2952-01-24 – Tales from the Inbox: Kel’s First Mate 

I still do not have any good on-location insights from the attack on Farthing’s Chain. By all reports I can find, between one-quarter and one-half of the Incarnation main fleet is participating in this offensive, with the remainder remaining at Håkøya, probably hoping to exploit Fifth Fleet’s reaction to the attacking force. 

So far, Admiral Venturi has not deployed any portion of her battle fleet to deal with this new offensive; I am seeing reports that Fifth Fleet’s light scouting formations are being employed to force the attacking force together rather than spreading out to attack multiple systems at once, but that is, as far as any of my contacts know, the extent of the response. 

Since I have no good information about this development, I will instead bring you the story which I had to push back last week, which has nothing to do with Farthing’s Chain. If true –and I have no reason to doubt it – it suggests that there is a crew operating out of The Sprawl which is captained by a xeno of no officially classified type, and whose ship is a mix of tech from that xeno’s culture and our own technological stack. I would be very interested to meet this “Kel” and would happily extend him an interview on Cosmic Background. 

Sadek Sherburn grumbled as the food-fab machine extruded a greasy pile of beige goo into the dished receptacle on his meal-tray, then capped it with a translucent dome. The machine wasn’t wholly broken, at least – it was still applying flavor agents and heating the food, but the texture protein subsystem was clearly broken again. 

“Sorry ‘bout that.” Arnie Chance, the company mess-hall technician, waved a spanner above his head without backing out from the innards of the second machine. “It’s on my to-do list.” 

“I bet it is.” Sadek picked up the tray, scowling at the food. “Didn’t you just fix this?” 

“That was...” Arnie grunted and strained, and something inside the second machine came free with a shriek of distressed metal. “More than two weeks ago.” 

Sadek rolled his eyes. Any machine that didn’t stay fixed for more than a few weeks was not actually fixed, at least not in his book. Arnie was a good-natured sort, but he was getting old, and his technical certifications were certainly several decades out of date, if he had ever held any. Captain Kumar famously never looked too hard at any candidate’s C.V. when filling a specialist role on his crew. The skipper was, in a very real sense, a believer that any spacer could learn any other spacer’s job, if he was properly motivated. 

“It’ll work again tomorrow or the day after.” Arnie continued absently, still half-buried in the second food-fab's workings. “If I can’t fix it this time, I’ll pull the texturing module out of this one.” 

Sadek shrugged and sidestepped the tech, heading for his preferred seat at the far end of the long, mostly-empty mess hall. The mining platform Thaddeus Wall had been built and fitted out to carry a permanent crew of almost three hundred, but later modifications had automated out more than half of those crew positions, and nobody had bothered to scale down the dining facilities to match, except for the natural downsizing brought on by un-replaced, broken equipment. 

“I’ve been looking for you.” 

Sadek started at the rasping voice behind him and nearly dropped his tray. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he turned around, plastering an insincere smile onto his face. “Kel, I didn’t realize you were back aboard!” 

The creature standing significantly within Sadek’s personal space bubble was vaguely humanoid, hunched forward with its bulbous-eyed head perched at the end of a nauseatingly long neck that projected it forward of its body. Its arms ended in three-digit appendages more claw than hand which, despite appearances, Sadek knew to be quite prehensile, and its toes splayed out and forward from its flat, duck-like feet. 

“My vessel is now operational, and I may go where I wish.” Kel waved one hand. “The human authorities accepted my data records as trade for the refit.” 

Sadek nodded, suppressing a wince. “I thought they might.” He hadn’t, but apparently someone in the Naval chain of command had thought the navigation records of a crude alien computer core worth parting with most of a starship’s propulsion equipment. Sadek had figured that Kel would be left in limbo for months while there was a war on. Apparently, he’d been wrong. 

Kel scurried past Sadek to the table in the corner, then beckoned him over. “Sit, eat. I will talk business.” 

Sadek grudgingly followed the xeno to the table and set his tray down. “Kel, you have to take business up with Captain Kumar.” 

“Not so.” Kel’s oversized, watery eyes flicked across the mostly empty mess hall. “This is a matter only for one I can trust.” 

Sadek winced. He’d found Kel’s crippled ship drifting among the asteroids, and hauled it back aboard Thaddeus Wall expecting he’d hit the jackpot and could retire off the profit. Discovering a living, emaciated pilot aboard had crushed that dream; Kel’s ship was his own, and not a scrap of it had become Sadek’s. That Kel was a member of a previously unknown species had hardly seemed important compared to the fortune snatched from Sadek’s hands. Now he would be a footnote in the history of human space exploration, an answer in trivia contests for all of time, and would still be a poor mining-rig pilot for the rest of his life. 

Kel took Sadek’s silence for assent, and craned his long neck over the table. “I have a ship, and no desire to return to my home-world. But I lack experience with human customs and economic activity, and without such my travels among your people would be short.” 

“You need someone to help you make travel plans?” Sadek shrugged as he lifted a spoonful of unappetizing goo. “Can’t help you much there, I’m afraid. I haven’t seen anything but asteroids for almost twenty T-years.” 

“Oh, no.” Kel lifted one of his hands over the table and dropped something onto its pitted surface. “My ship was never designed for one occupant. Now with human tech, I am told it is best crewed by four. I am looking to fill that number.” 

Sadek looked down at the object on the table, and his eyebrows shot up. He had only seen credit chits of the ten-thousand denomination in holovids, but there was no mistaking what it was. Where had Kel found that many credits? Did he have any idea what that amount of money was, on a seedy mining vessel like Thaddeus Wall? 

“I am told this is what your people call a signing bonus.” Kel dipped his head. “There will also be a regular salary, of course. I will make sure it is commensurate to the duties of a first mate.” 

Sadek set his untouched spoonful of food down. The safe thing to do was to refuse the offer, but a ten thousand credit signing bonus was beyond generous. “Of course.” 

“So you are interested, then?” 

Sadek knew he should have asked Kel where the money was coming from, but somehow he knew that no answer he got would be satisfying or reassuring. “I think I am.” In one swift motion, he palmed the chit and stuffed it into a pocket, careful not to raise it too high into the air lest its silver and crimson glint draw unwanted attention. “Let me guess, my first duty is to help you hire two more... trustworthy spacers?” 

2952-01-17 - Tales from the Service: The Burning Chain 

While this week’s Incarnation move into the Farthing’s Chain region is news by any standard, you will not find daily coverage of this development in this space. The embed team controlling this feed is still based in Sagittarius Gate, too far from the situation to provide any meaningful coverage. 

What we will do, as usual, is curate and provide what accounts are sent to us by people nearer the situation than us. It seems unlikely that either Fifth Fleet or Seventh Fleet will be able to respond fast enough to get ahead of this attack, and so many of my own contacts are not positioned to provide good front-line coverage of this situation. 

The offensive’s goal remains somewhat unclear, even to those Navy senior officers who I was able to speak to about this matter off the record. Fourth Fleet is well positioned to counter any advance into the Confederated Core Worlds, and the reported strength of forces seen at Saunder’s Hoard suggests that at most one-third of the enemy’s strength is participating in this offensive, with the rest waiting to pounce on Maribel if Fifth Fleet moves against the attacking force. 

What is clear is that small groups of enemy ships smashed Hypercast Relays and other communication infrastructure in at least six systems simultaneously, briefly crashing Hypercast relay service throughout the better part of the Reach. The network is back up now, including in the theaters of war; Navy backup stations have been activated to patch the hole the Incarnation intended to create. The situation is in the systems hit, however, is still quite unknown. It is unlikely that the enemy has the strength to invade any more than one of those worlds. 

Today’s entry does come from Farthing’s Chain, though unfortunately not from those systems most affected. Though I cannot confirm this, our submitter on this account suggests that groups of enemy ships attempted similar destruction in some systems but were prevented, either by notably strong system security forces, mercenaries who happened to be present, or, as in this instance, some combination of both. 

Maya Szymanski had never seen an Incarnation warship, and hadn’t particularly wanted to. True, she was in the mercenary business, but the helm station aboard the clunky cargo-hauler-turned carrier Rothschild was probably the safest place in the whole industry, even with a war on. No commander would ever willingly take such an ungainly ship anywhere an enemy warship might conceivably show up.  

Normally, it was parked at least two systems away from a conflict zone doing its best impression of an orbital service station, with the dozen strike craft that lived in its hangar escorting transports and supply ships on the dangerous passage to and from their destinations in the theater of combat. Its ancient fusion reactor was so creaky and its gravitic drive so cantankerous that Rothschild spent entire weeks without the ability to even break orbit; its techs spent a whole week checking everything over before they would permit the use of its museum-piece Xiou-Edwards projector array. 

For the first time in the ten years Maya been aboard, the battle-stations klaxons aboard Rothschild were blaring, and the strike craft in the hangar were being scrambled for an emergency launch. Four Incarnation cruisers were inbound, barely 150 million kilometers away and closing fast. 

Maya’s hands sweated as she gripped the cumbersome ship’s controls, but she knew that there was realistically little she could do to alter her own fate, or that of anyone else aboard. There was hope for syrvival, but not too much of it. This was the Atwood system, one of the most idiosyncratic and independent-minded colonies in a region of notoriously idiosyncratic and independent systems. The system’s militia force boasted three destroyers, five frigates, and a dozen or so heavily armed cutters, an impressive array of hulls even if their crews were of questionable quality.  

Rothschild was also not the only mercenary vessel in the system; her competitors Dernhelm and Amit Aliev, vessels of similar provenance, were also scrambling their squadrons. The mercenary light cruiser Callaghan, which had been taking on supplies from its logistics ship, was now charging at emergency thrust to a rendezvous with the local squadron. 

“Helm, break orbit as soon as our squadron has launched.” Captain McCreery got up from his crash-padded chair and began to pace along the bridge’s long central walkway. He often did that when the squadron was away on a dangerous mission, when it couldn’t do any harm to him or anyone else. 

“Aye.” Maya had already plotted a course that would take Rothschild behind Atwood, so obeying that command would take only the push of a button. “For the record, Captain, we won’t make it.” 

“We’ll get behind the planet if Callaghan and the militia engage those cruisers for a few minutes.” McCreery shrugged as he passed Maya’s station. “After that... God knows. Comms, how’s our signal to the relay?” 

“We have a strong beam.” Ted Duncan, the comms technician, sounded hopeful. “The Navy knows they’re here.” 

Maya didn’t have the heart to point out that even if the Navy had a day’s warning about the attack on Atwood, they’d have no way of moving ships in from Maribel in time to counter it. The cavalry was probably almost a week away, and the forces assembled in Atwood couldn’t hold out for more than a few hours.  

“Rothschild, connect your squadron to Atwood tactical network C.” Commodore Meier’s barking voice almost made one forget that he’d never served in any military larger than Atwood’s defense force, or that he was commanding the impending battle from a bunker on the planet’s surface. 

“Will do, Commodore.” McCreery waved to Duncan, who started setting up the connection. “For your sake and ours, I hope you guys have some SLAM sites down there.” 

“Our surface defenses are secret.” Meier snapped. “Get that hulk out of the line of fire, then get your crew to praying. Never worked for me in the past, but it can’t hurt to try.” 

McCreery didn’t bother to dignify that with a response; he merely waved again to Duncan to sideline the channel. 

“Captain, we have begun launch.” The voice on the intercom wasn’t that of the hangar chief; no doubt some underling had been delegated to report up to the bridge while the chief sorted out some last- minute issue with one of the rigs. 

A moment after the technician had finished his report, a strike-craft flashed past the bridge viewpanel and arced away into the darkness, followed by a second. For all her feeling of helplessness, Maya didn’t wish her place changed with those who had some ability to affect the outcome; the strike crews were in far greater and more immediate danger than anyone aboard the ponderous carrier. 

“Hang on. That can’t be right.” McCreery pointed to the secondary display showing Meier’s tactical plot. “Whichever sensor post is reporting that is going haywire, Commodore.” 

Maya glanced over at the plot. At first, it looked just as it had – four sinister triangular indicators bearing down on the desperate huddle of local defenders in their way. Only on a second look did she notice that the estimated course of the Incarnation ships was no longer directly toward Atwood; it showed the ships passing one or two million klicks from the planet, far outside conventional weapons range. 

“Multiple stations confirm, Mr. McCreery.” Meier sounded mystified, and perhaps a bit relieved. “Op-for is changing course to avoid a battle. I’m going to pull the fleet back toward the planet.” 

Maya winced; velocity was protection to any vessel of war, and forcing the defending force to reverse its course would force it to zero out and then start rebuilding the shield of speed. Meier’s duty was to the planet, of course, not to the defending ships; he had to prevent his force from being simply maneuvered away from a world full of civilians. 

“There, the course changed again.” McCreery scowled at the display for several seconds. “Are they... Are they running away? From us?” 

“Looks all hells like it, Captain.” Ted Duncan giggled nervously. “I didn’t know we had it in us.” 

Maya gave Duncan a pitying look. “We didn’t.” She pointed out the forward viewpanel. “They weren’t expecting a fight here at all.” 

McCreery nodded. “Whatever they wanted here isn’t worth the risk of a stand-up fight.” His shoulders slumped. “Continue with that course as soon as the squadron is away.” 

“Aye.” Maya put her hands underneath her console to hide the fact that they were trembling. 

2952-01-10 – Tales from the Inbox: The Sentinel in Desolation 

Ruskin paused below the ridgeline, not five meters from the feet of the still-silent suit. “Any chance you were followed?” 

Jagi Jorgiev glanced up at the suit. “I don’t think so. Why not ask your friend up there?” 

Ruskin chucked. “That’s my suit. Or it was. Damned thing’s servos finally locked up three months ago and we don’t have anything to move it.” 

Jagi frowned in the darkness. How had Ruskin managed to keep an armor-suit powered, let alone repaired, for several years stranded on Adimari Valis? Their systems were designed for only a few days of operations at a time without being gone over by techs, and all of Commander Borisov’s company techs had still been aboard ship when the planet had been cut off. 

“That was the last of the old company suits, too.” Ruskin continued. “Damned shame. Though I suppose there was nothing special about those old Vasilev Model Eights except our paint job, and we scrubbed that off long ago.” 

“What have you been doing here all this time?” 

Ruskin started moving again, and gently nudged Jagi to follow. “Let’s get somewhere safe.” 

“Somewhere safe” proved to be a cave mouth on the opposite slope so small that they could only enter on their hands and knees, one at a time. Jagi hated confined spaces, so she was glad when not two meters inside, it widened. Electric lights came on almost immediately, revealing a circular chamber tall enough to stand, with two almost head-height passageways out and down on the opposite side. Though the walls and vaulted ceiling were weather-worn stone, the chamber had a comfortably regular shape, and could almost have been made by human hands. Electric lights  

“Now then.” Ruskin set his gun beside the entrance and sat up against one wall. “Nate’s not going to bother us in here.” 

Jagi nodded. Looking around, she was dismayed to find no evidence that anyone lived in the cave except Ruskin himself; there was only a single bedding pad next to the jumble of gear and ammunition near the inside wall. “What happened to everyone else?” 

“There are seven of us left from the old company.” Ruskin shrugged. “As long as the enemy thinks we’re all surviving on our own, way out here, we’re not worth hunting to them.” 

Jagi raised her hands to encompass the cavern. “Aren’t you doing that?” 

Ruskin smiled. “Looks that way, doesn’t it?” He pointed to the stone floor. “This area has some of the densest Xenarch ruins on the whole planet. There are tunnels down there that go for a hundred klicks in any direction. Nate knows some of them exist because they connect to other ruins, but the path through is too dangerous for them to do much about it.” 

“And you’re somehow keeping it that way?” 

“There are quite a few of us. Locals, mercs, a few of the scientists. Someone’s got to do it.” Ruskin pointed to a crate. “Want something to eat? All I’ve got is Nate rations, but help yourself.” 

Jagi nodded. “I might have liberated some of those myself. What about the Commander?” 

“Ah.” Ruskin scratched his chin. “I can’t rightly tell you what’s happened to him. We hooked up with some survivors from Erma’s Angels who still had working armor-suits about eight months after we got stuck here. Borisov and a few of the boys went with most of them down into the deep tunnels, and never came back.” 

“He’s dead?” Jagi winced. She had believed she’d find Jacob Borisov alive. Perhaps that had always been a fool’s hope. 

“Dead? Possibly.” Ruskin shrugged. “Probably not, though.” 

“He’s been missing for what, three years?” Jagi couldn’t believe Ruskin’s lack of concern. Their commander, the head of their little mercenary family, had been trapped underground for that long? 

Ruskin nodded. “They took one of those fancy survival food-fabs down with ‘em. Couldn’t take everyone, its output is limited if all you feed it is the slime that grows down there. Thing’s not supposed to need service for ten years.” 

“Why would he do that?” Jagi shook her head. “Go down there, I mean.” 

“Same reason we’re up here. To deny Nate anything good.” Ruskin shrugged. “The old man talked to some of the scientists, and they think... they think there’s something down there in those tunnels. A Xenarch weapon. He went to find it before Nate does.” 

“And you think he’s still doing that? You think it would take years to find?” 

“Jorgiev, it could take a hundred years.” Ruskin waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, but you haven’t seen the tunnels. After we meet up with the others in the morning, I’ll let you down into the first level. Then you’ll see.” 

“Well, if you’re not worried about Commander Borisov, then I shouldn’t be, right?” Jagi squared her shoulders. In point of fact, she was very worried. Even if one could survive there for so long, years of wandering subterranean alien ruins was an experience likely to drive even the most hardened mercenary mad. 

“Worry about yourself first. No idea what you had planned coming here, but you’re in the thick of the mess here with us now.” Ruskin pointed up. “And before dawn, you need to persuade our friends in the sky that you passed me by.” 

Presumably, Ruskin was talking about a satellite network. No doubt the Incarnation had installed just such an array to keep tabs on their conquered planet. “Persuade them how?” 

“Hike up to the next ridge and make camp however you’ve been doing it so far.” Ruskin gestured to his, supplies. “Eat something, you might as well. If our mutual friends have been following your movements, let’s make them think you’re still moving. With the help of the whole group, we’ll make camps for you in a neat little trail all the way to a major road.” 

Jagi nodded. “I understand.” She rose, then remembered that she’d have to crawl out. “It’s good to see you again, Ruskin.” 

“And you, Jorgiev. But you really shouldn’t have come all the same.” Ruskin pointed to the entrance. “Get going. You don’t have much time until dawn.” 

Despite the assurances presented to Jagi by her associate, I find it unlikely that Borisov and his compatriots remain alive. Their fellows operating on the surface have been very fortunate to survive this long, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that the group that went into the deepest and probably least structurally sound parts of this ruin complex was lost to their deaths. 

This rumor of a Xenarch superweapon to be found there is something that Naval Intelligence does not seem to take seriously. If they did, it would not be something I would have been permitted to post about in this space. 

2952-01-03 – Tales from the Inbox: The Last Suit Standing 

There is quite a cottage industry in people smuggling themselves and others on and off of occupied Frontier worlds these days. Obviously I consider this practice foolhardy, and the Navy specifically forbids it, both because of the danger and the risk that captured persons might provide our enemies with useful intelligence. 

Our submitter today claims to have made such a trip to Adimari Valis to try to locate an old friend of this feed, Jacob Borisov. We too have heard rumors that he and his men are not quite as dead as most have supposed. Unfortunately, unlike the Lost Squadrons, Borisov and his mercenaries do not seem likely to be retrieved.  

Jagi Jorgiev watched the figure on the hilltop for several minutes. It didn’t move even slightly in that time, but that was not unusual; its hulking shoulders and thick, metal-clad chest were not burdened by the need to breathe. Its silhouette slowly occluded the setting stars as they marched toward the western horizon as if it were merely part of the ridgeline. 

Jagi knew better, though. A Rico suit might be motionless for hours while its operator was scanning every sensor readout, or playing a game on the internal computer’s tiny holo-display. The operator could also be sleeping, to be wakened at any moment by the perimeter sensor alarm.  

More likely, though, the armored suit was empty, or a corpse filled its padded interior. It had been years since Adimari Valis had been occupied by the Incarnation, years since the remaining mercenaries and members of the planet’s garrison had been forced to go to ground and hide from the invaders. The chances of keeping a Rico suit in good repair that long were not good, even if one had whole supply dumps worth of spare parts to work with. So far from the main roads, on a planet with many more conveniently accessed battlefields, the occupiers probably wouldn’t even bother to haul the machine to the scrap melters. 

The chance that this Rico suit was still operational, though remote, kept Jagi under cover as dawn crept closer. She had come to the Valis to find her old boss, even if only as a corpse. Old Commander Borisov had been on the planet’s surface with his men when the escape doors had slammed shut. Everyone with him had been officially listed “missing on operation” for almost four years. His mercenary company had gone bankrupt not long after the fall of the Matusalemme system, and Borisov’s beloved Taavi Bancroft had been sold to pay corporate debt. Those who hadn’t been planetside to be trapped with their boss had been forced to watch their hard-won life cut up and sold to the highest bidder piecemeal.  

True, none of them had been long in finding new work, not with the war still raging, but for Jagi, the loss of the Bancroft mercenary company had been like losing her family all over again. She’d been at the old hulk’s helm station the day Borisov had purchased it, and on the day it had been sold. Even after three years as the XO for the smaller merc outfit Hadelson’s Horde, she still missed her old crew, her old commander, her old life.  

The Horde had been sad to see her go, but she had been relieved to see the last of them. They were good mercs, as far as it went, but they weren’t family. She’d spoken to Professor Courtenay shortly after his return from the Valis in May 2951, and from him she’d learned that individuals from at least three mercenary units – her own crew included – were still alive and active down on the surface, hiding Xenarch artifacts from Incarnation looters. The day after that, she’d started planning her own trip to occupied territory. Perhaps only a handful of Borisov’s men still clung to this doomed mission, but Jagi knew she’d be at home among them, whatever would come. 

Finding them had proven far more difficult than anticipated, however. Knowing the approximate region from Courtenay had given Jagi a place to start, but finding one band of stranded mercs in a hundred thousand square kilometers of badlands and narrow, thickly vegetated valleys was hard enough even when they did want to be found, and when there were not desperate brigands and Incarnation patrols to contend with. Jagi had been on the planet four months so far, her own supplies long since replaced by provisions stripped from ruined villages or taken from dead Incarnation soldiers.  

This solitary figure on the hilltop was the first Rico suit in all that time she’d seen except a few twisted wrecks sprawled at the roadside, and though it should have given her hope, it filled her instead with dread. If the suit did have a living occupant, she would be just another threat crossing the perimeter under cover of darkness. If it didn’t, then it would still have markings, and Jagi might know by those markings the final resting place of someone she had known aboard Bancroft. It might also be the armor of a mercenary from some other unit, but that didn’t seem very likely.  

Dawn, of course, would not make things much better. Dawn would bring Incarnation aerial patrols, and Jagi had already had too many close calls with trigger-happy airborne psychopaths happy to strafe a lone exposed figure on the ground.  

Jagi still had one of Commander Borisov’s old friend-call comms squawkers, of course, but she didn’t want to risk its broadcast, because the signal could be picked up by nearby Incarnation units, and there was no guarantee the friendlies still had working communications gear. This, too, was a problem she hadn’t anticipated before making landfall. How could she signal her identity without also signaling her position to unfriendly watchers? 

Dislodged stones clattered behind Jagi. She ducked lower in the tumble of stones that hid her and peered into the darkness, her hand falling to the trusty railgun on her hip. She held her breath, but saw nothing, and heard nothing else besides her own pounding pulse. 

A cold, sharp object pricked Jagi’s back. “Hands forward. Up. Slowly, now.” 

Jagi complied, slowly rising to her feet and keeping her hands in front of her chest, far from her gun. She’d thought she was outside the range of any Rico suit’s sensors, but perhaps she’s been mistaken. “I’m looking for-” 

“Shut up.” The man hissed as he yanked Jagi’s sidearm out of its holster and patted her for other weapons. “The only thing to find out here is trouble, and damnation, you’ve found it.” 

Jagi’s jaw dropped. She recognized this voice. “That you, Ruskin?” 

“Oy. How in all creative-” The man fumbled about and produced a tiny light, which he waved in front of Jagi’s face. “Jorgiev. Are you mad? Why... How...” 

“Story for a safer place.” Jagi shrugged. “Can you get me to the others? Where’s Commander Borisov?” 

Ruskin sighed. “We’ve both got stories to tell, then. Come on.”