A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 04


“I just want you to feel you’re doing well. I hate for people to die embarrassed.”

–Fezzik in The Princess Bride

Tauran Defense Agency Headquarters, Lumière, Gaul, Terra Nova

To be striking back, finally, was the sovereign cure for most of the humiliations inflicted by upstart Balboa on Tauran arms, over the last several months. The men and women of the headquarters, once utterly downcast and demoralized, walked now with a spring in their step, their chins high, and something of a pirate’s gleam in their eyes.

This was a new building for the headquarters or, rather, an old one repurposed. The foundations were thick, the walls essentially soundproof. A former palace, the building had stood abandoned but for a guard for thirty years before being repurposed as a replacement for the old TDA headquarters, burned to the ground by a Balboan aerial attack using a large, but stealthy, drone carrying a “five-minute bomb.”

While some good people had been killed in that attack, it was generally agreed among the survivors that those deaths in no way harmed the cause quite so much as the death of the former agency chief, Lady Elisabeth Ashworth, had helped it.

General Janier pretty much summed up the sentiment of nearly everyone concerned who wore a uniform: “Good riddance to the ignorant bitch.”

Still, the sentiment wasn’t entirely universal. There were those who missed Lady Ashworth. Among these was a certain Anglian Royal Signals officer, a major by the name of Jonathan Houston.


It was dark outside, but everyone still was working with something like joy. Overhead, in distant space, the Smilodon stalked the Leaping Maiden, as the Beer Glass Galaxy poured from the Tap.

Far below those constellations, and below the first floor of the headquarters, Jan Campbell also stalked. Her prey was not a maiden, though it was not impossible that Major Houston was a virgin.

Short, blonde, shapely to the point of extravagance, and more than a tad pretty, Jan wore mufti, and only mufti, around the headquarters. This served primarily to disguise her rank in a headquarters where majors counted as “mere.” Given her easy and immediate access to the military head of the Tauran Defense Agency, the Gallic general Bertrand Janier, it was widely assumed she was quite a bit senior to that, and civil rather than military. This wasn’t in the least hurt by her having been a late-entry officer, hence rather older than the norm for a major.

But, major or sergeant major or colonel or well-connected bureaucrat, everyone simply assumed clout. This, too, wasn’t in the least hurt by the fact that she acted like she had clout, possibly even beyond the not insubstantial clout she did pack.

That clout was real, deriving partially from direct access to Janier and partly by direct access to Lieutenant General (Retired) Sidney Stuart-Mansfield, the head of Anglian Intelligence, which organization was also known as “Pimlico Hex.” That clout had enabled her to do three key things.

The first of these was to set up a sacrificial intelligence organization composed of nine hangers-on to the exiled Balboan, Belisario Endara-Rocaberti. These had taken a short course run by the Anglian intelligence apparatus, and were then reintroduced into their homeland, Balboa, to try to reconnect with certain intelligence assets with whom communications had been lost as a result of the previous Tauran defeat and expulsion from the country. Of those, three were still at large, to no one’s surprise more than Jan’s. And one of those had even managed to establish contact with a former asset, a machinist in the arms works at Arraijan, in Balboa, who wondered why no use had been made of an earlier report he’d submitted.

If this first organization had produced nothing except a flurry of activity and a lot of smug satisfaction on the part of Balboa’s chief of intelligence, Omar Fernandez, that would have suited Jan well enough. After all, its primary purpose was to provide cover for the second organization.

That second organization was smaller and considerably more elite, for certain values of “elite,” and was certainly not intended to be sacrificed. It consisted of three assets, with Jan serving as handler, personally, aided by a close-mouthed secretary, a cryptologist, and a communications specialist.

This first of these was a diplomat from La Plata, assigned to their embassy in Balboa, and in dread fear that the Balboan revolution would come to his country and displace his class. Young Señor Avellaneda, handsome, with his Anglian education, posh accent, and ten thousand Tauro suits, had gone home to La Plata for consultations and promptly offered his services via the Anglian embassy there. That his country had sent a brigade of marines–now enrolled in the Legion as the Thirty-ninth Tercio, and serving in Jimenez’s corps–made his offer something very like treason. This would have set Jan’s suspicion circuits to tingling madly if she hadn’t known that, in La Plata, treason to fatherland was far less of a crime than treason to class. And that was true of all classes there.

Sadly, Avellanda had yet to produce anything of real value.

The second operative, a Volgan, Jan trusted more readily. He, a newsman, was assigned by his bureau to cover the Twenty-second Tercio This unit had begun life as the Tsarist-Marxist 351st Guards Airborne Regiment, before signing on, en masse, with Carrera. The regiment, the tercio, was mostly Balboan, now, but still retained the traditions and customs that it had brought with it to Balboa. There was also, among the old hands, some emotional connection to the Volgan Republic.

Jan trusted the newsman, not least because she understood and trusted his motivations. Pyotr Simonov simply wanted money.

“Idealogues and idealists,” she had said to her secretary, in French, “cannot be trusted. Trust money. Trust greed.” While Jan’s English always carried an accent, light or heavy depending on many factors, her French, courtesy of the Anglian Army, was about as good as that of the crown prince of Anglia.

That trust in Simonov had been well placed, since the Volgan, before departing his homeland for Balboa, had managed to acquire quite a bit of information on some of what the Volgans had supplied to Carrera, and just how much of an interest Carrera held in certain Volgan defense companies.

“Holy shit!” had pretty well summed up Jan’s thoughts on that.

The third active member of her elite, non-sacrificial organization, however, had proven the most disappointing. Sister Mary Magdalene, of the international pacifist organization, Pax Vobiscum, had been recruited on what the nun thought were ideological and idealistic grounds. Jan had a better measure of the woman; the short-skirted, thin-shirted “nun” wanted payment, sure enough, but in perks and prestige, rather than in money. Unfortunately, and to Jan’s mind most shockingly, when Pax Vobiscum had shown up on the figurative Balboan doorstep, offering to become human shields, they’d all been put on trial for treason . . . to Balboa’s enemies. Sentenced to death, the group had instead been deported to neighboring Santa Josefina, where a guerilla war raged. It was made very clear to them that the full penalty would be exacted if they returned.

Who would have expected one of my primary intelligence assets to be booted for something like that? had thought Campbell. These people are too insane to predict. Maybe Kris was right, and they’re too insane to leave in peace. Or maybe they pegged the group for having spies within it, and decided this was a useful way to get them out of the way. If so, damned clever of them.

Hmmm . . . Maybe I can get the bitch infiltrated with the guerillas. But do I want to?

The third leg of Jan’s little unofficial and carefully hidden organization was a direct-action team, seconded to her via the influence of Stuart-Mansfield. Two of these now accompanied her–Sergeant Greene and Corporal Dawes–as she stalked the halls of the newly repurposed Tauran Defense Agency Headquarters, looking for the basement office of the aforementioned Jonathan Houston, seconded from Anglia’s Royal Signals Regiment, and flying a desk formerly devoted to intelligence on Balboa but now rather underused.