2951-08-16 – Tales from the Inbox: The Cover Crop

Evgeny sat with his back to the reassuring bulk of a proper Reach-manufactured tilling machine and called up the farmstead’s network on his wristcuff to check what was still functional. The debris had stopped falling, but he could still hear occasional fizzling and sparking sounds from somewhere in the chaos that had been his experimental plot, along with wet squelching sounds and viscous dripping.

To his dismay, Evgeny saw that four of the six Incarnation crop-tender machines he’d acquired at great expense were not even responding on the network. The status readouts for the other two were a cascade of orange and red indicators, along with a fast-flowing stream of binary data that appeared on the display only as a block of wavy static. Though the makers of the machines spoke a variant of Anglo-Terran, he could make nothing of the labels associated with these readouts.

Muttering a resigned curse, Evgeny looked up from his wrist, only to have his attention transfixed by the beams of light filtering into the shed from dozens of jagged holes, some of them big enough to put his fist through.

The blast had riddled his little pre-fab cabin, too, but Evgeny decided he would prefer to be sitting inside and drinking coffee while he considered his situation. After peering at the smashed plant-beds one more time, he clambered to his feet and, giving the pulped plants a wide berth, picked his way back to where he’d started his eventful morning.

Though his comms belt-pack was buzzing insistently, Evgeny collected a cup of coffee from the thankfully-undamaged food-fab unit, then brought it back out onto the balcony to look down at the center of the blast from a new angle. There was nothing left of the cabbage-like growths that had exploded. Only the stubby base of their tender machine remained, its internals dangling out of the shattered stump. Only a few centimeters of vine remained above the soil, and each severed end leaked greenish-yellow goo. The other plants had been variously mangled, diced, or pulped, and nothing looked salvageable.

After a few sips of coffee, he still didn’t see any bright spots on his outlook, except for the daylight shining through the shed opposite. He had not told anyone about where he was going or what he would be doing there, and the plot of land was kept well away from prying eyes. The food-fab still worked, but with the cabin perforated, all it would take was one good rain squall to short everything out. The tracked ground-crawler he’d hauled everything out on was parked far enough away that it was probably undamaged, but he’d never be able to haul everything back. Pieces of the Nate machines were probably scattered hundreds of yards into the trees. Eventually, someone would find one and the trail would lead right back to him. The authorities would have way too many questions, and he wasn’t interested in answering any of them, ever.

The comms unit was still buzzing as Evgeny tossed his freshly empty mug into the oozing vegetable ruin and started for the crawler. If he recalled correctly, there was a kilo or two of mining explosive in there which had been part of a previous cover story suggesting he was rambling about in the woods prospecting for minerals. The less he left of the site, the better.

Once he had found the explosives, Evgeny paused to check the comms board on the crawler, which told him he’d missed dozens of messages and comms channel requests, all from the same source, an anonymized numeric identifier. He ignored them; in his line of work, anyone who wanted to be anonymous and couldn’t be bothered to at least steal a respectable datasphere identity wasn’t worth dealing with.

He’d set explosives around the shed and the remains of the garden plots when a single-seat lighter zipped overhead at high speed, then banked into a high turn and began to circle back. Wincing, Evgeny tossed the rest of the explosives under the cabin and stood to wave at the aircraft as it passed overhead a second time, giving it the universal double-thumbs-up that indicated that he was all right. Hopefully, that would dissuade the pilot from landing.

The lighter was, however, not dissuaded. It circled to bleed velocity and altitude, and would soon be landing. Evgeny wondered how he’d explain the mess, or the obviously foreign machinery littered about as he picked his way over toward the only obvious landing site to meet it.

As it turned out, he didn’t need to explain. The pilot hopped out the moment the little aircraft came to a stop. Her reddish skin and mane of pearly white hair told Evgeny who it was; after all, there were only two or three Atro’me on the whole planet, and only one of them had any interest in his affairs.

“Constable Neeson!” Evgeny waved with enthusiasm he didn’t feel. “What brings you out to my holdings?”

Neeson folded her arms over her chest. As one of the minority of Atro’me who had elected to have her body and face modified to better match those of a human, she was not unattractive, if one could get over the fact that she wasn’t human, but those yellow eyes always made his blood run cold. “Care to tell me what insanity you’re up to this time, Evgeny?”

Evgeny shrugged. “Agriculture project.” He followed Neeson’s gaze behind himself to the shredded shed. “It’s, ah. Not going very well. Can I help you?”

“There’s been an explosion.” Neeson frown ed. “I suspect you might know something about it.”

Evgeny once again glanced behind himself. “It was, ah, a fertilizer accident?”

The constable stared at Evgeny blankly for several seconds. “Do take this seriously. Two people are dead.”

Evgeny held up a hand. “We are not talking about the same explosion, are we?”

Neeson frowned, then shrugged. “You thought I was coming about the mess over there? Bah. Blow up your own land all you like, as long as it’s all the way out here, and as long as you tell me what you know about bay Seven White.”

Evgeny froze. Bay Seven White was the spaceport berth where he’d met the smugglers who’d gotten him his cache of Incarnation agricultural equipment, the place he’d taken charge of those precious crates of now-destroyed machinery. That had been many weeks ago, but still, it couldn’t be a coincidence. “Something exploded at the spaceport in bay Seven White? Let me guess, the Ursula DeKalb was berthed there.”

Neeson nodded slowly. “So you do know something. I know you met that ship the last time it was in port. Do they work for you?”

“Oh, no. Not most of the time. Not right now anyway.” Evgeny winced. “Look, it’s, a complicated business relationship, you know how it is.”

“What do they deal in that might explode?” Neeson pointed one crimson finger at Evgeny. “I’ll forget to report that you bought some of whatever it is if you help me get to the bottom of this.”

Evgeny brightened. Immunity from being looked into wouldn’t last long, but it would last long enough for him to cover most of his tracks. “Oh, that would be just fine, Constable.” He beckoned toward the farm plot. “Right this way, and I’ll show you what’s left of what I bought from them.”

I am not sure if I buy Evgeny’s story about a convenient visit from a law enforcement professional looking into a blast at the spaceport. Sure, things explode at colonial spaceports from time to time, but the timing here is too convenient. I would suspect that our contributor here has compressed events into a shorter time-line as part of the track-covering he freely admits to.

Regardless, we should pay attention to the dangers of handling Incarnation equipment; many people seem to want to get their hands on “Nate” hardware but are not aware of the risks. If you want my advice, leave enemy materiel alone; the Confederated-make equivalent is in most cases just as good and much safer.

2951-08-09 – Tales from the Service: The Envoy’s Proposal 

While the Gilhedat are probably only coming to Confederated space in numbers of a few hundred or less, my inbox certainly over-represents these beings in terms of the stories sent in. Nearly everyone who has encountered them seems to want their story featured in this space. 

That being said, I do not think we will do many more of these stories; there are other sapient species native to the Sagitrtarius Frontier whose stories deserve to be told as well, and we expect a resumption of military operations soon which will also create further material for the Tales from the Inbox series. Though I appreciate all the other Gilhedat accounts sent in, there seems to be a very distinct pattern to these encounters which seems beyond the scope of this series or this embed team to analyze. 

Nestor Palazzo watched in amazement as the other star-captain and the golden-skinned alien left his ship’s lounge. He didn’t think that Cremonesi was in any physical danger, but the idea of negotiation with the Glitters tied his stomach in knots all the same. 

“Why do you fear us?” The female – Drase – fixed those pupil-less scarlet eyes on Nestor again, and he felt the blood drain from his face. Those eyes, he was certain, saw more than they should. “We bear no weapons.” 

Nestor looked away. Couldn’t she just see why he didn’t want them on his ship? Why he couldn’t survive a voyage of even a few days in their company? Wouldn’t any denizen of the Reach have very nearly the same reaction? 

“You have no secrets worth preserving, Captain Palazzo.” She continued, her tone lower and almost compassionate. “And even if you did, why would we gain from learning them?” 

“Secrets?” Nestor shook his head, still refusing to meet the Glitter’s penetrating eyes. “What’s inside my head is my own. Damned private. Like the ship, but that didn’t stop you.” 

“I am sorry. The initiative was mine. Your colleagues were only too glad to assist.” 

Nestor chuckled hoarsely. That was probably the closest he was going to get to an admission that Desjardins had used his official override codes to grant them access to his ship. “I’m sure they were. Nobody else wants you any more than I do, do they?” 

“I am afraid not.” Drase paused for a long moment. “Have you really been alone on board all these years?” 

“Damned right.” Nestor had gotten his start in space as an engines tech on one of the big passenger liners, but those ships had teemed with enough human life to make him glad to see the end of every voyage. After inheriting his great-uncle's modest estate, he’d been able to strike out on his own. It was a simple, monotonous life, but it was one he’d dreamed about as a child, and it was one which suited him well. Nestor had never been accused of working well with others. 

“I see.” The tone of these two words suggested that she saw too much for Nestor’s liking. “To us it seems a sad existence.” 

“Look.” Nestor turned around, squaring his shoulders. Drase’s posture and bearing had changed to something a bit more human, a bit less aloof. “With all due respect, get out of my head and see to your own affairs. Save your pity for someone who isn’t living his dreams.” 

Drase smiled, though there was something uncanny about the expression, an incomplete copy of the real thing. “I do not envy your dream. But if you would permit, I, and only I, would like to share it.” 

Before Nestor could decipher what she meant, one of the two others, face still expressionless, stepped up behind Drase and whispered something in her ear. Her monosyllabic response did not seem to satisfy the other, but he backed away all the same. 

“Hold on.” Nestor finally put her words together into an arrangement that made sense. “I won’t take all four of you to the Sprawl, so you think I’ll take only one at a time?” 

“Perhaps I should explain our purpose in traveling to human space, Captain.” Drase held up a hand, indicating her compatriots, both in the room and otherwise. “We seek to increase understanding of your kind and its nature. Our kind has seen too much of what the Incarnate has shaped for our liking, but it remains to be seen whether this shape is an aberration. That study will be a work of many of your decades. Perhaps many of your lifetimes.” 

Nestor frowned. “You think you can learn something of humanity by riding along on my ship? I go months without seeing people sometimes. All you’d have to study is...” He paused. “Oh, no. Hellfire, you must be mad.” 

Drase took a step forward, holding her arms out. With every move she made, she seemed to grow more human-like, though the uncanny sense that every movement and every gesture was a copy remained. “It is bold perhaps, but it is not madness. There is much you stand to gain, and much I stand to learn for my people.” 

Nestor stepped back. “I, uh.” He didn’t know why it was so hard to simply refuse and turn away. He wondered if the Glitter woman might be using some sort of mind-game to influence his thinking, to muddy what should have been a clear decision. 

As if reading this thought, Drase smiled. "What you feel is not of my creation. I only sensed it before you did." 

Nestor frowned, following the muddled feeling through his thoughts until it dove down into imponderable places. He was no longer so afraid of having his thoughts looked into – in fact, he was more worried that this sensation might, in time, turn into a cracked-tooth ache. 

“You do not know what it is?” 

Nestor shook his head. It was vaguely familiar, like a strain of music heard once a long time ago, but he had no word for the sensation. 

Drase held out one slim, golden hand. “Then, if you will allow me, I will help you learn.” 

2951-08-02 – Tales from the Service: The Unwanted Envoys

Nestor Palazzo let the woman lead him out of the Survey offices and onto Grigoriev’s main concourse, where a sparse crowd, mainly composed of repair techs and mining-rig workers on leave from their work-sites, meandered between the few scattered commercial frontages. He didn’t like how familiar this Cremonesi was being with him, but she was a fellow spacer, the captain of her own vessel at that, so she deserved a bit more leeway than he’d permit any other.

“I’d wager you’re right about Desjardins setting you up.” Cremonesi kept her voice low, so it was almost drowned out by the conversations of passers-by. “But he’s too smart to get caught doing it. If you want these Glitters off your ship, screaming at him isn’t going to do it, certainly not quickly.”

Nestor shook his head. “You offering to take them up to the Sprawl, then?”

“The credits would have to be real damned good.” She shrugged. “I hate passengers, but this kind would at least not make a mess or try to get too chummy. Especially if they are mind-readers. Then they’d see how little their company’s wanted, eh?”

“And lots of other things.” Nestor winced and shuddered at the thought of a gaggle of mind-reading xenos flitting about his ship, staying out of sight but reading his thoughts all the same.

Cremonesi laughed, and it was a harsh, barking sound unused to being heard by any ears but her own. “Sure, I guess. If they really can sift through our thoughts, it’s their loss to try.”

“Their loss?” Nestor looked down at the other spacer for the first time since they’d left the Survey offices.

“Can’t be anything but.” Cremonesi tapped her temple with one forefinger. “Think of all the pointless nonsense your neurons get up to when they aren’t getting seriously used, then imagine getting all of that from everyone in the room, all the time, on top of your own. Poor bastards would probably bleed out the ears if they had to sit in third class on a tramp liner.”

Nestor considered this perspective. Perhaps Cremonesi was right; perhaps simply buying a group of Gilhedat transit tickets would never have done. Even if she was wrong, someone aboard would see what they were and recall their supposed mind-reading powers, and the poor crew of the liner would have a riot on their hands.

Cremonesi slipped away into a shop for a moment, then reappeared with a sack and handed it to Nestor. He frowned at her, feeling the familiar weight and shape of a bottle of Ruby Mash, Grigoriev Station’s notoriously potent locally-produced liquor. The stuff was more of an industrial solvent than a sipping drink, but with the military overseeing the transit route, few ships coming across the Gap carried anything better that could compete with it.

“Just in case we need it.” Cremonesi arched an eyebrow. “If they really are mind-readers, I mean.”

Nestor shrugged and led the way toward the dock containing his Macie Kurtz and its unwelcome would-be passengers. He felt like he should attempt to make small talk as they walked, but every time he snuck a look over at his erstwhile companion, she seemed hardly to be paying attention to him anymore.

Despite the ship having been his home for more than two T-years, Nestor braced himself as the hatch at the top of the boarding ramp unsealed. “With any luck they’ve left already. If they got in, they can get out.”

Cremonesi shook her head. “Friend, you are not that lucky.” She gestured forward. “Lead on.”

Nestor sighed and headed into the ship, climbing the steep, textured ramp up from Macie Kurtz’s belly to the habitation deck above the cavernous cargo hold that made up most of the ship’s internal volume. Cremonesi was right; the passengers’ cluster of cargo crates was still sitting at the landing where it had been left by whoever let them in. He sidled past them, once again eyeing the strange magenta and white insignia emblazoned on each one.

Though he’d been gone more than a standard hour, Nestor doubted that any of the four Gilhedat had moved a muscle since he’d departed to see Desjardins. Three of them were standing precisely where they had been, and the fourth sat in a chair facing the viewpanel. Only those standing turned their golden faces and ruby-red eyes toward him, and just as before, he felt those eyes peeling back his thoughts, layer by layer.

Captain Cremonesi shouldered past Nestor and into the lounge before he could compose himself. “Captain Palazzo is not able to get you where you want to go. Who told you he could?”

The three figures standing in the middle of the room looked at each other, then at Cremonesi. Nestor saw her flinch, but she squared her shoulders and stood her ground, looking between them for an answer.

After several seconds, one of them spoke. “We were informed that this ship was soon to transit to the central habitat at Sagittarius Gate.” It was a female – though these creatures bore none of the standard human body-shape markers for femininity, its voice and bearing made its sex entirely clear.

“This is a cargo runner, not a passenger craft.” Cremonesi gestured behind herself toward Nestor. “This man is not equipped to be your host. You need to find another ship.”

“Lack of comfort in transit is of no concern.” The female xeno stepped forward, her skin seeming to glitter. “Our errand is of importance.”

Another of the creatures placed his hand – by bearing, it must have been a male – on the female’s shoulder. “Allow me this moment, Drase. I believe I comprehend their purpose.”

The female turned and looked at her companion, then stepped back, her face going as blank and expressionless as it had been when Nestor had entered the lounge.

“I see that you are as much a star captain as our unwilling host.” The male extended a hand toward Cremonesi. “So I was, once, but no longer. Come, let us talk of solutions that do not trouble good Captain Palazzo.”

Though I too have heard the rumor of so-called telepathic aliens, I think the more likely explanation is the one given to one of our regular contributors by passengers of this kind some months ago. True interspecies telepathy is likely impossible, however, these Gilhedat seem to be hyper-observant and capable of easily picking up on and interpreting the mannerisms of almost any sapient creature.

This is little comfort to those who are trying to keep secrets from them, of course.

[N.T.B. – Or for those who are trying to negotiate with them. Supposedly, the Glitters sent to interact with humans are mainly envoys and ambassadors; whoever is set to be their opposite number really has drawn the worst lot a diplomat can draw.]

2951-07-26 – Tales from the Inbox: Envoys at Grigoriev

Grigoriev Station is one of several installations built or expanded by the Navy in the environs around Sagittarius Gate. While the station is small compared to the notorious Sprawl, it has the advantage of orbiting a heavy terrestrial world whose surface is mainly ocean, where water and other organic substances critical to maintaining human life around a lifeless blue-giant star can be harvested with relative ease. The supply runs to and from this station are handled mainly by small-tonnage independent haulers, many of whose skippers and crews were already in Sagittarius when the conflict started and were picked up by Bosch’s Lost Squadrons.

Evidently, Grigoriev is also a convenient dumping ground for Navy ships returning from far-flung patrols with unplanned passengers, even when those ships intend to return to Naval facilities in Sagittarius Gate. I suspect Admiral Abarca has issued orders preventing civilians, especially Sagittarius-native nonhuman civilians, from spending any time aboard Navy facilities in the Sagittarius Gate defensive area, though I can find no public order to this effect.

This sort of order seems needlessly broad, but I can see the intent behind it; the Navy is worried that The Incarnation might recruit spies to secret themselves among the stream of nonhuman petitioners and refugees which always flows toward The Sprawl. Perhaps there is information in his hands more concrete than a mere worry.

[N.T.B. – It could also be as simple as discouraging these xenos from hitching a ride on Navy patrol and scout ships. The Navy is not a passenger line, after all, and hopefully making that route inconvenient will encourage them to find other rides.]

Nestor Palazzo barged into the office of Station Grigoriev’s Alien Sapience Welfare Officer, sparing only a glance at the dark-haired woman sitting on the near side of the desk. “Desjardins, you are a real bastard, do you know that? A real damned bastard.”

The woman half-turned, one hand reaching inside her coat, but she froze when Lieutenant Desjardins raised a hand and an eyebrow. “Captain Palazzo, if you’ll kindly wait outside-”

“Get them off my ship.” Nestor pointed one thick finger at the Aswo. “Now. You had no right.”

“Got a Nuisance problem, friend?” The woman smiled knowingly.

Nestor looked down at her properly for the first time. Though she was slim almost to the point of emaciation, her sharp-edged face had nothing of frailty in it, and very little of beauty. She was a

“Captain Cremonesi, please.” Desjardins stood, placing his palms flat on his desk. “Now, what is it precisely that you think I had no right to do, Nestor?”

“You know what you did. You know I don’t move passengers, especially not xenos. I don’t care if they’re going where I’m going. I don’t care how many credits Survey is paying.” Nestor pointed behind himself, picturing the cluster of xenos huddled together in his ship’s tiny lounge. “You want those things moved to the Sprawl? Hire someone who wants the trouble.”

“I am afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.” No expression of concern or confusion disturbed Desjardins’s face. “If you are having a fare dispute with customers who fall under my protection-”

“Off my ship.” Nestor stepped forward, towering over the still-seated Cremonesi and over Desjardins. “I will inform my clients that you are personally responsible for the shipping delay.”

“I don’t see how I am responsible for any delay.” Desjardins rapped his knuckles on the desk. “Are you having a disagreement with one of our resident xenos or not?”

“You let them on my ship. I know you did.” Nestor gritted his teeth. Nobody, especially not a sniveling coward of a rear-echelon desk-officer, toyed with him like that. “When I pull the security records-”

The woman stood and slid between Nestor and the Aswo, leaning on the edge of the desk. “If he really did lead a bunch of Nuisance onto your ship while you weren’t looking, I’ll hold him down myself while you shoot off bits of him.” She stuck out a hand. “Palazzo, was it? I’m Cremonesi, skipper of Tycho Spike. Why don’t you start from the beginning.”

Nestor glanced between Desjardins and the woman. The fact that the Survey officer did not react to the idea of having two irate spacers disassemble him with their side-arms was highly suspicious, but he liked where Cremonesi’s mind was at. “Fine.” He warily took Cremonesi’s hand and shook it. “I’ll hold you to that, even though it’s not Nuisance he’s saddled me with. Damnation, I’d almost prefer if it was.”

Cremonesi’s eyebrows shot up. “There’s something out here worse than Nuisance?” She glanced over her shoulder at Desjardins. “What sort of xeno are we talking about here?”

“I can only guess that Captain Palazzo is referring to a group of Gilehdat who I introduced him to at last night’s function.” Desjardins shook his head. “I have no control over their movements, of course.”

“Gilehdat.” Cremonesi frowned in thought. “You’re talking about Glitters. God, I didn’t know there were any of them here.”

Desjardins winced. “Their own chosen word for their own kind is much preferred, Captain.”

Cremonesi rolled her eyes to show what little she thought of this request. “The Glitters are probably the most polite things anyone’s met out here, aren’t they? Why would they slum it riding on a cargo mover?”

“Polite, hells.” Nestor shook his head. “Everyone knows they’re mind-readers, and worse.” He shivered at the memory of those piercing red eyes peering past his face, peeling back the layers of his very soul. “Desjardins got them aboard my ship even though I told them last night right in front of him that I don’t do passengers.”

Desjardins shook his head. “The Gilehdat are registered diplomatic envoys, and that places them outside my responsibility. I was merely being a polite host and showing them which skippers they needed to talk to for passage to The Sprawl.”

“Then why are they on my ship?” Nestor stepped around Cremonesi to reach for the Aswo, who backed up a step and remained out of reach.

“You want them off?” Cremonesi once again interposed herself. “Forget the Aswo. I’ll get rid of them for you.”

“Really, Captain Cremonesi, I see no need for you to-”

“Stow it, Desjardins. If you’re not going to help him, I might as well.” Cremonesi threaded one thin arm around Nestor’s bicep. “Let’s go see your ship, and your Glitters. I’ve been meaning to test that mind-reader rumor out for myself.”