2949-11-02 – Tales from the Inbox: Messinan Machinations

There isn’t much to report here at BerkantFifth Fleet is still orbiting Berkant proper, and the enemy fleet is still at Hallman. A few Incarnation ships have arrived to reinforce our opponents, but not enough to seriously change the tactical situation, especially since a fairly sizable group of mercenary auxiliaries has also arrived to relieve fleet units of guard and escort duties. 

While I can’t speak to the plans being worked on in Admiral Zahariev’s command conferences, the delay seems to be giving the F.D.A. even more time to reinforce and ready its ground-side garrisons and anti-ship batteries, so I would guess that the Fifth Fleet is going to make its stand over Berkant. 

This week, since there’s not much going on here worth telling, we won’t be covering the experiences of one of the many service personnel waiting for the Berkant situation to explode into open battle. Sheila Ruzzier, an independent trader and regular Cosmic Background viewer and reader, has brought to my attention the strange behavior of Sovereign Security Solutions forces in the remote (and so far largely ignored by conflict) Frontier system of Messina. 

Messina sits on the far side of Margaux and closer to Adimari Valis than Maribel. Though it is still nominally a Confederated system, any ship traveling there must bypass several occupied systems, and most of the supply runs to the small colony of Burgh Messina are accomplished by small independent haulers, with the big corporate vessels deeming the route too perilous. The only defense the colonists have against the Incarnation is a small force sent apparently pro-bono by Sovereign Security Solutions, though one gets the sense they have other things than protecting the colony on their minds. 

Sheila prepared her best irritated scowl before the doors opened, and managed not to let it falter too much when she saw the wardroom table on the other side laden with food – real food, not food-fab swill.  

The two men who had roughly escorted her up from the docking bay to the destroyer’s wardroom gave her a gentle push forward, then shut the door behind her. 

“Welcome aboard Tantalus, Captain Ruzzier.” 

Sheila whirled to face the voice and found herself face to face with a trim, gray-haired man whose garish Sovereign Security tunic was accented by a crimson sash studded with gold medallions. As someone more used to the casual wear of civilian spacers and the muted greys and navy-blue of Confederated military uniforms, Sheila found the bright ensemble almost clownish. 

“Do pardon the enthusiasm of my spacers.” The gray-haired man gestured to the table. “Please, help yourself. There’s no sense discussing business on an empty stomach.” 

Sheila glanced at the table, eyeing a spread of enticingly sliced cheeses. She hadn’t had real cheese since... well, she didn’t know how long it had been. A spacer rarely enjoyed such luxuries, except when binging away a big score, and Sheila’s crew had never found a properly big score worthy of celebratory binge. “What you’re doing is piracy.” 

The man smiled thinly, moving smoothly to the opposite side of the table and plucking a piece of candied fruit from a tasteful arrangement there. “Stars around, Captain, there’s no call for such slander. We have taken nothing from your ship. We have harmed no-one. We intend this to continue.” 

“You overhauled us with weapons hot and ordered us to surrender.” Sheila glanced once more at the food, then back up at the man. It had been nearly seven hours since she’d been forced to surrender her ship to the mercenaries, and in that time she’d been given no answers, no explanations, and nothing to eat. She hoped her stomach’s rumble wasn’t audible to her opposite number. 

“Unfortunate, yes. With so many enemy agents infiltrating the Frontier these days, we could not be too careful. Your ship and crew do seem to be in order, however.” 

“And you think a few hundred credits of food will get me not to file a complaint?” 

The man held his chosen morsel up to the light, then tossed it into his mouth, letting her question hang in the air as he chewed. Finally, he turned back to Sheila. “File your complaint if you wish. As soon as you hand over the supplies for Burgh Messina, you’re free to go.” 

“So piracy it is, then.” Sheila gripped the back of a chair pushed in below the long table. 

“What did I say about slander?” The mercenary captain held up one long-fingered hand, palm upward. “Whatever your broker on the planet promised you, Sovereign will double it. Don’t worry about the colonists, either. We’re handling distribution directly.” 

“Double?” Sheila blinked, at a loss for words. Even cutting out local middlemen, there was no way the mercenaries could turn a profit distributing a few hundred tons of medicines and electronic components to the settlers on Burgh Messina if they bought them at double price. Even if they gouged every family on the planet for everything they were worth, Sovereign would just end up owning the better part of the land on a backwater Frontier world, and by all indications the company was not in the real estate business. “What’s your game?” 

“Trade secrets, I’m afraid.” The man shook his head with mock regret. “Do try the salami, there. It’s all the way from Earth.” 

Sheila glanced at the indicated platter, then back up at the mercenary, “You’re really paying double?” 

“Try us.” He grinned. 

“And if I refuse?” 

The way the man’s smile twitched just momentarily into a shark’s grin told Sheila exactly how such a refusal would go. “The details can wait while we eat, don’t you think?” 

2949-10-26 – Tales from the Service: Watching Hallman

As most of you already know, Fifth Fleet has reached the Berkant system and taken up station in orbit around Berkant. The evacuation of the planet is ongoing as a precaution, but Admiral Zahariev’s staff has indicated that they like the odds as currently presented and plan to hold the line. 

The Incarnation fleet remains in orbit around the outer moon Hallman, and all reports indicate that they have received very little reinforcement since Fifth Fleet arrived. Whatever their plan is, it seems to require Hallman at least as much as it requires Berkant itself, though the world lacks any infrastructure to support their fleet. The force in-system seems to be the main body of Incarnation forces operating in the Coreward Frontier; there have been raids elsewhere but as far as I can tell, no more than five Tyrants are involved in these operations. 

Berkant lacks all but the most basic orbital defensive systems, but the Frontier Defense Army is well entrenched on the surface and has installed numerous surface-to-orbit anti-ship missile batteries; it is a concentration of these that the failed Raid on Berkant some months ago was apparently attempting to capture. 

This week, I’ve been able to interview one of Saint-Lô's Magpie pilots who went out on a high-velocity scouting run past Hallman. While he didn’t have much to discuss in terms of what his rig’s sensors saw there (the systems record and catalog without crew input), his own observations with the good old Mark One Eyeball were quite interesting. 

[N.T.B. - On paper, the odds are in Zahariev’s favor here at Berkant, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is going to go badly. The enemy is taking his time even as auxiliary units pour in, suggesting that they expect overwhelming success against us. Given how things have gone at places like Margaux, they can’t be blamed for confidence.] 

When the autopilot began its turn and Hallman swung into view, Samir Pajari frowned at the dirty grey crescent, following its lazy trek across his canopy from left to right. Shortly after the moon appeared, banded brown Blythe, its parent, began a similar journey. 

Ten days before, he couldn’t have guessed which system the moon was in, or even what region, but now it was the name on everyone’s lips because it was Nate’s footstool. From such a vast distance, the cruisers and support ships circling the moon were quite invisible, but the console in front of him showed the orbital space around the forsaken orb festooned with red and orange indicators. The Incarnation’s inexplicable interest in Hallman was quite beyond Samir’s pay grade, but he still spared a few seconds to wonder about it. Perhaps there was a raw material in its crust they needed to fuel their war machine, or perhaps it was a simple staging area where troops and gear intended for the invasion of Berkant could be unpacked, inspected, and stockpiled. 

The silent view didn’t last long, however. Soon, the board was chirping alerts as wide-ranging Coronach patrols detected Samir’s Magpie. Though he had the benefit of a high base velocity courtesy of a double slingshot maneuver, there was still some chance at least one of the patrols would get a shot on him before he zipped past Blythe’s family of moons and out into the void; that was a risk he’d understood before starting on his run. Four other Magpies rigged for surveillance had set out on the same mission, though on very different courses, and if things had gone according to plan, they’d all reach closest approach within a few minutes of one another. Though there were hundreds of Coronachs pacing the void around Hallman, it was unlikely that more than one of the five Magpies would find enemy strike units in the perfect position to intercept. 

Fortunately, though several nearby patrols turned to parallel Samir’s course, none of them could accelerate to match his rig’s velocity before he zipped past them in a long arc bent slightly by Blythe’s massive influence. The other four surveillance craft were outside the range of his sensors, but he prayed they had similar luck. There might be more Coronachs waiting when he exited the enemy perimeter, and forewarned they had a slightly better chance of intercepting usefully, but by the time he ran into them, any data from the close approach would be sent back to Berkant on a tight beam. 

With the autopilot doing most of the actual flying, Samir was free to scrutinize Blythe, Hallman, and the other visible moons, and he took full advantage of this as soon as the Coronach patrols had given up their desultory intercept attempts. Blythe’s crescent seemed something carved of agate and set in the firmament by a cosmic jeweler, beautiful despite its rather dull pallette. The other moons also each shone like a polished cabochon, but Hallman had none of its parent’s charms. Even from a distance, the moon’s lit limb looked unclean and scabarous, and it took deliberate effort to think that people might live on its surface. Compared to Blythe and its other moons, Hallman was an aesthetic ugly duckling, an unwelcome foster child in a canted and retrograde orbit. 

As the planet and moons crossed the canopy, they also grew somewhat in size, and Samir knew that closest approach would happen soon. The autopilot puffed the thrusters to turn the Magpie to face its nose toward the moon of interest, and the gray crescent halted in the center of Samir’s view. He imagined he could make out the geometric green plots of settlers’ crop-fields and the criscrossing lines of irrigation canals bringing meltwater into the mild latitudes from the ice-caps. The meager agricultural export of Hallman couldn’t be of much use to Nate’s war machine, but Samir had heard rumors that the Incarnation’s ships contained many parts that were grown rather than manufactured, so perhaps they had other crops in mind for its rocky soil. 

As the moon grew ahead, Samir began to pick out the faint orbital glitter of ships crossing into the light of Berkant’s primary before vanishing over the moon’s horizon. He wondered how many of these were Tyrants, how many were lumbering cargo auxiliaries, and how many were something else entirely. No doubt his ship’s sensors were logging that information as he watched. 

A curious phenomenon caught Samir’s attention just before his ship spun to begin its randomized outward acceleration. Along the night side of Hallman, he picked out faint networks of light, as of a network of interconnected cities on a much more populous orb. The network had at least a dozen bright nodes, with gossamer threads connecting them, and must have spanned at least two thousand miles of equatorial plain. 

Samir took a few stills of the phenomenon and added them to the data payload his Magpie was already sending on a tight-beam signal back toward Berkant. Whatever Nate was doing on Hallman had him stumped, but he hoped the images would give someone in fleet headquarters something to go on. 

2949-10-18 - Tales from the Service: The Defenders of Berkant 

I’m sad to say that despite all Fifth Fleet public predictions to the effect that the Incarnation was not capable of another offensive this calendar year, a large enemy fleet and a handful of troopships has arrived in the Berkant system and occupied Hallman, a barely-habitable moon orbiting one of the system’s gas giants. 

While this is all but certainly a staging point for an invasion of Berkant proper, the planet is still not interdicted, and I am told an evacuation effort is proceeding. Meanwhile, the Fifth Fleet is in motion – as of this feed item appearing in your ingest, the main battle line will be in the Berkant system. It seems likely that Fifth Fleet will be able to take up defensive positions around Berkant long before the Incarnation is ready to attack. 

Though the defenses at Berkant are nowhere near as sophisticated as the ones on Margaux, it’s also unlikely the enemy has nearly as many troops to put into a Berkant land campaign. With only a few troopships in the system as of this writing, the invaders can take settlements on the outer planets and moons, but would have trouble against the F.D.A. garrison already in place. More troopships are almost certainly on their way, but their delay gives the Navy time to make its own move. 

Just before Fifth Fleet left Maribel, a sizable force of mercenary warships and haulers mainly from Sovereign Security Solutions departed as well. My understanding is that this force did not coordinate its movements with Admiral Zahariev, but it is coordinating directly with the Maribel headquarters of both the F.D.A. and Confederated Marines. What a bunch of antique destroyers and frigates can be expected to do offensively against a few dozen Tyrant heavy-cruiser analogues I can’t imagine, but the troops and supplies those haulers are carrying have to be considerable. 

Captain Alia Arendse paced between the bulkheads of the cramped bridge, not bothering to conceal her agitation from the crew at the duty stations all around her. As warships went, Ronan Lyndon had never been the most imposing thing, but it was one of the larger system defense units on the entire Frontier, fitted out in the days when Bozsi Kirke-Moore had prowled the spacelanes aboard Samarkand. Now, it was a superannuated prestige piece, but it was the only thing between thirty Incarnation heavy cruisers and the ongoing evacuation of Berkant. 

Why the enemy had pounced on Hallman, rather than making straight for Berkant itself, still wasn’t clear to her or anyone in the diminutive Berkant system defense force. True, it was the only body in the Berkant system besides the planet itself with a breathable atmosphere, but the moon had little in the way of infrastructure or industry worth taking – its main export was the disgruntled and under-stimulated children of the few homesteaders clinging to its lichenous rocks. 

“Any sign of Fifth Fleet?” Alia knew she’d asked the question only a few minutes prior, but staring down a full-scale invasion of the Berkant system until Admiral Zahariev arrived wasn’t her idea of a pleasant shift. At any moment, Nate’s interest in Hallman could end, and the enemy fleet could surge forward toward Lyndon and the handful of picket cutters in its loose skirmish line, cutting the life expectancy of every Confederated spacer in the system to a matter of hours. 

“None yet, skipper.” McKee, hands dancing across the sensor console, shook his head without looking up. “If this is one of that blasted brigand’s ruses, it’s a damned good one.” 

Alia winced and nodded. The supreme irony that Lyndon had been built to repel Kirke-Moore and now hoped for rescue by a fleet whose commander relied on the old pirate as a tactical adviser was not lost on her. Perhaps Zahariev and his favorite adviser had concocted some fresh scheme to surprise the Incarnation fleet, but more likely Fifth Fleet was merely running behind schedule, as usual. “Fifth Fleet will be here.” 

“Yeah.” Magro, one of the gunnery techs in the recessed pit at the front of the bridge, muttered, probably to his neighbor. “Question is, will we be when they show up.” 

“Belay that, spacer.” Alia sympathized with the man, but couldn’t permit that sort of talk during a battle drill. Lyndon was fast enough to save itself, true, but if it did, the civilians evacuating from Berkant would be left totally exposed. 

“Contact. Strike units coming in fast.” McKee called out. “They’re going to try to get among the transports.” 

“Hellfire.” Alia spun and dashed to the center of the compartment, where she could best see the three-dimensional tactical plot in the main display. Sure enough, a swarm of tiny orange motes was moving in from the direction of Hallman. “All ships and stations, weapons free. Engage when you have lock.” 

As Lyndon’s bow railguns rattled off a spray of railshot into the paths of the incoming attackers, Alia counted only a few dozen motes among their number, and only a handful of them seemed to be Nate’s new “Jericho” bombers. This was, she decided, a probing attack, intended to test the defensive screen centered on her ship rather than to defeat it. If they did break through, however, the toll taken on the evacuation ships would be high. 

Old though she was, Lyndon wasn’t going to let a little probing attack slip by, however. The gunners quickly filled the enemy force’s flight path with deadly slugs, and the attack force broke up almost immediately, scattering and heading back into interplanetary space. 

A green crew might have cheered, but Alia’s bridge crew didn’t utter a sound. They knew as well as she did that Nate would be back, and in bigger numbers. The armada at Hallman could launch thousands of Coronachs and hundreds of Jerichos, enough to overwhelm even the best gunnery from such a small force. Perhaps they already had, and this easily-dispersed few were the scouting force for the main body. 

“Any kills?” Alia found this question more encouraging than the repeated query about the status of Fifth Fleet. 

“Aye. We got one Coronach before they scattered.” McKee bracketed a tumbling wreck in the sensor plot. 

BD98, that’s going to drift into your sector. Check if there’s anything worth retrieving.” 

“Acknowledged. We’ll let you know in about ten minutes.” 

Alia scanned the main plot, then glanced over at the secondary display showing the activity at Hallman. “Quick as you can. Something tells me we’re not going to be left alone for very long.” 

2949-10-05 – Tales from the Service: The Sagittarius Sniper, Revisited 

At last, Naval Intelligence has cleared me to relay this account, though it is by now several months old. You may recall that very early in this text feed series we published a story called TTales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper, featuring an enterpreneur’s failed attempt to set up a depot at Sagittarius Gate. The accident that befell Martin Westland there remained unexplainable for a long time, but I believe the work of a squadron of Naval Survey Auxiliary pilots in mapping out the natural objects present in the Sagittarius Gate system has accidentally resolved this little mystery. 

One of the pilots involved, an occasional reader and viewer of Cosmic Background content, sent a duplicate of their report along with a lengthy account of their discovery, but as the report is under seal as a file of strategic importance to Seventh Fleet operations, it took Naval Intelligence a long time to go through it and provide me a list of the details I am and am not allowed to include in this feed item. 

Their censorious attention to detail has nevetheless given me a vast array of facts to work with. I cannot offer hard numbers, astrographic positions, or anything similar, but the general shape of the discovery is fair game, and it is that general shape which more than adequately explains Mr. Westland’s accident. 

Pacey Salo flipped a series of switches on the control panel the Navy techs back on Vigilance had just bolted to the left side of his console, frowning. The Navy’s fancy gravimetric sensors were supposed to pick out the ripples in the cosmic fabric caused by the passage of large masses such as asteroids and planetoids, but after working reasonably well for a few hours, the system had utterly failed, its readouts stuck at their maximum levels and warning lights blinking more or less at random. 

Nothing else aboard her little ship seemed to be affected, and she thanked whatever guardian angel looked over her for that. With the amount of power the gravimetrics required, a short could have fried her explorer’s navcomputer or arced through the whole system, leaving her dead in space. 

“Brick, Jolly, I just lost my gravimetric unit. Damn thing’s totally dead.” Pacey scowled out into the darkness ahead as she waited for the radio signal to cover the few light-seconds of distance to her compatriots. They were already behind timetable, and the Navy wouldn’t like another delay, even if it was their own damned fault this time. Falling back on radar and visual detection in her sector would quadruple the time necessary to mark all the hazards and bodies that tumbled through the planetless proto-system surrounding bloated blue Sagittarius Gate. The system, a cheerless place by any metric, had been no small amount of trouble to survey already, since the Navy had added battle wreckage to the array of troublesome objects circling the star. 

“Copy, Nitro.” This was Jolly’s gruff voice. “Do what you can with standard gear.” 

“On it.” Pacey yanked on the control column to drive her ship directly into the heart of her assigned sector, then set the ship’s twin visual-light telescopes to scan the starfield. She was hardly a fan of the slow-boating visual detection method, but could hardly claim it was anything other than what she’d signed up for. The computer would flag anything moving that wasn’t already on the charts or in the data streams from the other two surveyors, and she’d fly to each one to have a closer look. Most likely, she’d pass the bulk of the list off to the others when they finished gravimetric scans of their own swatches of space. 

Just as Pacey was telling the ship’s little food machine to make her a coffee, the gravimetric sensor panel’s warning lights winked out with a series of bright chirps, and the readouts had begun to fall back to their normal levels. 

“Creative Hells?” Pacey flicked the power switches on the new sensors several times, then watched as they started up to show relatively normal gravitational flux. “Boys, my gravimetrics just came back, but I’ve got no idea how long I’ll have them. Damned Navy-tech hackwork.” 

“Watch the chatter, Nitro.” Jolly’s barking reproach had less than the intended effect, since it arrived more than eight seconds after Pacey had finished talking. “Sweep back over the area you passed while it was out, then finish your sector.” 

Even before the squadron leader had finished reminding her of how to do her job, Pacey had already yanked the ship’s nose around to face the empty space she’d just vacated. Most likely, she hadn’t missed anything during the little hiccup, but Naval Survey Auxiliary didn’t deal in Most Likely. It dealt in absolute certainty. After all, there was little use in a navigational chart that only included most of the local hazards. 

Almost as soon as she’d reversed course, the warning lights returned, and the readouts spiked up to their maximum levels and stayed there. 

“Guess that was too good to be true.” Pacey shook her head, her hand hovering over the comms control. Something about the failure bothered her, and she wanted to figure out what before she reported in once more. 

As she sat puzzling over the situation, a wrenching sensation pushed her back into her chair. The frame of her little ship groaned in protest. Several system alarms began to wail at once, but by the time they did, the sensation and the groaning of stressed structural members had already ceased. 

“Woah.” Pacey scanned the instruments, dismissing alarms as she went. The combination of warnings suggested she had sustained high acceleration – high enough to briefly overwhelm the inertial isolation system – but she’d been coasting without the main drive engaged. Strangely, both her position and bearing were off where they should have been, but the drive showed no indication of having been accidentally engaged. Most tantalizingly, the gravimetric sensor readouts were crawling back down toward normal once more. 

Pacey had an idea, and she knew it was a bad one. Even without doing the math directly, she could estimate what it would take to haul her ship off course and heading in an instant. Supposing she’d accidentally performed a gravitational slingshot around an unsighted object, there was only one material – theoretical material, really – dense enough to create so violent a slingshot. It would also cause the gravimetrics to go haywire when she pointed them in the right general direction. 

“Boys, I’ve, uh. Got something.” Pacey’s hands danced across the console, pinpointing the exact moment of her sudden course change and estimating the location of the object which had caused it. As yet, she had no proof anything was there, but proof wouldn’t be long in coming. “Something really weird.” 

“How weird is weird, Nitro?”  

Before Jolly’s cautious response had reached her, Pacey had already estimated the orbital path of the object she’d encountered and had a decent idea of where it was, and where it was going. “How weird exactly is a two meter ball of pure neutronium, boss?” 

The silence on the comms circuit lasted far longer than transmission delay could adequately explain. Jolly knew as well as Pacey did that neutronium didn’t exist, except theoretically at the hearts of neutron stars and other super-dense bodies. A chunk of the stuff small enough to do a flyby of should have burst into a spray of loose neutrons the moment it formed, yet Pacey was increasingly sure that’s exactly what she’d found. 

To test her theory, Pacey turned her ship toward where she thought the object was now. The moment she did, the gravimetric sensor system flashed warning lights and shot its indicators up to maximum once more. 

With a sigh, Pacey turned away from the object, entering its orbital ring as an area of extreme hazard in the database. “That explains that, at least. Why do answers always create more questions?” 

While the existence of (relatively) small, apparently natural, masses of neutronium density and nearly zero detectable emissions in the Sagittarius Gate system defies explanation in terms of our scientific understanding, it seems clear that one of these bodies (a smaller one than the one Pacey discovered) collided with Mr. Westland's ship at high relative speed. He's lucky things turned out how they did - a slower collision might have resulted with him and his ship being wrapped around the object like so much solar foil.

Given his adventures since, I'll say more broadly that Mr. Westland is a very lucky man, even if he thinks otherwise.