2949-03-30 – Tales from the Service: Bennington’s Token 

When Colonel Rhys Bennington approached the hastily-fortified holding cell in sublevel four of his facility, the four armor-suited Marine troopers and two scowling Naval Intelligence agents guarding the door snapped to various halfhearted degrees of attention. It bothered him that his own F.D.A. Soldiers weren’t being trusted with the containment of Hamlinson Bay’s most important prisoner, but orders were orders, and the Intelligence team which had swept into the garrison brandishing vague orders stamped with the highest levels of Admiralty authorization, tying Rhys’s hands even though he remained the putative superior officer of every one of the spooks who’d invaded his domain. 

Even if that were not the case, Rhys wouldn’t have expected them to salute smartly for him. Intelligence and the Marines, along with everyone else in the Confederated military complex, looked down on the Frontier Defense Army as a slapdash, bastard service inferior to their own, an expedient born of a bad war situation and a desire to put millions of exuberant Frontier youths to work doing something to stave off unrest. 

On his darker days, when he was punishing the practice of obscure cultic rituals among his garrison, Rhys might have agreed with them, but he was too proud to admit it now. Before the F.D.A., he’d been a militia commander on Adimari Valis, and he was, unlike most of the F.D.A.’s conscripts, armor-suit certified. Many of his junior officers had similar militia experience, and most of the rank and file were, if not experts in infantry tactics, at least handy with a weapon, rugged of constitution, and intimately used to rambling through potentially dangerous alien ecosystems without stepping into, waking up, or pissing off anything liable to eat them. They might be fractious, superstitious, and irregular, but they were determined, savvy, and curious. Rhys knew his men – and the millions under arms with the F.D.A. elsewhere – were capable of doing their part to stop the Incarnation’s march across the Coreward Frontier, if they were given half a chance to do it. 

“Mind if I talk to our prisoner, gentlemen?” Rhys pointed at the door. He hadn’t spoken more than two sentences to the woman known as Yianna since the day she’d arrived, thanks to the rapid response of the Intelligence team and its Marine muscle. After she had marched into the Lookout and announced herself to him particularly, he’d escorted her back to base and performed a perfunctory interview. He'd also, at her request and direction, assisted in disabling the main transmitter in her cranial implant in a way she suggested would tell her fellows – fellows who even at that moment remained at large on Håkøya 

The shorter of the two Intelligence men – Rhys had never bothered to learn their names, nor they his – put his hands on his hips and adopted a blocking position. Rhys couldn’t help but notice a thin cut on the man’s left cheekbone that hadn’t been there the previous day. “For what purpose?” 

“She hasn’t said a damned word to either of you, has she?” 

The taller Intelligence man started at Rhys’s question. Though the superior in stature, he was the inferior member of the team in both intelligence and, apparently, rank. “How in all hells did you know that?” 

Rhys wanted to tell them how obvious it was since neither of them was in the room interrogating Yianna at that moment, but he figured they were the intelligence officers, not him – they would figure out on their own. “She surrendered to me, and talked to me. Still can’t imagine why, but we should take advantage of it.” 

The two Intelligence men frowned, then drew back and discussed the question in whispered tones. Their dark uniform coats with blue trim annoyed Rhys; that black cloth seemed to gleam in a way that made the drab brown uniform coat of a F.D.I. officer, patterned after the most common pattern of militia uniform used on Frontier worlds, look shabby and dusty even when just as clean. Those were uniforms which had never been smudged by the dust of fallen worlds like Adimari Valis or Mereena, nor the toxic ichors of faltering Margaux, but somehow Naval Intelligence found ways to cover its favorite sons with medals and accolades all the same. 

The taller of the two officers shook his head and turned back to Rhys. “You have fifteen minutes, Colonel.” 

Rhys dipped his head in acknowledgement, then approached the door as the Marines readied themselves to fill the doorway with railshot in the event of an attempted escape. The shorter intelligence officer keyed in a command on his wrist computer, and the armored door the garrison machine shop had helped assemble for Yianna’s cell – a double-layer of translucent corundum shielding spaced by a two-inch plate of armor-alloy – slid slowly to one side. There was a second door beyond, this one a simple metal sheet covered in a corrosion-resistant ceramic laquer and wired is. with dozens of alarms.  

Rhys waited for the outer door to close behind him, then pushed open the inner portal. Yianna’s cell had been an unused store-room before she’d arrived, and a few fabricator-plywood furnishings sat on a rectangle of beige carpeting identical to that in Rhys’s office eight levels above didn’t do much to disguise this. 

Yianna sat on the lower bunk of the bunk-bed installed for her use, and she barely looked up from the page to examine her visitor. In the hand not occupied carrying the book, she twirled a gleaming knife Rhys knew she wasn’t supposed to have, and his blood ran cold at the sight of it. No doubt, he and the other officers at Hamlinson Bay would have been destined to bleed their lifeblood out around such blades in the event of an invasion of Håkøya. 

“Your new friends out there are damnably unpleasant.” Yianna still didn’t look up, but she shifted to give Rhys a place to sit next to her. “Where’ve you been, Colonel?” 

Rhys stood in front of the woman, briefly at a loss for words. Eventually, he decided how he could explain the situation. “Security down here’s tight since you arrived.” 

“Can’t imagine why. If the others realize what I’ve done, that big door and four Marines won’t stop them.” This possibility didn’t seem to faze her; the observation held no more emotional attachment than a conversation about the weather. 

Rhys eventually decided to sit down, keeping his eyes on the effortlessly-twirled knife. “You can tell I’m not one of them in disguise, already here to clean up your mess?” 

Yianna closed the book and set it aside. “Maybe you should be the intelligence officer, not those two outside. Yes, I can tell.” 

“How? Maybe we can-” 

Yianna twirled the knife one more time, then held it out in front of Rhys, its grip extended toward him and blade balanced delicately between her fingers. “Take this.” 

Rhys hesitated. He’d read the intelligence reports about what an Immortal could do with ferromagnetic substances. With almost as many nanomachines inhabiting her body as living cells, Yianna could sculpt metal with a touch. Naval Intelligence guessed that the so-called Immortals could live perhaps twenty years after their technological transformation – eventually, the extensive modifications to body and mind would catch up with them. A primitive part of his brain wanted not to touch the products of this sacrifice, lest his own humanity might become tainted as well. 

“It’s a pocketknife, Colonel.” Yianna shrugged. “My calling-card. We both know that if I wanted to hurt you, I had plenty of time.” 

Rhys nodded and reached up to take the knife by its handle, finding the grip perfectly contoured to fit into his palm. Faint etching traced vaguely floral patterns up the centerline of the slightly curved blade. “Why are you giving it to me?” 

Yianna smiled, not entirely unkindly. “You’re a decent man and a good officer in a shit posting, Bennington.” Rhys noticed a glint of metal on her wrist under the tight-fitting dark uniform she’d been wearing since her defection, and watched as a rivulet of metal flowed up into her hand and formed into another knife not quite exactly like the one he now held. “Maybe they’ll pin a medal on you before this is over and maybe they won’t, but the least you deserve for your damned thankless job is a souvenir.” 

After hearing that his name was mentioned in our feed for the second time since the onset of this war, Colonel Rhys Bennington reached out with some of his own perspective on the strange person of Source Yianna. Even he refused to say whether she remains on Håkøya (but I get the sense from Naval Intelligence reports that she has been taken safely out of the theater of war). All the other Immortal agents on Håkøya she could identify, eight in total, have been rounded up, but the system remains in high alert in case there are more. 

Yianna's presentation of a nanofabricated blade to Col. Bennington seems to have some significance, as I have seen evidence from other Incarnation sources (such as Source Gabriel) that passing on a blade to a compatriot is a sign of deep respect and even affection among them. This is probably similar to the Ladeonist symbolism of a token known as a Callahar (Tales from the Service: The Cursed Callahar), a blunted blade commonly given to friends and foes for various purposes.

[N.T.B. Col. Bennington’s description of rivalries between the service branches is something I’ve been seeing in our inbox a lot lately. Duncan prefers to paper over these issues, but they worry me more than damned Nate ever could. If the Fleet, Marines, F.D.A., Naval Intelligence, Fleet Recon Auxiliary, and other services can’t figure out how to work together as one family, we haven’t got a prayer of stopping these bastards, but if they can figure it out, Nate doesn’t stand a chance.] 

2948-03-23 – Tales from the Service: The Defection of Source Yianna 

The F.D.A. garrison at Hamlinson Bay on Håkøya has had its share of interesting incidents since it was established (most notably to this audience, the incident involving Amber Holiday: Tales from the Service: The Gossamer Patron), but most of those incidents were easily tied to existing settler legends such as the Gossamers. For the most part, Hamlinson Bay seemed to be a backwater posting, with most of its issued easily explainable in terms of restless soldiers posted far from the critical battlefields of Margaux with little to do. 

Unfortunately, it seems that this status is likely to be at an end. Naval Intelligence has revealed that in this apparent backwater, an Incarnation agent was captured only two weeks ago. This agent, who Naval Intelligence is calling Source Yianna (and no, this code-name does not come from the agent’s real name), has apparently been convinced to be quite helpful; several other agents disguised as civilians were captured in the Hamlinson Bay area shortly afterward. 

While the nature of this agent is still not clear, it is possible that Source Yianna is of the same general brief and capabilities as the late agent Horus and other Incarnation Immortals dispatched on behind-the-lines espionage duties in the Coreward Frontier. An extensive espionage ring on the world suggests the Incarnation wants to do more there than keep an eye on the cruiser squadrons stationed in-system, and though the Incarnation’s main fleet seems still tied up at Margaux, a heightened state of alert has been issued in Håkøya and nearby systems as a precaution. 

Yianna waited until the normally blue-white stellar primary had dipped low enough toward the horizon that its harsh rays, diffused by Håkøya’s thick atmosphere, slanted low across the hills in a warm yellow-orange. Sunsets at Hamlinson Bay were always a beautiful affair, even more so than those of bucolic Prospero where she had grown up. In another life, she might have yearned to do as many over-pampered Confederated spacers had already done – stake a claim for a stretch of the brilliant white-sand beach far below, build a bungalow, and live out the rest of her days, with her only company being the hiss of the eternally gentle surf and the four-winged Hamlinson Terns wheeling overhead. 

Unfortunately, for all the beauty of the landscape, Yianna had not come to settle down on the land, and could not do so by choice. As the evening shadows lengthened, she got up from her hiding-place and held her hand up in front of her face, concentrating on the control interface for the nanomachinery teeming in her blood. She grimaced through the agony of the machines’ ministrations as they altered her appearance, her posture, even the texture of her skin.  

Yianna hated the doddering old woman disguise, but she had to admit, as the nanomachines twisted her technologically-reinforced spine into a noticeable hump, that it made her a sympathetic and all-but-invisible figure in the little town of Hamlinson Point. The town, one of the earliest settlements on the planet, had prospered from the appearance of nearly ten thousand Frontier Defense Army soldiers on its doorstep a year previously – the Lookout, a tiny watering-hole perched at the cliff’s very edge, seemed always packed with off-duty F.D.A. men, and every spare room in the town’s cluster of weathered-wood domiciles had been rented by one of the many civilian contractors who were still expanding the garrison’s fortress, and a number of newer buildings now stood on the lee side of the ridge, downhill from the town proper. 

Other, less official personages had also followed the military presence – those selling luxuries most desirable to bored military personnel. Yianna had been advised by her masters to insinuate herself in one of the three burgeoning brothels in the new part of the town, but she had ignored this insulting suggestion. In fact, this first bruise to her high-flying pride as a newly-minted Immortal had started her down a trail whose terminus she now swiftly approached. 

As Yianna’s transformation completed, she scanned the ether for a few moments before shutting down all radio traffic generated by her implants. The firmament still muttered and bickered with the usual digital traffic of a Confederated world, but she was confident that, at least as far as Hamlinson Point was concerned, she was alone inside her own head, and could do what she intended without fear of immediate reprisal, or of her actions being carried up the long and terrible chain to the Incarnation Himself, who would surely mete out dire punishment on her family on Prospero. 

Taking up the tall walking-stick she used in her guise as an old woman – she had carved it herself with a knife when first concocting the disguise, since her nanomachines, though capable of rendering her will in metal, could do nothing with the local wood-analogues – Yianna emerged from the bushes and headed up the winding path to the Lookout, the tiny bar packed with Confederated volunteer soldiers enjoying an evening off-duty. She had watched Colonel Bennington, the local garrison’s commander, walk up that path from his base’s perimeter an hour before, and knew it was time to do what she had been contemplating for many weeks. 

Passing locals and uniformed F.D.A. personnel on the path, Yianna smiled at everyone, and most of them smiled back. She had been in the area for months, and many had seen her around many times before. So few of the local Håkøyan settlers, many of them retired spacers, carried personal digital devices that her lack of wrist computer or other technological accessories raised no eyebrows. 

Long before she approached the Lookout’s heavy double doors, Yianna could hear singing and laughter from within. The babble of such human activity had confused and overwhelmed her for several days when she’d first arrived on Håkøya - the sound seemed vastly chaotic and primeval, compared to the orderly, austere atmosphere of a dispensary in Incarnation territory. The implants that almost everyone carried allowed most communication to be carried on silently and invisibly, and automatically counteracted the volume-raising effects of alcohol and other intoxicants. The Confederated humans lacked this technological improvement, and so had to shout over each other in crowded spaces. 

A pair of soldiers, already quite drunk despite the early hour, burst out of the Lookout, leaning on each other and laughing about some nonsense. One of them waved at Yianna as they staggered by, and she waved one artificially-gnarled hand in return. She’d come to the Lookout in this guise every few nights for several months, and most of the regulars no longer questioned her presence. The soldiers had not hidden anything from her, and what they knew of the Hamlinson Bay fortress, she had picked up by overhearing and by asking a few questions, carefully phrased to be consistent with her role as a curious old woman. 

Tonight, though, Yianna would not be playing her usual part. The Incarnation had inculcated her well with its doctrine, but in her mission to Hamlinson Bay, she had spent too much time alone inside her head, far from any other Incarnation person whose implants might spy her heretical thoughts. When her fellows were near, she acted and even thought like a perfect true believer, but with such a small team spread out across hundreds of square kilometers of terrain, Yianna encountered the other Immortals sent to Håkøya only rarely. In the solitude, that initial bruised ego had festered and grown into a seeping psychic wound – the increasingly dread certainty that the infallible Incarnation had erred in the ancient quest to stave off extinction. 

That alone might have earned her death on an Inquisitor’s blade back on Prospero, even if Yianna was happy to follow a flawed but still virtuous leader of a pure mission. The festering wound might have made her bitter, but not a traitor. Treason – against her fellows and, as the Incarnation declared, against the fate of humanity itself – had an altogether different origin, one born in a long, pleasant conversation with the F.D.A. colonel dispatched to the thankless Hamlinson Bay outpost. What they had talked about, she dared not think about when she believed herself alone in her own head. Her reasons for betraying the cause she had been born to defend were the only thing about her that she could be sure was hers and hers alone; not even the man who’d sown the seeds could know what had sprouted there. 

Yianna paused at the double doors, taking a deep breath and glancing behind her to verify that the two inebriated men were not doubling back. This was the last chance to turn away from her chosen course of action and continue to do her duty to the Incarnation on Håkøya. Grimacing once more in anticipation, she set her nanomachines to begin reversed the disguise which had allowed her to approach this far unmolested, and similarly ordered her smart-fabric clothing to revert to its true form. 

Before the pain had begun in earnest, Yianna pushed open the doors of the Lookout and staggered inside. A few heads turned at first, seeing only a familiar crone, but soon the agony of the nanomachines chewing on her flesh rose, and those cursory glances became wide-eyed stares, and hands darted for the side-arms many of the F.D.A. soldiers wore. Colonel Bennington, in his usual seat at the leftmost end of the bar, was one of the last to take interest, and then only when the female lieutenant he’d been chatting with noticed first and drew his eye. 

Straightening her newly-restored back and rolling her shoulders, Yianna tapped the cane on the wood-plank floor to get the attention of those few who’d not yet noticed her. They saw her now as she truly was, as true as any appearance could be for one such as her. Tall and long-limbed, dressed in form-hugging Incarnation combat fatigues that put every slight curve and angle of her body on display for all to see, she raised her eyes to the uncertain crowd, all of whom certainly knew what they were looking at, and that if she desired, she could kill them all before a single gun left its holster. 

Yianna locked eyes with the garrison commander across the small space. “Colonel Rhys Bennington?” 

The man stood, jaw clenched, as if expecting that answering would mean death. In other circumstances, Yianna knew, it might have done just that. “That’s me.” 

“I request asylum and the protective custody of your brig, Colonel.” Yianna saluted smartly in the incarnation fashion. “I think there is much we have to discuss.” 

2949-03-16 – Tales from the Service: Arowana’s First Contact

The pair of blips representing the unknown ships seemed to crawl across the display, but Walker Gorman knew the vastness of even interplanetary space was deceiving. For his cutter Arowana to gain as much delta-vee as they had in the hour since they’d come into spatial-stress detector range, it would have had to run its gravitic drive above maximum for more than six hours – and from the steadiness of their drive signature, the vessels were cruising at twenty or thirty percent of their maximum drive power at the most. 

The potential speed of the vessels had frightened Walker when they’d first appeared, but that reaction had long since faded, to be replaced by simple curiosity. Why would any sapient, rational or otherwise, construct a vessel with such performance characteristics, when distances wider than a single star’s orbital plane could be covered by a star drive hop that no light-speed-limited gravitic drive could outpace? Nobody was in enough of a hurry to cross a single star system that they accepted the consequences of major time dilation, except apparently these three ships. He might have taken one such vessel for a research ship or high-speed courier despite their size, but two of the same configuration suggested serial production. Most likely, these were warships launched from the same shipyard. 

A few kilometers off the starboard bow, a few of Walker’s crewmen sent back regular updates about the progress of their salvage mission. He let the other bridge crew monitor that situation, preferring to tackle the puzzle of the unknown ships himself in silence. Someone would shout his name if the volunteer scrappers ran into any real trouble. 

On several occasions, Walker had approached a conclusion about the trio of ships, but had shied away from it each time. If he accepted that conclusion, it necessitated a course of action that, should he be wrong, would doom his Arowana and its entire crew – and robbed the Lost Squadrons of any salvaged parts and resources that might be recovered from the dead colony world below and its shattered space dock. 

Third Lieutenant Kuijpers was evidently as distracted by the blips on the plot as his skipper. “That’s way too much engine for travel.” 

This being one of the axioms of the conclusion Walker had been dancing with, he turned in his chair to face the young sensor officer. “What else do you use gravitic drives for, Mr. Kuijpers?” 

“Acrobatics, maybe.” Kuijpers dismissed this almost as soon as he’d said it, realizing as Walker already had that no A-grav system could keep such a ship from pulping its crew or flying apart at the seams under a full-power gravitic drive reversal at that scale. “I don’t know. Matching velocities, overcompensating for a really tiny-” 

“Matching velocities, exactly.” Walker pointed to the plot. “There’s nothing here going fast enough to justify that. Find me something in Sagittarius that is.” 

Kuijpers blinked slowly, likely thinking that Walker was handing him make-work to keep his mind off the peril swiftly nearing closest approach. Still, he bent over his console and began a navcomputer search. 

Unfortunately, the boy had come up with precisely the same reason Walker himself had, and this only put another feather in the cap of the conclusion he was avoiding. The only reason to need serially produced ships which could easily attain relativistic velocities in a short period of time was that they needed to visit a destination that was in itself moving at relativistic velocities relative to other destinations. 

Every spacer knew that a star drive moved the ship in space, but the velocity with which it arrived was essentially the velocity with which it initiated the jump, in relation not to the positions of the stars, but the cosmic fabric itself. Each star system moved at slightly different speed and direction around the galactic core, so the first step in reaching any destination was burning the gravitic drive until the ship’s velocity and the destination star system’s velocity were nearly matched, less a component that propelled the ship in-system toward its intended port of call. Only then could the ship begin accelerating in-system at cruise power. 

Evidently, the search didn’t take Kuijpers very long. With a startled expression, he looked up. “The Tumbleweed, Skipper.” 

The what?” Walker didn’t recognize the name. 

“It’s an open cluster, redshifted to all Hells.” A false-color image of a group of perhaps a dozen stars appeared on one of Walker’s secondary displays. “It's moving almost straight toward the galactic center, and going so fast that must experience time dilation.” 

This was exactly the sort of thing Walker needed to make his decision. The Tumbleweed, according to the data on the screen, was near the far edge of the official boundaries of the Sagittarius Frontier, though outside the densest part of the Galactic Disk, where its pell-mell course was unlikely to result in close encounters with any of the local stars. “Something must have kicked it out of its orbit.” 

“Datasphere says it might have been exogalactic.” 

The word, mind-boggling in scale as it was, made everyone on the bridge look up. Most of them had probably been half-listening, and as that word produced an uncomfortable silence, Walker could see bits and pieces of his conclusion falling into place in each pair of eyes.  

Walker stood up. He knew what he needed to do, and he also knew nobody on the command deck would like it. “That would have been what, a hundred thousand years ago? Longer?” 

“Four hundred thousand. Skipper, do you really think those Nate ships visited the Tumbleweed?” 

“Not precisely, Mr. Kuijpers.” Walker turned back to his chair to lean over the console and tap into the ship’s intercom. “All hands, stand down from Condition Two. Re-engage running lights and IFF transponder.” He then gestured to the other equally-young officer at the comms station. “Prepare the standard first-contact protocols, Ms. Wojda.” 

“What?” Wojda shook her head. “First contact? But these are-” 

“Not Nates.” Walker hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. It would have been safer to avoid the ships altogether, but if the two ships weren’t Incarnation ships, there were only two explanations for the identical drive technology. From what he’d seen of Incarnation foreign policy, he doubted the mad Ladeonist chipheads were the type to negotiate licensed manufacturing. “I think we’re about to meet the people Nate stole his tech from.” 

Mr. Gorman guessed correctly, and this explains why the Reachers referred to Incarnation warships as Grand Journey ships crewed by humans. Though the details of the actual event remain unclear, it seems that the marvelous drive systems of the Tyrant-type heavy cruisers are scaled-down powerplants stolen from this odd faction, which seems to send its ships out from the Tumbleweed stellar cluster to wander and explore Sagittarius much as the Reachers are known to wander the Orion Arm. 

That being said, the Reachers’ stated prior experience with these sapients suggest they are capable of crossing the Gap, and there is still no evidence of a Reacher home world, even a mobile one like the Tumbleweed cluster. The relationship between these two apparently nomadic cultures, though of certain interest to this audience, is still not known. 

Unfortunately, the actual details of the first contact event with these Grand Journey vessels has been placed under Naval Intelligence lock and key. Some time in the future, perhaps, I will be allowed to share the rest of this story with this audience. 

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.