2951-01-11 – Tales from the Service: Ramiro’s Sagittarian Diplomats

As soon as Ramiro announced on the ship’s intercom that the passengers could move about freely, he heard hatches hissing down the gangway as his passengers did precisely that. The hatch behind him was open, and he heard low, hissing voices drift from the cabins into the ship’s lounge, where they subsided into a susurrating background hum.

No doubt, the trio of xenos were conversing in their own language; Ramiro made no attempt to listen in with the microphone pickups. Their business wasn’t his. He was responsible for delivering them to their destination, not for picking up assorted gossip, and he’d long ago learned his lesson when it came to being inquisitive with the cargo, human or otherwise. The less he poked his nose into the business of his customers, the less they poked into his, and the less there was for anyone to dislike.

“Captain, a moment?”

“Eh?” Ramiro didn’t startle easily these days, so he didn’t jump much at the sudden voice of Captain Larson, the aliens’ Naval Survey Auxiliary minder, who was apparently standing directly behind him. “I’ve got quite a few moments.” He turned his crash-padded chair around until he was facing Larson. How she’d ascended the rattling gangway up from the corridor to the cockpit without making any noise was a mystery to be solved later.

“You came highly recommended, Captain, but I must warn you about the appearance of my charges.” Larson held up a hand, as if to establish a barrier between Ramiro and the trio down in the lounge. “They will doubtless dispense with their cowls now that we are off the station.”

“Whatever they look like, Miss Larson, I’ve handled worse.” Ramiro shrugged. It was, by his lights, quite true. After that last cruise with Livia aboard, when she’d forced him to help her supposed friend escape to Cyclone, he doubted there was much in the galaxy worth getting agitated about.

“That is just what I wanted to warn you about.” Larson shook her head. “The are not precisely, ah, ugly, by human standards. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Ramiro folded his arms and waited for Larson to come to the point. If she was worried about him fraternizing in an unapproved manner with these visitors from beyond the Gap, then his desire to keep his connections with Livia hidden from his attempts to acquire official transport contracts had succeeded beyond anything he could have hoped for.

“They are diplomats.” Larson raised one eyebrow. “Experienced ones. Don’t forget that, no matter what impression suggest.”

Ramiro shrugged. “I’d guessed they were, to be coming this far.”

Larson scowled, clearly unhappy about how the conversation was going.

Ramiro wondered what it was that she was trying to communicate; all he could conclude so far was that the trio below would remind him of children or baby animals, and that he was not to treat them as such.

Before Larson could back up and try again, a device on her belt chimed. Leveling one finger at Ramiro in a way that she certainly intended to be meaningful, she turned and hurried back down the gangway. This time, her boots rattled the floor panels the way Ramiro expected.

Turning back to the controls, Ramiro double-checked the course he’d put into the computer, checking it against the Maribel system authority’s range of approved outbound vectors. The Navy and the system authority had gotten into the habit of changing the inbound and outbound rules every few days, doubtless out of some misplaced hopes of improving the defensibility of the system if it were suddenly attacked. If he drifted outside the range of approved vectors, he could expect to be overhauled, searched, and fined, regardless of Larson’s credentials.

Once he was satisfied as to the permissibility of Jen Daley’s course, Ramiro locked the controls and headed down the gangway. Low voices filtered out of the lounge, mostly raspy and unintelligible. Among the voices, he heard the clinking of glass, which could only be from the glassware that was supposed to be locked in the liquor cabinet. Shaking his head, he rounded the corner. “Excuse me, but wasn’t that-”

The rest of Ramiro’s chiding died unspoken in his throat. The trio of aliens stood around Captain Larson, each holding a whiskey-glass full of some sort of syrupy golden beverage. As Larson had indicated, they’d dispensed with their heavy robes, and were wearing instead garments of darkly shimmering, silk-like cloth which clung to their slim bodies and revealed every wiry muscle in their weirdly-jointed limbs.

It was the faces of the xenos, though, which had caught Ramiro off-guard. The moment he stepped into the lounge, three pairs of reddish-brown eyes like ruby cabochons set in golden faces fixed on him. Those eyes, set into such serene, human faces, made the trio more alien than any coldly mechanical Angel or squid-like, invertebrate Reacher. The impression Larson had given Ramiro that he should expect the creatures to look childlike was validated, but only for an instant; the creatures reminded him more of elfin idols come to life.

“We apologize for invading the storage unit.” One of the creatures stepped forward and bowed slightly. It was, Ramiro decided, probably female, its voice significantly higher than that of the one who’d spoken to him before, but still raspy, and its movements inexpressibly feminine. “It was a necessity.”

“There’s something in the polymer of the disposable cups that they don’t like.” Larson shrugged. She was drinking out of one of these. “I brought plenty of proper glass, but they found yours first.”

Ramiro, regaining composure, shrugged. “Just… put them in the cleaner when you’re done. The cabinet is locked because of the liquor, not the glasses.”

The female’s mouth tugged upwards into a hesitant smile, and Ramiro knew by how foreign the expression was to that round, golden face that smiling was something they’d learned to do to reassure humans. “We would not invade such supplies without asking.”

“I appreciate that.” Ramiro, realizing he was still standing in the door, took two more steps into the lounge.

Larson raised her cup toward the slightly taller being nearest her. “Captain, this is Ambassador Ghalr. His associates are Orulh and Rhila.” She gestured in turn to the other standing near her, and the female who’d moved toward Ramiro.

“Pleased to make your acquaintances.” Ramiro bowed his head slightly, once again missing Livia’s presence; con artist or no, she had been so much better than he at putting passengers at ease. “Do you still need to access your cargo?”

Ghalr nodded, then raised his glass and drained the liquid inside with one smooth, silent motion. “If convenient, Captain.”

“Come with me.” Ramiro led the ambassador aft to the hexagonal chamber behind the lounge, which on one side led to the boarding ramp, on another to the umbilical airlock, and on a third led into the engine room. Stooping, he tapped his uniform cuff against the hatch in the floor, then stood aside as it opened and slid away to reveal a ladder descending into the dimly lit cargo bay.

Turning to the ambassador, Ramiro indicated the ladder. “Can you manage this climb?”

The golden-skinned diplomat answered only by setting his feet on the first rung and descending with no difficulty. For such a senior person, Ramiro couldn’t decide how old Ghalr was; there was no spring of youth in his movements, but nor was there any of the hesitation of age.

At the bottom, Ghalr stood aside to let Ramiro descend and lead him to the netting-encased pile where the port stevedores had stored the diplomats’ belongings. Ramiro pulled back the netting waited as Ghalr checked the labels on several containers before opening one and surveying the contents. Only now did he notice that the containers were metal-walled, rather than the more common, lighter, cheaper polymer.

Without so much as reaching into the box, Ghalr replaced the lid and stood aside. “I am satisfied. We may return.”

Frowning, Ramiro led the way back to the ladder and let the diplomat ascend. He didn’t particularly care what was in the box, but why did the diplomat need to look at it, if it wasn’t needed?

Though I am not satisfied of the veracity of this rumor, it is being told here at Maribel that a delegation of diplomats from the Sagittarius Arm power known as the Grand Journey passed through the system a month or so ago. That would line up acceptably with Ramiro’s story, if true, and would provide a possible identity for the strange creatures he reports ferrying into Farthing’s Chain.

What is publicly known about this alien faction is limited: their ships share technological similarities with Incarnation warships, suggesting technological interchange between the two when the precursors of the Incarnation reached Sagittarius, and the Reachers supposedly speak of the Grand Journey in very positive terms. Some reports suggest this faction is multi-species, but most indicate that it is no threat to the Incarnation. Contact with the Grand Journey was first made by the Lost Squadrons, though it seems this first contact was hesitant at best.

2951-01-04 – Tales from the Inbox: Ramiro’s Three Novelties

You probably saw the service announcement yesterday. I am not entirely sure why this schedule change is being made, but you may be happy to know that I agree that it has little to no impact on us out here. As far as we’re concerned, every entry is still due at the same time, but I’ll be honest, I’ve got no idea what they’re doing back at Centauri with our text for the roughly half a standard day they have it already before it hits the main ingest feed, so I certainly have no idea what another day is needed for.

Regardless, the change is being made at levels above mine, and those levels generally know what they’re talking about.

Ramiro W. stood with his arms folded beside the airlock as his quartet of passengers shuffled onboard Jen Daley. Ramiro had never liked being in passenger service, but this particular trip, he hoped, would be interesting enough to make up for the usual annoyances of carrying cargo that could talk.

Though the first passenger was human enough – a prim, angular woman in Naval Survey Auxiliary fatigues whose holographic shoulder insignias marked her as a full Captain – the three following her were anything but. Ramiro had rubbed elbows with plenty of Atro’me and Rattanai in his days on the spacelanes. He’d heard of, but never met, many others: the aloof robotic puppeteers of Cold Refuge, the infamous broker-sapient Jeb of the Silver Strand, the brilliantly plumaged Makaharwans, the only sapients native to the Coreward Frontier, and others. These three, stooped and concealed below white hoods embroidered with intricate blue trim, were something else.

The last of the trio paused next to Ramiro, the hooded head turning slightly toward him. “Our items?” The voice rasped around what were to it unfamiliar syllables of a new language, but Ramiro detected a decidedly gruff, perhaps militaristic tone.

“Everything sent here is in the hold.” Ramiro nodded. “You will be permitted down there once we’re away.”

The xeno hesitated, then ducked its head forward and entered, turning left and heading into Jen Daley’s lounge.

Ramiro sealed the hatch, sent a departure request using his personal comms, then followed. He found Captain Larson talking in hushed tones with one of the hooded creatures, while the other two poked around the compartment, investigating the fittings and fixtures.

“May I have your attention.” Ramiro stood straighter as the quartet turned toward him. The cold, blank stares from below those cowls might have unnerved most spacers, but he’d stared down an Immortal in this very space. A few strange xenos were, by comparison, no problem. “I’ve requested departure clearance and we’ll leave as soon as we get it. I must ask you to make your way to your cabins before we undock and remain there until I buzz the all clear.”

One of the creatures’ embroidered hood twitched from side to side. “Is there some… danger?”

“Interstellar travel can never really be safe.” Ramiro shrugged. “The cabins have local backup atmospherics in case we have a mishap.” They were also the place where rescuers would expect to find passengers, if something happened, but Ramiro’s favorite benefit of confining prisoners to their cabins during departures and docking approaches was that it kept them out of his hair while he ran the ship.

“The Skipper is just stating a standard procedure.” Captain Larson stepped forward. “He’ll permit free movement for the bulk of the journey.”

Ramiro nodded, then pointed forward. “You will find the cabins through there and on the right-hand side of the corridor.”

The three xenos followed their human minder uneasily through the hatchway and into Jen Daley’s small cabins area. They’d already arranged the trio to share a single cabin, with Larson occupying the other.

As Ramiro headed forward to take his position at the ship’s controls, his comms chimed to indicate departure clearance. Running passengers on a military contract did have its perks – normally he’d be waiting two hours or more for clearance from any large station, but now he had it in minutes.

As he sat down in the pilot’s chair, the intercom chimed.

“Captain, I’m told you should have your clearance.” Captain Larson announced. “Are we waiting for anything else?”

“No, Ma’am.” Ramiro winced and began his undocking procedure. “We’ll be away shortly.”


2951-01-03: Notice: Changing Schedule of the Tales from the Inbox Series

Starting with this week's entry, the Tales from the Inbox text feed feature will be published one day later (Mondays instead of Sundays at 17:15 standard planetary time, 2:1:15 standard ship time). This change in schedule is a result of the oversight and feed-ingestion logistics at the home office on Planet at Centauri; Duncan's contractual schedule will not be impacted.

We thank all our loyal readers for their understanding of this change, and hope that it will not cause any loss of your enjoyment of this series. Check this feed endpoint tomorrow at or after this time for a new Tales from the Inbox episode!

2950-12-27 – Tales from the Service: The Hierophant’s Interview

Unfortunately, Naval Intelligence did not approve the holiday-appropriate story I intended for this week, so we will conclude with the previous account instead.

I have cut it off at a point where I thought it more useful for the audience to view the recording directly; the resulting short conversation took place for a live datasphere audience. We have copied it to our own Datasphere hub for your convenience.

Sandra Ibsen, standing in front of the studio doors and feigning interest in Delilah Brahms-Walton’s bubbly introduction for the cameras, tried to surreptitiously watch the technician fiddling with the studio’s recording instruments. To give Toloni the chance he wanted, she needed to signal the moment the tech left the room.

Unfortunately, the little man didn’t seem likely to leave any time soon. The cameras, though ostensibly autonomous, seemed to need a great deal of tweaking, and even when his harried dashes between them slowed, he seemed intent on staying for the whole show.

Brahms-Walton had been telling three mutually interrupting stories about the recent petty intrigues of her social circle for nearly twenty minutes when the technician sidled up to Sandra. “The show will go at least another hour. Would you like something to drink?”

“Oh!” Sandra, pretending not to have noticed him until he spoke, turned. “Yes, please. Sparkling water.”

As the technician eased the door open and crept out, Sandra once again tapped the comms unit in her dress’s wrist-cuffs to tell Toloni’s security detail to move. She could imagine them boiling out of the back of the huge groundcar, piling into the lobby past the surprised receptionist and the helpless security guard, and clearing a path directly to the stuido, using Sandra’s own position indicator as a guide. By the time the technician got back from his run to the staff break-room, he’d be met at the doors with a scowling Penderite guard in his scarlet and silver uniform.

Within two minutes of sending the signal, Sandra heard a gentle knock on the door behind her. Pretending to be surprised, she turned and peeked out. She was less than surprised to find herself face to face with the Hierophant’s grim-faced chief of security.

The man held up one finger – indicating, most likely, one minute – then pulled the door shut again. Sandra affected a shrug and turned back to what she was pretending to be far more interested in, only to discover that she hadn’t missed even a single detail of any of Brahms-Walton’s three overlapping stories. To reassure the presenter, Sandra mouthed “wrong room” and hooked a thumb back toward the door behind her.

If Brahms-Walton noticed any of this, she didn’t react to it; she seemed entirely absorbed in her storytelling, with her garishly-shadowed eyes flashing effortlessly between camera lenses as the studio system rotated between angles. The studio’s excellent sound-proofing kept out the inevitable tromp of booted feet, so there should be no way for her to know what was about to happen.

After nearly the whole minute indicated to her, Sandra heard another tentative knock at the door. She once again feigned surprise and turned to open it a crack. This time, Grand Hierophant Uberto Toloni, dressed in his finest robe of office and leaning on his seven-foot-tall, jeweled scepter of office, winked at her from the other side, flanked by a pair of guards.

No doubt, the receptionist would have summoned Maribel’s constabulary the moment Toloni’s men stormed in, but Toloni’s security detail always had high-level liaison with the planetary authorities wherever Holy Tabernacle landed. Most likely, Toloni’s people had also cleared his scheme with the Bureau of Counter-Intelligence, who would further slow the official reaction to this questionably legal invasion of a private business.

Squaring her shoulders, Sandra stepped aside, and Toloni flung open the door and stepped in. Though he was old by any measure, the Penderite pontiff’s tall, broad-shouldered build, confident stride, and regal attire made him seem full of energy. This was the aspect of Toloni which he affected when he strode down the ship’s boarding ramp to greet throngs of well-wishers, Penderite and otherwise, on every planet they’d visited.

Delilah Brahms-Walton’s storytelling tailed off mid-sentence as the Hierophant entered the studio. Too late, she realized that the technician who could suspend her live broadcast was gone, and that whatever she did about the interruption would be seen by her fans. Sandra belatedly realized how many places on the other woman’s own elaborate dress a weapon might be concealed, and that she was the only person in a position to stop Brahms-Walton from using such a weapon, if that was what she decided to do.

The moment passed without violence, however, and Toloni tromped into the semi-circle of cameras, a broad grin splitting his face. “Would you mind terribly, Miss Brahms-Walton, if I joined you?”

Sandra expected the woman would pretend not to know who Toloni was, but Brahms-Walton flashed a sharp-edged grin. “Oh, what fun! Of course you may!”

Sandra spotted a second chair tucked away in one corner and hurried to bring it forward. As she passed under the burning gaze of the lenses, she felt her face redden under its thick layer of makeup. If it weren’t for the presence of Toloni, she would no doubt be a subject of extreme curiosity for the audience.

Toloni seated himself next to Brahms-Walton, pretending not to notice the cameras. Perhaps, since he avoided using such technology himself, he was less conscious of the hundreds of thousands of people whose gaze lay behind those devices than most people would be. “Perhaps I should introduce myself, Miss. My name is-”

“Uberto Toloni.” Brahms-Walton glanced to the center camera. “Grand Hierophant of the Holy Order of Penderites, and more importantly, now a guest on my lovely little show.”

Toloni bowed his head a moment. “Indeed. I am told you know everyone who is worth knowing among this world’s young, wealthy, exciting element. Though I am none of these things, it is gratifying to see that you know of me.”

Brahms-Walton waved her immaculately-manicured hand in the air. “How could I not know Maribel’s most interesting visitor since they bagged that spectacular bomb-thrower Horus?”

“Ah, but you knew of me before I came here.” Toloni smiled. “Tell me, why did you send so many of your poor little friends to kill me?”