After last week’s piece (Tales from the Inbox: KR-451) about a trio of KR ships (or at least ships that claimed to be KR ships) which vanished near Deana’s Rock at the edge of the Frontier, I was contacted by an officer of Naval Intelligence, who must remain anonymous for security reasons. Evidently, some time in March, Navy patrol captured one of these “KR” vessels when it tried to enter restricted space near a Navy installation on the Frontier (he did not say which).

Obviously, I was excited to accept this proposal. Full-capture recordings of this tour will be available on the Cosmic Background datasphere hub, and highlights will appear in a few days on Aston’s flagship vidcast. Apparently the Navy wishes to spread the word that these vessels, apparently those of a Ladeonist sect, are active both on the Frontier and in some parts of the Colonial Reach. Though their iconography and association with counterhuman influences is consistent with the usual Ladeonist behavior pattern, this sect appears to have greater financial resources than most, evidenced by the ability to outfit at least one (perhaps dozens or more if all KR sightings are of these ships).

Unfortunately, the three members of KR-233's crew remain comatose; Naval Intelligence would have learned much more about them if the EMP which had disabled their ship had not also disabled them, probably permanently. Are the Ladeonists really behind the rash of ghost "KR Ship" sightings? Or did they outfit KR-233 as a copycat, after hearing about one of last year's sightings?

Oddly, though their vessels are equipped quite well for stealth and evasion, they are not suited for smuggling or sapient trafficking, and they are not sufficiently armed for piracy. Perhaps KR-233 was meant to ferry Ladeonist magnates to cells on Frontier worlds? If Naval Intelligence has a theory as to the syndicate’s intentions or the equipped purpose of the captured vessel, it was not shared with me.

This week, I am devoting Tales from the Inbox to a unique effort: its narrative is pieced together from my own tour of the vessel and my interview with the crew of the Donald Albring, which captured it. Unlike my contact in Naval Intelligence, the names of the vessel and crew involved in the capture are not secret; this incident is being made public, both through Cosmic Background and through several military spacers’ content networks.

Sergeant K. Vogts disengaged his weapons’ safeties as Albring reeled in its prey. As leader of the three-Marine presence aboard the aging corvette, he hadn’t expected the last year of his last tour with the Marines to feature any action, but he had always prepared as if action was certain.

For all their griping during biweekly drills, the two green privates who he’d been tasked with wet-nursing until they grew up into proper Marines weren’t complaining now that Albring’s captain had a use for the three troopers. Corna and Hase looked a bit pale behind their helmet face-plates, but they moved confidently in their heavy armor-suits, and they carried their weapons like veterans. They were, Vogts decided, ready for the real thing.

The airlock depressurized with a rumble and then yawned open to the void. The snared ship – a quick little thing which had failed to run the local Navy security cordon – had been disabled by a salvo of EMP-loaded missiles, but the crew was probably still alive within.

“You are go for hot insertion, Sergeant Vogts.”

As soon as the calm voice from the bridge had given the order, Vogts stepped forward through the hatch. As he crossed out of the ship’s A-grav influence and became weightless, he activated his mobility pack and thrusted clear of Albring. As soon as he was clear, his cohorts followed.

“ETA one-five-five seconds, control. Any sign of activity?” Vogts found the target against the starfield easily; its hull was illuminated by Albring’s EVA spotlights, along with the tether lines which had been used to tow it close to the larger warship.

“Negative activity.”

“What do you think they’ll do, Sarge?” Hase’s voice trembled; the burly young man sounded uncertain. He’d never been under fire.

“We’re about to find out, Private Hase.”

The remaining seconds of transit passed in silence, and soon the target loomed only meters ahead. Slowing to match its velocity, Vogts marveled at how small the intruder was. Though expensively outfitted for stealth and infiltration with EM-absorbing hull paneling and collapsible “wings” of what appeared to be solar foil, the underlying vessel was had all the graceless, lumpen lines of a civilian vacationer’s yacht.

“Control, what are these panels?” Private Corna jetted closer to one of the collapsed wings.

“Best guess, those are parts of a photokinetic drive.”

“Of all the things to bring when you’re sneaking into a Navy base… Solar sails?” Hase’s muttering, though poor comms discipline, echoed Vogts’s own.

“Let’s get inside. Corna, set up the breacher.”

As Vogt and Hase moved in close to the only visible airlock, Private Corna unhooked a heavy breacher limpet secured to his armor-suit and backed off, pointing it at the pair of Marines and the airlock. As soon as he had it in place, he left it drifting there and joined his compatriots.

Albring, be advised we are beginning our breach.” Vogts turned toward the lock, snapping his railgun into position to receive any trouble that might issue forth in the proper manner. Though not nearly as snappily, the other two pointed their guns in the same direction.

“Acknowledged. Happy hunting, Sarge.”

“Breaching on my mark.” Corna announced without waiting for his superior’s go-ahead. “Three… Two… One…” Though the radio didn’t transmit it, Vogts imagined the nervous gulp that occupied the slightly longer than regulation delay. “Mark.”

On the signal, the automated breaching module fired a curtain of gossamer, which slammed into the intruder’s hull and stuck fast. Though no sound carried through hard vacuum, Vogts knew how loud the breacher limpet’s cycle would be inside the target ship.

Almost as soon as the silky material’s leading edge had adhered to the hull, the limpet blasted its tank of compressed nitrogen into the newly enclosed space. Vogts made sure he was not in a direct line between the limpet and the airlock, and the two privates had already moved as far as they could toward the outwardly-bulging fabric walls.

“We have pressure and seal is holding.” Corna’s voice trembled. “Breaching charge in three… Two… One…”

Vogts didn’t hear the “mark” this time. When Corna keyed his remote, the breacher limpet’s shaped-charge explosive detonated with a thunderous crack in the newly pressurized space, and a white-hot beam bright enough to be visible through auto-dimming faceplates lanced between the limpet and the airlock.

“Go!” Vogts pushed Hase toward the lock, and the private drifted through the jagged, still-glowing remnants of two heavily reinforced pressure doors. Vogts followed as soon as the narrow entrance was clear, his suit-lights automatically coming on.

The Marines found the vessel’s interior surprisingly open. Where most yacht-like vessels were arranged into several sub-divided compartments for privacy and utility, the intruder’s interior was dominated by one large, open compartment, into which the Marines had entered on a balcony-like second semi-deck. Three sets of lights swept the interior for threats, but nothing moved.

“The hell is this thing?” Hase’s question carried through the air, not the radio.

Vogt scanned the jungle-like tangle of machinery bolted to the main deck below. No, he realized, it wasn’t jungle-like – it was an actual jungle. Intermingled with the machines were several overgrown specimens of unfamiliar plant. “A damned mess. Where’s the crew?”

“Over here, Sarge.” Corna pointed his light, and the other two followed the beam to a female human body strapped into a crash-pad chair on the other side of the balcony deck.

“Cover me, I’ll check.” Vogts shouldered his weapon and clambered toward the body. An EMP near-miss shouldn’t have been enough to kill the crew through the hull. Sure enough, his medical scanner found a weak pulse; the woman was comatose, but not dead.

“I’ve got another body!” Hase called, pointing his light down into the tangle on the main deck. “Male. Not moving.”

The scanning equipment found something else. A warning marker bearing the terrifying abbreviation “UNKN NANO” lit up on his faceplate display. “Nanotech.” Nanotechnology was far from uncommon; the fact that the suit systems couldn’t identify the nano-agent was enough to scare even a grizzled Marine. “Counts are off the charts.”

As he searched the unconscious woman for weapons, Vogts suddenly recoiled in horror. One side of her face, from her hairline to her cheekbone, was covered in intricate tracery of metal filament, all winding rootlike out of a metallic device embedded above her ear. “The hell?”

“We see it, Sarge.” The bridge controller seemed just as perturbed as he. “Invasive implant of some kind. If that connects to her brain...” Neither the controller nor Vogts needed medical training to know that it didn’t take much current through a human brain to cause serious damage.

“Sarge, we’ve got a third body in the back.” Corna drifted out into the open space and headed down toward the main deck.

“Everything else is clear.”

“Acknowledge clear.” Vogts drifted back from the strapped-in body. “Control, you’re go to reel us in. Observe nano-contamination protocol.”

“Any ideas, Sarge?” Hase asked, drifting toward one of the other limp forms, then recoiling as he spotted a similar implant there. “Augh! Counterhumans, all the way out here?”

“Not just any counterhumans, boys.” Corna turned his light up against the above bulkhead, and the other two Marines turned to look. Painted lovingly on the only open stretch of paneling in the entire ship was a familiar and sinister insignia: a stylized avian with outstretched wings shedding sun-fire. “Damned Ladeonists.”