2948-12-15 – Tales from the Service: Captive with Father Thomas 

It is with no small amount of regret that I must inform this audience of the death of Thomas Nyilvas, a longtime member of the Cosmic Background audience and the star of multiple text feed entries earlier in the war (Tales from the Service: A Pastor and a Prodigal, Tales from the Service: An Immortal's Contrition, and Tales from the Service: The Padre’s Angel). His Emmanuel Feast sermon from last year aboard Xavior Vitalli is still available on our datasphere hub. 

Though his last published posting was to Hugo Marge as chaplain, it seems that our departed Padre and about twenty others, mostly Marines from the ship’s compliment, headed down to Margaux during the maneuvers following the first Battle of Margaux. Though there is no official record of his transfer to the garrison, it is likely that Captain Mlyarnik of Marge gave permission for this transfer, as I have heard stories of several other vessels’ crews contributing volunteers to the defense of Margaux in those same inconclusive hours. 

Nyilvas accompanied a patrol of F.D.A. Infantrymen out from the Ishkawa Line on 6 December. Evidently, their purpose was at least partly to recover wounded soldiers of both sides left in the open after an Incarnation mass charge was broken up by an F.D.A. counterattack stiffened by the support of about a dozen Marines and a single armored ground vehicle. After making several trips out of the Ishkawa fortifications into the canyons to bring back the wounded and dead, the patrol was set upon and captured by a larger Incarnation force. Three of the seventeen F.D.A soldiers returned to friendly lines, and it is from their reports that the last moments of Father Thomas were documented, and from their accounts – mainly that of Sergeant Kevin “Kev” Trujillo, we have decided to dedicate this space in the closing weeks of this trying year to telling his story as best we are able. 

After receiving multiple recommendations through both the usual chain and through what the Navy charitably calls “alternative communications,” Thomas Nyilvas has been formally awarded a posthumous Centaur Cross. In the same announcement that included the award, the Navy also indicated that it would be naming the third Chihiro Kidd-class Hospital ship (due to be launched early in January) Thomas Nyilvas. 

[N.T.B. - The views of our eyewitness here with respect to the Navy are damnably wrong, and reflect worse on the F.D.A rumor mills that spawned them than on the Navy itself.] 

Sergeant Kev Trujillo woke to find someone shaking him. As usual, he had no bed but the bitter rocks of Margaux, but his shoulders’ protest at the odd angle they were forced into and the resistance to his feeble attempts to reach out to slap away the person disturbing his hard-won rest told him that something was different – different in a concerningly wrong sort of way. 

“Sarge, they’re coming.” Private Wasi Winton, voice high and cracking, shook Kev again. “What are we going to do?” 

Only upon opening his eyes and seeing the panicked glint in the younger soldier’s eyes did Kevin remember that the odd resistance holding his arms was a thick synthsilk cord binding his forearms together behind his back. This odd restraint posture also explained his shoulders’ complaints – if the Nates didn’t untie his hands soon, the old shrapnel wound in his upper back might start acting up again. 

Pain from old scars was, of course, the least of Kev’s problems. “Pipe down, Winton.” He shook his head, struggling to rise to a sitting position. “What we’re going to do is say no to them, then die with honor, Private. You got that?” 

Winton nodded, regaining some of his composure. Though he was only nineteen T-years old, the young private was already a veteran of dozens of canyon skirmishes and the long retreat from Judicael. He could face death unflinching, and Kev was proud of that fact, given that at the beginning of the battle, young infantrymen like Winton had seen nothing of the horrors war always wrought. If the Navy had been able to attract youths like Winton instead of the sniveling cowards it seemed to collect in droves, Margaux would never have been invaded – the Incarnation would have been stopped cold at Mereena or Adimari Valis. 

“It’s not... Not really the death part I’m worried about, Sarge.” Winton rubbed his grimy hands over his equally grimy face, and Kev envied the younger man’s lack of bindings. Of the ten of them who had been captured, their captors had bound only Kev and Corporal Lyndon before throwing their whole catch into a shadowy grotto just behind the forward Incarnation outposts, which smelled as if it had been used as a temporary holding pen for prisoners many times before. Despite no obvious surveillance, Kev had insisted that nobody untie him – and his instincts had been proven right when glassy-eyed Nate soldiers had hauled away both Lyndon and the man who had untied him. The bloodcurdling screams from just outside the grotto had only lasted about a minute, and left no doubt as to the punishment meted out for this arbitrary crime. 

The eight remaining captives had been left unsupervised in their stone pen for the remainder of the night, and now, gray dawn had begun to filter down into the canyon outside, illuminating the fear on each haggard face.  

Only the Padre, who appeared at Winton’s shoulder at the same time as Kev heard the crunch of boots outside for himself appeared unconcerned. “Death is the worst they can do, my son. Anything worse, we must do to ourselves.” 

Kev, remembering the inhuman sounds which had been wrung from the throats of the two men for whom death had already come, didn’t think this a very strong reassurance, but Winton nodded and straightened a little. It didn’t seem fair that Father Thomas, who had come along only to comfort the dying men who littered the scene of battle, broken and with cyanotic pustules of Margaux life already sprouting in their gory wounds as they choked the bitter air for a few more minutes or hours. He wasn’t F.D.A., or even with the Marines – he was one of the few brave or foolhardy Navy personnel who had landed on the toxic, broken soil of Margaux to join the fight up close.  

Given that he, like any chaplain, carried no weapons and wore only the flimsiest armor-vest below his cassock, his decision to join the groundside fight seemed rather insane by Kev’s standards, but the Padre could never be described as madman. 

“Padre’s right.” Kev rolled his neck and faced the cave’s narrow mouth where the tromping boots of their tormentors would soon arrive. “It’s been an honor, boys.” 

Six Incarnation soldiers in their slate-gray regalia marched in automaton-crisp formation around the corner, temple-implants blinking furiously and eyes burning with misplaced hatred for their prisoners, as if Kev and his remaining men had personally strapped the Nates down to a table and drilled skull sockets for their implants with hand-drills. Braketed neatly within the box created by these six, a tall, sunken-cheeked officer glared with equal malice, but significantly more animation. 

Struggling against his bonds, Kev lurched to his feet, and the others did the same. None said anything; they had all heard the stories of forcible implantation, excruciating torture, and hellships. Even the greenest Private on Margaux knew better than to ask for or expect fair prisoner-of-war treatment from Nate. The Incarnation’s propaganda painted Confederate defenders of the Frontier as hastening the extinction barreling down upon humanity, and though the idea was a joking matter behind Confederated lines, the rank and file of the invaders took it very seriously. 

“Murderers all.” The officer’s venomous tone matched the sneer on his face. “Decadent and useless.” 

Kev recognized that his men were not the target of this invective – the audience was the officer’s own soldiers, to whom his men were being dehumanized. He glanced around, trying to snag the eyes of the more hot-headed of his remaining men. If any of them rose to the insult, their fate would be worse than that of Lyndon and the well-intentioned private who’d loosed him. 

Though some of the men clenched their jaws or scowled back at the officer, none replied to him. This silence seemed to irritate the officer, who perhaps had expected one of the prisoners to reinforce his case with an impassioned outburst. “They know their sins. Perhaps some of them want to repent of their ways and save their pathetic lives.” 

Kev knew this implied offer to be a lie, but perhaps facing imminent death, some of his men might decide to believe it. That would be the start of the worse things the Padre had hinted at, but it would grant them a hideous sort of reprieve only long enough for the Incarnation to drag out a pseudo-religious show-trial. 

Father Thomas took a step forward toward the officer. “Sir, these men have already repented of their sins and been cleansed.” 

Kev’s jaw dropped. Of all the men who might break the silence impulsively, he had not expected it to be the calm, patient chaplain. The Padre had to know better than anyone that the Incarnation didn’t mean sins in the same sense as the Spacers’ Chapel – why was he sticking his neck onto the block? Did he think that would save anyone? 

“Have they?” The officer seemed to notice Father Thomas for the first time, his eyes widening hungrily at the sight of the battered and torn chaplain’s cassock hanging over the prisoner’s uniform. Rumors had circulated of Nate offering bounties on particular varieties of Confederated personnel – medics, Marine officers, downed pilots, and even chaplains. “Are you willing to risk your life on that?” 

Some of the men leaned forward, as if to spring to Father Thomas’s defense, but the Padre merely smiled. “A life is no great thing to wager. Even your dogma says so.” 

2948-12-08 – Tales from the Service: Hope for the Lost Squadrons

Last week’s piece provoked a large number of messages from our audience, most of them hoping we would follow up when we could confirm that Horus was dead.

While this publication cannot do any more than any other in confirming the status of a prisoner in Navy custody, I can confirm after reaching out to the Maribel military security administration that Horus’s trial in late November lasted only two days, and he was sentenced to death. I see no reason to expect that the man is not currently dead.

Do be aware, dear readers, that Horus’s part in this war ended months ago, whatever his date of death. Ending his life might be just, but it will do nothing for the troops fighting on Margaux and the crews skirmishing with Incarnation ships throughout the Frontier.

This week, I have good news on another front. I am told by reliable sources within Admiral Zahariev’s staff that contact was briefly restored with Captain Samuel Bosch, commander of the ad-hoc formation known on the Datasphere as the Lost Squadrons – the assortment of ships cut off across the Sagittarius Gap when the Incarnation destroyed the Hypercomm relay chain and attacked the frontiers in force.

Nojus took a shuttle over to Admiral Zahariev’s flagship Triasta Asteria to discuss this news with the Fifth Fleet’s foremost expert in asymmetric warfare – the former pirate Bozsi Kirke-Moore. As always, the audio recording of this interview can be found on the Cosmic Background datasphere hub.

N.T.B. - Nojus Brand is a long-time explorer, datasphere personality, and wartime field reporter for Cosmic Background.  

C.S.D. - Colonel Carolina Durand is the Naval Intelligence attaché to Admiral Zahariev.   

B.K.M. - Captain Bozsi Kirke-Moore is a former pirate who has experience with asymmetric warfare in the Coreward Frontier, serving as an adviser to Admiral Zahariev. His rank is provisional, as he has never held it in Navy service prior to his recent appearance on the Fifth Fleet staff. 


[N.T.B.] – Good morning, Captain Kirke-Moore. Thanks for agreeing to talk about this development on short notice.

[B.K.M.] – No trouble at all, Mr. Brand. Reneer holds your outlet in high regard, and I understand that your company and your partner are friendly with the man of the hour.

[N.T.B.] – Yes, that’s correct. You were still in… retirement at the time, but Captain Bosch was quite the media darling during the New Rheims debacle and the Purge. Datasphere rumors suggest he was sent to Sagittarius by admirals who hoped he wouldn’t come back.

[B.K.M.] – I have read summaries of these events, both from civilian outlets and internal reports. Estimations of the man’s character vary quite widely, but I have gathered enough data to suggest I would very much like to meet him. Most fortunately, he seems eager to give me the chance.

[N.T.B.] – Let’s talk about that, then. How is it possible for a force like his to be operational behind enemy lines after all this time?

[C.S.D.] – You understand that we will not reveal anything we suspect will compromise operational security in answering your questions, Mr. Brand?

[B.K.M.] – Carolina, please, I am sure the man understands the limitations on what we say. He surely also understands that much of what we say here will be speculation, given how little data about the situation we still have.

[N.T.B.] – Yes, I understand.

[B.K.M.] – Now then. As mentioned in the report he sent with Martin Westland earlier this year, Bosch rounded up all the Confederated ships cut off in Sagittarius that he could find. While everyone thinks of the Lost Squadrons as the remains of the three cruiser-centered scouting and patrol squadrons Fifth Fleet sent out there, we think in intervening months he’s picked up civilian vessels; he would have had to do so, to keep his ships running.

[C.S.D.] – By our estimates, Bosch might have collected up to a hundred civilian Confederated Worlds chartered vessels. Since most of the big ships which made it to Sagittarius before the “Sagittarian” raids started were constructors and refinery ships sent ahead to prepare infrastructure for colonies, even if he has half that, simulations suggest these vessels can manufacture parts and materials to keep most of his warships flying. Battle damage is another matter entirely, so we must assume he has engaged in only limited combat.

[N.T.B.] – And he’s done that for a year with the Incarnation hunting him? Civilian factory ships are damnable pigs – too slow to outrun Incarnation warships.

[C.S.D.] – Under normal circumstances, yes. Bosch seems to have created abnormal circumstances.

[B.K.M.] – That is the essence of asymmetric warfare. Though we don’t have all the details, it is probable that he leaves the bulk of his force skulking in interstellar space while the most serviceable warships stage raids for materials and to damage soft Incarnation targets. Pirates have tried to build self-sufficient armadas capable of that sort of warfare for centuries, you know, but it is simply beyond the resources of mere outlaws. If Bosch has managed it even with civilians in train, he would have made an excellent pirate.

[N.T.B.] – If he has such a self-sufficient fleet, why can’t he run the Gap and get back here?

[B.K.M.] – I see from your expression that you ask this question for your auidence’s benefit, Mr. Brand. There are no raw materials in the Gap to collect, no metals to use to build spare parts and no organics to process into nutrient slurry. Even the phased matter density is low. It is one thing for the massed resources of his squadrons to outfit a small vessel like Terence Morey for the journey, but to stockpile the necessary materials to chance the crossing en masse would require Bosch to be far bolder in his raids and foraging than is wise.

[N.T.B.] – What about drive system maintenance? His ships’ Himura units can’t be in good shape after a year out of port.

[B.K.M.] – This depends on how often they’ve been used. Most likely some of the vessels involved will be unsuitable for Navy service now. Bosch’s flagship, Arrowhawk, is the only vessel we got technical readouts from in our recent contact, and it is in no state to make the Gap crossing without a complete field overhaul.

[N.T.B.] – So that’s it, then? They’re still stuck out there?

[B.K.M.] – For now, they remain stranded, but this will not persist for long, if plans now in motion continue on schedule. We have sent a message containing instructions for Captain Bosch, but cannot verify if he received it.

[C.S.D.] – Relieving the Lost Squadrons is a task not currently assigned to the Fifth Fleet, Mr. Brand. This headquarters continues to focus its forces on Margaux.

[N.T.B.] – The Fifth Fleet is the only formation currently fighting, Ms. Durand. If that’s not your task, it’s not going to get done, is it?

[B.K.M.] – You may print that sentiment in your text feed if you like, but I would not make any bets on that. I can however only speak for information Fifth Fleet has collected and analyzed; I cannot speculate as to decisions made outside Reneer’s command purview.

[N.T.B.] – Hypothetically, then, what would be needed to rescue the Lost Squadrons?

[B.K.M.] – Speaking entirely hypothetically, getting them home, ships and all, would require a full field depot being dispatched to the Sagittarius Frontier and set up there without Incarnation interference. Once the vessels of the Lost Squadrons have been serviced, those which are worth saving can be sent back here to Maribel for full dockyard overhauls, and those which are beyond any use can be stripped. There is no way this effort can be done in secret; this depot would attract Incarnation attention, and as a result a fleet sufficient to protect it would be required. For such long range operations, that fleet would need to be mainly of heavy cruisers and smaller warships; most Confederated battleships don’t have the star drive reliability figures needed to cross the Gap.

[C.S.D.] – We ran a few simulations. Fifth Fleet’s cruiser units could do it, but those ships are needed for another run at Margaux and will not be spared to help Bosch.

[N.T.B.] – All that for a rescue operation? What happens to that depot once the Lost Squadrons are rescued?

[B.K.M.] – It would be difficult to see such an outpost being temporary. If held, it would disrupt Incarnation plans for further offensive operations into the Coreward Frontier. Even a few light cruiser squadrons operating on that side of the Gap could bring the flow of new ships and supplies to their fleet on this side to a halt, if those squadrons were led by those of the right inclinations. Whatever the Incarnation’s plans for further offensives, if the Squadrons are relieved, I cannot see how they ignore the threat to their rear area.

[N.T.B.] – It’s a shame then that it’s all hypothetical.

[B.K.M.] – Yes, it is, but I suspect even if Fifth Fleet cannot rescue the Lost Squadrons, I will be shaking hands with Captain Samuel Bosch not too long from now, and you will be interviewing him for one of your vidcast specials.

[N.T.B.] – I sure as all hells hope so. Thank you for your time, Captain Kirke-Moore, Colonel Durand.

[B.K.M.] – No trouble at all, Mr. Brand.

2948-12-01 – Tales from the Service: Horus in Durance 

Some time ago, we featured a pair of accounts sent in by one Duncan Vieth, which related to his work along with Yejide Blum to take down a known Incarnation agent known as Horus. This agent of a hostile foreign power exploited Ladeonist ideology prevalent in the youths of Maribel’s upper class to commit sabotage and cause significant loss of life earlier this year, and then he vanished. 

The local Ladeonist youths have engaged in copycat attacks of various kinds since, but the lack of Horus’s expertise generally limited the effects of these to a manageable level. What happened to Horus was initially not known – after the events detailed in Tales from the Service: On Horus’s Heels the agent vanished for months, evidently going to ground despite multiple roundups of known Ladeonist-sympathizers and a general crackdown on such illicit activity on Maribel. 

In the last month (and the account in front of me does not say more precisely when), Horus reappeared. Vieth and Blum, since reassigned to dealing with the planet’s extensive black market in Navy-issue materiel, led an operation to capture a starship smuggling stolen government goods off-planet. Nothing suggested then or now that this smuggling outfit had Ladeonist or Incarnation ties, and yet a person claiming to be Horus and loaded with the Incarnation implant tech to match the claim was captured aboard. 

Naval Intelligence believes that Horus, who hired onto this vessel as a lay spacer technician, was trying to move his operations to another world. Though the smuggler vessel’s itinerary claims it was going to Håkøya, his intended destination remains unclear. 

Yejide Blum, Vieth’s partner who narrowly escaped death in the pair’s last encounter with Horus, describes the eerie (and to those in this audience who remember other Ladeonist agents such as the one in Tales from the Service: A Stowaway Saboteur, familiar) experience of interrogating this true believer in the Incarnation’s paradoxical cause. 


The man in the cell grinned. “Horus.” For a deadly enemy agent, he wasn’t much to look at – short and stocky, bald, with dark eyes and a bulbous nose, he looked more like a shopkeeper than a saboteur. Though he had the temple implant common to many Incarnation personnel Yejide had seen pictures of, his was almost flush with his skin, easily concealable with a little bit of polymer skin. 

“Legal name.” 

His grin widened. “Adris Ladeon.” 

Yejide Blum glowered through the thick gravitic shear isolating the implanted Incarnation agent. “Horus” had picked up this petulant game from the dilletante revolutionaries of the city, among whom giving the name of their loathsome ideological father instead of their own when arrested had become annoyingly vogue years before. 

In the cases of the maladjusted children of the city’s wealthy, a fingerprint or retinal scan usually revealed their proper identities, assuming they were smart enough not to engage in criminal “revolutionary” behavior with their ident cards in their pockets. Most of them weren’t, naturally, smart enough to take this basic precaution, so they added lying to the authorities to the list of crimes their parents’ expensive lawyers needed to fight for no purpose except to feel smug. 

In Horus’s case, however, there was no way of knowing his real name unless he gave it. His records would be in the Incarnation’s data-systems, if any existed at all. “We’ll stick with Horus, then.” Yejide tapped her data-slate to type that name into the form. It gave a warning, but she didn’t care about the niceties of the precinct software. “Date of birth?” 

“Thirty-three ninety-nine, twelve, thirty-one.” Horus adopted an almost comically innocent expression. “Standard calendar.” 

Yejide didn’t even bother entering a date hundreds of years in the future into the system. “Home habitat?” 

Sabileen Station, Gunderson system.” 

Yejide almost dropped her slate. “Say again?” 

Sabileen Station, Gunderson system. It’s in Galactic West, just a few ly from-” 

“Yes, yes, I know where it is.” 

Horus grinned demoniacally. “I know you do.”  

Yejide did her best to keep composure. The man had probably picked out her home habitat, the place her parents and siblings still lived, to get under her skin, and she refused to let it work. How he’d learned that from inside his cell was a mystery for later. She reminded herself that as long as Horus sat in the cell in front of her, her family was in no danger. “Preferred funerary arrangements?” 

“Whatever costs the most.” 

Yejide tapped in “no preference” and closed the basic form, despite warnings about its incompleteness. “You’re going to get the atomizer, Horus. You know that, don’t you?” 

“Probably.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t seem fair, does it? If I’d done what I did for your corrupt admirals, they would be pinning medals to my chest.” 

“Never.” Yejide shook her head. “You blew up civilian infrastructure. Killed nonmilitary-” 

“Everything is a military target, my soft captor. Every credit in damage and every drop of blood spilled brings the victory of the Incarnate closer. Every picture of carnage pushes you and yours closer to giving in and letting us save you from yourselves.” 

Yejide had, like most Maribelan security officers, taken multiple courses of Ladeonist counter-ideology training, but the rote answers didn’t seem likely to bother him very much, and she very much wanted to bother him. “You think anyone wants help from a half-human chiphead?” 

“Temper, temper, Agent Blum.” The stout man held up his hands, certainly knowing that this would rile her even further. “Perhaps you’d like to say unkind things about my parentage as well?” 

Yejide took three, calming breaths. “No need. The Navy bailiffs coming by day after tomorrow to collect you are better at that sort of thing than I am.” 

“Oh, good, new jailors. I hope they’re interesting.” Horus shrugged. “I’ll have plenty of time to get to know them while my case works its way through.” 

Yejide smiled for the first time. Perhaps Horus was smarter than most of the wannabe revolutionaries he had taken refuge with on Maribel, but he lacked one thing they didn’t - an appreciation for how much cognitive dissonance went into drafting the Ladeonist propaganda intended to remove dissidents’ fear of the law. “This is the Frontier, not the damned Core Worlds. In our courtrooms, with the best lawyer your rich fans could buy, you’d be in the atomizer in ninety days.” 

Horus’s smile didn’t falter, but neither did he have a witty response. Being unfamiliar with the realities of Confederated Worlds justice, especially as it played out on the frontier, he probably didn’t know much beyond the propaganda.  

“Too bad for you, Navy courts work fast. No civilian lawyers, no appeals. You’ll be dead in two weeks.” Yejide shrugged. “No media, either, so no chance to make a splash or rally your idiot followers on the datasphere.” 

“Oh.” For a moment, Horus’s confidence almost faltered, and Yejide thought he might be about to give her something useful to save his hide. It wouldn’t take much – a few names, a few safehouses, identifying information on other agents, whatever he knew – and the Navy would put off his execution to the end of the war, when it would almost certainly be commuted anyway. 

This hesitation lasted only a moment, however, and the smoothly confident mask returned. “Two weeks is a lot of time. The Incarnate would have one of yours dead or broken to its will in an hour and a half.” 

Yejide, having heard plenty of stories about just this, shuddered. There were probably those within Naval Intelligence quietly wishing they could apply Incarnation torture techniques to their prisoners, and she hoped they would never be allowed to give it a try. “That's exactly why we don’t want your so-called help, you idiot.” 

“That lack of will,” Horus shook his head sadly. “Is exactly why you need it.” 

2948-11-24 – Tales from the Service: Operation Layman at Margaux

Admiral Zahariev and the Fifth Fleet have once again engaged the enemy fleet over Margaux in recent days. 

While the results of this Second Battle of Margaux are not as positive as might be expected, as the Incarnation still holds the system, reports indicate high losses inflicted on their force in the battle, in vast excess to the losses inflicted on the Fifth Fleet. Furthermore, while the battle was ongoing, an extensive resupply operation was conducted to provide needed spare parts, munitions, and medical equipment to the garrison on the Ishkawa Line, and nine of the twelve haulers which carried out this resupply escaped the system loaded with combat wounded and civilian evacuees.

The greatest success in this battle was in a diversionary trap which is rumored to be the brainchild of Captain Kirke-Moore, Admiral Zahariev’s close adviser. This diversion succeeded in pulling eight Tyrants away from the main action and destroying two of them, damaging a reported four others sufficiently to put them out of action, all for the loss of three haulers and a few frigates, plus a light cruiser damaged. While losses in the main engagement were closer to even, Confederated losses were still relatively light, as most ships put out of action were able to retreat from the field.

Commander Jorg Geier, skipper of one of the haulers involved in this clever diversion, was allowed by Naval Intelligence to describe his experiences to this media team.

Austen Levitt had never been better escorted in her short career as a Navy logistics hauler, but its skipper Jorg Geier couldn’t help but feel uneasy as he surveyed the system map pulled off the fleet command network, watching the swarm of bright red indicators gathering in high Margaux orbit. The enemy fleet besieging the planet had a numerical advantage over the cruisers and battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet, and he didn’t appreciate being part of the diversion meant to split this force.

Jorg glanced at the corner of his bridge display where the standing orders for his vessel appeared, noting that they still had not changed. Following the cruiser Bandertail as closely as its helmsman dared, with a pair of point-defense frigates holding station off the stern, Levitt was well-protected from enemy long-range missiles and strike-craft raids. The other dozen-odd haulers participating in the operation were similarly well protected. Either the Incarnation commander would divide his force and dedicate cruisers to chasing down the haulers and their formidable screen, or the logistics squadron would reach Margaux and begin unloading supplies unmolested while the rest of the battle unfolded.

Though the admiral’s plan doubtless worked better if the enemy fleet divided to engage both Confederated formations, Jorg hoped it wouldn’t. The battlewagons and heavy cruisers of the main Fifth Fleet formation were tough ships; they could withstand close-range duels with Tyrant cruisers much better than a lumbering hauler, even one escorted by almost twice its tonnage of lighter warships.

Bandertail reports strike craft moving to intercept.” Deering, the officer manning Levitt’s comms station, did not sound as concerned as Jorg felt. “Looks like a probing attack. We’re to stay on course.”

Jorg switched his display to a tactical map which displayed the tiny wireframes of Levitt and its three escorts, as well as the approaching Coronachs. The light, agile interceptors were quite capable of damaging a cruiser’s more vulnerable equipment, and would have no trouble slicing a hauler’s unprotected hull to ribbons.

Fortunately, Levitt had not come to Margaux unprotected. Light railgun batteries on Bandertail and the two frigates opened up on the enemy squadrons, and cones of flashing orange swept like virtual searchlights across intervening space as clouds of high-velocity ferroceramic projectiles sought to entrap or scatter the approaching formations. Jorg had seen a railgun battery firing with his own eyes, once – the glowing streams of superheated death pouring forth from dozens of fast-tracking barrels had seemed impossible to evade at the time, but now, protected by the fire of multiple batteries on three warships, he wasn’t feeling so sure.

The enemy strike-craft group split into numerous smaller groups as the expanding orange cones reached out to meet it, each group dashing in a different direction. A few groups flew into the cones and abruptly vanished – the Coronach pilots could probably only guess where the Navy gunners had directed their guns, and some inevitably guessed wrong – but the rest, likely able to detect the hot projectiles as they passed close by, now knew where the guns were pointed, and began to more confidently weave between the converging streams of railshot.

A few green arrows sallied forth from the wireframe of Bandertail as the cruiser’s squadron of Magpie gunships launched to join the fight. Jorg often envied the Magpie crews’ role in the war; their fate was in their own hands. They didn’t have to crew a plodding, unarmed tin can which relied on others for its safety.

“Enemy cruiser formation is splitting.” This time, Deering seemed nervous. “Eight-cruiser formation headed our way.”

“Steady.” Jorg tried to project a confidence he didn’t feel. Admiral Zahariev’s plan was working; the main formation now had eight fewer Tyrants to deal with. “We’re more than an hour out. They’re not committed yet.” The ten light cruisers and more than two dozen frigates and destroyers of the diversion column would probably not be enough to fend off the enemy detachment, but that too was part of the plan; after all, the diversion wouldn’t be very effective if it looked too tough to crack. “The order will go out when it’s time.”

Closer to hand, orange cones of railshot converged on a trio of Coronachs, and they winked off the board. Roughly half the enemy strike interceptors were still operational, and they seemed to be struggling to approach closer to their targets through the defensive fire. Jorg noticed a few other small-scale strike probes testing the line behind Levitt, receiving roughly the same treatment. Based on the briefing, these relative few were not the bulk of the enemy strike strength; most of the Coronachs had not revealed themselves, as they were probably already in the field but holding back to support the main action. The ability of Incarnation strike pilots to sit in their cramped cockpits for hours or even days at a time without going stir-crazy never failed to amaze Jorg – at least in a Magpie, one could unbuckle and move around, and there was even a narrow crawlspace in the crew compartment where one person at a time could sleep.

The minutes ticked past, and while the Coronach raiders continued to harry the hauler column, none got even close enough for the Magpies to get involved. Jorg told himself to relax; after all, the cruisers were still hours away, and he would be quite safe if things went according to plan. The fact that the last action over Margaux had deviated rather spectacularly from the plan did make it somewhat difficult to convince his nerves of this. Jorg, with little to do from the skipper’s console, got up and fetched coffee for his bridge crew, more in hopes that walking around would soothe his nerves than out of any altruistic intentions.

Deering switched the main display to a status board with a timer ticking down from fifteen minutes shortly after Jorg had regained his seat. “Approaching intercept point of no return.” That would be the point beyond which the Tyrants probably wouldn’t be able to rejoin the main body in time for a battle, even with their engines providing full acceleration. The best they could do to help the main Incarnation force if they continued to pursue the hauler column beyond that point would be to flash through the middle of the battle at high velocity, trading one close-range volley with each ship they passed. A few minutes after that point, Jorg and the rest of the hauler skippers would order the activation of the surprise which they had fitted in deep-space after leaving Maribel.

“Come on, you bastards.” Jorg muttered. “Let’s dance.”

As the timer approached zero, a tense silence filled Levitt’s bridge. At any moment, they knew, the commander of the detachment might sense the trap and rejoin the larger force in time for the main battle. Even as the timer flashed zero and vanished, the tension remained; the performance characteristics of Tyrants used to calculate the point of no return were best-guesses, so plenty of margin for error had to be given.

Thirty seconds after the point of no return, Jorg switched on his comm. “Intercepting force is committed. Prepare the Layman.”

Deep in the belly of the hauler, Jorg imagined the three Navy munitions techs springing into action, scurrying around to prepare the two massive fission-warhead capital torpedoes for launch. Levitt and the other similarly equipped haulers had no systems capable of guiding these weapons; once they were pushed out of a cargo hatch by hydraulic rams, fire control systems aboard the frigate Oscar Glanville in the center of the line would take over to arm and guide them.

“Message from Glanville.” Deering announced. “They’ve sent arming codes. Launch in eight minutes.”

Jorg nodded, adding his own arming code to the code sent by Glanville before sending the result down to the munitions techs. The enemy ships would still be some distance away in eight minutes, but that was fine – the dumped torpedoes, designed to be fired from their motherships by bulky launch systems, would need some time to drift away from the formation before their gravitic drives could be used safely. Now that the course of events was set, he felt less nervous. The torpedoes probably wouldn’t destroy the Tyrants outright, but even forcing two or three out of the fight would turn the odds completely in favor of the escort group.

The timer ticked down toward zero, and the Tyrants on the plot inched closer as the remaining strike raiders peeled off to regroup.

At the designated time, Jorg opened his comms circuit to order the launch, but before he could speak, Levitt shuddered with the force of two massive payloads being shoved out an airlock. Robbed of his last active role in the battle – perhaps the war – Jorg sat back in his chair and waited nervously for the real fireworks to start.