2947-09-03 – Tales from the Service: A Knife in the Dark

As you might imagine, learning that the enemy in this conflict is a Terran offshoot culture two weeks ago has led to a bit of civil unrest here on the Coreward Frontier. Most worlds have initiated a crackdown on counterhuman underground groups, believing them to be a vector of enemy infiltration. Up to this point, dubiously-legal counterhuman groups on Frontier worlds have been largely ignored or even tolerated – the culture out here seems to favor a “live and let live” approach to odd neighbors, even the worst degenerates.

On some worlds, I am even seeing reports that the crackdown has devolved into crude mob justice, which of course should be condemned. Almost all of the counterhumans on the Frontier are neither Ladeonist insurgents nor spies for the SagittarianIncarnation,” and extra-legal persecution is not an appropriate reaction.

I’ve seen many local datasphere commentators suggesting that the Yaxkin City blast yesterday (which I am still unable to find proper casualty figures or a suspected cause for as of this writing) is a result of lax security and a lack of war footing in the Core Worlds, and I fear that they have a point. Because of the asymmetric way this war is being fought, with the Navy fending off a series of increasingly sophisticated probes and raids in the Frontier, I doubt most of the population centers have increased their security. Perhaps this incident was not related to Incarnation efforts, but I fear it’s only a matter of time before the Incarnation finds a way to hurt populations in the Core Worlds.

Though the over-zealous populations of Frontier worlds likely are not chasing real enemy agents, I have no doubt such agents exist. In particular, I suspect Paz from Tales from the Service: A Stowaway Saboteur was an Incarnation agent – the focus on disabling mercenary patrol forces is at odds with usual Ladeonist behavior. I have been sent several other stories of odd agents sabotaging or infiltrating rear-echelon and mercenary forces in the same manner, and this week I received an account of one such agent attempting a similar feat on a Fifth Fleet cruiser on patrol near Margaux.

Rozalie U. crouched behind a pile of crated parts, listening to the soft pad of feet as someone crossed the maintenance bay beyond. As she checked the battery and magazine of her side-arm, Rozalie knew that despite all wartime security measures, Johan Origen had intruders aboard.

Rozalie had wandered down to her beloved maintenance bay after battling insomnia for four hours, determined to start her shift early by pulling the drive out of a Hookscale sensor-picket launch which had come down just before she’d clocked out the previous day. In theory, she would have had the bay to herself until the remainder of the first shift arrived; Origen had no third-shift strike maintenance crew.

At first, Rozalie had thought the intruder might be another insomnia-affected tech or officer, but a query on her wrist unit had dispelled that wishful thinking. According to the computer, there was nobody in the maintenance bay except Rozalie herself, which also accounted for the fact that the compartment remained at minimum illumination. Somehow, someone had boarded the ship and dodged the security systems, and she couldn’t speculate as to how.

Tapping out a quick, silent message to the third-shift security chief, Rozalie wondered how much damage the intruder could do in the minutes it would take to muster a proper response. The Hookscale picket and two gunships sat unguarded in the bay, and each would be called upon to take three brave Navy strike personnel out into the void the next time the captain called for a strike-craft sweep or Origen tangled with a Sagittarian raider. A skilled saboteur could render each a death-trap in ways it would take the maintenance personnel weeks to undo, if they discovered it at all.

Taking a deep breath, Rozalie peeked around her cover, and spotted a shadow moving between the fabricator work-benches and the boxy Hookscale picket. The possibilities were, she realized, far more dire than sabotaging the launches. The engine reactors of the craft in the bay had been bled dry of phased-matter fuel for safety, but the means to refuel one were lying all around. It would be a simple matter to turn one of the launches into a bomb, then instruct it to begin a pre-flight warm-up. The resulting explosion might not destroy Johan Origen outright, but it could easily cripple the cruiser and kill dozens.

Rozalie knew she couldn’t wait. Switching off her side-arm’s safety, she watched the shadow disappear behind the Hookscale, then crept out into the open middle of the bay.

A clatter and a clank told her she had been right – the intruder had removed the access cowling from the Hookscale’s dodgy drive system, just as she herself would have done to begin servicing it. The apparatus to pull the drive core out of the launch, however, remained inert.

As Rozalie crept closer, she heard the beeping and hissing of a phased-matter bottle being hooked up to the launch. Even a barely-fueled drive unit could create a terrific explosion if its containment vessel were to fail during warm-up, before the safety interlocks and scram system had engaged. Worse still, such a blast would flood nearby space with all manner of strange-particle and phased-particle emissions, condemning any initial survivors to an agonizing few hours of life as their cells misfired and eventually died. She couldn’t risk leaving the intruder to his own devices any longer. With a pair of long strides, she rounded the prow of the picket launch, bringing her gun up to point at the intruder.

Whoever he was, he moved fast. In a blur of motion, the figure leapt over the phased-matter bottle between them and sprung at Rozalie. Something gleamed wickedly in each of his hands as the white-hot gout of plasma from her coilgun reached out to meet him in mid-air.

“Hells, Lieutenant, you’re alive?”

Rozalie opened her eyes through the throbbing pain of a headache to see the third-shift head of security bending over her, a gun in his hand pointed half-heartedly at something. She was lying prone under the Hookscale’s nose antenna, with the smell of burning flesh and the beeping of weapons-fire alarms filling the maintenance bay. “He was fueling the-” She struggled to get up, only for the security chief to push her back down. “What happened?” A lump in her throat made her voice sound funny in her own ears.

“Better stay down. Medics are on the way.”

The burnt-flesh smell told Rozalie that her one shot had been accurate. A coil-gun rarely killed its victims, but the agonizing skin burns it inflicted usually took all the fight out of them. Apparently, the saboteur had overpowered her despite being hurt badly enough to fill the compartment with the smell of his cooked flesh. “Where is he?”

“Gone. We’re still looking for him.”

Rozalie tried to anyway, and the movement nearly cost her what consciousness she’d recovered. The pain was incredible; it was as if someone had wedged a knife between the bones of her neck. “How bad am I hurt?”

The look on the security officer’s face was enough for Rozalie to know her wounds were serious. “As long as you stay still, you’ll be fine.”

“How bad?” Rozalie lifted her hands and started patting her torso, looking for wounds she couldn’t feel. She found nothing on her groin, stomach, or chest, but a warm, wet feeling against the back of her head suggested blood pooling on the deck below her. When she tried to feel her neck and head, the security officer stopped her. “Don’t do that.” He forced her hands down onto her chest. “Leave it for the medics.”

Rozalie closed her eyes and focused on breathing slowly until a team of medics clattered into the bay and hurriredly set up their treatment kits at her side. The first one started dabbing around her throat with a clotting pad. “Stars around, what a mess. Get me-”

Rozalie opened her eyes to see three more concerned looks, like the one on the security officer. “How bad is it?”

Her voice caused the man to jump back in surprise. “Conscious? How-”

One of the other medics injected something into Rozalie’s arm, and immediately her body felt fuzzy and distant. “Must have missed the jugular by a millimeter. Leave it until we can get back to medical. Going to need…”

As her consciousness began to fade under the pressure of strong sedatives, Rozalie’s eyes fell shut. “Check… Make sure…” She tried to tell them to check the Hookscale picket, to verify that the saboteur had not completed his work, but the world slipped away too quickly.

Rozalie U. sent in this story from her bed in a Maribelan infirmary, to which she was transferred after an encounter with what can only be an Incarnation agent. She stumbled on the saboteur in the act and interrupted his activities, but barely survived the encounter. The saboteur was eventually cornered and killed after he injured two other personnel aboard Johan Origen. Oddly, he remained capable of fighting and great mobility despite being badly burned across his chest and face; I would guess that the implant use seen in all captured Incarnation personnel gives them some ability to ignore pain and physical injury, perhaps through the automatic application of pain-killers and stimulants.

Though Rozalie survived, she told me in her message that she expects a medical discharge; the damage to her cervical vertebrae will probably never fully heal. I hope her commander has recommended her actions to the Fifth Fleet’s board of merit; this support-department officer singlehandedly took on a deadly enemy agent armed only with a coilgun, and may have saved many of her crewmates from horrific death.