2947-08-20 – Tales from the Service: Benedictine Bonds of Blood
Last week I mentioned in this space rumors surrounding the “Benedict Dispatch” - an intelligence payload making its way through the Fifth Fleet. Repeated queries to Naval Intelligence were met with silence on this issue, but two days ago, a small team of NI agents visited Nojus and myself on Saint-Lô to discuss our coverage of the Benedict rumors, or rather, our lack thereof.
Because we avoided covering any of the rumors, Cosmic Background has been given permission to reveal the contents of the dispatch to the public, now that Naval Intelligence has determined its revalation will not compromise the military situation. I have seen much of the contents of the report filed as NIFR-1-0801, which was shown to our team in Captain Liao’s quarters, on his high-security terminal.
Though the contents of this report will be the topic of several segments on the vidcast program in the upcoming week (the first being set for tomorrow, though I’ve already recorded my part), I received permission to reveal the dossier’s key finding in a novel way – though today’s Tales from the Service.
The events described are not isolated. Throughout Fifth Fleet’s elements, similar scenes have been playing out for weeks. That Naval Intelligence suppressed the rumors until it was certain is a testament to the discipline of fleet personnel – most of all, its hard-working datasphere mail censors. At first, the nature of the dozens of captured strike and scout crews was thought to be a ruse or a trick to sap Navy discipline, but our visitors assured us that they have good evidence that the captured entities were the standards stock of the sapients we have been calling Sagittarians.
“There must be some mistake.” Katarin tossed the data-reader onto the table in the direction of her chief medical officer. She had been expecting to learn interesting things from the autopsy of the charred body – apparently a Sagittarian, as her own strike squadron hadn’t lost any personnel – picked up by the recovery tug after the most recent skirmish. They hadn’t expected bodies, given that the vehicles launched by the encroaching Tyrant cruiser had been identified as semi-autonomous drones rather than crewed strike launches, but one had tumbled into visual range of her own stranded strike-jocks. It was a one in ten million chance – or so she’d thought.
The medical chief fidgeted, but eventually slid the reader back across the table, all eyes on him. “I assure you there is not, Captain. The body was only vac-frozen for a few hours, and shrapnel in the torso matches the scrap shards we’ve picked up after other run-ins with those tiny launches. They aren’t drones. This sapient was a pilot.”
“That is not what I meant by a mistake, Chief.” Katarin glared. “This shows that the body is-”
Confirmation drew murmurs from the other officers in the briefing. The medical personnel had gossiped, of course, but it seemed nobody had totally believed the rumors until Chief Kraemer said it aloud.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a third party that got caught in the tangle?” Roydon, the gunnery chief, seemed to know his objection was almost absurd, but it seemed less unbelievable than what the autopsy report claimed. “Maybe one of those Ladeonist espionage ships the intel boys are always screaming about?”
The chief of strike operations cleared his throat to signal that he would take the question. “Nothing reported by any of the crews, visual or on the scopes. That body came from one of the five bogies we slagged.” He didn’t mention the loss of two Magpies in the engagement, though the loss ratio weighed heavily on everyone. The crews had ejected safely, but replacing state-of-the-art gunships all the way out on the Frontier was no easy task.
“I can find nothing to suggest otherwise, Captain.” Chief Kraemer stood up to point at a certain section of his report. “Human, but not entirely human. In addition to implanted picocircuitry in the head, back, and arms, this pilot was just about swimming in resident nanomachinery. We’re still working on the function.”
Katarin’s skin crawled at the idea. Macro-scale implants were bad enough, but surrendering one’s bloodstream and tissues as a hive for insidious nanites on a long-term basis nauseated her more than the idea of tearing out an eye and replacing it with a machine. “Counterhuman. Maybe the Ladeonist angle isn’t too far off. We’ve gotten reports that they’re operating in the same systems as-”
“I thought of that, too.” Kraemer swiped down to another section of findings, and flicked it off the reader onto the table’s main holo-projector. “So we dug through the contents of the stomach. We found several food proteins which match no processor recipe or organism in the database, but we found something else.” Another flick, and an image of several teardrop-shaped black motes appeared. “These are seeds from an unidentified floral specimen. It was cooked and eaten. There’s nothing in this being’s diet to suggest a food-processor provided his diet. Even the Ladeonists don’t do that aboard ship.”
“They carry their foodstores whole?” Quartermaster Matos shook his head in amazement. “The supply chain for that must be-”
“What?” The strike chief cupped one hand to his ear, then looked up in alarm. “Captain, one of our recovery tugs is returning at emergency speed. They found one of the bogies out there in the debris field, almost intact.”
“Intact. That might mean-” Katarin jumped to her feet, tapping her own comm earpiece. “Sergeant Beatty, round up a squad of Marines and meet me in the strike bay.” Looking at the officers clustered around the briefing-room table, she pointed to the Chief Kraemer. “With me. Everyone else, dismissed.”
In the moment of shocked silence which the other officers spent digesting the implications of the news, Katarin was already out the door. To his credit, Kraemer caught up as she reached the lift. “I’ve called ahead for a medical isolation team.”
“Excellent.” Katarin keyed in the destination, and the lift hurtled through her ship to the strike bay, at the aft end of the uppermost pressure decks.
“Captain, what’s going to happen when the crew realizes we’re fighting humans?”
“They’re going to do their duty, Chief. It changes nothing.”
The lift reached its destination and Katarin hurried out, reaching the reinforced hatchway into the strike hangar just ahead of a tromping column of bulky-suited Navy Marines. Though their combat helmets covered their faces, the gold stripes on the leading suit’s shoulders and chest identified Sergeant Beatty. As a unit, the Marines stopped and saluted snappily, their armored gauntlets clicking neatly against their helmet brows.
Katarin returned the salute, then waved them at ease. “The recovery tug is bringing in a mostly-intact enemy strike ship, Sergeant. The Chief here found foreign nanotech on the body we brought in earlier, so keep your environment seals on. If the pilot threatens the medical team, shoot to kill.”
“Aye, Captain.” Beatty formed up his men in front of the hatch, then keyed it open. Just as the last rank tromped through, a trio of medics in far lighter vacsuits jogged up behind them. They saluted, but did not break pace; Kraemer had already told them what to do.
As soon as the medics had entered the hangar, Katarin followed, though she was without a protective suit. The tug was still several minutes away, so she took her time finding a personnel shuttle whose cockpit viewpanel faced the correct berth, and let herself and the medical chief inside.
“Are you sure this is wise, Captain?” Kraemer hovered behind the two crash-padded pilots’ couches in the shuttle cockpit long after Katarin had taken a seat. “We can watch just as easily from the ready-room.”
Katarin ignored him; the vast cylinder of the strike recovery airlock had begun to turn its open side outward to space. Tuning her comm to the strike operations channel, she listened idly to the chatter of the excited tug pilot and the futile attempts by the operations crew to calm him.
At last, the giant lock turned full circle, and the tug eased into the a-grav of the pads with exaggerated care. Clamped against its port side was a little wisp of a ship that Katarin still couldn’t believe supported a pilot. Barely six meters long and two across, the vessel’s outer hull had been cracked and punctured by several railshot strikes, but the central body – where the pilot surely resided – appeared intact.
Technicians in heavy-lift suits scrambled forward to detach the captured strike-ship and lower it to the deck while some of Beatty’s Marines leveled their oversized weapons. Though the hangar atmosphere was quite breathable, Katarin had no doubt every person assigned to the task was keeping their environment seals safely on. Infection by hostile nanomachinery could easily be one of the most agonizing ways to die.
Failing to find a catch to open the central pod of the little ship, the technicians resorted to cutting. Though they used mechanical rather than thermal tools, sparks flew across the landing pad as the tiny ship’s thin armor resisted. Katarin’s breath caught in her throat as the workmen tore free a meter-long chunk of its frame, then jumped back without looking inside.
Sergeant Beatty, not one to order others to take risks for him, stepped forward and jabbed his weapon into the opening. After a few seconds, he stepped back, and a humanoid figure sat up in the opening, sweeping the hangar with the gaze of an oversized, featureless helmet. A mess of cables and wires connected the being’s flight suit – and perhaps biological functions – to the crippled ship, but even as the captain watched, these umbilicals fell away of their own accord.
“Pilot appears uninjured.” Beatty reported. “No visible weapons. Isolation team forward.”
The medics hurried forward as the pilot extracted the last few tethers and climbed slowly out of his ship. With his oversized, reflective helmet above a slim build accentuated by his tight-fitting flight suit, the Sagittarian pilot resembled an insect more than a human – even so, Katarin counted five fingers on his gloved hands.
At a gesture from Beatty, the pilot reached up slowly to disengage the catches on his helmet and lift it off his head. Katarin held her breath, as did Kraemer and, she suspected, half the flight ops personnel. When a shock of reddish hair spilled out of the confines of the helmet, and a shockingly young, vividly human face glared defiantly at the armored Marines, Katarin could doubt no longer. “They are human.” Even as she said it, she saw that it was not entirely true – a serpentine projection of bright metal hugged the pilot’s left brow, alive with status indicators. He was counterhuman, at best.
The medics wasted no time deploying a collapsible isolation unit around the young pilot. Confusion replaced defiance, and alarm replaced that just before the tent-like apparatus swallowed him whole. The medics would spend hours examining him for resident pathogens and nanotech, but Katarin intended to wait.
As the medics got to work, Katarin saw a face framed by red hair appear in one of the isolation unit’s windows, brow marred by shiny metal. Her blood ran cold for an instant when she realized that he was looking directly at her. Through the crowd of Marines, technicians, and medics, he had picked out the two figures sitting idly in a cockpit halfway across the hangar, and he seemed to know who he was looking at.
Katarin, at a loss as to how to react, waved at her new prisoner, trying to look bored.
With a sneering smile, the prisoner waved back, unafraid.