Why Did The Groigan Dance?
"This was picked up on the transmission channel used for unemployed professional wrestlers," the small man in front of the monitor said, waving his hands in an energetic little dance. Squire Frederick Pratchett (specialty: communications) was a long-time Imperial, raised a military brat, rushed through Jameson Military Academy on Topaz, then promptly enrolled in Thurwell's Institute of Technology in Achenar, where he spent the next ten years of his life learning the difference between red wires and blue wires. As it was, Pratchett was the oldest Squire in the whole of the Empire, and the higher-ups were loathe to advance him because his expertise was needed right here.
The Emperor looked amused. "There is a communications channel for unemployed professional wrestlers?" Behind him, Charon caught himself chuckling.
Pratchett shrugged. "Ah, yes, well you know how those Independents are, sire," he said. "Anyhow, we haven't been monitoring this channel for long, and we only do it sporadically; we've only recently been able to hack the encryption system of the channel-"
Floyd coughed. "Are you saying that a bunch of half-wit muscle-heads were able to keep you out in the dark?"
"No, no, by all means, no!" Pratchett exclaimed, waving his hands wildly. His eyebrows pumped up and down comically, nearly knocking off his glasses, as he added, "We simply hadn't diverted many resources to it; who would've thought that any relevant or interesting material would be found on it, maybe some grunts and the odd curse or two. Never what we found." The corner of his mouth twitched upward slightly.
Bush found himself grinning. He kind of liked the little man. "And what did you find, Officer Pratchett?" he inquired gently, trying to keep the humor from his voice.
"That's the amazing thing, sir!" he crowed, wiping his hand back and forth over his head repeatedly. "The transmission is garbled, seeing as how it was an in-ship communication system, and you can't hear much, but listen to this!" Grinning nervously, he flipped a switch on the top of a large machine, which promptly began to hum and rattle. Pratchett gave them a pained look. "Don't worry, it always makes that god-awful racket. You really should consider giving us more funds, my lord."
"Yes, I think I may, Squire," the Emperor replied after a bout of soft laughter. "I believe I just might."
"That would be stupendous, sire! I can just imagi-" Pratchett stopped in midsentence and gave a baleful glance at the machine, which had rudely began to interrupt him. "Well! I never! I'll give this machine a piece of my..." A chorus of shushes shushed him.
"...Fros...ere...ir," the machine crackled. Bush winced - it was almost unintelligible.
Pratchett saw the look and gave him a pained shrug. "We need funding badly," he said simply. "The quality gets better later."
"...elo...ost...." Bush stopped breathing. Was that who he thought it was? "...mohse in...bit..."
"...es, sir...eperations are........dy." The crackling stopped, replaced by the low hum that all interstellar communications had.
"This is where it starts to get juicy, my Lords," Pratchett put in. "Satellites around Lave tracking the ship who broadcast this message (the ship type is unknown, only that it was over one thousand tons in size) moved into a direct line-of-sight position with our listeners, making the reception improve ten-fold."
"Excellent, squire," the Emperor replied. Bush noticed he was looking a bit stressed as well; if Bush noticed the similarities between the unidentified voice and a certain flamboyant -and deceased- Prince, Duval surely did.
The machine spoke up. "Excellent, Mister Frost," a haughty, and oh-so-familiar, voice replied, almost mocking the Emperor's last words. Bush gasped audibly, and heard Prince Floyd do the same. A fierce scowl marred the smooth features of the Emperor's face.
"This is most...unanticipated," Duval said evenly. Bush was amazed at the man's composure.
"How long do you estimate it will be until we can land this bloated tin-can, Mister Frost?" Brunswick continued easily, truly remarkable considering he was laying dead in the city morgue at the moment. "I just can't bear space travel."
"Well, acquiring landing clearance usually takes thirty to forty minutes after entering orbit, depending on the traffic," the other voice, Frost, replied. Now that the reception was clear, you could make out the nuances of his voice. He had a Lavian accent, from the lower east side if Bush remembered correctly; his memory wasn't quite what it used to be. The voice also sounded kind of...slimy to the Baron, like a snake weaving back and forth in the grass, hunting for the mouse. "After we receive landing clearance, it should only take three to four minutes to land. The people at Byron's Run report all to be in order, and our allies have already been situated and eagerly await your arrival."
Charon raised an eyebrow. "Byron's Run?"
"There are many civilized places at Lave other than the main city," Floyd said. "Most are pretty small, and most are very isolated. No doubt Byron's Run is one those unofficial outposts."
"Thank you, Mister Frost. Midas out." The machine went back to humming.
This isn't good at all Bush thought, looking at the Emperor's visage. The menacing scowl had vanished, but a vein still throbbed in his forehead. Charon was breathing in and out deeply, eyes closed and fists in a clench-unclench motion. Even Floyd was frowning. All the rest of them look like they could do something drastic, Bush murmured to himself, I'm the one thinking halfway-normal around here.
Well, that isn't completely true, Bush thought with a grin.
Pratchett sat in an unobtrusive corner of a room, worriedly wringing his hands and sweating profuciously, eyeing the angered higher-ups nervously. "Erm...I'm sorry to interrupt, sirs," he stammered, looking at the ground as he spoke. "If you want to smash something, could I persuade you continue this meeting in the hallway?"
Continue the story with Chapter 28