2949-02-16 –Tales from the Inbox: The Ambush at Zambrano

Nojus here. Duncan’s been keeping a pretty tight grip on the text feed lately, but this week’s news is mine to report. By the time this post is dispatched, Navy Headquarters will have announced that the Lost Squadrons have been relieved by elements of the Seventh Fleet and its mercenary auxiliaries.  

While force reports have not been released, it is probable that the carrier-heavy formation which briefly docked here at Maribel is the center of this relief force; carriers have the largest and most advanced on-board manufacturing systems of all Navy ships, and the units we saw here were specifically designed for long-range forward patrol duties. As Colonel Durand and Mr. Kirke-Moore explained to me in December, the force which arrived at Sagittarius Gate to rendezvous with Bosch’s ragged formation likely lacks any proper battle-line units; it is likely that the mercenary cruiser Rolf Holzmann, which left Maribel with these carriers, is the most powerful warship present. 

Evidently, limited HyperCast relay service has been restored across the Gap, though the Navy won’t say how. Those related to spacers from the Lost Squadrons should expect messages from their loved ones in the next few days – or messages of condolence once the Seventh Fleet personnel bureau processes death records from the Lost Squadrons’ ship computers. No official roster of ship losses and survivals is available; most likely, they’re still taking inventory. 

The Navy datacast release, which Duncan and I have had an opportunity to view in advance, states that Bosch’s force and the civilian vessels which it has temporarily pressed into service have been transferred from Fifth Fleet to Seventh Fleet command. Since the Seventh Fleet has no official representative here at Maribel, we here at Cosmic Background are not likely to hear more about this story through the usual chain. 

The unusual chain, however, continues to provide. Among the first messages received here at Maribel from Sagittarius Gate was a message to Cosmic Background from a spacer Duncan assures me has a history with this text feed series - Gino S. 

Gino attempted to be an early investor in the Sagittarius Frontier even before it was formally opened to colonization, and though this first venture miscarried (Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper), he returned to Sagittarius later and was still on that side of the Gap when the HyperCast relay chain was broken fifteen months ago, mining rare metals at Tel Ramaz (Tales from the Inbox: Angels in Sagittarius). Gino’s vessel and crew were among those collected by the Lost Squadrons, and he has composed quite the account of their adventures. Duncan and I have used an excerpt from near the end of his account to draft this week's entry. We may revisit the earlier sections in the future if there is audience demand.

Gino had never put much stock in self-pity as a reaction to adverse circumstances, but the ambush at Zambrano gave him cause to rethink this policy. 

Gino’s own ship had been lost within months of joining the Lost Squadrons, but that hadn’t hurt too much. After all, Priya Ansa hadn’t been the first starship he had lost to Sagittarius, and he doubted it would be the last. The mining ship had been a good machine, and a good home, but it hadn’t been able to keep up with the pace of life as a fish in this nervous school very long. Navy men had helped Gino and his crew of six move their belongings to the hauler Joszef Beitel, and then had stripped Priya Ansa of anything that might replace a failed part in some other vessel before setting it adrift in the interstellar void. 

Despite the restlessness of his crew, especially trusty Ellen Connelly, his second in command, Gino hadn’t complained as the months aboard Beitel dragged on. He liked its sturdy skipper, a Navy reserve officer named Albricci, and the skipper seemed to like him in turn. The accommodations were spartan at best, but given the alternative of a fiery death under Incarnation guns or the dubious comforts of a prison camp on an Incarnation world, he considered himself lucky. Lucky, that is, until Zambrano. 

Everyone in the Lost Squadrons knew by the time the formation arrived at the ill-fated system that relief was coming. Their long ordeal was almost over. The Navy would come soon, its battlewagons cracking the very starfield with their thundering cannons, and drive the Incarnation’s swift cruisers back into the blackness from which they had spawned. Everyone knew, and nobody wanted to be the last to die. Nobody wanted to be aboard the last ship to fall behind and into enemy hands. 

The unfortunate thing about the word “everyone,” of course, was that it included the multitudes of chip-headed fanatics which crewed each of those terrible, sleek hunters. Nobody knew how the Nates knew a rescue was coming, but everyone knew they did. The pack of four cruisers which had chased off the refugee armada from so many promising supply points had been reinforced by six more of their kind. One way or another, the hunt would be over soon. 

Rumor had it that Captain Bosch’s combat ships were running low on missiles and just about every other type of expendable munition. Though Gino had no way to verify such chow-line scuttlebutt, he found this only too believable. Even if there had been resupply ships in the Lost Squadrons at some point, they had long since been stripped and abandoned in the void to keep other vessels in working order, like his own AnsaBeitel itself was so short on expendables that the food-processor machine menus had dwindled to the five blandest selections – and if Gino knew Navy sensibilities, they had let their own flavoring-reservoirs dwindle to nothing before inconveniencing the civilians. Raw organics stripped from uninhabited systems could keep the nutrient slurry tanks from running dry, but a diet of untreated nutrient slurry would slowly drive even the most hardened spacer mad. Gino that knew better than most - had tried it himself, once, and not by choice. 

Zambrano was supposed to fix all that, of course. Word had come down that the Incarnation had towed a gaggle of captured Confederated Worlds starships to a depot at that system to be examined and stripped of useful materials, their crews held in a prison camp on the planet below. Apparently, the defenses were weak there, with only a few automated missile batteries defending the installation. 

The only catch was, there was no way to both rescue the prisoners and haul off all the necessary goods before the cruisers arrived if the Squadrons followed their usual procedure. If just the combat vessels entered the system, they simply didn’t have enough space to load supplies and prisoners. If Bosch was to get enough munitions and other supplies to tide everyone over until the Navy arrived without leaving Confederated citizens in Incarnation hands, he needed some of the unarmed ships among his ragtag command to dive down into the sucking quagmire of a star’s gravity well, where they were the most vulnerable to attack if the Incarnation’s cruisers showed up too quickly. 

Beitel, to the surprise of no-one on board, was selected for the mission. The big hauler’s engines had held up remarkably well against the strain which had undone Priya Ansa, and it carried less than a third of its maximum load in its cargo holds and external cargo-container brackets. Albricci had offered to transfer anyone who wanted to stay safe to another vessel, but Gino had refused, more out of curiosity than anything else. After all, he'd been on the run with the Lost Squadrons for more than a year and hadn’t once seen any action, not even from a distance. 

Most of his own former crew had taken Albricci’s offer; only Connelly had stayed. Gino never learned why, but he came to fear that it was on his account. 

When it came to the actual event, both Gino and Connelly occupied stations on Beitel’s command deck in place of some of the Navy-reserve spacers who’d elected not to risk their lives at what seemed to be the end of their ordeal. Gino had what he’d been hoping for – a front row seat to the action. Any combat required to take the depot was expected to be perfunctory, but at least he could tell his as-yet-unborn children and their children truthfully that he’d seen Sam Bosch in action. Perhaps in a few decades, that claim would be worth something money could never buy. 

Had Gino known that the supply depot at Zambrano was the lure intended to draw the Lost Squadrons into a fatal ambush, he might still have elected to go along for the ride. Six Incarnation cruisers, loitering in six different ballistic stellar orbits with their engines off, roared into action as soon as the depot came under attack, hurtling toward the intruders. 

While Bosch’s ships swung about to hold off the closest of these massive adversaries, Gino helped Albricci get Beitel lined up to dock with the outpost. Some of the other ships hurried to evacuate the prisoners from the planet, but even assuming the most skillful use of his ships possible, time was running out. 

Beitel was still maneuvering to dock when the Coronachs struck. Gino didn’t even see them coming on the sensors – one minute he was micromanaging a docking sequence, and the next minute the air around him was filled with crystallizing atmosphere rushing toward a jagged, molten hole where the forward bridge bulkhead had once been. At least one spacer – Gino didn’t even know his name – was torn from his harness and out into the void beyond. It didn’t matter whether the man’s emergency bubble-helmet deployed, or whether he cleared the red-hot metal on his way through – there would be no rescue on the other side. 

Wounded Beitel staggered, and despite all Gino’s efforts, collided with the depot. He was still wrestling with the unresponsive controls when Albricci hauled him from the console and toward the exit. 

The next thing Gino remembered was lying on the grip-textured deck in the spacious cockpit of one of Beitel’s cargo shuttles, looking up at the pair of pilot’s chairs. Albricci, sturdy shoulders hunched over the controls, occupied one, and a grizzled-looking woman with a bandage across her forehead sat in the other. He soon learned that he was looking at the only survivors of Jozsef Beitel’s sixteen-spacer skeleton crew. 

As for Ellen Connelly, trusty second-in-command of his little mining ship Priya Ansa, she hadn’t been at her station when Albricci had recovered his wits and started to evacuate, and had not made it to the shuttle cradle in time. Perhaps she too had been thrown free into space, or perhaps she had become trapped inside the failing ship. 

Gino had never put much stock in self-pity as a reaction to adverse circumstances. Losing Connelly at Zambrano just for a chance to see some action, however, seemed so catastrophically unfair that he decided to try it all the same.