2949-02-23 – Tales from the Service: The Intruder on Grand Azure 

The Navy has been releasing a number of details about an action fought at Sagittarius Gate around the same time the Seventh Fleet relieved the Lost Squadrons. This action was first reported to be a battle between elements of the Seventh Fleet and a squadron of four Tyrant heavy cruisers following the trail of the Lost Squadrons, but as the picture becomes more clear, it seems this battle pitted the military spearhead of the Lost Squadrons against those Tyrants.  

With firepower slightly exceeding that of one normal-strength light cruiser forward scouting group, the scratch battle group organized around Samuel Bosch’s Arrowhawk fought two desperate rearguard skirmishes with the four-cruiser enemy squadron at Sagittarius Gate before the Seventh Fleet’s arrival forced the Incarnation commander to withdraw his forces. A third engagement, mainly between Seventh Fleet strike assets and Incarnation Coronachs, was inconclusive, and the Incarnation, possibly running low on supplies and munitions, departed the system and has not yet returned. 

While some details of this battle remain unavailable to the public, the undefeated (if not particularly victorious) return of the Lost Squadrons has inspired celebrations throughout Confederated space, from the Core Worlds all the way out here to Maribel. These hardy spacers aren’t home yet – they still have to cross the Gap - but I’m sure the Navy will certainly ferry them home for recuperation as soon as safe passage can be arranged. They’ve done their part in this conflict, and have weathered near-constant danger for far longer than anyone could have expected them. 

Messages home from many of the Lost Squadrons survivors have been forwarded to this publication by their original recipients. The fantastic tales included in many of them do interest us, especially the ones which claim to shed light on the mysterious Grand Journey (Tales from the Service: A Reacher's Request) but we are still waiting on Naval Intelligence approval to publish them. 

This week’s account was sent in by a spacer aboard Vigilance, one of the light carriers of the Seventh Fleet force sent to Sagittarius Gate. An occasional reader, this spacer, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to here merely as Azar, read our pieces relating to the mercenary frigate Grand Azure (Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure and Tales from the Service: The Garden of the Grand Azure) and the accounts published by other publications. Faced with an opportunity to investigate the mysterious vessel further during the passage to Sagittarius gate, he attempted to do so, somewhat incompetently. 

[N.T.B. - It should not need to be said, but don’t do what this fool did. Mercs can be a bit twitchy, and he’s lucky they didn’t shoot him on the spot.] 

Azar paced the narrow space behind the cargo shuttle’s twin piloting stations as Patrick Ord, the shuttle’s pilot, lined the little launch up with the extended docking collar of Grand Azure. The frigate was as attractive to look at as he’d once read – the description of it as an ornament instead of a war-fighting machine, if anything, didn’t do its aesthetics justice. 

“Whoever your friends are, Azar, they’re idiots.” Ord shook his head as he leaned over the console to scrutinize the sensor readouts. “That thing’s a pleasure-boat with guns bolted on, and they brought it out here to Sagittarius?” 

Azar had lied to the pilot, telling him that he knew some of the members of the crew of Grand Azure and just wanted to pop over for a social visit while the cargo was being unloaded. In truth, Azar didn’t know any of them, but he knew of them. The strange partnership rumored to govern the vessel had been a datasphere curiosity since the attractive vessel had appeared in the theatre of war. Back then, Azar had been one of the many techs helping restore mothballed Terran-Rattanai War vintage warships to some semblance of fighting order, and he’d never expected to actually see the mystery ship with his own eyes. 

Vigilance had changed all that. From the moment Azar had seen the light carrier hauled out of its mothball orbit and into his drydock bay, he’d known he would leave with it. The light carrier didn’t have Grand Azure’s supermodel looks, but its sleek, proud lines drew him in all the same. It looked like something out of "Return to Earth” and the other old war dramas his father had so avidly watched, mostly because it was – every time he looked up at the hangar observation platform, he expected to see long-dead vidcast stars like Arthur Eileifr or Yumi Miriana standing there, their jaws set in cinematically grim determination.  

He’d later learned – via a message from his father, naturally – that many of these productions had leased freshly-mothballed Vigilance or its sister ship Alacrity from the Navy reserve to use as sets. 

“We're secure.” Ord barely needed to announce it; the shuttle struck the frigate’s docking apparatus with a loud bang and a hiss of atmosphere flooding the flexible docking collar. “Grand Azure, where do you want these crates?” 

Azar hadn’t asked what supplies the frigate had requested from Vigilance. The mercenaries’ supply situation wasn’t the mystery he intended on solving. He just needed an excuse to go aboard – the crates would be that excuse.  

“Understood.” Ord, responding to a voice from the other ship, switched off his earpiece and turned to Azar. “There should be a cargo stowage area just inside on your left. They say to leave everything there. You’ve got fifteen minutes.” 

“More than I need.” Azar cracked his knuckles, then headed aft to the shuttle’s pressurized cargo bay. The bargain Azar had struck with Ord was simple – he hitched a ride to say hello to his “friends” aboard Grand Azure, and in turn, he would haul the dozen-odd crates from the shuttle across to the mercenary frigate, sparing the pudgy pilot the trouble of getting out of his crash-padded pilot’s station. 

Hauling the first trio of bulky crates onto a magnetic-wheeled handcart, Azar pushed them to the hatch, which Ord opened remotely. Compared to the metallic and slightly oily smell of the shuttle’s atmospherics unit and the somewhat close, heavy-feeling atmospheric qualities produced by Vigilance’s old atmospherics systems, the air that washed over Azar’s face when the portal opened seemed unbelievably fresh and clean – it was, he decided, almost like the clean breeze blowing across the  Valèrian hills on Madurai, where he’d grown up. 

Azar pushed his cart across the threshold and onto the gleaming deck of Grand Azure. None of its crew had come to greet him. Was it really, he wondered, the home of an intelligent slime-like creature from the moons of Allenden? The datasphere nodes where he’d discussed the topic in had the mysterious creature known as Sapphire tentatively identified as a Myxomyceti, an alien life-form which wasn’t generally regarded as one of humanity’s sapient peers. One sample from the ship’s hydroponics compartment would be enough to settle the question once and for all. 

Unfortunately, the cargo stowage area indicated to Ord was simply impossible to miss. The alcove, studded with cargo tie-down points, sat only a few meters inside Grand Azure’s airlock. Wondering how he might manufacture an excuse to go further, Azar unloaded his first three crates, then headed back for another load. 

“Azar, how’s it going?” Ord’s voice broke into Azar’s thoughts. It took him a moment to realize the interruption came from the shuttle’s intercom. 

“Three down, ten to go.” Azar loaded the cart once more. 

“Good. Hey, I told the lady on Azure’s comms board that you had a friend on their ship. What was their name again?” 

Azar was glad the other man was still in the cockpit; there, he couldn’t see Azar’s dismay. The lie hadn’t included a name, and now he needed to think of one, fast. “Uh. Blake.” He cursed his reflexive answer even as he spoke it; the Grand Azure’s crew would recognize the game the moment they heard that name, a pseudonym assigned to one of them by the first datacast service to take an interest in their affairs. 

“I’ll see if he can come down to meet you.” Ord cheerfully signed off, assuming his good deed for the day had been done. Azar finished loading his cart for the second short trip and hurried it across. He had seconds to do something, or to come up with a likely story, otherwise, he’d be forced to come clean. 

Pushing the cart into the stowage area, Azar darted to the intersection where the airlock corridor met one of the ship’s main forward-aft passages. The nearby lift and all the doors in both directions were shut and he knew they wouldn’t open for him. Just as he was resigned to coming clean, he noticed that the security door on the access ladder shaft at the forward end of the corridor, perhaps fifteen meters away, stood slightly ajar, left open by a careless mercenary spacer. 

The lift thumped as the car within reached his deck, and Azar sprinted for the open hatch. He’d just reached it when a shout of alarm behind him indicated that he’d been spotted. 

Azar slid down the ladder until he reached the ship’s double-height hydroponics deck. Smashing his palm into the emergency lock override, he tumbled off the ladder and through onto damp deck plating. The warm, moist air and sounds of running water told him he'd made it to the hydroponics deck – now all he needed to do was lose his pursuer among the maze of grow-beds for a few minutes. 

“Hold it.” A woman’s voice, punctuated by the snap and whine of charging railgun capacitors, interrupted Azar before he could stand. “Where do you think you’re going?” 

2949-02-16 –Tales from the Inbox: The Ambush at Zambrano

Nojus here. Duncan’s been keeping a pretty tight grip on the text feed lately, but this week’s news is mine to report. By the time this post is dispatched, Navy Headquarters will have announced that the Lost Squadrons have been relieved by elements of the Seventh Fleet and its mercenary auxiliaries.  

While force reports have not been released, it is probable that the carrier-heavy formation which briefly docked here at Maribel is the center of this relief force; carriers have the largest and most advanced on-board manufacturing systems of all Navy ships, and the units we saw here were specifically designed for long-range forward patrol duties. As Colonel Durand and Mr. Kirke-Moore explained to me in December, the force which arrived at Sagittarius Gate to rendezvous with Bosch’s ragged formation likely lacks any proper battle-line units; it is likely that the mercenary cruiser Rolf Holzmann, which left Maribel with these carriers, is the most powerful warship present. 

Evidently, limited HyperCast relay service has been restored across the Gap, though the Navy won’t say how. Those related to spacers from the Lost Squadrons should expect messages from their loved ones in the next few days – or messages of condolence once the Seventh Fleet personnel bureau processes death records from the Lost Squadrons’ ship computers. No official roster of ship losses and survivals is available; most likely, they’re still taking inventory. 

The Navy datacast release, which Duncan and I have had an opportunity to view in advance, states that Bosch’s force and the civilian vessels which it has temporarily pressed into service have been transferred from Fifth Fleet to Seventh Fleet command. Since the Seventh Fleet has no official representative here at Maribel, we here at Cosmic Background are not likely to hear more about this story through the usual chain. 

The unusual chain, however, continues to provide. Among the first messages received here at Maribel from Sagittarius Gate was a message to Cosmic Background from a spacer Duncan assures me has a history with this text feed series - Gino S. 

Gino attempted to be an early investor in the Sagittarius Frontier even before it was formally opened to colonization, and though this first venture miscarried (Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper), he returned to Sagittarius later and was still on that side of the Gap when the HyperCast relay chain was broken fifteen months ago, mining rare metals at Tel Ramaz (Tales from the Inbox: Angels in Sagittarius). Gino’s vessel and crew were among those collected by the Lost Squadrons, and he has composed quite the account of their adventures. Duncan and I have used an excerpt from near the end of his account to draft this week's entry. We may revisit the earlier sections in the future if there is audience demand.

Gino had never put much stock in self-pity as a reaction to adverse circumstances, but the ambush at Zambrano gave him cause to rethink this policy. 

Gino’s own ship had been lost within months of joining the Lost Squadrons, but that hadn’t hurt too much. After all, Priya Ansa hadn’t been the first starship he had lost to Sagittarius, and he doubted it would be the last. The mining ship had been a good machine, and a good home, but it hadn’t been able to keep up with the pace of life as a fish in this nervous school very long. Navy men had helped Gino and his crew of six move their belongings to the hauler Joszef Beitel, and then had stripped Priya Ansa of anything that might replace a failed part in some other vessel before setting it adrift in the interstellar void. 

Despite the restlessness of his crew, especially trusty Ellen Connelly, his second in command, Gino hadn’t complained as the months aboard Beitel dragged on. He liked its sturdy skipper, a Navy reserve officer named Albricci, and the skipper seemed to like him in turn. The accommodations were spartan at best, but given the alternative of a fiery death under Incarnation guns or the dubious comforts of a prison camp on an Incarnation world, he considered himself lucky. Lucky, that is, until Zambrano. 

Everyone in the Lost Squadrons knew by the time the formation arrived at the ill-fated system that relief was coming. Their long ordeal was almost over. The Navy would come soon, its battlewagons cracking the very starfield with their thundering cannons, and drive the Incarnation’s swift cruisers back into the blackness from which they had spawned. Everyone knew, and nobody wanted to be the last to die. Nobody wanted to be aboard the last ship to fall behind and into enemy hands. 

The unfortunate thing about the word “everyone,” of course, was that it included the multitudes of chip-headed fanatics which crewed each of those terrible, sleek hunters. Nobody knew how the Nates knew a rescue was coming, but everyone knew they did. The pack of four cruisers which had chased off the refugee armada from so many promising supply points had been reinforced by six more of their kind. One way or another, the hunt would be over soon. 

Rumor had it that Captain Bosch’s combat ships were running low on missiles and just about every other type of expendable munition. Though Gino had no way to verify such chow-line scuttlebutt, he found this only too believable. Even if there had been resupply ships in the Lost Squadrons at some point, they had long since been stripped and abandoned in the void to keep other vessels in working order, like his own AnsaBeitel itself was so short on expendables that the food-processor machine menus had dwindled to the five blandest selections – and if Gino knew Navy sensibilities, they had let their own flavoring-reservoirs dwindle to nothing before inconveniencing the civilians. Raw organics stripped from uninhabited systems could keep the nutrient slurry tanks from running dry, but a diet of untreated nutrient slurry would slowly drive even the most hardened spacer mad. Gino that knew better than most - had tried it himself, once, and not by choice. 

Zambrano was supposed to fix all that, of course. Word had come down that the Incarnation had towed a gaggle of captured Confederated Worlds starships to a depot at that system to be examined and stripped of useful materials, their crews held in a prison camp on the planet below. Apparently, the defenses were weak there, with only a few automated missile batteries defending the installation. 

The only catch was, there was no way to both rescue the prisoners and haul off all the necessary goods before the cruisers arrived if the Squadrons followed their usual procedure. If just the combat vessels entered the system, they simply didn’t have enough space to load supplies and prisoners. If Bosch was to get enough munitions and other supplies to tide everyone over until the Navy arrived without leaving Confederated citizens in Incarnation hands, he needed some of the unarmed ships among his ragtag command to dive down into the sucking quagmire of a star’s gravity well, where they were the most vulnerable to attack if the Incarnation’s cruisers showed up too quickly. 

Beitel, to the surprise of no-one on board, was selected for the mission. The big hauler’s engines had held up remarkably well against the strain which had undone Priya Ansa, and it carried less than a third of its maximum load in its cargo holds and external cargo-container brackets. Albricci had offered to transfer anyone who wanted to stay safe to another vessel, but Gino had refused, more out of curiosity than anything else. After all, he'd been on the run with the Lost Squadrons for more than a year and hadn’t once seen any action, not even from a distance. 

Most of his own former crew had taken Albricci’s offer; only Connelly had stayed. Gino never learned why, but he came to fear that it was on his account. 

When it came to the actual event, both Gino and Connelly occupied stations on Beitel’s command deck in place of some of the Navy-reserve spacers who’d elected not to risk their lives at what seemed to be the end of their ordeal. Gino had what he’d been hoping for – a front row seat to the action. Any combat required to take the depot was expected to be perfunctory, but at least he could tell his as-yet-unborn children and their children truthfully that he’d seen Sam Bosch in action. Perhaps in a few decades, that claim would be worth something money could never buy. 

Had Gino known that the supply depot at Zambrano was the lure intended to draw the Lost Squadrons into a fatal ambush, he might still have elected to go along for the ride. Six Incarnation cruisers, loitering in six different ballistic stellar orbits with their engines off, roared into action as soon as the depot came under attack, hurtling toward the intruders. 

While Bosch’s ships swung about to hold off the closest of these massive adversaries, Gino helped Albricci get Beitel lined up to dock with the outpost. Some of the other ships hurried to evacuate the prisoners from the planet, but even assuming the most skillful use of his ships possible, time was running out. 

Beitel was still maneuvering to dock when the Coronachs struck. Gino didn’t even see them coming on the sensors – one minute he was micromanaging a docking sequence, and the next minute the air around him was filled with crystallizing atmosphere rushing toward a jagged, molten hole where the forward bridge bulkhead had once been. At least one spacer – Gino didn’t even know his name – was torn from his harness and out into the void beyond. It didn’t matter whether the man’s emergency bubble-helmet deployed, or whether he cleared the red-hot metal on his way through – there would be no rescue on the other side. 

Wounded Beitel staggered, and despite all Gino’s efforts, collided with the depot. He was still wrestling with the unresponsive controls when Albricci hauled him from the console and toward the exit. 

The next thing Gino remembered was lying on the grip-textured deck in the spacious cockpit of one of Beitel’s cargo shuttles, looking up at the pair of pilot’s chairs. Albricci, sturdy shoulders hunched over the controls, occupied one, and a grizzled-looking woman with a bandage across her forehead sat in the other. He soon learned that he was looking at the only survivors of Jozsef Beitel’s sixteen-spacer skeleton crew. 

As for Ellen Connelly, trusty second-in-command of his little mining ship Priya Ansa, she hadn’t been at her station when Albricci had recovered his wits and started to evacuate, and had not made it to the shuttle cradle in time. Perhaps she too had been thrown free into space, or perhaps she had become trapped inside the failing ship. 

Gino had never put much stock in self-pity as a reaction to adverse circumstances. Losing Connelly at Zambrano just for a chance to see some action, however, seemed so catastrophically unfair that he decided to try it all the same. 

2949-02-09 – Tales from the Service: Riding the Riverbarge

One of the stranger starship technologies ever built by human engineers is the Riverbarge star drive. Like most of you, I’ve never traveled on a ship equipped with one; this drive is all but unheard of outside the Hyades Cluster. While I don’t understand all the mechanics myself, most normal star drives don’t work in the cluster – it represents a concentration of too many massive stars in too small a patch of space.

A few weeks ago, the story of how the Navy lured Wolff-Kumar Enterprises into a dangerous mission with a “name your price” contract appeared in this space. Captain Bradford and his crew returned alive and successful, and their lucrative payout has made them the envy of the mercenary community which still receives contracts from the Fifth Fleet.

Mr. Bradford’s second submission to this publication is not about their mission – which apparently was nearly uneventful – but about the Riverbarge unit aboard his destroyer which drove the Navy to call on their services. Whether the interesting behavior he describes is common behavior for these machines or a result of decades of disuse and neglect of delicate machinery, I cannot say; perhaps a Hyadean member of this audience can explain what happened. I somehow doubt what Archimedes experienced is a drive system that is working as intended.

Captain Cyril Bradford dropped wearily into the command chair on the Archimedes bridge, then waved for Asin Lewin at the helm to proceed. Drifting in the interstellar void three light-years from occupied Matusalemme, he had ensured every possible precaution was taken to make their appearance in the enemy-held system as stealthy as possible. Still, there was a small chance he and his crew would be annihilated within seconds of arrival solely due to bad luck.

“Capacitors are charged and the Riverbarge system has a green board, Captain.” Lewin reported. “Shunting power.”

Cyril nodded an acknowledgement. Archimedes’s twin star-drive units, rare among the warships and mercenary auxiliaries defending the Coreward Frontier against the Incarnation, was a result of the vessel’s Hyadean origins. Jie Yu Enterprises didn’t build export models larger than a pinnace, and only a rare few of the larger vessels it built for the Hyades Cluster’s local navy ever fell into outside hands – Wolff-Kumar’s acquisition of the vessel remained a mystery to even its skipper. While one of those star drives was a mundane, if aging, Himura unit, the other was a Hyadean “Riverbarge” drive – a strange and, under most circumstances, quite impractical machine.

On several occasions, Cyril had debated approving orders to have the Riverbarge torn out and replaced with something more useful, and now he was cursing his reluctance. It was because of that accursed Hyadean contraption that he was about to order a jump into enemy territory. The payout if his crew lived would be substantial, but he had little confidence in survival, no matter what the Navy’s simulations said.

“Shunt complete. Full drive charge in one hundred seconds.” Lewin didn’t sound nervous, but then, he was thinking about retiring from mercenary service after his cut of the payout. He probably had visions of marrying his less-than-secret shipboard lover in a grand ceremony and taking her to settle down down on a balmy coastline far from the war. Cyril knew that dream couldn’t last – two years, maybe three, and Asin Lewin would be going back to space with or without his intended bride.

Cyril took a deep breath, then released it, along with his many misgivings. His crew had a job to do, and whether or not he liked it, he had to make sure it was done right. “Battle stations.”

The lighting dimmed and the insistent bark of the battle-stations alarm sounded. The thirty-odd personnel aboard would have dropped everything to rush to their stations, except that they all had known the alarm was coming for several hours. Most likely, everyone had already been at or near their action stations.

Cyril watched the station readiness display to his left until every indicator was green, indicating that everyone was as ready for what was coming as could be managed. He was gratified to see that Lewin’s sixty-second timer still had almost twenty seconds left on it. “Proceed when ready, helm.”

Lewin’s hands flew across the console, preparing the old Hyadean machine for its first use in decades. The Navy had made sure to send techs to check the Riverbarge out before Archimedes had departed, but these experts had been given less than two shifts to certify the machine for use, but Cyril didn’t think it would fail and force a mission abort before anyone got into danger. He and his crew were not nearly that lucky.

“Brace for transition in ten seconds.” Lewin announced, and this time his voice echoed over the intercom. “Three… Two... One…”

The timer hit zero and the drive woke with a roar, draining the power given to it in a split second and falling back on the ship’s massive capacitor banks. Unlike the subtle crackling pins-and-needles sensation of travel with a Himura star drive or the almost unnoticeable lurch of a Xiou-Edwards unit, the Riverbarge shook the whole ship and filled the air inside with a cacophonous, rumbling thunderclap which seemed to go on for whole minutes.

Stunned, Cyril shook his head against the sudden ringing in his ears. He realized the sound had gone, which meant his ship was now in enemy territory, and by the looks of his bridge crew, they were at least as disoriented as he was.

“Report!” He barked – or tried to. He could barely hear his own voice, and doubted anyone else could.

Unbuckling himself, Cyril staggered across the destroyer’s tiny bridge to the reeling gunnery officer, pushed her aside, and checked the tactical plot which that officer should have mirrored to his station the instant they arrived. The board was mercifully clean – there were no gravitic-drive signatures within several light-hours, though faint hints beyond effective detector range suggested that the enemy was in the system. The Riverbarge had allowed them to use their star drive to jump much farther into the system than any other ship – perhaps far enough to evade any early-warning sensor nets deployed by the Incarnation since their takeover in Matusalemme.

Cyril turned to the helm console, but found Asin Lewin already recovering, his hands dancing shakily on the console. After a moment, he looked up and offered a quick thumbs-up to Cyril. The ship was in fine order even if its crew wasn’t.

Hobbling over to Lewin, the mercenary commander put his lips to the younger man’s ear. “Ballistic course to the Hypercast Relay.”

Lewin nodded and turned back to his console. Plotting a ballistic course would take time – time to determine just where they had landed in the system, and with what velocity. Once they knew that with some accuracy, the computer could do the rest, planning what subtle nudges of the thrusters would bring the ship close to its intended target. If all went well, the enemy wouldn’t see them in time to protect the installation, and Archimedes would be on its way out of the system at emergency acceleration before any pursuit got underway.

Grinding his teeth, Cyril made the rounds to the other officers and shook them out of their dazes before returning to his command chair. Disoriented, half-deafened, and shaken they might be, his crew had a job to do, and their lives depended on making sure it was done right.

2949-02-02 – Tales from the Service: A Departure from Margaux

As her little dropship hurtled upward toward the blue-black zenith of Margaux’s toxic sky, Rosemary Beck tried not to think about things that were behind it. Instead, she had to focus on getting her passengers to safety in one piece. Thirty wounded men, mostly Confederated Marines, lay strapped into medtech stretchers in the troop bay below, with only four medics to watch over them. The rest of the men and women scrambling to patch up the broken Ishkawa Line would hold, or they wouldn’t, and her absence wouldn’t make a difference. 

“Flight Olympic, you are still in the clear.” Somehow, the ground controller at the big Volha Basin strike operations center sounded calm, despite the chaos that threatened to sweep over even that previously-safe location. “Enemy interceptors are still pursuing Flight Pheasant. Looks like they’ve decided you’re not worth chasing. I’m sending you updated nav data for the rendezvous.” 

Rosemary could see two of the seven other dropships out her cockpit viewpanels, though mainly because the disposable liquid-fuel rocket boosters assisting their vertical climb to orbit threw off gigantic pillars of white smoke as they pushed the little ships into the sky. The big gray lump of Olympic Actual’s pinnace at the head of the formation, too big for any bolt-on boosters to hurl into orbit but more than capable of making the sprint on its own gravitic drive, hung directly ahead of her dropship’s nose. The others weren’t far off, visible on sensors even as the bulk of her ship hid them from direct view. 

Flight Olympic had no escorts – the few Pumas which could be spared for tangling with the Incarnation’s vast, sky-darkening force of Coronachs were many kilometers away stiffening the spine of the diversionary Flight Pheasant, mainly composed of Mercenary-crewed strike bombers armed for a punitive strike on Incarnation supply dumps. If intercepted in force, Pheasant was supposed to do exactly what its name implied – scatter and dart back to the relative safety of nearby bases. Atmospheric flight made the normally nimble Coronachs far less so, but at fifteen-to-one odds, even atmosphere-optimized Pumas piloted by Marine hotshots couldn’t stand and fight for long. 

Again, Rosemary forced herself to consider what lay ahead and above, not that which remained behind and below. The eight dropships and one over-engined pinnace of Flight Olympic were, other than the Pumas forming a distraction, the last space-capable Confederated Marines vessels left on Margaux, and they managed in total to haul a bit less than three hundred fifty severely wounded ground-pounders off the besieged world. Thousands upon thousands just as wounded waited their turn in tunnel medical wards throughout the shrinking Confederated perimeter in the Causey Plana, and Rosemary had carefully avoided knowing how these few hundred were selected to be lifted out. There could be no fair way to choose which men would live and which would lay there waiting to die. 

She had promised to return if she could, but even as she’d spoken these assurances, she’d known it would be impossible. The Pheasant diversion would permit the nine outbound ships to leave Margaux orbit relatively unmolested, but it wouldn’t last long enough to prevent them from being intercepted on a return flight a few hours later. Once she docked with the Marine assault transport Alvin York, which was on a stealthy dead-drive ballistic course through the system to drop supply canisters and pick up Flight Olympic, she would be carried with it on its pell-mell outbound dash, and most likely would never see Margaux again.  

Unlike the other pilots and the ten-spacer crew of Olympic Actual, who were all grateful to leave the faltering garrison on Causey Plana, Rosemary didn’t want to leave. She knew her little brother was still down there, somewhere on the faltering Ishkawa Line. Yared had been planning to enlist with the Confederated Marines like his older sister, but he’d jumped at the Frontier Defense Army’s promise to put him into action quickly compared to the years it would take for him to become a Marine. The FDA had made good on that promise – Yared had arrived on Margaux two months before the Incarnation invasion.  

He was still alive and well, that Rosemary knew, but the chaotic way in which unit organization had been shuffled in the withdrawal to the Ishkawa Line, she had no way of finding out where he was. They’d exchanged a few text and recorded-voice missives over the planet’s spotty datasphere, but that was as close as they’d been in her four weeks on Margaux; Yared lived under an overzealous FDA datasphere censor algorithm which prevented him from sharing his location, and he could not leave his post to come find her even after she’d communicated hers. Now, she was leaving the poisoned world without him – and she felt a dread certainty that she would never see him alive again. 

The slowly darkening sky began to shift from deep blue to black as Flight Olympic raced beyond Margaux’s atmosphere and into the emptiness of space. The rumbling of atmosphere battering the dropship’s outer hull faded, and the smoothly motionless feeling of onboard inertial isolation took over. 

There was no time to enjoy the sudden silence, however. “All Olympic units stay in formation.” The snappy voice of Commander Statham – Olympic Actual – snapped Rosemary out of her distraction. “Slave fire control to ours. Anyone who falls behind gets left behind.” 

As her commander spoke, Rosemary’s sensor plot lit up with enemy contacts - the expected light picket net of Coronachs which harried anything the larger hunting formations failed to intercept. With the flick of a switch, Rosemary deployed the twin gun turrets from their transit shields and switched them from local control to the direction of the larger pinnace’s fire control systems. Unified fire from more than twenty rapid-tracking turret systems would probably chase away all but the most determined Incarnation pilots. 

As the twin turrets began to dissuade the Coronachs with rattling bursts of high-velocity slugs, Rosemary set the helm controls to automatic, then hurriedly tapped out what she knew would be her final message to her little brother. 

Rosemary Beck’s premonitions were indeed correct; she was notified upon returning to Maribel on Alvin York that her younger brother had been killed in action on Margaux only two days after her departure. 

Though Yared Beck is not being considered for any awards for gallantry in combat, he was a capable and reliable soldier during his short career with the Frontier Defense Army. 

Sadly, it looks as if Admiral Zahariev’s new ploy to rescue the Margaux garrison has miscarried; his fleet has not been seen here or at Margaux for several weeks, though we would know by now if it came to misfortune. The situation on the ground there is degrading quickly and I will confess that I do not see much hope for the relief of the garrison being squeezed into a progressively smaller pocket of the Causey Plana. Many millions here at Maribel and many billions throughout the Reach are praying for a miracle, however, and perhaps we will yet see one.