2950-10-26 – Tales from the Service: A View from Headquarters, Part 8 

It was a surprise to me when Admiral Abarca reached out with the news that he would be departing his command on the other side of the Gap for a high level command conference here at Maribel, and a still greater surprise that he was looking forward to meeting this embed team directly. We arranged a time and place with his staff and had a long conversation, not all of which was on the record. 

It was only afterwards that we were informed by Naval Intelligence that our recordings would be under seal for security reasons. Evidently, it was deemed important not to admit to a concentration of the Navy’s top admirals until all participants had been returned to their usual duty stations for some time. 

Even now, as press reports about the conference here in Maribel have been unsealed, the agenda of the conference still has not been released. Scuttlebutt suggests that it was mainly joint logistical planning between the Admiralty and the two fleet organizations primarily involved in this theater of war. 

This interview was conducted in-person aboard Shofeldt Station in the Maribel system during the month of August, though the precise date has been redacted by Naval Intelligence. 

D.L.C. - Duncan Chaudhri is a junior editor and wartime head field reporter for Cosmic Background.    

N.T.B. - Nojus Brand is a long-time explorer, datasphere personality, and wartime field reporter for Cosmic Background.   

K.T.K. - Captain Kenneth Kempf is the Naval Intelligence attaché to Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Shun Abarca. 

S.R.A. - Admiral Shun R. Abarca is the commander of Seventh Fleet. 


[D.L.C.] - It’s an honor to finally meet you in person, Admiral. 

[S.R.A.] - It is also good to finally sit down with you properly, Mr. Chaudhri. And you, Mr. Brand. 

[N.T.B.] - A very belated congratulations on your promotion. When we were last in touch, you were still the interim commander of Seventh Fleet. 

[S.R.A.] - Ah, that’s right. Some days I still wonder about the wisdom of that, but one does not reject the posting assigned by the Admiralty lightly. 

[D.L.C.] - Aren’t you the more senior of the two fleet admirals fighting this war? 

[S.R.A.] - Admiral Venturi may have less tenure than myself, but I bow to her greater experience in many things. Indeed, if there were two of her, we would likely see her in command on both sides of the Gap. 

[K.T.K.] - Despite Admiral Abarca’s humility, the admiralty has high confidence in both its Fifth and Seventh Fleet commanders. 

[N.T.B.] - There has been very little news from your front except reports of skirmishes around Sagittarius Gate. Seems like things over there have gotten pretty quiet. 

[S.R.A.] - Quiet? Mr. Brand, I could only hope for quiet. We average one cruiser action in the Sagittarius Gate outskirts or in nearby systems every six days. Most of them are draws, but over there, attrition is harder on us than on the enemy. 

[D.L.C.] - Nearly everything you need has to be shipped across the Gap. 

[S.R.A.] - Exactly. The precise location of the Incarnation’s home worlds is still not known, but even if they are as far from Sagittarius Gate as Centauri is from Maribel, our supply lines are much longer, and rely on the critical Gap-crossing leg. Not all of our fleet supply haulers are rated to make that run, even assuming the enemy doesn’t make trouble. 

[N.T.B.] - I hear they make trouble. 

[K.T.K.] - I would be curious from where you hear this, Mr. Brand. We try to keep the specifics quiet. 

[N.T.B.] - Just a few old connections. A good correspondent never reveals his confidential sources. 

[K.T.K.] - I see that you have taken to journalism quite quickly. Perhaps later, off the record, we can discuss this in greater detail. 

[S.R.A.] - Suffice to say that yes, increasingly the Incarnation has been trying to make trouble on our supply lines. So far, they aren’t making the situation critical. The fleet base we’ve built at Sagittarius Gate can increasingly supply basic needs from local raw materials and can withstand a lengthy siege. 

[D.L.C.] - Sounds like you’ve taken steps to prevent a repeat of the Lost Squadrons. 

[S.R.A.] - I would be a fool to do otherwise. The spacers of those ships were pushed to the last extremity to survive, and doubtless the Incarnation learned from hunting them as well. 

[N.T.B.] - Speaking of the Squadrons, the survivors brought back many wild stories. Have you been able to check up on any of them? 

[K.T.K.] - We will need to be careful in answering this question. 

[S.R.A.] - Thank you for the reminder, Captain. In short, yes, we have. For example, the report that far-flung Incarnation colonies are primarily agricultural, we have verified. A population of only a few ten thousands on one world seems to be farming the better part of a continent with only three or four distinct crops. There was almost no orbital infrastructure, and no mining operations either on the surface or in the local system. The meaning of this has yet to be determined.  

[D.L.C.] - Perhaps the plants of that world were prized on their home worlds? 

[S.R.A.] - The crops seemed not to be native species, and the crop density seemed incredibly low in most of the fields. Stranger still, we saw evidence that the colony was heavily militarized, with the population living in fortified compounds. 

[N.T.B.] - It’s a prison world. Like Meraud, except full of their own. 

[K.T.K.] - Our analysts suggested that possibility, yes. There are others as well. Unfortunately, our scouting squadron didn’t have time to land troops and investigate. 

[D.L.C.] - If they have need of prison worlds, perhaps the war is going worse for them than we thought. 

[K.T.K.] - The planet seems to have been populated for at least twenty years, but there may be others that are newer. Since they maintain social cohesion using brain-scanning implants and always-on networks, they must have methods to isolate potential dissidents before they can do any harm. 

[S.R.A.] - Stories of the existence of at least one other power – one not particularly friendly to the Incarnation – operating in the near region of the Sagittarius – also seem to be correct. We have seen no signs of open conflict between the so-called Grand Journey and the Incarnation, but both seem quite wary of the other. 

[N.T.B.] - The first time we heard about this “Grand Journey” was in an account of a Reacher encounter. Obviously there have been quite a few stories since, but the Reachers certainly seemed to know who they were. They aren’t human, are they? 

[S.R.A.] - The Grand Journey is not a human empire, but exactly what sort of creatures they are, we still don’t know. Apparently they got off to a bad start with the Incarnation, and they’re still not convinced we’re different. They stay away from Sagittarius Gate and mostly avoid our ships, which also seems to be their policy for handling the Incarnation. 

[N.T.B.] - Damned Nate is giving humans a bad reputation. I suppose it’s hard to blame them. 

[K.T.K.] - Unfortunately so. 

[D.L.C.] - Perhaps they know something about our enemies’ origins. Obviously humans can’t have been in the Sagittarius Arm for longer than a few hundred years, and more likely half that. How did The Incarnation spring up in so little time? 

[S.R.A.] - I don’t think anyone can answer that. The prisoners we’ve taken know little of their history. To learn that, we’d need a cooperative captive of Captain’s rank or higher, or perhaps one of their madcap “Inquisitors.” 

[N.T.B.] - Or we’d need to capture a planet with its data archives intact. 

[S.R.A.] - As I said last time we spoke, I doubt we’ll try anything like that soon. 

[D.L.C.] - We can only hope that Maribel is still holding out when Seventh Fleet is finally prepared to go on the offensive. 

[S.R.A.] - I have no special information about the defenses here, but my instincts suggest that Maribel will hold. It would be easier for the enemy to take Sagittarius Gate, and in any case if they continue to split their forces to threaten both, they will probably capture neither. 

[D.L.C.] - I hope you’re right, Admiral. There’s a lot of people who are predicting otherwise. 

[K.T.K.] - We have only about ten minutes remaining before our next conference gentlemen. If there are no objections, let’s go off the record. 

[D.L.C.] - Of course, Captain. Thank you both for coming to talk with us. 

[S.R.A.] - Thank you for seeing us on such short notice. 

2950-10-11 – Tales from the Service: A Devourer of Scars 

As Ruby Nichols cut away another section of tainted paneling and tossed it toward the collection point at the middle of the space, she kept her suit cameras swiveling. Every time her or Chief Logan’s lights swept across one of the twisting traceries that loose phased matter particles had taken out of the ship, she half-imagined the glittering patina on the metal was a mass of tiny eyes.  

Ever since she’d spotted the yellowish, skittering thing, she’d been on edge, and couldn’t quite explain why. Less than fifteen centimeters long, it almost certainly couldn’t chew through her heavy hazard suit. It had been unpleasant to look at, but it didn’t even place in the top five in terms of ugliness among shipboard pest species. 

It was, Ruby eventually decided, the simple mystery of the critter that had her on edge. She didn’t know what it was, and the lack of response to Chief Logan’s queries suggested nobody else did either. Unknowns, especially unknown organisms picked up from who-knows-where, simply could not be fit into a comfortable, safe model of her environment. With such a mystery being apparently contentedly skittering about in the diffuse argon atmosphere pumped into the damaged section, her overworked, under-rested brain wanted to assume that everything was up for grabs, and anything was possible. 

Whether her mind was right or wrong to jump to panicky conclusions, though, Ruby had a job to do, and the better part of a shift left to do it. Chief Logan, a far better shot than she was, had taken up her station closer to where the bug was hiding, no doubt training cameras in that direction. Ruby almost wished she hadn’t traded places with him; being closer to the unknown, and thus being more likely to notice its movements, promised to make it seem less unknown, and thus more manageable. 

“Still no movement.” Logan, as if sensing Ruby’s unease, spoke on their shared comms channel. “It probably went off somewhere quieter.” 

“Maybe it’ll come out again to bother Yuan next shift.” Ruby twisted another piece of metal free, and growled in frustration as the brittle material shattered, scattering a fountain of tiny flakes that settled slowly in the weak atmosphere. Tossing the largest pieces aside, she extended her suit’s particle collector and scooped up the glittering pieces. 

Movement in one of her camera displays caught Ruby’s attention as she collected the debris. The yellowish critter – or perhaps another one of identical appearance – was slinking across the shattered remains of a compartment’s deck plating to her left, its many-faced eyes glinting. 

“Ugh, it got past you.” Ruby retracted her collector and reached for the coil-pistol clipped to her hip. The pistol’s plasma charge would not be as effective in the thin atmosphere as it would in human-friendly conditions, but it would still cook any bug. The creature, as if sensing that it had been spotted, froze in place as if hoping to be forgotten, not realizing how starkly its odd coloration stood out against the textured grey of shipboard decking. 

“Nothing for it but to fry the little bastard.” Logan, not wanting to make any sudden moves and thus spoil Ruby’s shot, stood perfectly still. “We’ve got too much work to do to keep an eye on it.” 

“Yeah.” Ruby slowly raised her gun, watching its reticle move across her heads-up display. “Gives me the creeps anyway.” 

As the reticle drifted across the critter’s body, an idea occurred to Ruby. Each time it had appeared, she had been doing the same thing; when they’d stopped chipping away at the irradiated metal for long enough to study it, the bug had scuttled away. Perhaps something they were doing was attracting it? If so, she knew there could be only one cause. 

“Chief, I think this thing likes phase-contamination. It’s showing up when we’re chipping away.” 

“That stuff kills everything alive.” Logan’s disdain for the idea was obvious. 

“Then why is it not dead? What’s it even breathing or eating down here anyway?” Ruby kept her gun on the bug, but eased her finger away from the trigger. “Before I blast it, I’m going to try something.” 

Logan sighed. “Make it quick, Nichols.” 

Still moving slowly, Ruby re-extended her suit’s particulate sweeper and opened the collection tray. From it, she eased out a small shard of glittering phased-particle-contaminated metal, holding it up next to her gun. She imagined she saw those three faceted eyes following the movement. 

Gingerly, Ruby dropped the fragment to land between her boots, then took two steps backward. For good measure, she turned her suit lights until they only indirectly lit that spot, hoping to leave the impression her attention was elsewhere.  

After a few moments of uncanny stillness, the yellowish creature crept forward once more, now headed for the spot Ruby had just vacated. As she watched, gun still leveled, the many-legged thing crept up to the discarded shard of compromised metal. It explored the fragment with its forelimbs, then, as Ruby watched in amazement, its head seemed to fold back over itself and a beak-like arrangement of stubby mouthparts protruded. 

“Well I’ll be damned.” Logan chuckled as the creature began to scrape the many-colored crystalline patina off the metal shard. “I’m calling this in. Ugly or not, that thing’s gotta be useful.” 

This week we continue the account of Ruby Nichols, a hazardous environment tech working on one of the Navy space docks here in the Maribel system. 

Apparently the creature they discovered (and a few others also discovered aboard Marseille) were hurried off to a xenobiology research facility somewhere in the Core Worlds. No doubt the scientists there are tending a happy little colony of these rather unpleasant looking creatures, trying to figure out how they extract biological energy from materials contaminated by phased-matter radiation. 

It might be years before we hear about them again, but as Miss Nichols’s boss suggested, these things could have uses – for example, they might be coaxed into doing Miss Nichols’s own job, at less risk to human life and health than sending people in to do the same. 

2950-10-11 – Tales from the Service: Pests among Scars 

This week we continue the account of Ruby Nichols, a hazardous environment tech working on one of the Navy space docks here in the Maribel system. 

As I mentioned in last week’s posting, I have verified what I can about this account, which did come with a few limited images. A particularly good shot of the critter she describes here can be found on our datasphere hub. Though there are several creatures in the catalog which resemble it closely, none of them are known starship pests, and all of them breathe either air or water. Apparently, Ruby’s find needed neither. 

As Ruby Nichols played her lights and sensors over the ruins of a maintenance crawlspace, the most contaminated bits of metal were glaringly obvious to both her eyes and sensors. The coruscating oil-slick sheen of phased-particle contaminated metal seemed to be everywhere, as if the escaping stream of reactor-fuel had forked a dozen ways just prior to slicing through the space, with each path meandering off in a different direction as it dissipated. 

Ruby had long since given up trying to understand the reasons why phased particles chose the paths they did; in three weeks of carving out damaged metal from the belly of Marseille, her team had long since stopped trying to understand the ways of the strange matter which fueled starship reactors. Normally, such a job was fairly straightforward, with one or perhaps two nearly straight escape paths chosen by the particles as they escaped the magnetic containment. Only Marseille in any of their experience had suffered a much more complicated entanglement with its unmanaged phased matter. 

As she got to work carving an oval section out of the crawl-space's bulkhead, Ruby heard Chief Logan swear on the open comms line. Rather than turn her head, she swiveled a suit camera to fix on him. The Chief had carved a section out of a bracing girder, and was struggling to pry the excised area free. 

“It should just shatter if you hit it.” Ruby returned her attention to her own work. Phased-matter corruption tended to render metal as brittle as glass, a fact which often made their job immeasurably easier. 

“Oh, I know.” Logan grunted. “I just hate chasing after the damned pieces.” 

The sound of the section slipping free didn’t carry well in the thin argon atmosphere pumped into the work area, but Ruby saw the Chief stagger back under its weight, even with the assistance of the hazardous-environment suit’s servo-powered joints. Carefully, he lowered it down to the deck at his feet. No doubt his rad-meter was clicking alarmingly as he stepped down a level to haul the component to the drone cart at the middle of the work area. 

Ruby finished cutting, then extended her suit’s pneumatic hammer and delivered a sharp strike to the middle of the cut-out piece. The panel shattered, and a dozen angular shards fell at her feet, some still attached to each other by stringy remnants of less-contaminated metal. 

As she collected the shards into a bag and listened to the steady tone of her rad-meter, Ruby thought she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Again, rather than stop her work, she spun one of her suit cameras in that direction, expecting to find that a reflective surface had brought her an indirect look at the Chief’s movement. There was nothing reflective in that direction, however; the camera inset pointed down the length of the splayed-open crawlspace tunnel as far as the pressure-dam at the end of the contaminated area, twenty meters distant. 

Frowning, Ruby kept the inset in view as she collected the last few pieces of compromised paneling and cinched her carry-bag shut. Behind the panel, a pair of spring-frames used to give the interior of the ship some degree of flexibility under strong gee-forces also appeared compromised. One of them was already cracked. Once again, she set to cutting the damaged pieces free. 

This time, when something moved in the crawlspace, Ruby was watching. Something yellowish and shiny darted along the wall, vanishing into the shadows. 

“Well I’ll be damned. Chief, Yuan might not be a total idiot after all.” Ruby switched off her cutting torch and turned two suit lights down the crawlspace, but saw nothing more. “Movement at about ten meters.” 


“Not unless they decided to learn to breathe pure argon at one percent standard atmo.” Ruby had seen plenty of sparticks, and knew that in addition to being air-breathing organisms, that they were usually a dull grey or black in color. “Something else. Fifteen centimeters long at the most.” 

“Get good vids. We can have someone upstairs tell us what it is.” Chief Logan picked his way across the work area to Ruby’s side, gun already drawn.  

Ruby turned her lights off, but kept her cameras trained on the place she’d spotted the offending critter. The moment she saw movement in the gloom, she switched them back on. This time, she got a good look at it – a many-segmented body that looked like an unholy cross between a beetle and a starfish sat pinned in the center of her for several seconds, its three faceted eyes glittering. After a moment of dazed motionlessness, the critter scurried up the wall to vanish into a hole. 

“That’s no spartick.” Ruby sent a still shot to Logan, in case he’d missed it himself.  

“Nothing I’ve seen before.” Logan agreed. “Give it a wide berth for now. I’ll send the image upstairs and ask if anyone knows what it is.” 

Shuddering in her suit, Ruby stepped around Logan and headed up to the area he’d been working. “No argument there, Chief. Ugly little thing, whatever it is.” 

2950-10-04 – Tales from the Service: Excising the Scars 

Chief Logan shook Ruby Nichols awake, startling her into dropping her slate. As she dove to pick up the wayward device, she hurriedly glanced around the spartan wardroom assigned to her work team as a break room aboard the battleship Marseille to see if anyone else was around. The ship, its innards splayed out within the sheltering arc of the orbital dock, had been so badly battered at Håkøya that only the sheer stubbornness of its nearly eighty-year-old systems had brought it home in one piece.  

Perhaps a yard team at Vorkuta or among the sprawling service stations above Tranquility, the wounded battleship might have been back in service in a month. In Maribel, however, the biggest yard job ever attempted outside the Core Worlds was taking somewhat longer. 

“Break’s over, Nichols.” Logan hooked a thumb toward the hatchway on one side of the compartment which led to the officer’s cabin being used as a suit-up room, and to the collapsible airlock barrier beyond. “Let’s get back in there.” 

“Aye, Chief.” Securing her slate, Ruby stood, glad that only Logan had caught her dozing off. Their team of six had been working long hours for nearly a month, most of those hours in the confines of bulky hazardous-environment vacsuits, but showing the strain to the rest of the team, especially Vipond and Yuan, would result in a week of endless ridicule. 

After a quick cup of coffee from a recently-replaced food-fab machine in the wardroom, Ruby exchanged nods with Yuan and Maddison, returning bleary-eyed from another shift, then followed Chief Logan into the suit room, where she grabbed a fresh rad-meter from the crate before starting to assemble her suit. The meter beeped and showed a friendly green light before synching with her helmet computer and providing a more detailed data breakdown. 

“Yuan said he thinks he saw sparticks down near the conduit.” Chief Logan, suited except for his helmet, hooked a holstered coilgun into his suit’s webbing and held another out to Ruby. 

“Yuan is-” Ruby stopped short of calling the other technician an idiot in front of their mutual superior. “He’s wrong. Sparticks are air breathers.” The aggravating xenoinsects had hitched rides on ships fleeing the Sagittarius Frontier in the early phases of the war, and now seemed to have made colonies on most ships in Fifth Fleet as well. Small sparticks were a nuisance, but they grew nearly as quickly as they bred, and big ones, though skittish, could chew holes in a vacsuit.  

“Still.” Logan shook the gun. “We go in armed or not at all.” 

Sighing, Ruby took the gun and hooked it to the back of her toolbelt.  

Chief Logan pressed his helmet into its seals, then waited as the suit built up internal pressure to check for leaks. Ruby hurriedly finished assembling her suit, then did the same.  

Logan went into the translucent clamshell dome of the temporary airlock first. As it suddenly went slack in depressurization on the other side, he stepped out. Ruby waited for the indicator panel to go green before following, and soon they were clumping down a depressurized corridor.  

As they approached the heart of the damage, the sweeping, branching scars left by high-density phased-matter when it passed began to encircle them on all sides. Where other high-energy particles might scorch or discolor metal, phased matter left the material shimmering in all colors under the harsh glare of the work lights, as if splashed with an oil slick. Only one particle in ten million had collided directly with an atom of metal, but the energy dumped there was still sufficient to crystallize durable alloy into brittle, radioactive slag. 

When the pair reached the ovoid cavity carved around the damaged section of conduit, Ruby played her suit lights over the place where all these trails converged, on a blackened tube running through the heart of the olf battleship big enough to park an interceptor in. When the ship had been hit by Incarnation plasma cannons in the skies over Håkøya, one of the shots had damaged a magnetic phased-matter containment conduit between the main condenser near the bow and the main cluster of reactor cells amidships. Sprays of phased-matter particles had gushed out of the magnetic field, scything through flesh and metal and leaving both irrevocably contaminated. Officer’s Country, through which her team had been burrowing for several days, had been all but deserted during the battle, but huge swaths of the framing of the pressure-decks had to be cut away along the paths of the escaping phased matter. A follow-on team would cut away more and replace the damaged area once most of the damaged metal had been safely removed. 

“Where did Yuan say he saw bugs?” Ruby turned her lights on the jagged fringes of the cut-open space, where their work had carved at odd angles through the bulkheads of dozens of compartments and machinery interstices beyond the pressure decks. If Marseille did have an infestation of sparticks, the only ones that would be in their work area would be dead or dormant due to the cold and vaccuum that made their work easier. 

“He was working over there.” Chief Logan gestured with his hand and suit light toward a maintenance access tunnel that lay open along nearly ten meters of its length. “Maddison was with him, but she didn’t see it.” 

Ruby checked her rad-meter, then pulled a material probe and arc cutter from her toolbelt. Most likely, Yuan had claimed his sighting only for a reason to stop working and talk for a few minutes. The man was intelligent, but his work ethic and attitude were somewhat less than inspiring. “I’ll start there, then.” 

This account, though posted now, is at least two months old, and probably more like four; Marseille has left the service dock and has returned to limited duty with Fifth Fleet with some work on her remaining issues still ongoing. The limitations remaining to the ship’s capabilities are, however, not to be revealed. Naval Intelligence was most clear in this matter. 

I have verified the identity of our submitter in this case and exchanged messages with her to ask questions and clarify this account. I even tried to look into the science of phased matter emissions and their interaction with null-phase matter (that is, with ordinary matter) to try to check her brief explanation, and found nothing but a tangle of strident scientific bickering on the mechanism of interaction. The effect on structural alloys which she describes is well known to many spacers, of course.