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?”

2950-12-20 – Tales from the Service: The Assassin Influencer

Captain Sandra Ibsen scowled down at herself as Toloni’s lumbering ground-car lurched back into motion. She looked up only in time to see the two crisply uniformed security men in the rear canopy gawk at her as the vehicle rounded a corner and vanished up the street. Their surprise told her that they didn’t know about the plan which required Holy Tabernacle’s skipper to dress like a desperate socialite. They had very little time to learn, if things went according to the Hierophant’s schedule.

Gritting her teeth, Sandra held one hand in front of her face, cuing holo-displays in the smart-fabric of her detached sleeves to wake and show her the controls. With one final cringe, Sandra switched everything on. The already gaudy blue and green evening dress lit up with shimmering holographic fire, and dancing accents spun around her body and above the tapered hat into which she’d bundled her hair.

Several pedestrians along the street who’d stopped and stared when Toloni’s huge groundcar had rumbled to a halt now stopped and stared again. Sandra hated being stared at, but for the moment, it was part of the plan; feeling the reassuring lines of her sidearm tucked into the ruffled pouch below one arm, she adopted the most vapid, impatient expression she could conjure up and flounced down the street.

Toloni had had his drivers drop Sandra off around the corner from the headquarters of Bertolini & Thatcher Group, a small Maribel datasphere media company which seemed mainly to work as production contractors for the Frontier’s motley array of independent media personalities. According to Toloni, their person of interest was inside, recording live on a studio set for her fashion-obsessed audience.

Delilah Brahms-Walton was, by the standards of the broader Reach, a niche personality with a modest datasphere footprint, but with nearly ten million fans, mostly young women from relatively well-to-do-families, she was probably BTG’s most prominent client. Sandra had surveyed Brahms-Walton’s datasphere hub a few months ago, when they’d first linked her to Toloni’s several would-be assassins, and had been far from impressed. Brahms-Walton seemed mainly to reach her audience through live broadcasts to Maribel followers, which were then transmitted as recordings outside the system. Vapid, tittering, excitable, and shallow, she was pretty in that vague, elfin way that didn’t threaten other women or make them feel jealous. Evidently, her manner and looks did little to attract a male audience; almost nineteen out of every twenty of her followers were women.

As to content, Sandra had detected almost none. Though branding herself as a fashionista, Brahms-Walton seemed to spend almost no time designing, trying, modeling, or critiquing fashion products. Most of her broadcasts were of her chattering amiably about nothing for the camera lenses, interrupting herself excitedly so many times that no bit of gossip ever seemed to be described in full. She occasionally brought on someone to chat with, or broadcast from exotic vacation destinations all over Maribel. This last sort of show usually featured Brahms-Walton baring all in a skimpy swimsuit, surrounded by equally vapid, pretty, scantily clad young people, and it was stills from this sort of recording that had first linked her to the attempted killers.

The front doors to the BTG studio were smaller than Delilah expected, but once inside, the broad lobby with its tastefully abstract furnishings, tastefully-dressed, blank-faced receptionist, and tastefully unobtrusive security guard were far more in line with expectations. Sandra pretended not to see the receptionist for several seconds, until the woman waved slightly, and then pretended to be surprised, as if the woman had jumped up out of the floor.

“Love the look. Trying to book a studio, Miss?” The receptionist smiled.

“No, no, no. Delilah said to meet her here.” Sandra deliberately raised her voice’s pitch and lowered it’s volume. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

The receptionist brightened. “Oh, you’re going on with Miss Brahms-Walton? I love her so much. She’s going to love that outfit. Studio number three.”

Sandra looked around, staring down the two hallways disappearing into the building. “Three…” She easily spotted signage that would guide her there, but pretended not to. “Where’s that?”

“That way.” The woman pointed to the hallway on the left of her desk. “Take a left at the big arrow, then it’s on your right.”

“Thanks!” Sandra immediately turned to the hallway, then hesitated at its threshold. “Right at what?”

“Rob, can you show her?” Sandra could almost hear defeat in the receptionist’s voice.

The security guard peeled away from his spot in an out of the way corner and hurried up to Sandra’s elbow. “Follow me, Miss.”

Sandra followed the man, and as she did, she pretended to fidget with the cuff of one of her sleeves. In reality, she was transmitting a double-click signal to the head of Toloni’s security detachment. The groundcar, and Toloni, would arrive outside in a moment, but first Sandra had to pin down their quarry. Brahms-Walton couldn’t know she was about to meet Grand Hierophant Uberto Toloni until the last possible instant.

At the studio door, the guard stopped Sandra, then peeked his head in. “She hasn’t started her show yet.” He smiled at Sandra, looking her up and down. Though her attire was far from revealing, Sandra didn’t like the feeling of being inspected like that; it was something unknown among spacers, partly because they almost never dressed to draw the eye. “Do you need anything else?”

“Oh, you’ve been so helpful.” Sandra grasped his hand and lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “This is going to be my big break.”

The guard chucked and extracted himself. “You’ll do great.”

Sandra sent her double-click signal again as the man ambled back toward the lobby, then turned and went into the studio. Beyond a semicircle of recording equipment, Delilah Brahms-Walton lounged at a desk in front of a pastel-patterned backdrop, inspecting her intricate makeup. Her attire was no less gaudy than Sandra’s, a riot of gold and violet with a constellation of starburst holograms chasing each other around her thin frame. A lone tech scuttled between the various fixtures, clutching a slate.

Brahms-Walton glanced over to the door the moment Sandra came in, though given the elaborate outfit Toloni had given Sandra, noticing her was hardly a feat of observation.

Sandra waggled her fingers in a wave. “Hi!”

Brahms-Walton stood, a confused look crossing her face. She was taller than Sandra had expected. “Do I know you?”

“You don’t recognize me?” Sandra blinked and pretended to look hurt for an instant. “I suppose there were a lot of people. It’s me, Sissy! Sissy Ibsen? From Sioda Sands!”

Brahms-Walton made an exaggerated show of thinking back. “You do look a little familiar. Did-”

Sandra clapped her hands. “I knew you’d remember. We only talked a little, but you and Conrad-”

“You know Conrad?” A look of alarm crossed Brahms-Walton’s face. No doubt she knew that Conrad Nyquist had been captured on Vorkuta attempting to assassinate the highest-ranking Penderite.

“Know him! I was in primary-ed with him! Oh I could tell you all kinds of-” Sandra stopped short, as if remembering something, mimicking Brahms-Walton’s own style of delivery. “Anyway, he told me, after we met at Sioda, he said: Sis, Delilah said, if you’re ever in the city, drop by her studio. I was going to a party, but then I thought-”

“Conrad told you I wanted you to stop in?” Brahms-Walton frowned. “I didn’t tell you myself?”

Sandra, improvising, looked away. “Er, I kinda… had too much. Those blue drinks with the paper umbrellas, what were they called?” Sandra knew it was a universal constant that any tropical resort built by humans always served some sort of blue alcoholic drink with a little paper umbrella.

Brahms-Walton nodded; she clearly didn’t remember the trip in question entirely clearly either. “I love to have friends on the show, Sissy dear, but you’ve come on a bad night for it. Are you still going to be in town the day after tomorrow?”

Sandra looked downcast, but nodded. “Until next Thursday.” She turned to go, then stopped. “Er, have you heard from Conrad? He sent me some messages after he left on his business trip, but they… It doesn’t sound like him. Something about a priest?”

“He sent you messages?” Brahms-Walton was between Sandra and the door in an instant, her vapid, over-exaggerated mannerisms gone in an instant. “When? What did they say?”

Sandra shrugged, smiling wistfully. “Silly stuff. He rambled on for so long. It was nice to hear his voice.”

“Ninety seconds, Miss Brahms-Walton.” The tech, adjusting the controls of one of the bigger cameras, called out.

Brahms-Walton put her hands on Sandra’s shoulders. “Stay and watch the show. After, let’s have drink and catch up, and talk about bringing you on for the next show, okay?”

“Really?” Sandra bounced on the balls of her feet as much as her ridiculous platform heels would allow.

Delilah Brahms-Walton smiled reassuringly, but there was steel behind that smile. Sandra, still fairly certain her cover was intact, nevertheless shivered at the idea of pretending to be duped. “Anyone so special to Conrad is a friend of mine.”

Before our words once again grace this feed, the Emmanuel Feast (Christmas for Roman Catholics) will have passed. From all of us here at Maribel, both within this embed team and in service to the Navy which guards this world, we pray that this occasion is a time of joy for all of you back home. For the two thousand nine hundred fiftieth year, and for the third time of this war, we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, though peace yet remains a rare commodity.

There are many more fitting accounts for the season in my inbox, and we may diverge from Captain Ibsen’s account next week to tell one of these, if time and Naval Intelligence censors permit.