2949-09-21 – Tales from the Inbox: Monte Crow’s Host 

As soon as they were inside, Leopold Mendel gestured with his gun for David Montero to sit in one of the wickerwork chairs in the big house’s anteroom. David eased himself slowly down, not wanting to make any sudden moves. He had never been in the Mendel house before, and he had to admit that what he could see so far impressed him. Though the place was built to nowhere near the level of precision which had been the norm in his own recently-destroyed house, the sprawling compound oozed a feeling of homey security. 

Though the plank floorboards were covered by Ravi dust blown in underneath the door and between the joints of the stiff metal panels of the outer siding, the wickerwork furniture and cloth wall-coverings gave the anteroom a cozy, quiet atmosphere entirely at odds with the winds which at that moment had just begun to rush down into the basin outside. The storm blowing in was as multi-edged as the dust particles it carried - it would blind whatever security system Mendel had, but it would also prevent David’s would-be killers from following his trail. 

“I’ll let you call the Sheriff as soon as the storm lets up.” Mendel shouldered his rifle and turned a crank on the door, which pushed a set of heavy deadbolts into place. “Transmitter sure as all hells won’t work in that mess.” 

“Will your crops be all right?” 

“Crops?” Mendel frowned as he sat down in a chair opposite. “Oh, the garden. Yeah, I think so. That’s Phyllis’s project. Not sure how she can get anything to grow at all." 

David frowned. True, the greenery around the Mendel homestead was unusual, but it was hardly the only green patch on Botched Ravi. The settlers of the world had engineered a few types of food crop that grew well enough, given water and some shelter from the storms. “Botch Peas? Wyrmroot?” 

“Probably those.” Mendel shrugged. “Why don’t you tell me about those off-worlders who wrecked your house?” 

David glanced toward the door, though the wind howling outside would flay him in thirty seconds if he decided to use it to escape the conversation. “Hells if I know, Mendel. They showed up pretending they were locals, and started shooting when I didn’t buy the ruse. I think they were at Palumbo’s before me.” 

“And they demolished your house for shooting back?” 

“For shooting back too well, I reckon. Bagged at least two of the bastards.” 

Mendel nodded casually and glanced down at the gun resting on his knees. David knew immediately that his fellow homesteader didn’t buy the story. “How many were there?” 

“Six at least, including the ones I holed. Could have been more hanging back.” 

“At least four still after you, then.” Mendel frowned. “As soon as the storm lifts, they’ll follow you here.” 

David shrugged. “I lost them, but other than Palumbo you’re the closest place I could have run, and they’ll be able to figure that out. Shouldn’t be too much trouble for the two of us, at least until Deering catches up, and I’ll help you see to anything that gets shot up.” 

Mendel scowled. “My house is not a fortress, Montero, and I am not a gunman for hire. Whatever intrigue you’ve gotten mixed up in, you go out there and face it when this storm is over.” 

David sighed. He could easily overpower Mendel and fight off Grif’s gang from within the house, but he hadn’t come to Botched Ravi to keep living a brigand’s life. “I’ll go out after I’ve called Deering. If they come here, tell them I’m headed for town.” 

Mendel nodded, then looked up as a strong gust shook the house. “You’ve got at least two hours before that squall lets up. I’m going to go get some coffee.” 

As Mendel exited the anteroom through an inner door, David scanned the space he’d been left in. Though a gun rack protruded between the tapestries near the door, it held nothing but an empty cartridge box. A few crates along the opposite wall looked to be full of foodstuffs. There was, in short, nothing worth stealing, at least not in his current situation. He wouldn’t steal from Mendel unless his life depended on it, of course, but old pirate habits died hard. 

If it had been anyone but Grif, he might have tried hiding in the expansive Mendel homestead, but Griffon Baum never forgot a grievance, and he never gave up once he smelled blood. He’d tear the Mendels’ house to pieces and torture them for weeks on the slightest chance of finding his old adversary. Without Mendel’s help and without Deering’s posse, David would have to face the pirates alone in the open – a sure death wish – or watch them turn Csorba Basin into a charnel pit looking for him. 

The door clicked, then opened to admit Leopold Mendel once more. He still held the gun, but it pointed at the floor, which told David that there was some sort of surveillance system in the anteroom which told Mendel he hadn’t moved. His other arm cradled two insulated carafes, and he tossed one across the room. 
“Thanks.” David popped the seal and smelled the steam wafting out. “When this is over, I owe you a drink down at Talleyrand’s.” 

“When this is over, I don’t want to see you for three T-years, Montero.” Mendel scowled. “Phyllis and I didn’t come here to get dropped into some hoodlum’s shooting gallery.” 

David shrugged; if he went out to face Grif’s gang alone, Mendel would most probably get his wish and then some. “You want to know what this is really all about, Mendel?” 

“Not in the slightest, unless it’ll get you off my property sooner.” Mendel broke the seal on his own carafe and sipped lightly. 

“Smart play.” David smiled; though newcomers to Csorba, Mendel had seemingly internalized the madness that passed for local wisdom. “What’ll get me off sooner is a stormcloak, some goggles, and a decent rifle that’ll handle the dust for at least ten shots.” 

Mendel narrowed his eyes. “You’re out of your mind.” 

“Offer’s on the table. I’ll try to bring the stuff back, if I don’t get shot.” 

Mendel sat wearing a silent scowl of deliberation for several seconds, then turned back for the door. “Out of your damned mind, Montero. I’ll be right back.” 

This week’s entry concludes the publishable section of David’s account. Though he does announce that he was able to get the drop on Grif’s gang as the storm lifted, he does not provide details, most likely to avoid revealing anything incriminating about what part of the badlands the bodies are buried in. 

I doubt he needs to worry about such things; from what I hear the Botched Ravi badlands make short work of any human remains committed to them. 

David does say that the local police helped him hush up the cause of his house’s destruction, so searching for Botched Ravi houses that exploded (as I’m sure many of you did) won’t give you any clues as to his real identity. 

2949-09-14 - Tales from the Inbox: Monty Crow’s Neighbors 

This week we continue to draw from the submission by David M. (yes, this is a pseudonym) about his experience having unwelcome visitors come to his home on Botched Ravi. 

Next week we’re hoping to finally release some of the stories Naval Intelligence has been sitting on for some time – the first batch of them got through the censors two days ago, and we’re working on sifting through and figuring out which ones are still immediately relevant. 

David Montero adjusted the makeshift veil shielding his face from the brutal Botched Ravi sun as he emerged from the escape tunnel. He’d left home with only the clothes on his back and the guns he’d been carrying, with not even a canteen to help him on the open badlands. Grif would want proof of David’s death and would find the tunnel looking for his body, but the gang would be sifting through the collapsed ruin of his house for hours before they found the trapdoor. Hopefully, that would be enough of a head start for Botched Ravi to erase his tracks. 

Fortunately, even without a canteen, David had preparations of another kind. The tunnel he’d dug years before emerged in a stand of corpse trees clustered in a blind defile a few hundred meters behind his house. The trees’ leathery flesh, revolting to the eye, concealed a mass of spongy, water-storing flesh which a human could suck on to obtain moisture, even if the alkaline taste would make any but a local gag. He drank from the trees until he couldn’t swallow any more, then used his belt knife to cut a six-foot length of one tree's stiffening rib to use as a walking-stick. Anyone foolish enough to brave the Ravi badlands without a walking-stick was as damned as if they were without a veil and a canteen. 

David’s would-be assassins hadn’t been lying when they’d claimed a storm was coming as a reason to be let into his homestead; every gust and eddy of fickle wind told him that his stretch of the wastes was about to suffer a big one. Botched Ravi’s furious storms drove swirling clouds of razor-dust which could strip human flesh from bone, and he’d been dressed for the stifling heat of the morning, not these late afternoon premonitions of a howling night. He would be reduced to a well-armed skeleton in mere minutes if he couldn’t find shelter before it hit. The tunnel mouth and gorge offered some protection from a storm, but Grif and his men were still too close for comfort. 

Though he briefly considered making an aboveground dash for his homestead to retake the freshly blasted ruins, David abandoned this mad scheme. He’d called Sherriff Deering when the pirates appeared and would need to leave clearing his destroyed home of the ruffians to the ragtag posse that passed for local law enforcement. He didn’t envy the outsiders their inevitable gun-battle with Deering and whoever else the lawman could scare up in short order, especially with a storm blowing in; most of his neighbors were reformed upstanding citizens like himself. They would relish the excitement offered by a firefight with a gaggle of overconfident space pirates. 

His best chance to make it through the day alive would be to make it to the home of one of his neighbors - Old Man Palumbo was the closest, but the pirates had been there already, so instead he set a course for the Mendel home three klicks in the opposite direction. Leopold and Phyllis Mendel were the newest settlers on the badlands, and he’d only met them twice, but they would probably let him call Deering to check in and ride out the storm in their parlor. David might do the same for them, if he was in an obliging mood. 

Peeking out of the gully and seeing no sign of his pursuers, David scrambled topside and set off toward a brilliantly white speck on the eastern horizon. With the nearness of the dusk and its promised storm, his feet itched to run, but he moved with deliberation, tapping the ground in front of his feet firmly with the end of his cut walking-stick. The Csorba Basin where he’d made his home was one of the flattest places on the planet, but flat and open did not make it safe. If he put his foot into the mouth of a ringbiter he’d never get it loose before the storm overtook him, and ringbiters were among the least deadly of the creatures which prowled the area. If he happened to cross into a tunnel cat’s stalking-ground or a songbird run in his haste, neither Grif nor anybody else would ever find his remains. 

Moving as fast as he dared, David watched the speck on the horizon grow into the top of a white stone monolith jutting into the sky. Despite having a squared-off shape and resisting even the patient teeth of the wind, the structure was a natural outcrop. Its base lay in the bottom of a broad canyon at the intersection of several of the defiles and gullies which channeled the basin’s seasonal rains. Despite being warned that their chosen spot would turn into a lake once every thirteen T-years, the Mendels had raised their home at the base of the monolith. 

In three more T-years when the rains returned, David meant to deliver a long-awaited told-you-so to the flooded-out homesteaders. For the moment, though, their ill-advised choice of building site didn’t bother him. He only needed shelter for a few hours. 

Reaching the edge of the Mendels’ dry lakebed just in front of the storm, David didn’t have time to appreciate the lush greenery which carpeted the bottom. Even in the interminable dry season, the water table lay close to the surface at the bottom of the white-stone pillar, and Leopold Mendel had built piping to irrigate an extensive garden of exotic plants. True, he could only plant crops that could resist the wind-whipped razor-dust, but even that bit with far less force on the lakebed. Between the couple’s sprawling house and the numerous outbuildings around it which sheltered the pumps and farming equipment, the Mendel homestead had enough roofs to look like a whole town, rather than a single house. 

David started down the switchbacked trail to the bottom, but stopped after only a few steps when he heard the rasp and click of a cartridge-rifle’s bolt sliding home somewhere nearby. Raising his hands and walking-stick, David turned around. “Mendel, is that you?” 

“Montero.” The gruff settler’s voice echoed crazily among the rocks, and David couldn’t figure out where he was. “Go home.” 

“Wish I could. With this storm. I’d never make it back.” Already the horizon to the south had darkened, and the sky above had turned the killing coppery color every Botched Ravi settler knew meant it was time to seek shelter. “I don’t want any trouble. Just shelter and to drop a line to Deering.” 

After a long, tense moment, Mendel emerged from behind the rocks, raising the barrel of a long hunting rifle to point skyward. “Damnation, Montero, you should have called ahead. I could have shot you at fifteen hundred meters. Haven’t you heard? There’s a mess of outworlders about, and they’re baying for blood.” 

David looked up at the monolith, realizing that the peak would be a perfect place to put a ring of surveillance cameras; with good optics, the Mendels could keep an eye on their neighbors even from many kilometers away on a clear day. “Yeah, I heard.” How closely he was affiliated with those outworlders would be a story best kept to himself. “They attacked my house. Blew the place to all hells. Birds know what for.” 

Mendel looked up at the approaching clouds, then beckoned down into the lakebed valley. “Come on, let’s get under cover. This is going to be a rough one.” 

2949-09-07 – Tales from the Service: Monte Crow’s Ruination 

This week, we’re continuing the account from last week of a retired pirate being visited by his old foes on Botched Ravi, as we’ve received a few messages indicating interest in the story’s continuation There’s another part to this story I might be able to edit up for next week, if interest persists. 

Still no luck with Naval Intelligence on those other stories. 

David Montero slammed the door at the base of the cellar stairs behind himself just before a burst of railgun fire battered the exterior. Dragging the thick metal panels used to make parts of his house more or less proof against gunfire across the badlands on a ravimule-pulled cart had been among David’s least pleasant experiences on a planet that excelled at producing unpleasant experiences, but as he slid the heavy bolt into place, he was glad for the trouble.  

The door wouldn’t hold his assailants for long, but he didn’t want it to. He fished into his pocket for the big brass key he always carried and slotted it into a round lock-plate fitted into one ferrocrete wall, releasing the tension on a set of gigantic springs buried behind the wall. With a creaking noise and then a snap, the wall opposite the door bowed outward, its thin plaster façade falling to pieces as a pair of concealed panels swung open. Behind the panel, a closet-like space contained racks of cloth-wrapped guns and a trapdoor leading to his escape tunnel. 

As the thugs outside rattled and then banged the metal cellar door, David unwrapped the oily cloth covering one of the long, sinister shapes racked behind that panel. When his would-be assassins came through that door, a spread of fifteen-milimeter explosive fragmentation microgrenades would probably make short work of them. The microgrenade rifle wouldn’t last long in Botched Ravi’s inclement conditions, but it only needed to last long enough to add five or six more tally marks to the ones David had already scored into its polymer handguard. 

The banging stopped, and David, knowing what would come next, backed into the secret closet and pulled the doors mostly closed, with only his gun-barrel protruding between them. Sure enough, with a flash of an explosion sheeting around it on all sides, the door buckled, then swung inward on shrieking, abused hinges. 

David, ears ringing, held his fire, waiting for his attackers to appear out of the smoke. Instead, he saw a pair of small camera drones zip out of the smoke and into the center of the room, surveying the dust- and smoke-choked cellar. 

"Drones on Ravi?” David muttered. As if to verify his disbelief, one of the two automatons sputtered, slewed to one side, then made a grinding noise and fell to the floor, its bearings choked with razor-sharp Ravi dust. “Idiots.” 

The second drone lasted barely a minute longer than the first, but it did last long enough to sweep the small cellar with its glassy eyes, what it saw transmitted back to the wrist-screen of its operator above – the barren floor and walls, the opened secret chamber, and David’s microgrenade rifle protruding from between the doors. 

When the second drone finally sputtered and died, an eerie silence fell. David, knowing the local posse was on its way, nudged the doors open and stepped out. “You don't get credit for killing Monty Crow by waiting for him to starve, boys.” 

“Don’t worry, old chap.” A voice echoed down the still-smoke-hazed steps. “We don’t got that kind of time.” 

The voice sounded familiar. Of course it sounded familiar. “Grif? Shucks, you came all this way yourself? I would have expected you’d leave the dying to someone else.” 

Griffon Baum, one of David’s rivals from his space-pirate days, chuckled. “I’m leaving the dying to you this time, Monty.” 

“I’ve been out of the game for years. My dying’s not going to put credits in your account.” 

“I’m a man of my word, Monty. I told you I’d pay you back for Jaffe’s Nest before I was through.” 

David winced. He’d never felt right about betraying Griffon’s crew in the Jaffe’s Nest raid, not even at the time, when his morals were somewhat less well developed. Still, that was business, as far as there was a consistent thing to call business among pirates. He and his crew had been stabbed in the back at least as many times as they’d done the stabbing. 

“It’s a shame, though.” Griffon continued, not remarking on David’s silence. “You had a nice set-up here. Shame what’s about to happen to it.” 

“Sure, Grif.” David sidled to one side in the tiny space and lifted the hatch of the trapdoor at his feet, glad the big barrel hinges didn’t squeak much. If Griffon was going to blow up his homestead, he wasn’t keen on sticking around. “Damned shame.” 

2949-08-31 – Tales from the Inbox: Monty Crow’s Homestead

Despite the existence of a small number of Incarnation Immortals taken captive or changing sides since this conflict started, very little public information is available about the capabilities of these cybernetic monsters. Though we’ve cataloged encounters with them whenever Naval Intelligence permits, it is widely (and, I can say with certainty, accurately) suspected that Immortals are far more capable than these stories indicate.

The reason Naval Intelligence wants the capabilities of these enemy soldiers and agents secret is not clear, even to me. Evidently, they have a good reason, but aren’t willing to share even that.

What mystifies me (and most of the analysts I’ve talked to recently) is the Incarnation’s decision to employ as many as hundreds of these very sophisticated bionic weapons in behind-the-lines terror attacks on Confederated planets far from the front lines. The agents at Maribel and other systems near the front can at least conceivably worm their way into infrastructure that might effect the Navy’s logistics train; those spending their time on petty terrorism in Farthing’s Chain and other regions where there isn’t even a major link in Fifth Fleet’s supply chain to break.

As with Intelligence’s decision to keep the capabilities of the Immortals highly secret, there must be a reason for such a baffling decision. If anyone in this audience has any ideas (and would not be breaking Naval Intelligence directives to share them) Nojus and I would be interested in your thoughts, as it is pertinent to a story we’re hoping to publish soon.

This week, I’ve pulled the first part of a multi-part account from the responses to our story related to odd military goings-on at Botched Ravi. That world has been a refuge for those seeking to move beyond a fast-paced life for decades, and it seems some of this sort of Ravi homesteader are happy to tell stories of their own arrival on the world and the usually unsuccessful efforts of their enemies to appear as locals themselves in an attempt to settle old scores.

For what will become obvious reasons, the names of people and places used here are all pseudonyms chosen by the submitter, and I cannot verify the story’s accuracy as a result. It is at least broadly consistent with the sorts of confrontations Ravi settlers do occasionally have with their pasts, though this one seems to have become more violent than most.

David M. could tell the men standing on his broad synthwood-planked porch were bad news before one of them banged on the door. The pair were dressed like locals, with heavy dust-shedding cloaks, smart-glass goggles, and wide-brimmed hats, but they carried themselves like no son of Botched Ravi, adopted or otherwise.

Watching the pair through the eyes of a security camera hidden in the decorative scrollwork of the lintel, David waited on the off-chance they would simply go away. Outsiders on Botched Ravi were trouble, doubly so if they knew that and had bothered to try to blend in. The local posse would ride to David’s help if he called them, but they were minutes away, and the twitchy way the pair’s hands drifted unconsciously toward the smalls of their backs told him that they weren’t going to wait that long for him to open the door. While he waited, he drew and checked his side-arm, a rugged Volkov cartridge-gun which had for years refused to let the razor-edged dust of the world corrupt its simple, sturdy mechanism. No complex machine survived extended exposure to Botched Ravi - it was part of why David had chosen to live there.

The man at the door banged again, this time harder, while his partner scanned the horizon behind them. From the way the second man’s gaze switched between a few directions rather than scanning slowly across the dust-hazed horizon, David knew they had backup out there – three or more additional men who probably had high-powered weapons trained on the door. The cart they’d rode in on, one of Mr. Palumbo’s, might also conceal one more, hiding below the rails of the cargo bed. 

David decided to assume there were at least six, and that their caution indicated they knew who he’d been before he’d come to Botched Ravi. Slowly, to minimize the creaking of the house’s frame, he got up from his sitting chair and opened the desk drawer in the corner to collect an additional pair of magazines for his Volkov, which he checked and stuffed into the breast of his vest. He would have preferred to avail himself of the sealed locker in the basement where he kept the bigger and feistier souvenirs from his fifteen-T-year stint as a space pirate, but there wasn’t time for that now.

Fortunately, David had always known the day would come when either the authorities or a rival gang would pay him a visit. Had it been the authorities, talking might have at least delayed a confrontation, but he’d seen enough to know he wasn’t dealing with lawmen. The men were henchmen of one of his old rivals, one too cowardly to come in person, and it didn’t really matter which. David quietly tapped out a message to Sheriff Deering on a hardened communications terminal built into his study desk, then crept toward the door. The local posse might not be able to help, but they could at least help bury the bodies after the shooting was over.

“Mr. Montero, you in there?” The man at the door banged hard enough to rattle the sturdy synthwood panel in its frame, then gave the door a savage kick for emphasis. “Palumbo down the road sent us.”

David snarled at the mention of his closest neighbor. He’d taken a liking to the crotchety old man the moment he’d started building his homestead on Botched Ravi and would happily torture the ruffians to death if any harm had come to him. Palumbo liked to be left alone most of the time, but he’d been happy to lend David a wagon and Ravimule to help move supplies and finish his house. They spoke rarely, and only about the three Ws - weather (which was always bad), work (by which unending and unpleasant toil human life persisted on Botched Ravi) and women (in largely theoretical terms, since no eligible female lived within a hundred klicks of them). Like him, David got the sense that Palumbo had come to the world to escape an unpleasant past, though it was one perhaps less unpleasant than David’s own.

“Come on, Mr. Montero. Let us in. Storm’s coming, and we’ll be cut to ribbons out here.”

This, at least, was probably true. There was always a storm coming on Botched Ravi, with wind kicking up the razor dust into swirling cyclones capable of stripping human flesh from bone. Most of the local wildlife had thick, hardened skin, but even those creatures adapted to surviving the storms rarely chose to go out in them.

“Go away.” David called, then quickly darted into the next room, keeping low to avoid showing the movement through the windows. “This isn’t some bed and breakfast.”

The two men on the porch responded by kicking the door again, this time harder. David reached one of the alcoves in the main hall and knelt there, lining up sights on his Volkov with the center of the door. The alcoves, with sturdy metal plates built into the walls, had been intended as firing positions from the moment he’d built the house. The bearings that gave motion to automated weapons turrets quickly failed on Botched Ravi, and electronic booby-traps set outside quickly corroded, so he’d always known the only way to defend his homestead would be with a gun in his hand.

When the door finally gave way, David unloaded the big handgun’s magazine into the first man who stepped through. At least one of the bullets struck home – the man staggered back two steps.

David felt the floor below his feet tremble as the man collapsed, but he didn’t see it – he had already ducked back behind the metal plate protecting his alcove to avoid return fire from the other man. A burst of railgun fire cracked down the hallway, shredding the wallpaper and plaster of the walls but failing to penetrate the sturdy metal behind them. The second man was already shouting something, probably demands for backup, but David couldn’t make out the words over the sounds of ferroceramic slugs chewing his home to pieces.

The spray of projectiles ceased, and David could hear the second man moving. After swapping to a fresh magazine, he peeked out to find the second man ducking behind a big chair in his front parlor. The other saw him as well, and rewarded his appearance with a fresh spray of railshot, but David had once again ducked into cover. 

Unlike the alcoves in the hall, David knew his furniture couldn’t stop gunfire. Rolling out of cover, he fired a pair of snap shots into the chair, then dove for the opposite alcove. Though he was rewarded with a cry of alarm, another spray of shot chased him into cover. If he’d scored a hit, it had probably been a flesh wound.

“Give it up, Monty Crow!”

David hated hearing his old pseudonym. He had left that life behind a long time ago. If his neighbor heard them shouting it like that, he’d be run off Botched Ravi even if he did survive. “Monty Crow is dead, you damned idiot. Hesperus blew her reactor. Lost with all hands.” It was with just such theatrics that he and his former crew had purchased their retirement five T-years before – they'd picked a fight with a rival outfit, then blown up their ship after engaging in a close-range exchange of railshot and laser fire, letting that hapless band of brigands think they’d won an upset victory. Perhaps one of the others had slipped the secret – David would have to find out who and figure out how to go see to them without the trip looking suspicious to his new neighbors.

“You really think anyone buys that?”

The man continued, but David heard the crash of reinforced armor-glass being smashed behind him, and knew he didn’t have much time before he was surrounded. Diving prone into the middle of the hallway, he emptied the rest of his second magazine into the legs of the man crouching behind the chair. This time, he scored more rewarding hits – the self-expanding bullets blew huge holes in the meat of the man’s legs, and he went down screaming and gushing blood.

David didn’t bother to reload and finish the rival pirate off. He got up and sprinted toward the steep set of stairs leading down into the cellar, where he kept all his bigger toys. If the kill-team was stupid enough to follow him that far, his biggest problem would be explaining to Sherriff Deering how the resulting massacre could be considered self-defense.