2949-10-18 - Tales from the Service: The Defenders of Berkant 

I’m sad to say that despite all Fifth Fleet public predictions to the effect that the Incarnation was not capable of another offensive this calendar year, a large enemy fleet and a handful of troopships has arrived in the Berkant system and occupied Hallman, a barely-habitable moon orbiting one of the system’s gas giants. 

While this is all but certainly a staging point for an invasion of Berkant proper, the planet is still not interdicted, and I am told an evacuation effort is proceeding. Meanwhile, the Fifth Fleet is in motion – as of this feed item appearing in your ingest, the main battle line will be in the Berkant system. It seems likely that Fifth Fleet will be able to take up defensive positions around Berkant long before the Incarnation is ready to attack. 

Though the defenses at Berkant are nowhere near as sophisticated as the ones on Margaux, it’s also unlikely the enemy has nearly as many troops to put into a Berkant land campaign. With only a few troopships in the system as of this writing, the invaders can take settlements on the outer planets and moons, but would have trouble against the F.D.A. garrison already in place. More troopships are almost certainly on their way, but their delay gives the Navy time to make its own move. 

Just before Fifth Fleet left Maribel, a sizable force of mercenary warships and haulers mainly from Sovereign Security Solutions departed as well. My understanding is that this force did not coordinate its movements with Admiral Zahariev, but it is coordinating directly with the Maribel headquarters of both the F.D.A. and Confederated Marines. What a bunch of antique destroyers and frigates can be expected to do offensively against a few dozen Tyrant heavy-cruiser analogues I can’t imagine, but the troops and supplies those haulers are carrying have to be considerable. 

Captain Alia Arendse paced between the bulkheads of the cramped bridge, not bothering to conceal her agitation from the crew at the duty stations all around her. As warships went, Ronan Lyndon had never been the most imposing thing, but it was one of the larger system defense units on the entire Frontier, fitted out in the days when Bozsi Kirke-Moore had prowled the spacelanes aboard Samarkand. Now, it was a superannuated prestige piece, but it was the only thing between thirty Incarnation heavy cruisers and the ongoing evacuation of Berkant. 

Why the enemy had pounced on Hallman, rather than making straight for Berkant itself, still wasn’t clear to her or anyone in the diminutive Berkant system defense force. True, it was the only body in the Berkant system besides the planet itself with a breathable atmosphere, but the moon had little in the way of infrastructure or industry worth taking – its main export was the disgruntled and under-stimulated children of the few homesteaders clinging to its lichenous rocks. 

“Any sign of Fifth Fleet?” Alia knew she’d asked the question only a few minutes prior, but staring down a full-scale invasion of the Berkant system until Admiral Zahariev arrived wasn’t her idea of a pleasant shift. At any moment, Nate’s interest in Hallman could end, and the enemy fleet could surge forward toward Lyndon and the handful of picket cutters in its loose skirmish line, cutting the life expectancy of every Confederated spacer in the system to a matter of hours. 

“None yet, skipper.” McKee, hands dancing across the sensor console, shook his head without looking up. “If this is one of that blasted brigand’s ruses, it’s a damned good one.” 

Alia winced and nodded. The supreme irony that Lyndon had been built to repel Kirke-Moore and now hoped for rescue by a fleet whose commander relied on the old pirate as a tactical adviser was not lost on her. Perhaps Zahariev and his favorite adviser had concocted some fresh scheme to surprise the Incarnation fleet, but more likely Fifth Fleet was merely running behind schedule, as usual. “Fifth Fleet will be here.” 

“Yeah.” Magro, one of the gunnery techs in the recessed pit at the front of the bridge, muttered, probably to his neighbor. “Question is, will we be when they show up.” 

“Belay that, spacer.” Alia sympathized with the man, but couldn’t permit that sort of talk during a battle drill. Lyndon was fast enough to save itself, true, but if it did, the civilians evacuating from Berkant would be left totally exposed. 

“Contact. Strike units coming in fast.” McKee called out. “They’re going to try to get among the transports.” 

“Hellfire.” Alia spun and dashed to the center of the compartment, where she could best see the three-dimensional tactical plot in the main display. Sure enough, a swarm of tiny orange motes was moving in from the direction of Hallman. “All ships and stations, weapons free. Engage when you have lock.” 

As Lyndon’s bow railguns rattled off a spray of railshot into the paths of the incoming attackers, Alia counted only a few dozen motes among their number, and only a handful of them seemed to be Nate’s new “Jericho” bombers. This was, she decided, a probing attack, intended to test the defensive screen centered on her ship rather than to defeat it. If they did break through, however, the toll taken on the evacuation ships would be high. 

Old though she was, Lyndon wasn’t going to let a little probing attack slip by, however. The gunners quickly filled the enemy force’s flight path with deadly slugs, and the attack force broke up almost immediately, scattering and heading back into interplanetary space. 

A green crew might have cheered, but Alia’s bridge crew didn’t utter a sound. They knew as well as she did that Nate would be back, and in bigger numbers. The armada at Hallman could launch thousands of Coronachs and hundreds of Jerichos, enough to overwhelm even the best gunnery from such a small force. Perhaps they already had, and this easily-dispersed few were the scouting force for the main body. 

“Any kills?” Alia found this question more encouraging than the repeated query about the status of Fifth Fleet. 

“Aye. We got one Coronach before they scattered.” McKee bracketed a tumbling wreck in the sensor plot. 

BD98, that’s going to drift into your sector. Check if there’s anything worth retrieving.” 

“Acknowledged. We’ll let you know in about ten minutes.” 

Alia scanned the main plot, then glanced over at the secondary display showing the activity at Hallman. “Quick as you can. Something tells me we’re not going to be left alone for very long.” 

2949-10-12 – Tales from the Service: The Lady's Plunder 

This week, we return to continue with another excerpt from the account (Tales from the Service: Arrowhawk’s Raiders) of Sergeant Cornell Santiago, a Lost Squadrons veteran who passed through Maribel some time ago. Though the figure of “Lady D” figures prominently into this and other stories he tells of his time with the Lost Squadrons, the official reports make no reference to any such person. Generally, Bosch and the other skippers refer to intelligence in the general sense in their reports. Sergeant Santiago had his theory as to who this was, but I suspect instead based on comparing Santiago’s stories to the official after-action reports that it’s an aggregate code-name for intelligence collected from cooperative and semi-cooperative prisoners. 

I am aware of the rumors swirling around the Datasphere concerning an impending major enemy movement, but none of my contacts in Naval Intelligence or Admiral Zahariev’s staff seem concerned. By most estimates, there won’t be another Incarnation offensive until early next year. Most likely, if there is any truth to this, it points to another Berkant-style fast raid intended to disrupt the Navy’s movements and defensive deployments, but I tend to doubt even that. 

[N.T.B. - I think Duncan’s wishful thinking is getting the better of him. With the Navy getting reinforcements steadily, the Incarnation either needs to pull more ships to this side of the Gap to match, or it needs to hit hard before those new forces are brought fully online to replace losses in the battles for Adimari Valis and Margaux. Ladeonist cells here at Maribel are probably giving them a good idea of what the Fifth Fleet’s capabilities are, so if they do wait, it’s because they’re bringing in forces at a faster rate than the Confederated Navy and the delay advantages their future victory.] 

Sergeant Santiago swept his suit-linked railgun across the horizon as three of his men herded a half-dozen captives back to their dropship. The Incarnation outpost had been some sort of long-term research installation, totally unprepared for the sudden arrival of a trio of assault teams. Though the head of security had led his small team of guards in a desperate counterattack, they’d been obliterated in a flesh-pulping crossfire which even his cybernetically-inhuman speed could not deliver him from. 

With them dead and no casualties among the Marines the scientists and technicians had been easy to capture. Even now, the rest of his men were stripping the facility bare of anything that might be broken down into raw materials or pounded into shape to replace failing components aboard Arrowhawk or another ship in the flotilla. There was supposedly no other threat on the planet, but Santiago knew he wouldn’t breathe easy until everyone was back aboard the cruiser and the facility was a smoldering stain on the planet’s pocked regolith. 

“Sergeant, you’ve got to see this.” 

Santiago rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. Buckland’s voice was confused and unhurried, so there was no excuse for not simply saying what he’d found.  “On my way, private.” 

With a deft motion, Santiago shouldered his railgun and spun on the heel of one massive boot to head for Buckland’s position on the other side of the plundered installation. He elected not to use his jump-rockets to bound there in an instant knowing that the nozzles were almost doubling up their manufacturer-recommended service lives. 

Buckland and a Marine from Gamma Squad stood on either side of a heavy containment unit they’d presumably been carrying. The cylindrical module, built to keep potentially hazardous contents from contaminating their surroundings, seemed hardly worth carrying back to Arrowhawk. “What’s the problem, Buckland?” 

“We were about to load this piece of junk. Apparently it got flagged by Lady D.” 

“And?” Lady D., perhaps the most mysterious person aboard Arrowhawk, was never seen, only heard from, and she seemed to have Captain Bosch’s confidence. Some thought the pseudonym stood for a computer analysis program, but more likely it was a Naval Intelligence spook working as Bosch’s adviser without wanting to reveal their identity directly. It was no surprise that she might interfere with salvage and plunder operations. 

“Well.” Buckland pointed one of his suit’s arms at the containment unit. “According to my HUD, these markings say the contents are contaminated by unstable nanotech. But that’s not the problem.” 

The Gamma Squad marine shifted his feet uneasily. His several hundred kilos of armor-suit amplified the motion into a titanic half-step backward. “Bloody infinite hells, that’s bad enough. Sergeant.” 

“The problem is, Sarge.” Buckland pointed to a set of dotted digital placards on the cylinder. “These are Naval Intelligence markings. Hell, this container says it was made back in the Core Worlds.” 

Santiago moved close enough to let his own heads-up display interpret the digital markings. He saw exactly what Buckland had – enough Naval Intelligence “most secret” placards to scare away all but the most curious of prying eyes, and an animated icon emblazoned with “PRODUCT OF MADURAI - SIXTEEN CYGNI.” Though he was hardly a crack astrographer, he knew that anything from Madurai that showed up deep in the Sagittarius Frontier had come an anomalously long way. 

“So yeah, that’s... weird. What do you want done with it, sir?” Buckland filled the silence as Santiago tried to guess how many light-years the strange container had traveled to wind up at a remote Nate research facility. 

Santiago shrugged, then pointed to the Gamma Squad dropship. “Load it anyway. Slap a few fresh warning placards on it so nobody opens it until it’s away from our hardware.” Something about the container made Santiago as uneasy as the other two, but countermanding Lady D generally didn’t end well for anyone. “And hurry it up, unless you want to be the welcoming committee when Nate comes calling.” 

2949-10-05 – Tales from the Service: The Sagittarius Sniper, Revisited 

At last, Naval Intelligence has cleared me to relay this account, though it is by now several months old. You may recall that very early in this text feed series we published a story called TTales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper, featuring an enterpreneur’s failed attempt to set up a depot at Sagittarius Gate. The accident that befell Martin Westland there remained unexplainable for a long time, but I believe the work of a squadron of Naval Survey Auxiliary pilots in mapping out the natural objects present in the Sagittarius Gate system has accidentally resolved this little mystery. 

One of the pilots involved, an occasional reader and viewer of Cosmic Background content, sent a duplicate of their report along with a lengthy account of their discovery, but as the report is under seal as a file of strategic importance to Seventh Fleet operations, it took Naval Intelligence a long time to go through it and provide me a list of the details I am and am not allowed to include in this feed item. 

Their censorious attention to detail has nevetheless given me a vast array of facts to work with. I cannot offer hard numbers, astrographic positions, or anything similar, but the general shape of the discovery is fair game, and it is that general shape which more than adequately explains Mr. Westland’s accident. 

Pacey Salo flipped a series of switches on the control panel the Navy techs back on Vigilance had just bolted to the left side of his console, frowning. The Navy’s fancy gravimetric sensors were supposed to pick out the ripples in the cosmic fabric caused by the passage of large masses such as asteroids and planetoids, but after working reasonably well for a few hours, the system had utterly failed, its readouts stuck at their maximum levels and warning lights blinking more or less at random. 

Nothing else aboard her little ship seemed to be affected, and she thanked whatever guardian angel looked over her for that. With the amount of power the gravimetrics required, a short could have fried her explorer’s navcomputer or arced through the whole system, leaving her dead in space. 

“Brick, Jolly, I just lost my gravimetric unit. Damn thing’s totally dead.” Pacey scowled out into the darkness ahead as she waited for the radio signal to cover the few light-seconds of distance to her compatriots. They were already behind timetable, and the Navy wouldn’t like another delay, even if it was their own damned fault this time. Falling back on radar and visual detection in her sector would quadruple the time necessary to mark all the hazards and bodies that tumbled through the planetless proto-system surrounding bloated blue Sagittarius Gate. The system, a cheerless place by any metric, had been no small amount of trouble to survey already, since the Navy had added battle wreckage to the array of troublesome objects circling the star. 

“Copy, Nitro.” This was Jolly’s gruff voice. “Do what you can with standard gear.” 

“On it.” Pacey yanked on the control column to drive her ship directly into the heart of her assigned sector, then set the ship’s twin visual-light telescopes to scan the starfield. She was hardly a fan of the slow-boating visual detection method, but could hardly claim it was anything other than what she’d signed up for. The computer would flag anything moving that wasn’t already on the charts or in the data streams from the other two surveyors, and she’d fly to each one to have a closer look. Most likely, she’d pass the bulk of the list off to the others when they finished gravimetric scans of their own swatches of space. 

Just as Pacey was telling the ship’s little food machine to make her a coffee, the gravimetric sensor panel’s warning lights winked out with a series of bright chirps, and the readouts had begun to fall back to their normal levels. 

“Creative Hells?” Pacey flicked the power switches on the new sensors several times, then watched as they started up to show relatively normal gravitational flux. “Boys, my gravimetrics just came back, but I’ve got no idea how long I’ll have them. Damned Navy-tech hackwork.” 

“Watch the chatter, Nitro.” Jolly’s barking reproach had less than the intended effect, since it arrived more than eight seconds after Pacey had finished talking. “Sweep back over the area you passed while it was out, then finish your sector.” 

Even before the squadron leader had finished reminding her of how to do her job, Pacey had already yanked the ship’s nose around to face the empty space she’d just vacated. Most likely, she hadn’t missed anything during the little hiccup, but Naval Survey Auxiliary didn’t deal in Most Likely. It dealt in absolute certainty. After all, there was little use in a navigational chart that only included most of the local hazards. 

Almost as soon as she’d reversed course, the warning lights returned, and the readouts spiked up to their maximum levels and stayed there. 

“Guess that was too good to be true.” Pacey shook her head, her hand hovering over the comms control. Something about the failure bothered her, and she wanted to figure out what before she reported in once more. 

As she sat puzzling over the situation, a wrenching sensation pushed her back into her chair. The frame of her little ship groaned in protest. Several system alarms began to wail at once, but by the time they did, the sensation and the groaning of stressed structural members had already ceased. 

“Woah.” Pacey scanned the instruments, dismissing alarms as she went. The combination of warnings suggested she had sustained high acceleration – high enough to briefly overwhelm the inertial isolation system – but she’d been coasting without the main drive engaged. Strangely, both her position and bearing were off where they should have been, but the drive showed no indication of having been accidentally engaged. Most tantalizingly, the gravimetric sensor readouts were crawling back down toward normal once more. 

Pacey had an idea, and she knew it was a bad one. Even without doing the math directly, she could estimate what it would take to haul her ship off course and heading in an instant. Supposing she’d accidentally performed a gravitational slingshot around an unsighted object, there was only one material – theoretical material, really – dense enough to create so violent a slingshot. It would also cause the gravimetrics to go haywire when she pointed them in the right general direction. 

“Boys, I’ve, uh. Got something.” Pacey’s hands danced across the console, pinpointing the exact moment of her sudden course change and estimating the location of the object which had caused it. As yet, she had no proof anything was there, but proof wouldn’t be long in coming. “Something really weird.” 

“How weird is weird, Nitro?”  

Before Jolly’s cautious response had reached her, Pacey had already estimated the orbital path of the object she’d encountered and had a decent idea of where it was, and where it was going. “How weird exactly is a two meter ball of pure neutronium, boss?” 

The silence on the comms circuit lasted far longer than transmission delay could adequately explain. Jolly knew as well as Pacey did that neutronium didn’t exist, except theoretically at the hearts of neutron stars and other super-dense bodies. A chunk of the stuff small enough to do a flyby of should have burst into a spray of loose neutrons the moment it formed, yet Pacey was increasingly sure that’s exactly what she’d found. 

To test her theory, Pacey turned her ship toward where she thought the object was now. The moment she did, the gravimetric sensor system flashed warning lights and shot its indicators up to maximum once more. 

With a sigh, Pacey turned away from the object, entering its orbital ring as an area of extreme hazard in the database. “That explains that, at least. Why do answers always create more questions?” 

While the existence of (relatively) small, apparently natural, masses of neutronium density and nearly zero detectable emissions in the Sagittarius Gate system defies explanation in terms of our scientific understanding, it seems clear that one of these bodies (a smaller one than the one Pacey discovered) collided with Mr. Westland's ship at high relative speed. He's lucky things turned out how they did - a slower collision might have resulted with him and his ship being wrapped around the object like so much solar foil.

Given his adventures since, I'll say more broadly that Mr. Westland is a very lucky man, even if he thinks otherwise.

2949-09-28 – Tales from the Service: Arrowhawk’s Raiders

Several weeks ago now, the light cruiser Arrowhawk limped into Maribel for a patch-up before heading back toward the Core Worlds. There seems little chance we see the ship on the front again – after the wear and tear put on it by the Lost Squadrons, it’s probably destined for demilitarization and scrapping. 

As far as I can tell, very few members of its skeleton crew were aboard during the Lost Squadrons, and those were only there because they were heading homeward or being reassigned to desk postings or academy rotations. While the ship was being worked on, I tried to get an interview with Lieutenant Commander Quinn Kensington, the ship’s head computer tech and a Lost Squadrons veteran, but he declined. He submitted a short on-the-record statement to the effect that he’s glad to have been a part of the Lost Squadrons but looks forward to his new and presumably less perilous posting in the Home Fleet headquarters. 

Given that the Home Fleet is considered something of a dead end posting by many, I wonder how much Kensington is really looking forward to it. There seems to be no indication he performed poorly under Captain Bosch – indeed, he was publicly commended for his ability to adapt to the situation – so I can only assume that the new posting was at his own request. Perhaps being so close to death for so long encouraged him to remember the merits of a desk posting in Earth orbit. 

Fortunately, one of the other Lost Squadrons veterans aboard, one Marine Sergeant Cornell Santiago, was far more willing to deal with us, and Naval Intelligence has finally cleared his story for publication. True, the events in question took place fourteen months ago, but the adventures of the Lost Squadrons still garner a good deal of interest.

Sergeant Santiago heard his squad already talking on the comms channel as he slipped his helmet on and engaged its seals. The topic of conversation seemed to be guesswork about the reason they were being sent planetside on yet another Sagittarian world, and as usual the men offered a curious mix of extreme pessimism and almost childlike optimism about what they’d see when their dropship ramp came down. 

Santiago had long since stopped guessing, but he let the men chatter away in the privacy of their helmets while they filed out of the ready room and out onto Arrowhawk’s flight deck. The dropship was already waiting, its flight crew already aboard preparing for launch, and he was more concerned with whether the craft would get them down and back again without any major problems. In the last three weeks, several of the cruiser’s launches had finally succumbed to the long list of overdue parts replacements and maintenance tasks credited against them, and he didn’t want to be aboard something that was about to hit its definitive end of service life. 

“What about you, Sarge?” Buckland, the closest thing to a rookie Marine aboard, drew Santiago’s attention back to the conversation. 

“Don’t matter to me what’s down there. Whatever it is Captain wants, we get it, and we leave. No sightseeing.” 

The squad hardly needed the pep talk, but Santiago thought it useful for their morale to keep a sense of continuity even though things were going from bad to worse. Their equipment were long past their maintenance need-by dates, and only a few of the big armor-suits they wriggled into before every deployment came online with more green lights than yellow on their status boards. It was only by the grace of a compassionate God and Vasilev overengineering that Santiago and his men could still jump out of their dropship protected by anything sturdier than a flexvest. 

As usual, the briefing data payload appeared in their suit computers only once the dropship had dusted off and was headed toward the pockmarked surface of the planet below. The place looked as inhospitable in the data payload as it did in the dropship’s bow camera feed, but apparently there was a tiny Nate outpost perched on the rim of a volcanic caldera down there which was about to be liberated of its supplies. Whatever guards the enemy had left over its scientists would need to be cleaned up, then the marines would load everything not nailed down back into their dropship. With any luck, they’d be orbital again in two hours. 

As the others read their briefing data and grumbled about once again being sent down to a place without any sunny beaches, cool green hills, or nubile alien females, Santiago focused on images of the facility itself. It squatted on one side of a rocky ridge, spreading white tendrils of prefabricated building along the ground like a parasite colonizing the hide of a huge beast. Whatever the Incarnation wanted out of this volcanic hellscape, their plans were about to experience a setback, Marine style. He made a mental note to “forget” at least one of the fist-sized smart grenades on his belt before he re-boarded as the first wisps of atmosphere began to rattle and groan against the hull. When one of the big Nate cruisers came to see what had happened, all he wanted them to find was a newly scorched crater on an already crater-pocked sphere.