2950-09-06 – Tales from the Service: An Officer’s Exercise 

After Trond-Arud, it seems Fifth Fleet is a bit light on cruisers; more than a third of the units remaining in the fleet are undergoing repairs, and most of those are light cruisers designed for scouting. 

Fleet Headquarters has announced that several new units currently in the final phases of construction and fitting out will be arriving to replace the damaged and lost vessels, but they did not release any timetable. Unfortunately, everyone I'm talking to suggests that without a good cruiser force to scout for the fleet and pursue fleeing enemies after a battle, Fifth Fleet might be consigned to defensive duty for the remainder of the year. 

Fortunately, the news from Seventh Fleet over at Sagittarius Gate remains good; Seventh seems to be staging operations deeper and deeper into the Sagittarius Frontier, and reported the destruction of an Incarnation forward operating base only last week. Perhaps their successes have diverted Incarnation forces from this side of the Gap, as their offensive also seems to have stalled out after Håkøya. 

[N.T.B. - Nate’s supply lines are long, longer still since Sagittarius Gate sits on the easiest and most direct route across the Gap. My guess is, it’s taking them time to re-arm for the next push, but I don’t see any reason these quiet months will last much longer, especially if Fifth Fleet doesn’t have enough cruisers to harass their rear areas when their fleet is on the offensive.] 

When the dropship ramp fell with a tooth-rattling crash, Sergeant Hassan Russel was the first one out on the left side, alongside Sergeant Escarro on the right. Though the salt flats onto which they’d landed threw up billowing gray clouds of dust on the impact of both the ramp and their boots, their helmet heads-up displays sketched out the outlines of the nearby terrain hidden by the dust, courtesy of onboard radar. 

“Clear right. Squad, let’s move.” Escarro’s voice was, as usual during operations, a low, hoarse growl. Nobody knew whether he practiced this, or whether adrenaline did strange things to his vocal chords. 

Hassan toggled his onboard comms to broadcast only to his squad. “Clear Left. On me.” With that, he took several loping steps away from the dropship, dropped to one knee, and scanned the empty wasteland ahead, trusting Escarro to do the same on the right. Behind them, the turreted weapons of the dropship were positioned to engage surprises appearing in their flanks. 

“Dropzone is clear.” Lieutenant Coughlan’s sharp voice, in contrast to Escarro’s, was precisely the same as the one she used aboard ship. “Squads, proceed to point Beta.” 

According to the briefing, the exercise’s Opposition Force would be dug in along a defensive line interposed between Beta, the top of a rise at the edge of the salt flats, and the ultimate objective, Point Delta, a ramshackle burg ten kilometers beyond that point. In theory, friendly insurgents familiar with the terrain would meet the Marines just below the hilltop to point out the strong points in the defensive line. 

The last time Hassan had trusted pre-op briefings had been the drop to Meyerfeld more than two years before. There, it had turned out that most of the briefing material about enemy strength had been laughable fantasy cooked up somewhere in the rotten bowels of Naval Intelligence. Not only had the enemy force been nearly double what had been estimated, it had been equipped with a few heavy armored vehicles, something the briefing had insisted wouldn’t be present. Casualties had been high, but fortunately, the drop, three Marine regiments and one armored regiment, had still been enough to overwhelm Incarnation troops on the first day, before any chance of reinforcement.  

Hassan, the greenest Marine in the unit for that drop, had trusted that there would be no enemy armor, and had been among the wounded within an hour of coming into contact with the enemy. He’d been too aggressive in rooting out Incarnation infantry from a tenement complex and had left himself exposed to fire from a heavily armed and armored vehicle hidden just in front of the tenements.  

As Hassan’s squad-mates piled out of the dropship and darted past him in pairs to take up station ahead, he turned up the gain on the regiment-wide comms channel which none of them could hear. Colonel Glass was barking orders, but none of them were to Hassan or his compatriots, and from the tone, Hassan guessed that things were going according to plan. True, this was an exercise, not a real drop, but top Marine brass had just as little faith in intel as Hassan himself, and planned exercises accordingly. Hassan had never been on one, at least not since Camp Cactus, where things had gone according to plan. 

At last, Harriman thumped Hassan’s suit back-plate with the closed mechanical fist of his own suit to indicate that everyone was off the transport. Standing, Hassan fell in beside the private, using his suit’s IFF system to locate everyone. The disembarkation had been swift and efficient. By the time Lieutenant Coughlan and her thirteen-Marine center squad put their boots into the dirt, his boys and Escarro’s would have the forward area cleared out more than a kilometer. 

The first Marines in Hassan’s squad reached the bottom of the hill just as Coughlan’s voice returned to their comms. “Escarro, Russel, I’m tracking movement to your front. Probable friendlies. Hold fire.” 

“Yessir.” Hassan didn’t like missions with friendly non-Marine involvement, but those were the norm now, and the exercises had to account for it. Forty Marines charging into battle in their big Rico suits could only be called a precision strike compared to a carpet-bombing, and only marginally so. “Beaumont, Kovacic, keep those comms open.” 

“They’re open. Nothing yet, Sarge.” Kovacic, whose suit was equipped with an electronic warfare system, sounded uneasy. “If they’re up there, they can see us. Why aren’t they hailing?” 

“Could be-” 

Whatever Private Beaumont, the other electronic warfare system carrier, was going to say, his speculation was cut off by a burst of static on the line. On Hassan’s heads-up display, Beaumont’s suit indicators blinked off, then most of them returned, blinking red. Only the center chest components stayed entirely off. According to the simulation system used in the exercise, Beaumont was dead. 

“Hellfire. Take cover! Kovacic, shut off your-” Hassan stopped short, Kovacic had already shut off his open comms system, no doubt recognizing that this was what had made Beaumont easy to target. Ahead of Hassan, the other Marines all charged for the nearest cover they could find. Despite Coughlan’s order, two or three began spraying the hillside above with their suit-linked heavy railguns. 

“Lieutenant, we’re taking fire from the hilltop and we’ve got one man down.” Hassan tried to sound matter-of-fact, but even though he knew this was an exercise, his heart was pounding. “Permission to engage?” 

Even as he spoke, Hassan noticed a series of flashes to his right. Glancing that way, he saw fourteen hulking armor suits riding columns of rocket exhaust up from a mad haze of salt dust. Escarro, it seemed, hadn’t waited for the Lieutenant’s permission. 

“Negative. Hold position but do not engage. Command says they’re in contact with friendlies on that hill.” 

Hassan peeked out from behind the boulder he’d picked for cover in time to see a beam of scintillating light jab out from the hillside and paint a black scorch-mark near one of his men. “Cease fire and stay behind cover!” He barked before switching back to Coughlan. “Not sure how that’s possible.” 

Escarro and his Marines reached the apex of their arcing flight. As they began to hurtle downwards toward the hillside, they began firing as well, lacerating the barren terrain with their railguns and scorching it with their plasma lances. The beam weapon which had “killed” Beaumont and had chased the rest of Hassan’s squad behind cover flashed once into the air, then fell silent. 

“Come on up here and help me mop this up, Russel.” Escarro grunted into the comms channel as his suit landed. Even with both mechanical and gravitic cushioning, landing a Rico suit after a high jump could knock the wind out of you. “Got a good look at them from the air. Light Incarnation infantry with a couple dug-in guns... Well, they had dug-in guns. Strnad got ’em.” 

“Coughlan told us to stay put.” Hassan peeked out from cover to watch the fighting uphill without the aid of his suit’s sensors and computers. It looked like a rout; if Escarro was right, this was probably some sort of early warning picket line for the main line of defense. True, the “enemy infantry” were computer-generated phantoms, but the simulation system would make them look and act real enough, at least as long as the Marines stayed in their suits. 

“Coughlan’s way the hell back by the dropship.” Escarro almost snarled the Lieutenant’s name. “It’s you and me up here.” 

Hassan, remembering the Lieutenant’s grave prediction about trouble, swallowed nervously. “Lieutenant, Sergeant Escarro is requesting support to my front. Permission to advance?” 

“He’s wha-” Coughlan seemed angry rather than surprised. “Permision granted, Sergeant. Both of you clear the top of that hill, then stay there.” 

Hassan winced and switched back to his squad’s channel. “Okay boys, we’re going forward. Escarro’s men know we’re coming up but stay out of their line of fire. Stay on the ground and keep an eye on your sensors... Something isn’t right here.” 

2950-08-30 – Tales from the Service: Filling An Officer’s Shoes

Though it seems the Navy is not yet willing to abandon forays into the Håkøya system entirely, this week it is being reported that several detachments of Fifth Fleet’s light cruisers and the more nimble heavy cruisers have returned to the outer Maribel system after simultaneous forays into the inner Nye Norge region. Other than Håkøya itself, most of the systems in this area are inhabited only by mining installations, and most of those outposts have probably been abandoned due to the risk of Incarnation raids.

The purpose of these forays was unclear, but probably it served mainly as a reconnaissance-in-force to gauge the level of Incarnation activity around Håkøya. Only the ill-fated mission to the Trond-Arud system has been publicized in any detail, and those details are grim: three light cruisers were lost, and the major ships that returned all suffered damage that will render them combat-incapable for some time. None of the four enemy cruisers present are thought to have been destroyed.

Coming so soon after the minor failure of the raid into Håkøya a few weeks ago, the action in Trond-Arud does suggest that the fleet’s cruisers are simply not equipped to fight their rough Incarnation equivalents.

[N.T.B. – There are three things of note which I’ve found in the reports from Trond-Arud.

Firstly, the cruisers seem to have been operating without their usual supporting; only a handful of the Navy’s fast fleet destroyers are reported to have been present. I can’t imagine why the remaining ships of each cruiser’s battle squadron were detached, but the action would certainly have gone better with them present. Were the ships dispatched to each of these systems similarly operating without support?

Secondly, the battle report suggests that the four Nate cruisers at Trond-Arud knew our ships were coming, including details of when and where. Their attack at the system outskirts couldn’t really be coordinated without that information. This is probably an indication that Incarnation spies are still operating here in Maribel.

Thirdly, the four light cruisers involved in this action were some of Fifth Fleet’s smallest; it’s hardly fair to put them in the same category as an Incarnation Tyrant-type. The heavy cruiser Badurad Page was the largest Fifth Fleet ship present, and it seems to have done better than the others. In terms of tonnage, Nate had a big advantage, even with fewer hulls.]

At the Colonel’s entrance, everyone in the barracks scrambled to line up and jump to attention. No command needed to be barked to the Marines; the glint of gold holographic insignias hovering over the newcomer’s shoulders was all they needed.

With an approving nod, Colonel Glass took a few steps down the long double line of Marines. There were thirty-six bunks on each side of the corridor, but only twenty-two of them had occupants on the left, and nineteen on the right. “I see you boys have settled in nicely.” He turned to his left. “Sergeant, have all of your troopers returned from shore leave?”

“No, sir.” Sergeant Hassan Russel shook his head without relaxing his stiff at-attention posture. He had just been promoted to Sergeant, and hoped he looked as intimidating with sergeant’s pips hovering over his shoulders as the man he had replaced. “Private Graner and Private Maslanka are due back on the next shuttle.”

“They’d better not miss their ride, then.” Glass turned around to face Sergeant Escarro, head of the opposite file. “And yours?”

“One in medbay, Colonel.” Escarro, far taller than Colonel Glass, stared straight ahead, not daring to look down to meet the officer’s gaze. “Reaction to local food.”

Glass nodded, folded his hands behind his back, then turned back towards the door. Hassan’s hope that the inspection would be perfunctory and brief died when the Colonel stopped well short of the threshold. “I just spoke with Lieutenant Yeung. They’re sending him back to the Core. He’s damned mad about it, but if the med-techs say that’s what he needs, then that’s what’s going to happen.”

In most units, talk of losing the commanding officer would have provoked a murmur, but the two files of Marines remained entirely silent, not having been given permission to stand at ease. Yeung had been their leader for longer than any of them except perhaps Sergeant Escarro had been in the unit. Losing him, even temporarily, was like being deprived of a parent.

“Most likely, Yeung will be back out here busting your asses in four to six months, but I can’t just leave you without a lieutenant for that long.”

At the Colonel’s words, huge Sergeant Escarro stood up somehow straighter. Hassan knew the man was anticipating a field promotion; there was no other candidate for the job.

“Nor do I want to fill Yeung’s shoes when he’s going to want them back.” Colonel Glass, with only the slightest glance toward Escarro, continued. “Until his return, my adjutant, Lieutenant Coughlan, will serve as your company commander. I trust I do not need to tell you how to obey her orders as if they were Lieutenant Yeung’s.”

At her name, the slight, lanky staff officer following Colonel Glass stepped into the barracks. Hassan didn’t even glance at her. Coughlan was well known among the ranks, mostly for being the biggest ego in the entire Twenty-First, and for having the absolute minimum combat experience possible to be a Marine officer. Coughlan, a staff officer, was rare among the already-uncommon women in the Marines for wearing makeup while on duty. She cared very much about her appearance, rarely got her feet muddy, and never got into a Rico suit if she could at all avoid it. When she did suit up, it was in one of the Twenty-First’s barely-armed, sensor-festooned electronic warfare suit, a machine that spent most of its time sitting behind the lines collecting data, jamming enemy signals, and generally doing anything except fighting the enemy.

Across from Hassan, Escarro’s face darkened, but his expression remained blank. No doubt, the senior sergeant had even more reason to be suspicious of Coghlan than Hassan did, and now he had one extra reason – she’d deprived him of advancement he probably thought he’d long since earned.

“This is, of course a temporary arrangement.” Glass, with a long glare at Escarro, walked down the line of Marines. “But reports of your behavior will be communicated to Yeung as soon as his recovery has advanced. Are there any questions?”

Of course, there were none, and Glass knew there wouldn’t be; he hadn’t waved them to ease yet. With a curt nod, the Colonel turned on his heel and marched out.

As soon as his retinue had followed, Lieutenant Coughlan palmed the control to close the door. Only when it had hissed shut did she wave the Marines to ease. “Let’s just make this as easy on each other as possible.” She folded her arms and leaned on the closed door. “I’m not Yeung, nor do I want to be. Sergeants, you know what this unit needs. My comms and my door are always open, but the less trouble you make for me, the less I need to be in your business. Are we all clear?”

Escarro snapped his right hand up into a sharp salute. Hassan followed suit, and soon the entire double row of Marines was doing the same. Coughlan’s position on the Colonel’s staff earned her a salute any time she crossed paths with the rank and file, Hassan felt like saluting her in Yeung’s place was somehow wrong.

“Good.” Coughlan returned the salute, and forty-one right arms fell away from the salute posture. “We’re on the training routine for the day after tomorrow. That means everyone lined up at dropship embarkation at zero four thirty. I’ll check on your sick man, Sergeant Escarro.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Escarro managed to sound almost earnest.

With a suspicious, arched-eyebrow look at Escarro, then at Hassan himself, Lieutenant Coughlan made a quick exit.

As the door shut behind her, the men quietly returned to what they had been doing before the Colonel’s arrival. Hassan returned to his bunk and retrieved the reader slate he’d dropped. One by one, murmured conversations began to break out. Invariably, the Lieutenant’s name was involved in at least one of them.

“Oy, none of that!” Sergeant Escarro barked. “Another word against the Lieutenant, and I’ll put you in the medbay next to Haines.”

Hassan rolled his eyes, but the senior sergeant was right. Even if nobody liked Coughlan, she was their commanding officer now. It wouldn’t do for the men to be grumbling about their officers.

2950-08-23 – Tales from the Inbox: A Partnership Sundered

“I don’t understand, Ramie.” Livia, apparently cold even while wearing a smartfabric coat, hugged her arms close to her torso and leaned against the ship’s forward landing strut. “We’re still leaving him here, right?”

Ramiro nodded, grimacing. He couldn’t tell Livia about Mr. A.’s rotund friend. “I think things went the way he was hoping, more or less.”

“Then why do you want us to chase after him?” Livia frowned. “He paid you, didn’t he?”

Ramiro brightened. He wondered if Livia knew what he was doing, and had offered this lifeline to him. He hated everything about the situation, but he hated more what it would take to solve it. “He would, ah… not pay it to me. You’d better come and talk to him.”

“One of these days, we’re going to have to teach you to squeeze people properly.” Livia rolled her eyes. “Fine. Where’s he setting up camp?”

Ramiro pointed inland. “He’s in there.” Realizing the finality of that path, however, he dropped his arm. “But there’s no rush. Not like he’s going anywhere.”

Livia smirked and nodded, turning to look out over the ocean. As she did, a gust of wind swirled up from the water, carrying the strange yet eerily familiar scents of an alien ocean. Ramiro breathed deep, squared his shoulders, and stepped up beside her.

“You’re terrible at this game, Ramie dear.” Livia pointed along the coast to a shallow cove in the island shore not far away. “Come on. Let’s go have a look.”

Ramiro followed Livia silently as she picked her way down the crevasse-lined side of the rock formation on which his ship stood. As she stopped to look for a convenient way past a steep drop, he turned around to look back at Jen Daley. The ship’s high prow broadening to a squat, boxy hull stood out starkly against the reddish-brown hemisphere of Cinder filling the southern quarter of the sky, and another moon’s sharp crescent framed the ship’s main comms antenna array, which stuck up straight into the blue-green sky.

Livia nudged Ramiro, drawing his attention back down. “Just like you.” She raised one eyebrow. “Surrounded by paradise, but you can’t keep your mind off the ship and the sky.”

Ramiro shrugged as Livia slid down the rocks between a boulder and the main slope. “They say Madurai is the most beautiful planet humans ever found. I grew up hearing that, anyway. It was a relief to leave.” Taking advantage of his larger frame, Ramiro hopped down behind Livia, steadying himself with one hand on the lichen-crusted stone. “And it might be. But I always knew I’d leave.”

“A place can be paradise, but if it’s not your paradise, you’re not home.” Livia pointed to the pebbly strand below, where a flock of skittering creatures combed the surf. As Ramiro watched, the animals darted away from the human visitors, staying well out of reach. “This place is nice to look at, but it knows we don’t belong. It won’t remember us.”

“Then why do you want to come down here?” Ramiro offered a hand to help Livia hop across a crevasse.

“Just exploring.” With that, she stepped off the last shoulder of the towering rock formation and onto the pebbles of the beach. “Maybe there’s something here worth taking with us.”

Ramiro chuckled. “I hardly think this is a good place to dig for buried treasure.”

Livia stopped mid-stride, and Ramiro knew even though he couldn’t see that she was rolling her eyes. “That’s why you need me, Ramie. You’re positively blind to the economics of things.” Stooping, she picked up what Ramiro first thought was simply a stone, but when she held it up, he saw that it was a shell – or at least a shell-analogue – with three curving rays of sparkling pearly material projecting outward from a domed indigo central disk and spiraling around each other. “Pick up a hundred of these, and you could sell them back at Maribel for twenty credits each. Two hundred each if you lied about what planet they were from.”

Ramiro stepped forward and took the shell, turning it over in his hands. He’d certainly seen lesser curios sold for greater prices in spaceport oddity-shops. “I’m fairly certain collecting that many would break some law.”

Livia clapped a hand to her forehead. “See, that’s what I mean! Why would anyone know? Whose business is it unless you tell them?” Livia reached out and closed Ramiro’s fingers over the shell in his palm. “If you looked at things that way even a little bit, you’d have never needed my help.”

“And maybe if you’d looked at things like that less, you would have never needed mine.” Ramiro placed his other hand over Livia’s. She looked up at him curiously, her dark eyes steady. “Maybe it’s better things worked out the way they did.”

Livia nodded and flashed a lopsided grin. “Certainly keeps life interesting, anyway.” With that, she spun away and marched down the beach, her long hair flying crossways under the influence of the offshore wind.

Ramiro looked down at the shell one more time, tracing one of its curving rays with his thumb. “Livia, wait, there’s something-”

“Woah!” Livia’s startled shout drew Ramiro’s attention. He found her backing away from a short, portly figure who’d appeared in the underbrush above the beach. The little man’s genial smile did nothing to assuage her alarm. “Where in all hells did you come from?”

The little man pointed behind him. “About there.” He shrugged. “I did not mean to alarm or hurry you, but time has become… somewhat short. Unexpectedly so. Do conclude your goodbyes.”

“Goodbyes?” Livia turned to Ramiro. “You want us to leave? Fine. We’re leaving. Too cold here anyway.”

Ramiro shook his head. “Livia, you need to stay with him.” He fought a catch in his throat. “It’s the only way.”

“What do you mean?” Livia turned toward the little man. “Who is this guy anyway?”

“A friend.” The little man bowed smartly. “A friend who unfortunately has very little time.”

Ramiro stepped up to Livia’s side. “Do you trust me, Liv?”

“I…” Livia looked away. “You’ve never let me down. Not once.”

“I know what this is about, and I say, go with him.” Ramiro put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward himself. “I won’t make you.”

Livia glanced over at the still-smiling figure, then back to Ramiro. “You’ll miss me, Ramie.”

Ramiro nodded. “Only until you come back. I’ll keep your things and berth ready for you on Jen Daley.”

Livia pulled Ramiro into a tight hug. “I’ll hold you to that.”

When Livia broke contact, she flashed Ramiro a smile, squared her shoulders, and turned back to the chubby man. “Hopefully you’ve got somewhere warm nearby.”

“Yes, yes.” The man bounded forward and held up a clear polymer card in front of Ramiro. “Take this.”

Frowning, Ramiro reached out and took the card. It looked like an ident-badge, but bore no markings around the sprawling gold chip embedded in its center, and the space left for an image of the identified person was printed was empty. “What is it?”

“Secure communications.” The little man gestured to Livia, marching a few steps back the way he’d come. “Do hurry, we should not be late.”

Livia turned back to Ramiro. From the subtle arch of her eyebrow, he knew she’d guessed what was happening. How much she could think about it before the circuitry took over, Ramiro didn’t want to speculate. “I’ll send messages if he lets me.”

“He’d better let you.” Ramiro glanced sidelong at the little man. He hadn’t forgotten what the man was, or what he was capable of. “Otherwise, there will be trouble.”

Livia nodded and turned to follow the little man. Just before she vanished under the shadows of the stooping trees, she glanced over her shoulder one last time. When she did, Ramiro thought he saw a tear glittering in the corner of her eye. Wincing, and wondering if he’d ever see Livia Farran again, he turned away and stared out over the crashing waves.

This concludes the account left for me by Ramiro, or at least by someone claiming to be him. I will not offer any interpretations beyond that this is, if true, the first confirmation of rumors that the Incarnation can corrupt the minds and bodies of people who fall into its orbit in very difficult to detect ways. That some arm of the Confederated military or intelligence apparatus has a program to undo this damage, even in part, is a heartening idea.

Naval Intelligence cleared this to be released, but would not comment on the veracity of the story, nor confirm to me whether such programs exist.

 2950-08-02 – Tales from the Inbox: A Turncoat’s Reward 

We’re getting some details about last week’s skirmish in the Håkøya outskirts. It seems to have been an aborted attempt to capture an Incarnation-controlled mining installation which Naval Intelligence thinks employs Confederated captives as forced labor. Incarnation cruisers met and repelled the force before it got there, resulting in the sharp action we reported last week. Fifth Fleet’s detachment fought well by all accounts and all its major ships returned to Maribel, but the failure of the mission to liberate our countrymen is still quite disappointing. 

Jen Daley, you are clear to begin atmospheric entry. Proceed to your landing coordinates along the provided descent course.”  

The bored Cyclone groundside controller’s voice startled Ramiro out of his agitated thoughts. He’d been worried about giving the local customs agency Mr. A’s false identity imprint, but apparently his worries had been overblown. Neither the passenger’s identity nor his intended landing site raised any concerns at the planet’s single spaceport. 

“Copy, control.” Ramiro transferred the course sent by the spaceport to the navigation system. “Beginning descent.” 

“Do remember to wish your passenger a good stay on Cyclone.” 

As the planet outside the cockpit viewpanels slowly rolled over from being nearly “above” Ramiro to being below him, he switched on the intercom. “We’re headed down. Liv, secure the lounge.” 

“On it.” 

Though the autopilot could handle most atmospheric entries on its own, Ramiro rested his hands lightly on the yoke and scanned the controls as the gravitic drive fought against orbital velocity and the ship dove belly-first into the planet’s atmosphere. Though Jen Daley reduced its velocity relative to the ground with its engines rather than via atmospheric braking, tongues of orange and yellow plasma still licked up on all sides, and the ship vibrated intensely. 

Within half a minute, a low booming rocked the ship and the plasma vanished, replaced by streaming vortexes of white mist. Between these, Ramiro could see mountainous ranges of clouds far below, and between them, a graceful sweep of small islands spanned a glittering emerald sea. 

On the horizon far to his left, a looming bastion of grey lit by fitful violet lightning flashes marked the edge of the Cyclone which gave its name to the world itself – a massive permanent super-storm at the south pole which regularly calved off smaller storms to rampage northward toward the equator. Mr. A. wanted to land more than two hundred kilometers from its outer rim, but for Ramiro, for whom bad-weather landings had become something of an ill omen, this was still far too close. 

As the ship swooped lower and passed the billowing top of one of the cloudbanks, Ramiro checked the ship’s sensors for any indication he was being pursued. This was something he’d never before thought necessary during a landing, and after he had left Cyclone and Mr. A. behind, he hoped to ensure that it would never be necessary again. 

When at last the ship circled low and passed over its landing site, a rocky outcrop on the coast of one of the islands, Ramiro breathed a sigh of relief. The island, barely four square kilometers of scrubby xenoflora and wave-crenellated rock, showed no sign of any other visitors. Mr. A. had assured Ramiro that he had made his own arrangements, and had left it at that.  

The whole business left Ramiro uneasy, least of all because he was doing very illegal things. Were it not for Livia, Ramiro would have been happy to drop the man off and burn for orbit at emergency speed. Only vague suggestions by Mr. A. that the local atmosphere might be good for Livia prevented it. Surely, that had to mean something – but he didn't know quite what. 

“Final landing approach.” Ramiro broadcast on the intercom “Kindly be seated.” 

In the end, the warning was hardly necessary; the stiff wind blowing over the outcrop caused Jen Daley to slide laterally a little as its landing skids touched down, but otherwise the landing proved smooth and uneventful. After a routine external air-quality test came up clean, Ramiro opened the air intakes and dropped the ramp. “Welcome to a very quiet corner of Cyclone. External temperature reads as thirteen Celsius, so do bundle up if you’re going out there.” 

With that, Ramiro secured the controls, idled the engines, and headed aft to lower the cargo elevator, Mr. A.’s two small crates of belongings standing forlornly in its center. 

Ramiro rode the cargo elevator down to the ground, which was technically a violation of its manual of operation. He knew not to take such things seriously. The manuals, after all, were written by people in comfortable offices back in the Core Worlds with a severe allergy to the sorts of dangers to human life which actual spacers blithely tempted every day. Compared to most of those, the risk of being jostled by the cargo elevator didn’t even register.  

When he stepped off, he found Mr. A. standing by the forward landing skid, and Livia hugging herself to keep warm halfway up the boarding ramp, her dark hair blown into a comet’s tail by the wind. She was wearing only her usual snug, thin shipboard fatigues, which though flattering to her figure, provided little protection against the elements. 

“I told you to bundle up!” Ramiro hopped off the elevator and picked his way over the wave-dimpled stone on which he’d landed his ship. 

“Thirteen C sounded quite nice until I got out here.” Livia shook her head. “Just keeping an eye on him.” 

Ramiro held out a hand to help Livia down off the end of the ramp. “Help me move his crates, then go back in and get a jacket.” 

Their passenger stood staring over the sea while Ramiro and Livia wrestled his two parcels off the cargo elevator and set them a safe distance from the landing skids. As Livia retreated into the ship to find something warm to wear, Ramiro walked up to stand next to Mr. A. The view, he had to admit, was quite stunning – between the greenish sea flecked with creamy white foam whipped up by the wind and the fantastic shapes of the faintly rosy clouds piled high on the horizon, and the dark gray rocks far below catching the waves and throwing them into the air in glittering spray, the place seemed less than real, a master’s painting come to life. 

“I have read old Earth stories of men who fell in love with the sea.” Now that he stood on solid ground, amid such desolation, Mr. A. seemed refreshed, less small, shriveled, or exhausted than he had even a few hours before. “Until now, I thought it merely poetic license. Are Earth’s oceans like this?” 

“A bit.” Ramiro glanced sidelong at his passenger. “I’ve only been there once, myself. We need to-” 

“The greatest heartbreak of beauty like this place,” Mr. A. turned to face Ramiro at last, a sly look glinting in his dark eyes. “Is that to possess it, a man must go the better part of the way to destroying it. He must put in a quay there,” He pointed down to a spit of land a few hundred meters along the shore. “A lighter hangar, perhaps, there.” Again, he pointed. “And into this rock he must drive the piers on which to build his home. When he is done, how much of the beauty he first found would remain?” 

Ramiro hesitated. Somehow, he knew Mr. A. wasn’t just talking about the scenery. “Construction wouldn’t remove the sea, the waves, or that storm on the horizon. Speaking of that-” 

“I wonder whether he would miss what the island was, before he touched it.” Mr. A. turned inland and gestured. “Come with me.” 

Ramiro glanced up at the empty boarding ramp, then followed. Mr. A. picked a path down the sloping lee side of the outcrop, into the scrubby plant-growths that clung to the rest of the little island. Though they’d looked low and tough from the air, Ramiro found most of their branches arched far over his head. 

Eventually, Ramiro’s limited patience won out over his waning curiosity. “Where are we going?” 

“Evidently, you have arrived.” 

This voice, high and reedy, came from behind Ramiro. He spun on his heel and reached for his gun, but the chubby little man standing on the path behind him held up his hands and smiled. 

“My friend, I did not expect you to come in person!” Mr. A. smiled. “You need not have troubled-” 

“Nonsense.” The chubby man made an expansive gesture. “They couldn’t possibly keep me away. Though I must ask, why, er...” He nodded toward Ramiro. 

Mr. A. opened his mouth, but grimaced and closed it again. “Let him tell you. I will retrieve what I have brought.” With a prompting gesture, the Incarnation turncoat hurried back up toward Jen Daley. 

The rotund man turned a quizzical look on Ramiro. “Yes, indeed, tell. You are not touched by our war.” 

At the words “our war”, Ramiro shivered and took a step back. This, he knew now, was another Incarnation Immortal – another who had freed himself from their grasp, apparently. Squaring his shoulders, he stood his ground. “How freely can I speak?” 

“Ah, you know about the override coding. You needn’t fear.” The little man tapped a sausage-like finger to his temple. “I have been quite reprogrammed.” 

Somehow, this didn’t reassure Ramiro. Still, he pressed on. “My partner... The Incarnation got ahold of her. Corrupted her mind, like yours was corrupted. Can you undo what they did?” 

The little man winced, though in sympathy or at the use of the word “corrupted”, Ramiro could not decide. “What the cyberneticists do cannot be undone. To disconnect or remove the implants would be fatal, but with care they can be... reprogrammed.” 

“Reprogrammed? Free her from one master just to put her under another?” Ramiro shook his head. “That seems hardly better.” 

“She cannot be told of the option herself, as you likely know. You must decide if we should take her with us.” The little man shrugged. “I could similarly not tell this to my friend, but I am no rogue. Those who reprogrammed me have a degree of official sanction of your government.” 

Ramiro nodded and turned away. “Will she be able to live with herself after she’s been... reprogrammed?” 

“That is up to her. I promise she will be no worse off, and there is hope for much improvement. Certainly, the override coding will trouble her much less.” 

Ramiro balled his fists. He didn’t want to trust Livia to these rogue Immortals, whether or not they had switched sides and enjoyed Confederated Worlds backing. He remembered, however, the helpless look in her eyes when she’d run up against something she simply could not say.  

Ramiro turned back to the little man. “If I find out she came to harm, no amount of official protection will save you.” 

“I will take that as you intend it.” The little man smiled widely. Though he carried no obvious weapons, Ramiro became immediately certain that this was the deadliest individual he’d ever permitted within arm’s reach of himself. “As a demand that I treat your friend well, as toothless as your threat is in truth.” 

Ramiro nodded. “Then I’ll go get her.”