Chapter 4

Enter The Muff

"What's all this about?" whispered Fib to Sergeant Samson Strong.

The entire ship's complement of Shock Troopers and THIGH Pilots was assembled—in two separate groups; the Imperium had learned that lesson well from the Agamammanon incident—on the main flight deck of the IPD Bermuda. All were in their formal dress uniforms, seams sharp and buttons polished. Standing at the front of the flight deck, facing outwards, were two Shock Troopers clad in the deep crimson combat armour of the Imperial Honour Guard.

The absolute silence of the attentive parade had lasted about thirty seconds before the murmuring began.

"Some new damn officer, the way I heard it," Strong whispered back. "Inspection of the troops, usual officer crap. Must be someone damned important, by the looks of those Redsuit goons; they don't get assigned to just anybody." He shrugged. "Seems to me, if I were the Rebel Coalition, I'd simply wait till the Imperator sent out somebody important, wait fifteen minutes, then attack. They'd catch us with our pants down—but neatly pressed—every time."

"You don't think they would, do you?" asked Mikhail Tetrakovavonavich from the other side of Sergeant Strong. "Attack, I mean."

"We'll find out in about two minutes," said Izzy Jenkins from the other side of Mikki. "Hell, I'm about ready to start a war just to get off this damn parade. How much longer are they going to keep us here?"

"Heads up, guys," said Strong. "Something's happening."

There was a rustle of motion through the room as everybody snapped back to attention.

"About bloody time," said Fib, his whisper loud in the sudden silence.

On the gantry along the front end of the flight deck, a minor functionary had scuttled in and placed a microphone in the point under the spotlights. He tapped it with his finger.

"Testing one two," he said into it, and his nervous voice filled the large room. "Uh, sorry about the delay, but there has been a hitch with the, uh, oh what?" This last was directed to somebody out of sight behind the door from which he had appeared. "Oh, right, sorry..."

He released the microphone and scurried back to the safety of the door.

Silence for a few seconds, then: "Gee, I'm sure glad I got dressed up for that!"

"Shut up, Fib," hissed Sergeant Strong as nervous laughter rippled outward through the serried ranks.

Movement on the gantry caught their attention once again. A short figure was strutting towards the microphone. He stepped out of the shadows and stopped behind the microphone—and looked up at it. A murmur ran through the assembled warriors. The man could not have been more than four feet tall. An untidy mop of dark hair sat atop his head, sprouting tufts in all directions. His face was twisted into a petulant scowl—his large bushy eyebrows meeting above the bridge of his large round nose—as he glared up at the microphone. Even from this distance, the large mole on his right cheek was clearly visible. Tucked into his right armpit, its end clutched in his upraised right hand, was a short swagger stick. He wore the severe grey uniform of an Imperial Muff.

The Muff extended his swagger stick, and tapped the microphone stand impatiently.

The minor functionary scuttled into sight once more. He fumbled with the stand for a few painfully long seconds before managing to loosen the adjustment screw. He lowered the microphone until it was the right height for the diminutive officer to use, tightened it into place, and scurried away again.

The officer stepped forward, opened his mouth to speak—and the microphone began to slide slowly downwards. The officer glared at it, then began tapping with his swagger stick again.

"Y'know," muttered Fib sotto voce, as the hapless functionary scurried back to centre stage, "I'm pretty sure I've seen this routine before. Next the guy's cane turns into a bunch of flowers."

"Fib," warned Sergeant Strong, equally quietly, "shut the fuck up!"

The functionary adjusted the microphone to its correct height again. As he did so, it picked up his mumbled voice and broadcast it quietly around the room: "sorry sorry sorry..." He tightened the screw, gave it an extra twist, and stepped back. For a moment, both the functionary and the officer stood, staring expectantly at the microphone. It didn't move. The officer said something quietly—not meant for the microphone—and the functionary stepped two paces back, out of the spotlight, and snapped to attention.

The officer smacked his swagger stick lightly into the palm of his left hand. He stepped forward again.

"I am Muff Aleeto Farquhar," he said in a thin, reedy voice which the sound system broadcast throughout the flight deck.

Sergeant Strong closed his eyes. No, he willed, don't say it!

"He certainly is a little fucker!" declared Fib in a stage whisper. A ripple of stifled sniggers radiated outwards.

"I swear, Fib," muttered Strong, "if you don't shut your mouth..."

"The Imperator," continued the Imperial Muff, ignoring the murmurs which swept the room, "is most displeased with your apparent lack of progress in locating the location of the hidden Rebel base." He frowned in thought, as though mentally reviewing his last sentence. He cleared his throat.

"In the continued absence of the Stiff Lord, Barth Vapour, the Imperator has sent me, personally, to take control of the fleet, and to bring these terrorists to justice once and for all." He emphasised the last four words by smacking his swagger stick into his palm with each word. "Decisive action is required, and I am the man for the job!

"Yes, I know. You look at me and you see a runt. You giggle at my height, and at my name—no, I know it's true. You laugh at me." He scowled out at the assembled ranks.

"Rest assured, though, that I am not the cousin of the Imperator's wife's sister. I am not his father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate. I earned my rank by being the best at what I do. Stay on my good side, and we'll get along. Mess with me, and you'll learn exactly how much of a nasty bastard I really am. I reward excellence as I see it, but..."

He suddenly extended his arm, poking the attentive functionary in the side with his swagger stick. The man began to shudder, quietly at first, but then a soft keening became audible throughout the room, growing into a strangled, agonised wail. The Muff folded his arm back up, tucking the swagger stick neatly into his armpit. Released, the functionary slumped bonelessly to the gantry. A curl of blue smoke drifted up from his open, gaping mouth.

"But," continued the Muff into the absolute silence which now gripped the room, "I do not suffer fools lightly."

He turned and strutted out of the spotlight, stepping daintily over the fallen body as he went. The silence stretched; all eyes were on the smouldering body—obviously now a corpse—of the wretched functionary.

Another officer stepped into the circle of light; he glanced down at the body, sniffed, then looked out over the room. It was Admiral Muzzel, who—with the arrival of Muff Farquhar—had been replaced as leader of the Imperial fleet. He was a tall man, with greying hair and a thin moustache.

"Now that you have all met Muff Farquhar," he said, ignoring the low microphone—his booming voice carried naturally to all corners of the large chamber—"you know that the Imperator is quite serious about ending the Rebel threat." A grimace flickered across his face. "To that end, several new directives have been passed down from Coruscate Primus, with the intent of streamlining our operational capability. Bear in mind that these directives come, uh, direct from the Imperator and are not to be questioned. They will improve our chances of ending this war with the Rebel Coalition." The expression on his face suggested that he had his doubts.

"First, THIGH Flight Teams are to be enlarged to four, from three. Some Teams may need to be split up, but most of you should remain intact." There was an angry muttering from the THIGH half of the room. Mikki and Jenkins exchanged knowing glances.

"Second," said the Admiral loudly, "the size of Shock Trooper Squads is to be increased from four to five." Now the Trooper half of the room erupted into subdued dissent.

"Please, I know how you feel," said the Admiral, raising his hands for silence, "but there has obviously been a great deal of thought put into such a sweeping overhaul of our basic military structure. Perhaps some good will come out of this organisational review. Perhaps the Imperator feels that a good shake-up will cure our complacency.

"Whatever the reasoning, it is not negotiable. Deal with it."

He waited a few seconds, then held his hands up for silence once more.

"The good news, however, is that very few Squads or Flight Teams will need to be split apart to make this work. Obviously we shall do our best to minimise disruption, and to ensure that everything continues to work smoothly. We have been promised an influx of new recruits to fill out your groups as appropriate." The Admiral leaned on the railing and peered down at the assembly.

"Dismissed," he said. He stepped over the body on the gantry and stalked into the darkness.

Time is a funny thing. Not only is it relative—the faster you are moving, the slower it passes—it is also subjective. The more distracted you are, or the more fun you are having, the quicker it passes. This can actually result in localised rifts occurring in the space-time continuum—"time-rips"—if you place two people, at opposite ends of the time subjectivity scale, in close proximity. Such rifts are one of the main reasons why odd socks go missing. Sure, the underwear gnomes get the blame, but they are mostly misunderstood, and almost certainly mythical.

Inhaling large quantities of the pungent nacarat gas of the spice Menaajatwaa can actually induce a state of supreme distraction, often causing time to stop altogether for users of the drug. The resulting space-time rifts are so large that they tend to cause more than socks to go missing. This is one of the main reasons cited for the common phenomena of waking up to realise you are standing at a party, with no recollection of how you got there, or of why you are wearing nothing more than one strategically-placed sock. Of course, you have to expect that sort of crazy logic from a stoned junkie.

Although no Menaajatwaa was present on the flight deck of the IPD Bermuda, quite a sizeable time-rip briefly enveloped the Shock Troopers and THIGH Pilots assembled on her flight deck. To those people—both the natural-borns and the genetically enhanced—on the deck, transfixed by the corpse on the gantry and overwhelmed by all the sudden changes in their lives, it seemed that several minutes passed before the silence was finally broken—by Fib, unsurprisingly, muttering an expletive. To an outside observer, however, it seemed as though barely more than a second elapsed between the departure of the Admiral and the explosion of chaos amongst the ranks.

"This is great," muttered Fib amidst the uproar. "Just fuckin' great! We are screwed."

"Belay that shit, Fib," snapped Sergeant Strong.

"But they've just single-handedly inflicted more damage to the might of the Imperial fleet than the Rebellion ever did, even counting the damn Yawn incident. And they've put a jumped-up midget in charge!"

"I said shut it," hissed Strong. "Let's get out of here!"

"But we're screwed. Game over, man. Game over!"

Strong stepped closer to the big man. The Sergeant was not small himself, but Fib was a good three inches taller, and packing another thirty pounds of very solid muscle. Strong moved with an amazing speed; he swung one hand up, wrapped his fingers around the back of the larger man's closely shorn skull, and dragged him down until they were eye to eye, noses almost touching.

"Shut. Up." Strong stared unflinchingly into Fib's wide, grey eyes. Finally, Fib blinked.

"Thanks, Sarge," he said. "Sorry."

"Are you done now?" asked Strong, his eyes searching the big man's face.

"Depends," said Fib. "I don't normally kiss on a first date but if you don't let go I might have to make an exception."

Yeah, thought Strong, he's back to normal.

"Let's all get out of here and find somewhere more private, shall we?" said Strong. He released Fib and turned to find the other two members of his Team; Mikki and Izzy were a short distance away, watching the two men.

"Are you two going to get a room," asked Izzy, "or shall we come too?"

"We could always get a room of our own," said Mikki with a grin, "and leave them to it." He recoiled as Izzy turned to glare at him.

"I like you, Mikki," said Izzy quietly, "so for the sake of our friendship I'll forget you just said that." She strode off towards Fib and Strong; as she did so she grinned evilly, and winked at the two men.

Mikki blinked. "Hey," he said, "I was just ... it was a ... hey, wait up, guys!"

The primary bridge of the Imperial Planetary Dominator Bermuda was always busy, and today was no exception. The mood was slightly more subdued than usual, though; word had spread rapidly through the crew. It is a well-known scientific fact that the gossipon—the sub-atomic particle responsible for the transmission of gossip—is the only particle, other than the tachyon, to move faster than the speed of light.

"He's coming," hissed somebody loudly, and the bridge became a veritable hive of industrious activity as everybody found something very important to do.

Imperial Muff Aleeto Farquhar strutted onto the bridge. He had his lethal swagger stick tucked casually under his arm; his left hand was folded up stiffly behind his back. He was muttering something under his breath, and his eyebrows were bunched in an angry scowl. Two crimson-clad Imperial Honour Guards followed him onto the bridge and took up stations either side of the door. The Muff strode across the bridge, looking neither right nor left, and entered one of the small briefing rooms.

The entire bridge seemed to heave a communal sigh of relief as the door slid closed behind him.

In the briefing room, two high-ranking officers were reviewing the data coming in from the probes and spy teams which were actively engaged in seeking out the Rebel Coalition, wherever they might have gone to ground.

Soon after the IPD Bermuda had joined the Equilateral and the Scalene in orbit around the planet Yawn, Admiral Muzzel had formally taken charge of the fleet. His first action had been to order the launch of every probe 'bot aboard the three ships. Six had been despatched to every likely planet—and more than a few unlikely ones—within a hundred light year radius. As reports had come in—either crossing that planet from the list, or providing details of some uncharted colony or illegal smuggler's base—the 'bots had moved on, slowly expanding the search. Since the fleet could not possibly go chasing off to investigate every one of the hundreds of possible sightings, Muzzel had sent out small teams to take a closer look and provide a more definitive judgement on the identity of the settlements than the 'bots were capable of producing.

The galaxy was a big place, and it was a slow process. So far, about a quarter of their current quadrant had been scanned by the 'bots, and about a quarter of that had been either discarded by the preliminary report, or identified by the spy teams as being harmless. A few had been flagged as requiring a visit from an Imperial battle cruiser or two, once the current crisis had been dealt with.

Reports were pouring in.

Captains Thursan Yak and Jaempa Lardine were huddled over a monitor, examining the image it displayed, when Muff Farquhar strutted up behind them.

"What do you have here, gentleman?" he asked, leaning over their shoulders to get a closer look.

"Well sir," said Captain Yak, "it appears to be a standalone Type Three power generator. We've seen quite a few of them in the last few weeks." He turned to face the Muff, and recoiled an inch as he came nose to large bulbous nose with the short officer; apart from anything else, the Muff obviously had no concept of—or respect for—personal space.

Muff Farquhar nodded. "A Type Three power generator," he said thoughtfully. "A Type Three..."

"They're suitable for running large planetary installations," added Captain Lardine helpfully. "You could practically power an entire city with one of these things. They can convert just about any matter you feed them into energy, with a ninety-three percent efficiency; they'll even convert free hydrogen from the atmosphere if nothing else is available. Very popular among the smuggling and pirating crowds. Not quite as powerful as the Type Sevens, but a lot..." He trailed off as he became aware of a rhythmic smacking sound; the Muff was slapping his swagger stick impatiently into his palm.

"I know what a Type Three power generator is, thank you, Captain," said the Muff. "That is them. I feel it."

"But sir, there are many uncharted settlements; we were just about to eliminate them from our list. The reports coming back from..."

"Don't argue with me, Captain. The Rebels are there," said the Muff decisively. "What planet is that?"

Captain Yak tapped a few keys, and the name of the planet appeared superimposed across the bottom of the screen: Gryczczycyczalzzcycz.

"There," said the Muff. "Set course for Griczizzzleza... Grizzlezizzlewiz... Grizizizizzle..." He frowned at the screen, momentarily defeated.

"Uh..." began Captain Lardine.

"Enough, Captain. Uh, what is next on the list?" said the Muff.

Yak tapped a few more keys. The image changed to show another Type Three power generator. Across the bottom of the screen was the much shorter and eminently more pronounceable planet name: Hoff.

The Muff nodded happily. Hoff. No hassle there!

"What information do you have on that system?" he asked.

"Sir," said Captain Lardine, examining the data that rolled across the screen, "our sniper team on Hoff sent back a preliminary report of a large force massed there, but could not identify them more clearly. Her last report is overdue, although given the weather conditions on the planet, that is no cause for alarm."

"The Rebels are there," said the Muff decisively. He glared from one Captain to the other, daring either man to contradict him.

"Uh, yes sir," said Yak.

"As you wish," said Lardine.

"Set course for Hoff," said the Muff. "Notify the fleet—contact IPD Acute and IPD Obtuse as well. We shall all rendezvous above Hoff, and eliminate the Rebel threat once and for all."

"Yes sir," said both Captains. They stood and left the briefing room to relay the Muff's orders.

Imperial Muff Aleeto Farquhar settled into one of the comfortable chairs and stroked his swagger stick thoughtfully.

"The Imperator wants to see decisive action," he said aloud to the empty room, "and that's what I shall give him."