Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
"Parallax." The director tapped his papers straight, a nervous tic. "Come in."
"Sir." Julian hesitated in the doorway, thrown off by the sheer number of administrators behind the table. "Am I up for review?"
"No. The committee has some questions. Come in. Sit down." The director indicated the single uncomfortable chair in front of the table. "I must say, this is rather poor form. This is not how I'm accustomed to seeing agents at headquarters."
Bad enough being called in right from an assignment. Julian was filthy, exhausted, and his arm might have been bleeding again. Well, it would serve them right if he dripped on the lovely new conference room tiles. "I was on assignment when the summons came through, sir. It did have a level five priority on it."
Urgent. Come with all possible speed.
He'd expected headquarters to be under siege or something equally exciting. No such luck.
"Yes. Quite." The director did that blustery throat-clearing thing. "For god's sake, Julian. Sit."
Lovely. He'd embarrassed the director. "Yes, sir." He sat carefully, set his hoverbike helmet on the floor and tried not to look like he was cradling his arm.
"Parallax." A woman he couldn't identify spoke up sharply from halfway down the left side of the table. She was iron-haired and hard featured. Ex-marine, Julian guessed. "You consort with demons in your line of work?"
Consort? What an odd way to put it. "I have contact with demons and certain other hell species, yes."
"This demon?" The head of research asked as a holo still image flashed into the air before them.
Julian had to fight a smile. It was Shax, cocky and self-assured as he leaned against a bar somewhere chatting to the bartender. Little alarm bells rang in Julian's head, but he'd certainly mentioned Shax in previous reports. Using him as an informant and occasional operative wasn't a secret he'd kept from the ISE. "Yes."
"Can you verify his name?"
Ye gods, what had Shaxy gotten himself into now? "That's Captain Shax Goldner, of the transport ship, Brimstone."
"You're certain?" a thin-faced man from the opposite end barked out.
Another holographic still popped up. "And this one?"
This was Shax on a dock somewhere, talking to what appeared to be a group of academic types. He was grinning. They were scowling. "That's also Captain Goldner."
"You are a hundred percent certain?" the first woman snapped.
"No, ma'am. That's foolish in my profession. I can't be without doubts from a still image. One I didn't take."
"Reasonably certain, then?" a small man with a high voice piped in.
"Yes, sir. Reasonably certain."
"Were you aware then, Mr. Parallax, that the captain of the Brimstone recently engaged in unauthorized temporal displacement?" This from an older military man, so old he looked like retirement was several centuries late.
Wait…what? Unauthorized? "I had heard rumors, none I've followed up on, that there was a time travel incident. I'd also heard it was disastrously accidental."
"When you heard these rumors, why didn't you detain the demon captain for questioning?" the head of research asked.
Julian blinked, staring. He glanced at the director for some clue as to how he was supposed to handle this. The director tapped on his holo pad, very studiously not looking up. "I…had no orders to do so? None that reached me, in any case."
"We understand that you're a high-level agent," a younger man purred from the far right end of the table. Julian hadn't a clue what role that one might play, which made him supremely uncomfortable. "And have a great deal of autonomy in the field. Why wouldn't you take the initiative to bring this demon in?"
Again, Julian tried and failed to catch the director's eye. What the hell was going on here? "My autonomy is generally mission specific. Yes, I'm authorized to intervene in matters of interstellar security threats but they need to be overt threats without orders." He cleared his throat, knowing he was wandering out onto cracking ice. "Time travel, while outlawed on some space stations specifically, is not prohibited by interstellar law or planetary law. Since no one's done it before, I assume no one felt the need to legislate. It was my understanding that Captain Goldner's temporal accident occurred in Copernicus space? Not on a space station? Am I incorrect?"
"You are correct, Mr. Parallax." The minister of transportation nodded. "But such an unusual occurrence didn't even peak your curiosity?"
"I won't say that, sir. But the Brimstone's time jump accident was safely in the hands of top-notch academics by the time word reached me. I didn't see any need to be involved."
The marine type was by now alarm siren red and her teeth were quite obviously clenched as she said, "Your demon captain friend received a summons from ISE to come in for questioning regarding the incident. This was his response."
The holo projector popped on again, this time showing a full vid. Shax spun idly in the desk chair of what looked to be a private communications suite of the sort found on some space stations. He was playing pirate captain, appearance-wise, in his captain's jacket and silver scale armor shirt, a bit too much eye makeup and probably half the earrings he owned. He came around on the third spin and propped his boots up on the comm console.
"Greetings, lovely ISE people. I realize our relationship has been rather problematic over the years. But your last communique was nothing short of rude, so I will be clear and bluntly to the point and use one of my favorite phrases. You are out of your jurisdiction. So far out of it, I fear you may not find your way back. I'm not unreasonable, as demons go, and I'm perfectly willing to point the way."
He took his feet down and leaned closer to the vid screen. "My time and my information are not free. I've sold both to the nice professors at the university, much to their finance manager's chagrin. If you want the information, you pay me what they paid or you negotiate with them. I am not coming in to headquarters to end up some caged pet demon and you have no right to demand it. Now shoo."
Shax ended the communication by sticking a cigar in his mouth and holding up both middle fingers.
It was impolitic and incredibly stupid but Julian laughed and once started, found it difficult to stop. When he finally took a deep breath and wiped at his eyes, the director was drumming his fingers on the table.
"Found that amusing, did you?" the strange man at the end of the table purred.
"It was. Because he's right, I'm afraid." Julian pulled in another deep breath and made a conscious effort at a more sober demeanor. "We have no right to harass him for the information."
The hard-faced woman growled, "You have an obligation here, Parallax—"
Julian held up a hand. "Ladies and gentlemen of whatever committee this happens to be, here's what I see. Somewhere, there is an internal program to develop time travel. To date, this program has not been successful. Then you hear that a disreputable demon has managed to accomplish, by accident, that which you cannot. This annoys certain internal parties and you believe you can make demands. When they are refused, you call me in to make the demands instead because I have prior contact with said disreputable demon."
He shook his head, managing a pleasant enough smile. "My answer is no. I will ask. But this particular demon is valuable in the long run. I will not jeopardize a good working relationship with a vital operative to coerce information that can be obtained by other means."
The director finally sat up straighter and raked a gaze over one side of the table, then the other. "There you are, ladies and gentlemen. I will repeat that I predicted this outcome."
"You're his supervisor! You can—"
The director cleared his throat to cut off the objecting VIP type. "No. There are procedures in place for a reason. No, I can't."
The head of research frowned, though what he said wasn't what Julian was expecting. "Mr. Parallax, your arm is dripping."
Julian leaned over and spotted the ever-growing red puddle on the crisp white tiles. "Ah. So it is."
The director huffed a sigh. "Dismissed, Parallax. And for god's sake, get to medical."