2951-03-29 – Tales from the Inbox: A Profiteer’s Bargain

There has been little action worth noting at Sagittarius Gate since our interview with Admiral Abarca. The defenses here are quite extensive, and all the more impressive for the fact that there are no planets or large bodies in this system to provide materials, manufacturing base, or work force for their construction. True, the defenses at Maribel are at least as extensive as these, but they are distributed to provide a defense network for a planet, whereas here the “fixed” defenses are in fact fixed to nothing in particular; a few fleet tugs could easily reposition the whole setup into new orbits in a week or two.

This week, I’ve elected to share part of an account sent in by someone who we’ll call Sacha T. (not, obviously, his real name). Sacha is, or more accurately was, an independent contractor in the semi-organized shadow industry of war profiteering. These vultures don’t directly plunder the Navy’s coffers, but they do pick over battlefields, smuggle people and goods across the lines, divert military supplies (probably those of both sides, though ours seem to be easier), and so on.

Sacha’s account picks up in the Anonga system, a backwater in Farthing’s Chain which has apparently become something of a clandestine hub for smuggling of war materiel.

Sacha slouched against the bar, staring into the amber liquid in his tumbler. Most likely, it wasn’t real Earth whiskey, despite the insistence of the nanotattoo-emblazoned barkeep, but it would raise uncomfortable questions if anyone knew he could tell the difference.

Ten years prior, Sacha had been the sort of person who would never have stooped to buying a drink in the cheapest bar on the decrepit waystation in such a sorry excuse for a star system, but now, he was the sort of person who hung around such places and drank whatever foul spirits were poured for him, without the slightest indication of revulsion. After all, the only people who were in his new line of business had long ago learned to bury any tendency toward revulsion which they had once had.

The stool next to Sacha’s creaked as a new occupant sat down. “Bad day there, bud?” The newcomer clapped a bony hand on Sacha’s shoulder.

Sacha shrugged without looking over at the other man. “No worse than most. Just not in any terrible hurry.” Without any outward indication of the shudder which his taste-buds were trying to propagate through his nervous system, he picked up the tumbler and took a sip, trying to picture the taste of a proper old-fashioned whiskey to replace the sickly-sweet, piney solvent which was actually coating his tongue.

“Funny thing about hurry is, you never know if you’re gonna be in it next moment.” The other man slid a reader-slate along the counter.

Sacha took another sip, pretending to savor the flavor, then finally glanced down at the slate. The garish symbols on its face might easily be mistaken for abstract art by anyone not familiar with the ways of the Reach’s underground, but Sacha knew their meaning all too well. Still without glancing over at the other man, he tapped a slashing series of marks in the middle of the screen, the ones indicating the fee. “I’ve seen this piece before, but there were two more green streaks here.”

The other man swiped through the holo-display menu on his section of the bar, then jabbed the icon for his choice of drink. “Would you be in a hurry if they were there?”

Sacha shook his head. “I’d still have time for a few drinks.”

The man took his slate back as the bartender passed by, depositing a tumbler of aquamarine liquid in front of him. Sacha tried not to wince; the only blue liquor on the menu was Bare Starshine, a distilled concoction infamous for its astringent, medicine-like taste, and for the trace toxins which had made most of the Core Worlds ban its import. Unlike the whiskey, the Bare Starshine was probably genuine. His would-be client had something to prove, no sense of self-preservation, or both.

“Y’know, it sounds like you could use those drinks, bud.” The other man picked up his tumbler, swirled it a few times, then downed it, slammed down the glass, and dropped a cred-chit into it. “I’ll go find out where those two marks went.”

Sacha grunted and took another foul sip of his own drink. “I might not have reason to hurry, but you do.”

The man gave no answer except the creaking of his stool as he shoved off from the bar and threaded his way out onto the station concourse.

He was back within ten minutes, which told Sacha that this half-crazed Starshine drinker was only a go-between. The real client was on the station, probably sitting in one of the slightly nicer diners on the balcony deck above.

“You were right. There’s supposed to be two green marks there.” The man tossed the reader onto the bar once more. This time, it slid across and bumped into Sacha’s glass, sloshing foul pseudo-whiskey onto its screen. Sure enough, the symbol for payment had been annotated with two new green streaks.

“I’ve got a good memory for that artist’s style.” Sacha picked up his drink as he surveyed the image to make sure nothing else had changed. “I’ve got an original on my ship. Stop by next shift if you’d like to see it.”

“Hey, thanks bud.” The other man grabbed his slate back and shoved it into a pocket. “Be there around four-H.”

2951-03-22 – Tales from the Service: A View from Headquarters, Part 9 

A few days ago, Ashkelon and its small convoy reached Sagittarius Gate, where the ship on which we have been berthed formally joined Admiral Shun Abarca’s Seventh Fleet. 

Almost immediately on arrival, I put in a request to sit down for an interview with Admiral Abarca, as we were able to do last August (Tales from the Service: A View from Headquarters, Part 8) when he visited Maribel. To my surprise, his people scheduled the interview in time to feature it for this week’s text feed item. 

As with prior interviews, a full recording will be available on our datasphere hub. You can expect analysis of the Admiral’s answers from Ashton Pesaresi and the team on the main vidcast series later this week.  

This interview was conducted in-person aboard the battleship Philadelphia in the Sagittarius Gate system on 19 March. 

D.L.C. - Duncan Chaudhri is a junior editor and wartime head field reporter for Cosmic Background.     

N.T.B. - Nojus Brand is a long-time explorer, datasphere personality, and wartime field reporter for Cosmic Background.    

K.T.K. - Captain Kenneth Kempf is the Naval Intelligence attaché to Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Shun Abarca.  

S.R.A. - Admiral Shun R. Abarca is the commander of Seventh Fleet. 

[D.L.C.] - Thank you for seeing us once again, Admiral Abarca. 

[S.R.A.] - It is my pleasure to see you both again, Mr. Chaudhri. I trust that your crossing was uneventful? 

[D.L.C.] - I was somewhat concerened about the Gap crossing at first, but it was really no problem. I still remember when crossing to Sagittarius was considered risky business best left to the frontiersmen, but we’ve come a long way these past few years. 

[S.R.A.] - Yes, it’s getting quite safe, isn’t it? We haven’t lost a ship in the Gap crossing since the relief of the Lost Squadrons. Though there have been a few close calls, at least some of which your publication has reported on. Martin Westland and his ship come to mind. 

[K.T.K.] - And you, Mr. Brand. How did you handle the crossing? 

[N.T.B.] - Ashkelon’s as comfortable as any ship I’ve rode, Admiral. And Captain Mendoza was quite accommodating to the stir-crazies some people get out there in the Gap. He did everything he could to make us not feel so confined as we might. 

[K.T.K.] - Yes, I heard about your discomfort, Mr. Brand. Has someone from Seventh Fleet medical interviewed you about it yet? 

[N.T.B.] - They've got me scheduled for next Friday. How many people have that sort of reaction? 

[S.R.A.] - Ah, perhaps half of one percent of habitual spacers. Two or three percent of those less occustomed to a spacer’s lifestyle. We still do not know the cause, but suspect it may be related to the discomfort some feel during Himura star drive transitions. 

[N.T.B.] - Hmm. The Himura never yanked my chain. Weird I’d get this. 

[K.T.K.] - The admiral refers to analysis which is still in progress, which he has been following closely. That hypothesis is still unproven, and your interview with medical will perhaps be useful in disproving it. 

[D.L.C.] - It is strange to hear of an admiral being so involved in medical studies such as this. 

[S.R.A.] - Is it, Mr. Chaudhri? My command’s flanks hang in the open, and my supply lines all cross a region of space which causes such discomforts seemingly at random. I do not think that I can afford not to follow the issue. 

[D.L.C.] - That does make sense. 

[N.T.B.] - And yet, despite having no supporting positions and a tenuous line of supply, morale here at Sagittarius Gate seems quite high. 

[S.R.A.] - Partly, you are seeing the salutary effect of Ashkelon’s arrival on morale here. Seventh fleet’s battle line is still under strength, and we rely on the presence of mercenary auxiliaries to keep Sagittarius Gate secure. With a few more arrivals from the Core Worlds, we might allow their contracts to be transferred to other commands. 

[N.T.B.] - Yes, we have seen many reports of the heavy presence of Sovereign Security Solutions in Sagittarius, including their company flagship. 

[K.T.K.] Sundiver has been here, yes, but since this interview is on the record, we cannot say where it is now. Other Sovereign forces on permanent station are more meaningful to the defense of this system. 

[D.L.C.] - Even accounting for the fact that we arrived aboard a new battleship for your fleet, the high spirits we’ve seen everywhere aboard your ship and elsewhere are hard to explain. Your command has been attacked more regularly and heavily than Fifth Fleet at Maribel, and many of its ships are far older than their Fifth Fleet counterparts. You also mentioned that the Seventh is under-strength. 

[S.R.A.] - The Fifth is also under-strength, but in different ways. Admiral Venturi has a solid battle line and numerous modern cruiser units. I have been given nearly a full fleet’s compliment of destroyers and light fleet units, most of them among the newest models available, but must make do with roughly half a proper battle-line and fewer fixed defenses. 

[N.T.B.] - That being the case, you would think the Fifth Fleet’s morale would be higher; spacers love the feeling of being watched over by plenty of big guns. 

[K.T.K.] - Fifth Fleet has also been in the fight longer and has had to defend far more places than we have. We have one system to defend, and have defended it so far. Fifth Fleet is defending an entire region, and has held the most critical point, but has been forced to cede much else. Trading space for time is always bad for morale. 

[S.R.A.] - I would love to be able to point to some factor of my command style which has produced the high morale you’ve seen here compared to at Maribel, but very rarely is anything so simple. We have less forces, but less to defend, and have not ceded any stars to the enemy. This is also a disadvantage; we have no stars to cede, should overwhelming force oppose us. 

[D.L.C.] - Ah yes. Your flanks hang in the open. You have no friendly port to retreat to, should the Incarnation find the strength to crush Sagittarius Gate. 

[K.T.K.] - You might think it strange to say this on the record, but this is as obvious to the enemy as to us. Mr. Chaudhri, your outfit’s transfer was not accidental. After Operation Firmanent, it is the opinion of Naval Intelligence that the enemy will decide that Sagittarius Gate looks easier than Maribel to reduce. Your team will report on many battles in the coming months. 

[S.R.A.] - Indeed. I expect the strongest attack yet seen on Sagittarius Gate to occur within the next six weeks.  

[N.T.B.] - Fifth Fleet expected a major attack on Maribel during January, and did not receive one. Naval Intelligence probably signed off on that prediction, too. 

[K.T.K.] - Indeed. All intelligence pointed to an attack on Maribel. That attack did not take place. We are still not certain why, or where those forces were diverted to. Perhaps they were being moved into position to attack us here already, along a circuitous route to avoid detection. 

[D.L.C.] - A major push against this system could really happen any day? 

[S.R.A.] - Absolutely. We do not have the mentality of a besieged force, as you have seen, but we are far more besieged than Maribel ever was. 

[N.T.B.] - And if Nate does go for Maribel after all, you’re having to plan an offensive to take advantage of it, and vice versa? 

[S.R.A.] - Correct, Mr. Brand. Though this is not likely to happen, we have several plans for a push outward toward the nearest Incarnation settlements, should an attack on Maribel still develop. Fifth Fleet will certainly move to liberate worlds if the enemy fleet concentrates more completely on this side of the Gap. 

[N.T.B.] - Why not break out now, then? Attack before they can gather their forces? 

[K.T.K.] - On this we can speak only in generalities, you understand. 

[S.R.A.] - An attack toward enemy systems before their fleet movements are known would present high risk for unknown effects on enemy morale and behavior. Such an attack in the necessary strength would leave Sagittarius Gate exposed. We might take a few stars only to strand Seventh Fleet deep in enemy territory with no supply lines, instead of a tenuous one. 

[D.L.C.] - Thus, you and Admiral Venturi must wait until the enemy moves, or at least starts to move. 

[S.R.A.] - Not for much longer, I hope. The tempo of enemy operations is slowing, especially here in Sagittarius. After their next big move, we will have much freedom to act, perhaps for a very long time. 

[K.T.K.] - With that, gentlemen, we must bring this discussion to a close. Admiral Abarca and I will be needed in a command conference shortly. 

[D.L.C.] - Thank you for your time, Admiral. And you, Captain. 

[S.R.A.] - It has been a pleasure to speak to you both in person once more. I hope we can do this again very soon. 

2951-03-01 – Tales from the Service: The Firmament Strike

As of this posting, Ashkelon is still in transit to a new area of operations; we cannot say which one for security reasons until we arrive. As such, this conclusion of the last two entries was scheduled much longer in advance than usual, with the ship expecting to be outside of Hypercast relay range for several days.

Since I wrote what will by now be last week’s post only about an hour ago, I don’t yet have anything interesting to report about the vessel which we are now assigned to.

“We’re past thirty klicks.” Beck grunted as he threw his Magpie into a tight roll to avoid a stream of plasma from the cruiser’s point defense batteries. “Two, any luck pinpointing those capacitors?”

Wynn Richards glanced over at his sensor console as he brought his own Magpie out of an evasive turn. As he did, he heard the rattling hum of the quad-mounted railgun ball-turrets behind him. That probably meant at least one group of enemy interceptors had managed to catch up. “Negative, Lead. No heat differential. Hull’s probably too thick.”

“Best guesses it is.” Beck grumbled. “Two, target a hundred meters forward of my aim point. Three, a hundred aft.”

Wynn checked the spherical tactical plot at the center of his display for red pips, and quickly spotted the trio of Coronach Interceptors who his gunners were firing at. “Company already? Didn’t think these guys would get here fast enough.”

“They’re straight from the beast’s belly.” Sullivan, one of the gunners, didn’t bother to stop firing to reply, and the railguns’ EM fields made his comms pickup crackle and hiss. “Must’ve been in the hangar fueling up when we came out of TR-XE.”

“And they’re damned good.” Iwai, the other gunner, sounded nervous. “Should have nailed that last one.”

“You don’t have to nail them, just keep them at a distance.” Wynn hoped the pilots of those interceptors weren’t Immortals, but there was always that possibility. Nearly every vessel in the Incarnation fleet seemed to carry a handful of these cybernetic super-men, and they were perhaps the most formidable pilots to have ever flown. Fortunately, they were bound by the limitations of their equipment, the same as anyone – a Coronach was fast and agile but not durable, and its weapons were only effective at the closest range.

“Aim point set.” Beck called. “Arming.”

Wynn called up the munitions bay controls, opened the bay’s sliding door, and tapped the “arm” switch. “Arming, Lead.” Behind him, in the weapons bay between the gun stations, a little robotic arm started mechanically arming the warhead of each of his three guided anti-ship torpedoes. These weapons, larger, slower, and more potent than missiles, were equipped with all manner of clever technology intended to foil both point defense and shear-screening systems, but they still needed to be carried close to the target by something much faster.

Nine torpedoes was a fairly pathetic salvo, all things considered. If it weren’t for the fact that the Nate cruiser probably had its jump capacitors fully charged, they could expect to do little real damage to a ship that big. As Wynn set his aim point on the hull, he couldn’t shake the sense that even if the cruiser was vulnerable, their nine tiny pinpricks, winnowed by defensive fire, wouldn’t make any difference.

“Arming. Range of weapons release?” Kariuki’s voice was strained, and Wynn briefly hoped that his own voice didn’t sound quite like that.

“Make it about ten klicks.”

Beck wasn’t taking any chances with the torpedoes; they were making a very close approach. Assuming they survived that long, there wouldn’t be much for the enemy gunners to do about the weapons.

Just as Wynn was approaching to form back up on Beck’s tail, his systems wailed the alarm that meant an enemy fire control targeting lock. Beck broke one direction, and Wynn the other, just in time to avoid a withering volley of plasma that would have given them no escape even a half-second later. As they got closer, the targeting system’s job got easier, and the approach became far more dangerous.

Wynn maneuvered wildly until the wailing faded, ignoring the cries of alarm from his gunners and the red that began to push in from the edges of his vision as he exceeded the gee-rating of the Magpie’s gravitics. As far as he was concerned, if the flight crew was still alive to complain about bruises at the end of a mission, he’d done his job properly.

The range indicator read only twelve klicks by the time Wynn thought to glance at it once more. The flight of three Magpies had once again been scattered widely, but the interceptors were nowhere to be seen, likely chased away by the same batteries that had come so close to killing Beck’s ship and Wynn’s.

Wynn straightened out his course, only to be forced into a wheeling spiral by another concentration of battery fire. “Be advised, weaponry release in about twenty seconds.” The gunners, far closer to the munitions bay than he was, would feel the shock of three torpedoes being kicked out of the bay, and it wouldn’t do for them to think they’d been hit, or worse, to spot the weapons and reflexively start shooting them.

“About damned time.” Iwai clicked his tongue. “Those Coronachs will be back any minute, and they’ll bring friends this time.”

Wynn set the controls to release automatically the moment the Magpie past Beck’s proscribed ten kilometers, just in time to be forced to evade once more. This time, he evaded toward the cruiser, not away from it. “No point trying for a simultaneous release, Lead.”

“Agreed, Two. Take your shot. We’re right behind you.”

 Wynn watched the distance indicator slip down in fits and starts as he juked around masses of white-hot plasma, until finally it became a four-digit number in meters. This lasted only a moment before he was forced away again, but that moment was long enough for the Magpie to fire its payload out into space.

Even as Wynn peeled away, he imagined the three tumbling torpedoes orienting themselves toward where they’d last been told to find a target, then lighting their chemical-reaction drive units. Unlike missiles, which any decent set of gravimetric sensors could pick up, chemical reaction drives were easy to miss on most sensors, especially in the thick of an ongoing battle. True, those boosters had limited fuel, but with only ten klicks to travel, it would be more than enough.

Within seconds, the Incarnation cruiser’s gunners recognized the threat, and almost all the batteries switched to saturating the approach vector of Wynn’s torpedoes. He heard Beck shout in triumph as he got close enough to launch himself, and a shrill laugh from Kariuki as she did the same.

The three distinct flashes of brilliant white visible on the rear cameras a few moments later told Wynn that all his weapons had detonated, though he lacked any way of knowing if any had hit home.

2951-03-01 – Tales from the Service: The Firmament Dive

Lieutenant Wynn Richards closed in on Beck’s Magpie until the other vessel was visible directly ahead. Though they all had their exterior lights disabled, Wynn could still make out the sleek, swept-back outline of the engine housing and turret-tipped wing sponsons against the distant stars.

Ahead of Lead, the sinister spearhead of an Incarnation cruiser loomed seemingly close enough to touch, though it was still hundreds of kilometers away. Its pulse-beam emitters spat death toward an unseen target off to one side, the beams visible only as a stream of faint sparkling motes where the beams annihilated dust and battle debris along their path.

“Interceptors are starting to vector in.” Kariuki, the pilot of Three, sounded shaken, and Wynn wondered if she’d weathered the TR-XE jaunt worse than he had. Short-ranged faster-than-light travel was a risky and imprecise business at the best of times, and the middle of a battle was far from the best of times. Normally, the Confederated Navy avoided use of such machines on combat units, but they’d authorized a trial-run of three gunships equipped with off-the-shelf mercenary-grade TR-XE technology this time. So far, that trial was going suspiciously well.

“They’re minutes out. Watch out for battery fire.” Beck changed course and cranked up his drive to maximum acceleration. Wynn and Kariuki, following close behind, did the same. “Our target is the ventral forward hull. If intel is right, that’s where their star drive capacitors are.”

Wynn turned to the haphazardly-installed control board to his left and disengaged the switches that fed power to the TR-XE module below the cockpit. The capacitors, drained by the jaunt, were dead weight now, but no provision had been made to jettison the bulky equipment.

By the same token, a similar, but much larger, bank of capacitors was needed to charge the star drive of any large vessel, and those capacitors were as much liability while fully charged as those aboard a diminutive Magpie gunship. The Incarnation vessels engaged in the battle hadn’t planned for a fight; they’d been ambushed while preparing for a jump out to another system. If the timing of their attack was right, those capacitors were still mostly full, and thus incredibly vulnerable. There was no safe way to discharge such a large electric potential aboard a starship, certainly not quickly.

A warning alert beeped, calling Wynn’s attention back to the middle of his console. “Fire control is attempting a lock.”

“Going evasive.” Beck barely waited to finish speaking before he pulled his Magpie into a tight roll and banked off to one side. Wynn went another way, and Kariuki a third, weaving and juking nearly at random to prolong the lock-on as long as possible. Incarnation fire control computers were good, but they were highly automated, with very few gunners operating a large number of guns. When presented with several widely distributed, small, evasive targets, they could sometimes struggle to prioritize.

“Point defense is firing.”

Wynn glanced at the spherical plot, where short-lived streams of plasma arced outward from the fast-tracking weapons on the Tyrant’s flank. “Looks like a random pattern. How lucky are we feeling?”

“Not lucky enough to win the plot on this run.” Kariuki laughed in the usual overly-tense way she did when the shooting started. “Following you down, Lead.”

Down, of course, meant the target. By convention that supposedly dated back to the earliest days of pilots soaring above Old Earth and dropping explosives on surface-bound targets, whenever a pilot targeted a less-mobile enemy with an attack run, that enemy was always “down” even when there was no gravity well to define any particular “down.”

As the only three Magpies in a wide, otherwise empty stretch of void with no interceptors to trouble them, the trio had no need of formation flying and no trouble evading target locks while they closed the distance with the Incarnation ship. Only when the range had shrunk to barely thirty kilometers, Wynn knew, would their evasive task become particularly hard. Short of taking a lucky shot from one of nearly a hundred randomly-firing plasma turrets, they’d all reach that distance before the targeting system could get and hold a lock on them.

That close, he knew, things would really begin to get interesting.

As of this posting, Ashkelon is in transit to a new area of operations; we cannot say which one for security reasons until we arrive. As such, this continuation of last week’s entry was scheduled much longer in advance than usual, with the ship expecting to be outside of Hypercast relay range for several days.

Our quarters aboard ship are quite spacious compared to what we had previously; while no luxury liner, Ashkelon’s greater size and smaller crew compliment than older battleships certainly does result in everyone enjoying more room to stretch out. The accommodations for most personnel are more comparable to those aboard patrol cruisers than aboard battle line units. No doubt this is a feature intended to improve morale on long cruises out of port, but we appreciate it all the same.