2949-09-28 – Tales from the Service: Arrowhawk’s Raiders

Several weeks ago now, the light cruiser Arrowhawk limped into Maribel for a patch-up before heading back toward the Core Worlds. There seems little chance we see the ship on the front again – after the wear and tear put on it by the Lost Squadrons, it’s probably destined for demilitarization and scrapping. 

As far as I can tell, very few members of its skeleton crew were aboard during the Lost Squadrons, and those were only there because they were heading homeward or being reassigned to desk postings or academy rotations. While the ship was being worked on, I tried to get an interview with Lieutenant Commander Quinn Kensington, the ship’s head computer tech and a Lost Squadrons veteran, but he declined. He submitted a short on-the-record statement to the effect that he’s glad to have been a part of the Lost Squadrons but looks forward to his new and presumably less perilous posting in the Home Fleet headquarters. 

Given that the Home Fleet is considered something of a dead end posting by many, I wonder how much Kensington is really looking forward to it. There seems to be no indication he performed poorly under Captain Bosch – indeed, he was publicly commended for his ability to adapt to the situation – so I can only assume that the new posting was at his own request. Perhaps being so close to death for so long encouraged him to remember the merits of a desk posting in Earth orbit. 

Fortunately, one of the other Lost Squadrons veterans aboard, one Marine Sergeant Cornell Santiago, was far more willing to deal with us, and Naval Intelligence has finally cleared his story for publication. True, the events in question took place fourteen months ago, but the adventures of the Lost Squadrons still garner a good deal of interest.

Sergeant Santiago heard his squad already talking on the comms channel as he slipped his helmet on and engaged its seals. The topic of conversation seemed to be guesswork about the reason they were being sent planetside on yet another Sagittarian world, and as usual the men offered a curious mix of extreme pessimism and almost childlike optimism about what they’d see when their dropship ramp came down. 

Santiago had long since stopped guessing, but he let the men chatter away in the privacy of their helmets while they filed out of the ready room and out onto Arrowhawk’s flight deck. The dropship was already waiting, its flight crew already aboard preparing for launch, and he was more concerned with whether the craft would get them down and back again without any major problems. In the last three weeks, several of the cruiser’s launches had finally succumbed to the long list of overdue parts replacements and maintenance tasks credited against them, and he didn’t want to be aboard something that was about to hit its definitive end of service life. 

“What about you, Sarge?” Buckland, the closest thing to a rookie Marine aboard, drew Santiago’s attention back to the conversation. 

“Don’t matter to me what’s down there. Whatever it is Captain wants, we get it, and we leave. No sightseeing.” 

The squad hardly needed the pep talk, but Santiago thought it useful for their morale to keep a sense of continuity even though things were going from bad to worse. Their equipment were long past their maintenance need-by dates, and only a few of the big armor-suits they wriggled into before every deployment came online with more green lights than yellow on their status boards. It was only by the grace of a compassionate God and Vasilev overengineering that Santiago and his men could still jump out of their dropship protected by anything sturdier than a flexvest. 

As usual, the briefing data payload appeared in their suit computers only once the dropship had dusted off and was headed toward the pockmarked surface of the planet below. The place looked as inhospitable in the data payload as it did in the dropship’s bow camera feed, but apparently there was a tiny Nate outpost perched on the rim of a volcanic caldera down there which was about to be liberated of its supplies. Whatever guards the enemy had left over its scientists would need to be cleaned up, then the marines would load everything not nailed down back into their dropship. With any luck, they’d be orbital again in two hours. 

As the others read their briefing data and grumbled about once again being sent down to a place without any sunny beaches, cool green hills, or nubile alien females, Santiago focused on images of the facility itself. It squatted on one side of a rocky ridge, spreading white tendrils of prefabricated building along the ground like a parasite colonizing the hide of a huge beast. Whatever the Incarnation wanted out of this volcanic hellscape, their plans were about to experience a setback, Marine style. He made a mental note to “forget” at least one of the fist-sized smart grenades on his belt before he re-boarded as the first wisps of atmosphere began to rattle and groan against the hull. When one of the big Nate cruisers came to see what had happened, all he wanted them to find was a newly scorched crater on an already crater-pocked sphere. 

2949-09-21 – Tales from the Inbox: Monte Crow’s Host 

As soon as they were inside, Leopold Mendel gestured with his gun for David Montero to sit in one of the wickerwork chairs in the big house’s anteroom. David eased himself slowly down, not wanting to make any sudden moves. He had never been in the Mendel house before, and he had to admit that what he could see so far impressed him. Though the place was built to nowhere near the level of precision which had been the norm in his own recently-destroyed house, the sprawling compound oozed a feeling of homey security. 

Though the plank floorboards were covered by Ravi dust blown in underneath the door and between the joints of the stiff metal panels of the outer siding, the wickerwork furniture and cloth wall-coverings gave the anteroom a cozy, quiet atmosphere entirely at odds with the winds which at that moment had just begun to rush down into the basin outside. The storm blowing in was as multi-edged as the dust particles it carried - it would blind whatever security system Mendel had, but it would also prevent David’s would-be killers from following his trail. 

“I’ll let you call the Sheriff as soon as the storm lets up.” Mendel shouldered his rifle and turned a crank on the door, which pushed a set of heavy deadbolts into place. “Transmitter sure as all hells won’t work in that mess.” 

“Will your crops be all right?” 

“Crops?” Mendel frowned as he sat down in a chair opposite. “Oh, the garden. Yeah, I think so. That’s Phyllis’s project. Not sure how she can get anything to grow at all." 

David frowned. True, the greenery around the Mendel homestead was unusual, but it was hardly the only green patch on Botched Ravi. The settlers of the world had engineered a few types of food crop that grew well enough, given water and some shelter from the storms. “Botch Peas? Wyrmroot?” 

“Probably those.” Mendel shrugged. “Why don’t you tell me about those off-worlders who wrecked your house?” 

David glanced toward the door, though the wind howling outside would flay him in thirty seconds if he decided to use it to escape the conversation. “Hells if I know, Mendel. They showed up pretending they were locals, and started shooting when I didn’t buy the ruse. I think they were at Palumbo’s before me.” 

“And they demolished your house for shooting back?” 

“For shooting back too well, I reckon. Bagged at least two of the bastards.” 

Mendel nodded casually and glanced down at the gun resting on his knees. David knew immediately that his fellow homesteader didn’t buy the story. “How many were there?” 

“Six at least, including the ones I holed. Could have been more hanging back.” 

“At least four still after you, then.” Mendel frowned. “As soon as the storm lifts, they’ll follow you here.” 

David shrugged. “I lost them, but other than Palumbo you’re the closest place I could have run, and they’ll be able to figure that out. Shouldn’t be too much trouble for the two of us, at least until Deering catches up, and I’ll help you see to anything that gets shot up.” 

Mendel scowled. “My house is not a fortress, Montero, and I am not a gunman for hire. Whatever intrigue you’ve gotten mixed up in, you go out there and face it when this storm is over.” 

David sighed. He could easily overpower Mendel and fight off Grif’s gang from within the house, but he hadn’t come to Botched Ravi to keep living a brigand’s life. “I’ll go out after I’ve called Deering. If they come here, tell them I’m headed for town.” 

Mendel nodded, then looked up as a strong gust shook the house. “You’ve got at least two hours before that squall lets up. I’m going to go get some coffee.” 

As Mendel exited the anteroom through an inner door, David scanned the space he’d been left in. Though a gun rack protruded between the tapestries near the door, it held nothing but an empty cartridge box. A few crates along the opposite wall looked to be full of foodstuffs. There was, in short, nothing worth stealing, at least not in his current situation. He wouldn’t steal from Mendel unless his life depended on it, of course, but old pirate habits died hard. 

If it had been anyone but Grif, he might have tried hiding in the expansive Mendel homestead, but Griffon Baum never forgot a grievance, and he never gave up once he smelled blood. He’d tear the Mendels’ house to pieces and torture them for weeks on the slightest chance of finding his old adversary. Without Mendel’s help and without Deering’s posse, David would have to face the pirates alone in the open – a sure death wish – or watch them turn Csorba Basin into a charnel pit looking for him. 

The door clicked, then opened to admit Leopold Mendel once more. He still held the gun, but it pointed at the floor, which told David that there was some sort of surveillance system in the anteroom which told Mendel he hadn’t moved. His other arm cradled two insulated carafes, and he tossed one across the room. 
“Thanks.” David popped the seal and smelled the steam wafting out. “When this is over, I owe you a drink down at Talleyrand’s.” 

“When this is over, I don’t want to see you for three T-years, Montero.” Mendel scowled. “Phyllis and I didn’t come here to get dropped into some hoodlum’s shooting gallery.” 

David shrugged; if he went out to face Grif’s gang alone, Mendel would most probably get his wish and then some. “You want to know what this is really all about, Mendel?” 

“Not in the slightest, unless it’ll get you off my property sooner.” Mendel broke the seal on his own carafe and sipped lightly. 

“Smart play.” David smiled; though newcomers to Csorba, Mendel had seemingly internalized the madness that passed for local wisdom. “What’ll get me off sooner is a stormcloak, some goggles, and a decent rifle that’ll handle the dust for at least ten shots.” 

Mendel narrowed his eyes. “You’re out of your mind.” 

“Offer’s on the table. I’ll try to bring the stuff back, if I don’t get shot.” 

Mendel sat wearing a silent scowl of deliberation for several seconds, then turned back for the door. “Out of your damned mind, Montero. I’ll be right back.” 

This week’s entry concludes the publishable section of David’s account. Though he does announce that he was able to get the drop on Grif’s gang as the storm lifted, he does not provide details, most likely to avoid revealing anything incriminating about what part of the badlands the bodies are buried in. 

I doubt he needs to worry about such things; from what I hear the Botched Ravi badlands make short work of any human remains committed to them. 

David does say that the local police helped him hush up the cause of his house’s destruction, so searching for Botched Ravi houses that exploded (as I’m sure many of you did) won’t give you any clues as to his real identity. 

2949-09-14 - Tales from the Inbox: Monty Crow’s Neighbors 

This week we continue to draw from the submission by David M. (yes, this is a pseudonym) about his experience having unwelcome visitors come to his home on Botched Ravi. 

Next week we’re hoping to finally release some of the stories Naval Intelligence has been sitting on for some time – the first batch of them got through the censors two days ago, and we’re working on sifting through and figuring out which ones are still immediately relevant. 

David Montero adjusted the makeshift veil shielding his face from the brutal Botched Ravi sun as he emerged from the escape tunnel. He’d left home with only the clothes on his back and the guns he’d been carrying, with not even a canteen to help him on the open badlands. Grif would want proof of David’s death and would find the tunnel looking for his body, but the gang would be sifting through the collapsed ruin of his house for hours before they found the trapdoor. Hopefully, that would be enough of a head start for Botched Ravi to erase his tracks. 

Fortunately, even without a canteen, David had preparations of another kind. The tunnel he’d dug years before emerged in a stand of corpse trees clustered in a blind defile a few hundred meters behind his house. The trees’ leathery flesh, revolting to the eye, concealed a mass of spongy, water-storing flesh which a human could suck on to obtain moisture, even if the alkaline taste would make any but a local gag. He drank from the trees until he couldn’t swallow any more, then used his belt knife to cut a six-foot length of one tree's stiffening rib to use as a walking-stick. Anyone foolish enough to brave the Ravi badlands without a walking-stick was as damned as if they were without a veil and a canteen. 

David’s would-be assassins hadn’t been lying when they’d claimed a storm was coming as a reason to be let into his homestead; every gust and eddy of fickle wind told him that his stretch of the wastes was about to suffer a big one. Botched Ravi’s furious storms drove swirling clouds of razor-dust which could strip human flesh from bone, and he’d been dressed for the stifling heat of the morning, not these late afternoon premonitions of a howling night. He would be reduced to a well-armed skeleton in mere minutes if he couldn’t find shelter before it hit. The tunnel mouth and gorge offered some protection from a storm, but Grif and his men were still too close for comfort. 

Though he briefly considered making an aboveground dash for his homestead to retake the freshly blasted ruins, David abandoned this mad scheme. He’d called Sherriff Deering when the pirates appeared and would need to leave clearing his destroyed home of the ruffians to the ragtag posse that passed for local law enforcement. He didn’t envy the outsiders their inevitable gun-battle with Deering and whoever else the lawman could scare up in short order, especially with a storm blowing in; most of his neighbors were reformed upstanding citizens like himself. They would relish the excitement offered by a firefight with a gaggle of overconfident space pirates. 

His best chance to make it through the day alive would be to make it to the home of one of his neighbors - Old Man Palumbo was the closest, but the pirates had been there already, so instead he set a course for the Mendel home three klicks in the opposite direction. Leopold and Phyllis Mendel were the newest settlers on the badlands, and he’d only met them twice, but they would probably let him call Deering to check in and ride out the storm in their parlor. David might do the same for them, if he was in an obliging mood. 

Peeking out of the gully and seeing no sign of his pursuers, David scrambled topside and set off toward a brilliantly white speck on the eastern horizon. With the nearness of the dusk and its promised storm, his feet itched to run, but he moved with deliberation, tapping the ground in front of his feet firmly with the end of his cut walking-stick. The Csorba Basin where he’d made his home was one of the flattest places on the planet, but flat and open did not make it safe. If he put his foot into the mouth of a ringbiter he’d never get it loose before the storm overtook him, and ringbiters were among the least deadly of the creatures which prowled the area. If he happened to cross into a tunnel cat’s stalking-ground or a songbird run in his haste, neither Grif nor anybody else would ever find his remains. 

Moving as fast as he dared, David watched the speck on the horizon grow into the top of a white stone monolith jutting into the sky. Despite having a squared-off shape and resisting even the patient teeth of the wind, the structure was a natural outcrop. Its base lay in the bottom of a broad canyon at the intersection of several of the defiles and gullies which channeled the basin’s seasonal rains. Despite being warned that their chosen spot would turn into a lake once every thirteen T-years, the Mendels had raised their home at the base of the monolith. 

In three more T-years when the rains returned, David meant to deliver a long-awaited told-you-so to the flooded-out homesteaders. For the moment, though, their ill-advised choice of building site didn’t bother him. He only needed shelter for a few hours. 

Reaching the edge of the Mendels’ dry lakebed just in front of the storm, David didn’t have time to appreciate the lush greenery which carpeted the bottom. Even in the interminable dry season, the water table lay close to the surface at the bottom of the white-stone pillar, and Leopold Mendel had built piping to irrigate an extensive garden of exotic plants. True, he could only plant crops that could resist the wind-whipped razor-dust, but even that bit with far less force on the lakebed. Between the couple’s sprawling house and the numerous outbuildings around it which sheltered the pumps and farming equipment, the Mendel homestead had enough roofs to look like a whole town, rather than a single house. 

David started down the switchbacked trail to the bottom, but stopped after only a few steps when he heard the rasp and click of a cartridge-rifle’s bolt sliding home somewhere nearby. Raising his hands and walking-stick, David turned around. “Mendel, is that you?” 

“Montero.” The gruff settler’s voice echoed crazily among the rocks, and David couldn’t figure out where he was. “Go home.” 

“Wish I could. With this storm. I’d never make it back.” Already the horizon to the south had darkened, and the sky above had turned the killing coppery color every Botched Ravi settler knew meant it was time to seek shelter. “I don’t want any trouble. Just shelter and to drop a line to Deering.” 

After a long, tense moment, Mendel emerged from behind the rocks, raising the barrel of a long hunting rifle to point skyward. “Damnation, Montero, you should have called ahead. I could have shot you at fifteen hundred meters. Haven’t you heard? There’s a mess of outworlders about, and they’re baying for blood.” 

David looked up at the monolith, realizing that the peak would be a perfect place to put a ring of surveillance cameras; with good optics, the Mendels could keep an eye on their neighbors even from many kilometers away on a clear day. “Yeah, I heard.” How closely he was affiliated with those outworlders would be a story best kept to himself. “They attacked my house. Blew the place to all hells. Birds know what for.” 

Mendel looked up at the approaching clouds, then beckoned down into the lakebed valley. “Come on, let’s get under cover. This is going to be a rough one.” 

2949-09-07 – Tales from the Service: Monte Crow’s Ruination 

This week, we’re continuing the account from last week of a retired pirate being visited by his old foes on Botched Ravi, as we’ve received a few messages indicating interest in the story’s continuation There’s another part to this story I might be able to edit up for next week, if interest persists. 

Still no luck with Naval Intelligence on those other stories. 

David Montero slammed the door at the base of the cellar stairs behind himself just before a burst of railgun fire battered the exterior. Dragging the thick metal panels used to make parts of his house more or less proof against gunfire across the badlands on a ravimule-pulled cart had been among David’s least pleasant experiences on a planet that excelled at producing unpleasant experiences, but as he slid the heavy bolt into place, he was glad for the trouble.  

The door wouldn’t hold his assailants for long, but he didn’t want it to. He fished into his pocket for the big brass key he always carried and slotted it into a round lock-plate fitted into one ferrocrete wall, releasing the tension on a set of gigantic springs buried behind the wall. With a creaking noise and then a snap, the wall opposite the door bowed outward, its thin plaster façade falling to pieces as a pair of concealed panels swung open. Behind the panel, a closet-like space contained racks of cloth-wrapped guns and a trapdoor leading to his escape tunnel. 

As the thugs outside rattled and then banged the metal cellar door, David unwrapped the oily cloth covering one of the long, sinister shapes racked behind that panel. When his would-be assassins came through that door, a spread of fifteen-milimeter explosive fragmentation microgrenades would probably make short work of them. The microgrenade rifle wouldn’t last long in Botched Ravi’s inclement conditions, but it only needed to last long enough to add five or six more tally marks to the ones David had already scored into its polymer handguard. 

The banging stopped, and David, knowing what would come next, backed into the secret closet and pulled the doors mostly closed, with only his gun-barrel protruding between them. Sure enough, with a flash of an explosion sheeting around it on all sides, the door buckled, then swung inward on shrieking, abused hinges. 

David, ears ringing, held his fire, waiting for his attackers to appear out of the smoke. Instead, he saw a pair of small camera drones zip out of the smoke and into the center of the room, surveying the dust- and smoke-choked cellar. 

"Drones on Ravi?” David muttered. As if to verify his disbelief, one of the two automatons sputtered, slewed to one side, then made a grinding noise and fell to the floor, its bearings choked with razor-sharp Ravi dust. “Idiots.” 

The second drone lasted barely a minute longer than the first, but it did last long enough to sweep the small cellar with its glassy eyes, what it saw transmitted back to the wrist-screen of its operator above – the barren floor and walls, the opened secret chamber, and David’s microgrenade rifle protruding from between the doors. 

When the second drone finally sputtered and died, an eerie silence fell. David, knowing the local posse was on its way, nudged the doors open and stepped out. “You don't get credit for killing Monty Crow by waiting for him to starve, boys.” 

“Don’t worry, old chap.” A voice echoed down the still-smoke-hazed steps. “We don’t got that kind of time.” 

The voice sounded familiar. Of course it sounded familiar. “Grif? Shucks, you came all this way yourself? I would have expected you’d leave the dying to someone else.” 

Griffon Baum, one of David’s rivals from his space-pirate days, chuckled. “I’m leaving the dying to you this time, Monty.” 

“I’ve been out of the game for years. My dying’s not going to put credits in your account.” 

“I’m a man of my word, Monty. I told you I’d pay you back for Jaffe’s Nest before I was through.” 

David winced. He’d never felt right about betraying Griffon’s crew in the Jaffe’s Nest raid, not even at the time, when his morals were somewhat less well developed. Still, that was business, as far as there was a consistent thing to call business among pirates. He and his crew had been stabbed in the back at least as many times as they’d done the stabbing. 

“It’s a shame, though.” Griffon continued, not remarking on David’s silence. “You had a nice set-up here. Shame what’s about to happen to it.” 

“Sure, Grif.” David sidled to one side in the tiny space and lifted the hatch of the trapdoor at his feet, glad the big barrel hinges didn’t squeak much. If Griffon was going to blow up his homestead, he wasn’t keen on sticking around. “Damned shame.”