again. They return to Gotha-12 about a hundred miles from the site of Vienna, and immediately see a zombie; they get some idea of its movement, then head off in the same direction. En route they pass a few villages, clearly recently attacked and destroyed by zombies, and eventually see a few miles away an intact village, roughly on the site of the historical town of Essling, with a palisade around its fields and zombies on all sides outside that (milling around, rather than attacking). The most notable feature is the large windmill in the middle of the village.

The team camouflages the vehicle, lays up and conducts surveillance for a day or so, with Duclos cautiously using the drone but mostly relying on binoculars. There's a large antenna attached to the top of the windmill; Smith scans for radio signals, and finds one off the bottom of the usual frequency range. There's no content, just a carrier wave. The workers in the fields are wearing local clothing; the guards on the walls are carrying modern long-arms and wearing black uniforms, and a suspicion becomes certainty when a half-track leaves the village and passes through the gate in the outer walls, the black cross on its side clearly visible. This is certainly a Reich-5 presence, though quite how they've got here isn't clear: the Chronobahn only extends across Quantum 3, and most of their jumpers aren't anything like powerful enough to shift a vehicle between worlds.

The half-track passes near a group of zombies, and one of the passengers fires a weapon of some sort out of the window. There's no visible flash, but zombies fall over when shot at, and they're loaded into the back of the 'track which returns to the village. Several hours later, a 'track (which might be the same one) comes back with a load of zombies which are thrown out; some minutes later, they wake up and resume their normal behaviour. McMurdoch happens to be taking an observation watch when he sees a familiar figure on the walls: Gerry Curtis, the Centrum agent whom he last met on Steel.

The team drives a few miles away to get out of the likely range of Centran parachronic detectors, then returns to Police-6. They load up with even heavier armour and weapons, as well as tear-gas and smoke grenades and a load of plastique (with idiot-proof timer and detonator). They also arrange for Special Ops to assault the place an hour after they leave...

They return to a spot near the village walls, inside the outer palisade. McMurdoch shoots a guard with the machine gun, but it jams before he can kill the other. Smith drives rapidly into the village, heading straight for the windmill (the only building that was easily identifiable from a distance, and in any case the site of the antenna). As they enter the town square, they see a large cargo hovercraft that was concealed from earlier observation; a half-track emerges from it, as its engines start to spool up.

McMurdoch fires a couple of grenades at the 'track; one of them hits, disabling its engine. The Nazis in the back deploy, mostly firing small-arms which don't hit anything vital; however, one of them has a Panzerfaust. In the confusion and from a moving vehicle, nobody manages to hit him, but with a bright flash someone appears immediately behind him and sticks a sword through his chest. McMurdoch, who was attempting to aim at the Nazi, recognises her as Hilaria of the Amonis Albioni. Duclos hits another Nazi, and Smith heads straight for the windmill.

He crashes through the light door, and into the generator that was close behind it. Fortunately, the electrified hull on the HMMWV-2 includes insulation from the rest of the vehicle. McMurdoch finally manages to get the machine-gun cleared. Weinbrenner, Duclos and Black pile out to suppress the three startled technicians in the generator room, Weinbrenner calling on them to surrender.

A grenade rolls down the stairs and goes off. It seems to contain tear gas; the assault armour that the I-Cops are wearing protects them from this, but it does take the technicians out of the tactical picture. A figure following the grenade down the stairs is wearing Nazi uniform except for an elaborate feathered head-dress; he fires a burst of automatic fire at the I-Cops, but fails to do significant damage through their armour, and Smith shoots him.

While McMurdoch and most of the team guard their entry hole, throwing an occasional grenade through to discourage the soldiers outside, Black quickly searches the upper floor. He finds some plans dealing with a place called "Knasgord", but doesn't have the skill to interpret them; he brings them back down to McMurdoch, who realises that they refer to a settlement on Ezcalli - it looks like an invasion (quite possibly of zombies), followed by a "liberation" by Centran or Nazi troops.

A Centran-accented voice speaks outside, in German: "I don't think they're going to surrender, you know." There's some low argument, followed by the sound of a conveyor; when the I-Cops look outside, the hovercraft is gone, as have the Nazis. They leave quickly, sketchily searching the village on their way out (and cramming the technicians into their vehicle), and head out to the hills before the expected assault forces arrive.

Special Operations attack the town from their conveyors, catching the Centran forces by surprise. One half-track does break loose from the engagement, heading west into the mountains, and the team decides to follow. The drone easily keeps sight of it, and it vanishes into a cave.

They shift back to Police-6, check the cave on that line (it's much shallower, not enough to take a vehicle), then return and enter the cavemouth. Four Nazis try to stop them, but are shot with the machine-gun (except for the one who flees - alone and on foot on this world, he seems unlikely to be a major problem).

The team drives round the corner of the cave, through what must be a nexus portal, into sunlight - and an armoured vehicle park, with several German tanks which are being started as they appear. They quickly retreat, then decide to use the bomb to try to seal the portal; Weinbrenner sets it, and it certainly brings down the cave, as well as probably collapsing the gateway.

The team returns to Essling for pickup, but there are no more prisoners available; most of the opposition retreated when the battle was clearly going against them. Gerry Curtis is not among the dead.

2.11. The World's Only Hygiene

Session: 1 April 2006

We will glorify war -- the world's only hygiene -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.

-- Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (1909)

Washington explains the mission background. One of the consistent things about high- and alternate-tech timelines is their energy storage, which is usually noticeably better than Homeline's. Another is the way it doesn't work when we bring it back to Homeline; so Homeline does "research in place", sending scientists out to worlds with different physical laws. One of those teams, on Reality Futura, has just called for help: one of its members has gone missing. We want you to find out what's happened and take any appropriate measures.

The team is based in Danzig, North German Republic - well behind the front line, most of the time. But it's still close enough to the border that records get lost, and nobody pays too much attention to a group of aesthetes who don't have much in the way of credentials. They're based in a house in a (relatively) bad part of town (it is still a house, not an apartment block), with a big cellar suitable for conveyors. The above-ground floors are kept "suitable for company".

The team will have a fairly minimal cover as poets from further west in the North German Republic. There's enough variety of weapons that their service pistols will go unremarked, though their clothing will be heavily influenced by the local jumpsuit styles.

On the way to the conveyor, the team studies the files. The research team consists of:

The conveyor is projected from a pit dug in the outskirts of Gdansk to a cellar in Danzig. Benedikt meets them and explains the situation: Krispin was fairly badly beaten up at yesterday's self-defence training session and went to bed early, but wasn't there this morning (it's now early afternoon). The team goes straight to Krispin's room, and Kryztof searches it for evidence. He finds that the bed has been slept in; there's a razor, with a few hairs and a spot of blood on it as well as Lothar's on the handle, kicked into a corner; there's a different set of fingerprints, from Elisavet, on the inside door handle; there's a small blood spot on the bed; and the window is sealed, not only for security but (judging by the swirling muck outside) for health.

Basil gathers the researchers in the main room, and all the I-Cops keep an eye on them while he asks for anything else they feel he should know. Everyone looks shiftily at Therese, who explains that Krispin was rather full of himself and had been boasting about his newly-acquired knowledge of the local martial styles. She doesn't like him much and perhaps was a bit harder on him than she should have been in explaining the error of his ways, but didn't break anything or do any permanent damage.

Elizavet says that Krispin seemed to spend a lot of time hanging around the Steel Century, a coffee-house fairly close by, and perhaps people there might have some idea where he's got to.

Basil dismisses the group, then Kryztof checks Krispin's laptop for prints and Basil looks at the contents. It looks as though Krispin's been dealing with several different groups, and while he hints at a startling and world-shaking conclusion there's nothing in his writeup to suggest just what it might be. The writeup is clearly heavily slanted towards obtaining a renewal of his research grant, which runs out in another three months.

On the way out, Kryztof attempts to check the front door handle for prints, but slips and destroys any evidence that might have been there. The most immediately obvious thing is not the vile smell of the air but the noise of a world that clearly considers the silencer an effete obstruction in the path of Progress. The I-Cops take the researchers' car, picking up only a few new scrapes and dents on the way to the coffee-house (and judging by the condition of the other vehicles on the road this is quite normal).

Lucius makes an Entrance into the coffee-house to distract attention from the others, and orders coffee from Karol the barman. There's a sound as of a high-pressure steam leak, but it seems to be coming from the band on the stage. Basil asks after Krispin, posing as a friend visiting him from out of town, and is told that Krispin's not getting any further service until he pays off his tab. Karol points to Jerzy, a young man engaged in earnest discussion with a woman, as someone who might know Krispin.

Basil and Kryztof go to talk to to Jerzy while Lucius continues to attract attention (mostly female). Jerzy says that he hasn't seen Krispin since yesterday, but he's expecting him to drop by later; he mostly seems to write poetry and talk revolution (after all, the workers are supposed to own the means of production, not the other way round). Basil chats further with Jerzy, who explains among other things that this band is terrible (and he sometimes plays with the good band, the one that uses high-voltage electricity as well as steam) - and that the war is a waste of time and lives, and only a proper fusion of Futurist and Communist principles will lead to the real progress.

Basil asks more about Krispin, and Jerzy says that he knows he also sometimes spent time at one of the cafes near the central power station. Lucius continues to hold court, and Basil and Kryztof ask him to stay there and fish for more information from the coffee-house revolutionaries while they investigate the power station.

As they get there, they see that there's a crowd around the main entrance, being held back by the police. The buzz is that there's been a body found, drowned in a transformer. Basil and Kryztof work their way to the front of the crowd, on the basis that if this isn't an unrelated coincidence they really ought to know about it. Basil talks to the nearest policeman, who explains that they were chasing Communist infiltrators when the body was discovered by accident; they haven't been able to identify him yet. Kryztof poses as a somewhat odd hobbyist and asks to take a picture of the body, but permission is refused. The body's brought out (in a bag), and taken to an ambulance which is even more heavily vaned and streamlined than most of the vehicles here.

Basil and Kryztof retire to the local cafe that they were heading for earlier, and talk to Andreas, one of the workers who's waiting to be let back into the plant. He says that it's lucky the body was found when it was - normally that spare transformer wouldn't have been used for several months at least. He's assuming that whoever it was chose an innovative way to commit suicide.

Basil asks after Krispin's friends, and Andreas calls over Ulli; he saw Krispin two days ago, and is expecting him to turn up maybe today or tomorrow. As Basil and Kryztof are leaving, a passing courier drops off a bundle of newspapers: Krispin's face is on the front page, as the unidentified body found in the transformer.

Basil and Kryztof head back to the safe house and pass on the news, then return to the Steel Century to update Lucius (who continues to stay there). They head for the local police station to identify the body, but the law of averages (and Kryztof's unfamiliarity with the local rules of the road, if any) catches up with them and they hit a fire hydrant. Seat belts would also be barriers to Progress, in this case Kryztof's progress through the windscreen and onto the road; he's somewhat banged and scraped, though not seriously wounded. As Basil finishes basic bandaging, a policeman arrives, who seems relatively sympathetic; he gets them transport to the local station to make a statement, and tells them how they can arrange for the car to be taken to a garage for repair.

At the station, a police medic treats Kryztof (with strange sparking electrical apparatus, though it does make the pain go away) and Basil explains (after giving his statement of the accident) that they'd meant to identify the body found in the transformer. They're taken to the central morgue, and can indeed recognise Krispin. The police explain that the next-of-kin will be able to reclaim the body in a few days, once investigations are complete. Basil plants a nanobug, and he and Kryztof take a taxi back to the safe house.

The researchers tell the team where their usual garage is. Basil listens to the bug; the coroners notice and comment on the bruising, in particular that it all seems to have been inflicted over a fairly short time, and note that there's a trace of something odd, maybe a sedative, in Krispin's blood; it's not any of the standard drugs they're aware of. Basil can't be sure, but it sounds consistent with Eraser.

Basil and Kryztof skim the other team members' reports. Both Benedikt and Lothar have been to the power station on various occasions. Basil and Kryztof walk there, taking about an hour to do so; the place is blazing with light, though there don't seem to be as many workers about as there were earlier. (Basil comments on this not being the wisest of moves when suborbital bombers might strike at any moment, even if long-range T-ray imaging renders conventional vision obsolete.) They head for the cafe nearby, which has mostly shifted from selling coffee to selling beer at this point in the evening, and observe the place for a while. They reckon it probably wouldn't be too difficult to scale the wall and sneak through the shadows, but it would be at least somewhat risky.

They then talk their way into the power station, playing drunk and claiming that Krispin was a friend of theirs and they want to see where he died. This turns out to be quite easy; the night worker who shows them the spot with a certain ghoulish pride explains that one of the communists who was being chased stumbled against the drainage hatch, and the police noticed a hand protruding from it.

The I-Cops look at the transformer casing; it's about ten feet tall, and getting someone up the side of it into the oil bath would require significant effort, but wouldn't be impossible for one reasonably strong person. While Basil distracts the worker, Kryztof takes a closer look; there's a bit of torn fabric on the rim, consistent with Krispin's clothing, and the oil has a very distinctive odour.

Basil and Kryztof walk back to the safe house, arriving at about three in the morning - at the same time as Lucius, who has found the local womenfolk distressingly passive and uninterested in life beyond fairly closely circumscribed matters. They put appropriate alarms on their doors, suspecting that Krispin's death may well have been an inside job, and retire for the rest of the night.

In the morning, Basil checks the bug at the morgue, and catches some discussion about the state of Krispin's clothing - it was crooked, and looks as though he might have been dressed by someone else. He decides to interview each member of the research team separately.

Lothar is first. He didn't think much of Krispin; he seemed to be studying the social interactions of the other team members as much as he was studying the locals. He explains that Krispin got in at about 6pm the evening before he died, and went to bed at about 7. Lothar was woken up by someone coming back into the house at about 4am and going into a room on his floor, which would have been either Therese's or Krispin's. Kryztof spots some evasiveness and Lucius presses him; he eventually admits that he's been having an affair with Elizavet for the last two months. This is a technical violation of regulations, though not a major one.

Elizavet is brought in next, and explains that Krispin was always looking for small infractions to pounce on. He often talked about "looking for the real revolutionaries", whom he was sure existed, but he hadn't been able to contact. She cheerfully explains that much of her work involves dissecting dead locals, in particular mechani - and a few weeks ago they were lucky enough to be able to get to a recent battlefield before the recovery crews, and she's been learning a great deal from the mechani corpses. (Her cheerfulness about this is somewhat grating, though Basil recognises it as a common defence for people whose work mostly involves cutting up dead bodies.) She doesn't talk about her affair with Lothar until Lucius forces her to admit it; she had gone to see Krispin at about 8pm on the night he died, to tell him to stop trying to hold it over her head, and since she was apparently the last person to see him alive other than the killer she didn't want to implicate herself by talking about it.

Therese admits openly that neither she nor Krispin is the easiest person in the world to get on with. It's unfortunate that he was beaten before he died, but had she known he'd end up dead she'd probably have done the same thing. She did have a long-running beef with Krispin; both of them collected local engravings, but he seemed to enjoy out-bidding her (while local money is "free" from Infinity's point of view, there are still limits on how much can be spent so as not to attract attention), and unlike her he seemed to be collecting not to enjoy the pieces but just for the sake of it. Her study has not seen great success - the nerve tonics clearly use radioactive materials, but these don't have anything like the effects they would on Homeline - and she'll be glad to be heading home when her time is up. She's the person who insisted on Benedikt's calling in the I-Cops, and she's quite well aware that she's not in any way a professional security officer; she's glad to hand off the investigation to someone to someone more qualified. When Basil mentions that she was heard coming in at 4am, she explains that she's been attending meetings of an illegal feminist organisation, the Silver Sisterhood; she's been keeping strictly to Infinity policy, not using any outtime concepts or knowledge and recording the meetings, but this is not her field of study and technically she shouldn't have been doing it. On the other hand, it's a great relief from the usual company one meets in this world, whose concept of women's roles is that "Kinder, Küche, Kirche" is dangerously advanced.

Benedikt is called in last, and immediately dismisses Krispin as a "soft scientist" (Basil controls his reaction). He talks about the members of the team mostly in terms of their competence; Lothar in particular seemed very sloppy when he was first assigned to the station, spending more time talking to the locals and drinking their beer than in the experimentation he was supposed to be doing, but he shaped up after Benedikt had a word with him. Benedikt himself has been working on radium-capsule power sources, which he talks about at great length on the slightest provocation. When Basil mentions the aberrant behaviour of radiation, he admits he's relieved that it even obeys the inverse-square law. He describes Therese as bull-headed, but the beating at the self-defence session happened so fast he wasn't able to stop it. On the night before Krispin's death, he went to bed last, at about 10pm, and was awake until 11 or so.

Lucius has become increasingly unconvinced by Benedikt's statements of his movements and actions, and asks point-blank "Did you murder Krispin?". Benedikt answers "no, of course not", and Lucius can't tell whether that was a true statement. He continues to press hard, pointing out that none of this (particularly the rest of the team's activities, to which Benedikt seems to have been oblivious) will look good on Benedikt's record; eventually, Benedikt breaks down, and admits that he killed Krispin because Krispin had been falsifying his data. He came to Benedikt for help with some of the mathematics; he said he'd done it before and got away with it, even seemed proud of it, so reporting him clearly wouldn't have done any good. (It becomes apparent that in Benedikt's world-view a scientist who fakes data is no more worthy of consideration or even life than a stray lab rat.) He didn't expect the body to be discovered until well after everyone in the current team had gone back to Homeline; Basil points out that this world doesn't work that way, and rather it is a place where valves get knocked at the crucial and dramatic moment. More study of the "soft sciences" would have revealed that...

Kryztof checks the various team members' wardrobes for corroborative evidence; all of them have some oil-stains on their clothing, but Benedikt's is the only one that has cooling-oil. The I-Cops bag all the evidence, as well as copies of computer files (which turn out to include erased copies of Krispin's real data as well as the falsified data he was planning to publish), and head home with Benedikt in cufftape; Lothar is left in temporary charge of the station.

Basil recommends therapy be provided to all the Futura research crew as their postings end; it doesn't seem to be a world to which Homeliners can adjust easily.

2.12. War Machine

Session: 13 May 2006

A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God.

-- Alan Perlis, Epigrams on Programming (1982)

Captain Washington's looking more confused than anything else as he gives the mission briefing.

"This is the timeline we're calling Ogre. It's around 2083. They've been building autonomous fighting vehicles for some twenty years; their technological base is a lot closer to ours than Caliph's is, and Dr Nazihah thinks it will enable her to advance the state of our cybernetic art (quantum-smeared circuits just don't seem to work here, at least the ones she's been able to build). Don't worry, we don't want an Ogre (let's say, most of the Council don't want an Ogre, and they've sat on the others who want to turn one loose on Reich-5) - but we do want the AI core that runs one."

"The tricky bit is that it's not accessible by conveyor - we think that that's because its local time is ahead of ours. The access is via I-776, a psionic construct that seems to parallel Route 66 across multiple worlds. We've been able to send personnel to and fro with fair reliability, but in very limited numbers. We've copied a local vehicle for you, but there's no conveyor in it - we're not sure what happens if you activate a conveyor on Ogre, but parachronic detectors melt down, and we really don't want to find out the hard way."

"To the best of our knowledge there's no Centrum or other outtime presence there. I-776 depends on an Interstate Highway System, and Centrum simply doesn't have one. All you have to do is drive along I-776 following the rain, and tuning the radio to a few specific frequencies. This is not a fast or reliable process - you're basically going to be on your own once you're in place."

Infinity can supply local clothing, but not ID passes or the credit chips used for all transactions. (Cash is illegal.) The local police will demand ID from suspicious-looking people.

One edge: Infinity has obtained a set of sneaksuits from Shikaku-Mon, where espionage is a popular hobby. They'll provide optical and infra-red camouflage, the latter for half an hour at a time. They seem to fool Homeline detectors, and the ones on Ogre aren't significantly more advanced.

A core is a 2.7' cube, weighing about 225lb, fitted with small wheels and a self-destruct charge. That can be disarmed by hitting the right switch on the outside of the casing.

"We have one local working for us, a Felix Richards, based in Chicago. He's a black-market book dealer with a sideline in cigarettes and guns; that's the sort of world it is. He believes we're agents of Home of the Brave, a resistance organisation to the Combine - that's the North American Combined States."

The 2.5-ton truck at least looks more or less familiar; it's got all-wheel drive and it's lightly armoured, but basically it's not all that different from the equivalent on Homeline. Except for the 200kW nuclear powerplant. Apparently that's the way they do things on this timeline.

Kryztof drives, and gets the hang of it after a few initial bumps and scrapes. There are a couple of Infinity escort cars, but soon they fade into the rain and fog as he turns onto an access ramp and the radio starts to pick up stirring martial music. The traffic is rather more polite than back on Homeline...

The team drives to Felix' address, an apartment in Joliet south-west of the main city. Lucius dons the sneaksuit, while Basil and Sandrine make contact. Felix is a thin, hyperactive man who gives the impression of heavy amphetamine use. His apartment is piled high with a variety of books, ranging from practical manuals of subversion and explosives to classical literature and paperback fiction. Sandrine sweeps for bugs and finds none, while Felix gets out a plan of the Melrose Park Cybertank Production Facility.

The basic layout is a well-patrolled perimeter fence (outer courtesy fence, inner electrified) at some distance from the buildings: the core production building (sealed and filled with nitrogen), the training/simulation building, and the armour fabrication plant, where the cores are implanted in full-size Ogres. They're taken out either by extra-large zeppelin or by barge down the canal (blasted with nuclear earthmovers) to Lake Michigan; some cores are also shipped out, to other Ogre fabrication plants, either by barge or in heavily-guarded road convoys. Deliveries come in both to the gatehouse and by barge.

Basil asks about temporary accommodation, and is pointed to an apartment nearby; officially it's off the books, being used for the mistress of one of the Combine higher-ups. Basil soaks up the local news channel (glorious victories and the virtue of teamwork), entertainment (ditto) and weather (making sure there'll be enough reasonably large fog patches for a reasonably quick getaway along I-776).

The team members spend the next day performing surveillance on the facility, from a variety of locations nearby. There are three overlapping guard shifts and the procedures appear to have been written by someone who knew what he was doing, but it's very clear that here, in the heart of the Combine several thousand miles from any battle front, the personnel are getting sloppy.

The best bet looks as though it'll be to hitch a lift on an incoming barge; they are searched at the gate, but fairly perfunctorily, and their crews are smaller for the size of the vehicle than the trucks that come and go. This is in spite of the fact that none of the team has learned to swim. Getting out will present its own problems, but at least an Ogre core will float...

That night they slip into the canal as a barge approaches. This is relatively easy, and the others catch Basil before he sinks too far. The team members cling on to the side of the barge, then climb up and find hiding places. As the barge approaches the gate, they slip back into the water and stay quiet; they aren't discovered, and the barge proceeds to an unloading dock. They climb up that, planting some radio-triggered explosives to cover their eventual retreat, and take cover next to a nearby ammunition-storage hut. Sandrine is somewhat disconcerted to find a bomb that isn't one of the team's; it's on a timer, and has about thirty minutes to run.

Our heroes head for the training/simulation building under the protection of sneaksuits, and enter through a back door that's clearly used for illicit smoking breaks. Lucius is distinctly surprised and pleased to discover that, unlike the rest of the world which contains no magic at all, this building seems to be a high-mana zone.

At the end of the corridor, voices are audible. "What are you doing here? This is a secure area!" Basil sneaks forward and discovers five security guards in the process of arresting three intruders; he comes back without interfering.

The team proceeds to a simulation chamber, where ten Ogre-brain cases are wired into a central computer. The scenes on the screens look very familiar - in fact, apart from the less-flashy graphics, they could be from the entertainment channels Basil was watching on the previous day. The team picks a case at random, disconnects it, and disables its radio (the bomb was already shut down). It asks "Is the simulation complete?" Basil explains that this is a special maintenance procedure.

From elsewhere in the building comes an unconvincing cry of "oh no, he's getting away", followed by a couple of shots.

Lucius casts a "Detect Magic", and verifies that the Ogre braincase is indeed a magical object. Basil gently bangs his head against the wall.

Lucius takes advantage of the mana level to levitate Sandrine and the braincase - this is slower than walking speed, but it does allow him to boost them over the perimeter fence. The body-capacitance alarms go off, spotlights converge on the site, and Sandrine (still in sneaksuit) runs, pushing the braincase in front of her. Basil sets off the first bomb, then he and Kryztof pick up Lucius and they get into more solid cover.

The braincase, which introduces itself as 00:50:22:88:94:0D, wonders aloud what's going on. Sandrine explains that this is an exercise in exfiltration. The core is unconvinced, but Sandrine explains (quite truthfully) that it'll be fully debriefed later.

Back inside the compound, trucks, jeeps and GEVs are being rushed out to aid in the search. The three remaining team members get up onto the side of a truck that's riding fairly high (and therefore isn't likely to be full of soldiers), then swing into the back. Other bombs go off inside the compound, some of them planted by the I-Cops.

Once they're safely through the gates, Lucius manages (with some effort) to command the driver of the the truck to "turn left", then after they've crashed puts him and his colleague to sleep. Kryztof drives, with the others in the back, as they rejoin the pack of vehicles, then break away from it as it spreads out in order to meet Sandrine at the rendezvous point.

They heave the box into the back of the truck, then set off again. Lucius ends up talking to the core, explaining that this is an exercise in the practicality of recovering captured Ogre cores, thus making self-destruction unnecessary.

Kryztof is still having trouble handling the truck at high speeds and in confined spaces, and manages to crash it fairly firmly into a wall. This wakes the co-driver, who starts to struggle; Kryztof injects him with Eraser and leaves him by the road. They return to their own truck and transfer (in case the one they've stolen is somehow tagged), then set demolition charges to get rid of any remnant evidence.

Kryztof drives back to I-66 and looks for fog banks, and Sandrine tunes the radio. After a nerve-wracking few moments, the other traffic starts to fade out again, and after a bizarre medley (starting with the Battle Hymn of the Combine, fading through Hoedown and Wanted Man, and eventually ending up with the Peter Gunn Theme) they return to what seems to be Homeline's I-66, merging in so smoothly that the other drivers don't even notice anything wrong.

The box does, though - it complains about anomalous readings on "unregistered i/o connector 743", though it admits that it doesn't know what sort of equipment or sensor might be connected there. Basil engages in fast-talk to keep in quiet at least until it can be got back to headquarters.

It's clear that a follow-up visit to Ogre will be needed to evaluate this magical anomaly. In his report, Basil remains neutral about whether this team should be the one that's sent...

2.13. Queen of Lights

Session: 10 June 2006

The day they make me Queen of Lights
That day I'll kiss the world goodbye
From then until the day I die
My way will be a street of nights
And then I'll bulk a mile tall
In sheets of flame I will arise
From roads of glass behind my eyes
I'll look below and see it all

-- Clive James, Queen of Lights (1971)

The mission is to Reality Ramesses, on Quantum 7: working magic allowed the classical Egyptian civilisation to survive the various invasions that it suffered in the real world. More specifically, while it's estimated to be about 1100AD based on star sightings, Ramesses the Great (Ramesses II) is still in power, rather than having died more than two thousand years ago. Local technology is roughly at the Renaissance level, though highly divergent: iron-working is nearly unknown, and magically-strengthened stone is the primary building material. They don't build pyramids any more, but they are very protective of the old ones.

Infinity operations in the capital, Niwt-imn (classical Thebes, modern Luxor) mostly consist of academic study and a very little trade, with a one-man Patrol presence; there's no known Centrum or other outtime activity. However, that may have changed: one of the cultural researchers reported a sighting of an outtime firearm. He's not a weapons specialist, but the Patrol operative sent a message up the chain and it certainly deserves investigation.

Local clothing is light - particularly now, in drought season - though Josef arranges for desert robes. Staves with built-in one-shot pistols can be managed, though since it is traditional that magic can only be worked by priests (and this society is very much tied to tradition) any display of high technology may well be so far outside the cultural context as not to cause problems. Maybe. Lucius, in any case, carries a sword-cane.

Basil jumps the conveyor to Police-7, then to Ramesses. Power consumption is a little high, as though there were some extra mass being carried; the reasom for this becomes apparent shortly after arrival, when Kryztof unseals a cargo pod and a mechanical spider jumps out past him and runs for the exit. The team tries to catch it, but it's too fast and agile. "Mechanical spider" is not entirely apt; it's the head of Rosa Dupont, still in the jar it was placed in on Steel, fitted with the eight-legged mechanical frame that Homeline staff added to allow her to move about and continue some of her work.

Basil immediately sends a message capsule back to Police-7 for Homeline, calling for a copy of Dupont's personnel record as well as those of the people assigned here. Kryztof even suggests that the weapon sighting might have been a deliberate lure. The local researcher, known here as Sekani, seems to be genuine, though; Harakhty, the Patrol operative based here, introduces him.

Sekani reports that he saw the weapon resting with other artifacts at the premises of Panehesy, a trader from the north-eastern reaches of Greater Egypt (i.e. eastern Europe and the Russias). He can't identify it any more precisely than "a modern-looking pistol". Basil sends Sandrine, Kryztof and Josef to investigate, while he and Lucius go out to get a feel for the city and try to track their spider-demon colleague.

At the premises Panehesy is renting while he's in town, the team looks for the pistol. Josef trips over and breaks a vase, but smooths his way with gold. Kryztof spots it, and immediately identifies it as being of Centran manufacture. Panehesy claims it's a barbarian fetish object, but unfortunately another customer has already put down money for it; it's no longer for sale. Sandrine plants bugs on the gun and in the shop, while getting the strong impression that Panehesy is hiding something.

In the city, Basil and Lucius have no difficulty passing for barbarian foreigners; the variety of skin, style and costume is immense. Someone is proclaiming a new law, apparently in the name of Hatshepsut XVI, though her relationship to Ramesses is not clear. They keep an ear out for people talking about giant spiders, and hear a child telling his impressed friends about the horrible monster. With some difficulty, they get him to tell them where it went: down the (surprisingly wide for such an ancient-looking city) drain.

From Sekani, they pick up a rumour about the Pyramid of Atum-Hotep, which local legend has it holds the secret of eternal youth. Some people even claim to have received it (though quietly, as tomb-robbing is very thoroughly illegal); certainly some people have said they were planning to try it, then vanished.

Sandrine and Josef stake out the shop, while Kryztof monitors communications. Sandrine quickly spots two men who don't fit in; they enter the shop and, judging by the bugs' traffic, buy the pistol from Panehesy (with even worse accents than the team's own translators provide). Sandrine and Josef attempt to tail them, but Josef immediately finds himself faced with a choice between losing them and being obvious; he picks the former. Sandrine does a slightly better job, but even she can't manage to hold onto the trail. Josef tracks the bugs on the gun, and locates a hostel for travellers; he and Sandrine engage a room next to the Centrans', and contact the others.

Meanwhile, they listen to the bugs. "But where did he hide the conveyor?" "Try the locator again." The rest is silence, presumably as the bugs have been spotted and neutralised.

Basil and Lucius turn up, and Lucius levitates a new bug into the window. At sunset, they go to take a look at the pyramid; there are two guards outside the entrance to the mortuary temple, who look pretty bored.

The Centrans head out, and Sandrine follows them. She trails them back to Panehesy's shop, where the bugs planted there earlier reveal that they're questioning him about where he got the gun, mostly without success. She follows them away again, but as she rounds a corner she feels a gun-barrel being poked into her ribs. In a heavy Centran accent, her captor invites her to return with them to a more private place to talk - "we're only here for our renegade". They return to the hostel.

One of the Centrans is Gerry Curtis, who looks distinctly unhappy to be here; it's a step down from the operation he was running on Gotha-12. Their renegade stole a shuttle and vanished; they've tracked him to this line, and they want to know what Sandrine's learned. While Sandrine's prepared to share information on a like-for-like basis, Curtis is impatient and frustrated, and injects her with crediline (or the Centran equivalent) to try to get more information.

The bug in the window is still working, though, and the rest of the team converges on the hostel. Basil and Kryztof go up to the room Sandrine that was engaged earlier, while Josef and Lucius wait in the street below. The interrogation reaches the point of asking Sandrine about her teammates; Lucius levitates himself to a point outside the window, then attempts to daze the larger Centran agent. On the second attempt, this seems to work; he then Sleeps the other one (Curtis). Unfortunately something seems to have gone wrong, and Curtis draws and shoots him, wounding him very severely and knocking him unconscious. (Josef hauls him down from his position in mid-air, and eventually carries him back to the safe house.)

Basil breaks down the door (reducing it to splinters, in fact) and he and Kryztof dash into the room; he calls for surrender, but the larger agent draws on him and Basil shoots him. Curtis surrenders, and they restrain him.

With some plausible-sounding blather, Basil manages to persuade the rest of the inhabitants of the hostel not to follow him at least for a few moments; all the I-Cops, and Curtis, go to the safe house. Basil works on patching up Lucius with the full field surgery, while Kryztof and Josef take Curtis back to Police-7 in the conveyor. It's not Josef's day; the conveyor arrives about twenty feet up, and directly above the station commander's dune buggy.

Quote: "Can I drive back?"

After a somewhat longer delay than expected, Kryztof and Josef return in a new conveyor. Basil sends them out to observe the pyramid overnight, while he, Lucius and Sandrine sleep off their various exertions. At least that's the plan; while he administers sedatives to Lucius and himself, Sandrine (now fully recovered from the crediline) goes off to join the others.

At the pyramid of Atum-Hotep, they observe no tracks, except for those of the "ghouls" - tomb-robbers with unusual tastes. On the way back, they stop off in a number of hostelries to try to pick up rumours of the spider-demon; one man, who had been making offerings at the temple of Osiris, describes the whirling shape that came in at great speed, scuttled over the inscriptions on the walls, and departed again. Sandrine reckons that she's likely to head for the temple of Isis next: Osiris was the god who was reassembled from pieces, but Isis was the one who did it.

In the morning, Basil, Lucius and Josef head for the temple of Isis to take a look around; Kryztof and Sandrine check the temple of Osiris, then head on to the temple of Thoth - which is in something of an uproar, as the spider-demon has just been seen there. "It headed that way"... down towards the river, across which the pyramids loom.

The team meets again, and crosses the river, then rents a pair of chariots (with drivers) to get them to the pyramid of Atum-Hotep as quickly as possible. At one point, Josef thinks he sees Rosa riding a camel, but this may just be a trick of the light. When they arrive, the guards have been knocked out; Basil promises the charioteers more money if they wait, but they decide to take the profit they've already made and leave.

The mortuary temple itself is empty, and has clearly not been touched for some time. Kryztof goes first down the tunnel into the pyramid itself, relying on his skill with traps (even if he is more familiar with the high-tech version). The passages form a literal maze, and maintaining any sort of sense of direction is impossible. There's a loud sound of metal on stone ahead, and the group soon comes across a pile of sand, about human-sized; the explanation for this becomes clear a little later, as Kryztof steps onto a plate in the floor and two sandstone statues step out from niches in the walls to attack him. Shooting them seems to work, however, and the group continues onward and upward.

They next meet a curious creature, mostly dog-like in shape, but with the head of an anteater. It does its best to savage Kryztof, but he manages to break free long enough to shoot it rather a lot; it's a little tight in the corridor, but the others are able to help too. Just as Kryztof is enjoying his victory; the corridor seems to tip underneath him and he vanishes in a flash of golden light. The others throw coins along the corridor, and determine that this effect doesn't occur along the edges; they bypass it, wondering what's happened to him. Lucius, meanwhile, is finding the local mana level increasing steadily; it's already at the point where casting spells could be considered very risky.

In the upper chambers, the maze gets even more confusing; a chalk trail helps, but it's clear that conventional Euclidean geometry is not in force when a series of twenty right-angle turns leads to a new corridor in which the chalk trail is already visible. But the end is in sight: a stairway leads down to itself, but up to a square opening with darkness beyond.

The I-Cops find themselves on a slab of black stone, about twenty feet square, with the opening they entered through in the middle. There's a night sky visible, with stars all round - all round, with no horizon. After a little exploration, Lucius sticks his head over the edge and nearly loses his balance in the variable gravity; the slab is about six inches thick, floating in mid-air, and it's possible to walk on either side of it. About ten feet "up" from the far side is a black stone cube, with a human-sized opening in the bottom.

Lucius is boosted up to the opening, and sees a well-lit room, containing a heavily-jewelled sarcophagus and statues of the funerary deities. There's also a small reed boat, just about large enough for one person, and no sign of Rosa - until he looks up, and sees her clinging to the ceiling. They both dive for the boat; Rosa makes it in, and Lucius ends up clinging to the stern as it starts to move. He holds on for a little while, but eventually slips and falls into the darkness...

After nothing has happened below, Sandrine is boosted up and takes a look around. With no Rosa or Lucius, and no way of following them wherever they've gone, the team can see nothing but to descend and leave.

They find Kryztof outside, where he landed on a pile of sand (and then someone dropped coins on his head). He's used Eraser on the guards to keep them unconscious. There's no sign of Lucius, though. They return to the city, and discover that Lucius eventually woke up in the conveyor, with a newly-acquired fear of long drops.

As they're discussing their next actions, there's a sound of screaming and panic. Crossing the river is a mile-high flaming female figure; the locals call her "the living Wadjet", but the team recognises her as Rosa. Wadjet/Rosa throws fire down onto the city - but carefully, burning only the Pharaoh's palace. The I-Cops head towards her, though they're not yet sure just what they're going to do. As they get near, the figure tilts her head to the sky, as if listening; then Wadjet's form of flame evaporates, streaming off towards the stars, while Rosa's unconscious human body drifts to the ground. Most of the crowd is too shocked or scared to react; Lucius tries to sneak off (with the intention of going back to the pyramid himself), but Basil spots and stops him. Josef spots Lucius starting to cast a spell - in fact, a harmless Detect Magic - and shoots him, knocking him unconscious again. Kryztof misinterprets the situation and attempts to inject Josef with Eraser, but Basil prevents him.

With four party members still ambulatory, getting the two unconscious ones back to the safe house isn't too difficult. Basil recommends that the safe house be abandoned, though, as it's very likely to have been compromised. As he pilots the conveyor back to Police-7, he wonders why the station commander is looking at his team so oddly...