2949-03-09 – Tales from the Service: Arowana’s Encounter 

As further information has been released about the movements and adventures of the Lost Squadrons in their fifteen months cut off from friendly forces, a number of members of the audience have requested – demanded, really – an interview with Captain Samuel Bosch. While this publication interviewed the man before the war, and would very much appreciate a chance to do so again, I must remind you all that this embed team is aboard the Fifth Fleet battleship Saint-Lô, which is still undergoing repairs in the Maribel system. Bosch is still aboard his now-well-known flagship Arrowhawk, which is currently on the other side of the Gap at Sagittarius Gate. Even if it were on its way back toward Core Worlds yards for a refit – which to my knowledge it is not – there is no reason it should stop here at Maribel. I fear these requests are not likely to be fulfilled. 

Though I cannot bring you the words of Bosch himself, this week Naval Intelligence has cleared us to share an account from Walker Gorman, skipper of a picket cutter among the Lost Squadrons. His account, which we will continue next week, seems to partially explain the relationship between the Incarnation and the Grand Journey (mentioned to Mus’ad Balos in Tales from the Service: A Reacher's Request), but to understand how it does that, you will need to wait until next week's entry. To my knowledge, this feed has an exclusive on Mr. Gorman's account - it won't be available elsewhere on the datasphere before then.

The Lost Squadrons, in their wandering through the Sagittarius Frontier, seem to have run into this Grand Journey – or at least, some of its warships. 

Lieutenant Walker Gorman barely glanced over at the situation plot as the EVA team’s utility sled dart out from the open hatch below Arowana’s bow. He couldn’t take his eyes off the green world below, where twilight marched across a vast, branching mega-continent. The system deep within the Sagittarius Frontier had no formal name, only an anonymous catalog number, and it contained a world that he could already tell rivalled Maribel in terms of habitability and natural beauty. 

Before the war, Walker had been planning to leave the Navy. He loved the spacers’ life, but there hadn’t seemed much hope of advancement in the peacetime officer corps. He’d been a lieutenant for eleven years, passed up for promotion twice, and even the shuffling after the Great Purge hadn’t opened up any windows through which he could rise beyond command of a lowly picket cutter. Unglamorous as civilian service was, it would give him a chance to run his own ship and his own life, and maybe leave room in that life for a family. He’d grown up in just such a spacer family, after all. 

All those dreams had been put on hold when his little Arowana and the whole scouting group it was assigned to had been sent across the Gap. They hadn't known then what they were getting into – nobody did. The flag cruiser of their group, swift and elegant Mistralion, had perished within weeks of the cutting of the HyperComm relay chain, lost with all hands under the cannons of a pair of those damnable Tyrant cruisers, and Arowana had done what the rest of its force had done – scattered and fled. 

Arowana had linked up with the Arrowhawk scouting group, along with the other survivors of Mystralion’s squadron. There, in the dubious shelter of Sam Bosch’s wings, his little crew had come to terms with the reality that, at least in the short term, the cavalry wasn’t coming. There would be no rescue they couldn’t make themselves. 

Making a rescue was of course why his cruiser sat in orbit over a nameless green world. The system had been the location of a privately held colony of about fifteen hundred Confederated humans before the Incarnation’s swift cruisers had swept hopeful Confederated colonists from its side of the Gap. Walker and his ship had come to check if this tiny outpost had survived, and had been entirely unsurprised to find silent radio bands and a scorched crater where the settlement had once been. 

The Incarnation, however, had not been completely thorough; the colony’s modest orbital dock had been haphazardly lacerated by energy beams, but it remained stubbornly in orbit, a disemboweled hulk. Two of the crew had volunteered to go over to the wreck to scavenge for usable equipment, and he had allowed it. He hoped picking the bones of a dead colony would permit some of the Lost Squadrons’ ships and personnel to live a little longer. 

“Skipper, I’m picking up new drive signatures headed in-system, two of them!” 

Walker whirled away from the display to young third-lieutenant Kuijpers on the sensor station. “Incarnation?” 

“Computer’s working on it, sir.” 

“Go to condition two and take the ship dark.” Deep in a stellar gravity well as it was, even abandoning the spacers and their utility sled and running for the jump limit wouldn’t save Arowana if the incoming ships were Incarnation cruisers. Thankfully, the ship had been in a stable orbit for two hours, its easily detectable gravitic drive disengaged – if the ships were hostile, they might not have seen the miniscule cutter burning its way into the system to the habitable world. Though not designed for stealth, Arowana could do a creditable impression of a chunk of debris if nobody put a visual-light telescope on it, and the ship didn’t need to move under its own power. 

In moments, the condition two alert blared through the intercom, and the dozen-odd crew still on the ship scrambled to prepare for action. The ship’s running lights died, and the inner lights dimmed as all nonessential power usage was curtailed. 

Vasyl Zini, one of the volunteers clinging to the utility sled, noticed that something was happening right away. “Skipper, the ship just went dark.” 

“Unknown ships in-system, Mr. Zini. We’re going to lie low until they’re gone. Continue the salvage operation.” He couldn’t tell the tech that there was nothing anyone on Arowana could do but hope to evade notice; it helped morale if Walker always emphasized what he and his subordinates could do, rather than what was out of their control. 

“Ah... Understood, sir. Let us know if-” 

Whatever else Zini said, Walker didn’t hear it. “Unknown drive signatures are a partial match for Incarnation cruisers, sir.” Kuijpers half stood up from her station, as if to bolt off the command deck to abandon ship. 

“Steady.” Walker waved her back down. “We’ve only seen one kind of Incarnation warship out here. What does a partial match mean?” 

The young woman eased back into her seat, hands dancing over the console. “In this case, sir... Their drive signatures are nearly identical. It’s the same hardware, sir, these ships just have more of them and they’re running each one at fairly low power.” 

“More drive units?”  

“The standard Tyrant-type has twin gravitic drives. These ships have five each, sir.” 

Walker took a moment to do the math, then shook his head in amazement. Incarnation cruisers, despite their size, were extremely fast vessels, capable of acceleration which would outpace every Confederated Worlds battleship, carrier, and cruiser currently in service. Only destroyers and the fastest models of cutters had a chance of outrunning the huge Incarnation warships in a footrace, but Arowana was not of this swift variety. Why would anyone need two and a half Tyrants of drive power, especially if they were only running them at very low power settings? 

“Stay dark and continue to monitor.” It was the only order he could give; going unnoticed was his ship’s only hope to survive to return to the bulk of Bosch’s scratch force, with or without a few salvaged parts from the orbital dock. 

2949-03-02 – Tales from the Service: The Changing of the Guard 

As the medical orderlies wheeled Colonel Pokorni out to the balcony beside her, Glorinda Eccleston tore her eyes away from the three burning spires of Mount Ishkawa on the southeastern horizon to look at her commander – or rather, what was left of him. She’d been there on the slopes of that mountain right beside him when the 12th Marines’ regimental command post had been hit. Pokorni’s armor-suit had saved his life from the storm of shrapnel and rock-splinters which had turned a trio of F.D.A officers into a rain of unrecognizable meat, but he’d still lost his right leg and hand. 

Glorinda, wearing similar armor and standing less than three meters from Pokorni, had barely missed joining the unfortunate volunteer-soldiers in death; a jagged piece of rock had struck her in the side of the helmet and caved it in. A few more grams of mass, and the rock might have had the force necessary to crush her head, but she escaped the disaster at Ishkawa with only a concussion and a blown eardrum. 

“Eccleston.” Pokorni’s voice, previously strong, calm, and commanding, seemed thin and weak, just like the man. He’d lost weight in the two weeks since his injury, and his broad-shouldered bone-structure seemed too big for the flesh stretched over it.  

No, she realized, that wasn’t quite right – he'd been losing weight steadily long before they’d been airlifted off Mount Ishkawa with thirteen other wounded Marines. It seemed that every one of his men mangled or killed in the savage fighting on the mountain’s sloped had aged Pokorni a few more years. The Twelfth Marines had lost dozens of men up on those blazing heights, and Pokorni seemed to have lost something up there with them even before his own horrific injuries. 

“Colonel.” Glorinda nodded. Fellow officers didn’t salute each other in the medical ward. A convalescent’s simple shift lacked rank markings, making each Marine in the overcrowded hospital complex the equal of his fellows. Glorinda, not quite a Marine, felt the need to defer to her commanding officer, even if it was only a matter of time before he was relieved of command of the Twelfth, his injuries making him incapable of operating an armor-suit. 

“It’s still burning.” Pokorni gestured at the distant mountain with the stub at the end of his right arm, then stared down at the bandages where his hand should have been, as if still surprised to find the appendage missing. “That means we're still holding it.” 

“Far as I know, we are, sir. But the Twelfth isn’t up there anymore.” The Twelfth Marines, or what was left of it, had been pulled out of the Mount Ishkawa encirclement four days after Glorinda and Pokorni had been wounded. The Sixteenth Marines – in little better shape but at least somewhat rested – had taken their place shoring up the vast F.D.A. force holding the mountain. 

The colonel shook his head. “The Twelfth will be up there until the stars go out.” 

Glorinda winced, remembering the faces of the Marines she’d gotten to know as Intelligence Liaison to the Twelfth’s commander who had perished on Ishkawa. She had been a relatively recent addition to the regiment – many of the officers and enlisted men had been with the Twelfth for five years or longer, since Pokorni took it over. Five years seemed so many lifetimes to Glorinda, who’d gone from Naval Intelligence attaché on a sleepy Frontier world to F.D.A. volunteer to Marine intelligence liaison in half that time, and who had her first taste of combat on Mereena barely six months earlier, but to the surviving men of the Twelfth, each of the dead lying in a broken suit among the rocks and hardy toxic lichens on that mountain was as close as a brother. 

General Bell came to see me today.” Pokorni shifted in his wheelchair, turning to look up at Glorinda. “He mentioned something, and I was hoping you could tell me about it.” 

Glorinda nodded, waking her wrist computer and entering her Naval Intelligence codes. Despite being off the duty roles, her access to Intelligence subnets in the Margaux datasphere seemed to be intact. “I’ve got access. What is it he mentioned?” 

“Something called Juno. He didn’t say, but I got the sense it was something your department cooked up.” 

Glorinda tapped the four-letter name into a general datasphere search and scrolled through the results. Most were the names of people in the Intelligence database, and a few referenced locations named Juno on various Frontier worlds. “Sorry, Colonel. I’m not seeing anything. Are you sure that was the name?" 

Pokorni nodded, then shrugged. “Must be above our pay grade.” 

Glorinda doubted there were many secrets that were beyond the pay grade of a Marine regimental command post. Thinking that perhaps Juno was a person leading an initiative rather than the name of a weapon or project, she did a few more searches, and still came up with nothing. 

Pokorni let the silence stretch, content to watch the flaming mountain in the distance. A fresh explosion bloomed on its near face, and the rumble of the blast, like distant thunder, took many seconds to arrive. Eventually, though, he spoke again. “Have they reassigned you?” 

“No, sir. I’m cleared to return to duty with the Twelfth in five days.” She had recovered her hearing well enough, but the freshly healed eardrum wasn’t ready for the clamor inside an armor-suit in combat quite yet. An intelligence liaison who lost her hearing in battle and couldn’t hear commands or queries wouldn’t be much good to anyone. 

“Hmm.” Pokorni kept his tone and expression neutral, leaving no indication whether he approved or not. “I told Bell to promote Singh. I think he’s ready.” 

Glorinda had her reservations about the boisterous officer who’d replaced the deceased Captain Low in the regiment’s second-in-command position, but she knew no better officer was available. “The men like Singh, sir.” 

“You don’t.” 

Glorinda didn’t bother denying the allegation; she didn’t like him at all. She did however recognize the man’s competence and indomitable optimism; these were things the surviving Twelfth Marines would need very badly. Everyone could see that a final decision on Margaux would be coming soon – and unless the Navy arrived for one more battle in the sky above, that decision would not be in the favor of the besieged Confederated troops. “I will try to see things his way.” 

“As you tried to see things mine?” Louis Pokorni chuckled quietly, pressing a button on his chair to summon the orderlies who would return him to his room. “I do think I’ve had quite enough of that mountain for one lifetime.” 

Glorinda almost – almost – extended her right hand for a handshake but remembered just in time that Pokorni couldn’t take it. Something told her she wouldn’t see the man again before she returned to the Twelfth – his Twelfth, no matter who else was promoted to replace him. “It’s been an honor, Colonel.” 

Pokorni, sensing her hesitation, merely nodded as the orderlies approached. “Good luck, Lieutenant, and godspeed.” 

Colonel Louis Pokorni left Margaux on one of the small ferry operations (such as the one described in Tales from the Service: A Departure from Margaux) which move wounded troops out from the shrinking Confederated perimeter in the Causey Plana and bring in small-tonnage, high-demand supplies. The Navy spacers operating these runs take their lives into their hands every time they enter the besieged system, and while the Navy has not lost a major ship in this manner yet, several have been forced to abort and flee the system. 

I was hoping to engage him in an interview when he reached the medical facility here at Maribel, but if he ever arrived here, there is no record of it. All my datasphere messages have gone unanswered. Unfortunately, this stalwart veteran of Mereena and Margaux seems to have unplugged from the datasphere. Wherever he’s been taken to recover from his wounds, I pray he finds peace for the ghosts which his close associate Ms. Eccleston is sure haunt him still. 

2949-02-23 – Tales from the Service: The Intruder on Grand Azure 

The Navy has been releasing a number of details about an action fought at Sagittarius Gate around the same time the Seventh Fleet relieved the Lost Squadrons. This action was first reported to be a battle between elements of the Seventh Fleet and a squadron of four Tyrant heavy cruisers following the trail of the Lost Squadrons, but as the picture becomes more clear, it seems this battle pitted the military spearhead of the Lost Squadrons against those Tyrants.  

With firepower slightly exceeding that of one normal-strength light cruiser forward scouting group, the scratch battle group organized around Samuel Bosch’s Arrowhawk fought two desperate rearguard skirmishes with the four-cruiser enemy squadron at Sagittarius Gate before the Seventh Fleet’s arrival forced the Incarnation commander to withdraw his forces. A third engagement, mainly between Seventh Fleet strike assets and Incarnation Coronachs, was inconclusive, and the Incarnation, possibly running low on supplies and munitions, departed the system and has not yet returned. 

While some details of this battle remain unavailable to the public, the undefeated (if not particularly victorious) return of the Lost Squadrons has inspired celebrations throughout Confederated space, from the Core Worlds all the way out here to Maribel. These hardy spacers aren’t home yet – they still have to cross the Gap - but I’m sure the Navy will certainly ferry them home for recuperation as soon as safe passage can be arranged. They’ve done their part in this conflict, and have weathered near-constant danger for far longer than anyone could have expected them. 

Messages home from many of the Lost Squadrons survivors have been forwarded to this publication by their original recipients. The fantastic tales included in many of them do interest us, especially the ones which claim to shed light on the mysterious Grand Journey (Tales from the Service: A Reacher's Request) but we are still waiting on Naval Intelligence approval to publish them. 

This week’s account was sent in by a spacer aboard Vigilance, one of the light carriers of the Seventh Fleet force sent to Sagittarius Gate. An occasional reader, this spacer, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to here merely as Azar, read our pieces relating to the mercenary frigate Grand Azure (Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure and Tales from the Service: The Garden of the Grand Azure) and the accounts published by other publications. Faced with an opportunity to investigate the mysterious vessel further during the passage to Sagittarius gate, he attempted to do so, somewhat incompetently. 

[N.T.B. - It should not need to be said, but don’t do what this fool did. Mercs can be a bit twitchy, and he’s lucky they didn’t shoot him on the spot.] 

Azar paced the narrow space behind the cargo shuttle’s twin piloting stations as Patrick Ord, the shuttle’s pilot, lined the little launch up with the extended docking collar of Grand Azure. The frigate was as attractive to look at as he’d once read – the description of it as an ornament instead of a war-fighting machine, if anything, didn’t do its aesthetics justice. 

“Whoever your friends are, Azar, they’re idiots.” Ord shook his head as he leaned over the console to scrutinize the sensor readouts. “That thing’s a pleasure-boat with guns bolted on, and they brought it out here to Sagittarius?” 

Azar had lied to the pilot, telling him that he knew some of the members of the crew of Grand Azure and just wanted to pop over for a social visit while the cargo was being unloaded. In truth, Azar didn’t know any of them, but he knew of them. The strange partnership rumored to govern the vessel had been a datasphere curiosity since the attractive vessel had appeared in the theatre of war. Back then, Azar had been one of the many techs helping restore mothballed Terran-Rattanai War vintage warships to some semblance of fighting order, and he’d never expected to actually see the mystery ship with his own eyes. 

Vigilance had changed all that. From the moment Azar had seen the light carrier hauled out of its mothball orbit and into his drydock bay, he’d known he would leave with it. The light carrier didn’t have Grand Azure’s supermodel looks, but its sleek, proud lines drew him in all the same. It looked like something out of "Return to Earth” and the other old war dramas his father had so avidly watched, mostly because it was – every time he looked up at the hangar observation platform, he expected to see long-dead vidcast stars like Arthur Eileifr or Yumi Miriana standing there, their jaws set in cinematically grim determination.  

He’d later learned – via a message from his father, naturally – that many of these productions had leased freshly-mothballed Vigilance or its sister ship Alacrity from the Navy reserve to use as sets. 

“We're secure.” Ord barely needed to announce it; the shuttle struck the frigate’s docking apparatus with a loud bang and a hiss of atmosphere flooding the flexible docking collar. “Grand Azure, where do you want these crates?” 

Azar hadn’t asked what supplies the frigate had requested from Vigilance. The mercenaries’ supply situation wasn’t the mystery he intended on solving. He just needed an excuse to go aboard – the crates would be that excuse.  

“Understood.” Ord, responding to a voice from the other ship, switched off his earpiece and turned to Azar. “There should be a cargo stowage area just inside on your left. They say to leave everything there. You’ve got fifteen minutes.” 

“More than I need.” Azar cracked his knuckles, then headed aft to the shuttle’s pressurized cargo bay. The bargain Azar had struck with Ord was simple – he hitched a ride to say hello to his “friends” aboard Grand Azure, and in turn, he would haul the dozen-odd crates from the shuttle across to the mercenary frigate, sparing the pudgy pilot the trouble of getting out of his crash-padded pilot’s station. 

Hauling the first trio of bulky crates onto a magnetic-wheeled handcart, Azar pushed them to the hatch, which Ord opened remotely. Compared to the metallic and slightly oily smell of the shuttle’s atmospherics unit and the somewhat close, heavy-feeling atmospheric qualities produced by Vigilance’s old atmospherics systems, the air that washed over Azar’s face when the portal opened seemed unbelievably fresh and clean – it was, he decided, almost like the clean breeze blowing across the  Valèrian hills on Madurai, where he’d grown up. 

Azar pushed his cart across the threshold and onto the gleaming deck of Grand Azure. None of its crew had come to greet him. Was it really, he wondered, the home of an intelligent slime-like creature from the moons of Allenden? The datasphere nodes where he’d discussed the topic in had the mysterious creature known as Sapphire tentatively identified as a Myxomyceti, an alien life-form which wasn’t generally regarded as one of humanity’s sapient peers. One sample from the ship’s hydroponics compartment would be enough to settle the question once and for all. 

Unfortunately, the cargo stowage area indicated to Ord was simply impossible to miss. The alcove, studded with cargo tie-down points, sat only a few meters inside Grand Azure’s airlock. Wondering how he might manufacture an excuse to go further, Azar unloaded his first three crates, then headed back for another load. 

“Azar, how’s it going?” Ord’s voice broke into Azar’s thoughts. It took him a moment to realize the interruption came from the shuttle’s intercom. 

“Three down, ten to go.” Azar loaded the cart once more. 

“Good. Hey, I told the lady on Azure’s comms board that you had a friend on their ship. What was their name again?” 

Azar was glad the other man was still in the cockpit; there, he couldn’t see Azar’s dismay. The lie hadn’t included a name, and now he needed to think of one, fast. “Uh. Blake.” He cursed his reflexive answer even as he spoke it; the Grand Azure’s crew would recognize the game the moment they heard that name, a pseudonym assigned to one of them by the first datacast service to take an interest in their affairs. 

“I’ll see if he can come down to meet you.” Ord cheerfully signed off, assuming his good deed for the day had been done. Azar finished loading his cart for the second short trip and hurried it across. He had seconds to do something, or to come up with a likely story, otherwise, he’d be forced to come clean. 

Pushing the cart into the stowage area, Azar darted to the intersection where the airlock corridor met one of the ship’s main forward-aft passages. The nearby lift and all the doors in both directions were shut and he knew they wouldn’t open for him. Just as he was resigned to coming clean, he noticed that the security door on the access ladder shaft at the forward end of the corridor, perhaps fifteen meters away, stood slightly ajar, left open by a careless mercenary spacer. 

The lift thumped as the car within reached his deck, and Azar sprinted for the open hatch. He’d just reached it when a shout of alarm behind him indicated that he’d been spotted. 

Azar slid down the ladder until he reached the ship’s double-height hydroponics deck. Smashing his palm into the emergency lock override, he tumbled off the ladder and through onto damp deck plating. The warm, moist air and sounds of running water told him he'd made it to the hydroponics deck – now all he needed to do was lose his pursuer among the maze of grow-beds for a few minutes. 

“Hold it.” A woman’s voice, punctuated by the snap and whine of charging railgun capacitors, interrupted Azar before he could stand. “Where do you think you’re going?” 

2949-02-16 –Tales from the Inbox: The Ambush at Zambrano

Nojus here. Duncan’s been keeping a pretty tight grip on the text feed lately, but this week’s news is mine to report. By the time this post is dispatched, Navy Headquarters will have announced that the Lost Squadrons have been relieved by elements of the Seventh Fleet and its mercenary auxiliaries.  

While force reports have not been released, it is probable that the carrier-heavy formation which briefly docked here at Maribel is the center of this relief force; carriers have the largest and most advanced on-board manufacturing systems of all Navy ships, and the units we saw here were specifically designed for long-range forward patrol duties. As Colonel Durand and Mr. Kirke-Moore explained to me in December, the force which arrived at Sagittarius Gate to rendezvous with Bosch’s ragged formation likely lacks any proper battle-line units; it is likely that the mercenary cruiser Rolf Holzmann, which left Maribel with these carriers, is the most powerful warship present. 

Evidently, limited HyperCast relay service has been restored across the Gap, though the Navy won’t say how. Those related to spacers from the Lost Squadrons should expect messages from their loved ones in the next few days – or messages of condolence once the Seventh Fleet personnel bureau processes death records from the Lost Squadrons’ ship computers. No official roster of ship losses and survivals is available; most likely, they’re still taking inventory. 

The Navy datacast release, which Duncan and I have had an opportunity to view in advance, states that Bosch’s force and the civilian vessels which it has temporarily pressed into service have been transferred from Fifth Fleet to Seventh Fleet command. Since the Seventh Fleet has no official representative here at Maribel, we here at Cosmic Background are not likely to hear more about this story through the usual chain. 

The unusual chain, however, continues to provide. Among the first messages received here at Maribel from Sagittarius Gate was a message to Cosmic Background from a spacer Duncan assures me has a history with this text feed series - Gino S. 

Gino attempted to be an early investor in the Sagittarius Frontier even before it was formally opened to colonization, and though this first venture miscarried (Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper), he returned to Sagittarius later and was still on that side of the Gap when the HyperCast relay chain was broken fifteen months ago, mining rare metals at Tel Ramaz (Tales from the Inbox: Angels in Sagittarius). Gino’s vessel and crew were among those collected by the Lost Squadrons, and he has composed quite the account of their adventures. Duncan and I have used an excerpt from near the end of his account to draft this week's entry. We may revisit the earlier sections in the future if there is audience demand.

Gino had never put much stock in self-pity as a reaction to adverse circumstances, but the ambush at Zambrano gave him cause to rethink this policy. 

Gino’s own ship had been lost within months of joining the Lost Squadrons, but that hadn’t hurt too much. After all, Priya Ansa hadn’t been the first starship he had lost to Sagittarius, and he doubted it would be the last. The mining ship had been a good machine, and a good home, but it hadn’t been able to keep up with the pace of life as a fish in this nervous school very long. Navy men had helped Gino and his crew of six move their belongings to the hauler Joszef Beitel, and then had stripped Priya Ansa of anything that might replace a failed part in some other vessel before setting it adrift in the interstellar void. 

Despite the restlessness of his crew, especially trusty Ellen Connelly, his second in command, Gino hadn’t complained as the months aboard Beitel dragged on. He liked its sturdy skipper, a Navy reserve officer named Albricci, and the skipper seemed to like him in turn. The accommodations were spartan at best, but given the alternative of a fiery death under Incarnation guns or the dubious comforts of a prison camp on an Incarnation world, he considered himself lucky. Lucky, that is, until Zambrano. 

Everyone in the Lost Squadrons knew by the time the formation arrived at the ill-fated system that relief was coming. Their long ordeal was almost over. The Navy would come soon, its battlewagons cracking the very starfield with their thundering cannons, and drive the Incarnation’s swift cruisers back into the blackness from which they had spawned. Everyone knew, and nobody wanted to be the last to die. Nobody wanted to be aboard the last ship to fall behind and into enemy hands. 

The unfortunate thing about the word “everyone,” of course, was that it included the multitudes of chip-headed fanatics which crewed each of those terrible, sleek hunters. Nobody knew how the Nates knew a rescue was coming, but everyone knew they did. The pack of four cruisers which had chased off the refugee armada from so many promising supply points had been reinforced by six more of their kind. One way or another, the hunt would be over soon. 

Rumor had it that Captain Bosch’s combat ships were running low on missiles and just about every other type of expendable munition. Though Gino had no way to verify such chow-line scuttlebutt, he found this only too believable. Even if there had been resupply ships in the Lost Squadrons at some point, they had long since been stripped and abandoned in the void to keep other vessels in working order, like his own AnsaBeitel itself was so short on expendables that the food-processor machine menus had dwindled to the five blandest selections – and if Gino knew Navy sensibilities, they had let their own flavoring-reservoirs dwindle to nothing before inconveniencing the civilians. Raw organics stripped from uninhabited systems could keep the nutrient slurry tanks from running dry, but a diet of untreated nutrient slurry would slowly drive even the most hardened spacer mad. Gino that knew better than most - had tried it himself, once, and not by choice. 

Zambrano was supposed to fix all that, of course. Word had come down that the Incarnation had towed a gaggle of captured Confederated Worlds starships to a depot at that system to be examined and stripped of useful materials, their crews held in a prison camp on the planet below. Apparently, the defenses were weak there, with only a few automated missile batteries defending the installation. 

The only catch was, there was no way to both rescue the prisoners and haul off all the necessary goods before the cruisers arrived if the Squadrons followed their usual procedure. If just the combat vessels entered the system, they simply didn’t have enough space to load supplies and prisoners. If Bosch was to get enough munitions and other supplies to tide everyone over until the Navy arrived without leaving Confederated citizens in Incarnation hands, he needed some of the unarmed ships among his ragtag command to dive down into the sucking quagmire of a star’s gravity well, where they were the most vulnerable to attack if the Incarnation’s cruisers showed up too quickly. 

Beitel, to the surprise of no-one on board, was selected for the mission. The big hauler’s engines had held up remarkably well against the strain which had undone Priya Ansa, and it carried less than a third of its maximum load in its cargo holds and external cargo-container brackets. Albricci had offered to transfer anyone who wanted to stay safe to another vessel, but Gino had refused, more out of curiosity than anything else. After all, he'd been on the run with the Lost Squadrons for more than a year and hadn’t once seen any action, not even from a distance. 

Most of his own former crew had taken Albricci’s offer; only Connelly had stayed. Gino never learned why, but he came to fear that it was on his account. 

When it came to the actual event, both Gino and Connelly occupied stations on Beitel’s command deck in place of some of the Navy-reserve spacers who’d elected not to risk their lives at what seemed to be the end of their ordeal. Gino had what he’d been hoping for – a front row seat to the action. Any combat required to take the depot was expected to be perfunctory, but at least he could tell his as-yet-unborn children and their children truthfully that he’d seen Sam Bosch in action. Perhaps in a few decades, that claim would be worth something money could never buy. 

Had Gino known that the supply depot at Zambrano was the lure intended to draw the Lost Squadrons into a fatal ambush, he might still have elected to go along for the ride. Six Incarnation cruisers, loitering in six different ballistic stellar orbits with their engines off, roared into action as soon as the depot came under attack, hurtling toward the intruders. 

While Bosch’s ships swung about to hold off the closest of these massive adversaries, Gino helped Albricci get Beitel lined up to dock with the outpost. Some of the other ships hurried to evacuate the prisoners from the planet, but even assuming the most skillful use of his ships possible, time was running out. 

Beitel was still maneuvering to dock when the Coronachs struck. Gino didn’t even see them coming on the sensors – one minute he was micromanaging a docking sequence, and the next minute the air around him was filled with crystallizing atmosphere rushing toward a jagged, molten hole where the forward bridge bulkhead had once been. At least one spacer – Gino didn’t even know his name – was torn from his harness and out into the void beyond. It didn’t matter whether the man’s emergency bubble-helmet deployed, or whether he cleared the red-hot metal on his way through – there would be no rescue on the other side. 

Wounded Beitel staggered, and despite all Gino’s efforts, collided with the depot. He was still wrestling with the unresponsive controls when Albricci hauled him from the console and toward the exit. 

The next thing Gino remembered was lying on the grip-textured deck in the spacious cockpit of one of Beitel’s cargo shuttles, looking up at the pair of pilot’s chairs. Albricci, sturdy shoulders hunched over the controls, occupied one, and a grizzled-looking woman with a bandage across her forehead sat in the other. He soon learned that he was looking at the only survivors of Jozsef Beitel’s sixteen-spacer skeleton crew. 

As for Ellen Connelly, trusty second-in-command of his little mining ship Priya Ansa, she hadn’t been at her station when Albricci had recovered his wits and started to evacuate, and had not made it to the shuttle cradle in time. Perhaps she too had been thrown free into space, or perhaps she had become trapped inside the failing ship. 

Gino had never put much stock in self-pity as a reaction to adverse circumstances. Losing Connelly at Zambrano just for a chance to see some action, however, seemed so catastrophically unfair that he decided to try it all the same.