2949-05-18 – Tales from the Service: Sovereign Machinations

As I suspected last week, just as the battered Fifth Fleet returned to Maribel, the Frontier Defense Army aired the controversy taking place in higher military circles.

While we heard rumors of problems between the Fifth Fleet and Commandant of the Confederated Marines, F.D.A. Supreme Headquarters claims that Commandant Matsushita and his entire staff offered their resignation to the Admiralty Triumvirate over the alleged mishandling of the defense of Margaux, stating that it was impossible for the battle there to have become the current disaster without sheer incompetence on the part of either Navy or Marine staff work involved. The Admiralty can only reject this slate of resignations by casting blame, even by inference, on Admiral Zahariev’s headquarters, and can only absolve the Fifth Fleet commander by accepting the resignations and thus casting blame on the Marines.

The F.D.A., not technically subservient to the Navy, seems to be going public with this to earn autonomy from the Navy, and this seems to be an uncharacteristically politically savvy move for the new service. Even if the Constituent Assembly does not allocate ships and logistics assets to the F.D.A., the planetary administration on Maribel has started an initiative aimed at independently funding F.D.A. transport ships and military supplies outside the usual Confederated chains. Other systems on the Frontier and in nearby regions may follow suit.

Fortunately or unfortunately, one of the most profitable mercenary outfits in the Reach seems to have placed itself squarely astride this potential new flood of funds. The reputation of Sovereign Securities is formidable, both for their high fees and for their dedication to completing a job once a contract is struck. That they sense profit in this schism is not surprising, but they're not exactly the most diplomatic bunch - their involvement won't do anything to heal the divide between the services.

[N.T.B. – Even Duncan, ever the optimist, is struggling to spin this as good news for a reason. If the F.D.A., Marines, and Navy can’t coordinate their efforts, each will continue to be defeated individually by the Incarnation. Those bastards on the other side of the line will be watching this crisis with great interest, and probably looking for ways to make it worse.]


Cassandra Wolters paced the length of the waiting-room, too agitated to even kill time by browsing datasphere feeds on her wrist computer. The committee meeting on the other side of the sound-proofed door at one end of the room held the fate of Maribel, and perhaps the fate of the whole Reach, in precarious balance, and she hoped the men and women in there knew that underneath the bombastic, witty exteriors that any good politician on the Coreward Frontier had to have or fake.

The defense of the Frontier, with its lynchpin at Margaux, had unraveled in spectacular fashion, and now Margaux’s remaining defenders were on their own, caught in the jaws of a meat-grinder they had carefully crafted over nearly two years of preparation and combat. Cassandra had made her commander’s case for the F.D.A.’s independence as well as it could be made, but it was up to the committee to decide what to do about it, and more importantly, how much money could be siphoned from Maribel taxpayers to pay for their own defense.

Though the Navy likely didn’t approve of General Yu’s lobbying of the Maribel administration, they had not made any move to interfere, at least, not openly. The commander of the Frontier Defense Army had sent millions of his freshly-trained volunteers into the entrenched Causey Plana on Margaux, and only those few who had been badly injured and evacuated had returned.

Like Yu, Cassandra knew that there would be no more millions of volunteers as long as their deployment was beholden to the same Navy who would strand them on worlds at the mercy of the Incarnation. Already, volunteer streams had slowed to a trickle which would make it impossible to reconstitute the formations lost at Margaux, and the Army was not remotely prepared at any of the likely next steps in the Incarnation’s invasion. The Navy could throw away the Frontier’s bravest defenders, but the Frontier itself, she hoped and prayed, would not – the worlds most threatened had to do something to save the new service from the apparent abandonment which Core Worlds Navy officers had condemned it to.

The sound-proof door opened with a click, and Cassandra whirled to face the diminutive clerk stepping out. “Well?”

“Colonel Wolters, ma’am, the committee has voted in favor of a trial program to address General Yu’s petition.” The man consulted a bulky slate computer. “There are some details we would like to address. Would you come with me?”

Cassandra breathed a sigh of relief. The Maribelans, as General Yu had hoped, were quite aware of the situation they were in. “Of course.”

Following the clerk out of the waiting-room, Cassandra passed a group of three men in the hall. She couldn’t help but notice their uniforms – one was a captain, and the other two were lieutenants, and they all wore the sky-blue and indigo piping of Naval Intelligence. Their conversation stopped and each man glared at her as she passed; none bothered with the inter-service nicety of saluting a colonel of the F.D.A.

Cassandra did her best to ignore them. Naval Intelligence had very little to do with the catastrophe at Margaux, but General Yu’s headquarters earned their spite all the same, since he refused to censor his press releases as completely as their service would prefer. Intelligence, as a result, preferred to work only with field headquarters, such as that of General Bell on doomed Margaux. Why they would be skulking about the Maribel planetary capitol, she could only guess.

Following the clerk into one of the capitol building’s innumerable meeting-rooms, Cassandra stopped short when she saw it was already occupied by two more officers, a man and a woman, seated at the long conference table. Unlike the grey Navy uniforms, however, the pair wore garish blue tunics with gold trim and piping, evidence enough of their mercenary identity.

To Cassandra’s surprise, the pair stood and saluted her smartly before the man stepped forward, extending his hand for a handshake. “Colonel Wolters, I presume?”

Off-balance, Cassandra accepted the handshake. “I am.”

“Captain Carson here has agreed to be General Yu’s liaison with Sovereign Securities.” The clerk gestured to the conference table, indicating that she should sit. “Their company has agreed to be the contractor for our trial program.”

Cassandra stepped back. She knew the name, of course – Sovereign was one of the largest mercenary companies in the Reach, and the only one whose force contained a proper first-class battleship. What was it doing contracting to ferry F.D.A. troops and supplies around the Frontier? Surely they had bigger-ticket contracts to complete. Moreover, their presence mere minutes after the committee approval of such a contract suggested that the petition Cassandra had issued on behalf of General Yu had been anticipated.

The dark-haired woman standing behind Carson flopped back down in her chair, kicking her boots up on the table. “Do sit down, Colonel. Let’s talk about what the F.D.A. needs, and what Sovereign can do about it on Maribel’s dime.”

2949-05-11 – Tales from the Service: The Spaceport Drill

While Navy releases about the third battle at Margaux have still been relatively limited, it seems the Fifth Fleet experienced only limited heavy-unit casualties before withdrawing from Margaux orbit. One Confederated light cruiser is confirmed destroyed (Fearcoast Diver) and two others damaged, but most of the casualties seem to have been the fleet screen - destroyers and fast frigates – which absorbed both the pounding of the new Jericho strike bombers and the close-range gunfire of the cruisers which rushed to exploit the resulting breakup of the Fifth Fleet formation.

While more than two dozen hulls lost can hardly be regarded as a small toll, keep in mind that a Navy destroyer or frigate has a crew of a few dozen or fifty at the most, where a cruiser, even a light cruiser, tends to take at least 150 souls with it when its reactor detonates. The human toll – and the degradation of Fifth Fleet’s offensive striking power – was quite limited, and will be easily made good. None of the seven battleships committed there suffered serious damage, and other than Diver, no major fleet units were lost.

The Navy claims to have destroyed two Tyrant cruisers and disabled two or perhaps three more in the process of the confused battle, with other enemy vessels present suffering minor damage. Unfortunately, the battle, like the last two, left the Incarnation’s fleet in possession of Margaux, and the battle did not permit supporting forces the time to significantly reinforce or to evacuate the Margaux groundside defenders.

A controversy appears to be brewing between the commandant of the Confederated Marines and the admiralty Triumvirate about Admiral Zahariev’s decision not to seek further battle, but I don’t have too many details about that. If it is about Margaux (and I cannot see how it could be otherwise) Frontier Defense Army supreme headquarters on Maribel is very likely to join this war of words on the Marines’ side, and most likely their reports, notoriously more free with information than either of the other services, will be where we in the datacast media hear most of the details.

This week, with Admiral Zahariev’s command staff still out at Margaux with the fleet, we cannot bring you another View from Headquarters interview, and Naval Intelligence has embargoed several interesting accounts sent our way from those who participated in the most recent battle. Instead, I have an account of the Incarnation defector known as Yianna (not her real name). Though not the first Immortal captured and persuaded to cooperate with Naval Intelligence, Yianna is the only one prepared for terroristic warfare, and also the only one who defected willingly. Evidently, with security on Maribel at an all-time high, she has been involved in security exercises with the spaceport city’s constabulary, testing their readiness for similar agents active on the world to sow chaos in the event of an invasion of the system.

According to Farrokh West, the head of spaceport security, it seems these law enforcement agencies are learning the that they have a long way to go. We can only hope they learn quickly.


The cold blade which pressed against Farrokh’s neck might have been as blunt as a gunstock, but he raised his hands off his console slowly anyway. Knowing the intrusion was an exercise didn’t stop his blood from running cold. “Yianna, I assume?”

The woman holding the knife spun Farrokh’s chair around and stood back, flipping the blunt blade over and offering it to him handle-first. Farrokh thought her attractive, in a severe sort of way, though her features were hopelessly marred by the intrusion of a gleaming sickle-curve of metal across her right temple and extending down toward her eye. “Good guess. Out of the chair.”

Farrokh got up and stood aside, taking the knife from the woman as she took his place. He was “dead” for the purposes of the security exercise, so he didn’t try to send any comms messages or alter his status. Even if the intrusion had been real and a sharper blade had slid between his ribs to perforate his heart, the sensors built into his identity badge would take two minutes to detect his death and alert anyone.

Yianna’s fingers flew across the console as she called up every command interface available under Farrokh’s access session and tried each one to see which required authentication she could not bypass. Most resisted, but a distressing number of functions surrendered to her will, and soon alarm indicators lit up the overhead status board as various parts of the spaceport security grid either shut down or started behaving in chaotic fashion.

As the turncoat enemy agent sowed her seeds of discord in the Maribel Spaceport’s usually tidy information systems, Farrokh watched her carefully. Though her hands moved over the console far more rapidly than an unmodified human could manage, and she clearly read the displays far faster than he ever could, she otherwise seemed relatively human. He’d been informed Yianna would participate in some of the week’s exercises, but he hadn’t expected to ever come face-to-face with her.

“Well that’s something in your favor.” Yianna paused her rapid-fire commands to show Farrokh the pumping-station readouts, overlaid with a prominent error message. “I can’t blow the whole complex into orbit from here, can I?”

“I would hope not.” Farrokh rarely touched the pumping systems which moved volatile fuels around the spaceport, so he generally didn’t maintain an active session to those systems. While most larger craft used gravitic engines to reach orbit, smaller and older vessels often used liquid-fuel boosters to supplement their main drive in the scramble for orbital velocity to match the numerous stations and habitats orbiting Maribel. If Yianna had access to those systems, she could very well destroy most of the spaceport, and probably significant parts of the surrounding city.

“I’ll have to do it another way, then.” Yianna stood. “You can trigger your death indicator. Keep the souvenir.”

Farrokh looked down at the curio she’d handed him for the first time. It looked a bit like a miniature of the Marines’ combat knife, with a broad, straight-backed blade and a prominent crossguard. On a sharp example, the clipped point would probably be wickedly harp, but on this one, it came only to a rounded nub. It was a useless trinket, but given how easily it might have been the weapon that killed him under slightly different circumstances, he appreciated its harmlessness more than he might have valued a functional cutting edge.

When Farrokh looked up once more, Yianna was gone. He spun in place, but found no sign of her except the open security door leading into the corridor. She hadn’t made a sound entering, and had been equally silent in departure. He did as instructed, triggering the control on his wrist computer that would simulate an identity-badge death-alert in the security system, not doubting that if there was a way to destroy the entire spaceport – even in simulation only – Yianna would find it.

2949-05-04 –Tales from the Service: The Jericho Spearhead  

As we mentioned here last week, the Fifth Fleet engaged Incarnation forces in a third – and, I suspect, final – time in the Margaux system eleven calendar days before this feed item is dispatched. This Third Battle of Margaux was only slightly more successful than the first two.

With most of the ground-side weaponry overrun or depleted of ammunition in the months since the first battle, Admiral Zahariev elected for a simple frontal assault in a manner almost reminiscent of battles from the Terran-Rattanai War, with a cruiser screen far ahead supported by the long-range fire of the seven battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet to prevent Tyrant cruisers from closing to their preferred engagement range. Several cruiser captains sent us rather polemical complaints about this method, but it seems to have gotten the fleet into Margaux orbit with only light casualties.

Unfortunately, that’s where things seem to have gone wrong. In theory, an over-the-horizon missile and strike-squadron duel seemed to favor Fifth Fleet since Incarnation ships carry few missiles. In actuality, the Fifth Fleet’s strike assets, previously equal to the more numerous but less durable Coronach interceptors, critically failed to adjust to a change in enemy equipment and tactics. While these Coronachs could chew up strike squadrons and harass larger vessels, they could not previously pose a threat to heavy warships (their plasma weaponry, specialized for anti-strike combat, is not effective against thick armor-hulls). In this third battle at Margaux, the enemy deployed several squadrons of a larger attack craft capable of carrying ship-killing munitions, catching Fifth Fleet totally off-guard.

While the official Incarnation name for these bomber-analogues is not yet known, the datasphere has given them one – Jericho. Rumor has it that the name was coined by none other than Admiral Zahariev’s favorite adviser, Boszi Kirke-Moore.

Regardless of the truth of this rumor, the fleet was forced to take evasive action when this first attack by “Jericho” bombers, heavily escorted by Coronachs, penetrated the Confederated fleet screen simutaneous to a probing attack by at least a dozen Tyrant cruisers. Badly disrupted, the Confederated fleet was forced to withdraw only thirty hours after entering Margaux orbit.

This week's entry describes the experience of Sergeant Lada Hoekstra, a Magpie section commander who happened to be on fleet-guard patrol when this new form of attack first appeared. Though Hoekstra's daring attempt to break up the formation of the new Jerichos had little effect, her flight captured the day's best sensor recordings of the new type, and I'm sure her data is being scrutinized by Naval Intelligence.


Sergeant Lada Hoekstra watched the new set of icons appear on her display two and three at a time, and quickly lost count as more enemy strike units rose out of the pinkish cloudbank covering the planet below. “Never fails. Warm up the guns, we’ve got at least four full squadrons of air-breathers heading up.”

Swinging her Magpie gunship into a helical turn which would give her a visual on the enemy formation, she soon spotted the parallel lines of contrails left by the enemy strike units’ air-breathing engines. Before Margaux, Incarnation strike units hadn’t carried aero-engines of any kind, but the new breed of Coronach had demonstrated the enemy’s ability to learn on the job. Disposable airfoils and electric engine pods slowed the little one-man craft down considerably, but made them reasonably stable in atmospheric operation. Once these parts were no longer needed, they could be jettisoned as the Coronach broke free of the atmosphere and engaged its main gravitic drive.

Sure enough, as Lada watched, the contrails began to end abruptly as the rising swarm of vessels reached sufficiently rarefied air to switch to gravitic propulsion.

On the board in front of her, the indicators for the Magpie’s twin gunnery stations lit up as Silver and Kita ran their rapid-tracking multi-barrel railgun turrets through their pre-battle paces, verifying that the weapons were ready to give the incoming enemy a hostile reception. On the other three Magpies in her flight, six more gunners were probably doing the same thing while the other three pilots kept station behind Lada’s own rig.

Switching her console mode, Lada woke up the ungainly module mounted in the munition bay below her cockpit. Soon, the three-dimensional display gained a new set of symbols, indicating that the device was tracking targets and preparing a nasty surprise for the intruders. Orders were to shadow any attackers at a distance and harass with long-range railgun fire, but with such a large attack wave, she knew her flight would be chased off the main body in short order. Even with ten times more Magpies, she wouldn’t want to risk a close-quarters melee.

“Sarge, what are they doing?” Uberti, Lada’s wingman, sent over direct comms channel. “This isn’t like the other raids. Look at their trajectory. They must be entirely mad.”

Though Lada generally considered anyone who lived every day with a chip feeding Incarnation propaganda into their nervous system must be at least a little crazy, she saw what Uberti was referring to. Waves of Coronachs had staged raids on the Fifth Fleet almost every hour since it arrived in Margaux orbit with varying levels of success, but this group was different. It had come up out of the atmosphere far from any concentration of light warships which their weaponry could effectively damage, but it was one of the largest groups yet spotted.

Lada quickly plotted the raid group’s course, and shook her head in amazement. If they continued on their current course, the group would approach the heart of the Fifth Fleet battle line, a zone of space swarming with Magpies and thick with watchful fire support frigates designed to shred strike formations with their banks of railguns and laser phasebeams. “They’re suicidal. This has to be a diversion.”

Uberti made a grunt sound, unwilling to contradict his superior directly. “Burning a hundred strike rigs on a diversion? Even for Nate, that’s a bit crazy. Maybe they’re drones on autopilot?”

Lada glared at the pinpricks in her display. Their pre-flight briefing had mentioned that command expected the Incarnation to move in with its cruisers for a close-range engagement, but no glinting, dagger-point prows had yet appeared over the planet’s horizon. “Maybe they know something we don’t know.”

As the incoming formation approached, Lada brought her Magpie onto a parallel course at a safe distance where any pursuit would give her flight plenty of time to escape. The module under her rig’s nose announced that it was ready, and she flipped the safety cover off the center switch on her munitions board. The other three Magpies didn’t have the new weapon for this patrol mission, so hopefully the first one worked as advertised. “Recorders on. Let’s try R&D’s new toy.”

After counting to five to allow the other Magpie pilots to ready every recording device onboard, Lada flipped the switch. The Magpie lurched as explosive bolts fired, kicking the weapon out of its cradle and jolting the nose of the gunship in the opposite direction. Just as Lada reversed this movement, the weapon fired a short burst of its chemical thruster and sped away. In theory, it had locked onto most of the enemy strike craft, and would shortly make its presence known.

Evidently, the launch hadn’t gone unnoticed. A group of eight Coronachs peeled off the main formation and headed towards Lana and her compatriots. Lana highlighted them on her display. “Weapons free. Give these guys reasons to be somewhere else.”

The Magpie vibrated as four railgun barrels began spewing glowing slugs into the path of the still-distant interceptors. A moment later, the tooth-rattling buzz of the big belly-mount railgun added its voice and its own stream of orange motes. A flight of four Magpies couldn’t keep up sustained suppressive fire for very long, but as long as the ammunition held out, the little launches keep a nearly impenetrable cloud of relativistic-speed projectiles between themselves and any opponent.

Just as the guns fell silent to cool off and load more ferromagnetic slugs, Lada’s console pinged. The weapon she’d fired off had reached its effective range. A moment later, two quick flashes lit up the sky in the direction of the enemy formation, and two blips vanished from the board.

“Well that was a bit underwhelming.” Lada quickly delegated the suppressive fire task to Silver so she could focus on the new weapon’s effect. “Only two?”

As if to answer her, three additional Coronachs went dark, and most of the rest of the formation began to break up and take evasive action. It wouldn’t help them; the weapon Lada had fired was still tracking its targets. A sixth Coronach flashed into cinders in the void as a low-power laser pulsed outward from the tumbling weapon module, cutting through the thin skin of the Incarnation interceptor.

Lada switched one of her console panes to the camera feed from the weapon’s targeting system. Though the little camera, swiveling rapidly to follow targets, rarely stopped on anything long enough for the human eye to focus, Lada liked to think the constant blur of motion from the weapon reflected the confusion it was causing in the enemy group.

This sense of satisfaction lasted only long enough for the first of the arrowhead shapes to flit across the screen, however. Lada paused the video, rolled it back, then played it again slowly. The vessel that rolled into view was clearly no Coronach, but neither was it any form of Confederated strike craft. Unconcerned with this, the weapon’s simple targeting system fired its phasebeam at the squat, angular vehicle, registered a hit, and moved on, assuming that a hit meant a kill even though nothing had vanished from the display. Whatever the shape was, it was too durable to be bothered by the overcharged point defense laser in the experimental weapon.

“See that central group? They didn’t go evasive.” Uberti, Lada realized, hadn’t been tapped into the weapon’s visual feed. “They haven’t lost one either.”

Lada glanced in the direction the enemy was heading – right for the heart of the battle line. She suspected she knew now what the game was. “Kita, get on the comms and tell anyone who will listen that we’re not just dealing with Coronachs out here. These are something new.”

“What do you mean-”

Lada cut away from the comms channel before Kita could finish his inane question; she knew he’d heard her. “We’re going in for that central group.”

“Going in, Sarge? Are you nuts? There are at least a hundred-”

Lada cut Uberti’s comm with a swift jab at her override controls. In theory, a flight of a few dozen of some new strike variant shouldn’t pose a threat to the battle line, but if they didn’t, the Incarnation using them that way didn’t make much sense. Pulling on the controls, she lined up her Magpie on an intercept course with the odd enemy formation. “One pass at high speed to break them up, then we’re out for home. Keep your lenses and guns rolling and don’t stop for anything.”

2949-04-27 – Tales from the Service: A Spacer’s Intervention 

Thank you all for your kind messages of well-wishing during my illness. Fortunately the infection I came down with was never life-threatening, and I have now made (according to the medics) a full recovery.)

We’ve covered the fighting on Margaux and the Fifth Fleet’s attempts to break the orbital blockade around the planet extensively on this feed. In the last few days, the Fifth Fleet battle line made another attempt to scatter the Incarnation fleet in the system.

While reports are still coming in about the results of the battle, I believe it safe to use the word “attempt” here. Throughout the battle we’ve maintained HyperComm contact with the planet via the secondary relay station set up by the Navy in the outer system, and groundside reports filtering back to us at Maribel along this line of communication indicate no flood of reinforcements or orbital bombardment of enemy positions has taken place on the Causey Plana battlefield, even as the Navy has reported a limited success there.

When Admiral Zahariev’s staff releases additional information on the action in Margaux, we’ll cover it here. I suspect that means you can expect additional details next week.

This week by popular request we’ll continue with another section from the account sent in by Steffen McTaggart, skipper of the heavy salvage tug Aram Sangster. They did manage to get their charge back to Maribel on time to get paid, but to do it, Mr. McTaggart needed to take certain drastic measures.


“Sorry, Boss, I don’t know what happened.”

As Steffen stared out the command deck’s forward viewpanel at the two halves of the wrecked Ravi Songbird, gripping the back of his command chair hard enough to pop the seams on the upholstery, he took three slow, deliberate breaths. At least Freddy Tyson had the good sense to sound convincing about his apology.

Despite the torch ops specialist’s protest, they both knew why the wreck had split in two. Freddy Tyson had made a mistake in his calculations and instructions to his torch-jockeys, and in their attempt to shore up the sundered ship’s remaining structural integrity, Sangster’s swarm of plasma-welder-armed launches had touched off a catastrophic failure of the last few components holding the smashed cruiser together.

Sober, Tyson could out-perform any other torch ops expert in the Reach. He could even, Steffen was certain, direct the torch-jocks through the complex dance required to reattach the two tumbling halves of the vessel into one reasonably stable unit. If he did, Sangster could still tow the wreck through several star drive hops back to Maribel within the Navy’s time constraints and get paid.

Unfortunately, a drunk Freddy Tyson invariably made mistakes, and the current two-piece status of Songbird told Steffen that the drunk version of his torch operations officer was the one currently aboard. “Call the torches back, Freddy.”

“Call them back? I can still-”

“No, you can’t.” Steffen felt the last few stitches holding the padded headrest of his chair fail under his white-knuckled grip. “Go off-shift and get some sleep. We’ll try again at the top of third shift.”

Jeanette Vang, face pale, pretended not to notice her boss’s quiet fury, and Steffen appreciated her tact. She knew as well as Steffen that nobody else aboard had a chance of directing the salvage effort in time; if they couldn’t guarantee the Freddy Tyson who woke nine hours later was the sober one, they would be missing the contract deadline and most of the Navy’s credit bounty for the Ravi Songbird’s recovery.

Steffen knew what he had to do, but he knew that the moment he did it, he would earn the enmity of every spacer aboard his overworked ship. “Make sure those launches get back aboard.” He pointed to Vang, and judging by the wide-eyed nod that constituted her only response, he knee she would.

Hobbling into the lift, Steffen directed it to take him to the crew berth deck, his jaw clenched. Freddy Tyson’s hand-made still squatted in one of the unused cabins, producing noxious moonshine at a prodigious rate thanks to the automation features some of the engineers had helped Tyson build into the rig. No doubt dozens of liters of its output sat in stashes in each crew-member’s private effects, but Steffen didn’t care about most of that; it would be consumed gradually and safely.

Approaching the still cabin, Steffen stared down a crew tech emerging from the door with two newly-filled flasks until the young spacer scrambled out of the way and rushed down the corridor.

When he entered, he found the machinery bubbling and muttering contentedly, unaware of its doom. In another state of mind, Steffen might have switched off the power, disassembled the rig, and made off with critical components to use as leverage. In his current state, however, he reached into his pocket for the tiny shredder grenade he always carried, a holdover habit from his Navy days. Though small and designed to minimize damage to shipboard pressure-seals, the device could still turn a room full of people into a neatly homogenized mass of lightly browned hamburger.

It wouldn’t have quite the same effect on distilling equipment, but he knew it would destroy the still utterly until Sangster returned to port, where Tyson could buy, beg, and steal enough equipment to rebuild  it. Scowling, Steffen armed the weapon, rolled it underneath the machinery, and backed out, overriding the door controls to seal the cabin behind him.

By the time the crump of an explosion and a shrieking alarm indicated that Tyson’s still was no more, Steffen was already halfway down the corridor once more, headed for the torch operations officer’s own cabin. Before damage control had responded to the blast, Steffen had already overridden Tyson’s cabin door and marched inside.

The first few stashes of moonshine proved fairly easy to locate – Freddy Tyson had never been terribly creative. Dumping the acrid liquid into the food-processor’s return receptacle one flask, jug, or bottle at a time, Steffen felt the dull thump of a secondary explosion down the hall through his boots. He hoped he hadn’t done Sangster any lasting damage, and that pouring such a vast amount of ethanol into the food-reclamation piping would not lead to a sanitation system failure, but either of those would be an acceptable loss to have his torch operations expert sober.

“What are you-”

Steffen turned away from the return receptacle in time to see Freddy Tyson charging across the small cabin at him, face ashen. Rather than fight over the bottles, Steffen dropped them and turned to wrap the younger, smaller man in an inelegant but inescapable bear hug, slowly pushing him away from the still-intact moonshine bottles. “You’ve lost it, Freddy.”

“Don’t do this, Steffen.” Freddy struggled and squirmed to free himself. “Don’t. I’m begging you.”

Tyson had never been a military man and had never been in a proper fight as long as he’d been aboard Sangster, so it took Steffen, even in his advanced age, only a few moments to push Freddy bodily out of the cabin.

“Seal door. Command override.”

As Tyson struggled shakily to his feet, the computer obeyed Steffen’s instructions, interposing the metal panel between them.

Ignoring furious pounding on the other side and the muffled screaming and begging of his subordinate, Steffen returned to his task, emptying the bottles one at a time, then searching the cabin for more hidden stashes. Freddy Tyson would be sober when it came time to re-attach the two halves of Ravi Songbird and tow her back to Maribel. If that meant this would be Freddy Tyson’s last cruise aboard Sangster, that was a price Steffen and his remaining crew would just have to pay.