2952-06-19 – Tales from the Service: The Courier’s Profits 

This account was presented to me a few months ago, but for what will, I think, become obvious reasons, we were told by both the submitter and Naval Intelligence to sit on it for a while to ensure that we were not releasing sensitive information. 

Our submitter here is none other than the outgoing director of the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority for the entire region, who has served in that capacity for about three years. This account will span at least three of our weekly episodes, and I would expect it represents the most interesting thing to happen during his tenure. 

In this first section, we see why one should never try to strong-arm a government agency. It never ends well, no matter how innocuous the agency. 

The spacer woman across Ris Bleier’s desk glared at him as he read the data slate she had just passed him. She clearly wanted to be done with the errand that had brought her as quickly as possible, but he did his best to focus on the text and not to take offense; spacers were always itching to get back out into the black, whoever and whatever else they were supposed to be doing.  

Fortunately, the first few sentences grabbed Ris’s interest, and he soon stopped glancing up at the slate’s courier. If what he was seeing was true, that would explain why someone had paid this woman to hand-deliver a data slate directly to a director of the Alien Sapience Welfare Authority, when it would have been free to send the same data over the HyperCast network. “Can you verify any of this?” He asked, tapping the screen. 

“Some guy paid me to put this in your hands, I don’t even know his name.” The woman crossed her arms. “I’ll be honest, Director Bleier, I haven’t read anything more than the first couple words, and that told me not to go any farther. Reachers never do us any harm, but if we start skulking around their dead, they just might.” 

Ris set the slate down and met her gaze evenly, wondering whether to believe this assertion. A particularly foolhardy spacer could make a lot of money with the information she’d been carrying. As she had pointed out, that spacer could also potentially kick off a whole new era of conflict in the process. “I think I know who gave you this.” He drummed his fingers on the slate. “How much did he promise I would pay you?” 

The woman grinned and stuck out her chin. “Thirty thousand. And we both know it’s worth a lot more than that.” 

“It’s worth a lot more than that as long as it stays quiet.” Ris shrugged. “And a lot less if half the spacers in Sagittarius know about it. How do I know you won’t be selling copies of this information to every rogue and adventurer on The Sprawl?” 

The woman arched one eyebrow. “I do delivery, not exclusivity. But it’s only good business to give your people a head start, eh?” 

Ris narrowed his eyes and smiled. “Indeed it is. I am prepared to pay your thirty thousand for, say, one week of exclusivity. Half up front, half at the end of the week.” 

“Fair trade.” The spacer shrugged. “I'll take my fifteen thousand in small chits, please. Got some shopping to do, if you know what I mean.” 

“There is a process.” Ris held up his hands. “Allow me to fill out the correct forms so you can collect from my treasurer.” He pushed the slate to one side, woke up the holo-display in his desk, and began calling up forms. Most of them were numbered lists of fields with cryptic names, so he didn’t even bother to hide the fact that the first few forms he filled out had nothing to do with a payment release. Only the last one did, and he made a show of typing “pay in hard currency” into the notes field. 

For her part, the spacer quickly lost interest in the paperwork, barely glancing up when he turned the final form around in the hologram for her inspection. She grunted at the note authorizing the payment in chits, then stood. “Good doing business with you, Director Bleier.” 

Ris stood in turn, smiling again. “Maybe we’ll do business again soon.” He arched one eyebrow. “The treasurer’s office is to the left, down a few doors. He should have you paid in a few minutes.” 

The spacer smiled, anticipating the sudden influx of credits, then hurried out of the office. Ris waited for the door to close, then commed the port controller’s office. It was time to requisition a ship to go investigate the report on the slate. One of the nice things about Ris’s position was that, in times of great need, he had the power to commandeer civilian ships to accomplish his errands; he had the perfect ship in mind for the task, and its commander would be momentarily too busy to do anything about it. 

2952-06-11 – Tales from the Service: The Pillars of 779C 

Turning the tablet over in his hands, Reade Marinou turned and looked back to the hilltop on which he’d landed his survey-ship, around which that double ring of boulders stood. It was hard to imagine that this stinking atmosphere had been the home of alien sapience, but it was less hard to imagine that species in long decline and eventual ruin amid the splendid, dramatic landscapes of ‘779c. His sensors had failed to pick up any lights, not even cook-fires, on the night side of the world through several orbits. Whoever they were, they were either entirely gone, or so nearly so that it would be the work of a lifetime to find the remnant. 

Tucking the tablet under one arm, Reade continued to the water’s edge to collect his samples. As he did so, the clouds over the far shore parted, and something glinted on the top of a dark hill. Whatever it was, to create a reflection he could see at such a distance must have been large indeed. 

After marking and pocketing his samples, Reade pulled out his magnifier and set the meta-lens to its maximum setting. No matter what settings he used, the reflected light from that distant hill appeared only as a blinding white patch on the device’s screen. He couldn’t see anything on any of the other hills beyond the water; that wasn’t too surprising, with the rangefinder displaying eighteen kilometers or more. If he was going to find out what was causing the reflection, he’d have to fly over there. 

Reade scoured the beach for other things to stuff into sample containers for more than an hour, regularly looking over his shoulder at that distant reflection. When the clouds closed in again, it vanished, only to reappear somewhat dimmer a few minutes later when they parted once more. As he watched, the light waned rapidly to almost nothing, lingered for another moment, then went out altogether. 

Once again, he tried the magnifier on the spot, and once again, he saw nothing remarkable; the rugged shoulders of the hill appeared as tree-covered as those on the near side of the water, and its bare, rocky summit bore no signs of artifice. 

With one last look at the beach, Reade turned back toward his ship. The curved hull of the PCS Tern that Survey had issued him was easily visible on the hilltop for most of his return hike, so he hardly needed to use the locator beacon. Apart from the horrendous smell, he decided this planet really was quite pleasant; perhaps the climate engineers could do something to reduce the odor and render the place fit for human habitation. 

At the top of the hill, Reade stopped to walk around one of the standing stones. No matter what angle he looked at it, he saw no sign that the stone was shaped by intelligent hands, and it bore none of the markings on the tablet tucked under his arm. He made a far more cursory examination of another of the boulders, then shrugged and clambered up the boarding ramp and into the sweet air of the Tern’s crew cabin. 

“Give me a local terrain map.” Reade angled his head up as he spoke, as he always did when issuing commands to the computer. For some reason, he always thought of the ship’s automation systems as “above” him, even though the computer core itself was behind the paneling on the port side of the narrow corridor leading to the cockpit. 

“Specify range.” The toneless voice, configured to Reade’s preference, could never be mistaken for that of a human. He’d seen too many Survey spacers go a little mad out in the wide emptiness of the Frontiers, and start treating the pleasant voice of their computer system like a close confidant, or even a lover, and he didn’t want to walk down that road. 

“Thirty kilometers.” Reade closed the hatch behind himself and unzipped the front of his environment suit.  

The center of the compartment grew bright and a white mist seemed to fill it as the holo-projectors warmed up. In a moment, the mist cleared into a translucent relief map three meters across. The mountains on one side rose around Reade’s knees, and a narrow sea, a miniature of the one whose water now occupied his sample jars, occupied much of the center of the compartment, and the far shore rose into a line of dramatic hills on the far side. 

Reade took two steps into the middle of the sea, then knelt down and looked at the hills. The one he was looking for wasn’t difficult to pick out; it wasn’t taller than the others, but it was broader than most, with steep shoulders falling down almost to the water’s edge. “Is there a good landing spot near this?” 

“Unknown.” The computer helpfully placed a pulsing starburst at the point of Reade’s outstretched finger. “Further information required.” 

Reade nodded, stood, and headed for the cockpit. Within a minute, the Tern was airborne, and within three, it was hovering over the top of the hill where he’d seen the glinting reflection. From the air, he couldn’t see anything that might reflect that much light, but with trees crowding the slopes almost to the summit, he suspected that whatever it was, would be somewhere below the canopy. 

“Landing site found. Autopilot route computed.” The computer helpfully painted holographic indicators in front of the viewpanel. “Initiate?” 

“Yes.” Reade took his hands off the controls, and the Tern wheeled and began a circling descent toward a clearing between two projecting ridges. A few twisted, black stumps jutted out from the thick underbrush, but the autopilot avoided these. The landing skids crushed down the plants with a rasping noise, and then the Tern once again came to rest. 

Despite his interest in finding the reflection – he felt certain that it would be more evidence of the departed former masters of this world – Reade took time to collect samples of every species of plant growing around his new landing site. By now, the afternoon was getting on, and he briefly debated bunking down and waiting for the drones to come back. He certainly wasn’t pressed for time; another twenty hours on 779c wouldn’t do any harm. 

All thoughts of waiting until morning vanished from his mind when, rounding the tail of his ship, Reade saw something reflecting light jut within the trees. Stowing his sample containers in a pouch, he pushed through the chest-high shrubs until they failed under the shade of the massive, high-crowned trees. 

Reade didn’t have to walk far before he came to the source of the reflection. From the forest floor, a pillar rose, hexagonal in profile, with its top squared off. The whole thing was a single crystal of clear quartz – or its local analogue – but its inside was shot through with silver filaments which seemed to sparkle in the light of the sun. 

Walking around the pillar several times, Reade used his suit cameras to capture images from multiple angles. Surely this was the work of intelligent hands – even if crystals of this magnitude could form naturally, they would do so far underground. 

Even as he considered whether this single monolith would have been able to reflect the light he’d seen from nearly twenty klicks away, Reade spotted another flash of reflected light beyond the first pillar, and then another. Each one lit up when touched by the light, as if it was more than mere reflection, and surrendered its glow reluctantly when the rays filtering down through the trees moved on. It seemed the whole hillside was studded with the pillars, but that with the sun so low in the sky, only a few at a time caught any light. Perhaps earlier, with the sun overhead, most of them had been shining. 

Reade took a few more still images, then retreated toward his ship, certain now that he would be staying one more day. 

It is for the safety of these crystal pillars that Mr. Marinou seems to have omitted the catalog number of the system from his account; by his description these alien artifacts would be quite beautiful art objects even without their mysterious provenance. No doubt, after the war, Survey will bring a xenoarchaeological team to the site to fully investigate it, and to search for more samples of the writing on his tablet. 

Unfortunately, Marinou did not include any images of the pillars in his account; evidently he thought this too great a risk. 

2952-06-05 – Tales from the Service: The Tablet from 779C 

After the hard-won victory on Ayama, it seems Seventh Fleet is preparing to establish a series of forward bases in star systems deeper into the Sagittarius Frontier. To that end, the Naval Survey Auxiliary has been cataloging likely candidates for such a base. 

One survey pilot brought back a very interesting object from the habitable world in such a system – a stone tablet of great age, carved with indecipherable writing. Images of this artifact circulated widely in the Sagittarius Gate datasphere, but the item itself was apparently confiscated by Naval Intelligence. Shortly after he was debriefed, the finder sent us his account of the tablet’s finding. 

As a note, the catalog number I am using to identify the system is not the correct one; even in the account we were sent, the system’s catalog number was redacted. 

The first thing that Reade Marinou noticed when he cracked open the hatch of his PCS Tern suvey-ship was the smell. The ship’s sensors had declared the atmosphere on planet 4531779c to be well within breathable norms, but the rotten, sulphurous stench made Reade’s head swim. This made it an unlikely forward base for Confederated troops, but his job wasn’t to decide where to put bases, it was just to catalog the options. Decisions were best left for people with gray hair on their temples and holographic stars hovering over their shoulders. 

After a few slow, deliberate breaths, Reade began to grow used to the smell, so he decided against retreating into the ship for a filtration mask. He would only be staying long enough to gather a few samples anyway, and he’d certainly breathed far worse atmospheres in his time with Survey. 

Except for the smell, Reade had to admit, ‘779c was an interesting planet. Active volcanic activity and vigorous tectonic movements had given the world a rugged, jagged-edged landscape, most of which was thoroughly colonized by colorful flora. Only the snow-capped peaks of the highest ranges were not teeming with life. Biodiversity seemed greatest in the narrow coastal strips between mountain and sea, so that was where Reade had landed – on a rocky hill from which one could easily see both the white-gold beach and the sharp, ice-wreathed peaks of the nearest mountains. Four-winged avians wheeled overhead, and below the hill the treetops were alive with the flitting movement of flocks of colorful creatures, some bright blue, others yellow, yet more bone white. 

As Reade stepped off the ramp and onto the rocky soil, the two survey drones he’d set to chart the area cast free of the Tern’s upper hull and rose into the air with a whine of their vector-thrust turbofans. He barely glanced up at them; the automatons did their jobs without much input from him. He could review their data when he was back in orbit. 

Reade got two steps away from the ship before something struck him as odd, and it took him a moment to figure out what it was – it was the arrangement of the boulders scattered across the hilltop. They looked like the broken-off stumps of cyclopean pillars set in two concentric rings, albeit imperfectly round rings with plenty of gaps. The arrangement, probably a result of natural erosion patterns, was just regular enough to suggest the work of intelligent hands. 

With a shrug and a cough, Reade instructed the ship’s sensors to construct a 3D capture of the hilltop, then picked his way down on the gentler slope facing the sea. He soon lost sight of the shore as the trees rose above his head. Most of them seemed to be a tall, stately species with smooth gray trunks and a splayed crown of branches at the very top, but a few other species were also evident. 

There were boulders inside the forest as well, usually gathered into clusters, their dark, pitted surfaces free of all but the hardiest lichen-analogues. Passing one of these stands, Reade again got the uncanny sense that they were the remains of some ruined structure, but closer examination proved no clear pattern to their placement. He scraped lichen samples off the nearest one, then continued on his way toward the shore, confident that his ship’s homing beacon would lead him back. Though there were theoretically a few species on this world large enough to harm a human, he thought the risk of any attack to be low. On most unpopulated worlds, humans didn’t smell like prey to the local wildlife; only the most desperate predator would investigate him as a potential food source. 

By the time he reached the beach, the largest thing that had bothered Reade was an insect-like creature with a finger-length proboscis that leapt onto him from an overhanging branch and extended a proboscis as long as his finger. After a few futile attempts to push its impressive mouthparts through the thick material of Reade’s environment suit, the pest had hopped off him and vanished into the leaf litter. From that point on, he’d been careful not to let overhanging branches get anywhere near his face.  

The beach’s sand seemed yellower up close than it had from the hilltop. After pausing to make a note in his log about the insectile creature, he collected a sample of sand, then trudged across the beach toward the surf. Of all the samples he could get, water samples were probably the most important. 

Halfway to the water, Reade stumbled on something buried in the sand. He frowned and bent down to examine what it was he’d tripped on – it was the protruding corner of a smooth, flattened rock of the same variety as all the boulders. Though weathered, this one was not pitted or coated in lichen. 

Something about this rock struck him as odd, so Reade worked the toe of his boot underneath the edge and lifted it up out of the sand. It was roughly triangular, with two edges being uneven as if broken, and a third smooth and arrow-straight. The curved corners along the straight edge looked for all the world like a fine stone counter-top of the sort popular on his home-world of Tours. 

Reade bent down to lift the stone, running his gloved fingers over the smoothed edge. What were the chances of natural erosion creating such a perfect bevel? 

He received the shock of his life when he turned the stone over, looking for grooves or other definitive signs of artificial shaping. There, in six neat rows that vanished off the broken edges, were carved the letters of some forgotten language. 

2952-05-21 – Tales from the Service: The Advance on the Ridge 

The attack proceeded just before dawn, precisely as command had instructed, but the sun was already poking its limb above the horizon before the enemy had any inkling of it. With the whole company crawling up the ridge using the gulch in Sergeant Helen Keir’s squad sector, it was something of a miracle that nobody forgot themselves, stood up, and tripped the sensors on the ridgetop.  

Fortunately, Nate had not sent another team to finish the sensor post which an overnight artillery shot masked by a ranging pattern had destroyed. Probably, their commander had sent the replacement work team to another spot along the line to avoid letting his enemies learn of their “accidental” good fortune. 

When the whole company was lurking among the boulders, and Lieutenant Barden had returned from crawling forward as far as he dared on personal reconnaissance, the word was whispered down the line: prepare to attack. The last hundred meters to the top of Ortberg Ridge was a bitter no-man's-land of broken stone in which nobody could move without being noticed, so the element of surprise would be quickly lost the moment the company started its final advance. Weapons trained on positions far below would take a few moments to re-aim against closer targets, but those few moments would have to be enough. 

Helen, her back pressed to the same boulder she’d used for cover the previous afternoon, felt all the tension of the last twelve hours weighing on this moment. She had done all she could to provide Barden’s attack with some faint hope of success. She could do no more but lead her squad from the front, and trust that someone would take her place when she went down. 

Barden held up his hand from his position behind a rock-pile near Helen. He couldn’t send radio transmissions until after the attack started, but he’d carried his high-power comms pack all the same. The company’s tiny battery of rocket artillery carriers was already instructed to counter-fire any heavy weapons that revealed themselves, and hopefully the swarm of recon drones the company was prepared to release into the sky would draw the fire of most of the lighter emplacements.  

Despite these precautions, Helen knew her own chances of survival, and those of any other member of the unit, were slim. She’d known the low odds of ever seeing Berkant again when she’d signed up for a unit deploying into Sagittarius, but now that those odds were compressed into a single moment, she was terrified. Not terrified of dying, not quite – she was afraid that when everyone else rose to the attack, she would remain there, catatonic. She’d seen it happen to better troopers than herself more than once. The psych-warfare squints claimed that their screening and mental health schemes prevented nine out of ten psychological casualties, but that was no consolation to anyone who’d seen the other one. 

Barden’s hand fell to his side – the signal to begin the attack. As one, nearly two hundred volunteers hefted their weapons and ran out from their concealed positions, while scores of drones buzzed into the air over their heads. 

Something roared overhead and collided with the ridgetop, blasting dirt a plume of dirt and rocks high into the sky. It was only then that Helen realized that she had stood with the others, and was several paces up-hill from her hiding place. That was encouraging, especially since she wasn’t dead. 

Helen now keyed on her radio; stealth was long gone. “Take that impact crater. The dust will cover our advance.” She was surprised at how calm her voice sounded. Even now, the crack and hiss of laser fire scoring the rocks was all around. 

Helen nearly tripped over a trio of troopers who had taken cover and were firing blindly up at the ridge-line. Smacking one on the helmet, she got them to their feet and led them onward. They weren’t from her squad, but the other sergeants would understand, in such a mixed-up situation. 

Another object roared into impact with the ridge-top just as one of the men beside Helen staggered and crumpled to the dirt. She left him where he lay and kept going. The only hope any of them had was to silence the guns on Ortberg Ridge, now only a few dozen meters away. 

Sergeant Keir survived the assault on the ridge uninjured, and was notable for commanding a squad with more troopers in it after the fighting than before. The extras proved to be stragglers from another squad, and her people did suffer two wounded and one killed, but her leadership was, by all accounts, commendable. 

As her honesty regarding her mental state just prior to the attack probably indicates, Keir requested transfer to a rear-area unit shortly after the planet was declared secure.  

According to FVDA analysis, a non-commissioned officer is only capable of perhaps two to four weeks of total sustained combat in a six-month period before they become a breakdown risk. Some might find this figure incredible, but I have read five of these stories for every one that is published, and I find it only too realistic. Unfortunately, there is rarely a good way of cycling out NCOs every month during an extended operation, and most of them would refuse these rotations even if offered. 

A note on last week’s outage: the raid on the Hypercast relay chain was apparently conducted by a small Incarnation force moving fast. Confederated first response forces never sighted the fleeing raiders. Seventh Fleet has taken measures to harden the relay network against this sort of attack in the future, but we can expect additional attempts to disrupt connectivity across the Gap.