2952-04-17 – Tales from the Service: The Jokester’s Delivery 

The fleet-mail system in use by the Navy gets little attention outside the service. Obviously, most communication between ships is handled digitally via datasphere interfaces we are all familiar with, but spacers in the fleet have the right to send physical parcels to each other as well, within reason. Everything is scanned, and any data device sent in this manner is subject to being copied and searched as a security measure. Most of the items sent, I am told, are physical-print books and souvenirs; the only time I myself have ever used it was to borrow and then to return a print mystery novel recommended to me by a spacer I met in sickbay. 

Apparently, someone in Seventh Fleet has learned to trick the system into accepting large items. This odd work-around, naturally, creates many headaches for everyone involved. 

Petty Officer Samuel Planque accepted the slate with a frown, hoping to find that he was being subjected to some sort of elaborate prank. Unfortunately, the fleet-mail codes looked to be in perfect order. He ran his scanner over the digital identifier blocks just to make sure, but each one came up green. 

“There, you see?” The deliveryman, a Navy longshoreman in a gray coverall, snapped his fingers and pointed to the huge crate on the dolly behind him. “Your problem now, postman.” 

Samuel sighed. “I guess.” Normally, the fleet-mail system used by the Confederated Navy would only permit small parcels to be sent to any vessel. One needed to have friends in very high places to get anything bigger than a kilo accepted by fleet-mail, and a large package could be rejected at any stopover for the thinnest of reasons. The system was intended to move only the usual constantly-bartered bits of a spacer’s life: sweets, souvenirs, paper books and magazines, and the occasional handwritten love letter. Once, Samuel had tried to send his cousin aboard Philadelphia a potted plant cutting no more than a handspan across wrapped in protective packfoam, and that had been rejected as too bulky. 

As the longshoreman strolled off, Samuel glanced behind him at the hatch. Even if he could get the dolly through that – and he doubted it – the armored airlock on the other end of the umbilical was significantly more constricted. Even if he could get the huge crate aboard Sarina Shaw, it would certainly not fit in the tiny lifts or down the spiral-stair accessways to the fourth deck, and if by some miracle he found a way to get it onto the fourth deck, it would take up all the space in the destroyer’s postal station, leaving him no room to dole out the other parcels from the locker or to process items into the fleet-mail system. 

Samuel paced around the crate, considering his options. It had come too far through the system to be rejected and returned to sender, and he obviously couldn’t open it without risking a court-martial charge for tampering with fleet-mail, and there was no guarantee the contents were significantly easier to move than the crate. He could call the station’s logistics chief and ask for the use of a launch to move the item to Shaw’s hangar deck, but old Huddleston would never second his resources to a mere postman, and that would only solve the problem as far as getting it inside the ship anyway.  

The first thing to do was to attempt to contact the addressee. Samuel scanned the slate again and was unsurprised to find the huge box addressed to Spacer Technician Harvey Duce. A practical jokester who spent more time on punishment duty than anyone else aboard, Duce probably had friends just like him on other ships. Doubtless one of them had discovered the loophole to make fleet-mail move gigantic packages, and the contents were both useless and embarrassing to the recipient. 

Duce, of course, was aboard station on shore leave, like most of the crew. A quick call to his Navy comms code returned only the forlorn beep that indicated Duce’s comm was turned off. He would not be returning to Shaw until it was time to leave the station – and, knowing him, he would probably return at the last moment in restraints, escorted by two glowering station security men. 

Grinding his teeth, Samuel grabbed the dolly’s control yoke and maneuvered it toward the hatch. To his surprise, it did fit through – barely – and he was able to work his way up the umbilical to the ship’s airlock. Less surprisingly, the top of the crate was almost a half-meter above the top of the airlock’s outer hatch when he got there. He sized it up, and decided that it would never fit through at any angle. 

Someone cleared their throat behind Samuel, and he turned around to see Lieutenant Langer standing there. “Sorry, sir.” Samuel started shifting the dolly to one side, only for the top of the crate to bump into the angled umbilical overheads. “Strange mail delivery today.” 

“I’ll say, Mr. Planque.” Langer looked up at the towering parcel. “I didn’t think fleet-mail would move anything this big.” 

“Normally it won’t, Lieutenant.” Samuel shrugged. “This seems to be an exception. Let me back it out of the umbilical to let you by.” 

Langer moved back out of the tunnel and to the side while Samuel threaded the dolly back down and out onto the station dock. For some reason, it took far longer to move out than it had to move in. "All clear, sir.” Samuel waved Langer past him. “Sorry for the wait.” 

“Do you want me to send some help?” Langer gestured to the dolly. “That’s at least a three spacer job.” 

“Three spacers won’t help me any.” Samuel shrugged. “If it won’t fit in the hatch, it won’t fit in the lift or the accessway, and I can’t reach Mr. Duce. There’s no process for sending it back, either.” 

A frown spread across Langer’s face, followed quickly by a sly smile. “It’s for Duce, eh?” He held up one finger. “I’ll be right back.” 

2952-04-10 – Tales from the Service: The Computer's Score 

As I indicated last week, Hari Moser and Brighton Blue did in fact find the Incarnation force they had been looking for. No significant battle came of it that I am aware – the alert was raised here at Sagittarius Gate for several days around the time of these events, but no attack happened. Ashkelon has not been out of the system for some time, so either the Incarnation force was not intending to attack us here, or their commander did not press his attack after having surprise stripped from it. 

Almost the moment Brighton Blue completed its jump into the K7820841 system, the room-scale holo-display surrounding Hari Moser began to light up with blinking orange motes. These, he knew only too well, represented probable starships picked up by passive sensors, but yet to be positively identified. Within a minute, there were more than thirty of them around the nameless, planet-less star. 

Fortunately, most of these were far from the cluster of green motes ahead of him, representing his own formation, which had just arrived at the system’s outskirts. The bogeys were concentrated on the far side of the star system, where they were easy to see, with the red dwarf’s radiation reflecting off their hulls. Unless there were more stationed on the near side, where the ship’s telescopes would have a harder time finding them, Blue and its formation would have plenty of time to have a look around and charge their star drive capacitors before enemy forces could converge on them. 

Hari didn’t think there would be many, if any, ships on the near side of the star. Based on the locations of the orange pips he could see, they were set up to be least visible to an intruder coming into the system from the Sagittarius Gate direction, and best positioned to pounce on any vessel from that direction that started moving in-system before it noticed them. Blue had come from the opposite direction, having already been hunting for sightings of the enemy force for some weeks. 

“We’ve got them.” Hari gestured to the scattered orange motes. The computer would come up with a positive ID on at least one of them shortly, proving that this was the Incarnation force setting up for an attack on the Seventh Fleet base. “Lieutenant Peters, how long until we can jump out again?” 

“About five hours, Captain." Peters, at one of the terminals around the command compartment’s outer wall, helpfully added a timer high up in the display area over Hari’s head. 

While this was not enough time for large vessels to reach them, it was enough time for well positioned strike pickets to converge and attack. “All ships, maintain battle stations. Expect sporadic strike-level attacks with little warning.” 

At his words, the green indicators for his ships flashed pale blue, then, from the center of the cluster outwards, returned to their original color, representing the receipt of his orders. They had gone to battle stations just prior to making the jump, and though no officer or crew spacer aboard any vessel in the formation would relish five hours at their alert stations, it couldn’t be helped. Strike craft were too small to pick up with the ship’s telescopes until they were very close, and there was no way to predict where the pickets were stationed when Hari’s force arrived. 

“Amazing.” Commander Harridge, the ship’s first officer, was on the bridge, but the comms system carried his incredulity down to the command center as if he was just behind Hari. “How did you guess they’d be here, Skipper?” 

“It wasn’t exactly a guess.” Hari hoped this enigmatic answer would satisfy Harridge for the moment. During a battle alert, chatter on the comms channels was heavily discouraged. 

“Bogey identity confirmed.” Bridgit’s voice sounded almost smug, if smugness was possible out of a computer program. One of the blinking orange motes stopped blinking and turned red. “Incarnation heavy cruiser, I-3 type. Shall I mark all these unknowns as provisional hostiles?” 

Hari nodded. “Do it. But continue to identify each target. The more data we can collect, the better.” 

“Aye.” This time the computer voice was snappy and professional as usual. 

“Looks like... about twenty-five Tyrants, sir.” If Peters was afraid, he didn’t look or sound like it. “Enough to make real trouble in the Gate if the battle line isn’t home.” 

“Let’s hope they’re home, then.” Hari scowled. “When we get clear from here, they’ll have to either retreat or rush their attack.” He didn’t see the sense in pointing out that the Incarnation commander they were dealing with was a clear risk-taker, and would most likely rush the attack. That wasn’t his problem, or Peters’s - they just needed to get as much data as they could back to the forward relay station as quick as could be managed. 

“Gravitic signatures lighting up.” Bridgit announced. Three dotted red arcs swept through the air in front of Hari to show the courses of several of the enemy ships. A moment later, another one joined them. The red arcs didn’t at first converge on his formation, but each was already creeping toward the cluster of green. “None of these vessels are in position to intercept us within five hours, assuming the known range of I-type cruiser drive performance.” 

“Helm, give us a withdrawal course. Bridgit, keep an eye on the chasers and look for anomalous acceleration profiles.” Hari glanced up at the timer. His crews might be busy shortly fending off strike raids, but Bridgit’s automation systems could not be distracted. 

2952-04-03 – Tales from the Service: The Computer’s Move 

Captain Hari Moser waited until his subordinates had all filed out of Brighton Blue’s wardroom before moving from his chair at the head of the table. A viewpanel to one side gave a spectacular, if electronically enhanced, view of the binary planet which Blue had taken an orbit around; in normal light the faint haze of a nearby planetary nebula would never have been visible in the background. 

When everyone had left, Hari drummed his fingers on the table. “Bridgit, give me that map again.” 

The holo-display in the center of the wardroom table winked on, and the motes of light representing the nearest few dozen stars appeared. Roughly a third of them glowed with a faint red halo, and the one in the middle pulsed with a steady blue. Several dotted lines joined this central star to some of its red neighbors, each appearing in a different color. 

“Do you need labels, Captain?” Bridgit, the voice of the ship’s main computer, was as patient as always. 

“No.” Hari leaned forward. The local astrography was familiar enough to him that he didn’t need to see the catalog numbers of stars to recognize them. “You have already run the odds?” 

“Several minutes ago, because there was a significant probability that you would ask for them.” Bridgit added a tiny number to each of the dotted lines. “Based on current intel, the enemy force is most likely to be at G9934614, but that’s still only a twenty-nine percent chance.” 

Hari nodded. His orders were simple – Blue and its formation were to probe for the enemy fleet believed to be operating in the area, and to report its strength when encountered. Their orders also said to exploit opportunities to attack exposed targets, but those opportunities seemed rather unlikely; a lone light cruiser supported by three destroyers and a handful of frigates would never be able to stand up to a force of Incarnation warships; they would have their hands full with just one of the big enemy cruisers. 

The problem with searching for the enemy by probabilities and intel was that the enemy would expect him – and the other scout formation commanders – to do just that. He could be ordering his spacers into a trap – or into a misinformation-baited jaunt through a half-dozen empty star systems while the enemy force, un-contacted, set up for a major assault on Sagittarius Gate. 

There would be those among his officers who would be content to go on this fruitless jaunt, of course. Blue had been on more-or-less-continuous Seventh Fleet scouting operations for seven months, and had been in the service yard at Sagittarius Gate only three weeks at the end of a previous stint of eleven months on operation. Most of the officers and crew were showing signs of fatigue, but Hari was more worried about those that weren’t. Those spacers might seem fine, but some of them would crack when the strain became too much, and there was no telling when that would be for each individual. 

“If I may ask, Captain, what is wrong?” 

“Just trying to out-think Nate.” Hari scowled. Bridgit had been something of a talkative computer program ever since he’d been on board, more like the automated concierge software of a civilian liner than the automation system of a vessel of war, but after the last software update she’d gotten particularly nosy. Most likely, some egghead back in the Core had come up with a new psychoanalysis subroutine and waved charts in front of Admiralty clerks’ faces telling them that it would reduce officer stress by some certain figure. It was having something of the opposite effect on him. 

“Why do you need to? This seems like a pretty standard search mission to me.” Bridgit’s programmed likeness appeared in the holo-display at one-tenth size. Like most of the newer ships, the computer could project faint, ghostly holograms at any size anywhere within the crew spaces, but Bridgit’s coding seemed to prefer to show her avatar as a tiny sprite walking around within the ship’s various higher-fidelity displays rather than as a full-sized phantom. 

“They’ll have some idea we’re out here and where we’re coming from. They might be trying to hide, or they might be planning a post-jump bushwhack.” 

This sort of ambush was an incredibly remote prospect, of course; even if the enemy knew where an enemy intruder was coming from and had some idea when it would arrive, it would take ten or twenty ships spread out over a wide volume of space to have a reasonable chance of interception, and those ships would have to be too far apart to be mutually supporting. 

“The information on this map reflects your best chance to outsmart them lies at G9934614.” Bridgit’s tiny image waved a hand up and behind itself to the stars glittering above the table. “Shall I convey the navigation order to the helm?” 

Hari shook his head firmly. “No. If you attempt to pressure me into giving orders again, I will have the techs disable you.” He didn’t know why he was threatening a computer program; Bridgit could learn in a sense, but she wasn’t a person who could feel shame at her mistake, like one of the officers. 

“No pressure was intended Captain.” Bridgit’s tiny likeness saluted sharply. “I cannot convey orders you do not give. Is there any other data I can obtain for you?” 

Hari frowned. Perhaps there was. “Can you process hypothetical scenarios?” 

“I can run simulations, sir. Is that what you mean?” 

“No.” Hari stood up and strode to the viewpanel.  

“Then I don’t understand the question. Perhaps if you attempted the query you have in mind, I could try to process it.” 

Hari cleared his throat. “If you were in charge of an Incarnation fleet and given the objective to deliver a raid in force at Sagittarius Gate with the least possible contact with Confederated scouts before the attack, what star system would you stage out of within this local area?” 

There was a long pause. Finally, Bridgit replied. “The Incarnation does not automate command of its fleet movements, Captain. You are asking me what I would do if, hypothetically, I were a person in that position, and I have no way to simulate or process the demands of personhood, which would be more decisive than any other variable.” 

Hari rolled his eyes. “So, you cannot process the query.” 

“Not as such, sir.” Bridgit sounded apologetic. “Perhaps you meant to ask what would be my choice of staging area if I were to take control of the opposition force in a simulation of our current mission?” 

Hari froze. That was a far better query, of course, but Bridgit should never have been able to guess it from what he’d asked. That leap sounded more like intuition than the normal educated-guess feedback loop that dominated the code of such software. 

Bridgit, after long moments of silence, tried again. “Perhaps you meant-” 

“I heard you.” Hari turned back toward the wardroom table. “And yes, I suppose that is what I meant.” 

“I would choose K7820841.” The doll-sized hologram waved toward the edge of the map, and a dim star blinked brightly. “It is an unexpected play, choosing a staging area so close to the target, far within my warships’ jump range, and it might permit some degree of surprise. Obviously, this is a high-risk play, but high-risk plays are what sim-games are for.” 

Hari nodded. “Thank you.” Bridgit was right – a particularly bold enemy commander could stage out of a dead, planet-less system that was theoretically within Sagittarius Gate’s outer defensive ring, hoping that no scout formations happened to stop by in the few weeks he needed to prepare his attack. As far as he knew, no Confederated ship had gone to K7820841 for several months; why would they? There weren’t even any exploitable metal asteroids there. Provided Nate didn’t need to do any field repairs, though, that was hardly a problem for him. Checking the system would be a matter of a day or less, plenty of time to receive new information from other scouts in case the enemy commander proved more risk-averse than Bridgit. 

“Bridgit, plot a jump to your star. Send orders up to the helm.” Hari knew he was probably crazy to take his next move from the computer. There was probably some very good reason the lonely K-type star would never have worked for the Incarnation attack staging area that Bridgit never would have considered. 

“Aye, Captain.” The computer’s avatar saluted and then vanished, followed shortly thereafter by the map. 

Though the actions of the scouting formations of Seventh Fleet are well covered by the vidcast programs, including our own flagship program, Captain Moser’s account of being led to an unorthodox decision by an unusually active computer assistant is stranger still because Brighton Blue made contact with the enemy precisely where the computer suggested. 

Obviously, the fleet logistics department is making changes to this software all the time; my understanding is that the system is updated drastically every time a ship returns to port. The illusion of intuition that Captain Moser describes here, which unsettled him some at the time and later in retrospect, is probably the result of some new top of the line communication routine; military grade assistant software can already read and interpret both tone and body language, even in recordings. 

2952-03-19 – Tales from the Inbox: The Prodigy’s Interview 

Elliott Deadman slid into the chair opposite Sadek Sherburn, a look of nervous relief on his youthful face. “Well...” He stared hard at the elegant floral-patterned tablecloth for a long moment before continuing. “Jakeman’s not exactly bad at what he does. But I’m better.” 

“That’s a bold claim.” Sadek reached into the menu to order another round of fried mushrooms. “Especially since he’s got twenty years of experience you don’t.” 

“Oh, that he does, Mr. Sherburn.” Deadman nodded. “Being his shipmate for six months, I heard all his stories. Some of them twice over. But I won’t be so much trouble, and I’m a better tech. Especially on newer machinery.” 

Sadek smiled. “It’s easier to be a better tech on newer machinery, because it doesn’t break down as much.” 

“Sure, as long as you don’t think you’re smarter than the operator manual.” Deadman scowled. “From what he told me, I think Jakeman spent so long hitting cranky Navy atmospherics with a hammer until they stopped making funny noises that he tries to do that to everything.” He sighed. “The only reason I got a chance on DeMario was because they needed someone to read the manuals and do the regular maintenance that kept things from becoming his problem.” 

Sadek knew that this story was entirely unfalsifiable, of course. Deadman seemed earnest, but that was no guarantee of anything. “Did you?” 

“Most of the time.” The boy sighed. “The only things he ever got working again the same shift it broke were the common food-fabs. He does fix everything, eventually, but he never asks for help, and never consults the manual.” 

Sadek cringed, imagining Jakeman disassembling all the factory-new components aboard Traveler every time something failed due to lack of proper maintenance. “What about you? Could you fix things if they broke in a way the manual didn’t explain?” 

“I haven’t run into a breakdown I can’t fix yet.” Deadman straightened, his voice reflecting the pride he took in this statistic. "Those might take me a bit longer than they’d take someone like Jakeman, but the rest, I can do five times faster." 

Sadek’s mushrooms arrived, and he gestured to the plate. “Try one of these, kid. Oh, do you want a drink?” 

Deadman gingerly picked up one of the mushrooms, rolling it between his palms to let it cool. “Do they have ACF?” 

Sadek flicked his way through the menu until he spotted Ashkelon Cardamom Fizz in the specialty drinks section. He was passingly familiar with the drink, mostly from advertisements and product placement in holo-dramas; it was a sweet, spiced and carbonated beverage popular with the youth whose flavor came from a fruit grown on the world of Ashkelon and an Earth-native spice which took well to the soil on that world with little gene-tweaking. “ACF coming right up.” He jabbed the indicator twice. “Hells, I’ll try one too.” 

Deadman brightened. “Thanks, Mr. Sherburn.” He examined the fried mushroom in his hand for a moment before biting off a small piece and chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. “This is a vegetable?” 

Sadek picked up one himself and waved it in the air for a moment to let it cool. “Technically mushrooms are fungi.” 

“Fungi like mold?” Deadman made a horrified expression, but gamely dropped the rest of the mushroom into his mouth and made a show of chewing and swallowing, clearly feeling wretched the whole time. “I guess they’re...” He hiccupped. “They’re all right.” 

“No edible fungi on your home-world eh?” Sadek smiled. “I suppose that would make it hard to stomach.” 

The attendant arrived with two bright orange bottles, which he unsealed and set down along with a pair of ice-filled glasses. 

Sadek gingerly sniffed the effervescent liquid within It smelled sweet, fruity, and slightly spicy, but nothing like the eye-watering odor of Jakeman’s meal. When he poured it into the glass, he was surprised to see that the orange bottle’s contents were a rather drab olive-green color; all the ACF advertisements he’d seen had featured people drinking directly from the bottle, and had used orange splashes of color to suggest that the drink itself was in fact orange. 

“Oh, yeah, it used to be orange.” Deadman shrugged and took a swig directly from his bottle. “It switched a couple years ago, just before I left home. Supposedly the coloring agent they used wasn’t all that safe.” 

Sadek shrugged and took a sip of the drink. It wasn’t quite as sweet as he was expecting, with a complex, tart, spicy flavor that reminded him of the spiced (and heavily spiked) punch he’d once had at a shipboard Emmanuel Feast celebration. “Hey, that’s not bad.” He took another sip. 

Deadman brightened. "Must be weird having it for the first time. Are you really considering me, sir?" 

Sadek shrugged. “Sure. No decisions today though.” He liked the kid, he had to admit, but he had to meet all the other applicants. Perhaps there was even something he could do to check out Deadman’s story in the six days he had remaining before Kel arrived. 

“Right, of course.” Deadman pushed back his chair, as if to stand up. 

“Hold on.” Sadek held up a hand. “Stay here until you've finished that drink. And while you’re here, you can tell me why you’re so keen on getting aboard Kel’s ship. It’s not just getting one over on Jakeman, is it?” 

Deadman looked surprised for a moment. “It’s... It’s kind of dumb.” 

Sadek arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. 

“At first I was coming here to warn you about Jakeman, and that’s it.” Deadman shrugged. “But then I looked into it, and it seems like aboard Traveler, I’d get a chance to see more than the Gap run or a few mining stations.” 

“You want more adventure than the gap freighters?” Sadek chuckled; the Gap run was notoriously stressful work for most crews, as a navigation or powerplant failure out there in the middle of all that empty space between galactic arms meant certain death.  

Deadman nodded, then took a long swig of his drink. 

Sadek opened his mouth to say that this was unlikely aboard a little ship like Traveler, but closed it again, remembering how apparent the trouble surrounding Kel’s vessel had been to Alicia Powers. “Well, you're young.” Sadek drained the rest of his own Ashkelon Cardamom Fizz, and was surprised to find that he wanted more. “Hopefully you’re nothing like me, so when you’re my age, you’ll have some sense.” 

This will be the last excerpt from this lengthy account for a little while; we have other items that we have been approved to publish, plus a few other items from the inbox that are worth review in this space. I will say that, in my experience, Jakeman and Deadman are depicted as very archetypal varieties of spacecraft technician, suggesting that their characters are not quite portrayed accurately in this account.