2948-12-01 – Tales from the Service: Horus in Durance 

Some time ago, we featured a pair of accounts sent in by one Duncan Vieth, which related to his work along with Yejide Blum to take down a known Incarnation agent known as Horus. This agent of a hostile foreign power exploited Ladeonist ideology prevalent in the youths of Maribel’s upper class to commit sabotage and cause significant loss of life earlier this year, and then he vanished. 

The local Ladeonist youths have engaged in copycat attacks of various kinds since, but the lack of Horus’s expertise generally limited the effects of these to a manageable level. What happened to Horus was initially not known – after the events detailed in Tales from the Service: On Horus’s Heels the agent vanished for months, evidently going to ground despite multiple roundups of known Ladeonist-sympathizers and a general crackdown on such illicit activity on Maribel. 

In the last month (and the account in front of me does not say more precisely when), Horus reappeared. Vieth and Blum, since reassigned to dealing with the planet’s extensive black market in Navy-issue materiel, led an operation to capture a starship smuggling stolen government goods off-planet. Nothing suggested then or now that this smuggling outfit had Ladeonist or Incarnation ties, and yet a person claiming to be Horus and loaded with the Incarnation implant tech to match the claim was captured aboard. 

Naval Intelligence believes that Horus, who hired onto this vessel as a lay spacer technician, was trying to move his operations to another world. Though the smuggler vessel’s itinerary claims it was going to Håkøya, his intended destination remains unclear. 

Yejide Blum, Vieth’s partner who narrowly escaped death in the pair’s last encounter with Horus, describes the eerie (and to those in this audience who remember other Ladeonist agents such as the one in Tales from the Service: A Stowaway Saboteur, familiar) experience of interrogating this true believer in the Incarnation’s paradoxical cause. 


The man in the cell grinned. “Horus.” For a deadly enemy agent, he wasn’t much to look at – short and stocky, bald, with dark eyes and a bulbous nose, he looked more like a shopkeeper than a saboteur. Though he had the temple implant common to many Incarnation personnel Yejide had seen pictures of, his was almost flush with his skin, easily concealable with a little bit of polymer skin. 

“Legal name.” 

His grin widened. “Adris Ladeon.” 

Yejide Blum glowered through the thick gravitic shear isolating the implanted Incarnation agent. “Horus” had picked up this petulant game from the dilletante revolutionaries of the city, among whom giving the name of their loathsome ideological father instead of their own when arrested had become annoyingly vogue years before. 

In the cases of the maladjusted children of the city’s wealthy, a fingerprint or retinal scan usually revealed their proper identities, assuming they were smart enough not to engage in criminal “revolutionary” behavior with their ident cards in their pockets. Most of them weren’t, naturally, smart enough to take this basic precaution, so they added lying to the authorities to the list of crimes their parents’ expensive lawyers needed to fight for no purpose except to feel smug. 

In Horus’s case, however, there was no way of knowing his real name unless he gave it. His records would be in the Incarnation’s data-systems, if any existed at all. “We’ll stick with Horus, then.” Yejide tapped her data-slate to type that name into the form. It gave a warning, but she didn’t care about the niceties of the precinct software. “Date of birth?” 

“Thirty-three ninety-nine, twelve, thirty-one.” Horus adopted an almost comically innocent expression. “Standard calendar.” 

Yejide didn’t even bother entering a date hundreds of years in the future into the system. “Home habitat?” 

Sabileen Station, Gunderson system.” 

Yejide almost dropped her slate. “Say again?” 

Sabileen Station, Gunderson system. It’s in Galactic West, just a few ly from-” 

“Yes, yes, I know where it is.” 

Horus grinned demoniacally. “I know you do.”  

Yejide did her best to keep composure. The man had probably picked out her home habitat, the place her parents and siblings still lived, to get under her skin, and she refused to let it work. How he’d learned that from inside his cell was a mystery for later. She reminded herself that as long as Horus sat in the cell in front of her, her family was in no danger. “Preferred funerary arrangements?” 

“Whatever costs the most.” 

Yejide tapped in “no preference” and closed the basic form, despite warnings about its incompleteness. “You’re going to get the atomizer, Horus. You know that, don’t you?” 

“Probably.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t seem fair, does it? If I’d done what I did for your corrupt admirals, they would be pinning medals to my chest.” 

“Never.” Yejide shook her head. “You blew up civilian infrastructure. Killed nonmilitary-” 

“Everything is a military target, my soft captor. Every credit in damage and every drop of blood spilled brings the victory of the Incarnate closer. Every picture of carnage pushes you and yours closer to giving in and letting us save you from yourselves.” 

Yejide had, like most Maribelan security officers, taken multiple courses of Ladeonist counter-ideology training, but the rote answers didn’t seem likely to bother him very much, and she very much wanted to bother him. “You think anyone wants help from a half-human chiphead?” 

“Temper, temper, Agent Blum.” The stout man held up his hands, certainly knowing that this would rile her even further. “Perhaps you’d like to say unkind things about my parentage as well?” 

Yejide took three, calming breaths. “No need. The Navy bailiffs coming by day after tomorrow to collect you are better at that sort of thing than I am.” 

“Oh, good, new jailors. I hope they’re interesting.” Horus shrugged. “I’ll have plenty of time to get to know them while my case works its way through.” 

Yejide smiled for the first time. Perhaps Horus was smarter than most of the wannabe revolutionaries he had taken refuge with on Maribel, but he lacked one thing they didn’t - an appreciation for how much cognitive dissonance went into drafting the Ladeonist propaganda intended to remove dissidents’ fear of the law. “This is the Frontier, not the damned Core Worlds. In our courtrooms, with the best lawyer your rich fans could buy, you’d be in the atomizer in ninety days.” 

Horus’s smile didn’t falter, but neither did he have a witty response. Being unfamiliar with the realities of Confederated Worlds justice, especially as it played out on the frontier, he probably didn’t know much beyond the propaganda.  

“Too bad for you, Navy courts work fast. No civilian lawyers, no appeals. You’ll be dead in two weeks.” Yejide shrugged. “No media, either, so no chance to make a splash or rally your idiot followers on the datasphere.” 

“Oh.” For a moment, Horus’s confidence almost faltered, and Yejide thought he might be about to give her something useful to save his hide. It wouldn’t take much – a few names, a few safehouses, identifying information on other agents, whatever he knew – and the Navy would put off his execution to the end of the war, when it would almost certainly be commuted anyway. 

This hesitation lasted only a moment, however, and the smoothly confident mask returned. “Two weeks is a lot of time. The Incarnate would have one of yours dead or broken to its will in an hour and a half.” 

Yejide, having heard plenty of stories about just this, shuddered. There were probably those within Naval Intelligence quietly wishing they could apply Incarnation torture techniques to their prisoners, and she hoped they would never be allowed to give it a try. “That's exactly why we don’t want your so-called help, you idiot.” 

“That lack of will,” Horus shook his head sadly. “Is exactly why you need it.” 

2948-11-24 – Tales from the Service: Operation Layman at Margaux

Admiral Zahariev and the Fifth Fleet have once again engaged the enemy fleet over Margaux in recent days. 

While the results of this Second Battle of Margaux are not as positive as might be expected, as the Incarnation still holds the system, reports indicate high losses inflicted on their force in the battle, in vast excess to the losses inflicted on the Fifth Fleet. Furthermore, while the battle was ongoing, an extensive resupply operation was conducted to provide needed spare parts, munitions, and medical equipment to the garrison on the Ishkawa Line, and nine of the twelve haulers which carried out this resupply escaped the system loaded with combat wounded and civilian evacuees.

The greatest success in this battle was in a diversionary trap which is rumored to be the brainchild of Captain Kirke-Moore, Admiral Zahariev’s close adviser. This diversion succeeded in pulling eight Tyrants away from the main action and destroying two of them, damaging a reported four others sufficiently to put them out of action, all for the loss of three haulers and a few frigates, plus a light cruiser damaged. While losses in the main engagement were closer to even, Confederated losses were still relatively light, as most ships put out of action were able to retreat from the field.

Commander Jorg Geier, skipper of one of the haulers involved in this clever diversion, was allowed by Naval Intelligence to describe his experiences to this media team.

Austen Levitt had never been better escorted in her short career as a Navy logistics hauler, but its skipper Jorg Geier couldn’t help but feel uneasy as he surveyed the system map pulled off the fleet command network, watching the swarm of bright red indicators gathering in high Margaux orbit. The enemy fleet besieging the planet had a numerical advantage over the cruisers and battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet, and he didn’t appreciate being part of the diversion meant to split this force.

Jorg glanced at the corner of his bridge display where the standing orders for his vessel appeared, noting that they still had not changed. Following the cruiser Bandertail as closely as its helmsman dared, with a pair of point-defense frigates holding station off the stern, Levitt was well-protected from enemy long-range missiles and strike-craft raids. The other dozen-odd haulers participating in the operation were similarly well protected. Either the Incarnation commander would divide his force and dedicate cruisers to chasing down the haulers and their formidable screen, or the logistics squadron would reach Margaux and begin unloading supplies unmolested while the rest of the battle unfolded.

Though the admiral’s plan doubtless worked better if the enemy fleet divided to engage both Confederated formations, Jorg hoped it wouldn’t. The battlewagons and heavy cruisers of the main Fifth Fleet formation were tough ships; they could withstand close-range duels with Tyrant cruisers much better than a lumbering hauler, even one escorted by almost twice its tonnage of lighter warships.

Bandertail reports strike craft moving to intercept.” Deering, the officer manning Levitt’s comms station, did not sound as concerned as Jorg felt. “Looks like a probing attack. We’re to stay on course.”

Jorg switched his display to a tactical map which displayed the tiny wireframes of Levitt and its three escorts, as well as the approaching Coronachs. The light, agile interceptors were quite capable of damaging a cruiser’s more vulnerable equipment, and would have no trouble slicing a hauler’s unprotected hull to ribbons.

Fortunately, Levitt had not come to Margaux unprotected. Light railgun batteries on Bandertail and the two frigates opened up on the enemy squadrons, and cones of flashing orange swept like virtual searchlights across intervening space as clouds of high-velocity ferroceramic projectiles sought to entrap or scatter the approaching formations. Jorg had seen a railgun battery firing with his own eyes, once – the glowing streams of superheated death pouring forth from dozens of fast-tracking barrels had seemed impossible to evade at the time, but now, protected by the fire of multiple batteries on three warships, he wasn’t feeling so sure.

The enemy strike-craft group split into numerous smaller groups as the expanding orange cones reached out to meet it, each group dashing in a different direction. A few groups flew into the cones and abruptly vanished – the Coronach pilots could probably only guess where the Navy gunners had directed their guns, and some inevitably guessed wrong – but the rest, likely able to detect the hot projectiles as they passed close by, now knew where the guns were pointed, and began to more confidently weave between the converging streams of railshot.

A few green arrows sallied forth from the wireframe of Bandertail as the cruiser’s squadron of Magpie gunships launched to join the fight. Jorg often envied the Magpie crews’ role in the war; their fate was in their own hands. They didn’t have to crew a plodding, unarmed tin can which relied on others for its safety.

“Enemy cruiser formation is splitting.” This time, Deering seemed nervous. “Eight-cruiser formation headed our way.”

“Steady.” Jorg tried to project a confidence he didn’t feel. Admiral Zahariev’s plan was working; the main formation now had eight fewer Tyrants to deal with. “We’re more than an hour out. They’re not committed yet.” The ten light cruisers and more than two dozen frigates and destroyers of the diversion column would probably not be enough to fend off the enemy detachment, but that too was part of the plan; after all, the diversion wouldn’t be very effective if it looked too tough to crack. “The order will go out when it’s time.”

Closer to hand, orange cones of railshot converged on a trio of Coronachs, and they winked off the board. Roughly half the enemy strike interceptors were still operational, and they seemed to be struggling to approach closer to their targets through the defensive fire. Jorg noticed a few other small-scale strike probes testing the line behind Levitt, receiving roughly the same treatment. Based on the briefing, these relative few were not the bulk of the enemy strike strength; most of the Coronachs had not revealed themselves, as they were probably already in the field but holding back to support the main action. The ability of Incarnation strike pilots to sit in their cramped cockpits for hours or even days at a time without going stir-crazy never failed to amaze Jorg – at least in a Magpie, one could unbuckle and move around, and there was even a narrow crawlspace in the crew compartment where one person at a time could sleep.

The minutes ticked past, and while the Coronach raiders continued to harry the hauler column, none got even close enough for the Magpies to get involved. Jorg told himself to relax; after all, the cruisers were still hours away, and he would be quite safe if things went according to plan. The fact that the last action over Margaux had deviated rather spectacularly from the plan did make it somewhat difficult to convince his nerves of this. Jorg, with little to do from the skipper’s console, got up and fetched coffee for his bridge crew, more in hopes that walking around would soothe his nerves than out of any altruistic intentions.

Deering switched the main display to a status board with a timer ticking down from fifteen minutes shortly after Jorg had regained his seat. “Approaching intercept point of no return.” That would be the point beyond which the Tyrants probably wouldn’t be able to rejoin the main body in time for a battle, even with their engines providing full acceleration. The best they could do to help the main Incarnation force if they continued to pursue the hauler column beyond that point would be to flash through the middle of the battle at high velocity, trading one close-range volley with each ship they passed. A few minutes after that point, Jorg and the rest of the hauler skippers would order the activation of the surprise which they had fitted in deep-space after leaving Maribel.

“Come on, you bastards.” Jorg muttered. “Let’s dance.”

As the timer approached zero, a tense silence filled Levitt’s bridge. At any moment, they knew, the commander of the detachment might sense the trap and rejoin the larger force in time for the main battle. Even as the timer flashed zero and vanished, the tension remained; the performance characteristics of Tyrants used to calculate the point of no return were best-guesses, so plenty of margin for error had to be given.

Thirty seconds after the point of no return, Jorg switched on his comm. “Intercepting force is committed. Prepare the Layman.”

Deep in the belly of the hauler, Jorg imagined the three Navy munitions techs springing into action, scurrying around to prepare the two massive fission-warhead capital torpedoes for launch. Levitt and the other similarly equipped haulers had no systems capable of guiding these weapons; once they were pushed out of a cargo hatch by hydraulic rams, fire control systems aboard the frigate Oscar Glanville in the center of the line would take over to arm and guide them.

“Message from Glanville.” Deering announced. “They’ve sent arming codes. Launch in eight minutes.”

Jorg nodded, adding his own arming code to the code sent by Glanville before sending the result down to the munitions techs. The enemy ships would still be some distance away in eight minutes, but that was fine – the dumped torpedoes, designed to be fired from their motherships by bulky launch systems, would need some time to drift away from the formation before their gravitic drives could be used safely. Now that the course of events was set, he felt less nervous. The torpedoes probably wouldn’t destroy the Tyrants outright, but even forcing two or three out of the fight would turn the odds completely in favor of the escort group.

The timer ticked down toward zero, and the Tyrants on the plot inched closer as the remaining strike raiders peeled off to regroup.

At the designated time, Jorg opened his comms circuit to order the launch, but before he could speak, Levitt shuddered with the force of two massive payloads being shoved out an airlock. Robbed of his last active role in the battle – perhaps the war – Jorg sat back in his chair and waited nervously for the real fireworks to start.

2948-11-17 – Tales from the Service: Boarding a Hellship

While we’ve been covering the adventures of the Marines, FDA, and mercenaries on the ground at Margaux, Admiral Zahariev has been planning his next move to recapture the orbital space above the besieged planet.

The Fifth Fleet has been away from Maribel for several weeks now, its resupply train ferrying supplies out to predetermined rendezvous points in interstellar space. What it has been doing in that time, I cannot say, for the simple reason that this embed team is not with the fleet. Our home vessel, Saint-Lô, remains yard-bound to repair battle-damage suffered during the fleet’s first attempt to relieve Margaux.

Before this war, any spacer would have regarded the idea of six fully-crewed battlewagons going out on operations for nearly a month without a return to port as an insane expenditure of resources better suited to the grand strategy of the Terran-Rattanai War, but this is more evidence that the Admiralty is taking the Incarnation’s push into the Frontier very seriously indeed, rather than worrying about budgets and resource stockpiles.

While news that the Fleet has arrived in Margaux space once more is expected any day now, I cannot provide a date or speculate as to Zahariev’s plan of attack. His force is noticeably smaller than the last time it tangled with Incarnation cruiser swarms over Margaux, but intelligence suggests the enemy fleet is equivalently degraded by the previous battle and by the harassing attacks of the few remaining ground-side anti-orbital batteries on the planet. At least one Tyrant is also believed lost and several others damaged in cutter ambushes at the system’s periphery.

The Navy’s successful use of stealth cutters in harrying attacks on enemy warships and supply haulers has been one of the bright spots for many months. This week, the Navy announced that it had concluded Operation Express, a clever use of steath cutters to capture an Incarnation supply hauler returning from Margaux to one of their forward bases, probably Mereena. While it was expected this vessel was moving critical plundered supplies, it was found to contain instead prisoners taken during the fighting on Margaux - mainly men from the FDA - kept in horrific conditions. As the survivors are still undergoing medical attention and debriefing, no full list of personnel rescued from this hauler has been released.

Sem Ivankov, one of the Marines temporarily placed aboard Mahseer (a vessel which has appeared in this feed before – Tales from the Service: A Tyrant’s Downfall) for the operation sent us a report of what was found aboard. The video taken by the marines’ suit cameras is beyond description, but he did his best to recommend a few words in his written account. If the use of what the Navy is calling "Hellships" for prisoner transport is commonplace in the Incarnation, many tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel from worlds like Margaux and Adimari Valis are at risk of enduring horrors like those Corporal Ivankov saw.

Mahseer shuddered as the assault-docking clamps welded to her hull for the operation clanked onto, then bit into, its massive cargo hauler prey. Two other retrofitted cutters were supposed to be doing the same thing at exactly the same time, but Corporal Sem Ivankov knew better than to expect everything in an operation so complex to work out as planned.

“Docking link established.” Lieutenant Commander Zappa announced over the secure link. “Marines are go.”

Sem and eleven other Marines detached their heavy assault suits from snaking umbilicals and released the hard-lock on their suit joints. One by one, each kicked out far enough to escape Mahseer’s miniscule A-grav axis, then used maneuvering thrusters to drop their magnetic boots onto the hull of their victim.

Boarding operations being a Marine specialty, used regularly even in peace-time to recover hostages from terrorists or rescue unfortunate Confederated citizens from pirate chattel pens, this part at least was completed with no complications – all twelve pairs of boots hit the enemy ship’s hull simultaneously.

“Think they know we’re here, Sarge?” Lukas Okorie, the youngest private, sounded nervous, and Sem hoped his own voice would not betray the churning in his own insides. He had briefly participated in the last phase of street-fighting withdrawal on Mereena, but this was different. Below his feet, inside the hull, was enemy territory.

All at once, the stars all around began whirling crazily, as the ship’s crew belatedly realized the danger. Though the Marines on its hull were in no danger of being thrown off as long as the hull plating itself stayed put, Mahseer’s retrofitted clamps began to visibly flex with the sudden strain. If those clamps broke, Mahseer – the Marines’ ride home if things went badly – might be thrown clear of the hauler.

“I think they know, Okorie.” Sergeant Sommer’s dry mockery of the young man cued several snickers on the squad link. “Let’s go.”

Though the hauler wasn’t laid out anything like the briefing material had suggested, the squad found an airlock quickly. Rather than cycling their massive suits one at a time through a normal personnel airlock, and thus facing whatever lay inside one at a time, they unpacked an assault airlock and securing it to the hull.

Once all the segments of the assault lock’s deployment ring and breaching charge had been set up, the Marines arranged themselves inside the ring.

“Breach.” Sommer called. Though there was no sound, the airlock’s outer hatch disappeared into a cloud of glittering metal splinters which quickly vanished into a torrent of gray fog as atmosphere from within vented into the void and cooled.

Sommer let the air escape for less than two seconds. “Seal.” He triggered the assault airlock ring, which threw up a dome of flexible self-sealing plastic around the Marines and the gaping hole where the original airlock had been.

As soon as the pressure had stabilized, Sem headed for the opening. He had volunteered to take point, even though it was technically the rookie Okorie’s turn. Okorie would be a good Marine someday, but he still had a long way to go.

The corridor lighting on the hauler had failed, or been deliberately cut, but that didn’t stop the Marines, as their suits had both lights and night-vision helmet optics. The walls and deck were filthy by the standards of any spacer, as if the deck had once been given over to free-roaming livestock and had only been cursorily hosed down. Sem was glad his suit remained hermetically sealed, as he imagined the smell of such filth to be horrific.

Just as it had been on the outside, the vessel was not laid out as the briefing had said, but a hauler was a hauler, and Sem had seen plenty of them. Based on where Mahseer had latched on, the airlock they had boarded led to a lower deck amidships, probably the deck that gave the crew access to the cargo bays.

Though the ship shuddered and sporadic contact with the other two squads from the other two cutters indicated action elsewhere onboard, Sem saw nobody. He led his squad forward, looking for an accessway to the upper decks to join the fighting. If the Incarnation crew of the vessel knew his squad was there, they made no attempt to intercept them.

As the squad hustled forward, Private Okorie tapped one of the large hatchways on either side of a long corridor that seemed to run the length of the deck. “Sarge, what do you reckon is in here?”

“Pressurized cargo hold.” Sommer replied, echoing Sem’s own best guess. “Intel says this ship’s return flight is emergency priority, so whatever they looted from Margaux, they must really need it.”

As the sergeant patiently humored the nervous private, Sem’s suit sensors indicated an acoustic anomaly – a faint, rapid tapping had started behind the door Okorie had just knocked. “Hold it. Something’s in there.”

At once, the squad wheeled and organized a shallow semicircle, guns pointed at the door and poor Okorie, who hadn’t moved as fast as everyone else.

Noting that the rookie had become point-man after all, Sem gestured for him to open the door. It was safer to deal with the uncertainty now than to leave it threatening their flanks.

Okorie hugged the wall, then reached one armor-suited arm across and pulled the manual release latch in the middle of the hatch. It shuddered open on worn-out bearings, and twelve sets of harsh suit-lights shone into the massive cargo hold beyond.

Instead of maddened Margaux beasts, Sem and the others saw only two filthy, emaciated figures crouched on a catwalk beyond the door, pitiably shielding their eyes from the Marines’ lights. The floor of the bay, and likely the main loading doors, was about ten meters below the catwalk, and from that direction a cacaphony of animal-like noises could be heard.

“What is this?” Sergeant Sommer’s suit-external speakers amplified his voice until his deep baritone sounded even more like that of a vengeful storm-god than normal.

One of the emaciated men on the catwalk stood shakily and offered a trembling Confederated salute. “Lieutenant Denzil Vicario, FDA.”

Sommer gestured for the two men – obviously unarmed and barely able to stand – to step out into the corridor, and for the rest of the squad to check the hold. Okorie went in first, and Sem made sure he was second.

At first, when Sem panned the beam of a suit-light over the floor of the hold below, he thought it filled with a chunky beige substance, perhaps some manufacturing byproduct extracted from the many chemical factories on Margaux. It was Okorie who realized what he was looking at first – and who promptly vomited into his helmet.

Seeing the other Marine’s distress, Sem looked again. This time, he saw a face peering back up at him with listless, blank eyes. To his horror, he began to see others – face after face, body after body, buried in the material filling the hold.

Upon the realization that the substance in which they were buried were more men, Sem nearly voided his own stomach as well. The hold had been filled with living men as completely as if they were a substance, until they could not stand without standing on one another, could not lie down without being trampled. The cargo hauler had left Margaux orbit six days before – they had, presumably, endured this purest form of human-devised hell for the entire duration.

The utter callousness on display overwhelmed even a hardened Marine, Sem backed out of the hatch, blanked his suit’s sensors, and focused on his breathing until the roaring sea of helpless anger receded. He would kill the chip-heads later – right now, he needed to find a way to help the wretches in the hold below.

2948-11-10 – Tales from the Service: A Return to Friendly Lines 

In this final installment of Vardanian Security mercenary Adana Beckett's account of her adventure in the retreat from Outpost Judicael to the Ishkawa Line, we see the concerning development that has plagued Confederated forces on Margaux since the retreat. This change in the paradigm, now weeks old, has been discussed in news articles for some time now - the increasing domination of the high-altitude airspace of Margaux by modified Coronach interceptors capable of making orbital air interception (OAI) maneuvers. This maneuver, for those not familiar with strike ops, is used by low-orbit vessels to attack high-altitude airborne craft and return to low orbit quickly.

Most Confederated interceptors and some gunships are designed with this tactic in mind, but until a few weeks ago at Margaux, Incarnation forces did not seem to possess strike units capable of OAI, or high-performance operation in atmosphere generally. This is yet another adaptation their forces have made to the conditions in the war on the Coreward Frontier, and while it has a number of limitations, including the lack of performance of Coronachs operating in thick-atmosphere, low-altitude environments and the fact that a squadron of Confederated gunships is usually capable of fighting off diving OAI attacks by Coronachs struggling to maneuver in even a thin atmosphere, it does generally suggest that the garrison's control of the airspace over the battlefield is not going to last very long.

Fortunately, rumors (and I know nothing more than rumors) say the Fifth Fleet is doing something about that. Hopefully the fleet will chase Incarnation forces away from the system before the situation becomes critical.

Shepherd was shouting again, and Adana Beckett preferred to pretend that comms had gone out and she couldn’t hear him. The ferocity and urgency of his complaints had increased significantly since his last outburst, and since the crippled Yeren gunship was in significantly less danger this time, she guessed he had discovered the rather volatile nature of the cargo he was strapped in beside. How he hadn’t realized until that moment was anyone’s guess, but Adana decided to conclude that the poor intellectual reputation of ground-pounder troopers had its avatar in Geoff Shepherd. 

Unfortunately, the irate mercenary ground-trooper, wearing a full battle-suit as he was, could do a lot more to get Adana’s attention than shout. He was thrashing around violently enough to light warning indicators on her console, next to the numerous indicators already glowing there to remind her that the Hyadean strike rig had been so unflyable that its usual pilot hadn’t even wanted to risk the simple flight back from Judicael to the Ishkawa Line. 

Adana was not as good a pilot as the usual occupant of the seat, and she had no illusions about her ability to land the Yeren in one piece. If Shepherd knocked anything loose in his banging about, it might rob her of her semblance of control and send the Yeren into yet another nauseating roll or more dangerous flat spin. “Shepherd, you’re going to break the rig if you keep that up.” 

“Beckett, you packed me in here with the biggest damned gun on Margaux pointed at my face!” 

He wasn’t wrong, but he was characteristically picking an inconvenient time to be correct. “Not a lot I can do to fix that right now. It’s only a few minutes more until we’re over Ishkawa.” 


“I’m picking up re-entry plumes ahead, boss. Strike-launches of some kind.” Hierro, occupying the gunner’s seat behind Adana, interrupted whatever new demand Shepherd was screaming. She let him scream; at least he wasn’t trying to pull the ship apart anymore. 

“Over the new line? They have to be friendly.” 

“Hard negative on that one, Beckett. These guys are breaking atmo at shallow angles and slow speeds.” 

Since most Confederated Worlds ship small enough to land on a planet was built with enough heat-absorbing hull plating to make a standard approach, shallow angles and slow re-entry speeds were the purview of only the lightest-built vessels. The inbound vessels couldn’t be Navy Magpies or Pumas, and they couldn’t be of any of the dozen-odd classes of strike vessels employed by the mercenary auxiliaries operating on the planet. “Coronachs?” 


So far, The Incarnation hadn’t tried to use its light, agile strike interceptors in atmospheric conditions, even as its dedicated ground-attack aircraft struggled for effectiveness against the vast array of interceptors, bombers, and gunships fielded by the defenders. Nobody knew if the tiny vessels could survive atmospheric operations for long – they certainly weren’t designed with this sort of activity in mind. Evidently, someone in whatever passed for R&D on the other side had figured out how to deal with this issue. “Let me guess. They’re vectored on us?” 

“They’re in position for OAI.” 

“This day just keeps getting better.” Adana knew that if the Coronachs completed their Orbit-Airborne Interception maneuver, they would pass her at high speed in a dive, each getting a free shot at the Yeren as it passed. The only thing she could do to counter them was dive herself, taking her ship so low that the Coronachs couldn’t both intercept her and quickly climb back to safer orbital altitudes and speeds. Even if this batch was capable of handling reasonably well in Margaux’s atmosphere, they still couldn’t outrun Marine Pumas in a straight-line race.  

The damaged gunship’s stability issues went from concerning to terrifyingly dangerous at low altitudes, but Adana liked her odds wrestling the Yeren onto a course that didn’t intersect with Causey’s craggy terrain better than she liked her odds avoiding a succession of high-speed plasma-lance strafing runs. She was trying to get the Yeren down on the Confederated side of the line anyway – as long asthe gunship didn’t explode so completely as to destroy the cargo or occupants, she and the others would be heroes to their compatriots in Vardanian Security’s Margaux detachment. 

Shepherd, now knowing how much rode on this perilous flight, continued to carry on, sprinkling promises about how creatively he would harm Adana when they landed into his invective. She doubted these were genuine threats, just as she doubted the Yeren would be landing in the traditional sense. He didn’t know it yet, but Shepherd would probably be getting off the battered rig in one piece, while Hierro, Zdrakov, and herself would have to chance a crash-landing. 

“Shepherd, I’m switching gravseld control to you.” Adana broke into his endless stream of cursing. “When we get near the landing field, I’m going to go in as low and slow as I can. When I say so, cut free the cargo and ride it down on the sled.” 

“What? Are you crazy? Ride it-” 

“The sled is rated for airdrop. I checked.” 

“What about us?” Zdrakov, tense but valiantly trying to keep his composure, broke in. 

“We’re going to take this thing all the way down.” Adana admitted. “No chance for a vertical landing with no stabilizers. I’ll jettison our fuel and glide it in.” 

Perhaps the man recognized the insanity of that statement; the glide ratio of the boxy Yeren compared unfavorably to that of a structural girder. The gravitic drive would continue to operate for a few seconds without reactor fuel as the capacitor banks spun down, but after that, she would be relying solely on the atmospheric-ops control surfaces in its stubby wings to control their descent. If he didrecognize the danger, however, he did not voice any further concerns.  

“That’s damned crazy, Beckett.” 

“Maybe it is, Shepherd. Make sure that damned prototype gets to our depot.” Other members of the Vardanian Security logistics staff would know what to do with it after that, she knew. 

The fire-trails left by the Coronachs falling from orbit burned out and vanished ahead, and Adana knew they would be switching to atmospheric operation mode, whatever that entailed on such frail craft. She pushed the control column forward until the ground filled the view forward, ignoring the distressed screech of air whistling through the jagged holes where the Yeren’s guns had been. Losing altitude in a gravity well was easy, but doing so in a craft that wanted nothing better than to roll and spin out of control was something else entirely.  

“There’s no way in all hells they’ll follow us over the line at low altitude.” Hierro seemed to be convincing himself rather than trying to convince Adana. “That would be suicide. Even if they knew or cared about our-” 

“Nix it, Hierro.” The tendency of the craft to wobble into a flat spin was strengthening as the craft approached the harsh Causey Plana crags, and she didn’t want any distractions.  

Adana slowly brought the Yeren onto a level course again only five hundred feet above the lip of a wide canyon, its bottom a pleasant carpet of local greenery. That greenery, like most of Margaux’s accursed native life, was undoubtedly toxic – Adana didn’t want to think about what might happen if she crashed the Yeren into a stand of something particularly noxious and her thin environment suit tore on impact. 

“They’re staying high.” Relief flooded Hierro’s voice. He was a Yeren gunner by trade, and with only cameras left in the hollow shells of his empty turrets, she could imagine how powerless he felt to fight off a half-dozen attackers, even if they were hobbled by atmospheric operations. “We’re clear.” 

“We’ll overfly Vardanian’s new base in one-eight-zero seconds.” Adana allowed herself to relax a little, until the Yeren began to roll violently. 

“That’s where I get off?” Shepherd still seemed grumpy, but he wasn’t shouting anymore. 

“That’s where you get off.” 

Below, Adana began to see streams of vehicles and personnel clogging the roads snaking along the canyon bottoms in the brief moments she could see straight down into them. These, she realized, were probably the first wave of the forces who had fought holding actions around Judicael, only now arriving in the new defensive line. A few friendly aircraft briefly darted through the sky as well, but most seemed to be hugging the terrain closely, rather than climbing to efficient cruising altitudes. Adana began to wonder if the Coronachs threatening to interdict air traffic from orbit were a new phenomenon – she had been out of contact with most of the Confederated forces for no more than a full local day, but already the whole garrison seemed to be treating the cloud of strike interceptors in orbit as an immediate threat. 

“Yeren VS-542, please state your situation.” Vardanian control, in the person of a sharp-voiced woman, intruded on Adana’s hypotheses. 

“Control, this is Five-Four-Two. We're direct from Judicael with high-value cargo. We’ll drop it off as we overfly.” As she spoke, she sent the controller details of what her cargo was, and how damaged the gunship was – that would be quicker than trying to explain. 

The controller remained silent for several seconds, presumably skimming the data payload and checking Adana’s voice-print against company records. Adana knew she was operating without authorization, but there wasn’t anything anyone on the ground could do about it, or would do about it, once they realized that she was literally saving Vardanian from bankruptcy. “Five-Four-Two, your situation is acknowledged. Drop your payload on or near this location.” 

Adana checked the location against her flight path and wrestled in a minor course change to get closer to overflying the indicated place. “Doing my best.” 

The seconds ticked down, and the comms circuit between Adana and her three compatriots remained silent. Even Shepherd stayed quiet, probably girding himself to ride a gravsled down from a few hundred meters in the air. 

“Thirty seconds, Shepherd.” Adana finally broke the silence. 

Shepherd couldn’t resist grousing once more. “This is insane, but if it works, Beckett, you’re damned lucky.” 

“We all are.” 

“Cutting the cargo free. Sled coming online.” The trooper’s actions once again set off alarms in the cockpit, but this time, they were the ones Adana was hoping to see. 

The timer ticked down slowly. Adana did her best to slow the Yeren down, but speed was her friend when it came to keeping their flight stable and level, so she couldn’t go quite as slow as she was hoping. She could only hope the gravsled would be able to slow its lateral motion as easily as its vertical motion. 

“Five seconds.” Adana opened the munitions bay’s rear doors. The turbulence created by the open doors nearly sent the craft careening out of controls, but she knew she didn’t have to fly that way for long. 

The Yeren lurched upward suddenly as the massive prototype and heavy armor-suited infantry trooper in the bay slid out. Immediately, Adana closed the rear doors. “Control, Five-Four-Two. Payload dropped. Tune in to Geoff Sheperd’s locator beacon to track it.” 

“We are tracking. What about you?” 

“Our best option is to glide it in. Where do you recommend?” With the cargo gone and the doors closed, Adana had expected some measure of improvement in the controls, but she found instead that the previously stable pitch controls were now erratically pushing the nose of the gunship down. As close to the ground as she was already, that was a perilous development. 

“There’s a wide canyon four clicks south of the tower.” The controller, to her credit, didn’t try to talk Adana through a stabilizer-free standard vertical landing – that was company standard procedure, but this procedure was focused on avoiding collateral damage, not saving the crew. “Think you can make it?” 

Adana heard a thump and looked down at the control console, as a trio of new alarm indicators appeared on the console “We’ll just have to see, Control. We’ll just have to see.”