2948-12-08 – Tales from the Service: Hope for the Lost Squadrons

Last week’s piece provoked a large number of messages from our audience, most of them hoping we would follow up when we could confirm that Horus was dead.

While this publication cannot do any more than any other in confirming the status of a prisoner in Navy custody, I can confirm after reaching out to the Maribel military security administration that Horus’s trial in late November lasted only two days, and he was sentenced to death. I see no reason to expect that the man is not currently dead.

Do be aware, dear readers, that Horus’s part in this war ended months ago, whatever his date of death. Ending his life might be just, but it will do nothing for the troops fighting on Margaux and the crews skirmishing with Incarnation ships throughout the Frontier.

This week, I have good news on another front. I am told by reliable sources within Admiral Zahariev’s staff that contact was briefly restored with Captain Samuel Bosch, commander of the ad-hoc formation known on the Datasphere as the Lost Squadrons – the assortment of ships cut off across the Sagittarius Gap when the Incarnation destroyed the Hypercomm relay chain and attacked the frontiers in force.

Nojus took a shuttle over to Admiral Zahariev’s flagship Triasta Asteria to discuss this news with the Fifth Fleet’s foremost expert in asymmetric warfare – the former pirate Bozsi Kirke-Moore. As always, the audio recording of this interview can be found on the Cosmic Background datasphere hub.

N.T.B. - Nojus Brand is a long-time explorer, datasphere personality, and wartime field reporter for Cosmic Background.  

C.S.D. - Colonel Carolina Durand is the Naval Intelligence attaché to Admiral Zahariev.   

B.K.M. - Captain Bozsi Kirke-Moore is a former pirate who has experience with asymmetric warfare in the Coreward Frontier, serving as an adviser to Admiral Zahariev. His rank is provisional, as he has never held it in Navy service prior to his recent appearance on the Fifth Fleet staff. 


[N.T.B.] – Good morning, Captain Kirke-Moore. Thanks for agreeing to talk about this development on short notice.

[B.K.M.] – No trouble at all, Mr. Brand. Reneer holds your outlet in high regard, and I understand that your company and your partner are friendly with the man of the hour.

[N.T.B.] – Yes, that’s correct. You were still in… retirement at the time, but Captain Bosch was quite the media darling during the New Rheims debacle and the Purge. Datasphere rumors suggest he was sent to Sagittarius by admirals who hoped he wouldn’t come back.

[B.K.M.] – I have read summaries of these events, both from civilian outlets and internal reports. Estimations of the man’s character vary quite widely, but I have gathered enough data to suggest I would very much like to meet him. Most fortunately, he seems eager to give me the chance.

[N.T.B.] – Let’s talk about that, then. How is it possible for a force like his to be operational behind enemy lines after all this time?

[C.S.D.] – You understand that we will not reveal anything we suspect will compromise operational security in answering your questions, Mr. Brand?

[B.K.M.] – Carolina, please, I am sure the man understands the limitations on what we say. He surely also understands that much of what we say here will be speculation, given how little data about the situation we still have.

[N.T.B.] – Yes, I understand.

[B.K.M.] – Now then. As mentioned in the report he sent with Martin Westland earlier this year, Bosch rounded up all the Confederated ships cut off in Sagittarius that he could find. While everyone thinks of the Lost Squadrons as the remains of the three cruiser-centered scouting and patrol squadrons Fifth Fleet sent out there, we think in intervening months he’s picked up civilian vessels; he would have had to do so, to keep his ships running.

[C.S.D.] – By our estimates, Bosch might have collected up to a hundred civilian Confederated Worlds chartered vessels. Since most of the big ships which made it to Sagittarius before the “Sagittarian” raids started were constructors and refinery ships sent ahead to prepare infrastructure for colonies, even if he has half that, simulations suggest these vessels can manufacture parts and materials to keep most of his warships flying. Battle damage is another matter entirely, so we must assume he has engaged in only limited combat.

[N.T.B.] – And he’s done that for a year with the Incarnation hunting him? Civilian factory ships are damnable pigs – too slow to outrun Incarnation warships.

[C.S.D.] – Under normal circumstances, yes. Bosch seems to have created abnormal circumstances.

[B.K.M.] – That is the essence of asymmetric warfare. Though we don’t have all the details, it is probable that he leaves the bulk of his force skulking in interstellar space while the most serviceable warships stage raids for materials and to damage soft Incarnation targets. Pirates have tried to build self-sufficient armadas capable of that sort of warfare for centuries, you know, but it is simply beyond the resources of mere outlaws. If Bosch has managed it even with civilians in train, he would have made an excellent pirate.

[N.T.B.] – If he has such a self-sufficient fleet, why can’t he run the Gap and get back here?

[B.K.M.] – I see from your expression that you ask this question for your auidence’s benefit, Mr. Brand. There are no raw materials in the Gap to collect, no metals to use to build spare parts and no organics to process into nutrient slurry. Even the phased matter density is low. It is one thing for the massed resources of his squadrons to outfit a small vessel like Terence Morey for the journey, but to stockpile the necessary materials to chance the crossing en masse would require Bosch to be far bolder in his raids and foraging than is wise.

[N.T.B.] – What about drive system maintenance? His ships’ Himura units can’t be in good shape after a year out of port.

[B.K.M.] – This depends on how often they’ve been used. Most likely some of the vessels involved will be unsuitable for Navy service now. Bosch’s flagship, Arrowhawk, is the only vessel we got technical readouts from in our recent contact, and it is in no state to make the Gap crossing without a complete field overhaul.

[N.T.B.] – So that’s it, then? They’re still stuck out there?

[B.K.M.] – For now, they remain stranded, but this will not persist for long, if plans now in motion continue on schedule. We have sent a message containing instructions for Captain Bosch, but cannot verify if he received it.

[C.S.D.] – Relieving the Lost Squadrons is a task not currently assigned to the Fifth Fleet, Mr. Brand. This headquarters continues to focus its forces on Margaux.

[N.T.B.] – The Fifth Fleet is the only formation currently fighting, Ms. Durand. If that’s not your task, it’s not going to get done, is it?

[B.K.M.] – You may print that sentiment in your text feed if you like, but I would not make any bets on that. I can however only speak for information Fifth Fleet has collected and analyzed; I cannot speculate as to decisions made outside Reneer’s command purview.

[N.T.B.] – Hypothetically, then, what would be needed to rescue the Lost Squadrons?

[B.K.M.] – Speaking entirely hypothetically, getting them home, ships and all, would require a full field depot being dispatched to the Sagittarius Frontier and set up there without Incarnation interference. Once the vessels of the Lost Squadrons have been serviced, those which are worth saving can be sent back here to Maribel for full dockyard overhauls, and those which are beyond any use can be stripped. There is no way this effort can be done in secret; this depot would attract Incarnation attention, and as a result a fleet sufficient to protect it would be required. For such long range operations, that fleet would need to be mainly of heavy cruisers and smaller warships; most Confederated battleships don’t have the star drive reliability figures needed to cross the Gap.

[C.S.D.] – We ran a few simulations. Fifth Fleet’s cruiser units could do it, but those ships are needed for another run at Margaux and will not be spared to help Bosch.

[N.T.B.] – All that for a rescue operation? What happens to that depot once the Lost Squadrons are rescued?

[B.K.M.] – It would be difficult to see such an outpost being temporary. If held, it would disrupt Incarnation plans for further offensive operations into the Coreward Frontier. Even a few light cruiser squadrons operating on that side of the Gap could bring the flow of new ships and supplies to their fleet on this side to a halt, if those squadrons were led by those of the right inclinations. Whatever the Incarnation’s plans for further offensives, if the Squadrons are relieved, I cannot see how they ignore the threat to their rear area.

[N.T.B.] – It’s a shame then that it’s all hypothetical.

[B.K.M.] – Yes, it is, but I suspect even if Fifth Fleet cannot rescue the Lost Squadrons, I will be shaking hands with Captain Samuel Bosch not too long from now, and you will be interviewing him for one of your vidcast specials.

[N.T.B.] – I sure as all hells hope so. Thank you for your time, Captain Kirke-Moore, Colonel Durand.

[B.K.M.] – No trouble at all, Mr. Brand.

2948-12-01 – Tales from the Service: Horus in Durance 

Some time ago, we featured a pair of accounts sent in by one Duncan Vieth, which related to his work along with Yejide Blum to take down a known Incarnation agent known as Horus. This agent of a hostile foreign power exploited Ladeonist ideology prevalent in the youths of Maribel’s upper class to commit sabotage and cause significant loss of life earlier this year, and then he vanished. 

The local Ladeonist youths have engaged in copycat attacks of various kinds since, but the lack of Horus’s expertise generally limited the effects of these to a manageable level. What happened to Horus was initially not known – after the events detailed in Tales from the Service: On Horus’s Heels the agent vanished for months, evidently going to ground despite multiple roundups of known Ladeonist-sympathizers and a general crackdown on such illicit activity on Maribel. 

In the last month (and the account in front of me does not say more precisely when), Horus reappeared. Vieth and Blum, since reassigned to dealing with the planet’s extensive black market in Navy-issue materiel, led an operation to capture a starship smuggling stolen government goods off-planet. Nothing suggested then or now that this smuggling outfit had Ladeonist or Incarnation ties, and yet a person claiming to be Horus and loaded with the Incarnation implant tech to match the claim was captured aboard. 

Naval Intelligence believes that Horus, who hired onto this vessel as a lay spacer technician, was trying to move his operations to another world. Though the smuggler vessel’s itinerary claims it was going to Håkøya, his intended destination remains unclear. 

Yejide Blum, Vieth’s partner who narrowly escaped death in the pair’s last encounter with Horus, describes the eerie (and to those in this audience who remember other Ladeonist agents such as the one in Tales from the Service: A Stowaway Saboteur, familiar) experience of interrogating this true believer in the Incarnation’s paradoxical cause. 


The man in the cell grinned. “Horus.” For a deadly enemy agent, he wasn’t much to look at – short and stocky, bald, with dark eyes and a bulbous nose, he looked more like a shopkeeper than a saboteur. Though he had the temple implant common to many Incarnation personnel Yejide had seen pictures of, his was almost flush with his skin, easily concealable with a little bit of polymer skin. 

“Legal name.” 

His grin widened. “Adris Ladeon.” 

Yejide Blum glowered through the thick gravitic shear isolating the implanted Incarnation agent. “Horus” had picked up this petulant game from the dilletante revolutionaries of the city, among whom giving the name of their loathsome ideological father instead of their own when arrested had become annoyingly vogue years before. 

In the cases of the maladjusted children of the city’s wealthy, a fingerprint or retinal scan usually revealed their proper identities, assuming they were smart enough not to engage in criminal “revolutionary” behavior with their ident cards in their pockets. Most of them weren’t, naturally, smart enough to take this basic precaution, so they added lying to the authorities to the list of crimes their parents’ expensive lawyers needed to fight for no purpose except to feel smug. 

In Horus’s case, however, there was no way of knowing his real name unless he gave it. His records would be in the Incarnation’s data-systems, if any existed at all. “We’ll stick with Horus, then.” Yejide tapped her data-slate to type that name into the form. It gave a warning, but she didn’t care about the niceties of the precinct software. “Date of birth?” 

“Thirty-three ninety-nine, twelve, thirty-one.” Horus adopted an almost comically innocent expression. “Standard calendar.” 

Yejide didn’t even bother entering a date hundreds of years in the future into the system. “Home habitat?” 

Sabileen Station, Gunderson system.” 

Yejide almost dropped her slate. “Say again?” 

Sabileen Station, Gunderson system. It’s in Galactic West, just a few ly from-” 

“Yes, yes, I know where it is.” 

Horus grinned demoniacally. “I know you do.”  

Yejide did her best to keep composure. The man had probably picked out her home habitat, the place her parents and siblings still lived, to get under her skin, and she refused to let it work. How he’d learned that from inside his cell was a mystery for later. She reminded herself that as long as Horus sat in the cell in front of her, her family was in no danger. “Preferred funerary arrangements?” 

“Whatever costs the most.” 

Yejide tapped in “no preference” and closed the basic form, despite warnings about its incompleteness. “You’re going to get the atomizer, Horus. You know that, don’t you?” 

“Probably.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t seem fair, does it? If I’d done what I did for your corrupt admirals, they would be pinning medals to my chest.” 

“Never.” Yejide shook her head. “You blew up civilian infrastructure. Killed nonmilitary-” 

“Everything is a military target, my soft captor. Every credit in damage and every drop of blood spilled brings the victory of the Incarnate closer. Every picture of carnage pushes you and yours closer to giving in and letting us save you from yourselves.” 

Yejide had, like most Maribelan security officers, taken multiple courses of Ladeonist counter-ideology training, but the rote answers didn’t seem likely to bother him very much, and she very much wanted to bother him. “You think anyone wants help from a half-human chiphead?” 

“Temper, temper, Agent Blum.” The stout man held up his hands, certainly knowing that this would rile her even further. “Perhaps you’d like to say unkind things about my parentage as well?” 

Yejide took three, calming breaths. “No need. The Navy bailiffs coming by day after tomorrow to collect you are better at that sort of thing than I am.” 

“Oh, good, new jailors. I hope they’re interesting.” Horus shrugged. “I’ll have plenty of time to get to know them while my case works its way through.” 

Yejide smiled for the first time. Perhaps Horus was smarter than most of the wannabe revolutionaries he had taken refuge with on Maribel, but he lacked one thing they didn’t - an appreciation for how much cognitive dissonance went into drafting the Ladeonist propaganda intended to remove dissidents’ fear of the law. “This is the Frontier, not the damned Core Worlds. In our courtrooms, with the best lawyer your rich fans could buy, you’d be in the atomizer in ninety days.” 

Horus’s smile didn’t falter, but neither did he have a witty response. Being unfamiliar with the realities of Confederated Worlds justice, especially as it played out on the frontier, he probably didn’t know much beyond the propaganda.  

“Too bad for you, Navy courts work fast. No civilian lawyers, no appeals. You’ll be dead in two weeks.” Yejide shrugged. “No media, either, so no chance to make a splash or rally your idiot followers on the datasphere.” 

“Oh.” For a moment, Horus’s confidence almost faltered, and Yejide thought he might be about to give her something useful to save his hide. It wouldn’t take much – a few names, a few safehouses, identifying information on other agents, whatever he knew – and the Navy would put off his execution to the end of the war, when it would almost certainly be commuted anyway. 

This hesitation lasted only a moment, however, and the smoothly confident mask returned. “Two weeks is a lot of time. The Incarnate would have one of yours dead or broken to its will in an hour and a half.” 

Yejide, having heard plenty of stories about just this, shuddered. There were probably those within Naval Intelligence quietly wishing they could apply Incarnation torture techniques to their prisoners, and she hoped they would never be allowed to give it a try. “That's exactly why we don’t want your so-called help, you idiot.” 

“That lack of will,” Horus shook his head sadly. “Is exactly why you need it.” 

2948-11-24 – Tales from the Service: Operation Layman at Margaux

Admiral Zahariev and the Fifth Fleet have once again engaged the enemy fleet over Margaux in recent days. 

While the results of this Second Battle of Margaux are not as positive as might be expected, as the Incarnation still holds the system, reports indicate high losses inflicted on their force in the battle, in vast excess to the losses inflicted on the Fifth Fleet. Furthermore, while the battle was ongoing, an extensive resupply operation was conducted to provide needed spare parts, munitions, and medical equipment to the garrison on the Ishkawa Line, and nine of the twelve haulers which carried out this resupply escaped the system loaded with combat wounded and civilian evacuees.

The greatest success in this battle was in a diversionary trap which is rumored to be the brainchild of Captain Kirke-Moore, Admiral Zahariev’s close adviser. This diversion succeeded in pulling eight Tyrants away from the main action and destroying two of them, damaging a reported four others sufficiently to put them out of action, all for the loss of three haulers and a few frigates, plus a light cruiser damaged. While losses in the main engagement were closer to even, Confederated losses were still relatively light, as most ships put out of action were able to retreat from the field.

Commander Jorg Geier, skipper of one of the haulers involved in this clever diversion, was allowed by Naval Intelligence to describe his experiences to this media team.

Austen Levitt had never been better escorted in her short career as a Navy logistics hauler, but its skipper Jorg Geier couldn’t help but feel uneasy as he surveyed the system map pulled off the fleet command network, watching the swarm of bright red indicators gathering in high Margaux orbit. The enemy fleet besieging the planet had a numerical advantage over the cruisers and battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet, and he didn’t appreciate being part of the diversion meant to split this force.

Jorg glanced at the corner of his bridge display where the standing orders for his vessel appeared, noting that they still had not changed. Following the cruiser Bandertail as closely as its helmsman dared, with a pair of point-defense frigates holding station off the stern, Levitt was well-protected from enemy long-range missiles and strike-craft raids. The other dozen-odd haulers participating in the operation were similarly well protected. Either the Incarnation commander would divide his force and dedicate cruisers to chasing down the haulers and their formidable screen, or the logistics squadron would reach Margaux and begin unloading supplies unmolested while the rest of the battle unfolded.

Though the admiral’s plan doubtless worked better if the enemy fleet divided to engage both Confederated formations, Jorg hoped it wouldn’t. The battlewagons and heavy cruisers of the main Fifth Fleet formation were tough ships; they could withstand close-range duels with Tyrant cruisers much better than a lumbering hauler, even one escorted by almost twice its tonnage of lighter warships.

Bandertail reports strike craft moving to intercept.” Deering, the officer manning Levitt’s comms station, did not sound as concerned as Jorg felt. “Looks like a probing attack. We’re to stay on course.”

Jorg switched his display to a tactical map which displayed the tiny wireframes of Levitt and its three escorts, as well as the approaching Coronachs. The light, agile interceptors were quite capable of damaging a cruiser’s more vulnerable equipment, and would have no trouble slicing a hauler’s unprotected hull to ribbons.

Fortunately, Levitt had not come to Margaux unprotected. Light railgun batteries on Bandertail and the two frigates opened up on the enemy squadrons, and cones of flashing orange swept like virtual searchlights across intervening space as clouds of high-velocity ferroceramic projectiles sought to entrap or scatter the approaching formations. Jorg had seen a railgun battery firing with his own eyes, once – the glowing streams of superheated death pouring forth from dozens of fast-tracking barrels had seemed impossible to evade at the time, but now, protected by the fire of multiple batteries on three warships, he wasn’t feeling so sure.

The enemy strike-craft group split into numerous smaller groups as the expanding orange cones reached out to meet it, each group dashing in a different direction. A few groups flew into the cones and abruptly vanished – the Coronach pilots could probably only guess where the Navy gunners had directed their guns, and some inevitably guessed wrong – but the rest, likely able to detect the hot projectiles as they passed close by, now knew where the guns were pointed, and began to more confidently weave between the converging streams of railshot.

A few green arrows sallied forth from the wireframe of Bandertail as the cruiser’s squadron of Magpie gunships launched to join the fight. Jorg often envied the Magpie crews’ role in the war; their fate was in their own hands. They didn’t have to crew a plodding, unarmed tin can which relied on others for its safety.

“Enemy cruiser formation is splitting.” This time, Deering seemed nervous. “Eight-cruiser formation headed our way.”

“Steady.” Jorg tried to project a confidence he didn’t feel. Admiral Zahariev’s plan was working; the main formation now had eight fewer Tyrants to deal with. “We’re more than an hour out. They’re not committed yet.” The ten light cruisers and more than two dozen frigates and destroyers of the diversion column would probably not be enough to fend off the enemy detachment, but that too was part of the plan; after all, the diversion wouldn’t be very effective if it looked too tough to crack. “The order will go out when it’s time.”

Closer to hand, orange cones of railshot converged on a trio of Coronachs, and they winked off the board. Roughly half the enemy strike interceptors were still operational, and they seemed to be struggling to approach closer to their targets through the defensive fire. Jorg noticed a few other small-scale strike probes testing the line behind Levitt, receiving roughly the same treatment. Based on the briefing, these relative few were not the bulk of the enemy strike strength; most of the Coronachs had not revealed themselves, as they were probably already in the field but holding back to support the main action. The ability of Incarnation strike pilots to sit in their cramped cockpits for hours or even days at a time without going stir-crazy never failed to amaze Jorg – at least in a Magpie, one could unbuckle and move around, and there was even a narrow crawlspace in the crew compartment where one person at a time could sleep.

The minutes ticked past, and while the Coronach raiders continued to harry the hauler column, none got even close enough for the Magpies to get involved. Jorg told himself to relax; after all, the cruisers were still hours away, and he would be quite safe if things went according to plan. The fact that the last action over Margaux had deviated rather spectacularly from the plan did make it somewhat difficult to convince his nerves of this. Jorg, with little to do from the skipper’s console, got up and fetched coffee for his bridge crew, more in hopes that walking around would soothe his nerves than out of any altruistic intentions.

Deering switched the main display to a status board with a timer ticking down from fifteen minutes shortly after Jorg had regained his seat. “Approaching intercept point of no return.” That would be the point beyond which the Tyrants probably wouldn’t be able to rejoin the main body in time for a battle, even with their engines providing full acceleration. The best they could do to help the main Incarnation force if they continued to pursue the hauler column beyond that point would be to flash through the middle of the battle at high velocity, trading one close-range volley with each ship they passed. A few minutes after that point, Jorg and the rest of the hauler skippers would order the activation of the surprise which they had fitted in deep-space after leaving Maribel.

“Come on, you bastards.” Jorg muttered. “Let’s dance.”

As the timer approached zero, a tense silence filled Levitt’s bridge. At any moment, they knew, the commander of the detachment might sense the trap and rejoin the larger force in time for the main battle. Even as the timer flashed zero and vanished, the tension remained; the performance characteristics of Tyrants used to calculate the point of no return were best-guesses, so plenty of margin for error had to be given.

Thirty seconds after the point of no return, Jorg switched on his comm. “Intercepting force is committed. Prepare the Layman.”

Deep in the belly of the hauler, Jorg imagined the three Navy munitions techs springing into action, scurrying around to prepare the two massive fission-warhead capital torpedoes for launch. Levitt and the other similarly equipped haulers had no systems capable of guiding these weapons; once they were pushed out of a cargo hatch by hydraulic rams, fire control systems aboard the frigate Oscar Glanville in the center of the line would take over to arm and guide them.

“Message from Glanville.” Deering announced. “They’ve sent arming codes. Launch in eight minutes.”

Jorg nodded, adding his own arming code to the code sent by Glanville before sending the result down to the munitions techs. The enemy ships would still be some distance away in eight minutes, but that was fine – the dumped torpedoes, designed to be fired from their motherships by bulky launch systems, would need some time to drift away from the formation before their gravitic drives could be used safely. Now that the course of events was set, he felt less nervous. The torpedoes probably wouldn’t destroy the Tyrants outright, but even forcing two or three out of the fight would turn the odds completely in favor of the escort group.

The timer ticked down toward zero, and the Tyrants on the plot inched closer as the remaining strike raiders peeled off to regroup.

At the designated time, Jorg opened his comms circuit to order the launch, but before he could speak, Levitt shuddered with the force of two massive payloads being shoved out an airlock. Robbed of his last active role in the battle – perhaps the war – Jorg sat back in his chair and waited nervously for the real fireworks to start.

2948-11-17 – Tales from the Service: Boarding a Hellship

While we’ve been covering the adventures of the Marines, FDA, and mercenaries on the ground at Margaux, Admiral Zahariev has been planning his next move to recapture the orbital space above the besieged planet.

The Fifth Fleet has been away from Maribel for several weeks now, its resupply train ferrying supplies out to predetermined rendezvous points in interstellar space. What it has been doing in that time, I cannot say, for the simple reason that this embed team is not with the fleet. Our home vessel, Saint-Lô, remains yard-bound to repair battle-damage suffered during the fleet’s first attempt to relieve Margaux.

Before this war, any spacer would have regarded the idea of six fully-crewed battlewagons going out on operations for nearly a month without a return to port as an insane expenditure of resources better suited to the grand strategy of the Terran-Rattanai War, but this is more evidence that the Admiralty is taking the Incarnation’s push into the Frontier very seriously indeed, rather than worrying about budgets and resource stockpiles.

While news that the Fleet has arrived in Margaux space once more is expected any day now, I cannot provide a date or speculate as to Zahariev’s plan of attack. His force is noticeably smaller than the last time it tangled with Incarnation cruiser swarms over Margaux, but intelligence suggests the enemy fleet is equivalently degraded by the previous battle and by the harassing attacks of the few remaining ground-side anti-orbital batteries on the planet. At least one Tyrant is also believed lost and several others damaged in cutter ambushes at the system’s periphery.

The Navy’s successful use of stealth cutters in harrying attacks on enemy warships and supply haulers has been one of the bright spots for many months. This week, the Navy announced that it had concluded Operation Express, a clever use of steath cutters to capture an Incarnation supply hauler returning from Margaux to one of their forward bases, probably Mereena. While it was expected this vessel was moving critical plundered supplies, it was found to contain instead prisoners taken during the fighting on Margaux - mainly men from the FDA - kept in horrific conditions. As the survivors are still undergoing medical attention and debriefing, no full list of personnel rescued from this hauler has been released.

Sem Ivankov, one of the Marines temporarily placed aboard Mahseer (a vessel which has appeared in this feed before – Tales from the Service: A Tyrant’s Downfall) for the operation sent us a report of what was found aboard. The video taken by the marines’ suit cameras is beyond description, but he did his best to recommend a few words in his written account. If the use of what the Navy is calling "Hellships" for prisoner transport is commonplace in the Incarnation, many tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel from worlds like Margaux and Adimari Valis are at risk of enduring horrors like those Corporal Ivankov saw.

Mahseer shuddered as the assault-docking clamps welded to her hull for the operation clanked onto, then bit into, its massive cargo hauler prey. Two other retrofitted cutters were supposed to be doing the same thing at exactly the same time, but Corporal Sem Ivankov knew better than to expect everything in an operation so complex to work out as planned.

“Docking link established.” Lieutenant Commander Zappa announced over the secure link. “Marines are go.”

Sem and eleven other Marines detached their heavy assault suits from snaking umbilicals and released the hard-lock on their suit joints. One by one, each kicked out far enough to escape Mahseer’s miniscule A-grav axis, then used maneuvering thrusters to drop their magnetic boots onto the hull of their victim.

Boarding operations being a Marine specialty, used regularly even in peace-time to recover hostages from terrorists or rescue unfortunate Confederated citizens from pirate chattel pens, this part at least was completed with no complications – all twelve pairs of boots hit the enemy ship’s hull simultaneously.

“Think they know we’re here, Sarge?” Lukas Okorie, the youngest private, sounded nervous, and Sem hoped his own voice would not betray the churning in his own insides. He had briefly participated in the last phase of street-fighting withdrawal on Mereena, but this was different. Below his feet, inside the hull, was enemy territory.

All at once, the stars all around began whirling crazily, as the ship’s crew belatedly realized the danger. Though the Marines on its hull were in no danger of being thrown off as long as the hull plating itself stayed put, Mahseer’s retrofitted clamps began to visibly flex with the sudden strain. If those clamps broke, Mahseer – the Marines’ ride home if things went badly – might be thrown clear of the hauler.

“I think they know, Okorie.” Sergeant Sommer’s dry mockery of the young man cued several snickers on the squad link. “Let’s go.”

Though the hauler wasn’t laid out anything like the briefing material had suggested, the squad found an airlock quickly. Rather than cycling their massive suits one at a time through a normal personnel airlock, and thus facing whatever lay inside one at a time, they unpacked an assault airlock and securing it to the hull.

Once all the segments of the assault lock’s deployment ring and breaching charge had been set up, the Marines arranged themselves inside the ring.

“Breach.” Sommer called. Though there was no sound, the airlock’s outer hatch disappeared into a cloud of glittering metal splinters which quickly vanished into a torrent of gray fog as atmosphere from within vented into the void and cooled.

Sommer let the air escape for less than two seconds. “Seal.” He triggered the assault airlock ring, which threw up a dome of flexible self-sealing plastic around the Marines and the gaping hole where the original airlock had been.

As soon as the pressure had stabilized, Sem headed for the opening. He had volunteered to take point, even though it was technically the rookie Okorie’s turn. Okorie would be a good Marine someday, but he still had a long way to go.

The corridor lighting on the hauler had failed, or been deliberately cut, but that didn’t stop the Marines, as their suits had both lights and night-vision helmet optics. The walls and deck were filthy by the standards of any spacer, as if the deck had once been given over to free-roaming livestock and had only been cursorily hosed down. Sem was glad his suit remained hermetically sealed, as he imagined the smell of such filth to be horrific.

Just as it had been on the outside, the vessel was not laid out as the briefing had said, but a hauler was a hauler, and Sem had seen plenty of them. Based on where Mahseer had latched on, the airlock they had boarded led to a lower deck amidships, probably the deck that gave the crew access to the cargo bays.

Though the ship shuddered and sporadic contact with the other two squads from the other two cutters indicated action elsewhere onboard, Sem saw nobody. He led his squad forward, looking for an accessway to the upper decks to join the fighting. If the Incarnation crew of the vessel knew his squad was there, they made no attempt to intercept them.

As the squad hustled forward, Private Okorie tapped one of the large hatchways on either side of a long corridor that seemed to run the length of the deck. “Sarge, what do you reckon is in here?”

“Pressurized cargo hold.” Sommer replied, echoing Sem’s own best guess. “Intel says this ship’s return flight is emergency priority, so whatever they looted from Margaux, they must really need it.”

As the sergeant patiently humored the nervous private, Sem’s suit sensors indicated an acoustic anomaly – a faint, rapid tapping had started behind the door Okorie had just knocked. “Hold it. Something’s in there.”

At once, the squad wheeled and organized a shallow semicircle, guns pointed at the door and poor Okorie, who hadn’t moved as fast as everyone else.

Noting that the rookie had become point-man after all, Sem gestured for him to open the door. It was safer to deal with the uncertainty now than to leave it threatening their flanks.

Okorie hugged the wall, then reached one armor-suited arm across and pulled the manual release latch in the middle of the hatch. It shuddered open on worn-out bearings, and twelve sets of harsh suit-lights shone into the massive cargo hold beyond.

Instead of maddened Margaux beasts, Sem and the others saw only two filthy, emaciated figures crouched on a catwalk beyond the door, pitiably shielding their eyes from the Marines’ lights. The floor of the bay, and likely the main loading doors, was about ten meters below the catwalk, and from that direction a cacaphony of animal-like noises could be heard.

“What is this?” Sergeant Sommer’s suit-external speakers amplified his voice until his deep baritone sounded even more like that of a vengeful storm-god than normal.

One of the emaciated men on the catwalk stood shakily and offered a trembling Confederated salute. “Lieutenant Denzil Vicario, FDA.”

Sommer gestured for the two men – obviously unarmed and barely able to stand – to step out into the corridor, and for the rest of the squad to check the hold. Okorie went in first, and Sem made sure he was second.

At first, when Sem panned the beam of a suit-light over the floor of the hold below, he thought it filled with a chunky beige substance, perhaps some manufacturing byproduct extracted from the many chemical factories on Margaux. It was Okorie who realized what he was looking at first – and who promptly vomited into his helmet.

Seeing the other Marine’s distress, Sem looked again. This time, he saw a face peering back up at him with listless, blank eyes. To his horror, he began to see others – face after face, body after body, buried in the material filling the hold.

Upon the realization that the substance in which they were buried were more men, Sem nearly voided his own stomach as well. The hold had been filled with living men as completely as if they were a substance, until they could not stand without standing on one another, could not lie down without being trampled. The cargo hauler had left Margaux orbit six days before – they had, presumably, endured this purest form of human-devised hell for the entire duration.

The utter callousness on display overwhelmed even a hardened Marine, Sem backed out of the hatch, blanked his suit’s sensors, and focused on his breathing until the roaring sea of helpless anger receded. He would kill the chip-heads later – right now, he needed to find a way to help the wretches in the hold below.