Detective-Commander Ambelus nodded once Westingkrup had spoken his piece; the servo-skull did not seem nearly as happy. Something inside it began whirring.

Ji Jayms Mus Tang Wes Ting Krup” it repeated in flat tones, each syllable squeezed out with the same robotic emphasis. “Unfamiliar dialect/accent Low Gothic verbal communication. Confirm secondment.

“Confirmed,” yelled Ambelus, slapping the servo-skull aside with his palm. It rolled, internal stability mechanisms stirring to re-orient the bone chassis. Once upside-up, it hovered away, touching down on a bookshelf. The light dimmed from its eyes.

“Sorry about that,” muttered Ambelus. “Never was much good with servitors, but we had to get that out of the way.” He stepped over to the desk, tapping an unobstrusive button set into the surface. The lights in the room dimmed; to the side, a painting receded into the cieling, leaving a vidscreen. It was illuminated with the fist-and-scales of the Adeptus Arbites, and the Imperial aquila. Above them, the words Adeptus Arbites: Task Force (Xenos) shone brightly. Below, it concluded with Operation Aquila.

“For the duration of your time here, you are henceforth official members of the Lo Precinct Adeptus Arbites. Your acceptance of your secondment grants you the following effective ranks within the Arbites: operational rank, Investigator; clearance rank, Detective-Superintendent; command rank, Enforcer.” Ambelus’ eyes were glazed over, as if he were reading off a list that only he could see. “For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of our organisation, what that means is you can ask to be briefed on almost any info I have, but don’t go ordering the regular boys around. Common sense, but putting this task force together has been a bureaucratic nightmare, so consider yourselves officially enlightened.” He picked up the recaf mug, felt its weight, sighed and set it down again. His fingers drummed against another button.

The image on the viscreen changed to a slideshow of devastation: buildings either on fire or already burnt-out shells; blackened, misshapen corpses; broken railway lines like the one that had brought them to the Precinct Fortress, the metal twisted and buckled as if it were no more rigid than paper. Finally, there was a video feed. The camera panned over a morass of deteriorating buildings, a slum dotted with pinpricks of fire.

“This is Vulpis Ward. Broadly speaking, that name covers about a tenth of Lo Hive - the south-western extreme, roughly. The area you see here is on its outer border. Vulpis is not a safe place. In fact, it’s barely part of the Imperium. The planetary defence forces have for all extents and purposes lost control of the region; what industry remains has fallen into the hands of gangs. It’s hard to say if anyone is in charge of Vulpis Ward. There are always local warlords carving out new fiefs there, but none of them ever last long. Nearly one billion souls live in Vulpis Ward, barely two hundred kilometres from where we are at this very moment, in a hive that we built, and yet they may as well be at the other end of the galaxy for all the influence the planetary government has over the region.” The Detective-Commander frowned; the lines around his mouth got deeper, settling into place as if it were his most frequent expression. “Needless to say, this is a touchy subject among the upper echelons of the administration. I would like nothing better than to see Vulpis Ward returned to its rightful rulers, but the Adeptus Arbites would have to start a protracted military campaign that would take years, if not decades, and our dear Governor Demirci refuses to acknowledge that the area is effectively in rebellion.

“We might not have control over Vulpis Ward, but we have our eyes and ears there. These images were relayed to us eight days ago. The word in the street is that this was an attack by alien raiders. Unfortunately, the sources of this information are … questionable. The Planetary Defence Forces consider it to be nothing more than simply more fighting between the warlords.” He paused. “You may infer that I disagree. But even if Xenos are mounting some sort of attack, it’s not the Arbites’ place to try to defend the hive. And frankly, I don’t trust the PDF to do their damned job. Which is where you come in.” Another tap against the desk; now, a face was onscreen, a man with a thick jaw and plenty of scars only partially hidden by his thick brown hair.

“This man is Augustin Kelleher, and he’s a high-ranking member of a gang called the Brass Eye. They’re new on the scene, here, and we’re not quite sure what to make of them. Seems they act as middlemen for other organised crime enterprises in the hive. They traffic drugs, arrange hits, smuggle - the usual. Nothing all that severe. We think they’re actually trying to avoid attracting Arbites attention, which is sort of cute.” Ambelus allowed himself a brief chuckle. “They failed. We’ve got a mole in Kelleher’s crew, an Arbitrator by the name of Marcus Volkes.” Kelleher’s face was replaced by the image of an arbitrator in uniform, minus his helmet. His face was dutifully blank on screen. “Kelleher usually runs protection rackets, and we’re taking an interest because we don’t know who exactly the Brass Eye is extorting. Volkes is trying to determine if they’ve turned anyone in the planetary government. For now we’re letting them away with their minor business - but if we get evidence they’ve got anyone powerful on their side, we’re prepared to come down like a tonne of bricks.

“Volkes’ last report, though, was worrying. He said Kelleher seems to have shifted focus. He’s trying to get involved in the interplanetary importation business. Volkes ain’t sure why - says it’s a big change from how Kelleher usually operates. The rumour is that the Brass Eye are about to start dabbling in the Cold Trade. And to do that, he’s started paying off members of the PDF.” The commander’s face darkened.

“Then there’s this man.” A third face flashed up onscreen, this one all wildly styled hair and tacky jewellery. “Hadrian ‘Hex’ Gurner. He’s a small time merc that the Grand Precinct has a file on. Wanted in multiple jurisdictions for piracy, murder, theft, aggravated assault - you name it. He turns up here, and starts asking questions in the underworld. Questions like, ‘Where can I get involved in the Cold Trade,’ and ‘How can I get in touch with the Brass Eye’. And he’s asking them loudly - stupidly obviously. He’s the fall guy for somebody else, he has to be. He’s just too much of a moron to land here and start asking questions like all by himself, especially when he seems to have no idea how to go about it. My servitor could arrange a meeting with the Brass Eye better than he could.”

Ambelus punched a finger down at the table; the vidscreen went off and the lights in the office brightened. “So here’s what we know.” He began to count on his fingers. “One, the Brass Eye suddenly wants to get involved in the Cold Trade. Two, Gurner suddenly wants to get involved with both the Brass Eye and the Cold Trade. And three, the planetary defence forces are ignoring rumours of a possible Xenos attack on the outskirts of the hive, possibly because Kelleher’s paying somebody off.” He paused, letting the details sink in.

“Operation Aquila is a two-pronged approach to this thorny issue. I understand you lot have all received a bit of training about the most frequent encounters we have with Xenos and the Cold Trade. Your objective is to investigate the suspected link between the Cold Trade and possible corruption in the planetary government. There are two immediate avenues of approach: first, get in touch with Volkes and find out what Kelleher is up to, and second, keep an eye on Gurner and figure out who he’s working for. And do it discreetly. I don’t want to risk Volkes’ life, and I don’t want to scare Gurner off. And most of all, if my worst fears are confirmed and this is tied to somebody high-up in the administration, I don’t want to tip the Arbites’ hand until absolutely necessary. Trust nobody but Volkes and myself. Let me be absolutely clear on one final point: this must be done by the book. I know cutting corners sometimes help to get to the root of an issue this complex, but if the Adeptus Arbites ends up having to take action against the Loi planetary government, I want it to be absolutely blindingly obvious to Lord Sector Hax that we’re doing the right thing.”

Ambelus suddenly seemed to sag. “That’s the bones of it. I know that’s a lot to throw at you when you’ve only touched down here a couple of hours ago, but you can see why I felt the need to bring in some outside talent. Whatever questions you have, now’s the time to ask them.”