2951-09-27 – Tales from the Inbox: The Councilor’s Trust

Drase was gone only a few minutes, but it was plenty of time for Nestor Palazzo to wonder if his suggestion had been somewhat less than wise. In truth, he didn’t want to get mixed up in the secretive doings of any of the Sagittarius xenos, be they Gilehdat, Kyaroh, or anything else. If Hoyr agreed to let him in on this supposedly important secret, it might bring all sorts of trouble far in excess of any pay.

When he spotted the slim, hooded figure slipping back across Lawrence’s dingy dining room, he was already hoping that she’d received a negative answer. The deliberate strut she’d used to turn every head and clear a path for Hoyr before was gone, now; she was gliding through the space like a ghost, almost without touching the floor, and with barely any eyes fixing on her.

“I was able to make Hoyr understand the problem.” Drase spoke without sitting down.

“Ah, well.” Nestor sighed. “There’ll be other jobs. Drase, I really appreciate-” Nestor stopped. Drase was still standing there, her glinting eyes boring into his. “What?”

“Had there not been these complexities, would you have accepted Hoyr’s task? Even if it meant trusting me with the navigation of your ship?”

Nestor shrugged. “If it were just a matter of you entering in coordinates without me knowing them? Sure. I could show you how to do it with the navcomputer in a couple hours.”

Drase nodded, her shoulders slumping slightly to communicate relief. “Then perhaps I will not come to regret vouching for your honesty.”

“Wait.” Nestor slid out of the booth to stand, towering over Drase. “He agreed?”

Drase nodded and held out her hand. When she opened it, he saw the Hoyr’s black token resting on her palm. “Take this.”

Nestor reached out to take the metallic disk, but before his fingers could close on it, Drase grabbed his huge hand in both of hers and pressed the token into his palm. “My fate is staked with this secret, Nestor.” She whispered, barely audible over the hubbub in the diner. “If it were to ever get out, you cannot conceive of the consequences for us both.”

Nestor shook his head. “If it’s too much a risk-”

Drase released Nestor’s hand and stepped back. “It was mine to risk, and it was risked.”

Nestor held the token in front of his face. It was heavier than it had looked, and covered in tiny symbols that he couldn’t possibly make out clearly in the dim lighting of Lawrence’s. “What now?”

“Hoyr will have the cargo at Macie Kurtz sometime next shift.” Drase turned around, reached up, and pulled Nestor’s hand down toward his pocket. “I will show you how to use this when we have departed this station.”

Nestor nodded. “What’s he paying?”

“Of your credits…” Drase paused and looked away for a moment. “One thousand times five hundred plus fifty. And there’s-”

Nestor steadied himself against the table. “Five-fifty thousand credits, Drase?” The sum was nearly half of the total value of Macie Kurtz, even with all the modifications he’d made to it over the years. Running back and forth from the Sprawl to the outlying stations, even with the most sensitive cargoes, didn’t pay that much in ten runs.

Drase nodded, unsurprised by Nestor’s reaction. “As I said, he pays very well. Your government issued the Kyaroh credits, so they spend them far too freely.”

“Clearly.” Nestor grinned, then reached back into the table to close out his tab with the diner, his tab still sitting at zero despite the drinks and food. “Come on. I was going to make this a surprise, but we don’t have enough time for me to sneak it back to the ship anymore.”

“You have ordered some amenities for my space aboard the ship.” Drase’s lips tugged upward into a smile. “I have known since the day you radioed ahead and placed the order, but I do appreciate the gesture.”

Nestor frowned as he led the way toward the exit. He had of course worried she might be able to guess that he was up to something, but he hadn’t expected her intuition to be so specific. “Are you sure you people aren’t mind-readers?”

As they stepped out into the better lit concourse outside Lawrence’s, Drase flicked her brown hood back across her shoulders. Her golden, almost cherubic face and hairless head shone in the harsh light, and the faint freckles below her huge eyes almost seemed to twinkle. Her appearance turned a few heads, but only a few – the Gilehdat had been a common enough sight on the Sprawl almost the moment it had been constructed.

When Nestor led her into the lift, Drase slid one slim arm into his and leaned against him. “Would you have preferred me to pretend to be surprised?”

Nestor shook his head, looking down at her. “You know what I think about white lies. People are easiest to deal with if they’re honest.”

Drase laughed, a crystalline tittering sound that, though pleasant, was nothing a human could possibly have made. “Then I will remain easy to deal with, as long as I am permitted to give no answer when all answers risk being misunderstood.”

“I know.” Nestor wondered why he knew this, but he did, and that bothered him more than being uncertain. He was only too aware of how easy it would be for her to manipulate him – but he was also confident that she would not do so.

As usual, Drase seemed to read Nestor’s thoughts. “You see why, but it eludes your active thought, so it passes upward as intuition.” She craned her head back and closed her eyes. “It is the seed from which the tutors coax our art, and it would make you mad if you were not a recluse.”

Nestor rolled his eyes. “I’m terrible at reading people. That’s why people drive me mad.”

“And yet, for your instincts, it seems my disposition is quite naked.” Drase opened her eyes into alluring crimson slits, and despite himself Nestor found that comparison arresting. “Do not ask me to teach you the art.”

“Because you aren’t a tutor?”

Drase shook her head, just as the lift doors opened onto Merchant’s Row. “It is not a matter of capacity. I do not wish to be so cruel.” With one motion that seemed too fluid to be the work of a limb containing bones, she extracted her arm from his.

Nestor frowned at this enigmatic answer, but something in her demeanor suggested that he wouldn’t get any more out of her on that topic, at least not then. With a sigh, he led the way toward the shop which had a crate of luxuries waiting for them.

This is, I am afraid, the end of Mr. Palazzo’s account, at least the part he sent. It makes sense that, if it is accurate, he would not detail any part of his work for the Kyaroh for fear of betraying their secrets, and if the account contains embellished elements, that he would leave it there for fear of betraying the fact that he did not in fact work with them.

The focus of his account is obviously on the relationship between himself and his erstwhile fellow spacer, the Gilehdat envoy Drase. Her suggestion that a human might learn the arts of the Gilehdat diplomats is interesting, though I’m sure their kind would deny that officially. If half of what is said of them is true, they are a potent weapon for the Grand Journey in its diplomatic endeavors which I’m sure this organization is not interested in sharing with the Confederated Worlds.

2951-09-13 – Tales from the Inbox: The Computational Dilemma 

This week, we continue Nestor Palazzo’s account. Obviously, his claim of being involved in secret Kyaroh dealings is dubious to be sure, and is perhaps embellished, but it seems that he needed this embellishment to explain something about his changing relationship with his associate, the Gilehdat envoy Drase. 

“You negotiated work? Just now?” Nestor Palazzo frowned across the table at his cloaked companion. “That can’t have taken more than a minute.” 

Drase shrugged, her slight frame still not quite used to the gesture. “Hoyr and I spoke while you were seeing to your other business. I told him that I had no right to commit you or your ship until you granted me that right.” She flicked a long, golden finger into the menu, requesting a beverage. “He will pay very well.” 

Nestor set down his spoon and pushed aside his still only half-eaten stew. “Okay. What’s the catch?” He didn’t have any real problem with the idea of working for a Cutter – other than Hoyr, he had never really spoken to one – but the ease with which Drase had found him work was more than a little suspicious. 

“His time table is short, as he said.” Drase’s drink slid out onto the table, and she picked it up. “Also, the destination coordinates are quite secret. It is demanded by the leaders of the Kyaroh that no human may know the location.” 

Nestor frowned. “If I can’t know where-” 

Drase spun the token she’d been given like a coin. “The Kyaroh trust a Councilor to protect their secrets.” She peeled the film off the rim of the drink and took a long sip. “The only missing piece is your cooperation.” 

Nestor held up his hand. “How am I going to program the Himura drive if I don’t have a destination?” 

“You won’t program it.” Drase stopped the spinning disk with one golden finger. “You will teach me to enter coordinates into the star drive, and to purge its memory core.” 

“Woah, woah.” Nestor shook his head. “Back up. It’s not that simple.” He held up a finger. “Firstly, it’s not as simple as entering coordinates. The navcomputer needs to compute the fold radials and transit points, and send those over to the Himura prior to a jump. The navcomputer records are protected information, you can’t wipe that without getting-” 

“It is possible to directly configure the star drive.” Drase arched one eyebrow. “I have read of human spacers doing this in emergencies.” 

Nestor thought back to the last time he’d done the computations for a jump by hand. That had been as part of an examination when he’d updated his solo-operator certification, nearly six years prior; he’d never done it for real, and very no spacer he knew had either. How did Drase expect to learn all that math fast enough to be within Hoyr’s timetable? If she screwed up even one step, it could badly damage Macie Kurtz’s Himura Transitor, or simply deposit the ship at some random nearby location in several glowing pieces. 

Drase leaned closer. “This is a misunderstanding?” Still, her ruby eyes did not betray any hint of concern. Nestor resented how closed her thoughts were; even if she did know the enormity of what she was asking, she probably wouldn’t show it to him or to anyone else unless she wanted to. Every being was an open book to her, but her thoughts were her own. 

Probably sensing Nestor’s annoyance, Drase drew back. “Even now, you think my arts work to my advantage, Nestor?” She looked away, and this time, he could read the hurt feelings in her bearing. “If you do not trust me to act as your agent, I need not do so.” 

“Wait.” Nestor put one big hand on her shoulder as she moved to exit the booth. “I’m not sure you know what you’re asking.” 

Drase looked genuinely startled, though Nestor could not guess exactly why. “How so?” 

“You will have to do the computations by hand to keep their location secret. That takes weeks or months for most humans to learn. Even assuming you picked it up in a few shifts, I couldn’t check your work without access to the original coordinates.” Nestor shook his head. “If you do it wrong, it could kill us, or strand us to die in a wrecked ship.” He had only just begun to come to terms with Drase’s presence in his life and wasn’t terribly interested in having that process violently cut short.  

Drase nodded slowly. “I see. This is not a problem I had anticipated.” 

“Go and talk to Hoyr again.” Nestor dropped his hand. “Tell him that if time is critical, he needs to start trusting at least one human with the coordinates.” 

2951-09-13 – Tales from the Inbox: The Councilor’s Arrangement

Nestor Palazzo slid into the corner booth in Lawrence’s and rested his elbows on the table. The figure opposite, a slight woman wearing a hooded brown cloak, barely raised her head. “Settled up with Mendelsen.” He gestured to the empty bowl in front of her. “Do they have food recipes here that work for you?” 

Drase nodded. “The owner already arranged a data transfer to Macie Kurtz.” Her voice was barely loud enough to be heard over the hubbub of the establishment.  

“Good.” Owen Lawrence, the proprietor, was… well, “friend” was probably not the right term for the relationship. But Nestor knew the man well all the same. 

“He did not ask for payment.” Drase gestured to the bowl. “Not even for the food.” 

“I sent him a message to let him know you were with me.” Nestor called up the table menu and punched in an order for beer and the closest thing to beef stew anyone was likely to get on this side of the Gap. Though each of these items had a listed price, the tab at the bottom of the display still showed a zero tab when he had submitted his order. 

Drase leaned over the table to scrutinize the menu, and its bluish light cast her elfin, not-quite-human features into harsh relief. She seemed far less alien now than she had when they had first met, even though a still image would show no change. “You do not pay here?” 

“I pay Owen, sure. Just not with credits. Credits can be tracked and taxed.” Briefly, Nestor wondered whether the place – one of the seedier eateries in the Sprawl – was a bad place to take a Gilehdat, even one who had, for reasons he still did not understand, inserted herself into his routine. Even if Drase was telling the truth when she said her kind was not telepathic – and he was not entirely convinced of that – there were plenty of people who reacted poorly to their presence. 

Drase nodded, and Nestor disliked how knowing this simple gesture was. “How do you pay him, then, that the authorities do not supervise?” 

“Odds and ends. The sort of thing people offer when they want something done fast and don’t have the credits to match.” Nestor pointed up at a glass ornament hanging on the wall over the booth. “Half the art in this place fell off my ship. Sometimes it’s booze, or real food.” 

Drase sat back, her huge eyes seeming to drink in the light from the menu. “I understand.” 

This was a phrase Nestor had come to dislike intensely, because it never meant just one thing. He had still not gotten used to having someone around on the ship in transit; he was too self-conscious about what she was concluding from every little mannerism and tic he’d picked up in his years of flying solo. 

A hatch in the wall opened and Nestor’s order slid out on a tray, the foamy head of the beer sloshing wildly within its sealed glass, and steam seeping out from the covered bowl of stew. 

“How long does it usually take to find work?” Drase looked across the establishment, and her eyes lit briefly on every slouched back and huddled conversation. 

“A standard day, maybe two.” Nestor peeled back the flexible seal on his beer and took a swig. It was barely alcoholic, as usual, but it tasted almost good enough not to have come from a food-fab. Owen’s machines carried hand-tweaked recipes for most everything on the menu; it was one of the reasons Nestor liked eating at Lawrence’s every time he made port at the Sprawl. 

Drase sat up straighter and turned her ruby gaze on Nestor. “May I assist this process?”  

He met her gaze, equally unblinking. He’d learned not to let her unblinking attention unsettle him at this point. Those red orbs were more like fine gemstones than proper eyes, and their facet-like pattern of striations had already become familiar, even pleasant to look at. He hadn’t before considered the value of a trained Gilehdat diplomat negotiating his contracts. Even if she said nothing, her ability to read people would be quite useful. “You’re welcome to help, Drase.” 

“That is good. I will need one moment.” Drase pulled her cowl lower over her head, then slid out from the booth and threaded her way across the lounge. Nestor watched her for a moment, appreciating how effortlessly she navigated through the room without ever drawing anyone else’s attention. She was the only female of any species he’d ever seen do that. The mainly male spacers and local ruffians who frequented Lawrence’s tended to fixate on even the barest hint of an attractive female in their midst, even if no trouble usually came of it. 

As he popped the cover off his stew and began to stir it, Nestor wondered, hardly for the first time, what he’d gotten himself into, allowing Drase aboard. She was tolerable as a crew-mate, and certainly easy enough on the eyes. She knew when her presence was becoming bothersome, and when it was accepted, and that was something no human ever seemed to know. 

Most likely, she’d jump ship after a few weeks, he figured. Macie Kurtz was a good ship, but it was not the vessel for someone sent to make a study of humanity, if that part of her story really was true. Then he’d be alone again, and things would go back to normal. 

Just as Nestor lifted the first spoonful of stew to his lips, he saw Drase returning across the room. This time, she was making no attempt to avoid notice; instead, she was using that swaying gait human women used when they wanted every head to turn as they passed by. Behind her followed another figure equally likely to draw attention, a towering creature with long, muscular arms hanging from a strangely narrow but still solidly built torso. Nestor had seen Cutters at the sprawl a few times, but he’d never seen one in Lawrence’s; they didn’t eat human-compatible food. 

Drase glided back to the booth and sat down lightly, gesturing up at the big creature. “Hoyr, this is Captain Palazzo.” 

The Cutter pressed its long hands together in front of its chest. Its somewhat triangular head dipped in some sort of bow.  

Nestor set his spoon down slowly, glancing between Drase and this Hoyr creature. “Friend of yours?” 

“Councilor Drase indicated that your ship is for hire.” Hoyr’s voice was quieter than Nestor expected, and raspy. “Is this still true?” 

Nestor shrugged. “Sure. But I don’t do passenger service. Cargo only.” 

“That was conveyed.” Hoyr reached into a pouch at its belt and withdrew a black, metallic token. “Necessary data. Time sensitive.” He held the object out to Drase, who took it with a bow of her head. With one last look at Nestor, the big xeno turned and picked its way back across the room toward the exit. 

Feeling half the eyes in Lawrence’s on him, Nestor scowled at Drase. “What did you promise him?” 

Drase clasped her hands together over the Cutter’s token. “Nothing at all. I did, however, negotiate work, if you wish to take it.” 

We covered a previous account from Mr. Palazzo some weeks ago, before events elsewhere necessitated a change in focus back toward reports from action areas. I said at the time that I would not be publishing more stories about the Gilehdat, and that I found the Kyaroh, commonly known as the Cutters, to be a far more interesting subject. 

It was Palazzo himself who sent in an account featuring interactions between spacers and Kyaroh, as well as the Gilehdat envoy Drase. The figure of Hoyr in his account is probably a minor diplomat sent by this people to Sagittarius Gate; most of those present on the station are more like military liaisons and observers. 

2951-08-30 – Tales from the Service: The Battle on Knife’s Edge

Lukas Kaufmann waved his arc rifle’s scope back and forth over the door at the base of the airfield’s control tower, trying to think of what could be done. In reality, ideas were Lieutenant Jansour’s department; nobody expected a marksman corporal to come up with a tactic that would save a two-company raid, but Lukas couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole operation rested on his shoulders. In a little while, perhaps any moment, that door would open, and the two Incarnation air-crew who’d rushed in would come back out to re-board their aircraft. If it took off again, it might spell disaster.

“If only we had some cover on the approach.” Sergeant Calvo grumbled. “Pray for a rain squall, boys and girls.”

“Shame they’ll know we’re here if we use smoke.” Valero, the company’s other marksman, used his laser designator to mark a point near the tower. “A smoke rocket right here would blind that Sirocco until Calvo was right on top of them.”

Lukas sighed in silent sympathy with Valero’s frustration. The whole attack relied on surprise; if they started throwing around smoke rockets, the Nate defense program would put everyone on high alert in less than a second. Calvo’s idea, if assisted by a little divine intervention, was less likely to end in disaster. If only there was a way to generate smoke or mist that was not obviously the result of enemy action…

Lukas’s riflescope wandered up from the tower toward the marked point, backtracking along the line of the stiff breeze that cut shimmering rivers through the low, heather-like growth that covered the airfield. Then he kept scanning along that line, until a Sirocco’s blocky landing skid filled his view. He zoomed out until he could see the whole aircraft, and the maintenance personnel already swarming over its one badly damaged engine. As he looked on, two Incarnation techs pried the armored engine cowling loose and swung it aside.

“Lieutenant, I have an idea.” Lukas used his laser designator to mark a point on the aircraft’s fuselage away from the technicians. “But I need your gun up here as soon as possible.”

There was brief silence on the channel as Jansour puzzled out what Lukas was thinking and why his HKR P82 phasebeam carbine, a weapon not normally used in the marksman role, was necessary to putting it into action. “Be there in twenty seconds, Kaufmann.”

Lukas had only counted to seventeen when he heard the underbrush behind him rustle. He rolled over, hand going to his side-arm, but sat up and saluted the moment he saw Lieutenant Jansour’s brown oval face and the gold braid on his uniform shoulders.

Jansour waved the salute away and tossed Lukas his carbine. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Take my rifle.” Lukas shifted away from the arc rifle, which rested in place on its bipod, and lay down where he could place the carbine’s stubby barrel on a protruding root. Jansour was a good shot at normal battle range, but there was no time to instruct him on the finer points of arc-rifle gunnery. “Watch the door.”

As the lieutenant lay down and shouldered the heavy weapon, Lukas reached into his hip pocket for a meta-lens magnifier, and clipped it onto the low-magnification scope built into Jansour’s carbine. A laser was a very accurate weapon which needed very little range calibration, but its beam tended to scatter a bit at long range; the FVDA generally discouraged their use on targets beyond five hundred meters. This time, Lukas needed it to maintain its punch at three times that distance.

Swinging the carbine’s scope onto the damaged Sirocco, Lukas sighted in on a vulnerable-looking part of the now exposed inner workings of the damaged engine. For this to work, he needed to wait for just the right moment – and he needed not to hit any of the techs swarming around the aircraft.

“Going to try to make smoke by other means, Mr. Calvo.” Jansour reached over and patted Lukas on the shoulder. “Go the moment you have your cover.”

Lukas saw a technician pull a component from deep within the engine, look it over, then grab a replacement from his bag. He aimed at the center of the engine and watched the technician lean in to plug in the new module. He had to make the timing so exact that any onlooker would think the resulting flash was a result of that technician’s work.

The man’s shoulder jerked as the component settled into place, and Lukas pulled the trigger with one fluid motion. The phasebeam’s capacitors shrieked their usual tone, and several megawatts of energy in the form of high energy photons sped across the intervening space and impacted the engine.

Most of the technicians leapt back from the resulting flash and shower of sparks. The man whose work Lukas had timed his shot with jerked back, but came up short with his hand stuck within the engine. A moment later, flames erupted from several points as the superheated metal ignited lubricant, electrical insulation, and other flammable materials. The stuck technician and several others vanished behind a snarl of flickering flames and oily black smoke.

“Your smoke screen, Sergeant Calvo.” Lukas set the carbine down and gently nudged Lieutenant Jansour away from the arc rifle. Already, the smoke was beginning to waft away from the engine fire across the field toward the intact Sirocco. In only ten seconds, the aircraft near the tower was all but invisible within the dark pall.

“Squad, advance.” Calvo’s grim voice bore a hint of relief. “Hunt, Pelts, board the Sirroco. The rest of you, with me.”

“Supporting squads, make ready.” Jansour picked up his carbine, checked it, then scrambled to his feet and began working his way down the ridge.

When Calvo’s squad had almost reached the tower and aircraft, Lukas saw movement. The control tower door opened, and a trio of Incarnation personnel hurried out at a pace that suggested concern, but not alarm. They still did not know what was happening, but if they spotted Calvo’s men, they would.

Lukas sighted in on the middle figure of the trio, flicked off the arc rifle’s safety, and squeezed the trigger. A tinny buzz proceeded a strong recoil and a sharp crack like lightning. The scope briefly went black to protect Lukas’s eye from the light thrown up by the lightning-like discharge. The figure under the reticle burst into flame and collapsed. The two on either side of him went rigid and fell to the ground, their limbs flailing as their implants, scrambled by the electromagnetic discharge, fired random impulses into their nervous systems.

Calvo’s men reached the trio an instant later. As soon as Hunt and Pelts had gotten aboard the Sirocco, the sergeant finished off the three dying men with his side-arm, then led his troops toward the still-open tower door.

“Air threat neutralized. All squads, advance.” Jansour’s voice bore a hint of triumph.

Lukas turned his rifle toward the technicians servicing the third Sirocco, hoping to interrupt them from making it airworthy once more. Instead, he found them all shouldering their weapons and taking cover.

From somewhere down the ridge, Valero’s arc rifle cracked and spat a bolt of energy down into the mass of defenders. Lukas, still waiting for his own capacitors to recharge, scanned for likely targets. Though there would now be a sharp firefight, the outcome did not seem in doubt. The airfield, and at least one intact Sirocco, were as good as taken.

The FVDA, as its name implies, was initially formed as a garrison and defense force, and all reports suggest that it is rather late in developing offensive tactics to suit its personnel and equipment. Morioncruz, though it is a joint deployment with strong Marine support, has been something of a testbed for FVDA offensive doctrine.

Because of its lightweight standard equipment and frontier-raised troops, the FVDA seems to be focusing on small unit, rugged-terrain offensive operations, especially flanking and infiltration maneuvers through difficult terrain which Incarnation troops seem ill suited to defend. Such terrain has been common on most of the contested worlds along the Coreward Frontier, and perhaps counter-attacks of this nature on Margaux might have changed the result there.

[N.T.B. – Most likely, these small unit offensives have been with hand-picked veteran units. I doubt most FVDA outfits are capable of these tactics. Still, reports from Morioncruz suggest that the liberation of that world is imminent; the FVDA must be doing something right, even if it is just tying up enemy troops to keep them out of the way of the main Marine-led offensive drive.]