2950-11-22 – Tales from the Service: The Pack’s Intruders

Pack Captain Ojathl Khedru woke with the sense that something was wrong – very wrong in fact – though this instinctual impression at first did not resolve itself into any factual concerns. His cabin remained dimly lit as it had when he’d retired for a few hours of sleep before his shift, and the reassuring hum of Howling Gale’s reactor still carried up from the deck through the curved lattice supports of his sturdy sleeping-frame as it had before. 

Opening his eyes, he saw no blinking lights on the comms headband he’d left hanging in its usual spot, nor any flickering of the dim sleep-cycle lights overhead. Still, however, the sense that something had gone poorly tugged at his mind. 

No matter how well he knew not to solve problems without a sufficiency of data, Khedru replayed the last few hours prior to sleep in his mind, looking for anything that might have catalyzed into such a pernicious feeling of danger. He’d retired to his cabin, drafted a diplomatic message to his clan’s elders stating that his crew would not be returning before the end of the pairing season, then listened to a few scenes of his favorite Rattanai-language audio drama to prepare his mind for sleep. Only a few messages from the bridge had interrupted, and none of them could be classified as anything more than status updates. 

Finally levering himself up off the sleeping-frame, raising the lights, and grabbing the comms headband, Khedru stretched his arms and stepped in front of the mirror. One by one, he checked his quill-spines for any that had become loose or showed signs of being ready to fall out. Only when he was satisfied did he return his attention to the unknown which had woken him. 

“Watch Captain, any updates?” Khedru knew that Watch Captain Lrinah would have surrendered his station to Watch Captain Ralgahar by this point, but the two would have discussed the situation sufficiently during the change-over that it made no difference who answered. 

A few seconds passed, however, without any answer at all. Annoyed and expecting that his subordinate was merely preoccupied, Khedru tried again. “Watch Captain, report.” 

Still, he heard nothing. Dragging the headband off his head, Khedru checked its status lights, only to find most of them dark. Only the power indicator remained consistently lit, with the light for main system connection blinking intermittently next to it.  

With a low, frustrated growl in the back of his throat, Khedru woke the hard-wired console in the corner of his cabin and called up system diagnostics. In theory, a ship’s comms system was heavily fault tolerant, but Howling Gale had experienced several brief wireless comms outages after clan technicians had installed a set of Rattanai language and dialect interpretation package on their last visit home. It would hardly be the first time someone at a duty station had crashed the system by using some obscure, archaic profanity that the system had tried to add to the transcript log, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. 

For a moment, Khedru was heartened to see that the comms mediator already showed as disconnected on the main diagnostic, suggesting that the ship’s techs were already working on the problem. Nothing else on the board seemed amiss, except that the air pressure was a few percent lower than standard, as it might be if the airlocks cycled a few times while techs worked on comms components outside the pressurized spaces. 

The sense that something was wrong eased for a moment, then spiked again when Khedru saw the atmospheric pressure drop a little further. A pressure-hull breach would have sounded alarms all over the ship even as the automatic systems worked to seal it off, but an alarm-free pressure loss could only mean failure of the atmospherics – which came with its own kind of alarms – or intentional malice. Given how often Khedru, fearing death by suffocation over all others, had Howling Gale’s atmospherics checked, and the simultaneous loss of comms connectivity, malice seemed more likely. 

Scrambling for the flechette-thrower stashed in a bag under his sleep-frame, Khedru checked the weapon, then tossed a bandolier laden with spare magazines over one huge shoulder. There was still a possibility that the failure was simply unfortunate timing, but he’d lived to long and fought too many underhanded humans to take that possibility very seriously. 

The corridor outside Khedru’s cabin was empty, but he could smell the sour, musty reek of humans. They’d been there – perhaps standing just outside the cabin – and had not tried to enter. That was wise of them, since Khedru’s cabin contained no less than three booby-traps which automatically engaged whenever he was absent or asleep.  

If they suspected this, Khedru knew, the intruders had tangled with Rattanai before. Though he was not nearly as fast or agile as he had once been, he crept up the corridor toward one of the maintenance crawlspaces which humans would probably expect to be too small for him to navigate. If any of his crew were still alive, he didn’t intend on leaving any of the available glory to them. 

Maribel had its biggest invasion scare of the war so far this week. The entire operational Fifth Fleet battle line sortied for combat, but was only under power for about an hour before the all-clear was given. 

The cause of the false alarm remains unclear; either headquarters doesn’t itself know yet, or, more likely, Naval Intelligence figured it out and kept it quiet. I’ve heard rumors from various sources that Admiral Venturi is expecting an attack on this system in the next forty days, but none of my contacts seem to have any idea why this is expected nor have they heard it from any primary sources. Based on the jumpiness of most senior officers, the rumor might be true. 

No word on our parent company’s efforts to have us transferred to Seventh Fleet. Most likely, if it does happen, it won’t be until after the expected attack, rumored or real. 

2950-11-01 – Tales from the Service: A Pack’s Alarm

With few exceptions, the war on the Coreward Frontier is being fought mostly by the humans of the Confederated Worlds. There are a small number of Atro’me in the Navy and other services, but of the most common species of non-human sapient in the Reach, there are almost none involved in the fighting.

The reasons that Rattanai are excluded from the Confederated Marines and the Frontier Defense Army are numerous, but mainly they focus on the difficulty of procuring special uniforms, environmental gear, and other equipment for a small number of volunteers. The Navy theoretically permits their enlistment as spacers, but not as officers, and as a result Rattanai participation in the Navy remains quite low.

Mercenary outfits, on the other hand, are usually happy to recruit skilled Rattanai in various roles; most have at least a few in their pay. Even among mercenaries, however, it’s rare for a Rattanai to be the head of the outfit.

Captain Ojathl Khedru, the head of a small, all-Rattanai mercenary outfit chartered out of Sinteria, sent in a highly detailed account of his company’s efforts in the inner Nye Norge. These events took place while his company was on Navy contract patrolling a small system not far from Håkøya. Though his opinions of the locals are far from flattering, we should keep in mind how different Rattanai psychology is from our own, and how little culture our societies share with of the old clans of their kind.

“Pack Captain, we have detected an issue. It may cause moderate vexation.”

Ojathl Khedru paused the hologram in the center of his wardroom table. The three miniature dancers capering around each other paused mid-stride, and the pounding music fell silent. Despite the euphemistic, circling language characteristic of a Rattanai subordinate’s proper deference to his superior, Watch Captain Lrinah would never have interrupted the commander’s mealtime solitude with something of only moderate importance.

“Send it to this station.” Khedru swished one wide, paw-like hand through the hologram, and it changed to a basic ship-status display grid. He’d barely touched his meal in several minutes, and it would have been stone cold except for the electric prep-plate keeping the artificially grown meat perfectly warm. The holographic dancers, comely females of his kind, had occupied his entire attention.

A moment later, the status grid winked out and a tactical map appeared. At the center was Howling Gale, the large mercenary frigate of which he was both skipper and part-owner. Gale was an ungainly, boxy vessel whose lines betrayed the hands of her human makers, but her eyes were keen, her claws sharp, and her soul thoroughly Rattanai.

Gale, both in the display and in the tangible world beyond Khedru’s wardroom, drifted above a planet of little value save for the few thousands of humans who clung to its lichenous rocks. In the display, while the ship’s image remained a constant size, the planet appeared only to shrink rapidly as the scale expanded. Soon, the red-dwarf stellar primary appeared, and also began to shrink, until the whole system was represented in a display less than one Terran meter across.

At the far edge of the display area, a yellow pip appeared, then another, and a third. Khedru’s eyes narrowed. He knew all too well the might of the enemy he’d been contracted to repel. Why the Incarnation would bother with such a pathetic star system was beyond him, but so was much of human thinking, and it was right to let such things remain inscrutable.

“Pack Captain, these drive signatures are much too small to be Incarnation warships of the usual kind.” Lrinah, trying to sound nonchalant, nonetheless let a bit of alarm creep into his voice. “They also do not match any records in our databanks.”

“Transmit the arranged challenge.” Khedru’s eyes flicked from one end of the display to the other, estimating the range and rate of approach. In such a small star system, the unknown ships would arrive before one full Urazd day had elapsed. Even if the incoming ships were no more than frigates themselves, Howling Gale could hardly contest them for control of the system. “Then alert the planetary governor.”

Khedru disconnected the comms channel, then switched his display back to the holographic dancers. It had been nearly an Urazd year since he’d last seen a female of his kind in the flesh, comely or no, and he paid close attention to the way their supple muscles slid beneath firm grey-brown skin. The easy agility of youth combined in them with the precision and grace of long practice, and colorful ribbons streaming from the ends of their polished arm-quills produced an alluring mist of fluttering cloth around each figure. They wore no other clothes, but this was in no way titillating – Rattanai had never grasped the human concept of modesty. The purpose of the dance was to prove each young female’s eligibility as a mate in any case; too much clothing would impede a suitor’s careful inspection.

Khedru, unfortunately, already knew that he would be suitor to none of these three. Neither would any of his officers, who would customarily be allowed to choose among those their leader felt unsatisfactory. The clan had transmitted the recording as well as information about the pedigree of each prospective mate, but Howling Gale would not be returning to Urazd before the end of the pairing season to consummate any such arrangements.

Grudgingly, Khedru flicked off the holographic display and tore into his meal. He’d long since gotten used to the flabby, greasy character of the artificially grown meat his ship produced, even though on Urzad such food would not even be fed to the lowest of the low. It was much better than the livestock slop churned out by human food-fab machinery, even if it was far from the real thing he could expect on his table back home. Howling Gale was his clan’s greatest triumph, and unsatisfying food was a small price to pay for the glory of a warship command.

It had been many minutes since Lrinah had made his report; plenty of time to transmit the challenge and alert Governor Trumbull. Lack of a follow-up message told Khedru that something had not gone well in one of these two tasks, and only one of them could possibly have caused complications.

Sighing, Khedru flicked back on his comms headband. “Watch Captain, you may connect the Governor with this station.”

“It will be done, Pack Captain.”

The holographic display soon reactivated, and this time it showed the globular head and sloping shoulders of a human. Chubby, red-faced, and nervously defensive, Governor Jarvis Trumbull was an unlikely leader even among his vexatious species, but all the same Khedru found him endearing. In another era, he might have had a comfortable life entertaining a Rattanai clan-lord with his antics under the illusion that he was a diplomatic envoy.

“...Captain Khedru!” Trumbull drew back and straightened. “Your subordinates said you were busy.”

“I was able to spare time for a person of your eminence.” Khedru twisted his mouth into the uncomfortable contortion best resembling a human smile for just a moment.

Though the expression unnerved most humans, Trumbull, as usual, seemed reassured. “Thank you, Captain. What do you know?”

“We know sadly little about these visitors, but alas, I fear we should plan for the worst.” Khedru spread his broad hands, making sure to keep his claws sheathed. “They do not seem large enough to carry a serious invasion force, but your people should seek shelter.”

“I’ll sound the alarm and call up the militia.” Trumbull puffed up his chest. “Even if they’re too much for you, do you think you can slow them down?”

Khedru had no intention of sacrificing his ship, the pride and joy of his clan, in the service of this worthless little planet, even if the Navy would compensate their next of kin richly if he did. Still, he pressed his hands onto the table and leaned forward. “If they should prove hostile, Governor, we will do what we can to slow them down. We’ll stream everything to the Hypercast relay as long as we can.”

Trumbull nodded solemnly, doubtless taking this to be the self-sacrificial promise which Khedru had deliberately not made explicit. “Let us hope it does not come to that, Captain.”

“Indeed. I will let you return to preparing your militia.” Khedru nodded, struggling to keep the amusement out of his eyes and body language. Trumbull probably couldn’t pick up such things, but it paid to be tactful.

“Of course. Do send along any updates.” Trumbull slapped the edge of one hand to his forehead in what was probably supposed to be a salute.

Khedru held up one big hand in a similar gesture, then cut the feed, stood up, and headed for the bridge.

2950-10-26 – Tales from the Service: A View from Headquarters, Part 8 

It was a surprise to me when Admiral Abarca reached out with the news that he would be departing his command on the other side of the Gap for a high level command conference here at Maribel, and a still greater surprise that he was looking forward to meeting this embed team directly. We arranged a time and place with his staff and had a long conversation, not all of which was on the record. 

It was only afterwards that we were informed by Naval Intelligence that our recordings would be under seal for security reasons. Evidently, it was deemed important not to admit to a concentration of the Navy’s top admirals until all participants had been returned to their usual duty stations for some time. 

Even now, as press reports about the conference here in Maribel have been unsealed, the agenda of the conference still has not been released. Scuttlebutt suggests that it was mainly joint logistical planning between the Admiralty and the two fleet organizations primarily involved in this theater of war. 

This interview was conducted in-person aboard Shofeldt Station in the Maribel system during the month of August, though the precise date has been redacted by Naval Intelligence. 

D.L.C. - Duncan Chaudhri is a junior editor and wartime head field reporter for Cosmic Background.    

N.T.B. - Nojus Brand is a long-time explorer, datasphere personality, and wartime field reporter for Cosmic Background.   

K.T.K. - Captain Kenneth Kempf is the Naval Intelligence attaché to Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Shun Abarca. 

S.R.A. - Admiral Shun R. Abarca is the commander of Seventh Fleet. 


[D.L.C.] - It’s an honor to finally meet you in person, Admiral. 

[S.R.A.] - It is also good to finally sit down with you properly, Mr. Chaudhri. And you, Mr. Brand. 

[N.T.B.] - A very belated congratulations on your promotion. When we were last in touch, you were still the interim commander of Seventh Fleet. 

[S.R.A.] - Ah, that’s right. Some days I still wonder about the wisdom of that, but one does not reject the posting assigned by the Admiralty lightly. 

[D.L.C.] - Aren’t you the more senior of the two fleet admirals fighting this war? 

[S.R.A.] - Admiral Venturi may have less tenure than myself, but I bow to her greater experience in many things. Indeed, if there were two of her, we would likely see her in command on both sides of the Gap. 

[K.T.K.] - Despite Admiral Abarca’s humility, the admiralty has high confidence in both its Fifth and Seventh Fleet commanders. 

[N.T.B.] - There has been very little news from your front except reports of skirmishes around Sagittarius Gate. Seems like things over there have gotten pretty quiet. 

[S.R.A.] - Quiet? Mr. Brand, I could only hope for quiet. We average one cruiser action in the Sagittarius Gate outskirts or in nearby systems every six days. Most of them are draws, but over there, attrition is harder on us than on the enemy. 

[D.L.C.] - Nearly everything you need has to be shipped across the Gap. 

[S.R.A.] - Exactly. The precise location of the Incarnation’s home worlds is still not known, but even if they are as far from Sagittarius Gate as Centauri is from Maribel, our supply lines are much longer, and rely on the critical Gap-crossing leg. Not all of our fleet supply haulers are rated to make that run, even assuming the enemy doesn’t make trouble. 

[N.T.B.] - I hear they make trouble. 

[K.T.K.] - I would be curious from where you hear this, Mr. Brand. We try to keep the specifics quiet. 

[N.T.B.] - Just a few old connections. A good correspondent never reveals his confidential sources. 

[K.T.K.] - I see that you have taken to journalism quite quickly. Perhaps later, off the record, we can discuss this in greater detail. 

[S.R.A.] - Suffice to say that yes, increasingly the Incarnation has been trying to make trouble on our supply lines. So far, they aren’t making the situation critical. The fleet base we’ve built at Sagittarius Gate can increasingly supply basic needs from local raw materials and can withstand a lengthy siege. 

[D.L.C.] - Sounds like you’ve taken steps to prevent a repeat of the Lost Squadrons. 

[S.R.A.] - I would be a fool to do otherwise. The spacers of those ships were pushed to the last extremity to survive, and doubtless the Incarnation learned from hunting them as well. 

[N.T.B.] - Speaking of the Squadrons, the survivors brought back many wild stories. Have you been able to check up on any of them? 

[K.T.K.] - We will need to be careful in answering this question. 

[S.R.A.] - Thank you for the reminder, Captain. In short, yes, we have. For example, the report that far-flung Incarnation colonies are primarily agricultural, we have verified. A population of only a few ten thousands on one world seems to be farming the better part of a continent with only three or four distinct crops. There was almost no orbital infrastructure, and no mining operations either on the surface or in the local system. The meaning of this has yet to be determined.  

[D.L.C.] - Perhaps the plants of that world were prized on their home worlds? 

[S.R.A.] - The crops seemed not to be native species, and the crop density seemed incredibly low in most of the fields. Stranger still, we saw evidence that the colony was heavily militarized, with the population living in fortified compounds. 

[N.T.B.] - It’s a prison world. Like Meraud, except full of their own. 

[K.T.K.] - Our analysts suggested that possibility, yes. There are others as well. Unfortunately, our scouting squadron didn’t have time to land troops and investigate. 

[D.L.C.] - If they have need of prison worlds, perhaps the war is going worse for them than we thought. 

[K.T.K.] - The planet seems to have been populated for at least twenty years, but there may be others that are newer. Since they maintain social cohesion using brain-scanning implants and always-on networks, they must have methods to isolate potential dissidents before they can do any harm. 

[S.R.A.] - Stories of the existence of at least one other power – one not particularly friendly to the Incarnation – operating in the near region of the Sagittarius – also seem to be correct. We have seen no signs of open conflict between the so-called Grand Journey and the Incarnation, but both seem quite wary of the other. 

[N.T.B.] - The first time we heard about this “Grand Journey” was in an account of a Reacher encounter. Obviously there have been quite a few stories since, but the Reachers certainly seemed to know who they were. They aren’t human, are they? 

[S.R.A.] - The Grand Journey is not a human empire, but exactly what sort of creatures they are, we still don’t know. Apparently they got off to a bad start with the Incarnation, and they’re still not convinced we’re different. They stay away from Sagittarius Gate and mostly avoid our ships, which also seems to be their policy for handling the Incarnation. 

[N.T.B.] - Damned Nate is giving humans a bad reputation. I suppose it’s hard to blame them. 

[K.T.K.] - Unfortunately so. 

[D.L.C.] - Perhaps they know something about our enemies’ origins. Obviously humans can’t have been in the Sagittarius Arm for longer than a few hundred years, and more likely half that. How did The Incarnation spring up in so little time? 

[S.R.A.] - I don’t think anyone can answer that. The prisoners we’ve taken know little of their history. To learn that, we’d need a cooperative captive of Captain’s rank or higher, or perhaps one of their madcap “Inquisitors.” 

[N.T.B.] - Or we’d need to capture a planet with its data archives intact. 

[S.R.A.] - As I said last time we spoke, I doubt we’ll try anything like that soon. 

[D.L.C.] - We can only hope that Maribel is still holding out when Seventh Fleet is finally prepared to go on the offensive. 

[S.R.A.] - I have no special information about the defenses here, but my instincts suggest that Maribel will hold. It would be easier for the enemy to take Sagittarius Gate, and in any case if they continue to split their forces to threaten both, they will probably capture neither. 

[D.L.C.] - I hope you’re right, Admiral. There’s a lot of people who are predicting otherwise. 

[K.T.K.] - We have only about ten minutes remaining before our next conference gentlemen. If there are no objections, let’s go off the record. 

[D.L.C.] - Of course, Captain. Thank you both for coming to talk with us. 

[S.R.A.] - Thank you for seeing us on such short notice. 

2950-10-11 – Tales from the Service: A Devourer of Scars 

As Ruby Nichols cut away another section of tainted paneling and tossed it toward the collection point at the middle of the space, she kept her suit cameras swiveling. Every time her or Chief Logan’s lights swept across one of the twisting traceries that loose phased matter particles had taken out of the ship, she half-imagined the glittering patina on the metal was a mass of tiny eyes.  

Ever since she’d spotted the yellowish, skittering thing, she’d been on edge, and couldn’t quite explain why. Less than fifteen centimeters long, it almost certainly couldn’t chew through her heavy hazard suit. It had been unpleasant to look at, but it didn’t even place in the top five in terms of ugliness among shipboard pest species. 

It was, Ruby eventually decided, the simple mystery of the critter that had her on edge. She didn’t know what it was, and the lack of response to Chief Logan’s queries suggested nobody else did either. Unknowns, especially unknown organisms picked up from who-knows-where, simply could not be fit into a comfortable, safe model of her environment. With such a mystery being apparently contentedly skittering about in the diffuse argon atmosphere pumped into the damaged section, her overworked, under-rested brain wanted to assume that everything was up for grabs, and anything was possible. 

Whether her mind was right or wrong to jump to panicky conclusions, though, Ruby had a job to do, and the better part of a shift left to do it. Chief Logan, a far better shot than she was, had taken up her station closer to where the bug was hiding, no doubt training cameras in that direction. Ruby almost wished she hadn’t traded places with him; being closer to the unknown, and thus being more likely to notice its movements, promised to make it seem less unknown, and thus more manageable. 

“Still no movement.” Logan, as if sensing Ruby’s unease, spoke on their shared comms channel. “It probably went off somewhere quieter.” 

“Maybe it’ll come out again to bother Yuan next shift.” Ruby twisted another piece of metal free, and growled in frustration as the brittle material shattered, scattering a fountain of tiny flakes that settled slowly in the weak atmosphere. Tossing the largest pieces aside, she extended her suit’s particle collector and scooped up the glittering pieces. 

Movement in one of her camera displays caught Ruby’s attention as she collected the debris. The yellowish critter – or perhaps another one of identical appearance – was slinking across the shattered remains of a compartment’s deck plating to her left, its many-faced eyes glinting. 

“Ugh, it got past you.” Ruby retracted her collector and reached for the coil-pistol clipped to her hip. The pistol’s plasma charge would not be as effective in the thin atmosphere as it would in human-friendly conditions, but it would still cook any bug. The creature, as if sensing that it had been spotted, froze in place as if hoping to be forgotten, not realizing how starkly its odd coloration stood out against the textured grey of shipboard decking. 

“Nothing for it but to fry the little bastard.” Logan, not wanting to make any sudden moves and thus spoil Ruby’s shot, stood perfectly still. “We’ve got too much work to do to keep an eye on it.” 

“Yeah.” Ruby slowly raised her gun, watching its reticle move across her heads-up display. “Gives me the creeps anyway.” 

As the reticle drifted across the critter’s body, an idea occurred to Ruby. Each time it had appeared, she had been doing the same thing; when they’d stopped chipping away at the irradiated metal for long enough to study it, the bug had scuttled away. Perhaps something they were doing was attracting it? If so, she knew there could be only one cause. 

“Chief, I think this thing likes phase-contamination. It’s showing up when we’re chipping away.” 

“That stuff kills everything alive.” Logan’s disdain for the idea was obvious. 

“Then why is it not dead? What’s it even breathing or eating down here anyway?” Ruby kept her gun on the bug, but eased her finger away from the trigger. “Before I blast it, I’m going to try something.” 

Logan sighed. “Make it quick, Nichols.” 

Still moving slowly, Ruby re-extended her suit’s particulate sweeper and opened the collection tray. From it, she eased out a small shard of glittering phased-particle-contaminated metal, holding it up next to her gun. She imagined she saw those three faceted eyes following the movement. 

Gingerly, Ruby dropped the fragment to land between her boots, then took two steps backward. For good measure, she turned her suit lights until they only indirectly lit that spot, hoping to leave the impression her attention was elsewhere.  

After a few moments of uncanny stillness, the yellowish creature crept forward once more, now headed for the spot Ruby had just vacated. As she watched, gun still leveled, the many-legged thing crept up to the discarded shard of compromised metal. It explored the fragment with its forelimbs, then, as Ruby watched in amazement, its head seemed to fold back over itself and a beak-like arrangement of stubby mouthparts protruded. 

“Well I’ll be damned.” Logan chuckled as the creature began to scrape the many-colored crystalline patina off the metal shard. “I’m calling this in. Ugly or not, that thing’s gotta be useful.” 

This week we continue the account of Ruby Nichols, a hazardous environment tech working on one of the Navy space docks here in the Maribel system. 

Apparently the creature they discovered (and a few others also discovered aboard Marseille) were hurried off to a xenobiology research facility somewhere in the Core Worlds. No doubt the scientists there are tending a happy little colony of these rather unpleasant looking creatures, trying to figure out how they extract biological energy from materials contaminated by phased-matter radiation. 

It might be years before we hear about them again, but as Miss Nichols’s boss suggested, these things could have uses – for example, they might be coaxed into doing Miss Nichols’s own job, at less risk to human life and health than sending people in to do the same.