2949-02-23 – Tales from the Service: The Intruder on Grand Azure
The Navy has been releasing a number of details about an action fought at Sagittarius Gate around the same time the Seventh Fleet relieved the Lost Squadrons. This action was first reported to be a battle between elements of the Seventh Fleet and a squadron of four Tyrant heavy cruisers following the trail of the Lost Squadrons, but as the picture becomes more clear, it seems this battle pitted the military spearhead of the Lost Squadrons against those Tyrants.
With firepower slightly exceeding that of one normal-strength light cruiser forward scouting group, the scratch battle group organized around Samuel Bosch’s Arrowhawk fought two desperate rearguard skirmishes with the four-cruiser enemy squadron at Sagittarius Gate before the Seventh Fleet’s arrival forced the Incarnation commander to withdraw his forces. A third engagement, mainly between Seventh Fleet strike assets and Incarnation Coronachs, was inconclusive, and the Incarnation, possibly running low on supplies and munitions, departed the system and has not yet returned.
While some details of this battle remain unavailable to the public, the undefeated (if not particularly victorious) return of the Lost Squadrons has inspired celebrations throughout Confederated space, from the Core Worlds all the way out here to Maribel. These hardy spacers aren’t home yet – they still have to cross the Gap - but I’m sure the Navy will certainly ferry them home for recuperation as soon as safe passage can be arranged. They’ve done their part in this conflict, and have weathered near-constant danger for far longer than anyone could have expected them.
Messages home from many of the Lost Squadrons survivors have been forwarded to this publication by their original recipients. The fantastic tales included in many of them do interest us, especially the ones which claim to shed light on the mysterious Grand Journey (Tales from the Service: A Reacher's Request) but we are still waiting on Naval Intelligence approval to publish them.
This week’s account was sent in by a spacer aboard Vigilance, one of the light carriers of the Seventh Fleet force sent to Sagittarius Gate. An occasional reader, this spacer, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to here merely as Azar, read our pieces relating to the mercenary frigate Grand Azure (Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure and Tales from the Service: The Garden of the Grand Azure) and the accounts published by other publications. Faced with an opportunity to investigate the mysterious vessel further during the passage to Sagittarius gate, he attempted to do so, somewhat incompetently.
[N.T.B. - It should not need to be said, but don’t do what this fool did. Mercs can be a bit twitchy, and he’s lucky they didn’t shoot him on the spot.]
Azar paced the narrow space behind the cargo shuttle’s twin piloting stations as Patrick Ord, the shuttle’s pilot, lined the little launch up with the extended docking collar of Grand Azure. The frigate was as attractive to look at as he’d once read – the description of it as an ornament instead of a war-fighting machine, if anything, didn’t do its aesthetics justice.
“Whoever your friends are, Azar, they’re idiots.” Ord shook his head as he leaned over the console to scrutinize the sensor readouts. “That thing’s a pleasure-boat with guns bolted on, and they brought it out here to Sagittarius?”
Azar had lied to the pilot, telling him that he knew some of the members of the crew of Grand Azure and just wanted to pop over for a social visit while the cargo was being unloaded. In truth, Azar didn’t know any of them, but he knew of them. The strange partnership rumored to govern the vessel had been a datasphere curiosity since the attractive vessel had appeared in the theatre of war. Back then, Azar had been one of the many techs helping restore mothballed Terran-Rattanai War vintage warships to some semblance of fighting order, and he’d never expected to actually see the mystery ship with his own eyes.
Vigilance had changed all that. From the moment Azar had seen the light carrier hauled out of its mothball orbit and into his drydock bay, he’d known he would leave with it. The light carrier didn’t have Grand Azure’s supermodel looks, but its sleek, proud lines drew him in all the same. It looked like something out of "Return to Earth” and the other old war dramas his father had so avidly watched, mostly because it was – every time he looked up at the hangar observation platform, he expected to see long-dead vidcast stars like Arthur Eileifr or Yumi Miriana standing there, their jaws set in cinematically grim determination.
He’d later learned – via a message from his father, naturally – that many of these productions had leased freshly-mothballed Vigilance or its sister ship Alacrity from the Navy reserve to use as sets.
“We're secure.” Ord barely needed to announce it; the shuttle struck the frigate’s docking apparatus with a loud bang and a hiss of atmosphere flooding the flexible docking collar. “Grand Azure, where do you want these crates?”
Azar hadn’t asked what supplies the frigate had requested from Vigilance. The mercenaries’ supply situation wasn’t the mystery he intended on solving. He just needed an excuse to go aboard – the crates would be that excuse.
“Understood.” Ord, responding to a voice from the other ship, switched off his earpiece and turned to Azar. “There should be a cargo stowage area just inside on your left. They say to leave everything there. You’ve got fifteen minutes.”
“More than I need.” Azar cracked his knuckles, then headed aft to the shuttle’s pressurized cargo bay. The bargain Azar had struck with Ord was simple – he hitched a ride to say hello to his “friends” aboard Grand Azure, and in turn, he would haul the dozen-odd crates from the shuttle across to the mercenary frigate, sparing the pudgy pilot the trouble of getting out of his crash-padded pilot’s station.
Hauling the first trio of bulky crates onto a magnetic-wheeled handcart, Azar pushed them to the hatch, which Ord opened remotely. Compared to the metallic and slightly oily smell of the shuttle’s atmospherics unit and the somewhat close, heavy-feeling atmospheric qualities produced by Vigilance’s old atmospherics systems, the air that washed over Azar’s face when the portal opened seemed unbelievably fresh and clean – it was, he decided, almost like the clean breeze blowing across the Valèrian hills on Madurai, where he’d grown up.
Azar pushed his cart across the threshold and onto the gleaming deck of Grand Azure. None of its crew had come to greet him. Was it really, he wondered, the home of an intelligent slime-like creature from the moons of Allenden? The datasphere nodes where he’d discussed the topic in had the mysterious creature known as Sapphire tentatively identified as a Myxomyceti, an alien life-form which wasn’t generally regarded as one of humanity’s sapient peers. One sample from the ship’s hydroponics compartment would be enough to settle the question once and for all.
Unfortunately, the cargo stowage area indicated to Ord was simply impossible to miss. The alcove, studded with cargo tie-down points, sat only a few meters inside Grand Azure’s airlock. Wondering how he might manufacture an excuse to go further, Azar unloaded his first three crates, then headed back for another load.
“Azar, how’s it going?” Ord’s voice broke into Azar’s thoughts. It took him a moment to realize the interruption came from the shuttle’s intercom.
“Three down, ten to go.” Azar loaded the cart once more.
“Good. Hey, I told the lady on Azure’s comms board that you had a friend on their ship. What was their name again?”
Azar was glad the other man was still in the cockpit; there, he couldn’t see Azar’s dismay. The lie hadn’t included a name, and now he needed to think of one, fast. “Uh. Blake.” He cursed his reflexive answer even as he spoke it; the Grand Azure’s crew would recognize the game the moment they heard that name, a pseudonym assigned to one of them by the first datacast service to take an interest in their affairs.
“I’ll see if he can come down to meet you.” Ord cheerfully signed off, assuming his good deed for the day had been done. Azar finished loading his cart for the second short trip and hurried it across. He had seconds to do something, or to come up with a likely story, otherwise, he’d be forced to come clean.
Pushing the cart into the stowage area, Azar darted to the intersection where the airlock corridor met one of the ship’s main forward-aft passages. The nearby lift and all the doors in both directions were shut and he knew they wouldn’t open for him. Just as he was resigned to coming clean, he noticed that the security door on the access ladder shaft at the forward end of the corridor, perhaps fifteen meters away, stood slightly ajar, left open by a careless mercenary spacer.
The lift thumped as the car within reached his deck, and Azar sprinted for the open hatch. He’d just reached it when a shout of alarm behind him indicated that he’d been spotted.
Azar slid down the ladder until he reached the ship’s double-height hydroponics deck. Smashing his palm into the emergency lock override, he tumbled off the ladder and through onto damp deck plating. The warm, moist air and sounds of running water told him he'd made it to the hydroponics deck – now all he needed to do was lose his pursuer among the maze of grow-beds for a few minutes.
“Hold it.” A woman’s voice, punctuated by the snap and whine of charging railgun capacitors, interrupted Azar before he could stand. “Where do you think you’re going?”