2947-06-18 - Tales from the Inbox: Marta's Second Castaway

I am sure that by the time this article hits ingest queues, yesterday’s news broadcast from Admiralty Headquarters and clips of Admiral Tosi’s formal address to the Confederated parliament this morning will have already reached most everyone. The wave of Ladeonist-linked sabotage that followed the announcement throughout Confederated space is likely old news by the time Tales from the Inbox appears on your media-screen. It seems hard to believe, even for those of us out here close to the tip of the spear, that the Confederated Worlds are at war.

Two small colonies on the Coreward Frontier have gone dark in the past five days – their orbital installations perhaps victims of Ladeonist attacks or Sagittarian raids, it’s too early to say for sure – and Håkøya is on high alert. The Admiralty asserts that at least four Sagittarian cruiser-analogues have crossed the Gap and are now running amok in the Frontier. We are likely in no more danger than the citizens of Maribel, but there has been some unrest here as well – Håkøya has no history of Ladeonist ideological infection, but its relatively wealthy population with a large percentage of retirees from the Colonial Reach never expected to be on the front lines of a proper shooting war. Even if this conflict is, as it seems to be, little more than a second Brushfire War, the risk to life and property is understandably making some here quite upset.

As you can imagine, spacers of every stripe have been flooding the Confederated Navy recruiting offices here in Håkøya and elsewhere, hoping for easy commissions and a chance to see action against the Sagittarians. My understanding is that the only recruiting drive currently active is for the Naval Marines; the situation is obviously not so dire that civilian spacers are being given shoulder-boards and frigate captaincies just for signing up. The Sagittarians are a threat to the Frontier’s widely scattered population, not to the Confederated Worlds.

Tales from the Inbox will not become a forum for front-lines reporting, so do not expect to see this sort of update in the preamble to every week’s entry. Ashton is working with one of the local behind-the-scenes techs on hiring a dedicated war correspondent for Cosmic Background, someone with the connections to actually leave port with the Fifth Fleet, and an announcement as to the person chosen will be made as soon as possible. Most likely, that reporting will be available on our vidcast episodes rather than in the text feed, but details have not been confirmed yet.

This week’s entry is unrelated to the war news, and that may come as a relief to most of you. Marta K., the submitter of the first piece featured on this forum (Tales from the Inbox: One Violet Acre), is back – or rather, she was back a month ago when the message which became this entry arrived in my inbox. She reports encountering yet another stranded spacer (apparently she has a knack for that sort of thing) on a routine Frontier colonization-survey run. This time, things didn't go quite as well.

The lack of traffic in orbit around K2893074 B had convinced Marta that she was the only outfit in the entire system long before she entered orbit. The rugged planet destined to bear the name “Austberg” as soon as the Aust Colonial Trust’s first wave of colony-building ships arrived remained as empty and silent as it always had.

The Trust had paid Marta handsomely to make one final sweep of the system and the world before their investment was committed. A pirates’ base in a hollowed-out asteroid or the presence of dangerous xenofauna not noticed by the first survey would convince them to take their ships and colonists to another system. As one of the most experienced surveyors on the Frontier – indeed, Marta’s career as a surveyor spanned the bulk of the Frontier’s history – the organization trusted her to find any last-minute risks to the timetable.

“Marc, give me a full sweep of the surface. Highlight anything that doesn’t match the original survey.” It had been nearly fifteen years since the planet had been visited by another surveyor, but Marta didn’t expect many problems. An uninhabited planet generally didn’t change in that short a time.

“Order acknowledged.” The shipboard computer’s smooth, cultured voice put Marta’s hoarse, crass Frontier drawl to shame, but she liked its chocolate baritone all the same. In the viewport, the planet twisted and then crept to one side as the ship adjusted its orbit. Knowing the scans would take more than five shifts to finish, Marta unbuckled her crash harness and got up, intending to re-watch a season of her favorite vidcast drama while Marcus Ferdinand circled the little world, drinking in data through every instrument.

Just as she reached the hatch behind the control consoles, Marta heard a pinging noise behind her. She expected dozens of minor anomalies, the results of small asteroid impacts, volcanic activity, and similar; a smart surveyor usually took a shift’s worth of leisure before even looking at a list of sensor anomalies. Only amateurs sat at the controls, jumping on every weird result as it came in. There was no rush, after all.

Even knowing this, Marta turned around and sat back down, calling up the oddity which had caused the survey software to emit a pinging noise. Most likely, it was a recent lava flow, or the torn landscape caused by a violent quake. Anything big enough to be caught so quickly was bound to be natural.

The console’s center screen blanked, then showed a charred scar cutting through the pseudo-trees populating a wide, steep-sided valley. Forest fires, too, could confuse the software, and this one appeared quite recent, perhaps less than a year. Marta was about to classify the finding as natural surface evolution when she saw a bright spot at the center in the false-color imagery – something at the epicenter of the fire bore the high albedo of artificially worked metal.

“Stars around.” Marta canceled the search pattern and focused the sensor array on the spot. Sure enough, the reflective object resolved itself into a ship lying broken on the surface. If her sensors were correct, the ship was about the size of a small cargo hauler, and clearly not designed to make planetfall.

It had been only eighteen months before that she’d found her ex-husband’s sorry excuse for a survey craft in a parking orbit and landed to rescue him from his failures to perform proper equipment maintenance; for whoever had crewed the starship below, there would be no good-natured rescue.

Ten minutes later, Marta had her environmental suit on and was almost ready to detach Banshee from its parasite berth beneath Ferdinand’s main hull. The hardy surface-exploration launch would let her overfly the crash site and look for survivors, though she held out little hope of finding any. A starship didn’t just crash-land; someone had maneuvered it into the planet’s atmosphere, knowing their vessel had no fittings to make a planetary landing, and knowing its hull plating was not designed to function as a heat-shield for re-entry. That the wreck was mostly intact was a testament to its crew’s skill and desperation, but any who survived the crash probably perished in the fire, or starved in the alien wilderness afterwards.

Banshee clattered free of its anchor points, and Marta pointed its nose toward the ground, settling in for the stupendous roar of re-entry fire wreathing a craft designed to fall from orbit safely. As soon as the little launch had slowed enough that the atmosphere around its nose no longer burned spontaneously, she deployed its aerofoils and banked toward the crash site.

From three miles overhead, little was visible that wasn’t visible from a hundred. Marta circled lower, observing the way the ship had come down. Its nose and forward comms array were intact, suggesting the helmsman had pulled up just before impact, sacrificing most of the cargo holds to save the hab and communication modules at the bow. Marta, aware of how difficult that must have been, felt sorry she’d never meet the spacer who’d pulled it off.

Circling the wreck even at low altitude revealed no signs of life. The land around the ship had been burned to cinders, and nothing moved against the ashen gray soil or between the jagged stumps of burnt xeno-flora. Offering a spacer’s prayer for the souls who had been lost with the ship, she spotted a clear spot to land in the shadow of the comms array jutting from the hauler’s prow, and keyed in an approach sequence. Veteran surveyor or no, she trusted the computer to land the launch far more than her own hands.

Stepping out of Banshee and into the ashen hellscape where once a quiet forest of alien trees had stood, An honorable spacer did their best to salvage the ship’s logs from any wreck, and Marta meant to do just that. Perhaps the reason for the disaster was revealed by the computer records of the vessel’s final hours, and the families of those lost would want some closure for their missing relatives.

As she trudged forward, Marta spotted movement out of the corner of her eye. Whirling, she drew her sidearm out of sheer reflex, wondering what sorts of scavengers the local ecosystem might have bred. Seeing nothing amiss, she continued forward warily. Her desire to bring lost spacers’ souls to rest was not worth being eaten by a predator that didn’t even have a scientific classification yet.

When she rounded the last clump of charcoal stumps and saw the tattered square of solar-tarp hanging off the side of the ship, Marta didn’t at first register its meaning. Only several steps later did she recognize that a survivor would have had to hang it up, and to string the wires that hung from its voltage studs and coiled around in the ashen dirt below. Someone had survived, after all.

“Hello?” Marta turned in place, keying her enviro-suit’s external loudspeaker. “Is anyone here?”

There was no answer, but again Marta spotted movement at the edge of her vision.

Turning to face the movement again, she debated holstering her gun as a show of good faith, but only for a moment. Suddenly, she wanted to forget her mission of mercy and make a run for Banshee. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but horror stories of stranded spacers losing their minds on uninhabited planets was another matter. “Come on out.”

Again, her voice was swallowed by the place without answer.

Taking a step toward the last place she’d heard the sound, Marta’s booted foot fell on something that crunched. Looking down, she saw that she had stepped on a bone – a brittle human femur, dry with age and long since stripped of all flesh. Its entire length was stippled with gnaw-marks, probably caused by a scavenger bold enough to explore the crash site.

Something darted through the ash-choked landscape, and this time Marta got a better look at it. The scuttling thing was alien indeed – hunched and bent, it scrabbled from cover to cover on leathery, hairless limbs. A mane of scraggly, dark hair hung in clumps over its head, back, and neck. A scavenger, she decided. The survivors were truly long gone.

The creature peered out from behind cover, its hooded eyes boring into Marta’s own. Siezed with fear she could not immediately explain, she fired her pistol wildly toward the spot and ran for Banshee at full speed.

Only when she was airborne did she realize what it was that had so unnerved her. The face which had peered ash-streaked out at her had not been that of an animal. Worse still, she knew that the tooth-marks on the femur were too big to be those of a small, scavenging animal. The teeth that had made them were somewhat larger, rounded and very even.