2952-03-20 – Tales from the Inbox: The Technician’s Interview 

As discussed with previous installments of this story, I do think Mr. Sherburn is embellishing and altering some details of his account, but I lack the tools or information to separate out the alterations from the facts, as is true for most stories we feature in this space. 

His story of the origin story of his crew is interesting and certainly mostly true, and likely many crews have similar shared, slightly curated origin stories which help cement them together, so it is improper to attempt to parse out the parts he has decided to massage.

Alicia Powers smiled knowingly. “Not a very smart spacer indeed, Mr. Sherburn.” She drained her cup in one smooth motion, then set it back down. “Fortunately for you, neither am I. You know my comms code when you've made your decision.” 

With that, she stood up and headed for the exit. Based on the swaggering sway of her hips, she seemed to think she had overawed Sadek and secured herself the job. 

Sadek watched her leave, less because of aesthetic considerations and more because he was wondering whether she was right. Powers was a vastly more experienced spacer than he was, despite being almost ten years his junior, and her experience made her well suited to maintaining the engines and reactor aboard Traveler. She was, in fact, probably capable of doing her own job and Sadek’s simultaneously; most of her experience was on larger ships with bigger crews. 

Powers wasn’t the only credentialed engineer who’d put in a CV – there was one other candidate – but Sadek didn’t have to make any decisions right away. The next crew candidate, a repair technician who’d taken early retirement from the Navy a few years before the War and apparently did not feel any patriotic call to return to military service, would be arriving in perhaps half an hour. 

While he waited, Sadek ordered fried mushrooms – real ones, grown in a mycological hothouse on-station – and tapped his way through some routine datasphere inbox traffic, including several formulaic good-bye-and-good-luck missives from some of his associates back on Thaddeus Wall. The mushrooms, when they arrived steaming in front of him, proved a delightful distraction; they were attractive even to look at, coated in their prickly golden-brown batter. They tasted even better than they looked, though in his haste to try one, he scalded his tongue quite badly. 

A server had just taken away Sadek’s empty plate and cup when a portly, gray-haired man with a bristly moustache approached the table. “You are Mr. Sherburn of the Traveler?” 

Sadek rose and extended a hand. “Mr. Jakeman, is it?” 

“Aye." Sanjay Jakeman cleared his throat and took Sadek’s hand in his own sweaty paw. “At your service.” 

Sadek gestured for Jakeman to be seated. Before he did so, Jakeman leaned over the menu hologram and ordered himself a drink and a full meal. Sadek hadn’t seen exactly what it was, but he was sure it was something from the most expensive section of the menu.  

Suppressing a wince, Sadek seated himself and folded his arms across the table. “Tell me about why you’re in between ships at the moment.” 

“Eh, you know how it is.” Jakeman shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “There’s lots of ways to run a ship, and they’ll all work with the right crew. The DeMario’s new ship-owner wanted his own sort of military discipline, and I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.” 

Sadek nodded slowly. “I see. Was he ex-military?” 

Jakeman chuckled. “Not that I know of. Just someone who didn’t know how to loosen up, eh?” 

Sadek smiled. “I think I know the type.” 

“He’ll learn in a couple months, but I wasn’t keen on sticking around until then.” Jakeman glanced around the room. “Better let some novices jump on that grenade.” 

“Is DeMario a newer ship, or an older one?” Sadek ordered himself another chilled coffee. 

“Older, but with some newer upgrades.” An attendant arrived and slid Jakeman’s meal onto the table. It was a roast of some sort that emitted a strongly spicy aroma. “Good mix of both, I thought.” 

Sadek, who could normally get nothing spicier than the “hot sauce flavoring” drizzle option provided by a food-fab machine, waved the fumes away from his stinging eyes. “What systems were newer?” 

“Atmospherics, cargo handling, most of the electrical harness.” Jakeman licked his lips as he surveyed the food on his plate, food that he’d ordered on Sadek’s tab. “A few other things.” 

Sadek nodded, suppressing a cough. “What about the food-fabs?” 

“Ancient monsters with loads of aftermarket goodies. Finicky things, but when they were working, they were something special.” Jakeman carved a sizable chunk out of the roast with his fork and raised it in front of his face. “Fun to tinker with, too, but the lads hated when I did, even if the chow was better afterwards.” 

“How was it better?” Sadek took a gulp of his drink, trying not to let the tears in the corners of his eyes get free and roll down his cheeks. 

Jakeman shoved the chunk of meat into his mouth and chewed for a long time before answering. “You had options for real flavor.” To Sadek’s dismay, he hadn’t swallowed, providing an unpleasant view of half-chewed meat with every word. “Not as good as this place, but spices go a long way.” 

“Yes, I’m sure they do.” Sadek looked around the room, pretending to be looking for one of the attendants while he did his best not to focus on Jakeman’s chewing. 

The technician didn’t seem to even notice Sadek’s noncommittal reaction; he busied himself in wolfing down his meal so quickly that it was a wonder he even tasted it, and he barely looked up from the plate until the food was gone. As soon as it was, Jakeman sat back in his chair. “I’m glad you asked about the food-fab machines, Mr. Sherburn.” He dabbed the corners of his mouth with one thick finger. “Good chow is one of the most important things for the morale of any crew.” 

“Absolutely it is.” Sadek nodded rapidly, glad at least that the pungent odor was fading. “We do have some challenges in that department, of course.” 

“Ah yes, the ship-owner being a xeno.” Jakeman chuckled. “Unique situation. Means we Terrans have to do more of the heavy lifting, aye? Finding work in places that he’d never blend in.” 

“Kel doesn’t have that problem, actually.” Sadek felt himself returning to familiar ground. “At least, not yet.” 

“Maybe it would be better if he did, hmm?” Jakeman shook his big shoulders. “But that’s a conversation for when you hire me on, Sherburn.” Pushing back his chair, the big man stood. “I’m looking forward to working with you. You know how to reach me when the ship’s ready.” 

As Jakeman lumbered off, Sadek realized that his were not the only eyes watching the technician’s departing back. A gangly figure lurking beside the doors to the kitchen, which Sadek had thought was a trainee attendant, watched Jakeman until he was out of the Charlestown, then glanced over at Sadek. 

After a few false starts, as if psyching himself up to step forward, the figure darted forward and slipped between the tables until he reached Sadek’s. It was a young man – a boy, really – perhaps sixteen or seventeen T-years old, with pale skin and dark, curly hair. 

“Can I help you, son?” Sadek arched his eyebrow, but worried the effect was somewhat reduced by his reddened, teary eyes. 

“I was hoping you had a moment.” The boy wrung his hands and shook his head emphatically. “I, uh. I didn’t submit a CV, but I was hoping you’d consider taking me on. I’d be a better tech than Jakeman, I promise.” 

Sadek wasn’t sure how this could possibly prove true, but he also wasn’t sure how this could possibly be wrong. “What’s your name, kid?” 

“Er.” The youth winced. “Deadman, sir.” 

Sadek blinked slowly, wondering if this was some sort of prank. 

“No, really! My name’s Elliott Deadman.” He gestured to the display on Sadek’s wristcuff. "I was on DeMario with Jakeman for the last year. look me up.” 

Sadek nodded, and punched a query into his wristpiece. A moment later, he was looking at the very brief dossier for one Elliott Deadman, a junior technician who was fresh off his first crew posting on Vincent DeMario. “It’s almost an hour until my next interview. Have a seat.” Sadek gestured to the chair Jakeman had just vacated. “Tell me why Kel and I should hire you.” 

2952-03-13 – Tales from the Service: The Engineer’s Interview 

Because of several requests to continue with Sadek Sherburn’s account of the formation of the crew of Visitor, I will continue it in between more topical accounts as those present themselves, at low priority, but there is a fair bit more of the original submission which could be edited for this space. 

Tugging at the stiff collar of a freshly-fabricated turquoise and black uniform, Sadek sat down at a pre-arranged corner table in the Charlestown. Though freshly shaved and wearing the nicest attire he’d owned in nearly two decades, he still felt out of place in the place, which was as close to a high-class establishment as he’d ever frequented. 

At least, he consoled himself, the food would be good. The Charlestown, one of the two original eateries built into the Sagittarius Gate waystation which had formed the core of the ungainly mass known as The Sprawl, was probably the best dining experience this side of the Gap. True, it would be a third-rate establishment on any major station in the Core, and on most worlds its fare would be considered hopelessly drab, but Sadek had never sampled cuisine in any of those places, and probably never would. 

Though the table’s holographic menu advertised dozens of enticing alcoholic drinks, Sadek requested only a sweetened, chilled coffee drink. This meal was, after all, a business meeting. 

A blonde woman in a simple gray tunic approached the table. “Mr. Sherburn?” She held out her hand. “I’m Alicia Powers.” 

“Ah, yes.” Sadek stood and shook her hand, then gestured to the seat opposite himself. “Have a seat. Can I get you a drink?” Kel had promised to reimburse his expenses, so he didn’t wince at the possibility of a sizable bill. That, at least, was one thing about the whole hiring process that Sadek didn’t need to worry about. 

Powers nodded and jabbed a finger into the menu too fast for Sadek to see what it was she had ordered, then sat back, folding her hands together on the table. She was, he estimated, a bit above thirty T-years old, with a cooly patient bearing that suggested that she’d  

Sadek realized after an awkward pause that she was waiting for him to speak – and after all, why shouldn’t she? He was supposed to be the interviewer, after all. After taking a sip of his drink, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Tell me about why you left your last posting, the Siren Song. 

“Hmm.” Powers opened her mouth, but just then someone arrived and dropped off her drink, a milky beige liquid that smelled of strong, sweet spices. She nodded up to the attendant, then turned back to Sadek. “The Song is a good ship, but my contract was up, and I thought it was time for something new.” 

Sadek nodded, though this answer seemed too vague to be truthful. “Visitor will certainly offer you novelty, should we have you aboard. Your qualifications as a flight engineer are quite competitive, I must say. Do you think your skills are stronger with older systems, or with newer ones?” 

Powers frowned, probably wondering which answer was the right one. “Most old star drives and gravitic drives are simpler, but I have most of my crew time on relatively new models. The Song was running on a pair of EL-31 grav units and a Cimarran VV-6 Transitor... None of that is more than thirty years old.” 

Again, Sadek nodded to hide his reservations. He hadn’t heard of any civilian vessel using twin gravitic drive units; certainly if someone tried that on a launch-scale spacecraft, it would be ungainly and require constant tuning, lest the gravitic shear disruptions between the two engines shake the ship to pieces. “You were the only system engineer for a paired-drive powerplant?” 

“I was the only officially certified engineer.” Powers shrugged. “The skipper wasn’t certified, but he knew those drive systems so well that he could do everything I could. We had a couple crew techs that pitched in, too.” 

“He certainly left a glowing endorsement in your records.” Sadek had seen similarly stilted language of confidence in the crew dossiers for all the candidates he was considering, but if she was telling the truth, this one seemed well earned. “Obviously Visitor is a much smaller vessel, with a much simpler powerplant.” 

“Indeed. A curious vessel, by all reports. I regret that I did not see her when she was in dock. Is it really a xeno-built ship?” 

There was no reason to lie about this, so Sadek shrugged. “Originally it was. The powerplant was damaged beyond all repair, and my employer had it rebuilt with Terran systems.” 

Powers smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t feel too badly about that; you’d hardly be looking to hire me to maintain an alien drive system. What’s the ship running now?” 

Sadek, to whom the systems manifest for Traveler was an incomprehensible jumble of serial numbers, called up the appropriate page on his wristcuff screen and held it out for Powers to see. 

The woman studied the display for a moment, then sat back. “A Mardsen-Keller HO-51? That’s high-end drive hardware for such a little ship, Mr. Sherburn.” 

Sadek frowned. It probably shouldn’t have surprised him that Kel had somehow arranged for premium drive systems for his rebuild of Visitor, but it did. “Have you worked on this type of gravitic drive before?” 

“Hardly anyone has worked on the HO-51 because it’s so new. Mardsen-Keller designs have partial parts compatibility with Edom Li drives, and I’ve spent nearly the last eight years on ships powered by Edom Li gravitic units.” Powers sipped her drink gingerly. “As long as you’ve got the manuals on file, though, I can handle it.” 

Sadek, knowing it was fruitless to  wonder how a brand-new drive unit from the Core had managed to make its way to the Sprawl to be installed on Traveler, but no solution to that mystery boded well for Sadek or for anyone else who signed on to crew the ship. Hiding his concerns behind a broad smile, Sadek spread his hands. “Do you have any questions for us?” 

“Only one.” Powers sipped her drink again. “What’s your angle, Sherburn?” 

Sadek blinked, suddenly feeling very cold. “My angle? Why would I need an angle with the salary rates on this crew?” 

“Sure. That’s what I thought, too.” Powers leaned in and lowered her voice. “Pay’s good enough for anyone who doesn’t see all the red flags not to look too close. Your dossier made me think that was all there was to it.” She narrowed her eyes. “But it’s damned clear that you’ve got eyes for all the trouble. So either you’re in on a pretty big secret, or you’ve got an angle.” 

Sadek winced. Perhaps, were he in Powers’s seat, he would have come to the same conclusion. If only things were that simple. “Kel got me off a pretty hard course.” Sadek didn’t really like the idea of being terribly honest with a near-stranger, but clearly Powers was perceptive enough that it was unwise to lie to her. “I was on a ship that couldn’t even keep its food-fabs working, with no prospects. I couldn’t really say no.” He dropped his shoulders. “I’ve got this feeling Kel thinks that when trouble comes, I’m the person that’ll get him out of it.” 

Powers nodded. “A smart spacer would jump ship and vanish at the first opportunity.” She arched one eyebrow, as if this was a suggestion. 

“Well.” Sadek downed the rest of his iced coffee in one long gulp. “If you’ve read my file, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not a very smart spacer.” 

2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Encounter in the Grinder 

Tomi Acosta’s sensational flight through the Grinder formation in Tkachenko, and the resultant destruction of seven enemy strike rigs and the retreat of the remainder of the formation, remains a well-discussed story even several weeks after the event, but the Navy has yet to release any datastream information from the action. Perhaps there is something in Acosta’s files that would compromise operational security to reveal, but I fear this will lead some to conclude that this story is overblown or even fabricated for propaganda purposes. 

A clatter of small ice debris rattling against Tomi Acosta’s hull made Wilson Boothe grit his teeth. In The Grinder, there was no way of avoiding the pervasive small debris, but it was drilled into every helmsman in the fleet that any object big enough to make a sound as it hit the hull had the potential to damage the ship. The helm station on even the most antiquated vessel – and Acosta was one such – carried all the sensor readouts the operator needed to ensure debris like that could be avoided altogether. 

The Grinder had already degraded Acosta’s shear-screens until they were intercepting little more than half of the debris before it hit the hull, and no amount of boosted power could bring them back to anything like combat-effective strength. With a squadron of Incarnation Coronachs dead ahead and closing as fast as the chaotic swirl of the debris field would allow, every sound of rock and ice getting through was a reminder that not much but the thin hull of an old tin-can destroyer lay between Wilson and white-hot plasma spitting from the nose guns of the enemy interceptors. 

“Time to weapons range?” Commander Popovic called out, his bored-sounding voice breaking the tense silence on the bridge. 

“Technically, we’re, uh. In weapons range.” Nagel, who had taken over from Rappalino on the fire control station only ten minutes before, sounded bashful. “But we don’t have a firing solution. Debris occlusion on target is almost ninety percent.” 

“Forward gunnery, try to put some slugs in their path anyway.” Popovic shrugged. “We might get lucky.” 

Wilson doubted that Acosta would get that lucky. The ship had been on a rear-area patrol in Tkachenko to test the venerable ship’s refit, and its luck had ensured an Incarnation attack to catch it there. Other than himself, Popovic, and a few other senior officers, most of the crew was green, straight out of the academy. Faced with certain destruction under enemy guns, or certain destruction in the Grinder, Popovic had elected for the latter, apparently hoping to take more of the enemy down with him. 

Heedless of Wilson’s certainty of failure, Nagel sent the order down to the gunnery station for the forward bank of railguns. A moment later, the harsh, chattering vibration of slugs spewing out of rapid-cycling electromagnetic barrels filled the bridge. With two of the forward railguns positioned just ahead of the bridge one deck lower, the sound didn’t have far to travel. 

A warning chime diverted Wilson’s attention back to his console. Before he’d even fully processed the meaning of the sound, his hands flew across the controls, keying in emergency lateral thrust. By the time he saw the fractured ice-ball hurtling toward them, it had almost passed by, tumbling through the space where Acosta had just been. As it went past, the destroyer’s hull rattled under the impact of associated smaller debris. 

“EM burst ahead.” MacGuire sounded exultant. “Looks like one of those Nates just bought the plot.” 

“One down, eleven to go.” Popovic shrugged. “Too soon to claim that kill. Our railshot hasn’t even crossed their path yet.” 

Wilson returned Acosta to its original heading as soon as the danger was past, only to call up emergency full reverse thrust when a nearby collision flooded the space ahead with jagged fragments, some of which smashed into other large bodies and changed their courses. “Have to stop here, Commander.” Wilson shook his head. “We should let this mess pass us by.” 

MacGuire cleared his throat. “The Coronachs will be on top of us before it does.” 

“Then we’ll handle them here.” Popovic tapped out a few commands on the small console allocated to the skipper’s station. “Mr. Nagel, give me missile solutions on these targets.” 

“On... rocks, Skipper?” Nagel hesitated. “Er... One moment.” He tapped out a few commands. “Cells three through seven armed and ready. Target mapping and final launch confirmation sent to your console.” 

“If we blast any of these rocks, we’re going to get some blowback.” Wilson winced, imagining the impossibility of avoiding damage with several new showers of high-velocity debris to worry about. 

“I’m counting on it.” Popovic cleared his throat. “All stations, enemy contact is imminent. Weapons free. Damage control parties, secure all active work and take cover.” 

Wilson made a few adjustments to Acosta’s position and relative heading within the swriling debris field as the nimble Coronachs threaded their way closer. The port side railguns joined the bow battery in throwing up an impressive spray of railshot into their path, but most of the little ferroceramic projectiles were absorbed by intervening debris. The Coronachs would be very close indeed before the railguns were a serious threat. 

Popovic waited in silence until the squadron was almost on top of them. “Firing missile cell four. Brace for impact.” 

2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Decision in the Grinder 

As the other members of Tomi Acosta’s bridge crew took turns slipping out of their crash-pad restraints to stretch their limbs and nibble on chewy, uninspiring combat-situation ration bars passed out by the skipper, Wilson Boothe bent over the displays, watching for any sign that the Grinder was about to make more trouble for them.  

He’d managed to find a temporarily quiet pocket within the whirling melee of ice and rock, but that pocket was slowly being squeezed out by a pair of counter-rotating debris clusters. A collision within either could easily hurl tons of fast-moving debris toward the old destroyer, and if that happened, Wilson would have only seconds to respond.  

The pursuing flight of Coronachs was another problem, but it wasn’t his problem, not yet. Though nimble, the pursuing Incarnation interceptors were fragile, and could not survive a collision of any magnitude; they were still a long way off, trying to work their way around the scything debris-storm Acosta had barely avoided on its way in. That they’d entered the Grinder at all was a testament to the discipline of Incarnation pilots, and probably to their overestimation of their own skills. 

A tap on Wilson’s shoulder made him jump hard enough that the restraints dug into his shoulders. Looking up, he saw Commander Popovic’s impassive face and a proffered ration bar in his hand. 

“Better have a bite, Boothe.” Popovic set the bar on the edge of Wilson’s console. “If they’re here to stay, this is going to be a long game.” 

Wilson glanced over at the foil-wrapped rectangle. “Sure, Skipper.” 

Popovic took a step back, but remained there, just behind Wilson for several silent seconds. “Any hope of getting us deeper in?” 

Wilson shook his head. “Wouldn’t count on it.” He reached out to grab the food bar, then tore the corner of the package with his teeth. This was technically indecorous, but with his other hand hovering over the execute control for the most probable escape vector in case of a fresh hazard, Popovic would forgive the breach. “The next layer in is fairly dense. I’ve seen a couple openings big enough for us to get through, but our acceleration just isn’t enough. We’d need to be moving before one opened.”  

Popovic grunted and sipped his coffee. “Can we work around this layer to put more distance between us and those Nate fighters?” 

Wilson bit off the corner of the food bar and chewed it slowly, looking at the various sensor readouts. “There would need to be another quiet pocket to go to, Skipper, and I don’t see one. We can’t really stay here either; the rocks are going to evict us in a few hours, if they don’t decide to do it sooner.” 

“The Coronachs will find us before that.” Popovic didn’t sound too dismayed by this, but then, he was infamous for having no detectable emotional responses to anything. Whether that was because he was supremely self-controlled or developmentally defective was a matter of strenuous debate among the crew. “We’ll need to leave the pocket before they get here.” 

“We’ll be shredded.” Wilson shook his head morosely. He didn’t think Popovic cared; the skipper probably saw it as death either way, so he had resolved to die in the most inconvenient way for the enemy. Wilson preferred not to die at all, but if everyone was going to die, he would have voted to take their chances fighting off the Coronachs in open space. That way, when it happened, it wouldn’t be his fault as the helmsman. 

“We can take more of that than they can.” Popovic gulped the rest of his coffee noisily. “I wonder how many of those little rigs they’ll sacrifice just to kill us.” 

The obvious answer Wilson didn’t bother to vocalize was that the Incarnation would sacrifice more than enough Coronachs, if they decided that destroying Acosta was mission critical. With at least two heavy cruisers in-system, there were probably at least a dozen squadrons available for the task. Even if the first squadron worming its way deeper into the Grinder after them failed to score the kill, the next one wouldn’t be far behind. 

A flash of motion on one of the secondary readouts caught Wilson’s attention. As he swiveled one of the visual-light cameras in that direction just in time to see a huge ice formation disintegrate into a cloud of glittering splinters under the impact of a much smaller but much denser chunk of ferrous rock. The bulk of the debris was headed into Acosta’s safe pocket, reducing its brief lifespan from hours to minutes. 

“We’re losing our quiet patch.” Wilson sent the spectacular impact visuals to the main display. “I’m not seeing any good escape routes.” 

“Then let’s dispense with escape.” As everyone else on the bridge scrambled back to their crash-pad restraints, Popovic returned to his station with maddening lack of urgency and began strapping himself in. “Take us toward that pursuing squadron. Let’s try this on our terms.” 

Though Wilson couldn’t see how any engagement in the Grinder could possibly be on Acosta’s terms, he was long past objecting. With a resigned sigh, he cancelled his previous evasive course and started to bring the ship about. 

Though Acosta’s rather harrowing experience did not end in the certain destruction that Mr. Boothe asserts he was glumly projecting at the time, it nevertheless was a high-risk tactic that should by all rights have been fatal to the ship and its entire crew. Only the fact that the alternative was even more certain destruction made taking a vessel of war into the Grinder formation the reasonable decision, and then only in hindsight. Had the destroyer been smashed to bits quickly at no loss to the enemy, we would not know of Commander Popovic’s unorthodox decision, but because it worked, there is some discussion of awarding him a Centaur Cross. 

[N.T.B. - Stupid ideas are still stupid even if they work. Though I have to admit, by all accounts this Popovic is a very interesting character who I think I would like to meet.]