2952-02-07 – Tales from the Service: Kel’s Dispatch

Sadek Sherburn had just sat down in Visitor’s small, many-windowed mess hall with a bowl full of perfectly synthesized food-fab teriyaki when Kel summoned him to the cockpit. 

A ten-thousand credit signing bonus had certainly earned the xeno the right to interrupt meal-time, of course. With only a brief, wistful look at the marvel of spacefaring technology he had intended to be his lunch, Sadek tossed the food into the food-fab's recycler and headed for the chairlift-like apparatus that occupied a diagonal space cutting through most of the decks. This contraption served Visitor instead of a proper set of Terran lifts. Kel’s people didn’t much like being in tight, confined spaces like lift cars; that was probably why their shipbuilding tradition prized transparent corundum as a hull material. 

Sadek was already over the teriyaki the next bucket-like chair in the chairlift scooped him up. One of the advantages of Kel’s ship being overhauled by Terran shipwrights at The Sprawl was that all of its fittings were practically new, and operating exactly as designed. Even without the ministrations of a good maintenance tech, the food-fab machines wouldn’t start to break down for months yet, and Sadek intended to make sure that Kel hired a good maintenance tech and never missed a round of scheduled dockyard maintenance. Good food – by spacer standards, anyway – would be the way of life for Visitor’s crew in a way that Sadek and the other mining-rig jockeys on Thaddeus Wall had never experienced. 

After jumping off the chairlift and mounting the almost ladder-like steps up to the bubble cockpit at the ship’s apex, Sadek found Kel seated in the bucket-like pilot’s couch. He was  facing away from the controls, his bulbous eyes gazing out into the blackness beyond every facet of the jewel-like cockpit enclosure. 

“You called, boss?” Sadek had almost gotten used to the idea of calling Kel his boss in the two days since he’d come aboard Visitor. 

“Is your mining craft in working order?” 

Sadek frowned. What did Kel want with the battered little utility launch? “More or less. Launching it from the pressurized cargo bay is going to be tricky. Besides, the nearest decent concentration of asteroids is back where we left Wall.” 

Kel waved his hand. “I have already moved or secured all the cargo in that bay. When we make our final jump into the inner Sagittarius Gate system, you will launch and proceed to the Sprawl station on your own. I will call those who I left advertisements with, and let you work with them in my stead.” 

Running in-system in the ponderous mining launch would take nearly twice as long as it would take Visitor to make the same trip, and of course Sadek would be cooped up in the tiny vessel’s seventeen-cubic-meter crew compartment for the entire time. He’d spent longer aboard the mining rig, of course, but that was before he’d gotten used to the relative space and comfort of Visitor. “Why the change?” 

“There is no change. This was always my intent.” Kel interlaced his triplicate, claw-like fingers. “I will arrive at the station perhaps seven or eight Terran days after you. You will have the new crew ready to come aboard when I arrive.” 

Sadek sighed. “Kel, I thought you trusted me. Where are you going that I can’t go with you?” 

“It is not a matter of trust. It is one of time and discretion. I have one obligation to discharge in human space before we travel to my people’s home to obtain hulls.” Kel dipped his head. “It is... a private personal matter, in which I am repaying a favor.” 

“All right, then.” There would be no getting more out of him. Kel was very concerned with keeping good relationships with people who had done him any kindness, no matter how slight. That being the very same trait which had ensured Sadek his lucrative first-mate position, it seemed unwise to prod it very hard. “So I'll have about a week to hire us a crew?” 

“I do hope it is sufficient time.” Kel made a fluttering gesture which probably was his equivalent of a shrug. “There may be many applicants.” 

Sadek wasn’t worried about that. He had never been in a position to hire anyone before, but how hard could it really be? Wall’s Captain Kumar had never made bringing new spacers into the fold look particularly difficult, anyway. “The main problem is that my rig isn’t really equipped for long-haul flights right now. I haven’t needed to spend more than a couple shifts in it at a time in a while.” 

“Yes, I remember being aboard the craft before, and thought that might be the case.” Kel held up a slate device. “Take what you need from Visitor’s stores and spare equipment.” 

Sadek took the slate and scanned the manifest. His eyebrows shot up at the listed quantities. Kel had apparently bought more than replacement systems; most varieties of commonly available reserve supplies were listed, and there were duplicates and triplicates of almost everything. There was even almost half a ton of colonist ration-bars on the list; while they were not as good as a hot meal, these were certainly preferable fare to the raw nutrient slurry from a food-fab machine’s supply tanks that was a spacer’s usual emergency food. 

“Oh.” Kel, apparently, had noticed Sadek’s surprise. “Is something critical missing? I thought these reserves were adequate.” 

"Adequate?” Sadek shook his head. “Kel, you’ve got more reserve parts and supplies than a fleet cruiser carries. Everything I need is on here, don’t worry.” 

“Ah.” Kel turned back to his console. “We will make the final jump in perhaps six hours. Make a note of everything you use on your rig, so that I may replace it.” 

Sadek tucked the slate under one arm and proceeded down to the hold where his mining rig was stowed. Even for a being who’d had a recent run-in with being stranded in the void on a damaged ship, the supplies were excessive. 

With no good explanation for the embarrassment of supplies, Sadek used his ride on the chairlift to mark the items he would be loading onto his rig. He might not be able to enjoy Visitor’s pristine food-fab machines for a while, but he intended to make the run into the Sprawl spaceport as comfortable as Kel’s supplies would allow. 

While I still doubt elements of this account – indeed, additional messages sent to us have given me a fairly clear picture of where Sadek has embellished or altered his picture of life aboard Visitor – the broad strokes do seem to be truthful. Rather than try to correct the record he presented with external information, I am providing here his account with only the usual editing for this feed.  

It would violate the spirit of Tales from the Inbox to correct an account in that matter, unless it is in a manner that pertains to our role as correspondents from a theater of war. 

2952-01-24 – Tales from the Service: Kel’s Treasure 

Since I shared last week’s entry, I have recieved several accounts corroborating the existence of Kel and his ship, which is reportedly named Visitor. One correspondent even had a holo still of Kel and his crew to share, and though the fidelity of the image is quite poor, it is clear that this being is not of any of the commonly known species. One middle-aged human male, (probably our contact Sadek), one somewhat younger female, and a lanky teenaged male comprise his known crew, though the holo does not contain identifying information for any of them. 

I checked with the Alien Sapient Welfare Office on The Sprawl and they are aware of the existence of this being and his people, but have had little direct interaction with him. Most likely, the story about the military buying a damaged data core full of navigational data is false (and later parts of Sadek’s account suggest this as well), but a whole package of xenotech propulsion equipment, damaged or no, would be very enticing to either military or civilian interests. 

Sadek Sherburn was surprised how little he felt watching Thaddeus Wall dwindle into the void. The old mining platform had been his home of two decades, but everything worthwhile in that life – the contents of his quarters and his trusty mining launch – were stowed two decks below in Visitor’s cavernous cargo bay. 

Kel made an almost avian clucking noise as his clawed hands danced across the incomprehensible controls. “This drive unit is faster, yes, but it handles very poorly. I will need much practice with it.” 

“And you’ll need to teach me how to fly the ship.” Sadek turned in a slow circle in the middle of the cockpit blister that perched atop the ship’s lenticular hull. If one could get over the disorienting feeling of being outside the ship, the cockpit was an impressive piece of design. Through the arts of Kel’s people, the space was surrounded and roofed with a single, unbroken piece of transparent material, faceted like a great gemstone. In fact, that was precisely what it was – an artificially shaped piece of corundum shot through with nanoscopic strands of various reinforcing materials. An auto-dimming lining on its inner surface shielded the crew from extreme radiation, visible and otherwise. 

“That will not prove difficult.” Kel waved one spindly arm behind his body in a way that no human could have matched, indicating one of the two blank, deactivated consoles that flanked him. “Those units carry human control interfaces, but are not currently operational.” 

“We’ll need a tech, then.” Sadek nodded. He was a fair hand at fixing the simpler breakdowns common to a spacer’s life, but he’d never had much luck rigging things up to work in the first place. 

“Indeed. Before coming to find you, I placed notices with several establishments on The Sprawl that I would be hiring.” Kel’s voice sounded almost self-satisfied. “By the time we return there, I expect an extensive list of candidates for you to screen.” 

If the pay rates on such notices were half as good as what Kel had promised Sadek, that was almost certain to be true, but that brought Sadek back to the topic of credits. “Kel, I have to ask. Where did you get that money?” 

“It is not important.” Kel turned away from the controls for a moment. But I will tell you how I intend to make more.” 

To Sadek, the source of the credits Kel was throwing around so freely was very important, but he knew his new employer well enough to know that anything Kel did not want to say would remain infuriatingly unsaid, without regard to reason, flattery, trickery, threats, or any other form of persuasion known to human science. He’d encountered a similar “not important” answer when he’d asked Kel how he’d come to be drifting in an asteroid belt, alone in a damaged ship clearly intended for a crew of several beings. No doubt these answers were uncomfortable for Kel, and that in itself made learning them all the more important. 

With a heavy sigh, Sadek crossed his arms. “How do you intend to make more money?” 

“By bringing the treasure of my people to your Sprawl.” Kel clucked again, this time in a far more cheerful manner. “And presenting it to the Seventh Warlord.” 

Sadek winced; he’d heard tell of xenos of Sagittarius referring to the leader of the Confederated military mission at Sagittarius Gate as the “Seventh Admiral” or the “Seventh Warlord,” but this was the first time he’d encountered this turn of phrase himself. Kel’s grasp of Anglo-Terran was far too advanced for this to be a mere misplacement of words. “You mean Admiral Abarca, the commander of Seventh Fleet. What are you going to try to sell him?” 

“We refer to the same being, yes.” Kel’s head bobbed from side to side as he worked the controls. “As to what to sell him... the term human spacers use is hulls.” 

“Hulls?” Sadek frowned. “You want to sell ships – xeno-built ships - to the Navy?” That would never work, of course. The Confederated Navy’s logistics situation in Sagittarius was strange enough without needing to source xenotech spare parts. 

“Just the... hull component for what you would call strike craft.” Kel’s voice took on an oddly chiding tone. “Your people could never be expected to decipher our machinery while also fighting a war.” 

“The hull isn’t a component, Kel.” Sadek didn’t know much about starship design, but he had seen several mining rigs stripped to their frames and re-built. The hull was as modular as any other part of a spacecraft, especially since to remove a reactor, one had to take large parts of it off. 

“That is the treasure of my people, my friend.” Kel reached up to brush his clawed fingertips against the faceted canopy. “This vessel is only partly of traditional construction. The true traditional makers use this material to form the entire hull, and merely electroplate the portions meant to be opaque.” 

Sadek shrugged. “They still won’t buy that. Well, maybe a few to try out. I’m pretty sure the Navy can manufacture its own strike craft in the field.” 

“Indeed, I also heard this.” Kel’s head bobbed enthusiastically. “With a hull formed properly, why should they not manufacture human innards and simply assemble them within a better hull? Such a vessel would be very durable. Most of its optics could even be within the hull.” 

Sadek shook his head. “That sounds like a lot of credits and labor for a very small improvement.” 

“Perhaps.” Kel manipulated the controls, and the stars wheeled outside Visitor’s canopy. “Let us see how the first cargo fares before you pass judgement.” 

2952-01-24 – Tales from the Inbox: Kel’s First Mate 

I still do not have any good on-location insights from the attack on Farthing’s Chain. By all reports I can find, between one-quarter and one-half of the Incarnation main fleet is participating in this offensive, with the remainder remaining at Håkøya, probably hoping to exploit Fifth Fleet’s reaction to the attacking force. 

So far, Admiral Venturi has not deployed any portion of her battle fleet to deal with this new offensive; I am seeing reports that Fifth Fleet’s light scouting formations are being employed to force the attacking force together rather than spreading out to attack multiple systems at once, but that is, as far as any of my contacts know, the extent of the response. 

Since I have no good information about this development, I will instead bring you the story which I had to push back last week, which has nothing to do with Farthing’s Chain. If true –and I have no reason to doubt it – it suggests that there is a crew operating out of The Sprawl which is captained by a xeno of no officially classified type, and whose ship is a mix of tech from that xeno’s culture and our own technological stack. I would be very interested to meet this “Kel” and would happily extend him an interview on Cosmic Background. 

Sadek Sherburn grumbled as the food-fab machine extruded a greasy pile of beige goo into the dished receptacle on his meal-tray, then capped it with a translucent dome. The machine wasn’t wholly broken, at least – it was still applying flavor agents and heating the food, but the texture protein subsystem was clearly broken again. 

“Sorry ‘bout that.” Arnie Chance, the company mess-hall technician, waved a spanner above his head without backing out from the innards of the second machine. “It’s on my to-do list.” 

“I bet it is.” Sadek picked up the tray, scowling at the food. “Didn’t you just fix this?” 

“That was...” Arnie grunted and strained, and something inside the second machine came free with a shriek of distressed metal. “More than two weeks ago.” 

Sadek rolled his eyes. Any machine that didn’t stay fixed for more than a few weeks was not actually fixed, at least not in his book. Arnie was a good-natured sort, but he was getting old, and his technical certifications were certainly several decades out of date, if he had ever held any. Captain Kumar famously never looked too hard at any candidate’s C.V. when filling a specialist role on his crew. The skipper was, in a very real sense, a believer that any spacer could learn any other spacer’s job, if he was properly motivated. 

“It’ll work again tomorrow or the day after.” Arnie continued absently, still half-buried in the second food-fab's workings. “If I can’t fix it this time, I’ll pull the texturing module out of this one.” 

Sadek shrugged and sidestepped the tech, heading for his preferred seat at the far end of the long, mostly-empty mess hall. The mining platform Thaddeus Wall had been built and fitted out to carry a permanent crew of almost three hundred, but later modifications had automated out more than half of those crew positions, and nobody had bothered to scale down the dining facilities to match, except for the natural downsizing brought on by un-replaced, broken equipment. 

“I’ve been looking for you.” 

Sadek started at the rasping voice behind him and nearly dropped his tray. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he turned around, plastering an insincere smile onto his face. “Kel, I didn’t realize you were back aboard!” 

The creature standing significantly within Sadek’s personal space bubble was vaguely humanoid, hunched forward with its bulbous-eyed head perched at the end of a nauseatingly long neck that projected it forward of its body. Its arms ended in three-digit appendages more claw than hand which, despite appearances, Sadek knew to be quite prehensile, and its toes splayed out and forward from its flat, duck-like feet. 

“My vessel is now operational, and I may go where I wish.” Kel waved one hand. “The human authorities accepted my data records as trade for the refit.” 

Sadek nodded, suppressing a wince. “I thought they might.” He hadn’t, but apparently someone in the Naval chain of command had thought the navigation records of a crude alien computer core worth parting with most of a starship’s propulsion equipment. Sadek had figured that Kel would be left in limbo for months while there was a war on. Apparently, he’d been wrong. 

Kel scurried past Sadek to the table in the corner, then beckoned him over. “Sit, eat. I will talk business.” 

Sadek grudgingly followed the xeno to the table and set his tray down. “Kel, you have to take business up with Captain Kumar.” 

“Not so.” Kel’s oversized, watery eyes flicked across the mostly empty mess hall. “This is a matter only for one I can trust.” 

Sadek winced. He’d found Kel’s crippled ship drifting among the asteroids, and hauled it back aboard Thaddeus Wall expecting he’d hit the jackpot and could retire off the profit. Discovering a living, emaciated pilot aboard had crushed that dream; Kel’s ship was his own, and not a scrap of it had become Sadek’s. That Kel was a member of a previously unknown species had hardly seemed important compared to the fortune snatched from Sadek’s hands. Now he would be a footnote in the history of human space exploration, an answer in trivia contests for all of time, and would still be a poor mining-rig pilot for the rest of his life. 

Kel took Sadek’s silence for assent, and craned his long neck over the table. “I have a ship, and no desire to return to my home-world. But I lack experience with human customs and economic activity, and without such my travels among your people would be short.” 

“You need someone to help you make travel plans?” Sadek shrugged as he lifted a spoonful of unappetizing goo. “Can’t help you much there, I’m afraid. I haven’t seen anything but asteroids for almost twenty T-years.” 

“Oh, no.” Kel lifted one of his hands over the table and dropped something onto its pitted surface. “My ship was never designed for one occupant. Now with human tech, I am told it is best crewed by four. I am looking to fill that number.” 

Sadek looked down at the object on the table, and his eyebrows shot up. He had only seen credit chits of the ten-thousand denomination in holovids, but there was no mistaking what it was. Where had Kel found that many credits? Did he have any idea what that amount of money was, on a seedy mining vessel like Thaddeus Wall? 

“I am told this is what your people call a signing bonus.” Kel dipped his head. “There will also be a regular salary, of course. I will make sure it is commensurate to the duties of a first mate.” 

Sadek set his untouched spoonful of food down. The safe thing to do was to refuse the offer, but a ten thousand credit signing bonus was beyond generous. “Of course.” 

“So you are interested, then?” 

Sadek knew he should have asked Kel where the money was coming from, but somehow he knew that no answer he got would be satisfying or reassuring. “I think I am.” In one swift motion, he palmed the chit and stuffed it into a pocket, careful not to raise it too high into the air lest its silver and crimson glint draw unwanted attention. “Let me guess, my first duty is to help you hire two more... trustworthy spacers?” 

2952-01-17 - Tales from the Service: The Burning Chain 

While this week’s Incarnation move into the Farthing’s Chain region is news by any standard, you will not find daily coverage of this development in this space. The embed team controlling this feed is still based in Sagittarius Gate, too far from the situation to provide any meaningful coverage. 

What we will do, as usual, is curate and provide what accounts are sent to us by people nearer the situation than us. It seems unlikely that either Fifth Fleet or Seventh Fleet will be able to respond fast enough to get ahead of this attack, and so many of my own contacts are not positioned to provide good front-line coverage of this situation. 

The offensive’s goal remains somewhat unclear, even to those Navy senior officers who I was able to speak to about this matter off the record. Fourth Fleet is well positioned to counter any advance into the Confederated Core Worlds, and the reported strength of forces seen at Saunder’s Hoard suggests that at most one-third of the enemy’s strength is participating in this offensive, with the rest waiting to pounce on Maribel if Fifth Fleet moves against the attacking force. 

What is clear is that small groups of enemy ships smashed Hypercast Relays and other communication infrastructure in at least six systems simultaneously, briefly crashing Hypercast relay service throughout the better part of the Reach. The network is back up now, including in the theaters of war; Navy backup stations have been activated to patch the hole the Incarnation intended to create. The situation is in the systems hit, however, is still quite unknown. It is unlikely that the enemy has the strength to invade any more than one of those worlds. 

Today’s entry does come from Farthing’s Chain, though unfortunately not from those systems most affected. Though I cannot confirm this, our submitter on this account suggests that groups of enemy ships attempted similar destruction in some systems but were prevented, either by notably strong system security forces, mercenaries who happened to be present, or, as in this instance, some combination of both. 

Maya Szymanski had never seen an Incarnation warship, and hadn’t particularly wanted to. True, she was in the mercenary business, but the helm station aboard the clunky cargo-hauler-turned carrier Rothschild was probably the safest place in the whole industry, even with a war on. No commander would ever willingly take such an ungainly ship anywhere an enemy warship might conceivably show up.  

Normally, it was parked at least two systems away from a conflict zone doing its best impression of an orbital service station, with the dozen strike craft that lived in its hangar escorting transports and supply ships on the dangerous passage to and from their destinations in the theater of combat. Its ancient fusion reactor was so creaky and its gravitic drive so cantankerous that Rothschild spent entire weeks without the ability to even break orbit; its techs spent a whole week checking everything over before they would permit the use of its museum-piece Xiou-Edwards projector array. 

For the first time in the ten years Maya been aboard, the battle-stations klaxons aboard Rothschild were blaring, and the strike craft in the hangar were being scrambled for an emergency launch. Four Incarnation cruisers were inbound, barely 150 million kilometers away and closing fast. 

Maya’s hands sweated as she gripped the cumbersome ship’s controls, but she knew that there was realistically little she could do to alter her own fate, or that of anyone else aboard. There was hope for syrvival, but not too much of it. This was the Atwood system, one of the most idiosyncratic and independent-minded colonies in a region of notoriously idiosyncratic and independent systems. The system’s militia force boasted three destroyers, five frigates, and a dozen or so heavily armed cutters, an impressive array of hulls even if their crews were of questionable quality.  

Rothschild was also not the only mercenary vessel in the system; her competitors Dernhelm and Amit Aliev, vessels of similar provenance, were also scrambling their squadrons. The mercenary light cruiser Callaghan, which had been taking on supplies from its logistics ship, was now charging at emergency thrust to a rendezvous with the local squadron. 

“Helm, break orbit as soon as our squadron has launched.” Captain McCreery got up from his crash-padded chair and began to pace along the bridge’s long central walkway. He often did that when the squadron was away on a dangerous mission, when it couldn’t do any harm to him or anyone else. 

“Aye.” Maya had already plotted a course that would take Rothschild behind Atwood, so obeying that command would take only the push of a button. “For the record, Captain, we won’t make it.” 

“We’ll get behind the planet if Callaghan and the militia engage those cruisers for a few minutes.” McCreery shrugged as he passed Maya’s station. “After that... God knows. Comms, how’s our signal to the relay?” 

“We have a strong beam.” Ted Duncan, the comms technician, sounded hopeful. “The Navy knows they’re here.” 

Maya didn’t have the heart to point out that even if the Navy had a day’s warning about the attack on Atwood, they’d have no way of moving ships in from Maribel in time to counter it. The cavalry was probably almost a week away, and the forces assembled in Atwood couldn’t hold out for more than a few hours.  

“Rothschild, connect your squadron to Atwood tactical network C.” Commodore Meier’s barking voice almost made one forget that he’d never served in any military larger than Atwood’s defense force, or that he was commanding the impending battle from a bunker on the planet’s surface. 

“Will do, Commodore.” McCreery waved to Duncan, who started setting up the connection. “For your sake and ours, I hope you guys have some SLAM sites down there.” 

“Our surface defenses are secret.” Meier snapped. “Get that hulk out of the line of fire, then get your crew to praying. Never worked for me in the past, but it can’t hurt to try.” 

McCreery didn’t bother to dignify that with a response; he merely waved again to Duncan to sideline the channel. 

“Captain, we have begun launch.” The voice on the intercom wasn’t that of the hangar chief; no doubt some underling had been delegated to report up to the bridge while the chief sorted out some last- minute issue with one of the rigs. 

A moment after the technician had finished his report, a strike-craft flashed past the bridge viewpanel and arced away into the darkness, followed by a second. For all her feeling of helplessness, Maya didn’t wish her place changed with those who had some ability to affect the outcome; the strike crews were in far greater and more immediate danger than anyone aboard the ponderous carrier. 

“Hang on. That can’t be right.” McCreery pointed to the secondary display showing Meier’s tactical plot. “Whichever sensor post is reporting that is going haywire, Commodore.” 

Maya glanced over at the plot. At first, it looked just as it had – four sinister triangular indicators bearing down on the desperate huddle of local defenders in their way. Only on a second look did she notice that the estimated course of the Incarnation ships was no longer directly toward Atwood; it showed the ships passing one or two million klicks from the planet, far outside conventional weapons range. 

“Multiple stations confirm, Mr. McCreery.” Meier sounded mystified, and perhaps a bit relieved. “Op-for is changing course to avoid a battle. I’m going to pull the fleet back toward the planet.” 

Maya winced; velocity was protection to any vessel of war, and forcing the defending force to reverse its course would force it to zero out and then start rebuilding the shield of speed. Meier’s duty was to the planet, of course, not to the defending ships; he had to prevent his force from being simply maneuvered away from a world full of civilians. 

“There, the course changed again.” McCreery scowled at the display for several seconds. “Are they... Are they running away? From us?” 

“Looks all hells like it, Captain.” Ted Duncan giggled nervously. “I didn’t know we had it in us.” 

Maya gave Duncan a pitying look. “We didn’t.” She pointed out the forward viewpanel. “They weren’t expecting a fight here at all.” 

McCreery nodded. “Whatever they wanted here isn’t worth the risk of a stand-up fight.” His shoulders slumped. “Continue with that course as soon as the squadron is away.” 

“Aye.” Maya put her hands underneath her console to hide the fact that they were trembling.