2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Flight through the Grinder 

I had to get this confirmed from three credible sources before I believed it myself: apparently The Incarnation sent a naval task force to raid the Tkachenko system, best known for being the location of the most inhospitable world of Botched Ravi.  

Of all the targets, military and civilian, for them to choose, this has to be the worst. Even Ravi’s own natives – and I have interacted with quite a few in my role in editing this text feed – would agree with me in calling the place worthless in the grand scheme of the Confederated economy, and militarily pointless. We’ve had a few stories sent in by the stubborn hardcases who make that barely-habitable rock their home, and I’ve published at least two of them. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the low habitability and general unpleasantness of the planet is the main draw for most of its colonists. 

Fortunately for the Ravi colonists, there’s little there worthy of a proper raid. The Incarnation’s forces damaged a few orbital facilities, sent a flight of Coronachs down to shoot up the main groundside spaceport, and chased the few starships in the system around, and it is from a spacer aboard one of these vessels that we get today’s entry. 

[N.T.B. - Botched Ravi is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go for a ramble, but I never got a proper chance. Strange that Nate would think the place worthy of an attack, though.] 

“For the record, this is a bad idea, Skipper.” Wilson Boothe, helmsman of the old destroyer Tomi Acosta, turned around as far as his crash-pad chair and restraints would allow, just enough to see the skipper’s station out of the corner of his eye. “It’s called the Grinder for good reason.” 

“Your objection is noted, Mr. Boothe. Take us in.” Commander Popovic’s breezy, dismissive tone was quite at odds with the dim, red-tinted battle-stations lighting and the distressing number of red pips in the main holo-plot at the front of the bridge. That plot was one of the old style fishtank displays, which projected their three-dimensional images onto a carefully managed medium of ionized gas. Acosta was an old ship that had been parked in a reserve flotilla parking orbit until the previous year, hastily refitted for rear-area service. 

Wilson had little choice, partly because Popovic was his skipper, and partly because if he tried to delay things much longer, Acosta would be fending off swarms of nimble Incarnation Coronach interceptors with a fire control system older than anyone on its crew. The Grinder would probably smash the old tin-can to bits, but those chip-headed strike pilots and the heavy cruiser following behind them certainly would. With the flick of a finger, he switched the helm controls over to fully manual mode and called up maximum thrust toward the anomalously dust, ice, and rock-choked region called the Grinder. 

“Maximum power to forward screens.” Commander Popovic cracked his knuckles one by one, to the annoyance of Wilson and everyone else on the bridge. “Comms, give me wide-band jamming. Damage control, stand by.” 

As the rest of the bridge crew busied themselves preparing for the inevitable wear and tear that Acosta was about to suffer, Wilson bent over his controls, peering at the array of visual feeds and radar readouts displayed on his console. Unlike on a smaller ship, there was no yoke or joystick setup to control the old destroyer’s helm; the vessel would not respond to such input fast enough to make its use meaningful. To pass through the Grinder intact, Wilson would have to anticipate threats even before the collision-detection system did, and have the helm controls updated several seconds before impact. 

“Debris strikes on the forward screens.” From the tone of his voice, MacGuire knew how pointless this call-out was, but it was standard procedure all the same. “Small-diameter particulate.” 

The small stuff was, of course, unavoidable. According to the few astrophysicists who had ever bothered to investigate the Tkachenko system, the Grinder was the remains of a cosmologically-recent collision between two planetoids that gravity was still trying to pull into a single solid body. Tens of millions of debris objects with about point-eight Earth-masses together whirled madly around a half-molten core smaller than Earth’s moon with orbital dynamics so complex that the best computers in the Reach would fail to model even a hundredth of its disorder. This was no place to take a ship of any size, but with Incarnation forces on its heels, Acosta was going in. 

“Coronachs are reducing acceleration. New intercept time: three minutes, thirty seconds.” 

“They’ll decelerate more if they’ve got half a brain.” Popovic still didn’t sound concerned. “Gun crews, you are free to engage them at maximum range whenever you have a clear shot.” 

Wilson gulped as two pieces of debris almost half as big as the ship collided off the starboard bow, with the smaller shattering to bits and the larger shedding quite a few splinters itself. A moment later, the hull reverberated with the ping and clatter of a few ejected fragments getting thtough the screens and striking home. He adjusted Acosta’s course toward the spot where the collision had just occurred, hoping that the smash-up had temporarily made that a low-energy portion of the debris storm.  

Fortunately, whether there was anything to that idea or not, Acosta made it through the collision site without injury deeper than her reflective hull coating. Wilson scanned the confused plot, looking for an opening in the mad whirl of rock and ice beyond. When he spotted one, it was already closing – and he didn’t fancy waiting around to see if another would open before the destroyer’s current position itself became untenable. Calling up emergency power on the gravitic drive, he set in a new heading and sent the ship charging for the narrowing gap between one huge chunk of ice and a cluster of jagged rocks moving the opposite direction. The rocks and ice would not collide, but they would pass each other closely enough as to leave no safety between them for a vessel as big as Acosta. 

“Boothe, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Popovic, it seemed, had noticed the closing jaws ahead from the wavering debris indicators on the main plot. 

“Only way through.” Wilson muttered. “Can’t stay still in here.” He wished his controls did have a yoke, if only because that would give him something to grip. Pushing one’s fingers harder onto the smooth touch-pad control surfaces just wasn’t the same. 

“Coronachs are entering the outer debris field. Again, they are slowing. Five minutes to intercept.”  

“Aft gunners, give them a volley.” Popovic, apparently, had accepted Wilson’s muttered explanation, and had returned to his usual detachment. "Even at this range it should make their lives interesting.” 

As railguns seventy meters aft spat thousands of high-velocity slugs into the path of the pursuing strike squadrons, Wilson cut forward thrust and touched the maneuvering-thruster controls to rotate Acosta slightly to port, so that its boosted forward screens faced the onrushing cluster of rocks. The ship slid between them and the ice mass with only a single significant impact, and this, the forward screens absorbed with dignity if not exactly with grace; flickering bridge lights indicated the amount of power that the screens were consuming to break up and divert the debris. 

A moment later, Acosta was drifting in a pocket of relative emptiness. The aft gunners, with their firing arcs blocked, ceased firing, and an eerie calm descended upon the ship. 

“Did... Did we do it?” MacGuire turned around in his chair to look at Wilson, who could only shrug. 

“That depends on how long those bastards plan to stay in Tkachenko.” Popovic rolled his shoulders, then unfastened his restraints and stood up. “Good work, Mr. Boothe. Since we’ve got a few minutes at least before we find out if we’re going to die, I’m going to get some coffee.” 

2952-02-14 – Tales from the Service: Sadek’s Dilemma 

While I will be turning, at least temporarily, to other accounts after this week, Sadek Sherburn’s lengthy story of his time aboard Visitor with a xeno named Kel continues far longer than this. It does not cover the full history of this vessel, but it does cover its first voyage with its new crew, a story that is at the very least well written and believable, if not thoroughly convincing. 

As mentioned previously, I have proof that Sadek is not an entirely reliable narrator, despite his honesty about the concerns about his own role which I have included in this section. Still, I have provided his account the way he intended it, as those parts which he appears to have left out or embellished are only a small fraction of the account, and it is the only one available covering the topic. 

Three days into his lonely eight-day transit into the Sagittarius Gate, Sadek Sherburn realized just how unprepared he was for the role Kel had put him in. True, he’d been a spacer all his life, but half of that life had been spent aboard Thaddeus Wall, doing little but hoping the next asteroid was a unicorn, a find that would buy his way out of the dreary life of converting space rocks into metal ingots for the foundries. None of the skills that had served him in good stead in that life seemed a good fit for this new life aboard Visitor. 

He’d come to that conclusion gradually, by a circuitous route, while scheming about what specialties and skill sets that he and Kel would need in their two other shipmates. Certainly, as he’d said to his new boss, they would need a systems tech, someone who could keep Visitor’s various components functioning as smoothly as they were for many years to come, and who could install new systems in the future. But that left the specialty of their remaining compatriot, and to determine that, Sadek had started to compile the list of skills that he and Kel contributed, only to find that he contributed almost nothing. 

Kel’s own resume was, as far as Sadek knew, almost as thin as Sadek’s own, but Kel had the benefit of being the ship-owner and also the crew’s financier. He could also pilot Visitor and seemed to have some strange powers of persuasion over human spacers – nothing else explained how readily he’d found replacement systems and a fund of credits after he’d had his ship towed away to The Sprawl the first time.  

On the merits, Sadek was unqualified to be aboard Visitor by any metric, except apparently Kel’s own. He was a fair hand at generalist spacer duties, could pilot a launch, and was perhaps better than the average mining-rig pilot at doing his own craft’s repairs, because he’d spent years taking everything apart, cleaning the parts, and putting them back together. 

Beyond that, the only things twenty years of asteroid mining had gotten Sadek were gray hairs above his ears, a sour attitude toward the rest of humanity, and a strong tolerance for terrible chow. At the moment, the gray hairs seemed the most useful of his capabilities, and that only because they would make younger spacers believe him more capable than he really was. Kel didn’t seem likely to want to go into the asteroid mining business, or to have much need for any other sort of launch that Sadek could feasibly pilot. 

Sadek didn’t accomplish much during the remaining five days of his transit except turn a crate of colonist-grade meal bars into a sack full of empty wrappers. Every time he tried to plan out his hiring scheme, he returned inescapably to the fact that no matter who he selected, they would only demonstrate to Kel how badly he’d done with his first hire. He couldn’t even catch up on his reading or on holovid dramas; the problem sapped at his enjoyment of even the most light-hearted material. 

Arrival at The Sprawl briefly distracted him. When Thaddeus Wall had passed through on the heels of Seventh Fleet’s arrival, the waystation had been little more than a commandeered civilian trading post. A few years had turned that seedy little outpost into a metropolis habitat that earned its nickname; the station’s disk-like main sections were encrusted with haphazardly-attached extensions until they were almost buried, and even the more deliberately-planned extensions added later were already beginning to show signs of the boom-town cancer’s metastasis. Satellite facilities jutted out in all directions attached only by networks of semi-rigid support beams that made even approaching the original docking ring an impressive feat of piloting for all but the smallest vessels. 

Fortunately, Sadek was at the controls of a tiny ship; his little mining rig had no trouble finding a berth on the old docking ring deep within the Sprawl’s eponymous structure. Only when the docking cradle’s arms enfolded his little ship and his hands fell from the controls did his mind return from sight-seeing to the problem that had been on his mind for so many days. It was time to see what sort of spacer Kel’s advertisements had attracted. 

Ten minutes and three comms calls later, without even leaving his ship, Sadek had a list of applicants on his console. He was surprised there were so few, especially given the salary range Kel had advertised. Discounting the duplicates and the adventurers of blatantly poor repute, there were less than a dozen candidates to choose from. 

Briefly, Sadek considered hiring a couple of the barely-reformed brigands most spacers would not willingly work with. Though often highly skilled in their own way, this sort of spacer was constantly running afoul of the law and engaging in other high-risk behavior that made them unreliable crewmates. Choosing these might make Sadek himself look like a rock of steady reliability by comparison, but it would also reflect badly on his judgement, since he was the one doing the hiring. In the end, he decided not to only because he couldn’t bear to look too-trusting Kel in the eye and tell him that two ruffians was the best he could do. 

Returning to the eleven reasonably reputable applicants, Sadek quickly eliminated the recently-discharged Marine medic and the grizzled mercenary trooper sergeant from contention. While both of these came highly recommended, neither of them seemed to have a skillset Kel would have reliable use for. True, Kel would probably find both their companies fascinating, but that wasn’t grounds to hire them on. 

Among the remaining nine, another three were easy to exclude on the grounds that their specialty was launch operations. Their skill-sets overlapped – and indeed eclipsed – his own, and neither brought a launch of his own aboard. Having a combat pilot with his own strike-rig would have been quite tempting, but fortunately for Sadek, no such person had applied. 

With his list pared down to six names, Sadek called up the station directory and began to look up contact information. He had a week before Kel returned, plenty of time to meet these applicants before he made any final decisions. 

2952-02-07 – Tales from the Service: Kel’s Dispatch

Sadek Sherburn had just sat down in Visitor’s small, many-windowed mess hall with a bowl full of perfectly synthesized food-fab teriyaki when Kel summoned him to the cockpit. 

A ten-thousand credit signing bonus had certainly earned the xeno the right to interrupt meal-time, of course. With only a brief, wistful look at the marvel of spacefaring technology he had intended to be his lunch, Sadek tossed the food into the food-fab's recycler and headed for the chairlift-like apparatus that occupied a diagonal space cutting through most of the decks. This contraption served Visitor instead of a proper set of Terran lifts. Kel’s people didn’t much like being in tight, confined spaces like lift cars; that was probably why their shipbuilding tradition prized transparent corundum as a hull material. 

Sadek was already over the teriyaki the next bucket-like chair in the chairlift scooped him up. One of the advantages of Kel’s ship being overhauled by Terran shipwrights at The Sprawl was that all of its fittings were practically new, and operating exactly as designed. Even without the ministrations of a good maintenance tech, the food-fab machines wouldn’t start to break down for months yet, and Sadek intended to make sure that Kel hired a good maintenance tech and never missed a round of scheduled dockyard maintenance. Good food – by spacer standards, anyway – would be the way of life for Visitor’s crew in a way that Sadek and the other mining-rig jockeys on Thaddeus Wall had never experienced. 

After jumping off the chairlift and mounting the almost ladder-like steps up to the bubble cockpit at the ship’s apex, Sadek found Kel seated in the bucket-like pilot’s couch. He was  facing away from the controls, his bulbous eyes gazing out into the blackness beyond every facet of the jewel-like cockpit enclosure. 

“You called, boss?” Sadek had almost gotten used to the idea of calling Kel his boss in the two days since he’d come aboard Visitor. 

“Is your mining craft in working order?” 

Sadek frowned. What did Kel want with the battered little utility launch? “More or less. Launching it from the pressurized cargo bay is going to be tricky. Besides, the nearest decent concentration of asteroids is back where we left Wall.” 

Kel waved his hand. “I have already moved or secured all the cargo in that bay. When we make our final jump into the inner Sagittarius Gate system, you will launch and proceed to the Sprawl station on your own. I will call those who I left advertisements with, and let you work with them in my stead.” 

Running in-system in the ponderous mining launch would take nearly twice as long as it would take Visitor to make the same trip, and of course Sadek would be cooped up in the tiny vessel’s seventeen-cubic-meter crew compartment for the entire time. He’d spent longer aboard the mining rig, of course, but that was before he’d gotten used to the relative space and comfort of Visitor. “Why the change?” 

“There is no change. This was always my intent.” Kel interlaced his triplicate, claw-like fingers. “I will arrive at the station perhaps seven or eight Terran days after you. You will have the new crew ready to come aboard when I arrive.” 

Sadek sighed. “Kel, I thought you trusted me. Where are you going that I can’t go with you?” 

“It is not a matter of trust. It is one of time and discretion. I have one obligation to discharge in human space before we travel to my people’s home to obtain hulls.” Kel dipped his head. “It is... a private personal matter, in which I am repaying a favor.” 

“All right, then.” There would be no getting more out of him. Kel was very concerned with keeping good relationships with people who had done him any kindness, no matter how slight. That being the very same trait which had ensured Sadek his lucrative first-mate position, it seemed unwise to prod it very hard. “So I'll have about a week to hire us a crew?” 

“I do hope it is sufficient time.” Kel made a fluttering gesture which probably was his equivalent of a shrug. “There may be many applicants.” 

Sadek wasn’t worried about that. He had never been in a position to hire anyone before, but how hard could it really be? Wall’s Captain Kumar had never made bringing new spacers into the fold look particularly difficult, anyway. “The main problem is that my rig isn’t really equipped for long-haul flights right now. I haven’t needed to spend more than a couple shifts in it at a time in a while.” 

“Yes, I remember being aboard the craft before, and thought that might be the case.” Kel held up a slate device. “Take what you need from Visitor’s stores and spare equipment.” 

Sadek took the slate and scanned the manifest. His eyebrows shot up at the listed quantities. Kel had apparently bought more than replacement systems; most varieties of commonly available reserve supplies were listed, and there were duplicates and triplicates of almost everything. There was even almost half a ton of colonist ration-bars on the list; while they were not as good as a hot meal, these were certainly preferable fare to the raw nutrient slurry from a food-fab machine’s supply tanks that was a spacer’s usual emergency food. 

“Oh.” Kel, apparently, had noticed Sadek’s surprise. “Is something critical missing? I thought these reserves were adequate.” 

"Adequate?” Sadek shook his head. “Kel, you’ve got more reserve parts and supplies than a fleet cruiser carries. Everything I need is on here, don’t worry.” 

“Ah.” Kel turned back to his console. “We will make the final jump in perhaps six hours. Make a note of everything you use on your rig, so that I may replace it.” 

Sadek tucked the slate under one arm and proceeded down to the hold where his mining rig was stowed. Even for a being who’d had a recent run-in with being stranded in the void on a damaged ship, the supplies were excessive. 

With no good explanation for the embarrassment of supplies, Sadek used his ride on the chairlift to mark the items he would be loading onto his rig. He might not be able to enjoy Visitor’s pristine food-fab machines for a while, but he intended to make the run into the Sprawl spaceport as comfortable as Kel’s supplies would allow. 

While I still doubt elements of this account – indeed, additional messages sent to us have given me a fairly clear picture of where Sadek has embellished or altered his picture of life aboard Visitor – the broad strokes do seem to be truthful. Rather than try to correct the record he presented with external information, I am providing here his account with only the usual editing for this feed.  

It would violate the spirit of Tales from the Inbox to correct an account in that matter, unless it is in a manner that pertains to our role as correspondents from a theater of war. 

2952-01-24 – Tales from the Service: Kel’s Treasure 

Since I shared last week’s entry, I have recieved several accounts corroborating the existence of Kel and his ship, which is reportedly named Visitor. One correspondent even had a holo still of Kel and his crew to share, and though the fidelity of the image is quite poor, it is clear that this being is not of any of the commonly known species. One middle-aged human male, (probably our contact Sadek), one somewhat younger female, and a lanky teenaged male comprise his known crew, though the holo does not contain identifying information for any of them. 

I checked with the Alien Sapient Welfare Office on The Sprawl and they are aware of the existence of this being and his people, but have had little direct interaction with him. Most likely, the story about the military buying a damaged data core full of navigational data is false (and later parts of Sadek’s account suggest this as well), but a whole package of xenotech propulsion equipment, damaged or no, would be very enticing to either military or civilian interests. 

Sadek Sherburn was surprised how little he felt watching Thaddeus Wall dwindle into the void. The old mining platform had been his home of two decades, but everything worthwhile in that life – the contents of his quarters and his trusty mining launch – were stowed two decks below in Visitor’s cavernous cargo bay. 

Kel made an almost avian clucking noise as his clawed hands danced across the incomprehensible controls. “This drive unit is faster, yes, but it handles very poorly. I will need much practice with it.” 

“And you’ll need to teach me how to fly the ship.” Sadek turned in a slow circle in the middle of the cockpit blister that perched atop the ship’s lenticular hull. If one could get over the disorienting feeling of being outside the ship, the cockpit was an impressive piece of design. Through the arts of Kel’s people, the space was surrounded and roofed with a single, unbroken piece of transparent material, faceted like a great gemstone. In fact, that was precisely what it was – an artificially shaped piece of corundum shot through with nanoscopic strands of various reinforcing materials. An auto-dimming lining on its inner surface shielded the crew from extreme radiation, visible and otherwise. 

“That will not prove difficult.” Kel waved one spindly arm behind his body in a way that no human could have matched, indicating one of the two blank, deactivated consoles that flanked him. “Those units carry human control interfaces, but are not currently operational.” 

“We’ll need a tech, then.” Sadek nodded. He was a fair hand at fixing the simpler breakdowns common to a spacer’s life, but he’d never had much luck rigging things up to work in the first place. 

“Indeed. Before coming to find you, I placed notices with several establishments on The Sprawl that I would be hiring.” Kel’s voice sounded almost self-satisfied. “By the time we return there, I expect an extensive list of candidates for you to screen.” 

If the pay rates on such notices were half as good as what Kel had promised Sadek, that was almost certain to be true, but that brought Sadek back to the topic of credits. “Kel, I have to ask. Where did you get that money?” 

“It is not important.” Kel turned away from the controls for a moment. But I will tell you how I intend to make more.” 

To Sadek, the source of the credits Kel was throwing around so freely was very important, but he knew his new employer well enough to know that anything Kel did not want to say would remain infuriatingly unsaid, without regard to reason, flattery, trickery, threats, or any other form of persuasion known to human science. He’d encountered a similar “not important” answer when he’d asked Kel how he’d come to be drifting in an asteroid belt, alone in a damaged ship clearly intended for a crew of several beings. No doubt these answers were uncomfortable for Kel, and that in itself made learning them all the more important. 

With a heavy sigh, Sadek crossed his arms. “How do you intend to make more money?” 

“By bringing the treasure of my people to your Sprawl.” Kel clucked again, this time in a far more cheerful manner. “And presenting it to the Seventh Warlord.” 

Sadek winced; he’d heard tell of xenos of Sagittarius referring to the leader of the Confederated military mission at Sagittarius Gate as the “Seventh Admiral” or the “Seventh Warlord,” but this was the first time he’d encountered this turn of phrase himself. Kel’s grasp of Anglo-Terran was far too advanced for this to be a mere misplacement of words. “You mean Admiral Abarca, the commander of Seventh Fleet. What are you going to try to sell him?” 

“We refer to the same being, yes.” Kel’s head bobbed from side to side as he worked the controls. “As to what to sell him... the term human spacers use is hulls.” 

“Hulls?” Sadek frowned. “You want to sell ships – xeno-built ships - to the Navy?” That would never work, of course. The Confederated Navy’s logistics situation in Sagittarius was strange enough without needing to source xenotech spare parts. 

“Just the... hull component for what you would call strike craft.” Kel’s voice took on an oddly chiding tone. “Your people could never be expected to decipher our machinery while also fighting a war.” 

“The hull isn’t a component, Kel.” Sadek didn’t know much about starship design, but he had seen several mining rigs stripped to their frames and re-built. The hull was as modular as any other part of a spacecraft, especially since to remove a reactor, one had to take large parts of it off. 

“That is the treasure of my people, my friend.” Kel reached up to brush his clawed fingertips against the faceted canopy. “This vessel is only partly of traditional construction. The true traditional makers use this material to form the entire hull, and merely electroplate the portions meant to be opaque.” 

Sadek shrugged. “They still won’t buy that. Well, maybe a few to try out. I’m pretty sure the Navy can manufacture its own strike craft in the field.” 

“Indeed, I also heard this.” Kel’s head bobbed enthusiastically. “With a hull formed properly, why should they not manufacture human innards and simply assemble them within a better hull? Such a vessel would be very durable. Most of its optics could even be within the hull.” 

Sadek shook his head. “That sounds like a lot of credits and labor for a very small improvement.” 

“Perhaps.” Kel manipulated the controls, and the stars wheeled outside Visitor’s canopy. “Let us see how the first cargo fares before you pass judgement.”