2947-05-07 - Tales from the Inbox: Angels in Sagittarius 

Since Tales from the Inbox last appeared in your ingestion feeds, Naval Intelligence has experienced a policy change. It seems they aren’t terribly interested at the moment in restricting what we publish about Angel activity (real or otherwise) on the Frontiers.

Angel activity in the Core Worlds and especially Sol is still restricted information we need to pass through the local Naval Intelligence branch office, of course. Evidently, whatever data-collaring arrangements exist between the Confederated Navy and the Angels do not extend to the borders of explored space, and  As this subject is popular with our audience, I am combing my inbox for any other stories freed for publication by this change in policy.

Today’s entry is combed from the records of Priya Ansa, a vessel owned by Gino S. Gino is familiar to this text feed: his brush with death on the far shore of the Gap a few years ago graced this space as Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper. Because it is derived from the datasystem of an undamaged starship, the events described in this Tales from the Inbox are quite well documented.

Not dissuaded from the Sagittarius Frontier by his experiences, Gino developed a new business model, collected investors, and returned to Sagittarius Gate. Rather than moving into that system, however, he and his new venture set up shop in the recently surveyed system Tel Ramaz.  

Gino watched the graphs and charts hungrily from his cabin aboard Priya Ansa, paying special attention to the oddly high titanium and tantalum numbers. The business model he’d presented to his investors back at Maribel was going to work – perhaps better than he had projected.

Next to the graphs, a three-dimensional map of the Tel Ramaz glowed in a display tank, and Gino wondered about the orbital mechanics that had formed the system. Dominated by twin belts of asteroids set askew from the orbital plane, Tel Ramaz had only one planet: a moonless gas giant, orbiting inside the rubble rings. The planet was in fact close enough to its sun-like stellar parent for its superheated atmosphere to glow orange-red, as if the tortured world harbored dreams of becoming a star all its own.

Tel Ramaz would be, Gino knew, the place to make his fortune. He had been wealthy all his life, growing the modest fortune left to him by his mother until the destruction of a shipyard-scale foundry apparatus at Sagittarius Gate was only a modest setback, but none of that investment wealth had been properly earned. Gino wanted to do what his mother and grandfather had – to build something of his own worthy of the wealth which would flow from it. Tel Ramaz, with its bounty of asteroid resources, seemed like the perfect place to break ground.

“Boss, we’re coming up on the test object now.”

“I’ll be up in a minute, Connelly.” Gino ran a hand through his thinning hair and stood up from the desk in his tiny cabin. Priya Ansa was almost twenty percent smaller by mass than his wrecked foundry ship Ida’s Venture, but its much larger pressure hull gave it enough space for a proper crew. For his second journey across the Gap, Gino had been able to sit back and let hired professionals fix all the things which went wrong – this cut into his margins, but the convenience had been worth it. Ansa had reached the Sagittarius shore in good order, without its owner having to perform a single EVA.

In the short walk to the command deck, Gino had plenty of time to imagine his new operation as it would be in little more than a year, sitting astride the commercial artery to the new frontier. Even with regular traffic across the Gap, explorers and colonists in Sagittarius would need some place to obtain nanoelectronic components and large structural elements their shipboard parts fabricators couldn’t produce. Ansa didn’t contain a foundry as his previous vessel had, but it contained all the equipment to manufacture a spacious habitat from native resources. Once the station was built, it would be quite empty; supplies and tooling shipped from Maribel would begin to populate it.

The command deck doors lurched open, and Gino saw the two-person duty crew lounging amid the compartment’s half-dozen consoles. The pockmarked potato shape of Asteroid TR-2B-86 tumbled lazily on several displays.

Ellen Connelly looked up at the sound of the doors. “Ready, boss?”

Though his participation was not strictly necessary, Gino grabbed a console and pulled up the core-sample probe readouts. “Mr. Jagoda, proceed with sampling.”

Madhu Jagoda sat up in his chair and gingerly put his hands to the controls. “Mining probe launch sequence. Ellen, line up the launch rails.”

Gino sat back as the two veteran spacers lined up Ansa’s bow probe launcher with the asteroid, fired the remotely operated craft off its accelerator rail, and guided it onto the target. The operation went smoothly, the core drill bit deeply into TR-2B-86, and the probe pushed off for its short return flight. Everything worked perfectly, and soon the spectrometers in the probe bay began superheating the sample to analyze its composition.

“Contact.” Connelly frowned at her display. “Jump resolution.”

“Visitors?” Gino switched his console, visions of being run down by half-legendary Sagittarian warships already replacing those of a bustling trading post astride the new frontier’s supply artery. To his relief, the three new signatures were small, the size of large yachts. “Looks like Naval Survey.”

“Negative, boss.” The pilot switched several displays to show the system map from various angles. “Look where their jumps resolved.”

Before Gino could make sense of the data on the screen, Jagoda did it for him. “That’s almost a thousand lisec inside the grav shadow. Who the hell can do that?”

Gino gaped at the display. He knew the logistics of star drives better than the physics, but any spacer knew no human star drive could plot a precise jump that deep into a grav shadow. There were of course other cultures, other sciences, and Gino salivated at the possibility of learning the strangers’ secrets, and bringing them to the spacers of the Confederated Worlds. “Are they heading for us?”

“Don’t think so.” Connelly manipulated her console until a best-guess trajectory appeared on the displays. The ships seemed intent on the superheated gas planet deep in the system. Perhaps, perched as it was at the edge of one of the asteroid belts, with its main drive powered down for the sampling exercise, Ansa had been easy to overlook.

“Database is chewing on their signatures.” Jagoda shook his head. “Hell of a lot of drive power coming off ships that small. If they see us, they can catch us, and if they’re hostile, we’re dead.”

“Let’s hope they’re not hostile, then.” Connelly focused her display on the incandescent planet. “What do they want?”

“Fuel for fusion power?” Gino knew it was a long shot; nobody with the technological prowess to push jumps so deeply into a stellar grav shadow would power their ships with mere hydrogen fusion.

“Database found a probable match.” Jagoda took over the final screen displaying the potato-shaped asteroid to display an elongated teardrop cast in gleaming metal. All three were silent for several seconds; they all recognized the craft which had, appearing for the second time in human history, turned the tide of the Terran-Rattanai War. “It can’t be Angels this far from Sol, can it?”

“I’m not going to say anything can’t be, when it comes to Angels.” Connelly swiped the communication array controls over to Gino’s console. “Up to you if you want to say hello, Boss.”

Gino blinked at the controls. Say hello to Angels? Of all the things he’d dreamed of doing in his career as an interstellar entrepreneur, talking to the most mysterious variety of sapient life had never crossed his mind. “What do you say to them?”

“Thanks for squishing the Prides, what brings you out this far?”

Gino glared at Jagoda, then jabbed the control. “Unknown Angel vessels, this is the Confederated Private Starship Priya Ansa.” After swallowing against a suddenly dry mouth, he continued. “Welcome to the Sagittarius Frontier. Is there any assistance we can render?” With that, he released the control, and his words flitted away across the void on a tight beam.

“Transmission delay, four hours.”

“Then I think I’m going back to my cabin.”

As Gino stood up to make good on his declaration, an alarm shrieked. “Contact!” Connelly shouted, calling up the helm controls to start the main drive.

Jagoda took over the sensor readouts from the pilot. “Another Angel, boss. Right on top of us!”

“Where did he come from?” The ship bucked as Connelly burned the attitude thrusters. “He’s on intercept.”

“He jumped right on top of us. That’s not-”

“Stars around, Connelly, running won’t help!” Gino grabbed his seat, directed the comms array at the newcomer, and stabbed the “transmit” button once more. “Unknown Angel vessel, this is Confederated Private Starship Priya Ansa, powering down and preparing to receive boarders.”

“Hell, boss.” Jagoda shook his head. “There’s no telling-”

Priya Ansa, entering your ship will not be necessary.” The harsh voice from the Angel ship sounded more like the product of a grinding machine than an organic throat. This was, Gino realized, the translator device their kind famously employed to parley with humans. “We intend only to scan your vessel.”

Gino shot a triumphant look at his employee. “Proceed, and apologies if we are intruding on anything.”

The Angel ship swept so close that collision alarms again wailed, then perched just outside Ansa’s much larger hull silently for several minutes. With panic receeding, Gino’s skin crawled as he imagined the secretive alien perched in his tiny ship only meters away – the Angels, their patriarchal attitude towards humans aside, were no less of an enigma than they were when their kind first appeared.

“Scan complete.” The grinding voice’s announcement produced a sigh of relief from all three humans on the Ansa command deck. “Continue your activities.”

On the display, the Angel ship turned on its axis and zipped away, only to vanish into the gravitic eddies of a jump transition only a few thousand klicks away. That close, the jump produced a fresh cacophony of alarms, which Connelly hurriedly shut off. “Damned show-offs.” Her voice carried an even mix of annoyance and grudging respect.

Gino sat back with a sigh. “That was interesting.”

Jagoda massaged his temples with his hands. “Is that what we’re calling it?”

“The other three vanished.” Connelly pointed to the system map. “Jumped out like this one, or shut down their drives and went ballistic. No way to tell with ships that small.”

“You heard the alien, people. Continue the operation.” Gino stood. “I’ll be in my cabin.”

The skeptics in the audience will observe that technically there is no proof the intruders described were Angels. A hoax or similarly-equipped culture is equally possible, but I suspect this encounter is genuine. There seems little profit in a hoax in this instance. As for what the Angels were doing at Tel Ramaz, I can only speculate that they might be doing as our own explorers do - surveying this new territory. Though they have never exhibited colonial tendencies, perhaps the Angels do indeed have need of something which the wild expanse of a Frontier might provide.

2947-04-30 - Tales from the Inbox: Indigenous Immolation

I know you all want me to have a story about the topical subjects of the day – the simultaneous reports of Angel activity on the Sagittarius Frontier and of Sagittarian ships sighted on the near side of the Gap – but neither of these reports come with proper eyewitness stories which Cosmic Background can currently publish. Some of them are stuck in the Naval Intelligence approval queue, and the others are difficult to source. Fundamentally identical sighting accounts from several places lead me to believe that there is a Datasphere copycat effect amplifying the underlying phenomena, if any – far outside their true size. 

If we get an account fit to publish by next week, expect to see it in this space, but I can offer no guarantees. 

Today’s entry by contrast comes from a very reputable source – the Confederated Navy. Specifically, our source is Mikael T., a helmsman aboard the frigate Phoebe Sherbourne. Sherbourne is one of the vessels in the Arrowhawk task group under our friend Samuel Bosch, which was dispatched on a solitary high-speed patrol run through a nameless system near Sagittarius Gate. Given the events which Sherbourne observed, Naval Intelligence has cleared us to ingest his account for the entertainment and education of our audience. The new Sagittarius Frontier is not as empty as our own Coreward Frontier – it seems to teem with native space-faring sapients like no region surveyed since the Brushfire Nebula, and just like the denizens of the Nebula, the Sagittarius natives are absolutely capable of making war.

While this does make the region more dangerous, it is generally regarded as a positive sign for the economic future. Just as trade with Cold Refuge and other Brushfire worlds boosted a flagging economic situation shortly after the brief but intense Brushfire War. I expect the Navy to boost its presence on the new frontier in case a similar colonial conflict is sparked in Sagittarius. Perhaps with a show of modern force, a direct conflict can be avoided.

The sudden chiming of the console startled Mikael enough to spill his cup of hot pseudo-tea on his clean white uniform. Fortunately, the smart-cloth prevented both liquid and heat from penetrating; it rolled off his chest in large droplets, splattering to the deck below his crash-padded helm chair. 

“Damn!” Kicking his feet off the console, Mikael pulled up the alert which had caused the noise. The ship’s course, set hours before on the beginning of the high-speed system patrol run, now seemed to be a collision course with a tight cluster of asteroids tumbling through the system. While not strictly urgent – the collision wouldn’t occur until the next shift – the alarm did signify a major change in the astrogation computer’s understanding of the system dynamics. The course Sherbourne traced had been calculated – by Mikael himself – to stay a healthy distance from the orbits of all the known system objects. 

“Helm, is there a problem?” Skipper Uggeri turned his stern gaze in Mikael’s direction.  

The skipper’s ring of displays and readouts replicated the alert on the helm station, so the question was obviously not one that could be answered by repeating what Mikael could see on his console. “Astrogation recompute, skipper. I’ll plot us a course update.” 

“What caused the recompute?” The question was directed at the officer maintaining the system tactical plot. The estimated orbits of five planets and two hundred lesser objects tangled the three-dimensional display just ahead of the skipper’s station. “I didn’t see any orbits move.” 

“We got new velocity data for these two groups of asteroids.” The woman manning the plotting station highlighted a set of ellipses in the tangle. “The group in green is moving far faster than original telescope readings suggested. The group in red, much slower.” 

Mikael glanced up at the display. The orbits of the two groups intersected – or nearly did – just before their mutual closest approach to the system’s nameless star. Something about the arrangement seemed too neat, but he put it out of his mind in order to compute a new plot that didn’t involve Sherbourne flying right into the heart of the red group and possibly battering itself to pieces on a succession of tumbling space-rocks. 

“What’s the error on those velocities?” Uggeri could pull that information up on his myriad consoles, but he preferred to make his subordinates do it and tell him the results when there was no particular rush. 

“For the green group the first data was off by...” The young officer reading out the results hesitated, frowned, then continued disbelivingly. “Over forty percent, Skipper. More than ten thousand meters per second deviation.” 

Everyone on the little warship’s bridge looked up at the absurd figure. How could telescope readings hours before have been so wrong about two clusters of asteroids, and not about the planets or the other objects in the system of similar size? 

Uggeri scowled, then nodded. “Sensors, get the ‘scopes on that red group and verify those numbers. Damage control, diagnostics on the telescope systems.” 

Both officers bent over their consoles to execute the skipper’s order just as Mikael finished computing a new course that had no collision risks. “New course plotted, Skipper.” 

“Hold onto it, helm. We’ve got some time to figure this out.” Uggeri’s voice was calm, but Mikael had been with Sherbourne during the previous year’s counter-Ladeonist operations, and he recognized the edge that had appeared in the stern officer’s tone. The skipper smelled danger. 

“Aye.” Mikael prepared the course change to be executed with a single tap of the controls, then sat back. 

“New ‘scope readings indicate the new figures for the red group of asteroids... Off by another five percent.” 

“Five percent lower?” Uggeri leaned forward. 

“Five percent lower, aye.” 

"Powered acceleration!” Mikael blurted, immediately regretting his outburst. 

Uggeri speared Mikael with a hard look, then nodded his agreement. “Ship to general quarters." 

The ship’s computer obeyed the order before any of the officers could change the alert level. A murmur swept across the bridge as the lights dimmed and the general quarters alarm began to wail in the corridor. 

The young man at the sensors station spoke first, having to speak up to be heard over the alarm. “Skipper, there’s no gravitic drive signature, no rocket plume, no ionized tail. How?” 

Hell if I know, but those things are accelerating.” Uggeri took control of the plot and factored in the estimated acceleration rates of both groups. To nobody’s surprise, the rapid velocity bleed of the red “asteroids” appeared to be a means of reversing course too late, and the more measured velocity change of the green group adjusted its course to maintain intercept despite the dramatic efforts of its prey. 

“There are ten objects in that green group as big as a cruiser.” Mikael didn’t see who had made the observation, but the horror in the voice was obvious. 

“But they’re asteroids.” The young sensor tech insisted numbly. 

“Asteroid starships.” Uggeri corrected. “Like the colony haulers of the twenty-third century.” 

“But they have no drive-” 

“That we know how to look for.” Mikael was surprised to find his own voice interrupting the young man. “Wouldn’t be the first time.” 

“Helm, cut the drive and give us a gentle tumble. Sensors, get every eye we have on these things.” 

Mikael flicked away the course change and began executing the skipper’s order. Stealth measures when the frigate had loudly blazed its way in from the jump limit for most of a shift were unlikely to have much of an effect, but it was worth a try. Even if the asteroid ships were crude things, the large group tagged in green probably shipped enough weapons to smash a lone frigate. 

Fortunately, as the minutes ticked by, it remained obvious that the green group had eyes only for its original prey, the red group of similarly constructed vessels. The shift came to an end, but Mikael stayed on the bridge long after he had surrendered his station to a replacement, intent on seeing what would happen when the two groups closed. 

“Increased infrared signature on forward elements of green formation.” The new sensors tech, more senior but no more comprehending the sensor data, put the figures up on a screen. “Dust jets.” 

“They’re taking hits.” Uggeri muttered. “Probably mivrowave lasers.” 

“Will those work on an asteroid?” 

“They’ll heat it up.” Someone had evidently remembered the difficulties even a modern starship had bleeding excess heat into the un-conductive void. “Stars around, they’re going to roast alive in there.” 

“Now seeing increased thermal on lead green elements.” 

Mikael tried to imagine the primitive battle taking place farther in-system. As microwave lasers heated up the metals and rocks of each asteroid-ship, the carved-out interiors would become hotter and hotter, until flesh began to cook and overheated equipment caught fire or simply melted. Even the winning crews would likely emerge from their cratered battlewagons badly burnt, if they emerged at all. He could think of few more horrifying modes of war, even in the annals of Terran warfare. 

The battle had only one possible conclusion, of course. The green group, both more numerous and more massive on average, heated the red group until the targets glowed cherry-red even in visible light imagery, and the heat on its own ships stopped increasing. Mikael wondered what the conflict was about – was it a civil war between members of the same species, or a battle between the forces of two similarly-equipped cultures? What were the stakes of the battle? Had the red fleet fought valiantly to the end, or had its leaders begged for mercy as they died? 

Skipper Uggeri, of course, wanted none of the risks inherent in getting answers. “Helm, get us the hell out of this system.” His voice had become grim as he too probably imagined the horrific deaths of the losers. 

Mikael’s replacement gratefully entered a new course and Sherbourne executed a graceful turn back the way it had come. 

2947-04-23: Tales from the Inbox: The Fall of Cerberos

The survivors of the failed colonial effort on Cerberos here on the Frontier are lucky to be alive. Of one hundred thirty colonists recorded in the settlement's records book, only ten remained to be evacuated when a supply ship finally touched down and took them aboard. The culprit - a xenopredator they justly dubbed the Cerberos Ravager - is the closest thing to a true dragon that human explorers have ever encountered on any habitable world.

Obviously, the lizardlike avian-analogues of Herakles IV have the basic body plan of a dragon, but these small, agile predators are hardly the stuff of legends. Cerberos's apex predator, by contrast, has the size, scaly hide, and appetite of the horrors of antiquity, though its anatomy is more wolf-like than lizard-like in many other respects.

Gilbert S. is one of the ten survivors, and he is lucky to be alive. As the unofficial head of the colony's militia, he led a final effort to divert the Ravager away from the survivors of its first attack - an effort that likely saved what few lives were extracted from Cerberos's ruins. He briefly stood up to the predator alone, armed no better than Nojus Brand - he had only a survival multitool. He doesn't know how he survived - one of the other colonists pulled him to safety after the beast dashed off in pursuit of his three brave associates, none of whom were ever seen again. It seems the beast tried to bite him in two and missed, but knocked him into the cover provided by a nearby boulder, which sheltered him from a second attempt. Gilbert remembers little, however; he suffered a severe head wound and only recovered after the survivors were rescued.

Speaking of our friend Mr. Brand - I have received word that he has recovered from his injuries and, despite the advice of his doctors, is planning a new adventure. My sources say he will be announcing his next destination soon, and that he has been consuming a large amount of Cosmic Background media offerings while recovering from his injuries. Perhaps his media diet even includes this text feed, and some of the strange worlds which our submissions have describe will someday appear on his vidcast program.

The last of the colony outpost’s buildings was a flaming ruin by the time the array had been made ready to send the distress signal. Cerberos had defeated its would-be tamers; now it was only a question whether the huddled dozens cowering in the irrigation ditches of what had once been a kilometer-wide farm plot would survive to be rescued.

Gilbert and three other men watched from the cover of a rocky hillock as a lone Ravager nosed through the burning rubble, looking for anything edible. Edible to a thirty-meter-long Ravager bull, of course, included human flesh – local meat was indigestible to humans, but nature had not been fair enough to ensure that the reverse was also true. Worse still, the Ravagers were clever, perhaps as smart as an Earthly bearnot sapient, but they learned quickly that only the largest human weapons could inflict any serious injury on their scaly hides, and that even the most powerful sonic fences had weak points.

The only thing saving the survivors from absolute annihilation was the fact that ravagers were solitary and territorial – they only had to fend off one at a time. The one which had ruined their settlement was the only beast for many kilometers. If it was sated, it would protect the surviving humans – a future food source, in its eyes – from its own kind.

Unfortunately, the Ravager had returned after leveling the town, looking for more to eat. Even as Gilbert watched, it dragged a few hopefully-lifeless bodies out from beneath the twisted beams and torn plating that some thirty homesteads had been reduced to, gupling down each one in a single mouthful. Soon, it would smell the survivors hiding not far away, and the only thing between it and them were Gilbert and his compatriots, who between them had only two Reed-Soares multitools, a single hunter’s rail-rifle, and a dodgy jolter pistol which wasn’t even lethal against human targets.

Gilbert loosened his white-knuckled grip on the high-tech machete in his hand, knowing that no amount of death-grip would let him cut through a Ravager’s thick scales. The four of them could only try to draw the beast off into the hills, hoping that it would not return for the remainder of the survivors. Their lives were already forfeit – but each of them had a sister, or a mother, or a wife, who would perhaps survive long enough for a rescue ship from the mining installation in the outer system to receive the distress signal broadcast from the colony’s faltering comms array and pick them up.

At last, with a decisive shake of its great head, the Ravager faced the landing field, put its nose to the ground, and began wandering toward the hopelessly outmatched foursome. Gilbert took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and prepared for the end. “Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure homesteading with you.” With that, he hopped up onto the rocks and waved his machete at the beast, catching the light with the reflective flat of the blade to ensure its attention.

The Ravager looked up and snorted almost derisively at the challenge. It had shrugged off the fiercest counter-attacks the colonists could muster, so it had every reason to be unafraid. Even as it stalked forward, Gilbert taunted it, his legs trembling so fiercely he worried he would fall off his perch and break his neck before he had a chance to be torn apart by the xenopredator’s three-foot-long teeth.

The man with the rifle fired a single well-aimed shot, which slipped between the predator’s slightly open jaws and burrowed into the soft tissue of its palate. Surprised but not badly hurt by the tiny projectile, the Ravager snarled and backed away several thundering steps. “Now!” Gilbert shouted, and the group took off from its cover, running toward the narrow gullies of the hills.

The beast’s surprise lasted only seconds, and soon it was charging forward in pursuit of the fleeing colonists. It was faster than they by far, but before it could catch up, the four men dived into the cover provided by a cluster of boulders, firing a few flashy but ineffective jolter blasts to persuade it to stop.

“What now, boss?” One of the others asked Gilbert, peering out at the Ravager as it began to sniff among the rocks, looking for its hidden prey. It was a fair question – the nearest fresh cover was too far away to reach before they were overrun.

Gilbert gestured for the others to get ready, then held up his machete. “Go. I’ll give you the time.”

They knew it was pointless to argue. Gilbert pressed himself against the boulder, and the others crept farther away. A machete to the nose would only annoy the Ravager if he hit it exactly right; with dozens of lives riding on the diversion’s success, Gilbert knew he had only one chance. 

After last week’s piece (Tales from the Inbox: KR-451) about a trio of KR ships (or at least ships that claimed to be KR ships) which vanished near Deana’s Rock at the edge of the Frontier, I was contacted by an officer of Naval Intelligence, who must remain anonymous for security reasons. Evidently, some time in March, Navy patrol captured one of these “KR” vessels when it tried to enter restricted space near a Navy installation on the Frontier (he did not say which).

Obviously, I was excited to accept this proposal. Full-capture recordings of this tour will be available on the Cosmic Background datasphere hub, and highlights will appear in a few days on Aston’s flagship vidcast. Apparently the Navy wishes to spread the word that these vessels, apparently those of a Ladeonist sect, are active both on the Frontier and in some parts of the Colonial Reach. Though their iconography and association with counterhuman influences is consistent with the usual Ladeonist behavior pattern, this sect appears to have greater financial resources than most, evidenced by the ability to outfit at least one (perhaps dozens or more if all KR sightings are of these ships).

Unfortunately, the three members of KR-233's crew remain comatose; Naval Intelligence would have learned much more about them if the EMP which had disabled their ship had not also disabled them, probably permanently. Are the Ladeonists really behind the rash of ghost "KR Ship" sightings? Or did they outfit KR-233 as a copycat, after hearing about one of last year's sightings?

Oddly, though their vessels are equipped quite well for stealth and evasion, they are not suited for smuggling or sapient trafficking, and they are not sufficiently armed for piracy. Perhaps KR-233 was meant to ferry Ladeonist magnates to cells on Frontier worlds? If Naval Intelligence has a theory as to the syndicate’s intentions or the equipped purpose of the captured vessel, it was not shared with me.

This week, I am devoting Tales from the Inbox to a unique effort: its narrative is pieced together from my own tour of the vessel and my interview with the crew of the Donald Albring, which captured it. Unlike my contact in Naval Intelligence, the names of the vessel and crew involved in the capture are not secret; this incident is being made public, both through Cosmic Background and through several military spacers’ content networks.

Sergeant K. Vogts disengaged his weapons’ safeties as Albring reeled in its prey. As leader of the three-Marine presence aboard the aging corvette, he hadn’t expected the last year of his last tour with the Marines to feature any action, but he had always prepared as if action was certain.

For all their griping during biweekly drills, the two green privates who he’d been tasked with wet-nursing until they grew up into proper Marines weren’t complaining now that Albring’s captain had a use for the three troopers. Corna and Hase looked a bit pale behind their helmet face-plates, but they moved confidently in their heavy armor-suits, and they carried their weapons like veterans. They were, Vogts decided, ready for the real thing.

The airlock depressurized with a rumble and then yawned open to the void. The snared ship – a quick little thing which had failed to run the local Navy security cordon – had been disabled by a salvo of EMP-loaded missiles, but the crew was probably still alive within.

“You are go for hot insertion, Sergeant Vogts.”

As soon as the calm voice from the bridge had given the order, Vogts stepped forward through the hatch. As he crossed out of the ship’s A-grav influence and became weightless, he activated his mobility pack and thrusted clear of Albring. As soon as he was clear, his cohorts followed.

“ETA one-five-five seconds, control. Any sign of activity?” Vogts found the target against the starfield easily; its hull was illuminated by Albring’s EVA spotlights, along with the tether lines which had been used to tow it close to the larger warship.

“Negative activity.”

“What do you think they’ll do, Sarge?” Hase’s voice trembled; the burly young man sounded uncertain. He’d never been under fire.

“We’re about to find out, Private Hase.”

The remaining seconds of transit passed in silence, and soon the target loomed only meters ahead. Slowing to match its velocity, Vogts marveled at how small the intruder was. Though expensively outfitted for stealth and infiltration with EM-absorbing hull paneling and collapsible “wings” of what appeared to be solar foil, the underlying vessel was had all the graceless, lumpen lines of a civilian vacationer’s yacht.

“Control, what are these panels?” Private Corna jetted closer to one of the collapsed wings.

“Best guess, those are parts of a photokinetic drive.”

“Of all the things to bring when you’re sneaking into a Navy base… Solar sails?” Hase’s muttering, though poor comms discipline, echoed Vogts’s own.

“Let’s get inside. Corna, set up the breacher.”

As Vogt and Hase moved in close to the only visible airlock, Private Corna unhooked a heavy breacher limpet secured to his armor-suit and backed off, pointing it at the pair of Marines and the airlock. As soon as he had it in place, he left it drifting there and joined his compatriots.

Albring, be advised we are beginning our breach.” Vogts turned toward the lock, snapping his railgun into position to receive any trouble that might issue forth in the proper manner. Though not nearly as snappily, the other two pointed their guns in the same direction.

“Acknowledged. Happy hunting, Sarge.”

“Breaching on my mark.” Corna announced without waiting for his superior’s go-ahead. “Three… Two… One…” Though the radio didn’t transmit it, Vogts imagined the nervous gulp that occupied the slightly longer than regulation delay. “Mark.”

On the signal, the automated breaching module fired a curtain of gossamer, which slammed into the intruder’s hull and stuck fast. Though no sound carried through hard vacuum, Vogts knew how loud the breacher limpet’s cycle would be inside the target ship.

Almost as soon as the silky material’s leading edge had adhered to the hull, the limpet blasted its tank of compressed nitrogen into the newly enclosed space. Vogts made sure he was not in a direct line between the limpet and the airlock, and the two privates had already moved as far as they could toward the outwardly-bulging fabric walls.

“We have pressure and seal is holding.” Corna’s voice trembled. “Breaching charge in three… Two… One…”

Vogts didn’t hear the “mark” this time. When Corna keyed his remote, the breacher limpet’s shaped-charge explosive detonated with a thunderous crack in the newly pressurized space, and a white-hot beam bright enough to be visible through auto-dimming faceplates lanced between the limpet and the airlock.

“Go!” Vogts pushed Hase toward the lock, and the private drifted through the jagged, still-glowing remnants of two heavily reinforced pressure doors. Vogts followed as soon as the narrow entrance was clear, his suit-lights automatically coming on.

The Marines found the vessel’s interior surprisingly open. Where most yacht-like vessels were arranged into several sub-divided compartments for privacy and utility, the intruder’s interior was dominated by one large, open compartment, into which the Marines had entered on a balcony-like second semi-deck. Three sets of lights swept the interior for threats, but nothing moved.

“The hell is this thing?” Hase’s question carried through the air, not the radio.

Vogt scanned the jungle-like tangle of machinery bolted to the main deck below. No, he realized, it wasn’t jungle-like – it was an actual jungle. Intermingled with the machines were several overgrown specimens of unfamiliar plant. “A damned mess. Where’s the crew?”

“Over here, Sarge.” Corna pointed his light, and the other two followed the beam to a female human body strapped into a crash-pad chair on the other side of the balcony deck.

“Cover me, I’ll check.” Vogts shouldered his weapon and clambered toward the body. An EMP near-miss shouldn’t have been enough to kill the crew through the hull. Sure enough, his medical scanner found a weak pulse; the woman was comatose, but not dead.

“I’ve got another body!” Hase called, pointing his light down into the tangle on the main deck. “Male. Not moving.”

The scanning equipment found something else. A warning marker bearing the terrifying abbreviation “UNKN NANO” lit up on his faceplate display. “Nanotech.” Nanotechnology was far from uncommon; the fact that the suit systems couldn’t identify the nano-agent was enough to scare even a grizzled Marine. “Counts are off the charts.”

As he searched the unconscious woman for weapons, Vogts suddenly recoiled in horror. One side of her face, from her hairline to her cheekbone, was covered in intricate tracery of metal filament, all winding rootlike out of a metallic device embedded above her ear. “The hell?”

“We see it, Sarge.” The bridge controller seemed just as perturbed as he. “Invasive implant of some kind. If that connects to her brain...” Neither the controller nor Vogts needed medical training to know that it didn’t take much current through a human brain to cause serious damage.

“Sarge, we’ve got a third body in the back.” Corna drifted out into the open space and headed down toward the main deck.

“Everything else is clear.”

“Acknowledge clear.” Vogts drifted back from the strapped-in body. “Control, you’re go to reel us in. Observe nano-contamination protocol.”

“Any ideas, Sarge?” Hase asked, drifting toward one of the other limp forms, then recoiling as he spotted a similar implant there. “Augh! Counterhumans, all the way out here?”

“Not just any counterhumans, boys.” Corna turned his light up against the above bulkhead, and the other two Marines turned to look. Painted lovingly on the only open stretch of paneling in the entire ship was a familiar and sinister insignia: a stylized avian with outstretched wings shedding sun-fire. “Damned Ladeonists.”