2952-07-10 – Tales from the Service: The Courier’s Coordinates 

Yes, we are delaying coverage of other stories to continue with Director Bleier’s account.  This is partly because it is about a Reacher encounter, and partially because this is one of the most high profile things the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority has done in recent memory. 

I am of course aware of the highly publicized details of Operation HELLESPONT, which concluded last month but which was kept secret for several weeks. I think this is being covered relatively well already by other outlets, but we may discuss it here, if the stories I want to publish get Naval Intelligence approval. 

Director Ris Bleier was glad when Howard Helios Hughes finally departed the Tanner-Wyatt waystation and was cruising for the tiny system’s jump limit again. Though the stop at Tanner-Wyatt was necessary both for intelligence and for supplies, every hour spent there seemed like one wasted. 

Unfortunately, the informant Ris had been hoping to meet on that station was nowhere to be found. His most productive agent in all of Sagittarius had, despite all covert messages sent ahead of Ris’s arrival, failed to make the rendezvous. While inconvenient, that was not too uncommon; Ris knew enough about the agent’s outward line of work to know that he couldn’t always appear on command. 

Supplies, of course, could be had at Tanner-Wyatt in abundance, if one didn’t look too hard at package expiration dates. Hughes had a food-fab, of course, but this needed nutrient slurry to work on. No doubt a quarter-tank of slurry would have served Captain Bermudez for several more journeys, but on this outing, consumption had understandably quintupled. Just to be on the safe side, Ris had ordered his crew to buy up a month’s supply of ration bars and shelf-stable packaged food as well as a full tank of nutrient slurry. There was no telling how long this outing would take. 

Bermudez, of course, remained sulking in her cabin throughout most of her ship’s time docked. She emerged only once, only to scowl as crates of reserve food were wheeled aboard and stowed away. Bee retreated back into her quarters once more, she muttered something about not paying for any of that. Ris had begun to disregard her presence aboard; after all, he only wanted her along as a form of de-facto incarceration. She had no expertise relevant to locating and investigating a Reacher wreck. 

Ris, eager to be off, joined Giffards in the cockpit for the departure from Tanner-Wyatt, sitting in the copilot’s chair and careful not to touch any of the controls. It was good to put the boxy station behind them, and go on to the mission proper – besides, he was almost through with his backlog of reports. 

“Are we really going to be out here long enough to need those damned food-bars when we have coordinates?” Bermudez, poking her head into the cockpit, sighed. “I hope I’m getting paid by the hour.” 

“ASWA will pay fairly for your time.” Ris barely glanced up at the spacer. “We have the coordinates you provided, yes, but no velocity or timestamp for that data. And if the vessel my agent sighted is not entirely dead, it might have regained partial drive power in the interim. We must plan for the worst case.” 

“The worst is right.” Bermudez turned as if to leave, but stopped. “What do you plan on doing if you really do find a dead Reacher ship all the way out here?” 

Ris shook his head. “There are standard protocols, but this situation has many variables. We will investigate as appropriate.” 

“That's bureaucrat-speak for ‘hells if I know,’ isn’t it?” Bermudez arched one eyebrow. 

Giffards, still at the controls, kept her gaze straight ahead, suppressing a smile by the thinnest of margins. 

Ris stood. “It is bureaucrat-speak for ‘we’ll find out when we get there,’ Miss Bermudez. If you would like a report on the most likely workflows, Mr. Lund can provide it.” 

“I might just. If it’s written like you talk, Bleier, it might work better than sleep-meds.” Bermudez stood aside to let Ris pass. “Supposing we don’t find anything?” 

“That is the worst case which we plan for.” Ris shrugged. “It is probable we will find something.” With that, he brushed past the ship’s captain and headed back to his closet-sized cabin. 

As it turned out, the reserve food wasn’t necessary. A metallic debris cloud was easily visible on sensors from the coordinates Bermudez had carried to Ris’s office on The Sprawl. A few days of scanner sweeps later, and Hughes’s sensors were able to pick out the derelict from the other asteroid-like objects drifting on erratic orbits through the system.  

The ship’s computer was hardly state of the art, but it was able to model based on the velocities of the wreck and the debris cloud what had happened – the Reacher ship had been decelerating on a course to meet, and probably consume, a large metallic asteroid, when something had exploded either on the hull’s surface or just within. What exactly had caused that six or seven kiloton explosion, only closer investigation could determine, but it had disabled the big ship’s drive, apparently for good. 

“Still no response to hails?” Ris, studying the computer models on the large holo-display in the lounge, turned to Art Lund. 

“None.” Lund shook his head. “But it would take power to reply at this range, and if there’s power in that thing, it’s reserve batteries and backups at best.” 

The existence of backup generators and reserve batteries on Reacher ships being at best a hypothesis, Ris decided this was a far from hopeful sign. “Then we need to get closer. Do you concur?” 

Lund sighed. “We’d better. But carefully. If they were attacked, and there are still some of them alive, they might not realize we’re friendly.” 

Ris nodded. “Work with Kuriega to dump our data suite to a sensor drone and launch it. We’ll run a data-stream as we approach, so whoever comes looking for us has all the data we can give them.” 

Lund winced and left the room without a word. Ris almost regretted bringing him along; Art Lund was married and had three children. Risking his life was an unfortunate necessity; the Sagittarius ASWA had only a handful of people who had studied the Reachers, and he was the only one of them available on short notice. 

Ris was risking his own life, too, but that was, if not exactly bureaucratically standard, at least less unfortunate. If there were survivors, having someone of his rank involved from the beginning would hopefully make the recovery effort go smoothly, and if a broken fire-control system or a panicked, oxygen-starved Reacher gunner managed to blast Hughes, then he’d at least get a nice silver plaque in the ASWA headquarters back on Centauri for a memorial. 

2952-06-26 – Tales from the Service: The Courier’s Departure

Departure clearance, unsurprisingly, took only moments to acquire once Ris Bleier and his hand-picked team were aboard ship. He disliked Howard Helios Hughes from the moment he stepped aboard, but the ship was, unfortunately, ideal for his purpose – fast, anonymous, and unlikely to be associated with a government bureau in any Confederated port on the Sagittarius Frontier. The fact that commandeering it also kept its skipper from selling any secrets a second time was of course critical as well. 

Captain Bermudez, of course, took Ris’s obvious distaste as a personal victory. The more he scowled at the dented paneling, the scuffed, stained deck plating, and the signs of shoddy repair work evident in almost every compartment, the more smug she became. She offered no tour, so Rahat Kuriega, an engineer Ris had picked up from his own cutter’s maintenance crew, led Ris and the other two ASWA men around the vessel with the help of its decade-old registration schematics. This proved mercifully short – on one end was the cockpit, with two chairs facing an arc of outdated control interfaces, and on the other was a closet-sized engine-room. Between these, filling a flattened tube, one could find three cabins, a decrepit lounge, a food-fab, and a filthy sanitary compartment, all accessed from a single fifteen-meter strip of corridor. The small cargo compartments, though capable of being pressurized, were not attached to the pressurized crew space. 

Brianne Giffard, a pilot normally in charge of the ASWA courtesy shuttles, was at the controls when Hughes took off. Ris, standing behind her, did his best to ignore the presence of Captain Bermudez in the copilot’s chair, arms crossed over her chest. Clearing the mad tangle of docks and cranes that was the outer works of The Sprawl proved no trouble for Giffard, and soon, their course was laid in, and the ship was on automatic guidance. 

As soon as the pilot’s hands fell from the controls, Bermudez cleared her throat. “Thanks for not smashing my ship.” She stood and stretched her arms. “I’ll be in my cabin.” 

Ris met Giffard’s eyes as the skipper of the commandeered vessel flounced out of the cockpit. He knew what the pilot was thinking – they could have just as easily gone after this rumor of a crippled or derelict Reacher ship in his cutter, or in one of the less obtrusive courtesy shuttles. Why the trouble of using this unkempt ship and its unwilling owner? 

Ris was, however, not in the business of explaining his decisions to his subordinates. He merely shrugged and left to see to his own berth. Of the two cabins not claimed by Bermudez, he had elected for the smaller one, leaving the larger to his trio of subordinates. How two men and one woman elected to divide that space was, of course, not his business; he had no intention of ever entering their cabin. 

Ris’s cabin, barely large enough for his bags to fit between the bunk and opposite wall, proved as uninspiring as when he’d first seen it. The dingy metal walls lacked even a viewpanel to break up their monotony. A chronometer glowed from the center of a corner desk no more than half a meter across, providing the only illumination until Kuriega came by to replace the overhead light-panels. 

Ris, however, refused to let these drab conditions bring down his mood. All he really needed was a place to sleep, and some solitude to catch up on a backlog of low-priority Welfare Officer reports from the outlying stations; this cabin would serve well enough for a few days. 

Before he opened any of his bags, though, Ris stripped the bunk down to its rectangular polyfoam block mattress, rolled everything up, and kicked it into the corridor. He would not be trusting Bermudez’s laundry under any circumstances. One of the bags contained a set of smart-fabric bedclothes that would fit to any size of bunk, and he soon had these laid out and constricting themselves around the mattress. 

A knock on the door-frame drew Ris’s attention, and when he turned he saw Art Lund, one of his department’s most experienced linguists, standing over the pile of cloth. “I’m pretty sure you’d have more space in the big cabin if you swapped with Giffard, Director.” 

“This is acceptable.” Ris shrugged. “This expedition is not a vacation.” 

“Oh, aye.” Lund arched one eyebrow. “Which is why I’m wondering what makes a regional bureau director take up field work. You could have sent someone else.” 

Ris smiled. Sometimes, to someone with so long a service record as Lund, he might reveal his purposes, but this was not the time. “I could have, Art. But I did not.” 

“Fair enough.” Lund held up his hands. “I guess the promise of Reachers cuts to even the coldest bureaucratic heart, eh?” He turned to leave. “Want me to take care of this trip hazard?” 

“I would appreciate it.” Ris gestured to the bundle. “Find somewhere to store them. Perhaps on the other side of the airlock, just to be safe.” 

The fact that a bureau chief like Bleier would personally see to such an errand perhaps should have tipped off his subordinates that what they were doing had a real chance of being very, very important, but it seems that none of the four people who accompanied him on this voyage had any inkling this might be the case. This, despite all of them knowing, in general, what they were looking for – a wrecked or possibly very badly damaged Racher ship, as opposed to an empty shell like the ones we have described encounters with on previous occasions. 

The importance of locating such a tragic scene, in Sagittarius no less, seems to have been lost upon most of the people attempting it, at least until they had it in front of their eyes. 

2952-06-26 – Tales from the Service: The Courier’s Vessel 

As we indicated last week, this story is one of the many examples of a private citizen trying and failing to outwit a government agency. Unfortunately, the reverse is usually the outcome of such attempts, save for in situations where the attempter has extensive knowledge of the workings of that department. 

Though most people associate the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority with managing the resident xenos aboard human habitats, this bureau actually has purview over a number of human-xeno interactions, and is theoretically tasked also with ensuring that xeno-crewed vessels respect and are respected by the Law of the Spacelanes. Though this responsibility is rarely employed, they seem to relish the opportunity when it arises. 

Director Ris Bleier and his compatriots were just finishing up the port controller paperwork for a private starship requisition when a commotion in the hall made most of the people in the briefing-room look up. Ris, knowing what the noise was all about, merely raised a hand and waved. “Let her in.” 

A moment later, the door opened, and a short, wiry woman stormed in, with two of the controller’s security men following close behind. The holster at her hip hung empty; she would have had to surrender her weapons to enter the port authority annex. “I demand you release my ship this instant. This is an illegal-” 

“Captain Bermudez, if you would care to learn just one thing about government bureaus...” Ris stood and extended his hands to either side to indicate Controller Vasilou and the dozen-odd other government officials in the room, smiling broadly. “It’s that we are very careful not to do anything illegal. You will find I am on very firm ground.” 

“Stealing my ship is legal now? What is this, the damned Hegemony?” Elenor Bermudez, who had gone to great lengths to avoid introducing herself on their last meeting, was trembling with rage. 

“We are not confiscating your ship.” Ris shrugged. “We are merely requisitioning it to handle urgent business that I was only just made aware of. I do apologize for the inconvenience, but my department will compensate you for your lost time and revenues.” 

“Please, Miss.” Controller Vasilou stepped between Ris and the spacer. “The possibility of such a situation is no secret at this or any port in a conflict zone. You were informed as soon as the request was formalized.” 

Bermudez glanced between Ris and the Port Controller. “I won’t hand over the codes. Toss me in the brig, and we’ll sort this out in front of the magistrates tomorrow.” 

Ris smiled again. “You will find that our judicial apparatus here on The Sprawl is quite backlogged. It may be a week or more before a Magistrate can look over our paperwork, and by that time I will have gotten clearance to overwrite your ship’s computer core and proceed.” 

“A... A week.” Bermudez’s eyes narrowed. “Is that what this is about? Insurance?” 

“If you wish to look at it that way, I cannot stop you.” Ris picked up the slate he’d been working on and tapped his way through the next few items on the form. "I am unfortunately legally required to ask you if you would like to accompany the vessel on this errand." He raised one eyebrow. 

“What?” Bermudez took a half step back. “Damn, if that’s an option, yes I’m going. No way I’m letting you government boys plunder my cabin.” 

“What do you take me for, one of those brigands from the Revenue Agency?” Ris tapped the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority badge on his chest. “ASWA has no need of or interest in your belongings.” He tapped the slate again with a flourish. “Mr. Vasilou, I am finished here. Do you have any more forms for me?” 

“Only departure clearance forms.” Vasilou stepped back. “You can complete those once you’re aboard.” He waved to his men flanking Bermudez. “Take her to her ship and put her aboard.” 

The two guards strode forward, and one put his hand on Bermudez’s shoulder. She shrugged off his touch like an insult, and turned on her heel. “This isn’t over, Bleier.” 

Ris watched her go in silence. When the door closed behind her, several people quietly returned to temporarily forgotten tasks. 

“I suppose you won’t be telling me what this is all about, Director?” Vasilou sighed. 

“When I get back, I’ll send you a copy of my report.” Ris dropped his shoulders. “I only hope it will be a brief read.” 

2952-06-19 – Tales from the Service: The Courier’s Profits 

This account was presented to me a few months ago, but for what will, I think, become obvious reasons, we were told by both the submitter and Naval Intelligence to sit on it for a while to ensure that we were not releasing sensitive information. 

Our submitter here is none other than the outgoing director of the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority for the entire region, who has served in that capacity for about three years. This account will span at least three of our weekly episodes, and I would expect it represents the most interesting thing to happen during his tenure. 

In this first section, we see why one should never try to strong-arm a government agency. It never ends well, no matter how innocuous the agency. 

The spacer woman across Ris Bleier’s desk glared at him as he read the data slate she had just passed him. She clearly wanted to be done with the errand that had brought her as quickly as possible, but he did his best to focus on the text and not to take offense; spacers were always itching to get back out into the black, whoever and whatever else they were supposed to be doing.  

Fortunately, the first few sentences grabbed Ris’s interest, and he soon stopped glancing up at the slate’s courier. If what he was seeing was true, that would explain why someone had paid this woman to hand-deliver a data slate directly to a director of the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority, when it would have been free to send the same data over the HyperCast network. “Can you verify any of this?” He asked, tapping the screen. 

“Some guy paid me to put this in your hands, I don’t even know his name.” The woman crossed her arms. “I’ll be honest, Director Bleier, I haven’t read anything more than the first couple words, and that told me not to go any farther. Reachers never do us any harm, but if we start skulking around their dead, they just might.” 

Ris set the slate down and met her gaze evenly, wondering whether to believe this assertion. A particularly foolhardy spacer could make a lot of money with the information she’d been carrying. As she had pointed out, that spacer could also potentially kick off a whole new era of conflict in the process. “I think I know who gave you this.” He drummed his fingers on the slate. “How much did he promise I would pay you?” 

The woman grinned and stuck out her chin. “Thirty thousand. And we both know it’s worth a lot more than that.” 

“It’s worth a lot more than that as long as it stays quiet.” Ris shrugged. “And a lot less if half the spacers in Sagittarius know about it. How do I know you won’t be selling copies of this information to every rogue and adventurer on The Sprawl?” 

The woman arched one eyebrow. “I do delivery, not exclusivity. But it’s only good business to give your people a head start, eh?” 

Ris narrowed his eyes and smiled. “Indeed it is. I am prepared to pay your thirty thousand for, say, one week of exclusivity. Half up front, half at the end of the week.” 

“Fair trade.” The spacer shrugged. “I'll take my fifteen thousand in small chits, please. Got some shopping to do, if you know what I mean.” 

“There is a process.” Ris held up his hands. “Allow me to fill out the correct forms so you can collect from my treasurer.” He pushed the slate to one side, woke up the holo-display in his desk, and began calling up forms. Most of them were numbered lists of fields with cryptic names, so he didn’t even bother to hide the fact that the first few forms he filled out had nothing to do with a payment release. Only the last one did, and he made a show of typing “pay in hard currency” into the notes field. 

For her part, the spacer quickly lost interest in the paperwork, barely glancing up when he turned the final form around in the hologram for her inspection. She grunted at the note authorizing the payment in chits, then stood. “Good doing business with you, Director Bleier.” 

Ris stood in turn, smiling again. “Maybe we’ll do business again soon.” He arched one eyebrow. “The treasurer’s office is to the left, down a few doors. He should have you paid in a few minutes.” 

The spacer smiled, anticipating the sudden influx of credits, then hurried out of the office. Ris waited for the door to close, then commed the port controller’s office. It was time to requisition a ship to go investigate the report on the slate. One of the nice things about Ris’s position was that, in times of great need, he had the power to commandeer civilian ships to accomplish his errands; he had the perfect ship in mind for the task, and its commander would be momentarily too busy to do anything about it.