2946-09-11 - Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Captivity

In this second part of Jaska N.'s story, we find him in a tough spot. Previously, in Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Raiders, Jaska was part of a failed defense effort against Rattanai marauders. In today's entry, we rejoin him, taken captive aboard the raiders' ship. This is a situation from which few emerge to tell their story, and while I have some concerns that Jaska isn't telling us everything, I have no grounds on which to dismiss this story as wildly unrealistic.

A few readers responded to the previous entry, preferring that I remind the audience that the Hegemony is not blameless in its conduct, when it comes to this persistent unrest along its borders. This is true, but as far as I can tell, the activists vastly overstate the degree to which the Hegemony's two-tiered legal structure and poor treatment of its Rattanai subjects is the motivating force behind the raiders' depredations. To be sure, I do not approve of chattel slavery, regulated or otherwise, but it is easy to forget that the Rattanai Imperium was, to its final day on the interstellar stage, built on the backs of trillions of enslaved beings of all varieties, and it is to this long-vanished heyday to which these fanatics wish to return.

What's more, the settlers who pay the price for Rattanai raids almost never have anything to do with the chattel industry; their tragedies are all the more poignant for the fact that they suffer for the crimes of persons they have almost no connection to, just as the Rattanai in Hegemony servitude suffer for the crimes of their long-dead kin, whose names and roles in the barbarism of the Terran-Rattanai War were not preserved.

Jaska woke to a headache, and to someone shaking him urgently. He was lying on a textured metal surface which vibrated faintly against his stubbled cheek. This told him, even before he opened his eyes, that he was on a starship, and that the craft was under way; Jaska had spent too much of his life wandering the spacelanes to forget the peculiar, ever-present hum of a gravitic drive. 

“Jaska, wake up!” A fragile, terrified voice begged. 

Jaska recognized the voice, and groaned in dismay. Taking a tentative breath and tasting the bitter tang of cheap cleaning chemicals failing to disguise the metallic stench of blood, he concluded immediately that the panic in Karley’s tone was not completely unwarranted. He remembered the midnight raid on the colony compound and the spirited defense he and a few others had put up against the Rattanai attackers, and how all that effort and the expensive weapons Mayor Stefano had secured to protect the installation in case of an attack had been for nothing, courtesy of the carelessness of the very youth now urging him awake.

At the sound of his groaning, Karley stopped shaking Jaska and moved away, letting him roll over and sit up. He opened his eyes, but it was as if he hadn’t; there was no light of any kind in the compartment. He rolled his shoulders and stretched his limbs, noticing how the headache he’d woken up with persisted stubbornly, reminding him of a mild hangover.

“I was hoping they would just kill us.” Jaska muttered into the darkness. Rattanai raiders did not take prisoners to be merciful, obviously. Rattanai who could even describe mercy were vanishingly rare.

“What are we going to do?” Karley groaned. “What are they going to do to us?”

Jaska didn’t bother to answer either question, already crawling unsteadily across the deck and trying not to think too hard about the damp, sticky residue on the deck plating which clung to his hands. Answering wouldn’t put Karley at ease, and it might push her further into panic. He quickly found a bulkhead, then began following it around the room, feeling for the outline of a hatch or doorway.

“Jaska, are you even listening to me?” Karley whined once she realized she wasn’t going to get any answers.


The answer seemed to be so unexpected that the settlement mayor’s daughter fell silent for some time, long enough for Jaska to find the hatch with his hands. Leaning on the wall, he stood to trace its outline as far as he could. It was clearly proportioned for Rattanai use, being far taller and wider than a doorway on a human spaceship, but it was clearly of the standard sort which would recess into the wall when opened. Evidently, the raiders hadn’t even bothered to store their prisoners in reinforced compartments; the cell was probably a storage closet or stripped-out cabin.

“Karley?” Jaska prompted.

“What?” Her voice was muffled, as if her hands were covering her face.

It was still enough noise for him to use to pinpoint her location, which was the point of prompting her in the first place. Jaska moved slowly toward the voice until his outstretched hand brushed against worn smart-cloth.

At the touch, Karley yelped in surprise. “Jaska, what-”

Jaska guessed where her face was and clapped a hand over her mouth. If the Rattanai were smart, they had someone monitoring the audio hookups which were almost certainly in the cell. His only hope – and thus Karley’s – was the possibility that the marauders hadn’t bothered to rig up infrared surveillance. Karley struggled to free herself, but even ten years out of shape, Jaska found it no trouble to keep her from breaking free until she realized why he was keeping her from talking. It was a bad sign, he decided, that this realization took her almost a full minute.

Not releasing his muffling hand, Jaska helped Karley up and led her back to where he remembered the door was. He forced her to feel the recessed panel where it joined the bulkhead, then pressed her shoulders back against the wall, hoping she would understand, or at least trust that he did. Rattanai were impossible to overcome in a hand to hand struggle, but their peripheral vision was somewhat weaker than a human’s. If he and Karley could elude notice for even a second when the Rattanai came to check on them, they might have a chance to escape, however remote. After gripping her jaw tightly for a moment to indicate that she remain silent, Jaska released Karley and took up a similar position on the opposite side of the door.

He wasn’t about to tell Karley, but he considered being gunned down a form of escape. The cruel life of chattel slavery which waited for any human returned to a raid-ship's hidden base was well-known, even though few returned from it. Jaska would rather die than fall so far – and he was willing to kill Karley, to save her from the far worse treatment she could expect. Jaska knew more than he cared to about how the brigands preferred to expend the female captives they managed to collect on successful raids.

Fortunately, they didn’t have long to wait. Heavy, booted Rattanai footfalls rattled the deck plates, even in ship-standard half-gee. Jaska hoped Karley had the sense to stay put, but it was too late now to do anything if she didn’t.

The footfalls stopped on the opposite side of the door, and Jaska shut his eyes just before the portal whined open on decaying bearings. The light beyond his eyelids seemed blinding after total darkness. There was nothing to do but hold his breath and listen as the guard stomped into the room. 

Not belieivng his good fortune, Jaska heard the big alien take a second step before realizing that the prisoners weren’t cowering in the middle of the newly illuminated cell – the way was clear. Still blinded, he reached across the doorway to where he remembered instructing Karley to stand, and tugged her hurriedly into the corridor, where she fell loudly to the deck.

The noise alerted the guard to what was going on, but it was too late. Jaska had already found the door controls hurriedly grafted into the door mechanism outside. He slammed his hand on the lock button, and just as the guard turned around with a surprised snarling noise, the cell shut again. Jaska was sorry that, in his dazzled state, he hadn’t been able to see the look of surprise on the alien’s beady-eyed, wide-mouthed face.

“How-" Karley started to ask, but she was interrupted by a clang against the door panel. The guard’s iron-boned fist had enough force behind it to put a visible dent in the metal, and to flash a warning on the control panel. 


“Shut up and run, Karley.” Jaska told her, dragging her to her feet.  

2946-09-18 - Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Reprisal

We continue with the story of Jaska N., veteran of Hegemony military service, and his daring breakout from a cruel fate at the hands of Rattanai raiders. If you missed the previous entries in his story, Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Raiders and Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Captivity, I highly suggest you read them before reading today's portion of the story. In it, we see the beginning of a change in the young settler's daughter who he claims accompanied him on this daring escape.

There will be one more entry in his tale on this text feed. As before, I caution readers that I cannot prove this story has not been embellished or touched up.

The alarm on the Rattanai raider ship was of the standard variety common to human-built civilian starships. It was, Jaska thought, a telling reminder of how even the most hard-line, anti-human fanatics among the Rattanai were dependent on human technology. For all their vaunted rhetoric about inherent superiority and the progress of cosmic history, the raiders were only able to prowl the darkness between worlds with the help of machines built by “lesser” beings.

This realization was of no help to him, however. As Rattanai, shouting into likely also human-made comm hookups, thundered past the hiding place he and Karley had found, he knew that the raiders’ inevitable failure to restore a long-dead empire wouldn’t save his life, or the life of the hapless girl who was probably the only other survivor of their colony compound. They’d escaped their cell; now he needed some way of escaping the raiders more permanently.

That was, of course, much easier considered than implemented. There were probably more than twenty towering Rattanai aboard the ship, possibly plus an unknown number of human slaves who might or might not raise the alarm for fear of being abused by their masters. The raid-ship was probably by now several hops through its interstellar journey back to its hidden base, and even if Jaska managed to launch a lifeboat or shuttle – if the ship even had such things – there would be no place to take it. All that would accomplish would be to change the mode of death he and Karley could look forward to.

Karley, wedged behind Jaska into the tiny space he’d found behind a loose bulkhead panel, made a sniffing noise. Jaska didn’t have time to attend to the once-cocky youth’s fragile emotional state. He would just have to hope she managed to keep up, whatever he decided to do. She had held together through the initial phases of the escape, and though she wasn’t much help, she was at least not a hindrance. Given that blame for the failure of the compound’s defenses might reasonably be laid at her feet, that was something on an improvement. They’d been out of their cell about three hours, and the Rattanai had been on alert for the same amount of time, combing their ship for the escapes and patrolling the corridors in full battle-harness, as if two unarmed humans had some hope of subduing a Rattanai crew.

Jaska waited until a two-Rattanai patrol had just passed, then carefully pushed the bulkhead plate aside and rolled out. Karley emerged more slowly, and Jaska herded her down the gently curving corridor, following the heavy tromping sounds of the patrol, but not closely enough that they came into sight. As soon as one presented itself, he ducked into a maintenance crawlspace, which despite the name was large enough for him to almost walk upright, courtesy of the size and low flexibility of Rattanai crew. Since there was little automated surveillance in the corridors and none in the maintenance spaces, their main threat was the crew itself. He had no maps, and couldn’t even read the Rattanai script on the terminals; all he had was the veteran spacer’s vague sense of which direction was forward, and which was aft. In a former life, Jaska had been a Hegemony combat trooper; he’d spent ten years of his life as well-trained cargo on the Hegemon’s warships, always preparing for the rare opportunities when an armed boarding or landing party was needed. In fact, he’d signed up for a chance to fight the border-region raiders, and had never gotten that chance in the service, since the raiders never stayed in one place long enough for a proper military response.

“What are we going to do?” Karley whispered, once they were deep within the crawlspace network.

“Take over the ship or die trying.” Jaska replied. Unarmed, alone, and shepherding a clumsy civilian wasn’t much of a chance, but he was going to take it. It was the only chance he and Karley had.

The young woman rubbed her temples with her fingers as if trying to force her thoughts back into order, and nodded. “What do you need me to do?”

It wasn’t the response the retired military man had expected. Karley was unproven, except that she had proven herself enthusiastically inept at anything the settlement had given her to do. Still, he would need all the help he could get. The worst she could do, he decided, was get herself killed, and that was still preferable to what the Rattanai had in store for her back at their home base. “We’re probably going to die, but we can at least do it on our terms. If you have any brilliant ideas, now’s the time for them.”

Karley straightened her shoulders and nodded. “That big, they’re probably no good in null-gee, right Jaska?” She suggested hopefully. “I did a lot of null-gee when I was a kid.” She knew, of course, Jaska’s military background, and that he was quite comfortable maneuvering without the helpful pull of gravitics.

“If they’re good warriors, they’ve probably trained for null-gee.” Jaska replied. Rattanai were, like humans, adapted to planetary gravity – they needed practice to easily operate in its absence. Still, he thought it only too probable that the spacefaring zealots had at least a few who could do more than flail uselessly if the ship’s gravitic axis were shut down.

“And if they’re not?”

Jaska sighed. She did have a point – even if half the crew were as comfortable in null-gee as himself, that was a positive shift in the balance of power. “Have you ever spiked a gravitic unit?”

The young woman smiled faintly. “Only on accident. I’ll just set out to help them tune it, and it’ll be down in no time.”

Jaska knew it was crazy to send her alone to find and sabotage such a sensitive part of the ship’s infrastructure, but he didn’t have any other options. “We’ll have to split up. Go find and knock out the a-grav. Meet me back here as soon as you’ve done it.” The possibility occurred to him that she would fail, be killed, or merely become lost in the odd deck layout of the Rattanai ship – but she was right for once, and it seemed only proper to let her weaponize her ineptitude against their captors.

“And you?”

The veteran shrugged. He didn’t want to tell her what he was going to do, in case she was captured and interrogated. “Let’s just say that if it works, there won’t be many of them around gravitics when you get there.” He replied enigmatically, then turned and went back the way he had come before she could ask any more questions.

As he left her there, Jaska tried not to think about the probability that he’d never see Karley again.

2946-09-24 - Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Rematch

In the final episode of Jaska N.'s account, we find him joining forces with another prisoner of the raiders who took him captive after destroying his colony compound home. If you missed the previous parts of Jaska's account, you can read them in Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Raiders, Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Captivity, and Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Reprisal.

In his message to me, Jaska admitted not knowing much about the creature he describes having freed from captivity, though his speculation is that it was not a sapient creature at all, but instead an advanced hive-networked swarm masquerading as a single entity. He offered no speculation as to its origins beyond this; it seemed that he was making good on his promise to it, to go his own way and leave it to its own business. He doesn't explicitly say that the creature departed his company after they were set free, but it is heavily implied in the way he described his ordeal that this is what happened.

Having heard other stories about symbiotic sapients (many of them retold so many times as to be devoid of any useful information to research the matter), I do not wish to discount the possibility that he is right, but details he offers suggest that the creature or machine isn't - or at least isn't entirely - synthetic.. Jaska offers no details beyond that the creature was able to help him subdue several Rattanai brigands, at which point the ship's master called for parley and offered to deposit him, Karley, and the mysterious creature on a nearby sparsely populated colony world unharmed.

Despite their fanaticsim, it is unsurprising that this raider band were amenable to a peaceful settlement; faced with a force of unknown capability, they decided to cut their losses and negotiate. This is in keeping with the behavior of some Rattanai commanders during the days of the empire, and it proves that though these towering xenosapients are very different from humans and Atro'me psychologically, they are not beyond all reason. To me, this has always made the imagery of the Terran-Rattanai War more terrifying: it forces one to come to terms with the real possibility that a grand empire of generally rational beings can seek to exterminate or subjugate humanity for what is, for them, rational reasons.

Jaska put his hand against the armored door gingerly, wondering if, locked behind it, was  something that might contribute to his and Karley’s escape, if he could get it open.

The raiders had configured their ship in a manner that made no particular sense to him; though parts of the interior made it obvious that the ship was originally built by a human yard, its Rattanai owners had reconfigured it in a manner that seemed, at least to a retired spacer like Jaska, to be rather arbitrary.

The first two spaces he’d thought likely to be some sort of armory had turned out to be an empty storage compartment and an oddly-fitted plumbing head; the third had been guarded too attentively to slip inside. After watching this fourth doorway for several minutes, hidden in a grate-covered maintenance shaft, he’d risked creeping out and up to it, only to find that its control panel was apparently nonfunctional, its small holo-display projecting a universally recognizable “system fault” symbol, as well as a string of Rattanai language-glyphs which Jaska couldn’t read. Most likely, that meant that whatever was on the other side was of no concern to the fanatical Rattanai crew.

Jaska was about to leave the armored door and whatever mystery compartment lay beyond when the control panel chirped. Returning his attention to its display, he noticed that the Rattanai glyphs displayed below the fault symbol had been replaced by a trio of Terran Anglo-standard letters, “WHO.” 

With a shock, he realized that it was an interrogative. “Me?” Jaska whispered, before he realized what he was doing.

The letters vanished for a moment, then “YES” replaced them. Jaska took a step back, and considered running away; the ship was after all hostile territory. Most likely, the letters were the result of a Rattanai computer technician elsewhere on the ship trying to distract him until armed raiders arrived to return him to his cell.

Still, Jaska knew he needed a lucky break. The narrow maintenance crawlspace behind him beckoned invitingly, but he judged himself able to dive into it at the first hint of Rattanai approaching. “You first.” Jaska replied quietly, craning his head to look and listen for any sign of danger.

The letters “CAP” appeared, then vanished to be replaced by “TVE”. It was clear that the meaning was “captive.” That wasn’t an answer to his question, but it did explain why the limit of their ability to manipulate the display was three characters; perhaps exposed wiring allowed a clever technician captive only limited control over the display.

“I was too, but I got out.” Jaska whispered. “Does this door open from the outside? It gave me a fault when I tried.”

There was no reply for several seconds. “YES” appeared, followed by “WAI.”

Before waiting for whatever would follow, Jaska slapped the control panel’s largest button, which was clearly meant to open the door. As the grinding sound of heavy lock mechanisms indicated success, the displayed letters changed to “TYO,” “UMU,” and finally “STK” before the armored portal slid uneasily downward to reveal a dark compartment not unlike the one he and Karley had been imprisoned in, if slightly bigger. “I must what?” Jaska asked into the darkness, seeing motion in the far corner, where the light did not penetrate.

What uncoiled from the darkness and stepped forward was not human. Though it took roughly the shape of a human, it moved oddly, more flexible than a human in some ways, and more constrained in others. Its long, slim limbs were hugged by form-fitting armor plates like metallic dragon-scales, and its face was a blank, glassy mask. From around this mask, a mane of white, hairlike filaments cascaded in all directions. If it was biologically similar to a human under its armored hide, Jaska decided it was probably the female of its species, based on its slim, somewhat wasp-waisted profile. A long, segmented tail danced in the air around the figure, and Jaska didn’t fail to notice the barbed stinger at its tip.

As if to remind Jaska of his purpose in opening the door, three blocky letters appeared in the creature’s blank mask-like face. Just as Jaska recognized “LET,” the creature replaced them with “SGO.” The meaning of these six letters was quite clear.

“Right.” Quickly, he led the odd figure to the open grate of the maintenance crawlspace, ushered her inside, then followed. After moving a safe distance away from the opening, he reached out to pull the stranger to a halt. “Wait.”

When he touched the smooth scales of her arm, they seemed to shift under his hand, as if it was metallic scales, only loosely connected to each other, all the way through. Surprised, he withdrew his hand, and when he looked up, the letters “WHY” glowed softly against the dim silhouette in front of him.

“Because we’re never going to get off this ship unless we work together.” He told her, still cringing at the feeling of the brief contact even though it hadn’t done him any harm.

There was a pause. “DOY,” “OUK,” and finally “NOW” appeared, each at a delay of several seconds.

Not waiting for the rest of the message, Jaska decided to answer. “I have no idea what the hell you are, and I don’t care. When we get out of this, you go your way, Karley and I will go ours, and that will be that. We just need some way to fight the Rattanai.”

There was another pause, and the alien put out a hand, pointing at Jaska. “WHO” appeared on her face.

“I’m Jaska.” He replied. “I was captured with Karley, a neighbor of mine, but we got out of our cell. What can I call you?”

“INA” were the only three letters delivered in reply. “Ina”, Jaska decided, was as good a name as he was likely to get. 

As he considered this, she reached out and grasped his wrist, holding his hand up in the darkness. The scale-like structures seemed to grind against each other, and the impression that the alien was entirely made of layers of interlocking plates was reinforced. As he wondered what the gesture meant and tried to fight another wave of revulsion, Jaska noticed new letters: “BEC,” then “ALM”

“Be calm?” Jaska echoed, wondering whether it would be impolite to pry his hand free. Ina’s grip was gentle, but the movement of her scales was highly unpleasant against his wrist. “Why? What makes-”

With a sudden motion, the alien pounced on him, and they both toppled to the floor. Ina seemed to lose her form and become an amorphous flow of metallic components, pinning Jaska to the floor. He struggled, and would have cried out, except that the plate of the creature's face pressed itself against his in a macabre mockery of intimacy, covering his mouth and nose, and stifling his breath. He tried to gasp for breath, tried to free his limbs to claw at the object which seemed to fold around his face and head, but found himself entirely restrained. As spots danced in the darkness in front of his occluded eyes, Jaska hoped that, at least, Ina would kill some of the Rattanai after she was finished with him.

Just as his consciousness was beginning to fade, his straining lungs filled themselves with dry shipboard air. The weight holding him down had vanished. “The hell-” Jaska said, then stopped – his voice echoed back into his ears, as if he was wearing a bubble helmet. Reaching up to touch his face, Jaska found his fingers clinking against a smooth, featureless surface; evidently, he was wearing a helmet, or something very like it. The presence of interlocking armored gloves over his hands – and apparently the rest of his body – also became evident.

“I said to be calm.” A smooth feminine voice with an unplaceable accent dripped into Jaska’s ears like warm honey. “It is so difficult to explain symbiosis from outside.”

“Ina?” Jaska sat up unsteadily, uncomfortable with the fact that he was now completely encased in the form of a machine – or a creature - which fitted him like a second skin, below even his tattered clothing.


“Symbiosis?” Jaska prompted, exploring his person blindly with metal-scaled hands, surprised at how much tactile sensation carried through Ina’s covering.

“Alone, I am weak." Ina replied. “Weak enough to be easily imprisoned. As one, however, we are strong. Strong enough, perhaps, to fight these brigands.” As she spoke, the scale-plates on Jaska’s arms shifted subtly as Ina showed him how she could amplify his bodily strength; experimentally, he made a fist and punched the floor, and was surprised to leave a sizable dent in the shape of his armored knuckles. Ina, he realized, was making him as strong as a decent human-built suit of combat armor would, but it wasn’t clear how.   

The opaque faceplate in front of Jaska cleared. The dim crawlspace now looked as well-lit as the corridors. “This... symbiosis, is it reversible?”

Ina laughed. It wasn’t a human laugh; it had a buzzing multiplicity that coursed up and down his body, as if each scale were laughing individually. It was simultaneously a terrifying and pleasurable feeling. “If you wish.” She replied. “Let’s go find your friend.”

At that instant, the ship shuddered, and Jaska found himself drifting off the deck plates he was sitting on. “That would be her now.”

“Your friend is resourceful.”

Jaska smiled into the faceplate, knowing that Ina couldn’t possibly know about how Karley had contributed to his presence in the first place. “Apparently she is. Let’s go see how agile these lunks are in zero-gee, Ina.”

“With pleasure, Jaska.” The odd being’s voice purred as Jaska maneuvered weightlessly toward the nearest exit into the corridor. 

2946-09-26 - Upcoming Events: Ashton Pesaresi CBCP Centauri

Cosmic Background host Ashton Pesaresi will participate in several panels in during CBCP Centauri, which is being hosted this year on the campus of Baumgartner University in the city of Pele. He will participate in the following panels at the convention. See the original announcement feed item (Upcoming Events: Ashton Pesaresi CBCP Centauri Panel Schedule) for more details on these panels:

  • 2946-10-03 (Monday) The Interstellar Community as an Audience
  • 2946-10-05 (Wednesday) Programming Choices For Live and Archive 
  • 2946-10-07 (Friday) Growing Your Off-Planet Audience

Passes to the convention are sold out, unfortunately, but seats in these individual panels do remain open. If you are attending CBCP Centauri this year and have not reserved a seat at one of Ashton's panels, there may be room for a few walk-in attendees. The convention organizers still prefer if you reserve seats beforehand, as it makes their planning situation somewhat easier.