Naval dispatches indicate that the HyperCast relay in Berkant orbit was destroyed during the battle, but information about the action in that system has yet to be released. Given that Duncan and Nojus are outside the reach of the Hypercast network, this week’s entry is one of the pieces Duncan prepared some time ago but could not post.
His notes indicate that this story was sent in as a response to Tales from the Service: A Stowaway Saboteur some time ago. The submitter, Loretta B., is a mercenary pilot operating off the ersatz carrier Shammuramat, on contract with the Navy to patrol the outer Nye Norge systems. She found evidence there that the Incarnation is using civilian Confederated Worlds ships (crewed either by their own or by native Ladeonists) to covertly surveil the Frontier. These ships may also be the vehicle for agents like the Paz of the Stowaway Saboteur account; her nanotechnological weaponry seems beyond the capability of native Ladeonist insurgents.
This story would have been posted immediately to the text feed, but Naval Intelligence held it up for several weeks, whereupon it went into Duncan’s steadily growing backlog of ready-to-use entries. The attack on Håkøya forecast by Loretta in her attached message never materialized, but that should not be a strike against her credibility – the enemy likely saw the arrival of the huge cruiser force based there and decided to raid softer targets in the Nye Norge.
Loretta keyed the gunship’s personnel hatch as soon as the hangar pressurization alarm chimed, and unhooked her restraints from her flight suit. Normally, she would wait for the ship’s three gunners to squeeze out of their swivel-stabilized turret stations aft of the cockpit before she disembarked, but the flight she’d just completed had been a rare solo run. Already, the cameras and sensors that had been mounted in place of most of the Kosseler Gryphon’s armament had begun downloading their sizable recordings to the carrier’s datasphere for analysis, but she had seen plenty herself, and would need a few stiff drinks to soothe her nerves.
“Clean run, boss.” One of the mechanics hurrying up to the ship on the hangar deck gave Loretta a friendly slap on the shoulder as she walked by.
Normally, she was all smiles after a successful field operation, but this time, the stressful stealth run had left her wrung out in a way lethal combat never could. For six hours, she’d drifted powerless through the weapons range of three titanic Incarnation cruisers, protected only by the hope – accurate as it turned out – that their sensor technology was not much more capable than that of the Confederated Navy.
Even so, an active sensor sweep by a paranoid officer on any of the three ships would have found her out immediately, and no amount of fancy flying would have saved her from concentrated point defense fire from three cruisers. Her ship had been outfitted to evade detection by civilian sensor suites, not military-grade systems. Loretta had sweated through every second of the flyby, not knowing whether it would be her last.
Loretta staggered into the lift and punched the deck level of the pilots’ lounge. When the miners at the Axelson Industries outpost had tipped her crew off to the suspicious activities of a small-time freight hauler, she had been as eager as the other pilots to snoop on the ship as it meandered through the outer system. Everyone had hoped to find opportunistic pirates a long way from home, or a smuggler laden with contraband to earn the crew a prize-taking bonus from the Navy.
Loretta’s ship had been hastily modified for a surveillance mission, and she had left the hangar in good spirits, chasing the suspicious hauler into the shadow of a moon only to find three towering enemy cruisers lurking there once it was too late to back out of the silent flyby.
The lift doors opened, and Loretta all but rushed to the bar in the lounge, punching in an order for imitation rum even before she sat down. Two of the other people in the compartment – one of her own gunners and another pilot – tried to start a round of applause, but one look at her face was enough to still this good cheer.
The rum arrived and Loretta downed it in one gulp, despite a metallic odor suggesting that the lounge’s beverage synthesizer machine was on the fritz again.
As soon as she’d clapped the empty cup back onto the table and had begun to consider a second, one of the other pilots got up from one of the gaming tables and took the stool to her right. “Hell of a run, Loretta.”
“That’s damned right, Jem. Hell of a run.” Loretta told the bar to send her another drink, then turned to look at her fellow pilot. Jem Williams flew an antiquated Kestrel interceptor which would have been a better choice for the mission, had it not been for the age of its computer systems. The passive surveillance modules had overloaded the dodgy, thirty-year-old datasystems of the single-seat Kestrel, so the hangar crew had mounted it in the gun mounts of her Gryphon instead – and nobody flew Loretta’s ship except Loretta herself. “Next one’s all yours.”
The second drink arrived, and Jem snatched it from Loretta. “You’re not trained for scout work, but you did good work out there today.” He might have downed it himself, but he seemed to think better of it once he caught a whiff of its metallic broken-synthesizer odor.
The instant of hesitation was enough for Loretta to take it back, though not without sloshing almost a third of the precious alcohol out of the cup. Unlike him, she didn’t hesitate. How could he understand how powerless she’d been for all those hours? He was used to flying in something that had been custom modified to outrun most purpose-built racers. He would never understand how many times she had died in her mind, watching the glittering laser-lenses on three Tyrants for the first glow of a shot which would vaporize her ship.
“Odd they’re hiding. Shammuramat is no threat to even one of them.” Jem, who had obviously heard Loretta’s trembling radio report on her return flight, seemed oblivious to how shaken his associate still was. “Must not be anything in this system worth blowing up.”
“There isn't.” Loretta shrugged. The Navy didn’t think the outer Nye Norge systems were worth seriously protecting, so the enemy passing through the area silently was no surprise. “They’ve got bigger targets and don’t want to raise the alarm.”
“Somewhere that hauler just visited.” Jem agreed, punching in his own drink.
“The Axelson station boss told us where the hauler had just come from, Jem.” She turned to face the other pilot for the first time. “It was in the briefing, remember?”
“Was it?” Jem, like most mercenary pilots, took pride in his ability to tune out briefings and still get the job done.
“Sure was. Their last stop was the planet you want to retire to, after this is over.”
“Damn.” Jem’s drink arrived, and this time he downed it without noticing the odor. “Now I remember. They’d come from Håkøya.”