2949-01-26 – Tales from the Service: Three Glittering Words 

The Fifth Fleet's innumerable and highly profitable contracts to mercenary outfits in this conflict have resulted in a massive boom in the mercenary industry in the last year; every outfit seems to be hiring and in the market to outfit new strike squadrons and new warships. When this war ends, that cash flow will dry up, and it seems every mercenary in the Reach, from the giant firms like Sovereign Securities to the small, hardscrabble mercenary squadrons operating out of cheap hauler conversions, wants to grab as big a pile of Navy credits as possible before that happens. 

Unfortunately for some, the sheer size of Navy payouts seems to be having a negative effect on judgement. Risks are being taken by some outfits that they never would make except for the Navy’s tendency to add another zero to the payout to sweeten the deal. I would call it a cynical way to preserve Navy personnel and materiel while still accomplishing risky missions, but more likely it’s simply the Navy using the available resources best fit for each mission. Regardless of the intent, this situation leaves many mercenaries taking too many risks, and it is leading to a higher rate of loss among mercenary units than any profit-making industry can sustain for long.

If an extra zero does not persuade a mercenary company to accept a Navy contract, there is another level of persuasion beyond that – the so-called Three Glittering Words of the mercenary business. “Name your price” bargaining is so rare in mercenary service as to be largely a legend, at least, it was, until this conflict. 

Cyril Bradford stared at the Navy liaison sitting opposite him for several seconds, hoping what he’d just heard had been a poorly-delivered joke. Sadly, there was no indication of humor in the hard edges of Colonel Van Can’s face or the set of his squared, stubble-crusted jaw.  

“Let me guess. You’re not being paid well enough to take that kind of risk?” Van Can leaned forward, taking Cyril’s hesitation as a bargaining position. “The admiral is willing to fix that. Name your price.” 

Cyril’s mercenary heart leapt at the sound of those three glittering words, but he tried not to let it show. They had strings attached, and Van Can knew it. Cyril could name a price in excess of the value of his company, and the Navy would not pay it – they would simply buy out Wolff-Kumar Enterprises, replace Cyril with someone willing to do their bidding, and then do the contract pro bono. There were rumors that it had happened to some of the smaller mercenary units already. 

“It’s not the pay.” Cyril winced as soon as he said it; risk or no, he would have liked to take the opportunity to raise his company’s fees. “Colonel, I don’t think we can do that.” 

“Our command-level simulations give your company a four in five chance of complete success.” Van Can’s poker-face remained unnervingly perfect – he didn’t even try to look or sound sympathetic. “It needs to be done, and nobody better equipped is available in time. Name your price.” 

Four in five was good odds for Navy service, of course, but Cyril hadn’t been in Navy service for more than a decade. If his mercenary crew learned they had a twenty percent chance of perishing on a mission, they would mutiny. Van Can knew that too, so why had he mentioned the odds? 

Wanting to be rid of the colonel by any means necessary, Cyril shrugged wearily. “I have to talk it over with my crew.” A conference with the thirty spacers on his destroyer Archimedes and the twelve more who operated the company’s quartet of strike gunships would take time to arrange since they were all scattered throughout the Maribel system on shore leave, and hopefully the delay would encourage the Navy to send someone else on its “necessary” suicide mission. 

“Your launch window is at the beginning of first shift tomorrow.” Colonel Van Can stood, and a set of documents – a contract – appeared on the display inset into Cyril’s desk. “The necessary supplies should be here in two hours.” 

Cyril scanned the documents for a moment. “Wait, I didn’t accept-” When he looked up, though, Van Can had already gone. “Damn.”  

He had about two hours to decide whether to reject the colonel's supplies – there was no way he could solicit the inputs of more than a third of his personnel in that time. A quick search verified that only four of his subordinates were onboard Archimedes, and nine more were on the station which his ship was docked to. The other thirty-odd were on Maribel itself or the other orbital stations, and since everyone expected two more days of shore leave before their next patrol, most of them were probably drunk, stoned out of their minds, enjoying Maribel’s theoretically illegal but burgeoning prostitution industry, or engaging in other high-speed, high-risk behavior to blow off steam. 

Nevertheless, Cyril sent a recall to anyone who could get back to the ship quickly, then headed down to the mess. As built, the old Anselmi-class destroyer had a main mess compartment for the ratings and a small wardroom for the officers on their own lodgings deck, but in mercenary service the officers’ wardroom had been stripped out to make room for two more cabins. 

Sierra Gotti, the chief engineer aboard Archimedes, beat Cyril to the mess compartment. She waved over a steaming cup of synthetic coffee as he entered. “What’s going on, boss?” 

“New Navy contract.” Cyril obtained his own coffee and sat down across from her just as the other three personnel aboard the ship ambled in. He raised his voice so they could hear as well. “Van Can has a job for us in Matusalemme.” 

Gotti’s eyebrows shot up, and the other three stopped what they were doing to turn to face their captain. “Matusalemme’s enemy territory, boss, but if the Navy’s going there, we can watch their asses.” 

“The Navy isn’t going with us.” Cyril shook his head and stared into his coffee. “The job is to slag the Adimari Valis Hypercast relay.” 

“And I hope you told that lunatic that we’re not suicidal.” 

“I did.” He hated to lie to them, even in such a small way, but it had to be done. “He told us to name our price.” 

Tech-specialist Armelle Roche and helmman Asin Lewin, a pair who were utterly failing to keep their shipboard romance a secret, arrived just as Cyril repeated the glittering phrase. Based on the disorder of their attire, they’d dressed in a hurry before rushing back to the ship. 

Asin, his eyes flashing with avaricious intent, stepped forward and leaned his hip on the table. “Name our price, boss? On a Navy contract, even. Hells, how many zeroes did you tell him?” 

“I told him we’d think it over.” Cyril knew Asin would never understand the Navy’s ability to circumvent Cyril if the price was quoted too high – book-keeping and risk-estimation were not his strong subjects. “We can’t collect a fortune if we’re dead.” 

Sierra, at least, seemed to grasp the inescapability of a contract offered with the phrase “name any price” before she spoke. “How long do we have?” 

“Van Can said we’d be getting supplies in a couple of hours, and we’re supposed to leave at the beginning of first shift. We should probably have our answer before we accept that delivery.” 

“Twenty hours to get everyone back aboard?” Armelle shook her head. “Impossible. The crew’s scattered all over the system. If-” 

Cyril sighed. “There’s no time to get everyone’s approval on this or to call up to the Board.” As he spoke, another two personnel crept in, both smeared with glittering body paint to indicate where aboard the station they’d been. “Who is here now makes the call. Do we name our price and go to Matusalemme? Or turn them down and catch every Hell that Colonel Van Can is capable of throwing?” 

There was a brief silence as each member of the small group worked things over in their minds. Asin, always impulsive, spoke first. “I say we do it. This could be retirement money, Boss.” 

His less-than-secret lover stepped up next. “I’m not ready to retire just yet. I’m not ready to buy the plot either. Tell the Colonel off, and if that means they stop giving us patrols, then we’ll go somewhere else.” 

Sierra Gotti shook her head. “Name any price means they’ll just find our price eventually. Might as well choose it for ourselves.” 

The others quickly voted as well. Armelle’s recommendation picked up only one other vote – almost everyone seemed to have a wish-list they wanted to fund on the Navy’s credit. 

Cyril stood once everyone had said their piece. “If you have anything you want to add to the Colonel’s shopping list, send it to my station and I’ll get it into the paperwork. Sierra, can you be ready to accept that delivery, and Asin, get the station to send out an emergency recall.” 

The brief meeting broke up as everyone departed to start preparing the ship or get a few last hours of shore leave. Cyril, suddenly alone in the mess compartment, sighed heavily, drained his coffee, and sent a comms request to Colonel Van Can. If his crew was going into a one in five chance of death, he could at least ensure the peril wasn’t cheap. 

2949-01-19 – Tales from the Service: Atrocity on Meraud 

At the chiming sound of the alarm in her earpiece, Soraya Levine groaned and levered herself upright. The moment she moved, her cocoon-like sleep-shroud split open, and the chill of the outside air slapped her in the face, and she saw that she was buried in a meter-thick drift of coiling, crawling creepvine which had out what little body heat leaked from the sleep-shroud's insulation. Through this mass, a few rays of blue-white light morning light stabbed accusingly at her eyes. 

Soraya had known before landing that Meraud was nobody’s idea of an idyllic vacation getaway, but she had long since come to regret volunteering for any mission that required exposure to the planet’s punishingly low ambient temperatures, nauseatingly mobile and flora, and unnecessarily creative varieties of crawling and slithering fauna. 

As the sleep-shroud disengaged and began folding itself into a compact package, Soraya tore through the twitching plant-life and stood. After stretching, she pushed her way toward two other mounds of heat-hungry vines and kicked into them to find the green-polymer cocoons within. 

“Get up. It’s time to move.” 

Gabriel and Seppo, both echoing Soraya’s groaning, protested weakly against the interruption to their sleep, but soon both sat up and set about extracting themselves from the unpleasant embrace of the underbrush while their own insulating enclosures begin to self-pack. 

As her compatriots scoured their meager campsite to ensure nothing was left behind in the choking, moving weeds, Soraya keyed in a command on her wrist computer. With a distressed-sounding hum, their hoversled came alive and broke free of a much thinner but quite frozen entanglement of creepvine – the few plants which had greedily sought its residual heat the previous evening but had not been able to find another refuge as it cooled. Their brittle remains would cling to the sled’s hoarfrost-covered housing until it warmed up. 

Bringing the sled in close, Soraya opened the sled’s onboard cargo vault and quickly checked each of the weapons within before handing them out. None of their electronic weapons, designed for the vaccuum of space or for the conditions of a temperate world, could be relied on in Meraud’s conditions. They’d slept with sidearms on their belts, of course – Meraud's wildlife was a threat only to one’s appetite and sanity, but the presence of an Incarnation garrison could not be overlooked – but there was no good way to bring a combat rifle into a sleep-shroud. 

Soraya passed around self-heating ration pouches, then secured the vault and set the sled to follow her. With Gabriel and Seppo falling into step behind her, she brought up the map and led the way through the frozen wilderness. If everything went to plan, they could determine the extent and purpose of the Incarnation base on Meraud and reach the rendezvous in three more local days, but in her years of work for Naval Intelligence, Soraya had never seen a plan work perfectly. She had resigned herself to at least six more harsh sunrises, and perhaps as many as ten. They had brought rations for even longer and could even be resupplied from the stealthy converted cutter waiting to extract them, but Soraya suspected an abundance of supplies wouldn't prevent her from killing and eating Seppo if the mission dragged on. At some point, such a drastic measure would be necessary to preserve her mental equilibrium from another round of his bawdy tall tales. 

“You know.” Gabriel tapped the crystalline trunk of a tree-like local growth with the barrel of his rifle as he passed it. “This place really isn’t as bad as I was expecting.” 

Seppo nearly choked on a mouthful of artificially-flavored nutrient slurry, spluttering a few valuable calories out onto the frozen ground. The warm slurry steamed briefly before the soil stole its warmth. “Really, Gabe? What in all creative hells were you expecting?” 

“A wasteland.” Gabriel turned and pointed to the hills over which the blue-white stellar primary had risen. “You ever see pictures of Antarctica on Earth? That’s not much colder than here.” 

“Shut up, boys.” Soraya gestured to them to be quiet. There was nothing for miles that could hear them, but she didn’t want to hear stories of how things could be worse any more than she wanted to hear Seppo talk about seedy Maribel nightclubs and the things the dancer-girls there would do for a hundred credits. Though not superstitious, she’d come to suspect that the more one talked about worse situations, the more one walked into them. 

“I would’ve preferred the wasteland.” Seppo seemed to be ignoring Soraya again. Even though she was technically in charge, he rarely wasted an opportunity to remind her that he had been working field intelligence for twice as long as she. “We’d be making better time if there wasn’t any undergrowth to cut through.” 

Gabriel, normally respectful of the chain of command, nevertheless let himself be goaded by Seppo’s comment. “We’d also have nothing to hide in when we get to Nate’s compound. I don’t fancy crawling the last kilometer at two meters a day to beat perimeter motion sensors.” 

Soraya reached the crest of a low rise, and the moment she looked down into the lowland beyond, she saw movement. Silently, she dropped to the ground, shivering as the frozen soil’s chill seeped even through her double-insulated smartfabric attire and drank her body heat.  

Following her lead, the sled automatically eased down as well, and the two men belatedly dove for cover as well. 

“What is it, Sora?” Gabriel crawled forward, swatting away a many-legged, asymmetrical critter which ambled into his path. 

Soraya inched forward, using the bulbous bole of a large growth on the ridge for cover. Meraud’s biosphere didn’t contain anything large enough or fast enough to be visibly moving from a distance, so whatever she’d seen had to be related to the Incarnation presence. 

Peeking around the tree-like vegetable, she spied a vehicle – a single ponderous crawler of the sort popular on barren worlds like Adimari Valis, poorly suited for the choking frozen growths of Meraud. The gargantuan machine plodded along atop the ice-river at the bottom of the valley, its boxy upper structures shattering the brittle limbs of the tree-analogues which arched too far over this natural roadbed. No doubt, if it deviated from the ice-river's course, it would quickly become hopelessly stuck and then buried in warmth-seeking plants. 

Gabriel, approaching the ridge and seeing the crawler, shook his head. “The chip-heads are totally mad. Why bring that thing here?” 

Soraya flipped up her helmet’s magnification metalens and scrutinized the vehicle up close. Under a fresh layer of white paint, she could still see red and black markings, including four letters: A, X, A, and I. 

Sending a still of the markings to her wrist computer, Soraya showed it to Gabriel. “Adimari Xeno-Archaeological Institute.” 

“Stars around. Why would they want to haul crawlers halfway across the frontier?” 

“More than just crawlers.” 

Soraya looked up to see Seppo, similarly taking cover at the ridgeline, surveying the scene with his own metalens. He gestured farther along the valley, where a pall of ice-fog hung in the air. Turning her own optics that way, Soraya spotted a boxy outline in the fog that might have been another crawler. All around the cloud of frozen mist, she spied motion in the pseudo-trees. Only when one of the trees shuddered and fell to release a new plume of mist did Soraya realize what she was looking at. 

“Logging operation.” Soraya couldn’t believe there was anything in the icy tree-analogues worth harvesting. “Looks like it’s pretty primitive. There must be a thousand people down there, and no sign of a single timberjack rig.” 

“Clearing the land for some sort of agriculture?” Gabriel shook his head. “Nate does a lot of work with bioengineered crops. Maybe-” 

“This is why I hate working with optimists.” Seppo gestured again. “Have a closer look at the laborers.” 

Gabriel, finally activating his own lens, fell silent and scanned the view, trying to pick out one of the logging teams.  

Soraya, more experienced with the metalens, beat him to it. A team of five men staggered out of the icy fog and toward one of the trees on the verge dragging crude fabricator-printed hand tools. At first, they looked portly and out of shape, but she realized after watching them that this bulk was the product of each wearing multiple layers of decaying, ill-fitting smartfabric. “Creative hells...” 

Gabriel muttered something under his breath, probably creative profanity from one of the many places he’d been stationed in his short Intelligence career. “They don’t have implants.” 

Soraya, shuddering, saw that he was right – the laborers’ temples and foreheads lacked the implants that kept even the lowliest Incarnation person in contact with their domineering data networks. “They’re Confederated citizens. Their outpost here isn’t a military base... It’s a forced labor colony.” 

As Soraya watched, one of the laborers staggered and fell face-first into the trampled undergrowth. The others in his team barely glanced at their fallen comrade as they set to work pulling down yet another local tree. Within seconds, a pair of Incarnation soldiers in pristine cold-weather suits appeared out of the fog to drag the limp figure away. 

Seppo stowed his metalens and elbowed Gabriel, who was still watching the scene below in mute horror. “Still not as bad as you were expecting, Gabe?” 

After the revelation of Incarnation prisoner-transport hellships ferrying mass numbers of people – civilian and military prisoner – off Margaux, many feared that conditions to which these unfortunates were bound would be as bad or worse. I am sorry to say that this fear has been borne out. 

Though nothing but a scientific outpost existed on frozen Meraud before this conflict, the Incarnation has built and expanded a facility there. Naval Intelligence has made recent findings on Meraud available to us here at Cosmic Background, assuring us that they ensured all agents sent to survey the horrors of Meraud have been extracted safely. While I was not permitted to interview Soraya Levine while composing this entry, full audiovisual recordings of her debriefing were provided in addition to recordings her team took at several forest-clearing sites and at the main prison outpost itself. Some of that material can be found the Cosmic Background datasphere hub. 

Unfortunately, there is no good way to rescue these people – Meraud is at the far side of the Frontier from Maribel. What the Incarnation thinks to gain from working Confederated citizens to death on a frozen world is beyond me – surely the resources they might reap from such crude efforts are not worth the effort and lives expended. 

We can only imagine the terrible conditions under which these Meraud hostages live every day, and pray for their survival until the Navy has the ability to drive that deeply into Incarnation-held space and mount a proper rescue. 

2949-01-12 – Tales from the Service: The Tinker’s Tyrant 

Mavuto Hintzen passed the time by solving geometric puzzles on his one active display. It was all he could do until Nate showed his face, but when the enemy did show up, he planned to make them regret it. 

Mavuto had been at Adimari Valis, where a gallant scratch force of mercenaries and fleet auxiliaries had held off an Incarnation fleet, albeit not for long. He’d seen the enemy’s cruisers wheeling in precise formation, stabbing at the tangled squadrons of antiquated mercenary ships which stood before them and then coyly withdrawing like a buncg of Heraklean dawngliders toying with already-maimed prey.  

He’d watched those brave mercs die by the hundreds through the viewpanels of the creaking freighter on which he’d booked passage off the doomed world, and he’d seen in their deaths something incredible – he'd seen a chink in the seemingly-impenetrable armor of the mighty Incarnation fleet. 

Since the day Mavuto and his family had arrived at Maribel, the focal point for refugees streaming in from the borders of the Coreward Frontier, he’d worked hard to get where he was now, sitting at the helm of a heavily modified light hauler at the edge of the Berkant system. Finding the resources he needed to realize his vision in the refugee-choked system hadn’t been easy, and learning enough about starship systems to implement his crude diagrams in metal and plastic had been a challenge all its own. He dared not let anyone help too much, lest they see what he was doing – not even his fifteen-year-old son Adaan, who knew the most, could quite grasp what he was helping his father build. They would know soon enough – or he would take the secret to his grave. 

That the Incarnation would come to Berkant once more was not in doubt. The residents of the green world knew it too – with several minor colonies nearby stormed by the invaders, a stream of private haulers carried Berkant settlers toward the safety of Maribel and Håkøya in anticipation of an evacuation order which had not yet come. 

Mavuto had placed himself far from this stream to avoid notice, picking the spot he thought the enemy most likely to appear and putting his ship into its most invisible state. There he’d waited for five days, with only the display and its puzzles as his companion – even the ship’s voice assistant software had been shut down to conserve power. The machinery he’d installed in the ship’s hold would give him one chance to exploit the nearly invisible weakness built into the Incarnation’s ships – one chance he could only use if he got close enough. 

As he switched from one puzzle to the next, Mavuto saw the gravitic sensor readout in the corner of the screen tremble and immediately dismissed his idle games. He’d tuned the system so that it would only register an incoming star-drive large enough to be his prey – the Incarnation’s Tyrant-type cruisers. Confederated Navy heavy cruisers would trip the sensor as well, but the Navy wasn’t about to dispatch heavy cruisers to doomed Berkant – they were still scheming ways to rescue the poisonous barrens of Margaux from the enemy, leaving the refugee stream at Berkant guarded by a few mercenary-operated carrier conversions wholly unprepared to fight even a single Tyrant. What would stop a lone Incarnation ship from sweeping up dozens of the ponderous liners and haulers plodding toward the safety of the jump limit? Once they had, what could stop that ship from leaving, carrying thousands of prisoners into captivity, or into worse? 

The sensor indicator trembled again, and this time the tremble built into a wavering cascade of data before settling back down. Though he was without the aid of a visual plot, Mavuto had no trouble reading the data stream when he played the disturbance back at one-quarter speed. His prey had arrived – and it had arrived close enough that he was almost on top of it. 

Flipping the switches haphazardly installed into his pilot’s station back at Maribel, Mavuto started warming up the apparatus, then cautiously woke the hauler’s bow camera cluster and instructed it to scan nearby space. The sinister, wedge-shaped void where the Tyrant’s hull occluded the stars appeared right away. Gingerly touching the controls for the custom-built ion thrusters he’d installed, Mavuto nudged his little hauler forward. The Tyrant would probably sit still for a few hours, watching the flow of traffic and optimizing the course it would follow through the system. If it charged in right away, he was out of luck. 

Fortunately, Incarnation captains lacked the individual flexibility to be so rash, even if that rashness was the correct move to make. The Tyrant’s gravitic drive remained silent in the minutes after its star-drive jump as its sensors drank in everything they could about the system’s vulnerabilities. Even if any of these implements had been turned outward, they likely would not have seen Mavuto’s hand-altered hauler moving in – he too occluded stars, but far fewer. 

The great shadow of the cruiser loomed larger, and still there was no sign he’d been seen. Easing off the ion thrusters, Mavuto checked the indicator lights on his armrest and flipped a few more switches. He was almost close enough – it was time to see the gap in the Incarnation’s armor once more, and this time, to bury a blade in it. 

Mavuto Hintzen sent in some rather sensational claims about his ability to disable an entire Tyrant cruiser with a weapon that could fit in the hold of a small, short-range hauler. The interesting thing about these claims is not that he sent them – tall tales are quite standard fare for the inbox which supplies material for this text feed, and much time is spent sifting through obvious falsehoods to get to plausible accounts. 

The interesting thing about Mr. Hintzen’s account is that it was censored in my inbox by Naval Intelligence before I could even read it. Suspecting this too was a trick, I contacted a few people in the Maribel Naval Intelligence unit, and discovered that the sections redacted were in fact legitimately redacted by intelligence agents. They would not speak about the supposed weapon (whose details were among those things hidden from even me) described in the account, nor of whether it was as successful as the account claimed. 

All I can say is that Mr. Hintzen is not dead, so his account of testing the weapon against an enemy vessel near Berkant can be one of three things: a fabrication (in which case, why the censorship?) an account of failure (in which case, how did he escape?) or an account of success. 

[N.T.B. - My bet's on that this is a fabrication, but the account comes too close to describing an actual weapon that's in the works that N.I. doesn't want Nate knowing about. Possibly the man did see something strange in the contested space over Adimari Valis - but we'll probably only know what caused N.I. to clamp down on this story after whatever's being cooked up in Naval research installations sees the light of day.]

2949-01-05 – Tales from the Service: A Veiled Behemoth 

The Seventh Fleet formation which arrived at Maribel a few weeks ago has departed as quickly and unexpectedly as it arrived. Strangely, it left in company with a motley assortment of mercenary units and privately chartered haulers. Due to interest in its whereabouts, I should not fail to mention that Grand Azure was one of the vessels that departed with this group. The vessel which gathered more attention than this little frigate, however, is the mercenary cruiser Rolf Holzmann, one of the few full-sized warships in service purpose-built for mercenary service. One of the larger vessels fielded by the infamous Sovereign Securities company, its presence on this side of the Reach is unusual – Sovereign's main theater of operations is the Rimward Frontier. 

Many in the system speculate that the operation these vessels are engaged in is some sort of training mission, but since the force contains several of the best-outfitted private military units still operational in the theater, a simple training mission to sharpen green crews on the Seventh Fleet ships seems unlikely. 

One of the larger private vessels in this flotilla, the mercenary carrier Mayumi Milka, is the mobile home of three independent strike squadrons. Karleen Schwartz, one of the pilots of Blondie’s Buccaneers aboard the “Milky May” is an avid reader of this feed, and though her account of a strange encounter on patrol is some weeks old, the departure of the Buccaneers and their carrier on a mysterious errand with Seventh Fleet seems an occasion to bring it to your attention.  

Karleen Schwartz suggests the anomaly was some form of previously unidentified life-form, but I find this unlikely; every living organism yet discovered adapted to the extreme conditions of hard vacuum, even inside a star system, are quite small. Perhaps the object they encountered was a colonial mass of many smaller organisms (something like an earthly Siphonophore) or perhaps it is an artificial construct – a badly decayed Dutchman perhaps. To my knowledge and hers, neither the Navy nor scientific interests are able to send an expedition to learn more while hostilities in the area continue. 

Karleen Schwartz sat back in her cockpit and frowned at the instruments. What they told her didn’t make any sense. Either the weapons of her Acuity interceptor were bleeding static charge into the sensor systems again – a problem the mechanics back on the Milky May had assured her they had fixed – or there was something out there. 

Frowning at the displays in front of her, however, did nothing to dispel the seemingly contradictory impression they conveyed. After verifying that the issue was not transient, she switched on her radio. “Buck Lead, I’m getting some odd sensor data here. What about you?” 

“Could you be more specific, Three?” 

It was just like Igor, Karleen knew, to reply in a way which told her nothing, but demanded additional information from her. That his response should have been expected did not make it any less aggravating. 

“I’m reading weak infrared and S-band emissions.” Karleen struggled to keep the annoyance out of her voice – after all, the Buccaneers were theoretically in a combat area. “The instruments can’t pin a source; they say it’s coming from everywhere.” 

There was no reply for a few seconds, and Karleen used the time to run another sensor diagnostic. Since she was keeping station only about two hundred meters behind Igor’s Princeps gunship, anything she was seeing on her sensors should show up on his as well. 

“Buck Three, I’m seeing something weird too.” Farrux, pilot of the squadron’s other Acuity, filled the silence. “My grav flux reading just went flat, and I’m picking up S-band in all directions too.” 

A zeroed grav-flux reading was as strange as omnidirectional electromagnetic radiation – that would be normal in deep space, but the squadron’s patrol path through the uninhabited Moehler system could not reasonably be described as passing through deep space. 

Karleen’s hope that the anomaly was a mechanical fault in their nearly-identical strike rigs lasted only until Igor came back on the line. “Three, Five, I’m also experiencing some strange sensor behavior. Two, what about you?” 

Regina’s reply from the cockpit of Buck Two was immediate. “Nothing out of the ordinary, Lead.” 

“I’m still reading normal.” Gundahar on Buck Four chimed in. 

Given that Two, a relatively vulnerable strike bomber carrying ship-killer munitions, sat at the center of the formation, and Five was currently the rearguard, the fault couldn’t be based on location. Karleen, annoyed, whacked the display showing the successful completion of the system diagnostic. She had no idea what was going on, but the aging, temperamental computers of their strike rigs was as likely a culprit as any she could imagine. 

“Think it might be some new trick of Nate’s?” Farrux asked. 

“More likely some unmapped local particle cloud. Not what we’re here for.” Regina was usually dismissive of Karleen and any pilot more junior than herself – that is, anyone but herself and Igor, as they were the only two founding members of Blondie’s Buccaneers who hadn’t been killed yet. 

“I don’t think so.” Igor, at least, seemed to be taking the problem seriously. “I’m going to – woah!”  

The computer-illuminated bulk of Igor’s big gunship pulled a hard maneuver, changing course unexpectedly. Karleen didn’t have time to disengage the formation autopilot before she felt the sinister weight of dampened acceleration herself – by the time she regained manual control, her rig was facing back the way it had come. 

“Lead, you all right?” Karleen checked her heads-up display. Igor’s Princeps reported no damage or faults. 

“Damned thing came out of nowhere. Anyone else see it?” 

“I have nothing on sensors.” Karleen double-checked. “We’re still alone out here.” 

“Not on sensors, Three. Visual contact.” 

This assertion seemed more insane than the zeroed grav flux readings on Five’s board – how could something get so close that it could be seen with the naked eye without showing up on the sensor plot long before? Karleen pulled her control column to wheel her agile craft around, trying to pinpoint the spot Igor had been when he’d been spooked in the featureless interplanetary void. Unlike Regina, Karleen assumed that the squadron leader had in fact seen something out his forward canopy. 

“I’ve got nothing.” Gundahar wouldn’t have said anything unless he’d already swept the powerful sensors of Buck Four across the area. Assuming the competence of the squadron’s reconnaissance expert, Karleen ignored her instruments, instead scanning the darkness through her own transparent canopy. 

At first, she saw nothing along Igor’s previous line of travel. Proceeding forward slowly, Karleen tumbled her interceptor slightly, to allow her eyes to scan a greater wedge of space. 

At first, the oppressive darkness kept its secrets, but slowly, the palely luminescent mass which had appeared so suddenly to Igor came into view. Proceeding at patrol speed, it had probably winked into view before him in an instant, but Karleen’s slower pace allowed her to see the veil-like streamers which sheltered the object peeling away as she drew closer. Though superficially resembling nothing but a cancerous mass, Karleen thought she saw an odd symmetry to the object. Each moment, as it turned slowly before her, she changed her mind between thinking it the most hideous thing she had ever seen, and the most elegant. 

“Lead, I’ve got visual on your anomaly.” Karleen hit the switch to activate her gun-camera, then began streaming the footage to the rest of the squadron. “It’s big, I’ll tell you that. No damned clue what it is, though.” 

“That makes all of us, Three. Back on out of there, those tendrils are folding fabric. If you get too close to one-” 

Karleen still couldn’t pick the object up on most of her sensors, but she realized with alarm that Igor was right. She was too close to the slowly rotating object – if one of its streaming arms drifted too close to her ship, the veil of spatial distortion which followed might tear her rig to pieces. Cautiously, she engaged reverse thrust and backed away, and watched as the object vanished once more. 

“There’s something you don’t see every shift.” Gundahar broke in. “Still not much on sensors. Want me to go in-” 

“Negative, Four.” Igor’s voice had the hard edge he used whenever there was no room for discussion of his orders. “We’re going on with the patrol. Whatever this thing is, someone can come find it later.”