2947-11-12 – Tales from the Service: A Reacher’s Request
With the recently announced changes to Navy policy in the Coreward theater of war, there has been a lot of movement of the fleet here at Maribel lately, but unfortunately Saint-Lô is still being repaired after the fiasco at Berkant, so Duncan and I are not going anywhere at least until mid-December. I thought we should request a transfer to Razorwing before it and several other light elements from the broken Saint-Lô battle group depart on a patrol circuit next week, but Duncan flatly refused – he gets along pretty well with our quiet, academic-minded Captain Liao here, and probably isn’t too keen on risking another battle without a dreadnought’s heavy armor between him and Incarnation plasma salvos.
Personally, I’d prefer to be out there at the tip of the spear. If there’s got to be a war – and at this point I don’t see how we can stop this one short of knuckling under and letting these chip-headed bastards run everything on our side of the Gap – I'd rather be part of the solution, rather than sitting back and letting someone else fight in my stead.
Duncan’s no spacer, and he doesn’t get that – rather, he doesn’t yet. I have hope he will someday. If he’s supremely lucky, he’ll figure it out before the Incarnation or some other nasty business out in the dark takes something important from him.
Today’s story is one I’ve been researching for more than two weeks while Duncan amused you all with the Jacob Borisov account. While Jacob’s story came with all the supporting evidence we could ever want, the first tip which led me to this story was vague and anonymous – Duncan wouldn’t let me run it until I had more. Any story likely to attract as much public interest as the Reachers, he said, needs some corroboration. Maybe that’s how Duncan does things, but I say, as long as Naval Intelligence doesn’t shoot us out of the sky, a good story is a good story, and we can always throw a qualifying sentence in this introduction.
Fortunately, the spooks were only too happy to approve this story to a point, and even got me in touch with Lieutenant Commander Mus’ad Balos, the destroyer skipper involved in its events. I do appreciate how helpful they can be, when they’re not trying to shut a story down.
[No, I don’t understand wanting to be in the line of fire when all we could do was get killed or get in the way. We’ve already been through one battle with this ship and crew; I don’t see why a couple of datacast embedded journalists should seek out more action than the brave compliment of Saint-Lô. --D.L.C.]
The Reacher ship appeared as they always did – without warning, farther inside the gravitic shadow of the local star than any proper star drive should have been able to carry it. This time, it appeared nearly within the formation of a patrol group of Confederated Navy ships en route to Botterhill planetary orbit.
Alarms aboard the lead ship Penelope Ott wailed, and the helmsman punched in emergency acceleration before the computer worked out the ship’s identity. Mus’ad Balos couldn’t decide whether the stomach-churning maneuver or the icepick-to-the-ear screech of the alarm woke him – surely either on its own would have done the trick.
Snatching his comm earpiece off its magnetic charging port above the bunk, Mus’ad called up to the bridge just as the panicked shriek of the combat alarm faded into the concerned buzz of the readiness alarm. “Report.”
“Came out of nowhere, skipper.” The young third-shift duty officer, Lieutenant Burke, seemed almost too shaken to speak. “Twenty-five hundred klicks ahead. Damn, I thought it was Nate at first.”
“Who came out of nowhere?”
“Reacher ship, sir. They’re not hailing. You’re going to want to look at this.”
Mus’ad pulled on his uniform tunic and hurried up to the little ship’s bridge. He didn’t have far to go; the skipper’s cabin was two decks below the bridge, with both a lift and an access ladder connecting the two decks. This time, he used the ladder; in shipboard half-gee, it would be marginally faster. He could have called up the video feeds from his cabin console, but a Reacher ship appearing in remote Botterdowns certainly meant his sleep-shift had ended early.
As soon as he entered the bridge compartment and laid eyes on the smart-glass magnified view forward, he understood his subordinate’s shaken state. The Reacher ship, vaguely disk-shaped with the slightest suggesting of tapering aft, clearly outweighed most Confederated Navy dreadnoughts. The fluted, inward-curling spines which projected out from its bow ensured that it was longer than those warships as well – it was probably the largest Reacher vessel anyone had ever seen. The iridescent shell-like hull gleamed in the red-orange light of the Botterdowns primary, almost too ornamental to be a real starship.
It took Mus’ad several seconds to notice the glittering trail of crystallized atmosphere trailing the Reacher ship, and the tattered black wounds gaping in its hull. The ship was hurt – he found it impossible to think of such a vessel in machine terms – perhaps mortally so.
“Hail them and offer assistance.” Mus’ad was the senior commander in the flotilla, and the other three destroyers and one frigate would defer to his judgement rather than hailing the ship without his permission.
The officer at the comms station bent to his task while Mus’ad took control of the smart-glass controls and zoomed in on the damaged area. “What did they tangle with?” He knew that Reachers, easy-going with other species despite their secretive society, had never been seen to instigate a fight. They could – and did – defend themselves, but they apparently preferred to avoid situations likely to lead to conflict.
The sensor tech had evidently anticipated this request. “Some sort of energy weapon. Without knowing the properties of their hull material, it’s impossible to say more. I’m not seeing any sign of railshot or shrapnel damage."
Mus’ad nodded silently, more to the display than the sensor tech. The Confederated Navy went out of its way not to antagonize Reacher ships passing through the colonial reach, of course, but a lack of railshot scarring suggested that no warship built in the Reach, Navy or no, had been involved. He didn’t want to be the skipper who had to explain to a furious Reacher the difference between foolhardy human pirates and the Navy.
“I’ve got a channel, skipper. Audio only.”
At more than two thousand klicks, the delay on direct comms traffic would be barely noticeable. “Warm greetings, this vessel, Terran commander, assistance offer, appreciation and thanks.” The monotonous synthetic voice of a Reacher translator device sent a shiver down Mus’ad’s spine. “Assist, this vessel, Terran command, one item only.”
Mus’ad wrapped his head around the message only with difficulty. Reachers could translate their words into human speech, but the structure of their thoughts was still very far from human. “Reacher ship, you say you need only one thing? I’ll do what I can.”
There was no response for several seconds as the Reacher commander passed Mus’ad’s words through a translator, then composed his own reply in the same manner. “Requires, this vessel, ferrous material from local stockpile, sixteen million Terran metric tons, massing.”
“Local stockpile?” Mus’ad turned to the navigation station. “I didn’t think Botterhill had that much orbital industry.”
“I think they mean the system’s inner asteroid belt, sir. There are dozens in there at least that big.”
“Call up Botterhill control on another line and tell them what the Reachers need.” Mus’ad didn’t see why such a small colony would refuse to part with a single modest-sized mining-grade asteroid. “Reacher vessel, we’ll get you your asteroid, but it might take a few hours. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?”
“Extends, this vessel, sincere thanks, Terran assistance. Explain, this vessel, condition of, events surrounding, cannot. Belligerent party, provide only, satisfactory?”
“By all means. Who attacked you?” The more he conversed with the Reacher, the more quickly Mus’ad parsed their oddly structured messages.
“Was, this vessel, war-vessels of the Grand Journey, attacked by.” The reacher seemed to understand that this answer was not satisfactory. “Were, Grand Journey war-vessels, Terran sapients, crewed by. Destoyed, this vessel, hostile vessels, all. fatality, vessel damage, negative.”
“I don’t understand. What is the Grand Journey?”
“Contains, the Grand Journey, Terran sapients, none. Fear, this vessel, the Grand Journey, Terrans, destroyed by.”
Mus’ad shuddered. What would the Reachers do to his squadron if their friends really were attacked by humans? “I can assure you, Reacher vessel, the Confederated Navy has not had any war with non-Terran powers in over a hundred years. We haven’t destroyed your Grand Journey.”
“Carry, other Terrans, responsibility, theoretical.”
Mus’ad didn’t understand the meaning of this at first; the third-shift duty officer, still loitering in the wings, parsed it quicker. “Damned Nate got to their friends.”
Mus’ad didn’t know why the Incarnation would engage in such a ruse to ambush a Reacher ship. No matter how much of the history of the colonial reach they’d missed, they had to know the Reachers were experts at armed neutrality – armed well enough as to make attacking them suicidal. Evidently, someone in Nate high command had just learned this age-old state of affairs the hard way.
“We’ll ask the Incarnation’s leaders about your Grand Journey after we’ve beaten them, Reacher Vessel. For the moment, we can escort you as far as the belt, but my orders are to proceed to planetary orbit.”
“Applaud, this vessel, Terran commander, bravado, his.” The translator voice remained monotonous, but Mus’ad imagined the alien chuckling at his response, as an uncle might chuckle at the antics of his nephew. “Finds, this vessel, escorting arrangement, reasonability, high.”
The line went dead, and the comms tech looked up. “They’ve cut the channel, skipper.”
“Send that recording to the rest of the squadron and forward it to planetary control.” Mus’ad stared hard at the wounded behemoth coasting in-system a mere few thousand klicks ahead. The easy cordiality of the Reachers had concealed the historical rarity of the encounter – and he wondered why the sapients, despite their reclusive nature, had chosen to limp into a Confederated system to find material for their repairs, when asteroids in a hundred nearby empty systems might have served just as well.
Sighing, Mus’ad stepped out of the center of the bridge and waved duty-officer Burke back into place to finish his shift. “They’ve got something up their sleeves.” He muttered, more to himself than to anyone else.
“Or they’ve got something big they’re setting up to sell us, sir.”
Mus’ad looked up at the lieutenant, realizing how right the young officer probably was. Reachers always came to the Reach to barter – he doubted this time was any different.