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From Inside the Flap
A brief overview of this world.
The world in which the story takes place is similar to our own during the early Victorian era, as regards social hierarchy, personal relationships etc. There are a few technological differences, principally in firearm and other weapon development, which is highly advanced relative to the time, mainly due to almost continuous warfare combined with vast natural resources. The landmass of this world is composed of only two enormous continents, both somewhat larger than Africa, and a scattering of minor islands. The opposing continents differ politically ? Albion, where the story takes place, is strongly monarchist whereas Destiny is republican. In practice, there is little to choose from between the two ? rather, they are both nearer totalitarian states with a convenient figurehead, which differ in name only; King or President. They also share a very similar governmental structure, vast layers of bureaucracy, made up of dozens upon dozens of departments and sub-departments. In relation to their size, the population of both continents is small; and as hostilities are conducted only upon the islands (which constantly change hands), the majority of the inhabitants of both continents do not let the war intrude greatly upon their daily lives. This is also thanks to the gross produce of both continents being more then ample to keep both war-machine and populace supplied, with no need for rationing or other shortages.
The divide between rich and poor is very wide. The people do not suffer undue oppression from the government itself, partially because of the way that the population is scattered so thinly across the land, which makes keeping a check on them troublesome. They are, however, rather at the mercy of the local bureaucracy, which because of the distance it can be from the large government centers, and the difficulties with communication, operates on almost a feudal system. That is to say, so long as the required taxes and materials are supplied to the crown, it can do with the people under its jurisdiction almost as it pleases. Only in the most extreme circumstances will the crown interfere, as it has no desire to see nuclei of discontent within its own shoreline. Disloyalty is the most serious offence in the eyes of the King’s government, and there are hundreds of specialists employed in seeking this insidious crime out and bringing the perpetrators to justice. These ?Agents? come under the heading of a department rather ambiguously titled the Office of Internal Investigations, whose duties range over disloyalty of all colours, from tax-evasion for the lower-caste Agents, to plotted regicide for the most senior. Simon Turkle began his career as a tax investigator, but at the time of his assignation to Bacchausburg, a combination of diligence and fortune had resulted in his promotion to a political investigator. Despite the results there, the Bacchausburg assignment was far from being his last, and in the years to follow, he would become the most infamous government Agent that Albion had ever seen.
C.M. June 2000
Man is never tired of praying for good, and if evil touch him, then he is despairing, hopeless.
- The Koran (41.49)
A blue, creamy smoke curled around the spacious office of the Director of Interior Investigations, as he drew on a thin cigar and absentmindedly studied a report from an Agent stationed in one of the mid-eastern districts. The Director was a fattish man of fifty-five, still with a full head of chalky-grey hair, but suffering badly from broken veins and deep lines in his face ? or rather, those who were admitted to his presence suffered from them. The cigar twisted in his mouth as he read the report’s conclusions. The Agent who had compiled the report was claiming to have uncovered a small but rather unpleasant little knot of dissidents in the town under his protection. They were supposedly responsible for smear campaigns on prominent public figures, spreading Republican literature, and now appeared to be gathering materials for a possible bombing campaign. It was all very impressive, not even less so for the fact that it was all a concoction of the writer’s imagination. The Director smiled to himself now, as he came to the report’s conclusions. Only one way to save the kingdom, according to this man ? a larger expense account. Nobel wondered whether it would be useful to let this Agent continue a little longer, to let him grow even bolder. Certainly, his reports looked very well in the files and, when sanitized, made good copy for the newspapers, for they said that things were being achieved. But then he decided against it. The man was greedy and manipulative. That did not matter. He was also careless. That mattered. Nobel crossed the small box upon the report that denied the expense request, and added a brief note in red ink. His unworthy investigator was about to become the subject of investigation.
Nobel laid down the fountain pen, and glanced at the clock on the wall. It hung above the door directly across from Nobel’s desk, allowing him to view how much of his valuable time he had spent on any individual with a certain amount of discretion. It was proclaiming the time to be three p.m. exactly. That meant it was five minutes to. He decided to light another of his small cigars, take a coffee and wait a little longer before beginning his next visitor’s interview, although he knew the man was already outside in his secretary’s office, and had been for nearly twenty minutes. He was a low-caste Agent, and used to waiting. Nobel ignited the cigar with a silver lighter in the shape of a tiger that led a double-life as a paperweight, poured a measure of coffee into a tall glass from a jar upon a hotplate, and relaxed back in his chair. He liked to allow his mind the luxury of becoming blank for a few minutes at least once a day. This method of his ? an interlude in the perpetual intrigue, politics, propaganda, plots and devices - was his way of preserving one corner of his mind for his own. The rest of it was devoted to serving the King. This was his function in the King’s Office of Interior Investigations, the slightly clandestine organization responsible for guarding his way of life, using similar methods to the members of society he was guarding against. And there was always the enemy too, of course. The inhabitants of a country so far distant, most of the people failed to concern themselves about them. One of Nobel’s most important jobs was to make sure they stayed concerned, which explained his occasional blind eye to some of the more fanciful district reports. And naturally, to insure smooth running of the department, the King himself, no more than a boy, respected in theory, a blanket excuse for the dirty dabbling of politics in practice, remained happily ignorant of the affairs conducted, although they were always in his name and interests. Nobel thoroughly enjoyed his work, and he considered himself good at it.
Presently, Nobel snuffed out the second cigar and tugged a slender rope by his left hand. In his secretary’s domain outside a bell rang, and Nobel heard the muffled sounds of moving furniture and his secretary’s gentle voice informing her patient caller he was now to see the Director. Nobel shuffled his papers together, and placed them in his OUT tray, signed and already forgotten, somebody else’s problem to solve. Delegation is the grease that turns the wheels of bureaucracy, rather like slime eases the passage of a slug.
The door below the clock swung open and a young man in the standard O2I clothing of overcoat and dark three-piece suit, complete with necktie entered the room. The shoes were gleaming. Although the O2I officially had no uniform, its investigators usually took it upon themselves to dress so. This man’s coat, however, seemed to sit ill at ease on his thin shoulders, as well as being a size too large for him. He was extraordinarily pale, and his eyes were curious. They were a deep chestnut brown, but they did not seem warm. His name was Simon Turkle, and he was Nobel’s newest rising star in the department. He was also unpopular, even with the other employees ? a fact that he was aware of, and gave the strong impression of being blithely unconcerned over.
Nobel offered his hand, which was accepted by the young man in a cool, light grip. Upon Nobel’s invitation, he quietly took a chair and waited.
"Cigar, Mister Turkle?" asked Nobel, pushing across the box.
"I won?t thank-you, but with your permission I shall have one of my own."
"Of course. Be my guest. See now, you roll your own, don?t you?"
The young man called Turkle was already deftly creating a cigarette with a skill that denoted long practice. Personally, Nobel thought this a rather common habit and beneath a government investigator, but then Turkle came from common stock, although he worked very hard to conceal it. He borrowed the Director’s tiger, and lit it with a small flourish.
"A vice, it’s true Director," he said to Nobel, "and I?m afraid I inherited the art of making my own from my father." The voice was quiet, spoken in almost a monotone, but seemed filled with subtle shades of meaning that just bypassed the listener’s ear.
"Alas, that my vices outnumber my virtues," said Nobel. "I see from your file, you?re now just beginning your second year as a qualified investigator. How do enjoy your work here with us, Agent Turkle? Give me a retrospective analysis."
Nobel was quoting from one of the commoner O2I debriefing forms, the archaic language of which was a stock joke to its inmates. Turkle did not smile. Nobel realized he was working a little too hard to create a light atmosphere, and he also realized that he didn?t know why. Turkle’s presence seemed to almost darken any room he was in, but Nobel was unaware of this. Turkle had the ability to be a first-class employee ? this was all he saw. Nevertheless, he felt he ought to change tact. Turkle spoke, as always quietly, but exceedingly clearly.
"I hope I?m serving the O2I well, Director. I?m certainly doing it to the best of my ability. As you say, this is my second year here. I mean to continue."
The Director drew out a dossier from his desk, trying to ignore the pungent, tarry odour of Turkle’s cigarette, and spread it out before himself.
"Well, I won?t bandy words with you, Agent Turkle. I think you?re serving better then well. I think you?re serving outstandingly. Due to your age, what, twenty-two? You are of course only a section six employee, but frankly, were it possible, I?d have you placed into section four immediately. You?re handling of the Shamcombe business was flawless. It could have been very sticky, negative press and so on. However, not so much as a whisper reached us here in the capital. That’s exactly the sort of thing we want. I rather placed my neck in a noose, sending you there, but I didn?t think you?d let me down, and you didn?t."
Nobel paused to see how Turkle was taking the praise. His expression hadn?t much changed, but Nobel could see a definite hint of satisfaction in the brown eyes.
"Will the Republican hang?" asked Turkle. The question didn?t really care if he did or if he didn?t.
"Of course. The evidence was unshakable. He?ll die before we see the year out."
"Good." Turkle rolled a large ball of smoke towards the fan in the ceiling, and snuffed out the cigarette between his finger and thumb.
"That is why I?ve placed my trust in you again," Nobel continued. "I have something here a little bit juicier then your rank commands."
Turkle now showed definite signs of pleasure. Nobel felt absurdly pleased. The youth had served him well, and now he should have his reward. He stippled his fingers together, and prepared to hold forth. A fly began to throw itself forlornly against the windowpane, beyond which was the grimy, ramshackle skyline of the capital. It occasionally changed its title as monarchs outlived their usefulness. Currently, it was known as Anthony City.
"It’s all here for you to examine in detail," Nobel said, indicating the manila dossier, "but it’s full of the usual bumph, so I?ll summarize it for you. Are you familiar with the function of the drifters in the propaganda department?"
"They tour our regions, usually one man with a couple of military. Nearly always retired military himself. For display purposes. They act as recruiting officers, spread our truth about the world situation, rumor control, keep a check on the villages. Report back here."
"Just so," confirmed Nobel. "Well, one of them seems to have gone missing. Most unfortunate ? especially as he was a distant relative of a high official. His name was Arthur Brooke. Know him?"
Turkle shook his head. "No. I?ve not had much contact with the propaganda department."
"No. Well, he was right up north somewhere, in the mountains. He reached one town, telegraphed he?d arrived as usual, four days later he telegraphed he?d left. All quite as usual. His next destination was about three days away. Now, that was three weeks ago. I contacted the nearest man I had there, of course, about a week after Brooke had said he was leaving. He found the pack animals, wandering about in the woods at the foot of the mountain. There were no clues there. All the supplies were untouched. Then he tried the villages previous and prior to Brooke’s disappearance, and he has utterly drawn a blank. He’s only a district tax-inspector, so he had no power to do more then ask some casual questions in the course of his usual duties. I absolutely forbade him to mention the missing men, in case they turned up or something as stupid. We don?t want to look foolish up there. I?ve never been happy with the level of loyalty in those parts, and a thing like this is absolutely the last thing we need."
"But Brooke did have military with him?"
"Yes, but only the usual two. Retired from active service, the same as he was. Just to show the village boys how good you can look in the King’s uniform. It’s a real mystery. Either it’s bandit work, and that’s highly unlikely, or it’s disloyalty of some kind. Either from the locals, or from Brooke himself, and that’s a very disturbing possibility. On the face of it, it’s the vanishing of three old has-beens, and hardly worth our trouble. But I don?t like things like this. They sometimes have deep undercurrents. For my own peace of mind, I want it solved. Do you think you can handle the case?"
Turkle almost smiled.
"That’s what I thought. Bring Brooke back, dead or alive, but bring him back. And if there was foul play of some kind, bring back those involved. For the purposes of this assignment, I?ve had a liaison with my opposite number in the military. You?ll be taking a small squad with you, a Sergeant, and four riflemen. If it is banditry or insurrection, you might need some muscle. My colleague tells me the Sergeant’s a good man, not bright, but dependable. That’s all right. I?m looking to you to provide the insight. His name is Hopper. You?ve also been awarded a temporary military rank, just so you?ll know where you stand with them. Don?t worry, you don?t need to sew on any stripes or anything." Nobel pushed across a stamped metal ID card, which Turkle took up in his hand and examined. Embossed upon it was the insignia of the King’s third rifles, a two-headed eagle.
"Nothing less. It’s effective as from now, until completion of the investigation."
Turkle tossed the card back upon the desk. It clattered.
"I?m honored by the faith you have in me, Director. May I ask a question?"
"What is it?"
"The village, Brooke’s last known location. What is it called?"
"Called?" Nobel consulted his dossier. "Bacchausburg. Why?"
Turkle’s face altered completely, and not for the better. He rose from his chair, and adjusted his poorly fitting coat.
"Then I?m very sorry to say that I must refuse to take the mission."
"I?m sorry. And I might say that I?m surprised that you even asked me."
Bewilderment was an alien emotion to Nobel. He rose from his chair, both hands upon the walnut desk, and his fat jowls shook.
"Why can?t you? What do you mean by that?"
"Exactly what I say," said Turkle, without heat. "I prefer not to be sent to Bacchausburg ? or anywhere near it, for that matter."
Nobel slumped down again, and recovered his composure. Turkle had not moved, but his eyes never left the Director’s. Outside somewhere, a telegraph machine began its incessant click-click, another message from across the great continent. Somebody laughed in another room, and it was a startling sound in the atmosphere that had arisen in Nobel’s office.
"Would you mind telling me why, Sir?"
"I lived there. I was born," Turkle grimaced slightly, "and bred."
"I know you were. That was one of the deciding factors that meant that I chose you to go!" Colour had begun to creep into the Director’s face. He had to swallow hard to try to keep his temper. Still Turkle remained unmoved.
"I spent most of my childhood deciding how to escape, and all of my teenage years doing it. I mean never to set foot there again."
Nobel was almost beside himself. Turkle was putting him into an impossible situation. A section six Agent becoming mixed up with the events at Turkle’s previous assignment had gone down very poorly with Nobel’s superiors, and despite his success, choosing him for this one had fared a shade worse. In a very real sense, Nobel had jeopardized his future career on this one employee, and had been forced to work very hard to finally acquire the go-ahead, or rather the useful blind eye, from the sub-chairman. It was not at all a selfless act ? Nobel trusted his judgement, and he sincerely believed Turkle would repay his gamble. To come out ahead of the committee would almost guarantee his promotion next year onto that same body. Probably into the same sub-chairman’s position. After all the bargaining and promises, to now creep back and tell them that sorry, the man didn?t fancy the idea ? impossible. Nobel would look an idiot, and worse, a bad assessor of character. He would languish in the Office of Interior investigations, for at least another four years, if lucky. In ten years, he retired. His features set. The ingrate had to be told.
"I?m afraid it has already gone before the board, and has been decided upon. What you like or don?t like matters nothing. You will do as you are bidden. It is my wish that you are to go, and you will go. I don?t know why you don?t want to. I?m sure you have your reasons. Forget them. You will meet Hopper at Anthony Station tomorrow, at ten. You have your instructions. You will do as I say!"
Nobel thumped his fist upon the desk at this last part of his little speech, and upset the silver tiger. Turkle watched the Director thoughtfully. His gaze almost seemed to mock the theatrical outburst. Then he stood up to go, and retrieved the file from the desk.
"As you say, Director. I had better get prepared."
For the second time, Nobel was at a loss. Almost plaintively, he said:
"You agree then?"
"Yes I do. I just wanted to assess my options. But I still don?t want to go. I?d like you to remember that."
He turned and laid his hand upon the door handle, and gave the Director one last glance.
"But if you insist, Director."
"Yes, Mister Turkle," said Nobel emphatically, "I do."
Turkle pulled at the door, with no more words spoken, and then he was gone.
Nobel watched the door for a moment, wondering why he felt as if he had been somehow cheated. He put a hand to his rubbery cheek, and felt the indignant heat still there. The other hand automatically pulled forward another file from the IN tray.
And after a moment, Nobel was back to his vital efforts on behalf of the King. Turkle was gone, and for the moment, out of mind.
Blood Moon Publishing is an imprint of Double Dragon Publishing