2951-08-30 – Tales from the Service: The Encirclement on Morioncruz

Though there has not been much datacast media activity regarding the place, Fifth Fleet has announced that an attempt to liberate the minor colony of Morioncruz is ongoing. Apparently the force sent to this world is considerable, mainly consisting of fast cruiser forces and some of the fastest troop transports available.

The battle line of Fifth Fleet is, it seems, not present; it remains at Maribel, ready to pounce on Håkøya should the enemy respond to the battle at Morioncruz in force. Admiral Venturi apparently does not fear that Maribel is in significant danger of the same sort of attack, but using only the fastest forces available is probably also a hedge against this eventuality.

We have gotten a few accounts, some extremely brief, from the mainly FVDA force deployed to Morioncruz. The battle on the ground has been difficult, but not, apparently, very bloody, at least not so far; the Incarnation troops there are reported to be numerous and well supplied but not well dug in, suggesting the world has been a sort of barracks depot for troops that were preparing for offensive action. This account, which will take at least two weeks to bring to this feed, is of a minor action at the fringes of the main battle area, one of probably dozens of such attacks and counter-attacks of similar scale.

Lukas Kaufmann placed his scope’s triangular reticle over the narrow doorway in the side of the landing field control tower half a kilometer away, then sent a double click on the squad comms channel to indicate that he was in position, ready to cover the advance of his compatriots. If any Incarnation personnel came out of that structure, they’d be walking into a blast of electrified plasma courtesy of his arc rifle.

A moment later, an answering chirp on the same channel announced that the advance was starting. Somewhere ahead of Lukas, down near the bottom of the ridge on which he lay, a dozen FVDA soldiers would be clambering through the underbrush at the edge of the cleared landing field to begin creeping toward the tower, its associated sensor station, and a nearby maintenance hangar.

“Be advised, Orbital reports we’ve got inbound enemy air.” Lieutenant Jansour’s thick Memoire de Paix accent filtered into Lukas’s ear through his comms earpiece. “Probably Siroccos coming back from the main event. Stay under cover until they’re on the ground.”

“How long do we have, Lieutenant?” Sergeant Calvo, leading the group tasked with taking the tower, sounded like he was whispering into his comms pickup. Though there probably was no chance of him being overheard from more than a hundred meters away, Lukas didn’t blame the sergeant for being cautions anyway; Incarnation sensor equipment was notoriously good.

“Ten minutes or less, Mr. Calvo. Abort your approach.”

“Acknowledged. Staying low.” Calvo didn’t sound happy about that, and Lukas didn’t blame his compatriot. If the Siroccos spotted any of the attackers on their landing approaches, they could sweep the area with their strafing lasers, putting a stop to the attack long enough for reinforcements to be pulled off the main battle line to thwart this behind-the-lines expedition.

Lukas, knowing that he was no longer required to cover the tower door, swept his scope across the field toward the maintenance hangar. He was just in time to see its main doors creeping open to permit a cavalcade of tracked and wheeled vehicles to spill out onto the apron, each filled with Nate technicians and their equipment. If Calvo had tried to go ahead with his attack, he and his men would have run right into this group and been outnumbered; even technicians, this close to the front line, would keep their laser rifles close at hand.

“Movement by the hangar.” Lukas reported. “Multiple vehicles. Looks like the maintenance team.”

Lieutenant Jansour was quick to respond. “Hold fire, Mr. Kaufmann.”

Lukas winced; the lieutenant should know he didn’t need to be told. Firing on the maintenance vehicles now would ruin the surprise of the attack, and that was the whole point. If possible, the objective was to take as much of the base’s equipment and garrison intact; once the sensor station was disabled, a group of transports would fly in to haul it all away. Headquarters might even be able to find pilots for a few Siroccos, if those managed to make it into FVDA hands intact. Even if the garrison managed to destroy them, waiting until the aircraft were on the ground would all but ensure they were removed from the battle for good.

Lukas watched the maintenance team lining up their vehicles until the deep-throated rumble of incoming Siroccos began to echo off the hills on every side. The sound sent chills down his spine. He had been under Sirocco attack on Mereena, and again at Glen Moore, and this time, he was glad to be out of sight at the ridgeline, rather than down with the rest of the squad.

Swinging the arc rifle up and along the opposite ridge, Lukas scanned for the incoming aircraft. Three huge sweep-wing vehicles came into view before long, flying low against the hills in a line. A thin trail of gray smoke trailed behind the second of the three, and the third was flying slightly askew, likely as a result of superficial damage to one of its wings.

Valero, positioned several hundred meters down the ridge with a better shot toward the hangar, beat Lukas to reporting their arrival. “Siroccos in sight.” Valero’s drawling Frontier twang carried a note of dry humor. “Two of ‘em are damaged. Looks like they’ve been having a bad day out there.”

Lukas hoped that was true. The fate of Morioncruz had still been very much in doubt when their group had set off on its long trek around to attack the enemy rear, and they had heard very little from Orbital about the progress of the greater battle. Though the world was hardly among the Frontier’s most populous or prominent planets, it would do everyone good to take one back from Nate for a change. If the hated Siroccos couldn’t sweep the battlefield without being shot half to pieces, things were not going the way Nate wanted.

“Make sure your men are out of sight, Sergeant Calvo.” Jansour’s warning was probably once again not necessary, but like Lukas himself, Calvo had the good sense to keep quiet. Jansour was nervous; they all were.

The first of the aircraft, the undamaged one, made a low pass over the landing field while the one trailing smoke slowed and deployed its landing skids. The huge aircraft came to a shuddering halt just in front of the maintenance men, some of whom were already swarming forward toward it before it even touched down. A moment later, the other damaged Sirocco came down near the first, resting at a weird angle on a half-deployed landing skid below the damaged wing. It, too, was soon the object of the technicians’ attention.

The final aircraft, as if suspicious that its enemies lay in wait not far away, circled the field twice more before bringing itself in for a far more graceful landing close to the tower. As soon as it was down, its belly hatch disgorged a pair of men who dashed into the control tower.

“The last one’s keeping his damned engines warm.” Calvo grumbled. “If we go now, he’s going to be airborne before we get twenty meters.”

Lukas scanned the Sirocco with his rifle scope. Like most Incarnation vehicles, there were no clear viewpanels on its body; the crew could see out only with the aid of the cameras studding its fuselage and wings. A hit on most of the aircraft would leave only superficial damage. He had a decent angle on the port-side engine air intake, but there was no telling what a shot with an arc rifle would do there. It might do nothing, or it might blow up the engine, and that close to the tower, an explosion might wreck most of what they hoped to capture.

“If we wait for those two to get back, he’ll be airborne anyway, Sergeant.” Lukas gritted his teeth. They hadn’t brought much in terms of heavy weaponry, certainly nothing that could take down an airborne Sirocco before it cut them to pieces. The crew of that aircraft could easily foil the whole raid, if they reacted fast enough.


2951-08-16 – Tales from the Inbox: The Cover Crop

Evgeny sat with his back to the reassuring bulk of a proper Reach-manufactured tilling machine and called up the farmstead’s network on his wristcuff to check what was still functional. The debris had stopped falling, but he could still hear occasional fizzling and sparking sounds from somewhere in the chaos that had been his experimental plot, along with wet squelching sounds and viscous dripping.

To his dismay, Evgeny saw that four of the six Incarnation crop-tender machines he’d acquired at great expense were not even responding on the network. The status readouts for the other two were a cascade of orange and red indicators, along with a fast-flowing stream of binary data that appeared on the display only as a block of wavy static. Though the makers of the machines spoke a variant of Anglo-Terran, he could make nothing of the labels associated with these readouts.

Muttering a resigned curse, Evgeny looked up from his wrist, only to have his attention transfixed by the beams of light filtering into the shed from dozens of jagged holes, some of them big enough to put his fist through.

The blast had riddled his little pre-fab cabin, too, but Evgeny decided he would prefer to be sitting inside and drinking coffee while he considered his situation. After peering at the smashed plant-beds one more time, he clambered to his feet and, giving the pulped plants a wide berth, picked his way back to where he’d started his eventful morning.

Though his comms belt-pack was buzzing insistently, Evgeny collected a cup of coffee from the thankfully-undamaged food-fab unit, then brought it back out onto the balcony to look down at the center of the blast from a new angle. There was nothing left of the cabbage-like growths that had exploded. Only the stubby base of their tender machine remained, its internals dangling out of the shattered stump. Only a few centimeters of vine remained above the soil, and each severed end leaked greenish-yellow goo. The other plants had been variously mangled, diced, or pulped, and nothing looked salvageable.

After a few sips of coffee, he still didn’t see any bright spots on his outlook, except for the daylight shining through the shed opposite. He had not told anyone about where he was going or what he would be doing there, and the plot of land was kept well away from prying eyes. The food-fab still worked, but with the cabin perforated, all it would take was one good rain squall to short everything out. The tracked ground-crawler he’d hauled everything out on was parked far enough away that it was probably undamaged, but he’d never be able to haul everything back. Pieces of the Nate machines were probably scattered hundreds of yards into the trees. Eventually, someone would find one and the trail would lead right back to him. The authorities would have way too many questions, and he wasn’t interested in answering any of them, ever.

The comms unit was still buzzing as Evgeny tossed his freshly empty mug into the oozing vegetable ruin and started for the crawler. If he recalled correctly, there was a kilo or two of mining explosive in there which had been part of a previous cover story suggesting he was rambling about in the woods prospecting for minerals. The less he left of the site, the better.

Once he had found the explosives, Evgeny paused to check the comms board on the crawler, which told him he’d missed dozens of messages and comms channel requests, all from the same source, an anonymized numeric identifier. He ignored them; in his line of work, anyone who wanted to be anonymous and couldn’t be bothered to at least steal a respectable datasphere identity wasn’t worth dealing with.

He’d set explosives around the shed and the remains of the garden plots when a single-seat lighter zipped overhead at high speed, then banked into a high turn and began to circle back. Wincing, Evgeny tossed the rest of the explosives under the cabin and stood to wave at the aircraft as it passed overhead a second time, giving it the universal double-thumbs-up that indicated that he was all right. Hopefully, that would dissuade the pilot from landing.

The lighter was, however, not dissuaded. It circled to bleed velocity and altitude, and would soon be landing. Evgeny wondered how he’d explain the mess, or the obviously foreign machinery littered about as he picked his way over toward the only obvious landing site to meet it.

As it turned out, he didn’t need to explain. The pilot hopped out the moment the little aircraft came to a stop. Her reddish skin and mane of pearly white hair told Evgeny who it was; after all, there were only two or three Atro’me on the whole planet, and only one of them had any interest in his affairs.

“Constable Neeson!” Evgeny waved with enthusiasm he didn’t feel. “What brings you out to my holdings?”

Neeson folded her arms over her chest. As one of the minority of Atro’me who had elected to have her body and face modified to better match those of a human, she was not unattractive, if one could get over the fact that she wasn’t human, but those yellow eyes always made his blood run cold. “Care to tell me what insanity you’re up to this time, Evgeny?”

Evgeny shrugged. “Agriculture project.” He followed Neeson’s gaze behind himself to the shredded shed. “It’s, ah. Not going very well. Can I help you?”

“There’s been an explosion.” Neeson frown ed. “I suspect you might know something about it.”

Evgeny once again glanced behind himself. “It was, ah, a fertilizer accident?”

The constable stared at Evgeny blankly for several seconds. “Do take this seriously. Two people are dead.”

Evgeny held up a hand. “We are not talking about the same explosion, are we?”

Neeson frowned, then shrugged. “You thought I was coming about the mess over there? Bah. Blow up your own land all you like, as long as it’s all the way out here, and as long as you tell me what you know about bay Seven White.”

Evgeny froze. Bay Seven White was the spaceport berth where he’d met the smugglers who’d gotten him his cache of Incarnation agricultural equipment, the place he’d taken charge of those precious crates of now-destroyed machinery. That had been many weeks ago, but still, it couldn’t be a coincidence. “Something exploded at the spaceport in bay Seven White? Let me guess, the Ursula DeKalb was berthed there.”

Neeson nodded slowly. “So you do know something. I know you met that ship the last time it was in port. Do they work for you?”

“Oh, no. Not most of the time. Not right now anyway.” Evgeny winced. “Look, it’s, a complicated business relationship, you know how it is.”

“What do they deal in that might explode?” Neeson pointed one crimson finger at Evgeny. “I’ll forget to report that you bought some of whatever it is if you help me get to the bottom of this.”

Evgeny brightened. Immunity from being looked into wouldn’t last long, but it would last long enough for him to cover most of his tracks. “Oh, that would be just fine, Constable.” He beckoned toward the farm plot. “Right this way, and I’ll show you what’s left of what I bought from them.”

I am not sure if I buy Evgeny’s story about a convenient visit from a law enforcement professional looking into a blast at the spaceport. Sure, things explode at colonial spaceports from time to time, but the timing here is too convenient. I would suspect that our contributor here has compressed events into a shorter time-line as part of the track-covering he freely admits to.

Regardless, we should pay attention to the dangers of handling Incarnation equipment; many people seem to want to get their hands on “Nate” hardware but are not aware of the risks. If you want my advice, leave enemy materiel alone; the Confederated-make equivalent is in most cases just as good and much safer.

2951-08-16 – Tales from the Inbox: The Bitter Harvest

Though I cannot verify today’s account, its author claims that he (through channels unspecified) acquired a cache of agricultural tooling and a partial seed bank stolen the Incarnation held world of MacNeil’s End.

Probably intending to turn this enemy materiel into a grey-market exotic goods business, our source, who identifes himself only as Evgeny, seems to have expected to find various fast-growing foodstuffs adapted from Sagittarius species, ideal for keeping a large infantry force in supply. Evidence from ration packages collected on the battlefield seems to suggest that our enemy does indeed grow the food for its invasion forces relatively close to the front lines and process it only very little before packaging, so his expectation was only too reasonable.

What Evgeny found himself growing, however, was decidedly not food. His little plot of land (he fails to specify the world he introduced the crops to, but I suspect it was one of the low-population Farthing’s Chain planets nearest the Frontier) became host to a very interesting phenomenon.

Evgeny leaned on the porch-rail of his prefabbed cabin, chin resting on the tips of his fingers. Between him and the shed at the other end of the only clearing in his hundred-acre wooded holding, six fenced-in garden beds held six different varieties of crop. At the middle of each bed, a silvery machine configured to tend that particular crop stood, its various spray-nozzles and articulated arms recessed into its sides.

Evgeny didn’t know much about the machines, except that they had done most of the planting, tending, and weeding in their respective plots themselves; he’d fed each a little cylinder of seeds, and they had read the instructions printed into a hexagonal data-crystal at the end of the cylinder. After that, all he’d needed to do was keep the water tower full, refill fertilizer hoppers when the lights started blinking, and keep the generator behind the cabin humming.

The problem with running unfamiliar machinery and unfamiliar crops, of course, was that when something went wrong, he had no idea what would fix it. When he’d gone to bed the previous night, the experiment had seemed poised at the edge of total success – all six beds had produced healthy-looking plants, and all the plants had produced healthy-looking fruits, tubers, leafy greenery, or cabbage-like buds. According to the plant-tending machines, the growth cycle would be over some time before dawn, so Evgeny had retired, looking forward to a very interesting morning’s harvest.

Instead, the late morning light had revealed that the garden had been thrown into a very interesting, and very concerning, state of pure bedlam. Red lights flashed forlornly on all the machines, which had apparently given up their efforts to prune and tend the crops when their timers had expired. This expiry had coincided with a very strange phenomenon – the vine-like, yellow-fruit bearing plants in plot number two had grown explosively overnight, and now their fuzzy tendrils were encircling the tuberous stalks in plot number one and forming a rather daintily attractive net around several of the giant-cabbage-looking bulbs in plot number five. Three had only avoided invasion because the previously shiny, broad-leafed plant growing there now dripped an oily secretion which seemed to wither all other plant matter on contact. Four had withered almost to death, and the foliage in number six was taking on an unhealthy yellowish-gray color.

That he was dealing with genetically altered life-forms, Evgeny knew from the beginning; most crops grown anywhere in the Reach were gene-tweaked in some fashion. He had expected the tweaks to adapt the crops to a fast growth cycle, and that seemed accurate, but he had not expected an explosive and suicidal growth spurt in the final few hours, overnight.

He had already checked the composition of the last batch of fertilizer, some of which was still in the machine hoppers, and it was identical to what he’d been using all along. He’d also already checked the water lines and the machines from his control board; everything was green. The machines had hit the end of their cycle and transmitted success codes only six and a half hours before he woke to this disaster. In that time, everything had apparently gone wrong.

As Evgeny stared out at the plants and wondered whether anything could be salvaged, he noticed that the yellowish fruit on the sprawling vines in plot number two still looked plump and healthy. Between them and the intact looking cabbage-things in five, he thought maybe he could get two of the crops out of the beds and see what they were good for. He didn’t have the intended agricultural harvesting machinery, but he had a good pruning hook and a basket; manual labor would have to suffice.

Still wondering what he might have done wrong, Evgeny headed for the shed to get his tools. He’d bought a piece of land with almost the same rainfall, soil, and solar energy conditions as the place where the seeds had been stolen from. True, those conditions were on another planet, but at first that hadn’t seemed to be a problem. As far as the machines were concerned, everything was going well right up until the end; it was almost as if the crops had been offended at their master’s late-sleeping habits and destroyed themselves in a rage between dawn and his rising.

Evgeny didn’t realize how preoccupied he was with such thoughts until he tripped over one of the vines spanning the path from number two to number five and nearly fell headlong. Scowling, he extracted his foot from the tangle and finished the transit. With a closer look at the oil-sweating leaves in number three, he thought that this might be intended – perhaps the plant was not a nutrient green after all, but a source of edible oils that could be easily refined. That those oils wilted other plants, however, did not give him any inclination to test the theory himself – certainly not without extensive lab work.

As he reached the shed, Evgeny heard a strange sound behind him, a sort of tinny clicking, like electrical connections being made on a live circuit. Fearing that his generator might have developed problems, he turned to check it, only to stop in place, mystified by the spasmodic jerking of the vines which had grown across the path. A single twitching wave seemed to start way back at the tendrils invading plot number one, then to work its way up the thickening vines to the roots, and back down the vines once more to end at the increasingly vine-encased cabbage-growths in plot five.

Evgeny had encountered many species classified as flora which possessed some motive power, so movement itself was not terribly concerning. What was concerning was the metallic, sparky clicking that accompanied each wave’s origin at the tuberous plants in plot one. It almost seemed like the vine was being electrocuted by those specimens, but that didn’t make any sense, did it? He had heard of electricity being used by natural species, even on Earth, but why would anyone develop an electricity-generating crop?

He didn’t have much time to ponder this question before he noticed that the destinations of the twitching movement – the cabbage-like plants encircled by vine tendrils – were beginning to hum ominously, and the hum was growing louder with every wave of electrical twitching. Worse still, they seemed to be swelling, their bulbous interior beginning to bulge haphazardly through the outer leaves and the net of tendrils.

Evgeny watched the cabbage-things in blank-faced bemusement for fifteen long seconds as the hum grew again and again. When the inevitable thought finally slipped through, it was almost too late. He scrambled into the shed and dove behind a heavy ground-tilling machine just as the first of the cabbage-plants exploded – not the wet, fleshy explosion one would expect from a vegetable, but a bright flash and a hail of splinters more crystalline than woody.

Evgeny cowered there until the resulting chain reaction finally subsided, and carefully peered over the machine and across his thoroughly ruined garden. Only then did he begin to revise his assumption about the nature of the seeds he’d acquired.

2951-08-09 – Tales from the Service: The Envoy’s Proposal 

While the Gilhedat are probably only coming to Confederated space in numbers of a few hundred or less, my inbox certainly over-represents these beings in terms of the stories sent in. Nearly everyone who has encountered them seems to want their story featured in this space. 

That being said, I do not think we will do many more of these stories; there are other sapient species native to the Sagitrtarius Frontier whose stories deserve to be told as well, and we expect a resumption of military operations soon which will also create further material for the Tales from the Inbox series. Though I appreciate all the other Gilhedat accounts sent in, there seems to be a very distinct pattern to these encounters which seems beyond the scope of this series or this embed team to analyze. 

Nestor Palazzo watched in amazement as the other star-captain and the golden-skinned alien left his ship’s lounge. He didn’t think that Cremonesi was in any physical danger, but the idea of negotiation with the Glitters tied his stomach in knots all the same. 

“Why do you fear us?” The female – Drase – fixed those pupil-less scarlet eyes on Nestor again, and he felt the blood drain from his face. Those eyes, he was certain, saw more than they should. “We bear no weapons.” 

Nestor looked away. Couldn’t she just see why he didn’t want them on his ship? Why he couldn’t survive a voyage of even a few days in their company? Wouldn’t any denizen of the Reach have very nearly the same reaction? 

“You have no secrets worth preserving, Captain Palazzo.” She continued, her tone lower and almost compassionate. “And even if you did, why would we gain from learning them?” 

“Secrets?” Nestor shook his head, still refusing to meet the Glitter’s penetrating eyes. “What’s inside my head is my own. Damned private. Like the ship, but that didn’t stop you.” 

“I am sorry. The initiative was mine. Your colleagues were only too glad to assist.” 

Nestor chuckled hoarsely. That was probably the closest he was going to get to an admission that Desjardins had used his official override codes to grant them access to his ship. “I’m sure they were. Nobody else wants you any more than I do, do they?” 

“I am afraid not.” Drase paused for a long moment. “Have you really been alone on board all these years?” 

“Damned right.” Nestor had gotten his start in space as an engines tech on one of the big passenger liners, but those ships had teemed with enough human life to make him glad to see the end of every voyage. After inheriting his great-uncle's modest estate, he’d been able to strike out on his own. It was a simple, monotonous life, but it was one he’d dreamed about as a child, and it was one which suited him well. Nestor had never been accused of working well with others. 

“I see.” The tone of these two words suggested that she saw too much for Nestor’s liking. “To us it seems a sad existence.” 

“Look.” Nestor turned around, squaring his shoulders. Drase’s posture and bearing had changed to something a bit more human, a bit less aloof. “With all due respect, get out of my head and see to your own affairs. Save your pity for someone who isn’t living his dreams.” 

Drase smiled, though there was something uncanny about the expression, an incomplete copy of the real thing. “I do not envy your dream. But if you would permit, I, and only I, would like to share it.” 

Before Nestor could decipher what she meant, one of the two others, face still expressionless, stepped up behind Drase and whispered something in her ear. Her monosyllabic response did not seem to satisfy the other, but he backed away all the same. 

“Hold on.” Nestor finally put her words together into an arrangement that made sense. “I won’t take all four of you to the Sprawl, so you think I’ll take only one at a time?” 

“Perhaps I should explain our purpose in traveling to human space, Captain.” Drase held up a hand, indicating her compatriots, both in the room and otherwise. “We seek to increase understanding of your kind and its nature. Our kind has seen too much of what the Incarnate has shaped for our liking, but it remains to be seen whether this shape is an aberration. That study will be a work of many of your decades. Perhaps many of your lifetimes.” 

Nestor frowned. “You think you can learn something of humanity by riding along on my ship? I go months without seeing people sometimes. All you’d have to study is...” He paused. “Oh, no. Hellfire, you must be mad.” 

Drase took a step forward, holding her arms out. With every move she made, she seemed to grow more human-like, though the uncanny sense that every movement and every gesture was a copy remained. “It is bold perhaps, but it is not madness. There is much you stand to gain, and much I stand to learn for my people.” 

Nestor stepped back. “I, uh.” He didn’t know why it was so hard to simply refuse and turn away. He wondered if the Glitter woman might be using some sort of mind-game to influence his thinking, to muddy what should have been a clear decision. 

As if reading this thought, Drase smiled. "What you feel is not of my creation. I only sensed it before you did." 

Nestor frowned, following the muddled feeling through his thoughts until it dove down into imponderable places. He was no longer so afraid of having his thoughts looked into – in fact, he was more worried that this sensation might, in time, turn into a cracked-tooth ache. 

“You do not know what it is?” 

Nestor shook his head. It was vaguely familiar, like a strain of music heard once a long time ago, but he had no word for the sensation. 

Drase held out one slim, golden hand. “Then, if you will allow me, I will help you learn.”