2949-05-04 –Tales from the Service: The Jericho Spearhead  

As we mentioned here last week, the Fifth Fleet engaged Incarnation forces in a third – and, I suspect, final – time in the Margaux system eleven calendar days before this feed item is dispatched. This Third Battle of Margaux was only slightly more successful than the first two.

With most of the ground-side weaponry overrun or depleted of ammunition in the months since the first battle, Admiral Zahariev elected for a simple frontal assault in a manner almost reminiscent of battles from the Terran-Rattanai War, with a cruiser screen far ahead supported by the long-range fire of the seven battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet to prevent Tyrant cruisers from closing to their preferred engagement range. Several cruiser captains sent us rather polemical complaints about this method, but it seems to have gotten the fleet into Margaux orbit with only light casualties.

Unfortunately, that’s where things seem to have gone wrong. In theory, an over-the-horizon missile and strike-squadron duel seemed to favor Fifth Fleet since Incarnation ships carry few missiles. In actuality, the Fifth Fleet’s strike assets, previously equal to the more numerous but less durable Coronach interceptors, critically failed to adjust to a change in enemy equipment and tactics. While these Coronachs could chew up strike squadrons and harass larger vessels, they could not previously pose a threat to heavy warships (their plasma weaponry, specialized for anti-strike combat, is not effective against thick armor-hulls). In this third battle at Margaux, the enemy deployed several squadrons of a larger attack craft capable of carrying ship-killing munitions, catching Fifth Fleet totally off-guard.

While the official Incarnation name for these bomber-analogues is not yet known, the datasphere has given them one – Jericho. Rumor has it that the name was coined by none other than Admiral Zahariev’s favorite adviser, Boszi Kirke-Moore.

Regardless of the truth of this rumor, the fleet was forced to take evasive action when this first attack by “Jericho” bombers, heavily escorted by Coronachs, penetrated the Confederated fleet screen simutaneous to a probing attack by at least a dozen Tyrant cruisers. Badly disrupted, the Confederated fleet was forced to withdraw only thirty hours after entering Margaux orbit.

This week's entry describes the experience of Sergeant Lada Hoekstra, a Magpie section commander who happened to be on fleet-guard patrol when this new form of attack first appeared. Though Hoekstra's daring attempt to break up the formation of the new Jerichos had little effect, her flight captured the day's best sensor recordings of the new type, and I'm sure her data is being scrutinized by Naval Intelligence.

Sergeant Lada Hoekstra watched the new set of icons appear on her display two and three at a time, and quickly lost count as more enemy strike units rose out of the pinkish cloudbank covering the planet below. “Never fails. Warm up the guns, we’ve got at least four full squadrons of air-breathers heading up.”

Swinging her Magpie gunship into a helical turn which would give her a visual on the enemy formation, she soon spotted the parallel lines of contrails left by the enemy strike units’ air-breathing engines. Before Margaux, Incarnation strike units hadn’t carried aero-engines of any kind, but the new breed of Coronach had demonstrated the enemy’s ability to learn on the job. Disposable airfoils and electric engine pods slowed the little one-man craft down considerably, but made them reasonably stable in atmospheric operation. Once these parts were no longer needed, they could be jettisoned as the Coronach broke free of the atmosphere and engaged its main gravitic drive.

Sure enough, as Lada watched, the contrails began to end abruptly as the rising swarm of vessels reached sufficiently rarefied air to switch to gravitic propulsion.

On the board in front of her, the indicators for the Magpie’s twin gunnery stations lit up as Silver and Kita ran their rapid-tracking multi-barrel railgun turrets through their pre-battle paces, verifying that the weapons were ready to give the incoming enemy a hostile reception. On the other three Magpies in her flight, six more gunners were probably doing the same thing while the other three pilots kept station behind Lada’s own rig.

Switching her console mode, Lada woke up the ungainly module mounted in the munition bay below her cockpit. Soon, the three-dimensional display gained a new set of symbols, indicating that the device was tracking targets and preparing a nasty surprise for the intruders. Orders were to shadow any attackers at a distance and harass with long-range railgun fire, but with such a large attack wave, she knew her flight would be chased off the main body in short order. Even with ten times more Magpies, she wouldn’t want to risk a close-quarters melee.

“Sarge, what are they doing?” Uberti, Lada’s wingman, sent over direct comms channel. “This isn’t like the other raids. Look at their trajectory. They must be entirely mad.”

Though Lada generally considered anyone who lived every day with a chip feeding Incarnation propaganda into their nervous system must be at least a little crazy, she saw what Uberti was referring to. Waves of Coronachs had staged raids on the Fifth Fleet almost every hour since it arrived in Margaux orbit with varying levels of success, but this group was different. It had come up out of the atmosphere far from any concentration of light warships which their weaponry could effectively damage, but it was one of the largest groups yet spotted.

Lada quickly plotted the raid group’s course, and shook her head in amazement. If they continued on their current course, the group would approach the heart of the Fifth Fleet battle line, a zone of space swarming with Magpies and thick with watchful fire support frigates designed to shred strike formations with their banks of railguns and laser phasebeams. “They’re suicidal. This has to be a diversion.”

Uberti made a grunt sound, unwilling to contradict his superior directly. “Burning a hundred strike rigs on a diversion? Even for Nate, that’s a bit crazy. Maybe they’re drones on autopilot?”

Lada glared at the pinpricks in her display. Their pre-flight briefing had mentioned that command expected the Incarnation to move in with its cruisers for a close-range engagement, but no glinting, dagger-point prows had yet appeared over the planet’s horizon. “Maybe they know something we don’t know.”

As the incoming formation approached, Lada brought her Magpie onto a parallel course at a safe distance where any pursuit would give her flight plenty of time to escape. The module under her rig’s nose announced that it was ready, and she flipped the safety cover off the center switch on her munitions board. The other three Magpies didn’t have the new weapon for this patrol mission, so hopefully the first one worked as advertised. “Recorders on. Let’s try R&D’s new toy.”

After counting to five to allow the other Magpie pilots to ready every recording device onboard, Lada flipped the switch. The Magpie lurched as explosive bolts fired, kicking the weapon out of its cradle and jolting the nose of the gunship in the opposite direction. Just as Lada reversed this movement, the weapon fired a short burst of its chemical thruster and sped away. In theory, it had locked onto most of the enemy strike craft, and would shortly make its presence known.

Evidently, the launch hadn’t gone unnoticed. A group of eight Coronachs peeled off the main formation and headed towards Lana and her compatriots. Lana highlighted them on her display. “Weapons free. Give these guys reasons to be somewhere else.”

The Magpie vibrated as four railgun barrels began spewing glowing slugs into the path of the still-distant interceptors. A moment later, the tooth-rattling buzz of the big belly-mount railgun added its voice and its own stream of orange motes. A flight of four Magpies couldn’t keep up sustained suppressive fire for very long, but as long as the ammunition held out, the little launches keep a nearly impenetrable cloud of relativistic-speed projectiles between themselves and any opponent.

Just as the guns fell silent to cool off and load more ferromagnetic slugs, Lada’s console pinged. The weapon she’d fired off had reached its effective range. A moment later, two quick flashes lit up the sky in the direction of the enemy formation, and two blips vanished from the board.

“Well that was a bit underwhelming.” Lada quickly delegated the suppressive fire task to Silver so she could focus on the new weapon’s effect. “Only two?”

As if to answer her, three additional Coronachs went dark, and most of the rest of the formation began to break up and take evasive action. It wouldn’t help them; the weapon Lada had fired was still tracking its targets. A sixth Coronach flashed into cinders in the void as a low-power laser pulsed outward from the tumbling weapon module, cutting through the thin skin of the Incarnation interceptor.

Lada switched one of her console panes to the camera feed from the weapon’s targeting system. Though the little camera, swiveling rapidly to follow targets, rarely stopped on anything long enough for the human eye to focus, Lada liked to think the constant blur of motion from the weapon reflected the confusion it was causing in the enemy group.

This sense of satisfaction lasted only long enough for the first of the arrowhead shapes to flit across the screen, however. Lada paused the video, rolled it back, then played it again slowly. The vessel that rolled into view was clearly no Coronach, but neither was it any form of Confederated strike craft. Unconcerned with this, the weapon’s simple targeting system fired its phasebeam at the squat, angular vehicle, registered a hit, and moved on, assuming that a hit meant a kill even though nothing had vanished from the display. Whatever the shape was, it was too durable to be bothered by the overcharged point defense laser in the experimental weapon.

“See that central group? They didn’t go evasive.” Uberti, Lada realized, hadn’t been tapped into the weapon’s visual feed. “They haven’t lost one either.”

Lada glanced in the direction the enemy was heading – right for the heart of the battle line. She suspected she knew now what the game was. “Kita, get on the comms and tell anyone who will listen that we’re not just dealing with Coronachs out here. These are something new.”

“What do you mean-”

Lada cut away from the comms channel before Kita could finish his inane question; she knew he’d heard her. “We’re going in for that central group.”

“Going in, Sarge? Are you nuts? There are at least a hundred-”

Lada cut Uberti’s comm with a swift jab at her override controls. In theory, a flight of a few dozen of some new strike variant shouldn’t pose a threat to the battle line, but if they didn’t, the Incarnation using them that way didn’t make much sense. Pulling on the controls, she lined up her Magpie on an intercept course with the odd enemy formation. “One pass at high speed to break them up, then we’re out for home. Keep your lenses and guns rolling and don’t stop for anything.”

2949-04-27 – Tales from the Service: A Spacer’s Intervention 

Thank you all for your kind messages of well-wishing during my illness. Fortunately the infection I came down with was never life-threatening, and I have now made (according to the medics) a full recovery.)

We’ve covered the fighting on Margaux and the Fifth Fleet’s attempts to break the orbital blockade around the planet extensively on this feed. In the last few days, the Fifth Fleet battle line made another attempt to scatter the Incarnation fleet in the system.

While reports are still coming in about the results of the battle, I believe it safe to use the word “attempt” here. Throughout the battle we’ve maintained HyperComm contact with the planet via the secondary relay station set up by the Navy in the outer system, and groundside reports filtering back to us at Maribel along this line of communication indicate no flood of reinforcements or orbital bombardment of enemy positions has taken place on the Causey Plana battlefield, even as the Navy has reported a limited success there.

When Admiral Zahariev’s staff releases additional information on the action in Margaux, we’ll cover it here. I suspect that means you can expect additional details next week.

This week by popular request we’ll continue with another section from the account sent in by Steffen McTaggart, skipper of the heavy salvage tug Aram Sangster. They did manage to get their charge back to Maribel on time to get paid, but to do it, Mr. McTaggart needed to take certain drastic measures.

“Sorry, Boss, I don’t know what happened.”

As Steffen stared out the command deck’s forward viewpanel at the two halves of the wrecked Ravi Songbird, gripping the back of his command chair hard enough to pop the seams on the upholstery, he took three slow, deliberate breaths. At least Freddy Tyson had the good sense to sound convincing about his apology.

Despite the torch ops specialist’s protest, they both knew why the wreck had split in two. Freddy Tyson had made a mistake in his calculations and instructions to his torch-jockeys, and in their attempt to shore up the sundered ship’s remaining structural integrity, Sangster’s swarm of plasma-welder-armed launches had touched off a catastrophic failure of the last few components holding the smashed cruiser together.

Sober, Tyson could out-perform any other torch ops expert in the Reach. He could even, Steffen was certain, direct the torch-jocks through the complex dance required to reattach the two tumbling halves of the vessel into one reasonably stable unit. If he did, Sangster could still tow the wreck through several star drive hops back to Maribel within the Navy’s time constraints and get paid.

Unfortunately, a drunk Freddy Tyson invariably made mistakes, and the current two-piece status of Songbird told Steffen that the drunk version of his torch operations officer was the one currently aboard. “Call the torches back, Freddy.”

“Call them back? I can still-”

“No, you can’t.” Steffen felt the last few stitches holding the padded headrest of his chair fail under his white-knuckled grip. “Go off-shift and get some sleep. We’ll try again at the top of third shift.”

Jeanette Vang, face pale, pretended not to notice her boss’s quiet fury, and Steffen appreciated her tact. She knew as well as Steffen that nobody else aboard had a chance of directing the salvage effort in time; if they couldn’t guarantee the Freddy Tyson who woke nine hours later was the sober one, they would be missing the contract deadline and most of the Navy’s credit bounty for the Ravi Songbird’s recovery.

Steffen knew what he had to do, but he knew that the moment he did it, he would earn the enmity of every spacer aboard his overworked ship. “Make sure those launches get back aboard.” He pointed to Vang, and judging by the wide-eyed nod that constituted her only response, he knee she would.

Hobbling into the lift, Steffen directed it to take him to the crew berth deck, his jaw clenched. Freddy Tyson’s hand-made still squatted in one of the unused cabins, producing noxious moonshine at a prodigious rate thanks to the automation features some of the engineers had helped Tyson build into the rig. No doubt dozens of liters of its output sat in stashes in each crew-member’s private effects, but Steffen didn’t care about most of that; it would be consumed gradually and safely.

Approaching the still cabin, Steffen stared down a crew tech emerging from the door with two newly-filled flasks until the young spacer scrambled out of the way and rushed down the corridor.

When he entered, he found the machinery bubbling and muttering contentedly, unaware of its doom. In another state of mind, Steffen might have switched off the power, disassembled the rig, and made off with critical components to use as leverage. In his current state, however, he reached into his pocket for the tiny shredder grenade he always carried, a holdover habit from his Navy days. Though small and designed to minimize damage to shipboard pressure-seals, the device could still turn a room full of people into a neatly homogenized mass of lightly browned hamburger.

It wouldn’t have quite the same effect on distilling equipment, but he knew it would destroy the still utterly until Sangster returned to port, where Tyson could buy, beg, and steal enough equipment to rebuild  it. Scowling, Steffen armed the weapon, rolled it underneath the machinery, and backed out, overriding the door controls to seal the cabin behind him.

By the time the crump of an explosion and a shrieking alarm indicated that Tyson’s still was no more, Steffen was already halfway down the corridor once more, headed for the torch operations officer’s own cabin. Before damage control had responded to the blast, Steffen had already overridden Tyson’s cabin door and marched inside.

The first few stashes of moonshine proved fairly easy to locate – Freddy Tyson had never been terribly creative. Dumping the acrid liquid into the food-processor’s return receptacle one flask, jug, or bottle at a time, Steffen felt the dull thump of a secondary explosion down the hall through his boots. He hoped he hadn’t done Sangster any lasting damage, and that pouring such a vast amount of ethanol into the food-reclamation piping would not lead to a sanitation system failure, but either of those would be an acceptable loss to have his torch operations expert sober.

“What are you-”

Steffen turned away from the return receptacle in time to see Freddy Tyson charging across the small cabin at him, face ashen. Rather than fight over the bottles, Steffen dropped them and turned to wrap the younger, smaller man in an inelegant but inescapable bear hug, slowly pushing him away from the still-intact moonshine bottles. “You’ve lost it, Freddy.”

“Don’t do this, Steffen.” Freddy struggled and squirmed to free himself. “Don’t. I’m begging you.”

Tyson had never been a military man and had never been in a proper fight as long as he’d been aboard Sangster, so it took Steffen, even in his advanced age, only a few moments to push Freddy bodily out of the cabin.

“Seal door. Command override.”

As Tyson struggled shakily to his feet, the computer obeyed Steffen’s instructions, interposing the metal panel between them.

Ignoring furious pounding on the other side and the muffled screaming and begging of his subordinate, Steffen returned to his task, emptying the bottles one at a time, then searching the cabin for more hidden stashes. Freddy Tyson would be sober when it came time to re-attach the two halves of Ravi Songbird and tow her back to Maribel. If that meant this would be Freddy Tyson’s last cruise aboard Sangster, that was a price Steffen and his remaining crew would just have to pay.

2949-04-20 – Tales from the Service: The Last Straggler

Rumor has it that some time this week the Fifth Fleet is going to try to break through to Margaux one more time. The battle on the ground there has taken several turns for the worse, and we’ve got a flood of reports reaching us here that the Confederated garrison is being pushed further back into a shrinking pocket of the Causey Plana.

With our own ship Saint-Lô not quite ready for action since its last tangle with the Incarnation, Duncan and I are still stuck on the sidelines, waiting for news like everyone else. Even though he’s still very much ill, I have to respect the man’s work ethic – he spent hours these last few days combing the inbox, then helping prepare this story for publication. The ship’s doctor has told him to take it easy, but apparently that’s not likely.

Nyah Kamal, a F.D.A. private on Margaux, sent in our story this week. She was the only survivor of a forward outpost at a place called Small Comfort which came under attack by the Incarnation and was evacuated. Though most of the troops tried to filter through enemy lines in small groups, only Private Kamal made it back to friendly lines.

At this point, victory on the ground seems an impossibility unless the fleet can break through and open sustained supply lines to the Causey troops. Unless that happens, all their fighting does is delay the inevitable.

Nyah Kamal crouched under the meager shade of a whetleaf tree, prying open the plastic seal of her last field ration. She had left the aptly-named town of Small Comfort with fifteen of the canisters in her pack, the same number allotted to each member of her squad, but the path behind her was littered with the broken shells of both rations and soldiers expended along the way, and once she gulped down the last ration, she would be truly alone, beyond the dwindling resources of the shrinking Causey redoubt.

Scooping some of the gritty, cursorily-flavored nutrient paste inside the canister out with her fingers would be the quickest way to quiet her stomach, but Nyah knew better. With most of Margaux’s biomatter containing heavy metals and compounds toxic to human life, her gloved hands couldn’t be trusted anywhere near her mouth. Instead, she used the maneuver most of the planet’s F.D.A garrison had long since mastered – she poured just enough water from her canteen into the canister to loosen the paste, shook it together, then sucked the soupy mixture down as rapidly as possible.

As soon as the canister was dry, Nyah tossed it into the sun-baked rocks and turned to the figure slumped against the trunk of the tree behind her. “Ugh. Why did it have to be sarkey hash… The taste of that stuff makes starving sound pretty good.”

The figure didn’t answer, of course. Corporal Gregor Rose, Nyah’s last squad-mate, had been wounded the previous day when they’d been jumped by an Incarnation air-skiff, and though she’d bound up his wounds as best as their meager supplies would allow, Rose had died during the night.

Nyah had already collected the batteries and slug-magazines from the dead man’s rail carbine and checked his pack for ration canisters. His ident-tag, along with the tags of six others, was already in her pocket. She had no more reasons to linger, and as the late morning heat turned the canyons into rock ovens, she certainly didn’t want to be near Rose’s body as the local decomposing microbes began to work in his flesh.

Nyah had at least thirty kilometers still to go before she rejoined the shrinking Causey perimeter, and in the treacherous, winding canyons of the inner Causey, she knew she wouldn’t make the whole trip in a single day. More likely, it would be three or even four local days before she could next pull rations from a Confederated supply dump; the road ahead would be unpleasant, but as long as she found water, stayed out of trouble, and didn’t buy a plot like the others, she knew she could make it.

Extending her helmet’s tinted visor over her face, Nyah clambered out from under the whetleaf’s sprawling leaves, careful not to touch them. Her light scout armor wasn’t quite hermetically sealed anymore, but that at least she’d been prepared for, with a whole bottle of antidote tablets which could neutralize low doses of most of the toxins found in the planet’s environment. The visor’s heads-up display also gave her a compass and database of terrain maps to work with.

Unfortunately, without the suite of sensors fitted to the more advanced and expensive armor varieties used by the Confederated Marines, Nyah had one problem ahead of her which she couldn’t predict or plan around – the enemy. The terrain ahead of her was as lousy with Incarnation troops as the terrain behind, and the canyons and crags funneled both sides into a small number of narrow channels where clashes were inevitable and the terrain favored whoever was already dug in.

In the first few days out from Small Comfort, Nyah’s squad had been able to blast its way through the hastily-prepared Incarnation pickets blocking their path, but as their numbers and larger munitions had dwindled, they’d been forced to sneak through or even scale the precipitous canyon walls to bypass their foes, opening themselves up to being spotted and attacked by increasingly numerous enemy air-skiffs and ground-attack aircraft. Now that she was alone, Nyah could move either on the surface or in the canyons with only minimal threat of being spotted from the air, but if she was spotted by even a small group of Incarnation troops, she couldn’t possibly hope to shoot her way out.

Before Nyah had gotten very far from Corporal Rose’s final resting place, she heard the sounds of boots crunching on gravel behind her. Diving down onto a ledge overhanging into a nearby canyon, she carefully lifted her head to look in the direction of the sound. Three Incarnation conscripts, laser rifles leveled at the corpse, advanced cautiously into the shade of the whetleaf tree – no doubt this was a patrol whose sharp, implant-aided senses had spotted the pair’s trail. Had Nyah tarried much longer, she might have been set upon herself.

As the soldiers prodded the dead F.D.A. infantryman, Nyah’s eyes fell on their bulging packs. No doubt the trio had set off from their camp with less than fifteen days of rations. F.D.A. barracks scuttlebutt suggested that captured Incarnation rations were somewhat better-tasting than what the Frontier Defense Army supplied, but her main concern was not being slowed down by hunger. Slowly, she brought her carbine up and set it for accurate burst-fire.

With a rippling crack, Nyah’s carbine spat a half-dozen ferroceramic slugs, and one of the soldiers stumbled and fell. Before the sensor implants of the others could pinpoint her, she adjusted her aim and fired again, and the second man dropped. The third enemy soldier raised his rifle and fired once, but managed only to scorch the rock ledge near Nyah’s shoulder before her third burst cut him down as well.

Nyah counted ten seconds to make sure no other Nate soldiers appeared, then scrambled back to the whetstone tree. Corporal Rose’s corpse, undisturbed by the firefight, still sat slumped against the trunk, now with three enemy dead at his feet.

“Thanks for the assist, Corporal. Couldn’t have done it without you.” Nyah knew the sound might attract other enemy troops, so she simply cut each man’s pack open with her knife and spilled the contents into the gritty dirt.

 After determining that the triangular foil-coated blocks in their packs were rations, she stuffed several of these into her own pack. Most of the other equipment the enemy soldiers carried was unfamiliar – a folding frame-device with holographic display lenses was probably intended for servicing and calibrating Incarnation laser rifles, but she couldn’t begin to guess at the purpose of the rest.

Other than a half-empty water canteen from one dead man’s belt, she left the rest of their gear where it lay. “Help yourself to the rest, Rose.” Nyah stood, saluted the dead man, then checked her heads-up display and loped off toward friendly lines once more, feeling unreasonably optimistic. For all that she was probably going to die before she saw dawn again, at least she could be sure she would do it well fed.

2949-04-13 – Tales from the Service: Sangster Stretched Thin

Nojus here. Duncan’s feeling a bit poorly this week and asked me to write an introduction for this piece he’d already finished preparing for the feed. Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious, but you should hear him whining – it might almost convince you he was on his deathbed.

Though the Navy’s battle fleets and their mercenary auxiliaries tend to get the best press, they aren’t the only spacers caught up in this war. Thousands of support ships are needed to keep things ticking, and though their service isn’t nearly as likely to end under Incarnation guns, that doesn’t make their jobs safe or pleasant.

Steffen McTaggart, one of these so-called “rear area” spacers, sent us a message to describe how badly these crews are being overstretched. Apparently the Navy planned for this war to be a short conflict, and is patching the gaps with contract work from civilian vessels like his own, the heavy salvage tug Aram Sangster. These vessels and their owners are profiting from the exchange, but they can hardly refuse an urgent Navy contract (all Navy contracts are, it seems, urgent) without getting the money turned off for good. Most of them haven’t had a full shipyard workup since they arrived on the Frontier.

For the moment, the Navy seems content to just let these crews or ships wear themselves out. There are new ones coming in from the rest of the Reach to more than replace them, even if the growth rate of the rear-area logistics system is fairly poor. Eventually, I’m worried when something in this system breaks, it’s going to break hard and fast.

For those of you wondering, the ship Mr. McTaggart's crew salvaged most recently is one of those destroyed during the Battle of Berkant. Until his message, that the wrecks from that battle were still drifting there until recently, having only minimal recovery operations attempted, is something neither Duncan nor I knew.

“Hells.” Steffen McTaggart scowled out the command deck viewscreen over a mug of acrid spacers’ coffee. As usual, the view forward of Aram Sangster was nothing short of discouraging. “They always stick us with the worst gigs, don’t they. Why didn’t they say the damned ship was blown near clean in two?”

Jeanette Vang, the ship’s navigator and second in command, chuckled from her station. “That’s why they pay us the big credits, Boss.”

Steffen drained his coffee in one gulp and tossed the empty cup in the general direction of the pile of similar disposable containers spilling out of the bridge beverage dispenser’s broken return receptacle. “The big bucks ain’t nearly enough sometimes, Vang. I’ll go see Tyson. We’re going to need the torches for this one.”

Steffen sighed and limped toward the lift, trusting his second to see to the minutiae of edging Sangster closer to the shattered hulk of the heavy cruiser Ravi Songbird. There would be an extensive debris field around the shattered cruiser, but Sangster’s extensive screening fields and multi-layered armor-hull would let it bull through this with ease. Berkant being, at least for the moment, still a Confederated system, there was little chance of anything more dynamic than tumbling debris threatening his ship.

Being the commander of the biggest, most rugged FTL tug operating in the Coreward Frontier had its advantages, but today, like most days, Steffen wished for a command his Navy paymasters didn’t hold in such high regard. The Navy saw his ship and crew as the ultimate fixers for a sticky salvage situation, and for the moment they weren’t wrong, but the hardware and personnel of Sangster were beginning to show the strain. The bridge drink-dispenser was hardly the only symptom of the slow decay which had overtaken his once smartly-run ship.

Once in the lift, Steffen instructed it to carry him down four decks to the launch deck. Trying to haul both halves of a dead cruiser in one run would have been a tricky proposition even before the war, and now with his crew wrung out from eight months’ dashing from one job to the next with no shore leave, he didn’t doubt there would be complications. It would be far safer if the torches made sure the wreck stayed in one piece before Sangster tried moving it – but the torch hands and their machines were without doubt the parts of his outfit that most needed a rest and refit.

The lift disgorged him into the launch deck gallery. Through the armor-glass bulkhead opposite, he could see Sangster’s six torch launches lined up in two neat rows on the main launch deck below, umbilical cabling snaking to connect to each.

Hobbling toward the launch ops station at the end of the little gallery, Steffen barged in to find Freddy Tyson and two of the torch jockeys sitting on the consoles, chatting and passing around a flask of something that he doubted was water or coffee.

Tyson stood – not entirely steadily – at Steffen’s approach. “Boss, to what do we owe the-”

“Get your torches ready.” Steffen grabbed the flask from his subordinate’s hand, sniffed it, and recoiled at the sharp odor that only a crude shipboard distillery could produce. Before the war, he’d tolerated Tyosn’s alcoholism and the hobby that sustained it, and every wartime gig made him regret this leniency. “The Navy failed to mention that this wreck is only in one piece because a few hull panels didn’t quite get the memo that the bow and stern are getting a divorce. Can you and your boys make it stay in one piece?”

The two torch pilots slunk out the compartment’s opposite door, heading for their own ready-room. They wouldn’t launch on their initial survey run for at least two more hours, so Steffen hoped they would have enough time to sober up.

Tyson frowned, his eyes unfocusing as he worked on parsing Steffen’s words and formulating a response. “Anything’s possible, Boss. I’ll get on it.”

Steffen gritted his teeth. While sober, Tyson could be a borderline savant at directing torch operations – he had a knack for knowing just what parts of a wreck could be cut, which needed to be reinforced, and where the trouble spots would be. While drunk, on the other hand, and this had become an increasingly common state since his home-world of Mereena had been overrun by the Incarnation, Tyson lost his focus and his edge. Even drunk, he was better at his job than most, but most didn’t stand a chance of keeping the derelict Ravi Songbird together through a pair of Himura jumps. If either end of the ship broke loose during a star drive maneuver, thousands of tons of potentially salvageable Navy hardware would go tumbling off into interstellar space, along with Sangster’s reputation with the Navy.

Sensing Steffen’s concerns, Tyson stiffened his posture, clearly offended. “We’ll get it done, McTaggart. We always have.”

For all his slow downward spiral, the man and his torch pilots did always come through in the end. Steffen sighed and waved the half-empty flask out the viewpanels toward the torch launches on the deck below. “We can’t afford any mistakes on this one, Tyson. You’re off the bottle until that hulk is secured and we’re under way, do you hear me?”

Though his first reaction was a wince, Tyson nodded. “Makes sense, Boss.”

“Good.” Steffen turned on his heel and hobbled back toward the lift, taking the flask with him. He could almost believe Tyson would honor that request – almost.