2949-08-31 – Tales from the Inbox: Monty Crow’s Homestead

Despite the existence of a small number of Incarnation Immortals taken captive or changing sides since this conflict started, very little public information is available about the capabilities of these cybernetic monsters. Though we’ve cataloged encounters with them whenever Naval Intelligence permits, it is widely (and, I can say with certainty, accurately) suspected that Immortals are far more capable than these stories indicate.

The reason Naval Intelligence wants the capabilities of these enemy soldiers and agents secret is not clear, even to me. Evidently, they have a good reason, but aren’t willing to share even that.

What mystifies me (and most of the analysts I’ve talked to recently) is the Incarnation’s decision to employ as many as hundreds of these very sophisticated bionic weapons in behind-the-lines terror attacks on Confederated planets far from the front lines. The agents at Maribel and other systems near the front can at least conceivably worm their way into infrastructure that might effect the Navy’s logistics train; those spending their time on petty terrorism in Farthing’s Chain and other regions where there isn’t even a major link in Fifth Fleet’s supply chain to break.

As with Intelligence’s decision to keep the capabilities of the Immortals highly secret, there must be a reason for such a baffling decision. If anyone in this audience has any ideas (and would not be breaking Naval Intelligence directives to share them) Nojus and I would be interested in your thoughts, as it is pertinent to a story we’re hoping to publish soon.

This week, I’ve pulled the first part of a multi-part account from the responses to our story related to odd military goings-on at Botched Ravi. That world has been a refuge for those seeking to move beyond a fast-paced life for decades, and it seems some of this sort of Ravi homesteader are happy to tell stories of their own arrival on the world and the usually unsuccessful efforts of their enemies to appear as locals themselves in an attempt to settle old scores.

For what will become obvious reasons, the names of people and places used here are all pseudonyms chosen by the submitter, and I cannot verify the story’s accuracy as a result. It is at least broadly consistent with the sorts of confrontations Ravi settlers do occasionally have with their pasts, though this one seems to have become more violent than most.

David M. could tell the men standing on his broad synthwood-planked porch were bad news before one of them banged on the door. The pair were dressed like locals, with heavy dust-shedding cloaks, smart-glass goggles, and wide-brimmed hats, but they carried themselves like no son of Botched Ravi, adopted or otherwise.

Watching the pair through the eyes of a security camera hidden in the decorative scrollwork of the lintel, David waited on the off-chance they would simply go away. Outsiders on Botched Ravi were trouble, doubly so if they knew that and had bothered to try to blend in. The local posse would ride to David’s help if he called them, but they were minutes away, and the twitchy way the pair’s hands drifted unconsciously toward the smalls of their backs told him that they weren’t going to wait that long for him to open the door. While he waited, he drew and checked his side-arm, a rugged Volkov cartridge-gun which had for years refused to let the razor-edged dust of the world corrupt its simple, sturdy mechanism. No complex machine survived extended exposure to Botched Ravi - it was part of why David had chosen to live there.

The man at the door banged again, this time harder, while his partner scanned the horizon behind them. From the way the second man’s gaze switched between a few directions rather than scanning slowly across the dust-hazed horizon, David knew they had backup out there – three or more additional men who probably had high-powered weapons trained on the door. The cart they’d rode in on, one of Mr. Palumbo’s, might also conceal one more, hiding below the rails of the cargo bed. 

David decided to assume there were at least six, and that their caution indicated they knew who he’d been before he’d come to Botched Ravi. Slowly, to minimize the creaking of the house’s frame, he got up from his sitting chair and opened the desk drawer in the corner to collect an additional pair of magazines for his Volkov, which he checked and stuffed into the breast of his vest. He would have preferred to avail himself of the sealed locker in the basement where he kept the bigger and feistier souvenirs from his fifteen-T-year stint as a space pirate, but there wasn’t time for that now.

Fortunately, David had always known the day would come when either the authorities or a rival gang would pay him a visit. Had it been the authorities, talking might have at least delayed a confrontation, but he’d seen enough to know he wasn’t dealing with lawmen. The men were henchmen of one of his old rivals, one too cowardly to come in person, and it didn’t really matter which. David quietly tapped out a message to Sheriff Deering on a hardened communications terminal built into his study desk, then crept toward the door. The local posse might not be able to help, but they could at least help bury the bodies after the shooting was over.

“Mr. Montero, you in there?” The man at the door banged hard enough to rattle the sturdy synthwood panel in its frame, then gave the door a savage kick for emphasis. “Palumbo down the road sent us.”

David snarled at the mention of his closest neighbor. He’d taken a liking to the crotchety old man the moment he’d started building his homestead on Botched Ravi and would happily torture the ruffians to death if any harm had come to him. Palumbo liked to be left alone most of the time, but he’d been happy to lend David a wagon and Ravimule to help move supplies and finish his house. They spoke rarely, and only about the three Ws - weather (which was always bad), work (by which unending and unpleasant toil human life persisted on Botched Ravi) and women (in largely theoretical terms, since no eligible female lived within a hundred klicks of them). Like him, David got the sense that Palumbo had come to the world to escape an unpleasant past, though it was one perhaps less unpleasant than David’s own.

“Come on, Mr. Montero. Let us in. Storm’s coming, and we’ll be cut to ribbons out here.”

This, at least, was probably true. There was always a storm coming on Botched Ravi, with wind kicking up the razor dust into swirling cyclones capable of stripping human flesh from bone. Most of the local wildlife had thick, hardened skin, but even those creatures adapted to surviving the storms rarely chose to go out in them.

“Go away.” David called, then quickly darted into the next room, keeping low to avoid showing the movement through the windows. “This isn’t some bed and breakfast.”

The two men on the porch responded by kicking the door again, this time harder. David reached one of the alcoves in the main hall and knelt there, lining up sights on his Volkov with the center of the door. The alcoves, with sturdy metal plates built into the walls, had been intended as firing positions from the moment he’d built the house. The bearings that gave motion to automated weapons turrets quickly failed on Botched Ravi, and electronic booby-traps set outside quickly corroded, so he’d always known the only way to defend his homestead would be with a gun in his hand.

When the door finally gave way, David unloaded the big handgun’s magazine into the first man who stepped through. At least one of the bullets struck home – the man staggered back two steps.

David felt the floor below his feet tremble as the man collapsed, but he didn’t see it – he had already ducked back behind the metal plate protecting his alcove to avoid return fire from the other man. A burst of railgun fire cracked down the hallway, shredding the wallpaper and plaster of the walls but failing to penetrate the sturdy metal behind them. The second man was already shouting something, probably demands for backup, but David couldn’t make out the words over the sounds of ferroceramic slugs chewing his home to pieces.

The spray of projectiles ceased, and David could hear the second man moving. After swapping to a fresh magazine, he peeked out to find the second man ducking behind a big chair in his front parlor. The other saw him as well, and rewarded his appearance with a fresh spray of railshot, but David had once again ducked into cover. 

Unlike the alcoves in the hall, David knew his furniture couldn’t stop gunfire. Rolling out of cover, he fired a pair of snap shots into the chair, then dove for the opposite alcove. Though he was rewarded with a cry of alarm, another spray of shot chased him into cover. If he’d scored a hit, it had probably been a flesh wound.

“Give it up, Monty Crow!”

David hated hearing his old pseudonym. He had left that life behind a long time ago. If his neighbor heard them shouting it like that, he’d be run off Botched Ravi even if he did survive. “Monty Crow is dead, you damned idiot. Hesperus blew her reactor. Lost with all hands.” It was with just such theatrics that he and his former crew had purchased their retirement five T-years before – they'd picked a fight with a rival outfit, then blown up their ship after engaging in a close-range exchange of railshot and laser fire, letting that hapless band of brigands think they’d won an upset victory. Perhaps one of the others had slipped the secret – David would have to find out who and figure out how to go see to them without the trip looking suspicious to his new neighbors.

“You really think anyone buys that?”

The man continued, but David heard the crash of reinforced armor-glass being smashed behind him, and knew he didn’t have much time before he was surrounded. Diving prone into the middle of the hallway, he emptied the rest of his second magazine into the legs of the man crouching behind the chair. This time, he scored more rewarding hits – the self-expanding bullets blew huge holes in the meat of the man’s legs, and he went down screaming and gushing blood.

David didn’t bother to reload and finish the rival pirate off. He got up and sprinted toward the steep set of stairs leading down into the cellar, where he kept all his bigger toys. If the kill-team was stupid enough to follow him that far, his biggest problem would be explaining to Sherriff Deering how the resulting massacre could be considered self-defense.

2949-08-24 – Tales from the Service: The View from Headquarters, Part 4 

Duncan here. Since some of the stories I’ve been working on are still stuck in the workload queue of our Naval Intelligence liaison officer, I reached out to Colonel Iantha Platt, the Seventh Fleet staff representative in Admiral Zahariev’s headquarters, to see if we could set up a cross-Gap interview with the Seventh Fleet’s top brass, as we’ve done in the past with Fifth Fleet representatives. 

While the limited bandwidth of the Gap-spanning links in the Hypercomm network precluded a properly real time conference, Nojus and I spent the better part of a shift exchanging audio messages with the Seventh Fleet headquarters in Sagittarius Gate. The following transcript is accurate, though the time between message and reply was in most cases several minutes long. 

And yes, before anyone goes around the datasphere claiming we’re stirring up trouble, we cleared this exchange with Fifth Fleet headquarters beforehand. 

This interview was conducted remotely via exchange of audio recordings, and its participants are listed below. 

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

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

K.T.K. - Captain Kenneth Kempf is the Naval Intelligence attaché to Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Shun Abarca. Kempf contributed to this interview remotely from the battleship Philadelphia at Sagittarius Gate. 

S.R.A. - Admiral Shun R. Abarca is the commander of the Philadelphia battle-group and interim commander of the Seventh Fleet, pending a permanent assignment by the admiralty council. Abarca contributed to this interview remotely from the battleship Philadelphia at Sagittarius Gate. 

[D.L.C.] Admiral Abarca, Captain Kempf, thank you for speaking to us, even remotely. 

[K.T.K.] It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Mr. Chaudhri. I’m familiar with how you’ve conducted this sort of interview with representatives of Fifth Fleet, and I appreciate your organization’s candor and willingness to cooperate with Naval Intelligence secrecy procedures. 

[N.T.B.] It’s not always easy. Naval Intelligence has its hands full these days, or so I hear. 

[K.T.K.] Yes, especially in your area. While I’m not briefed on the situation in detail, I would speculate that it’s probably to do with the intraservice disputes going on in the Fifth Fleet area of operations. Naval Intelligence is trying to prevent any news reporting from inflaming those disagreements further while the Admiralty mediates them. 

[S.R.A.] Seventh Fleet’s front has not had any of the same disputes that Fifth Fleet is suffering. I’d love to claim my headquarters has developed a solution to the problems Fifth Fleet has encountered fighting the Incarnation, but the simple fact is that the forces under Seventh Fleet have no colonies to defend – all our forces are concentrated at Sagittarius Gate, a system with no planets. We’d have had the same problems if my staff’s and Zahariev’s were reversed, because we are following the same doctrine. 

[D.L.C.] So you think bad doctrine is what caused the disaster at Margaux? 

[S.R.A.] It has a number of factors. Confederated Navy doctrine is tailored to fighting non-peer opponents, because since the middle of the Terran-Rattanai War that’s all we’ve fought or expected to fight. For all their martial skill and formidable warship designs, even the Rahl Hegemony can’t expect to match our fleets qualitatively or quantitatively if we should ever go to war with them. That has led to a hundred years of plans and training focused on forcing smaller enemy forces to fight on our terms.  

[K.T.K.] The idea of tying a fleet down by forcing them to commit to a ground invasion is based on what happened to the Rattanai armada after the invasion of Earth. Had they simply bombarded Earth from orbit as they did to Barbora, they could probably have won that war, Angels or no. 

[N.T.B.] Sacrificing a world to kill a fleet seems a cold decision. 

[S.R.A.] Admittedly so, but the idea was that if the ground could be prepared beforehand, as it was on Margaux, the cost to civilian population and infrastructure would be light. Throughout history, many seemingly unstoppable invaders have failed by committing to a lengthy siege of prepared fortifications. I was a junior officer on many staff college studies of the scenario years ago. If anything, I would have committed to it even more than Admiral Zahariev. He has been remarkably flexible in his approach, perhaps due to the influence of Captain Kirke-Moore. 

[N.T.B.] Unofficially, I have heard grumbling from the middle-rank officer corps of the Fifth Fleet. about the slashing hit and run raids. They call them “Samarkand Sallies” and think they’re distracting the fleet headquarters from planning a proper offensive. 

[S.R.A.] Admiral Zahariev took a great risk bringing Kirke-Moore into his staff, but I think if he hadn’t, things would be far worse than they are. As for what the Fifth Fleet staff is or isn’t working on, though: simply put, I don’t know. We try to compartmentalize as much as possible for security reasons. 

[D.L.C.] What about on your front? We’ve covered the relief of the Lost Squadrons extensively, but we haven’t heard much from Sagittarius since then. What’s been happening there? 

[S.R.A.] The Incarnation is always probing the Sagittarius Gate system. Most days, there are two or even three Tyrants sitting in the outer fringe of the system, keeping an eye on us. They send strike raids to harry our supply ships if they see an opening, but if we send ships out toward them, they jump out of the system. 

[K.T.K.] Why they don’t just park a few stealthy cutter-analogues at Sagittarius Gate to watch us is still a mystery. My best guess is, they’re trying to tie down the bulk of the Seventh Fleet. As long as they’re skulking around, we would have to split our forces to expand our beachhead in Sagittarius, or lose the supply base. 

[S.R.A.] We’ve managed to send out a few scouting squadrons to neighboring systems, but Sagittarius Gate juts out from the edge of the Sagittarius Arm, so anything we send out has a long way to go. 

[D.L.C.] My understanding is that your fleet is still small compared to the others, with only three battleships to its name, two of them quite old. What would happen if the Incarnation sent a force to Sagittarius Gate of similar size to what they sent to Margaux? 

[S.R.A.] True, the Seventh Fleet battle line is still not complete. We’re at least as strongly equipped with heavy cruisers and carriers as any other fleet in the Confederated Navy, and we have the fixed defenses of the Sagittarius Gate installations. At the very least, it would be a very interesting engagement. We’re expecting to receive a new battleship early next year. 

[N.T.B.] I’m guessing that would be the Maribel? 

[K.T.K.] It’s not official, but yes, Maribel is most likely. The fleet does not finalize assignments until after a ship has completed trials, of course. 

[S.R.A.] With four battleships, even if two are older, and with the increasing defenses of the fleet base, we’ll have the firepower to defend Sagittarius Gate and also strike out toward the habitable systems nearest to us. I expect that when we do that, the Incarnation pressure on the Fifth Fleet and Coreward Frontier will ease considerably – after all, they have home-world somewhere not far from here; they will need to defend them. 

[D.L.C.] So you expect a turn in fortunes early next year? 

[S.R.A.] That is what I hope and pray for, yes. War is of course never predictable, so I will only say that I and all my officers and spacers will do what we can. 

[N.T.B.] What do you plan to do with the Lost Squadrons personnel? My understanding is that they’ve been assigned to your fleet. 

[S.R.A.] About a third of them have been reassigned to postings on Seventh Fleet ships already. Many of the vessels in the fleet left the Core Worlds quickly, and as a result arrived at Sagittarius Gate slightly under-crewed. The rest are scheduled to be assigned to vessels that are already on their way here, excepting a few senior officers who are transferring back to the Core Worlds for teaching and staff rotations. 

[D.L.C.] Has what they learned during their ordeal changed your strategy or tactics any? 

[K.T.K.] I will answer for Admiral Abarca in saying that while there are changes to the procedures of both Fifth and Seventh Fleets derived from debriefing Lost Fleets personnel, we cannot release the details. 

[S.R.A.] Sorry, Mr. Chaudhri. I will say that I am honored to have the Lost Fleets spacers in my command, and that I only hope to show as much tenacity and courage in action as they have. 

[K.T.K.] I second that. Naval Intelligence passed on more than a hundred merit recommendations after debriefing the survivors of the Lost Squadrons, but if you ask me they should all get a medal. 

[N.T.B.] Damned right, if half of what I've heard is true.

[S.R.A.] While it has been a pleasure, gentlemen, I have other duties to attend to. Perhaps we can do this again in a few months. 

[D.L.C.] I would like that, Admiral. 

2949-08-17 – Tales from the Inbox: A Novel Pest 

Nojus here. Duncan’s been spending the past few days wrangling with Naval Intelligence over some stories he wants to publish, and so far he hasn’t gotten clearance on any of them. 

Last week’s account of probable military-related skullduggery on Botched Ravi has led to a number of questions related to the planet being directed at me. To answer most of the common ones: yes, I have been to Botched Ravi, and yes, there is at least one vidlog from the planet on my datasphere hub, but it’s nearly ten years old. As my adventures go, Botched Ravi was rather middling; the planet itself seemed to be trying harder to kill me than the wildlife. No, I didn’t happen to tangle with a Songbird. Despite the reputation of those interesting beasts, they’re vanishingly rare, and the local administration doesn’t exactly help you find them. Yes, the Reed-Soares Personal Survival Utility works fine on Botched Ravi (just don’t try to mold its shape during a razor-dust storm). 

I don’t know why you lot insist on sending me questions through the Cosmic Background datasphere hub – I’m still maintaining mine, after all – but in the interests of not getting Duncan mad at me, I’ll answer the other common question, namely, why I think the military is interested in Botched Ravi. I think it’s a perfect place to test new military equipment. Anything that lasts ten days on Ravi without breaking will survive six months of heavy fighting anywhere else. 

While Duncan has been fighting the censors with his handful of stories, I’ve been trying to find evidence for this account. Maribel is always having problems with invasive pests accidentally introduced from other Frontier worlds, but you’d think the local news media would be covering something as big and ugly as the anonymous sender describes. I can find no evidence beyond what was sent to us – a brief text account and a few snippets of low-quality flat-capture video – so some skepticism is in order. 

The source indicates that the real names of the participants are not used. 

Ryleigh got out of her aircar and keyed the release for the cargo compartment at the vehicle’s rear. As an exterminator, she didn’t get many emergency calls in the middle of the night, but Mr. Clemensen had sounded frantic, even when she’d named her off-hours rate. 

Though Clemensen hadn’t said specifically what the problem was, Ryleigh had cleaned a nest of whittlerbugs out of his flat six weeks previously, and expected that this was more of the same. Though not native to Maribel, whittlers had become one of the most common household pets on the planet. It seemed that every third cargo ship from their native Berkant carried another handful of mating pairs, which rode to private homes in the belongings of careless spacers. Clemensen, as a spaceport cargo inspector, was more careful than most spacers, but he still sometimes brought his work home with him in unpleasant ways. 

As Ryleigh removed two boxes of equipment from the aircar, a door banged open behind her. She turned to see Clemensen, clad only in shorts and a velvety bathrobe, rushing out to meet her. “I’m glad you could make it so quickly.” The man ran one hand through his thinning hair, eyes wild in the harsh lights of the roof landing pad. “It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it, and it all happened so fast.” 

“It’s no problem.” Ryleigh shrugged, closing the aircar’s storage bay. At the hourly price Clemensen was paying, she’d work all night and into the next day to rid his residence of the pests. Unfortunately, even a major infestation of whittlerbugs rarely took more than two hours to handle. “Just show me where the problem is.” 

The man nodded, then led Ryleigh back into the building and down two flights of stairs. He seemed to pause at each corner and landing and peek around it, as if hoping not to run into any of his neighbors. Ryleigh didn’t blame him for his concern; nobody liked living next to an infestation, and his social credit would be damaged for a long time to come if anyone knew. 

As Clemensen fumbled with the security lock on his front door, Ryleigh set her burdens down and pulled her imager from its holster. She was required by local law to record images of every infestation before she eradicated it, though that data would be purged of anything traceable to Clemensen before she sent it on to the planet’s health administration. Maribel’s government liked to track the progress of its many invasive infestations, and given how quickly some of them had adapted to become sneakier and more resistant to basic extermination tactics, she thought this only too reasonable. 

When at last the door clicked and swung open, Clemensen peeked in, then stood aside. Ryleigh set her imager to constant record, then crossed the threshold, sweeping it from side to side, though there was no obvious sign of the pests’ presence. “What am I looking for?” 

“It’s... I... Look in the kitchen.” Clemensen’s voice quavered. Ryleigh didn’t remember him being this unsettled the last time she’d cleaned out his place, but stumbling on pests in the middle of the night would do that to a man sometimes. 

Ryleigh shrugged and crossed the sitting room, remembering her way around. Clemensen’s flat was of the sort fashionable on Maribel – it was dominated by the sitting room laid out for entertaining, and from that sprouted the other accommodations, including a proper old-fashioned kitchen rather than the high-tech half-kitchen common in most small domiciles throughout the Reach and a spacious washroom. 

Reaching the doorway into the kitchen, Ryleigh didn’t see anything amiss, save the disorder suggesting the man had been interrupted in the middle of fixing a late-night snack. That didn’t mean anything, though, since the light was on; whittlerbugs hated bright light. “What am I looking for?” 

“You don't see-” Clemensen, still at the front door, seemed to realize he was likely to attract attention to his problem by shouting in from the entrance, and crept inside. “You don’t see anything?” 

“No?” Ryleigh opened a few cabinets and stuck her imager into each, trusting it to beep if it encountered any sign of an infestation, whittlerbugs or otherwise. “Where did you see them?” 

“Them?” Clemensen almost choked on the word. “You think there might be more than one? Oh dear.” 

Ryleigh turned to the man, finding him white-faced at the notion. For the first time, she began to realize that the late hour was not the only cause for the man’s flustered state. 

“Ah! There!” Clemensen pointed over Ryleigh’s shoulder toward the kitchen celing. She turned just in time to see something large vanish into an alcove above the heat-plate's vent hood. Though she hadn’t gotten a good look at it, the nauseating, many-legged impression its movements offered made her glad she hadn’t. The creature was at least as long as her forearm. She’d never seen anything like it in eight T-years of extermination work, and she knew immediately why the concept of “them” had so worried her client. 

“What are you going to do?” The man seemed to expect Ryleigh to battle the creature as easily as she had flushed out the mating pair at the center of his recent whittlerbug infestation. 

Ryleigh stepped backwards, putting an arm out to force Clemensen to do the same. “Mr. Clemensen, perhaps we should discuss that outside.” She held the imager on the spot she’d seen the critter long enough for it to beep an alert and capture a few infrared images. “In the future, when you call me, do mention if the pests are of...” She glanced up at the shadows where the creature doubtless still lurked, suppressing a shudder. “Unusual size.” 


2949-08-10 – Tales from the Inbox: Nikruma's Visitors

While it's unlikely to be related to last week’s successful raid of the forward Incarnation base at Mereena, there has been very little enemy activity here on the Frontier since the failed enemy raid on Berkant several weeks ago. The heavy losses to Incarnation troops at Margaux, combined with the lesser losses at Berkant and Mereena, will probably take time to replace, as any replacement troops have to be ferried across the Gap. 

In the meantime, my sources in Naval Intelligence have suggested that things will be rather quiet for a little while. The Fifth Fleet is, at least in terms of its main battle line, back to full strength, but with the feud between the Navy and the ground-combat services increasingly being fought on the open datasphere, our forces probably won’t be taking advantage of that lull with any large-scale counter-push. 

Raids like the recent sortie to Mereena will probably continue, but it should be noted that the Navy had little involvement in that effort. Most likely, the FDA and Marines will continue to plan their own operations moved by the Marines’ own starships and the ships of mercenaries like Sovereign Security, and the Navy will plan its own operations with minimal participation from the Marines or FDA, except for the native Marine contingents aboard Navy warships.  

[N.T.B. - There’s no telling how long this lull will last, but I hate to think of what’s happening to the Confederated citizens held by the Incarnation in penal labor colonies such as the one on Meraud. These degenerates have no regard for human life that doesn’t have a chip in its head monitoring its thoughts, and even if those captives play by Nate’s rules, they’re going to find ways to make all that manpower build something to help their war effort.] 

While it’s not exactly close to the front lines, I’m seeing several interesting reports out of the Tkachenko system of increased military presence. The system’s only habitable (barely) planet is the infamous Botched Ravi, a place which attracts a lot of datasphere attention but very few tourists. 

One of our regular readers, a gentleman named Nikruma, sent in this account of strangers appearing at his settlement deep in the Ravi outback. While he suspects that these are Confederated military personnel, he was unable to determine who they were or what they were up to. 

Nikruma peered through his peep-hole at the pair of off-worlders standing on his porch. Though they’d taken care to buy rough local-cloth attire, their straight-backed stances and the Core Worlds-style wrist computers half-hidden by their loose sleeves told him they were no locals. Slowly, he raised his high-powered chemical-cartridge scattergun to the soft wood panel in the middle of the otherwise sturdy and relatively Ravi-proof door. Off-worlders always meant trouble on Botched Ravi. 

Unaware they were being watched, one of the men stepped forward to knock on the door again. “Anyone home?” He had mastered the lazy Ravi drawl, but even asking if anyone was home was a dead giveaway all its own. A Ravi native would know the futility of such queries; few Ravi homesteaders would ever open their doors for an unexpected visitor. 

Still, sitting behind the heavy door and thick masonry walls of his little house, Nikruma was curious. These men were Core Worlders with at least a little bit of discretion, and that made them all but certainly not any of his old enemies. Beyond revenge for the intrigues of decades past, however, he couldn’t think of any reason for the visit. 

Of all the settlers on the Svendsen Plateau, his home lay the farthest from of the tantalum and tungsten mines which drew most off-worlders in the region. His plot of land, extensively surveyed several times, had no mineral deposits worth speaking of, and the road dead-ended at his plot. Only rocky slopes of the plateau’s margin lay beyond his property markers. 

Ravi generally punished curiosity among its homesteaders, of course. Anything glittering on the horizon was either a mirage or the lure of one of the planet’s carnivorous flora. Pained cries on the wind either meant that something had been caught out in a nearby razor-dust storm, or that one of the local predators had learned to mimic the pained cries of a recent human victim. Little about the planet rewarded exploration. For someone like Nikruma, that was part of its charm. 

“Look, there’s nobody home.” The second man outside put his hand on his fellow’s shoulder. “Let’s just leave a note and get going.” 

“Just... point the crawler in the right direction and go?” The first man shook his head. “That’s a damned good way to get stranded out here, and you know what they’ll say upstairs if they need to send someone after us.” 

Though the pair went through the pretense of continuing to speak in feigned Ravi accents, Nikruma recognized the snappy cadence of spacers – military spacers at that – underneath. Only someone steeped in the culture of the Confederated military services referred to their superiors with a euphemism like “upstairs.” This didn’t mean they weren’t trouble, of course. Botched Ravi had no military value whatsoever, even with war raging in the Meriwether region less than three hundred light years away. 

The two glared at each other for a few minutes, then the first man produced a stylus and a pad of pressure-paper, scrawled on it for a moment, then tore off the top sheet, stuck it in the doorjamb, and turned to leave. The pair were already discussing how they’d navigate their vehicle across the notoriously gulley-creased plateau as they descended the stairs. 

Sighing, Nikruma replaced the safety on his scatter-gun, lowered the barrel, and unbolted all three of the mechanical locks on the door. Curiosity got one killed on Botched Ravi, but he’d be damned if he didn’t take at least one of the strangers with him if that proved to be the case.  

As he opened the door, the pair turned around. Both took involuntary half-steps back at the sight of the scatter-gun, though it wasn’t even pointed at them. That reaction alone told Nikruma they weren’t Confederated Marines, though the first man certainly had the stature for it. 

“Don’t tell me you damned fools brought a crawler to Ravi.” Nikruma scowled at them. “Damned fools. It’ll be dead in a week. Take it back to your ship and buy something practical before you get caught in a storm.” Anyone familiar with Botched Ravi knew that the only practical vehicle was one with simple wheels, pulled by an animal or the simplest of mechanical engines. The sensitive electronics and finely machined parts of any sophisticated vehicle would never survive the planet’s razor-edged dust. 

“Well, uh...” The second man, the smaller one, glanced at his partner, then shrugged. “We weren’t planning to be here too long.” He dispensed with his feigned Ravi drawl. “We’re trying to get to a place called Dead Dario Canyon. It’s very important.” 

Nikruma’s scowl deepened. “Why in all creative hells would you want to go there?” 

“Science experiment.” The bigger man muttered the response so quietly that it was barely audible over the whistling breeze in the eaves of the house. 

“Ravi’s no place for damned academics.” Nikruma waved his gun. “Get off my property.” The only way to get a ground vehicle to Dead Dario Canyon was to drive it through Nikruma’s land, and he wasn’t about to let them do that. Perhaps they could get there going the long way around to Route 51A at the base of the plateau, but their vehicle would break down before they got halfway. 

“Our... superiors said you might say that.” The nig man pointed down to Nikruma’s feet, where their note fluttered against the polymer-amalgam panels of the porch floor. “Hopefully that will change your mind.” 

“Eh?“ Nikruma, leveling the gun on the two men, knelt to pick up the piece of paper. Below a brief scrawled sentence about some bureaucratic matter that meant nothing to him, the man had written a credit sum – a sum with five zeroes. “This some kind of scam?” 

“No scam. Help us get to Dead Dario for our... experiment, our people pay you that much, and we leave. We might be back, but we’ll stay clear of your house and livestock. You don’t ask questions, we don’t say anything to the neighbors.” 

Nikruma narrowed his eyes. “And if I refuse and call the sheriff?” 

“Then we have to show him a bunch of documents, and he’ll make you let us through without the credits. The money is... let's say we prefer not to show anyone anything official.” 

Nikruma scowled, then nodded. “All right. Get your damned machine and meet me over there.” He pointed to the top of a knoll a hundred meters from the house. Military men skulking around his land was bad news, but with a few hundred extra credits padding his bank account, he could afford to beef up the house security.