2951-05-31 – Tales from the Service: The Tread of a Titan

 “Where in all creative hells did our air cover go?” Sergeant Marienne Von Brandt brushed concrete chips off the shoulders of her smart-cloth camouflage cloak and tried to make herself a smaller target as a heavy Incarnation armored vehicle rumbled past. She had never seen anything like that monster before. She was so close she could hear its fusion engine humming and its turret bearings whining as it swung back and forth. From the glassy face of the turret, an eerily silent pulsebeam stabbed out intermittently, turning sturdy buildings to flying chips and dust almost at random.

“The only squadron up there is tangling with a bunch of Sirrocos in sector K-31, Sarge.” Corporal Arif Schorel reeled in the antenna he’d carefully snaked up an exposed section of draining pipe, then cautiously peeked out of the ruined building they were hiding in. “Not sure they’d be able to stop that thing anyway.”

“Well we’re sure not going to stop it.” Marienne brielfly wondered if she’d rather be in a sector being lashed by strafing Siroccos or crushed by a couple of tracked behemoths. In the end, she decided she preferred the armored vehicles, if only slightly.

A pair of rockets flashed out of a building on the other side of the broad street toward the Nate vehicle. One of them exploded prematurely, intercepted by point defense, and the other exploded against the smoothly rounded side of the vehicle’s hull without apparent effect. Infantry anti-armor missiles like that would punch a hole through a Rico suit and the Marine inside, but against armor that probably belonged on a naval destroyer instead of on the ground, they were little more than a child’s toy.

As soon as the explosion faded, that hideously blank turret swung around in the direction of the attack, and another silent beam of death lanced out. The offending building exploded into another hail of splinters and a fresh plume of chalky smoke, likely marking the graves of at least a few brave FVDA soldiers.

While the turret was turned away, Marienne poked her head up and aimed her rail carbine at the monstrosity. Shooting it with such a weapon would do even less than the rockets, but she could at least paint the target with a rangefinding laser and broadcast a clear visual image of the vehicle on the command network. The Pumas weren’t coming, but perhaps there were quite a few un-occupied guided missile battery commanders back at the LZ who would see the value in not letting that thing get any closer.

As if sensing the invisible targeting laser, the vehicle ground to a stop and its turret spun back toward Marienne and Corporal Schorel. With a snarl of annoyance, she grabbed her compatriot by the shoulder and dragged him flat against the ground just before the ruined wall they were hiding behind exploded into a new hail of shards and dust.

By the time the pair had extricated themselves from the rubble and coughed up most of the concrete dust in their lungs, the behemoth had moved on. To its crew, crushing two soldiers probably seemed pointless, when in ten more blocks, it would reach the top of the rise and bring its weapon to bear on the supplies piled at LZ.

“Are you through making it angry, Sarge?” Schorel helped Marienne to her feet and peeked around the corner. “It’s gone. Let’s see who’s still alive and fall back.”

Marienne reached a finger into her helmet to wipe dust off the screen of her heads-up monitor. “Tell everyone to rally at that broadcast tower.” She pointed to a drunkenly-leaning latticework studded with comms gear. “We’ll figure out-”

Marienne’s helmet comms beeped. “Sergeant Von Brandt, resume painting your target.” The voice was gruff, deep, and unfamiliar; it certainly wasn’t any of the artillery officers she usually heard. “Highest priority. Please confirm.”

Marienne winced. “Schorel, give me your antenna reel, then get to that rally point.” He wouldn’t need a bigger antenna to reach the scattered members of her company, but she would need it to respond to whoever this was.

Schorel winced and nodded; he hadn’t heard the order, but it wouldn’t be too hard to guess at its contents. Slapping her on the shoulder, he passed on the antenna reel. “Be careful, Sarge. We’ll be waiting at the rally.” With that, he darted across the debris-choked street, cupping one hand to the microphone at his chin.

Marienne hooked the antenna unit into her comms unit and extended its whip-like aerial a few feet. “Confirmed receipt. Who is this?”

“Major Marius Kerr, 2nd Battalion, Twentieth Marine armored. We’re inbound at best speed.”

Marienne hadn’t realized the attack on Masinov had included any of the vanishingly rare Confederated Marine armored brigades. The last time she’d heard of any of them being deployed, it had been at Margaux, and she’d never so much as seen one of their combat vehicles. “Aye, Major.”

Stepping out into the street, Marienne loped in the direction the behemoth had gone, wincing each time she heard a building ahead collapse into rubble. With all the smoke and dust, she hoped she’d be as invisible to its crew as it was to her.

The only warning she had that she’d caught up to the huge armored vehicle was the telltale whining of its turret bearings barely twenty meters away. Instinctually, Marienne dove to the pavement, but the pulsebeam wasn’t meant for her; somewhere ahead in the dust cloud, another building flashed into splinters and collapsed in on itself.

Crawling forward now, Marienne began to see the dark outline of the huge machine looming out of the dust. Cautiously, she raised the antenna spool’s aerial a little, then hooked the device to her belt and crouched behind the twisted, burned wreckage of a civilian groundcar. The wreck wouldn’t be much protection against that high wattage weapon, but it would conceal her even better than the dust, and perhaps the crew wouldn’t be able to tell exactly where the target painting laser was coming from.

With a quick prayer, Marienne crossed herself, slid the barrel of her carbine through the groundcar’s charred skeleton, and flicked on both the camera and the target painter.

Today’s account is not from a recent engagement, unfortunately. The counterattack at Masinov took place last November, and though it did not result in recapture of that world, it did succeed in causing significant damage to enemy infantry formations and rescuing a significant civilian population which was taken when the planet was unexpectedly occupied two months previously.

Sergeant Von Brandt’s account of a super-heavy Incarnation armored vehicle is the first such sighting I have seen reported anywhere, even though it reaches us many months after the event. This indicates that this vehicle exists only in small numbers or is fielded only by a small number of enemy formations. Since at the beginning of the war, there seemed to be almost no ground armor in Incarnation inventory, this is yet another new weapon they’ve introduced based on battlefield experience.

Naturally, Confederated troops are also getting new weapons to deal with these enemy innovations. Von Brandt’s account also included a description of at least one rarely-seen (though not quite so new) Confederated weapon system, and it is for this reason that I intend to continue to feature it next week.

2951-05-24 – Tales from the Service: The Rock of New Tortuga

Though it has yet to be formally named, a planet only a few dozen light-years from Sagittarius Gate is referred to by service personnel as New Tortuga. Rumor has it that the system was an outpost for fugitives fleeing Reach authorities before the war. Certainly humans from the Reach settled it at least once in the decades prior to this conflict; images of the ruins on New Tortuga are easy enough to retrieve from the Sagittarius Gate datasphere, and you can still see the manufacturer’s insignias on some of the pre-fab shelter components.

Whether the inhabitants of New Tortuga died out due to their settlement’s extreme isolation, or, being fugitives, they left shortly after Naval Survey ships arrived to formally chart the system just before the war, I can’t clearly determine. The planet seems comfortable enough, at any rate, and the relatively pleasant climate and unthreatening biosphere found on most of its surface made it a prime candidate for use in a ground forces training exercise that completed only a few days ago.

As has been seen in past entries on this feed (Tales from the Service: An Officer’s Exercise), the Confederated Marines rely heavily on live-fire exercises against simulated opponents to keep troopers sharp. It might surprise some of our readers to know that several Marine brigades are attached to Seventh Fleet since the Seventh is currently not defending any planets, but every time we’ve talked with Admiral Abarca he’s brought up future offensives.

Evidently, the recent exercise permitted two Marine units (the Seventeenth and the Twenty-Ninth) to practice a full planetary invasion, complete with orbital bombardment, contested landing zones, and live-fire close air support. The actual ruins were not affected in this operation; the citadel of this simulated colony was set up on a plateau half a world from these potentially valuable artifacts, at a place the Marines are calling the Rock. Apparently, the Seventeenth suffered simulated casualties in excess of fifty percent in taking the Rock, through a combination of terrain, well prepared defenses, and unimaginative assault tactics.

While I’ve received two accounts of Marines storming this bastion in the teeth of simulated enemy fire, I also received an account of a very different kind pertaining to the exercise. Captain Judd Marlow is a superannuated Marine who serves as the leader of an opposition force simulation team, and he claims that his people set up some of the defenses at the Rock.

Judd Marlow turned in a slow circle, cracking his knuckles one by one. In every direction from where he stood, the alien grass waved in long, slow undulations that didn’t quite seem to line up with the morning’s gentle breeze. The place was beautiful, but his eye barely saw the magnificent desolation of this world so far from any human home. Where he looked, he saw lines of fire and defilade, sight-lines and military crests. Imaginary brigades and divisions marched up and down the gently rolling slopes, or burrowed into their sides and threw up earthworks that shortly bristled with guns.

All those toy soldiers, though, marched up past Judd toward the plateau’s western rim. There, rising from the horizon, was the feature he’d spied on the terrain maps before his team had ever left Sagittarius Gate. The basalt dome towered nearly two hundred meters above the plateau’s higher side, its crevassed flanks nearly precipitous at all points save for one water-etched ravine that cut a sloping path up to the summit. Its far side projected out from the rim of the plateau and hung as a sheer stone wall four hundred meters high above a shallow lake far below. In some weather, the summit was concealed by a halo of clouds; in other weather, an observer up there could see everything moving for fifty kilometers around.

A place like that, Judd knew, was destined to host a great conflict, and now he was bringing the conflict. In his pack were a hundred programmable marker beacons, and with these seeds, he would grow that forlorn, alien acropolis into the fortress it longed to become.

True, the defenses of this fortress would be built of shabby rammed earth and polymer panels rather than ferrocrete and alloy, and its defenders would exist only in the datasphere, but that hardly mattered. The attackers would be real Marines, and the harder Judd and his fellows made the simulation, the more realistic their experience would be. For every casualty his simulations tallied on New Tortuga, perhaps one fewer would be tallied in a real assault.

Judd pulled out one of his beacons, programmed it to mark a picket outpost, then jabbed it into the spongy, root-suffused soil. He’d already tested the properties of the local dirt and the rock below it, and verified that the machines that would come behind him could dig blast-proof bunkers deep enough that nothing the Marines had would knock them out. The simulated defenders of such outposts would retreat to the deepest level when bombarded, then dig themselves out just in time to catch the advancing Marines with flanking fire as they passed by. Judd wouldn’t commit his best troops to such delaying tactics, of course; the rules of the exercise limited how many of the best his opposition force could use. The outposts would be given over to fanatical amateurs.

Judd trudged down the hillock toward his lighter. “Joanna, can you finish setting up this picket field? I’m going to go get started on the Rock.”

“The what, Captain?”

“That big outcrop west of us. Center of the defenses.” Judd climbed up into the lighter’s cockpit and closed the canopy. There were seven people on his team programming beacons; seven whose artifice would oppose whole brigades. It was a heady feeling, but Judd still missed the days when, as a company commander, he’d donned a Rico suit and led forty-odd Marines into battle, simulated and otherwise.

“I think Theodor is already up there setting up the drones.”

Theodor Janowski, the team’s automation tech, supervised the machines that turned the programmed markers into earthworks, bunkers, structures, and obstacles. True, most of the construction was flimsy, temporary work, but inside the Marines’ helmets, it would all look like the real thing, and the phantom defenders would be protected by polymer panels as perfectly as armor-plate.

Judd took his lighter up and over the gently sloping meadow toward the Rock. Sure enough, as he circled for landing, he saw Theodor’s lighter and the boxy drone mothership perched at its summit, with several aerial drones already circling.

Judd touched down near the westward rim of the outcrop and jumped down onto weathered stone barely colonized by scrubby, rubbery plant-life. He couldn’t help but stare out over that expanse of empty air for several seconds. There were a few wispy clouds forming over the lake – forming far below his feet, but still far above the ground. No, there would be no assault from that side. With a flourish, he jabbed two more beacons into the ground as near to the rim as he dared, programming one to be an air-search sensor station and the other to be a heavy anti-air laser battery.

With one last look at the view, Judd turned toward the other side of the outcrop and waved at Theodor, who barely looked up from his work on one of the drones. As he walked toward the ravine that was the only way up to the summit, he planted a few more beacons. In his mind’s eye, a fortress was taking shape, a fortress that would make even Marines tremble. This would be the site of the final assault, and if everything went well, the attackers would not soon forget it.

2951-05-17 – Tales from the Inbox: A Midnight Search

This section of Noxolo Laska’s account will probably be the last we relay here. It has been interesting to see into the personal lives (or abortive attempts thereof) of the agents responsible for behind-the-lines security in this conflict, but the remainder of the story submitted is somewhat less than enthralling. It looks like details were excised by a second contributor, probably Damien himself (and I don’t think that’s his real name, even if Noxolo thinks it is).

The missing details relate to the actual discovery and disarming of the deadman-switched cargo. No doubt the contents are secret, but a thermite booby-trap is hardly top secret; something else about this section might have violated operational security on one of Damien’s other official investigations with BCI, but this is only speculation on my part.

I also do not know what became of this pair after the events described; the submitted account ends with a cursory note about the station being saved and the officials responsible for killing Damien’s partner being apprehended. This part would have been far more interesting in detail, but no detail was provided.

Noxolo tried to imagine the entire security apparatus of the station being so corrupt that they’d be willing to let people die to cover their tracks. Sure, she’d heard some of them were slow to report minor violations by their friends, but a smuggling ring worth enough to put the entire station’s population at risk in the coverup was something that seemed beyond the bumbling constabulary officers. Damien seemed to believe it, and sniffing out such things was his job. So was lying convincingly, but Noxolo either had to trust that he was telling the truth, or shoot him dead right now and spend the rest of the night trying to dispose of his body.

Damien, seeming to sense Noxolo’s doubt, placed his hands palms-up on the table and sighed. “If we’d expected this, Santi and I would have brought backup. But we didn’t. This was supposed to be a routine intercept.”

Noxolo nodded. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

“Noxie, I should-”

Noxolo raised the scattergun in her hand and shook it, arching one eyebrow. “I have the talking wand, Damien.”

Damien scowled, then folded his arms and sat back.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Noxolo leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on the weapon. “I’ll make a list of places where they could get a thermite rigged crate in without having to bypass too many security sensors, and eliminate places where it would be too visible. Should take only an hour or two, and I can keep those searches from drawing any official attention.”

Damien nodded cautiously. “I can help-”

Noxolo arched her eyebrow again, and Damien once again fell silent. This time, his expression fell from a frown into a scowl and showed signs of going into a full-blown pout. He liked to have things his way, and that was part of what had made him so much fun two years prior, but it was also probably why he’d left like he did. They’d come to that point in any relationship where both people involved have to face a future of not always getting things their way.

“While I do that, Damien dear, you are going to sleep.” Noxolo smiled. “If you’re going to keep my home from blowing up, I need you at least halfway rested.”

“Sleep?” Damien sat bolt upright, as if in denial of the dark circles under his eyes. “I don’t think that’s a good-”

“I am quite prepared to sedate you.” Noxolo rolled her eyes. She certainly wasn’t going to get anything done on the terminal with Damien pacing in agitation behind her; he was positively adorable when he was agitated. “You look like you haven’t slept in five shifts.”

Damien held up his hand. “It’s been less than four shifts.”

“Then you’re getting older, and four is the new five.” Noxolo pointed her scattergun toward the corridor leading to the only bedroom in the tenement; the second space intended to be one was currently serving as a spare stock-room for long-shelf-life products for her shop. “If you don’t whine too much, the bed might still be warm when you get there.”

Damien looked like he was going to whine far too much, but he seemed to be struck with a rare moment of good sense. With a nod, he stood up. “Thank you, Noxie. I’ll make this up to you, I promise.”

“By making sure I’m not homeless tomorrow.” Noxolo gestured again. “I’ll wake you up when it’s time to go find your bomb.”

Damien crossed the room in a few steps and paused to look over his shoulder at Noxolo. For a moment, his eyes softened into a look that was just like old times.

Noxolo met his eyes, and an involuntary smile tugged at her lips. Even now, that look made her feel ready to follow him and make very certain that he didn’t get any sleep, but she had too much good sense to give in to such urges.

Damien grinned, but his grin was swallowed up in an involuntary yawn. With a groan, he headed for the bedroom.

Noxolo watched the space where he’d been for a few seconds before turning to the computer terminal in the corner. Her hands danced across the input keys as she queued up a few initial system requests, but her mind was elsewhere. There was a part of her that was persuaded, despite all reason, that things could be like they were before, assuming nobody exploded with the contraband shipment he’d misplaced. Of course things couldn’t be the same; she knew that no matter what he said, there was no forever. Even if he stayed, there would be another day when duty called and she found him gone.

With her queries still running, Noxolo got up and crept toward the bedroom. Damien was already asleep, of course; he looked to have barely made it onto the bed before the lights went out. She tiptoed past him to the drawers in the far bulkhead and picked out some tight-fitting, dark-colored clothes that would be ideal for burgling storage compartments. She tossed off her robe right there and dressed, heedless of his soft snoring. After all, even if he was awake, and he wasn’t, Damien had seen it all before.

Back at the terminal, Noxolo started cross-referencing results. At the top of the holographic display, a wireframe of the station that started out golden-yellow began to acquire patches of green and red. The red patches generally grew larger as she worked, while the green ones narrowed.

When she got as far as she could on public data queries, Noxolo switched over to making queries using the credentials of the station’s most junior maintenance tech. The poor girl had been far too trusting, and Noxolo had found it only too easy to lift her thumbprint and guess her passcodes within two weeks of her starting on the job. Having access to the maintenance system had all kinds of perks, few of which Noxolo had yet found a use for.

A few more queries came back, and Noxolo added them one by one to her diagram. The red areas grew, and the green ones narrowed, while a few more appeared.

Soon, a pattern emerged, and it was one that Noxolo didn’t like. The green spots created by the maintenance queries were almost all concentrating in areas of the station that normally she would have expected – areas that even a diligent investigator might fail to inspect.

Two hours later, Noxolo shook Damien awake. He was up in an instant, but before he could go anywhere, she pressed a synthfoam cup of coffee into his hands. “I’ve got a hunch about where your smugglers are hiding things.” She gestured back toward the room where the terminal still showed her map of the station. “How sure are you about the official connection?”

Damien glanced down at the steaming beverage. Too late, Noxolo remembered that he couldn’t stand spacers’ synthesized coffee; this time, he would need the caffeine. “It’s the only explanation. Why?”

Noxolo sipped her own coffee, then grimaced. “Come on, I’ll show you. We’re in for an interesting few hours.”

2951-05-10 – Tales from the Inbox: A Midnight Emergency

“Pull the other one, Damien.” Noxolo L. ejected the battery from Damien’s railgun and kicked it across the room, then tossed the weapon onto the table in front of him. “Why are you really here?”

Damien shrugged, his eyes flicking between the gun and Noxolo. “I really wish it was just an excuse, but it’s not. My superiors-”

“The people you chose over me, you mean.” Noxolo pointed her scattergun at the floor in front of his feet and made a show of inspecting the sights. The holographic reticle it projected above the barrel was a bit fuzzy and needed a bit of adjustment; even when she did practice, it was with the side-arm she took with her to the shop. She kept the scattergun in the bed, and it clearly wasn’t getting enough attention.

“Don’t say that, Noxie. I can’t-”

“Fifty credits and I’ll say it whatever way you want.” Noxolo pursed her lips and winked. When she’d met Damien, she’d been contracting as a vocal and holovid performer. He’d been looking to hire a pretty woman to play a minor part in a sophisticated sting operation. She still did a little vocal contract work on the side for her old clients, but she’d mainly left that line of work shortly after he’d left. “But it’s a thousand up front before I pretend to believe it.”

“Do you think I just wanted to leave like that?” Damien balled his fists on the table. For a moment, it looked like he was going to get up and do something stupid, but he let out a heavy sigh and every muscle in his body seemed to go slack. “Never mind. Help me for two shifts, and I’ll be gone again. I’ll make them send someone else out here next time.”

Noxolo raised one eyebrow. She’d half expected the old Damien; back then, he would have swept her off her feet and carried her to the nearest bunk, and left his explaining for the afterglow. She wasn’t even confident she would have shot him if he’d tried it.

Damien slowly reached into one pocket, then dropped a handful of silvery objects on the table. They clattered in that bright, eager way that only money can. “There. That should be about what you make in a month running that shop of yours. You can close up for one day.”

Noxolo counted at least three thousand credits on the table, mostly in the two-hundred-credit denomination that only spooks generally used. It was actually more like two weeks’ profit from the store, but it was more than enough to pique her curiosity. “I’m listening.”

“Santi and I were supposed to meet with some smugglers who think we’re dirty customs men. You remember Santi?”

Noxolo nodded slowly. Damien’s partner had a weasel-like aspect that she’d never liked, even though the man had been nothing but professional to her. “That’s what’s with the official-looking disguise.”

Damien tapped his wristcuff and the square-jawed, stern face he’d been wearing when he stepped in returned, along with the official markings on his clothing. “Danny Nicolov. The bastard actually is a dirty customs officer back on Maribel, so I have to look like him.”

“Let me guess.” Noxolo pointed toward the door. “Something just went wrong with your little meeting?”

The stranger’s features screwed up into a familiar wince. “Santi’s dead. So are the smugglers. I never saw the shooter.”

Noxolo couldn’t be bothered to care about Santi, but a man Damien had worked with for half a decade was dead. “I’m sorry.” The big oaf was probably hurting, but he’d never show it.

“Not as sorry as we’ll all be in about fourteen or fifteen hours.” Damien disengaged the disguise, and his face reappeared. “The smugglers told us they put a deadman switch on their cargo; if neither of them sends a particular code every twenty-four hours, a thermite charge chews a hole in it.” He shook his head ruefully. “Those idiots had no idea what it was they’d gotten their hands on. Thermite will cook it off and probably destroy the whole station.”

“What is it?” Noxolo finally took the opposite seat and started stacking up the cred-chits.

“It’s a Nate weapon. No idea how they got it.” Damien gingerly touched his bruise with two fingers. “We were hoping to find out.”

“Well, I listened.” Noxolo divided the cred-chits into two neat stacks and slid one of them back into the middle of the table. “Call station security. They’ll find that bomb in an hour or two.”

“Why do you think the smugglers were stashing things here?” Damien lowered his head into his hands. “Station security arranged our meeting. They’ll let the place blow to cover their tracks. We’d be lucky if they arranged a proper evacuation.”

Noxolo, who’d never had a terribly healthy relationship with any lawful authority, wondered if she’d missed opportunities by treating the station security team with dismissive contempt since the day she arrived. Maybe they could have gotten her in contact with suppliers for a few hard-to-get commodities. “You really think they’d let people die to protect themselves?”

Damien nodded. “They already have. I never saw the shooter, but I know what he was shooting. Only a Volkov MR28 does that kind of damage without punching holes in pressure hulls.”

“This is a model used by station goons?”

“Volkov only sells them to security agencies and a few mercenary outfits, Noxie. If it wasn’t a security man pulling that trigger, then it was one unlocking the armory.” Damien smiled wearily. “The two of us have to find that bomb.”

Though in her account Noxolo never says what agency Damien works for, I have surmised that he is a BCI operative. It is possible he is an agent of one of the regional civilian enforcement agencies as well, but I find this unlikely.

I cannot answer most of the questions you all have sent in about the Nuisance, unfortunately. I have seen them only a few times and never had a chance to talk to one. The reason I use this somewhat derogatory spacer name instead of the official transliteration of their name for themselves is that it seems the standard designation in Sagittarius Gate, and also, from all accounts, the creatures themselves don’t seem to mind the name, if they mind anything at all. Most people here would not immediately recognize the term Yixhari.

The degree of popular curiosity about this one species of many found in this region is interesting to me, but if there is demand for additional entries featuring them, I will see what can be done.