2947-04-30 - Tales from the Inbox: Indigenous Immolation

I know you all want me to have a story about the topical subjects of the day – the simultaneous reports of Angel activity on the Sagittarius Frontier and of Sagittarian ships sighted on the near side of the Gap – but neither of these reports come with proper eyewitness stories which Cosmic Background can currently publish. Some of them are stuck in the Naval Intelligence approval queue, and the others are difficult to source. Fundamentally identical sighting accounts from several places lead me to believe that there is a Datasphere copycat effect amplifying the underlying phenomena, if any – far outside their true size. 

If we get an account fit to publish by next week, expect to see it in this space, but I can offer no guarantees. 

Today’s entry by contrast comes from a very reputable source – the Confederated Navy. Specifically, our source is Mikael T., a helmsman aboard the frigate Phoebe Sherbourne. Sherbourne is one of the vessels in the Arrowhawk task group under our friend Samuel Bosch, which was dispatched on a solitary high-speed patrol run through a nameless system near Sagittarius Gate. Given the events which Sherbourne observed, Naval Intelligence has cleared us to ingest his account for the entertainment and education of our audience. The new Sagittarius Frontier is not as empty as our own Coreward Frontier – it seems to teem with native space-faring sapients like no region surveyed since the Brushfire Nebula, and just like the denizens of the Nebula, the Sagittarius natives are absolutely capable of making war.

While this does make the region more dangerous, it is generally regarded as a positive sign for the economic future. Just as trade with Cold Refuge and other Brushfire worlds boosted a flagging economic situation shortly after the brief but intense Brushfire War. I expect the Navy to boost its presence on the new frontier in case a similar colonial conflict is sparked in Sagittarius. Perhaps with a show of modern force, a direct conflict can be avoided.

The sudden chiming of the console startled Mikael enough to spill his cup of hot pseudo-tea on his clean white uniform. Fortunately, the smart-cloth prevented both liquid and heat from penetrating; it rolled off his chest in large droplets, splattering to the deck below his crash-padded helm chair. 

“Damn!” Kicking his feet off the console, Mikael pulled up the alert which had caused the noise. The ship’s course, set hours before on the beginning of the high-speed system patrol run, now seemed to be a collision course with a tight cluster of asteroids tumbling through the system. While not strictly urgent – the collision wouldn’t occur until the next shift – the alarm did signify a major change in the astrogation computer’s understanding of the system dynamics. The course Sherbourne traced had been calculated – by Mikael himself – to stay a healthy distance from the orbits of all the known system objects. 

“Helm, is there a problem?” Skipper Uggeri turned his stern gaze in Mikael’s direction.  

The skipper’s ring of displays and readouts replicated the alert on the helm station, so the question was obviously not one that could be answered by repeating what Mikael could see on his console. “Astrogation recompute, skipper. I’ll plot us a course update.” 

“What caused the recompute?” The question was directed at the officer maintaining the system tactical plot. The estimated orbits of five planets and two hundred lesser objects tangled the three-dimensional display just ahead of the skipper’s station. “I didn’t see any orbits move.” 

“We got new velocity data for these two groups of asteroids.” The woman manning the plotting station highlighted a set of ellipses in the tangle. “The group in green is moving far faster than original telescope readings suggested. The group in red, much slower.” 

Mikael glanced up at the display. The orbits of the two groups intersected – or nearly did – just before their mutual closest approach to the system’s nameless star. Something about the arrangement seemed too neat, but he put it out of his mind in order to compute a new plot that didn’t involve Sherbourne flying right into the heart of the red group and possibly battering itself to pieces on a succession of tumbling space-rocks. 

“What’s the error on those velocities?” Uggeri could pull that information up on his myriad consoles, but he preferred to make his subordinates do it and tell him the results when there was no particular rush. 

“For the green group the first data was off by...” The young officer reading out the results hesitated, frowned, then continued disbelivingly. “Over forty percent, Skipper. More than ten thousand meters per second deviation.” 

Everyone on the little warship’s bridge looked up at the absurd figure. How could telescope readings hours before have been so wrong about two clusters of asteroids, and not about the planets or the other objects in the system of similar size? 

Uggeri scowled, then nodded. “Sensors, get the ‘scopes on that red group and verify those numbers. Damage control, diagnostics on the telescope systems.” 

Both officers bent over their consoles to execute the skipper’s order just as Mikael finished computing a new course that had no collision risks. “New course plotted, Skipper.” 

“Hold onto it, helm. We’ve got some time to figure this out.” Uggeri’s voice was calm, but Mikael had been with Sherbourne during the previous year’s counter-Ladeonist operations, and he recognized the edge that had appeared in the stern officer’s tone. The skipper smelled danger. 

“Aye.” Mikael prepared the course change to be executed with a single tap of the controls, then sat back. 

“New ‘scope readings indicate the new figures for the red group of asteroids... Off by another five percent.” 

“Five percent lower?” Uggeri leaned forward. 

“Five percent lower, aye.” 

"Powered acceleration!” Mikael blurted, immediately regretting his outburst. 

Uggeri speared Mikael with a hard look, then nodded his agreement. “Ship to general quarters." 

The ship’s computer obeyed the order before any of the officers could change the alert level. A murmur swept across the bridge as the lights dimmed and the general quarters alarm began to wail in the corridor. 

The young man at the sensors station spoke first, having to speak up to be heard over the alarm. “Skipper, there’s no gravitic drive signature, no rocket plume, no ionized tail. How?” 

Hell if I know, but those things are accelerating.” Uggeri took control of the plot and factored in the estimated acceleration rates of both groups. To nobody’s surprise, the rapid velocity bleed of the red “asteroids” appeared to be a means of reversing course too late, and the more measured velocity change of the green group adjusted its course to maintain intercept despite the dramatic efforts of its prey. 

“There are ten objects in that green group as big as a cruiser.” Mikael didn’t see who had made the observation, but the horror in the voice was obvious. 

“But they’re asteroids.” The young sensor tech insisted numbly. 

“Asteroid starships.” Uggeri corrected. “Like the colony haulers of the twenty-third century.” 

“But they have no drive-” 

“That we know how to look for.” Mikael was surprised to find his own voice interrupting the young man. “Wouldn’t be the first time.” 

“Helm, cut the drive and give us a gentle tumble. Sensors, get every eye we have on these things.” 

Mikael flicked away the course change and began executing the skipper’s order. Stealth measures when the frigate had loudly blazed its way in from the jump limit for most of a shift were unlikely to have much of an effect, but it was worth a try. Even if the asteroid ships were crude things, the large group tagged in green probably shipped enough weapons to smash a lone frigate. 

Fortunately, as the minutes ticked by, it remained obvious that the green group had eyes only for its original prey, the red group of similarly constructed vessels. The shift came to an end, but Mikael stayed on the bridge long after he had surrendered his station to a replacement, intent on seeing what would happen when the two groups closed. 

“Increased infrared signature on forward elements of green formation.” The new sensors tech, more senior but no more comprehending the sensor data, put the figures up on a screen. “Dust jets.” 

“They’re taking hits.” Uggeri muttered. “Probably mivrowave lasers.” 

“Will those work on an asteroid?” 

“They’ll heat it up.” Someone had evidently remembered the difficulties even a modern starship had bleeding excess heat into the un-conductive void. “Stars around, they’re going to roast alive in there.” 

“Now seeing increased thermal on lead green elements.” 

Mikael tried to imagine the primitive battle taking place farther in-system. As microwave lasers heated up the metals and rocks of each asteroid-ship, the carved-out interiors would become hotter and hotter, until flesh began to cook and overheated equipment caught fire or simply melted. Even the winning crews would likely emerge from their cratered battlewagons badly burnt, if they emerged at all. He could think of few more horrifying modes of war, even in the annals of Terran warfare. 

The battle had only one possible conclusion, of course. The green group, both more numerous and more massive on average, heated the red group until the targets glowed cherry-red even in visible light imagery, and the heat on its own ships stopped increasing. Mikael wondered what the conflict was about – was it a civil war between members of the same species, or a battle between the forces of two similarly-equipped cultures? What were the stakes of the battle? Had the red fleet fought valiantly to the end, or had its leaders begged for mercy as they died? 

Skipper Uggeri, of course, wanted none of the risks inherent in getting answers. “Helm, get us the hell out of this system.” His voice had become grim as he too probably imagined the horrific deaths of the losers. 

Mikael’s replacement gratefully entered a new course and Sherbourne executed a graceful turn back the way it had come.