2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Encounter in the Grinder 

Tomi Acosta’s sensational flight through the Grinder formation in Tkachenko, and the resultant destruction of seven enemy strike rigs and the retreat of the remainder of the formation, remains a well-discussed story even several weeks after the event, but the Navy has yet to release any datastream information from the action. Perhaps there is something in Acosta’s files that would compromise operational security to reveal, but I fear this will lead some to conclude that this story is overblown or even fabricated for propaganda purposes. 

A clatter of small ice debris rattling against Tomi Acosta’s hull made Wilson Boothe grit his teeth. In The Grinder, there was no way of avoiding the pervasive small debris, but it was drilled into every helmsman in the fleet that any object big enough to make a sound as it hit the hull had the potential to damage the ship. The helm station on even the most antiquated vessel – and Acosta was one such – carried all the sensor readouts the operator needed to ensure debris like that could be avoided altogether. 

The Grinder had already degraded Acosta’s shear-screens until they were intercepting little more than half of the debris before it hit the hull, and no amount of boosted power could bring them back to anything like combat-effective strength. With a squadron of Incarnation Coronachs dead ahead and closing as fast as the chaotic swirl of the debris field would allow, every sound of rock and ice getting through was a reminder that not much but the thin hull of an old tin-can destroyer lay between Wilson and white-hot plasma spitting from the nose guns of the enemy interceptors. 

“Time to weapons range?” Commander Popovic called out, his bored-sounding voice breaking the tense silence on the bridge. 

“Technically, we’re, uh. In weapons range.” Nagel, who had taken over from Rappalino on the fire control station only ten minutes before, sounded bashful. “But we don’t have a firing solution. Debris occlusion on target is almost ninety percent.” 

“Forward gunnery, try to put some slugs in their path anyway.” Popovic shrugged. “We might get lucky.” 

Wilson doubted that Acosta would get that lucky. The ship had been on a rear-area patrol in Tkachenko to test the venerable ship’s refit, and its luck had ensured an Incarnation attack to catch it there. Other than himself, Popovic, and a few other senior officers, most of the crew was green, straight out of the academy. Faced with certain destruction under enemy guns, or certain destruction in the Grinder, Popovic had elected for the latter, apparently hoping to take more of the enemy down with him. 

Heedless of Wilson’s certainty of failure, Nagel sent the order down to the gunnery station for the forward bank of railguns. A moment later, the harsh, chattering vibration of slugs spewing out of rapid-cycling electromagnetic barrels filled the bridge. With two of the forward railguns positioned just ahead of the bridge one deck lower, the sound didn’t have far to travel. 

A warning chime diverted Wilson’s attention back to his console. Before he’d even fully processed the meaning of the sound, his hands flew across the controls, keying in emergency lateral thrust. By the time he saw the fractured ice-ball hurtling toward them, it had almost passed by, tumbling through the space where Acosta had just been. As it went past, the destroyer’s hull rattled under the impact of associated smaller debris. 

“EM burst ahead.” MacGuire sounded exultant. “Looks like one of those Nates just bought the plot.” 

“One down, eleven to go.” Popovic shrugged. “Too soon to claim that kill. Our railshot hasn’t even crossed their path yet.” 

Wilson returned Acosta to its original heading as soon as the danger was past, only to call up emergency full reverse thrust when a nearby collision flooded the space ahead with jagged fragments, some of which smashed into other large bodies and changed their courses. “Have to stop here, Commander.” Wilson shook his head. “We should let this mess pass us by.” 

MacGuire cleared his throat. “The Coronachs will be on top of us before it does.” 

“Then we’ll handle them here.” Popovic tapped out a few commands on the small console allocated to the skipper’s station. “Mr. Nagel, give me missile solutions on these targets.” 

“On... rocks, Skipper?” Nagel hesitated. “Er... One moment.” He tapped out a few commands. “Cells three through seven armed and ready. Target mapping and final launch confirmation sent to your console.” 

“If we blast any of these rocks, we’re going to get some blowback.” Wilson winced, imagining the impossibility of avoiding damage with several new showers of high-velocity debris to worry about. 

“I’m counting on it.” Popovic cleared his throat. “All stations, enemy contact is imminent. Weapons free. Damage control parties, secure all active work and take cover.” 

Wilson made a few adjustments to Acosta’s position and relative heading within the swriling debris field as the nimble Coronachs threaded their way closer. The port side railguns joined the bow battery in throwing up an impressive spray of railshot into their path, but most of the little ferroceramic projectiles were absorbed by intervening debris. The Coronachs would be very close indeed before the railguns were a serious threat. 

Popovic waited in silence until the squadron was almost on top of them. “Firing missile cell four. Brace for impact.” 

2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Decision in the Grinder 

As the other members of Tomi Acosta’s bridge crew took turns slipping out of their crash-pad restraints to stretch their limbs and nibble on chewy, uninspiring combat-situation ration bars passed out by the skipper, Wilson Boothe bent over the displays, watching for any sign that the Grinder was about to make more trouble for them.  

He’d managed to find a temporarily quiet pocket within the whirling melee of ice and rock, but that pocket was slowly being squeezed out by a pair of counter-rotating debris clusters. A collision within either could easily hurl tons of fast-moving debris toward the old destroyer, and if that happened, Wilson would have only seconds to respond.  

The pursuing flight of Coronachs was another problem, but it wasn’t his problem, not yet. Though nimble, the pursuing Incarnation interceptors were fragile, and could not survive a collision of any magnitude; they were still a long way off, trying to work their way around the scything debris-storm Acosta had barely avoided on its way in. That they’d entered the Grinder at all was a testament to the discipline of Incarnation pilots, and probably to their overestimation of their own skills. 

A tap on Wilson’s shoulder made him jump hard enough that the restraints dug into his shoulders. Looking up, he saw Commander Popovic’s impassive face and a proffered ration bar in his hand. 

“Better have a bite, Boothe.” Popovic set the bar on the edge of Wilson’s console. “If they’re here to stay, this is going to be a long game.” 

Wilson glanced over at the foil-wrapped rectangle. “Sure, Skipper.” 

Popovic took a step back, but remained there, just behind Wilson for several silent seconds. “Any hope of getting us deeper in?” 

Wilson shook his head. “Wouldn’t count on it.” He reached out to grab the food bar, then tore the corner of the package with his teeth. This was technically indecorous, but with his other hand hovering over the execute control for the most probable escape vector in case of a fresh hazard, Popovic would forgive the breach. “The next layer in is fairly dense. I’ve seen a couple openings big enough for us to get through, but our acceleration just isn’t enough. We’d need to be moving before one opened.”  

Popovic grunted and sipped his coffee. “Can we work around this layer to put more distance between us and those Nate fighters?” 

Wilson bit off the corner of the food bar and chewed it slowly, looking at the various sensor readouts. “There would need to be another quiet pocket to go to, Skipper, and I don’t see one. We can’t really stay here either; the rocks are going to evict us in a few hours, if they don’t decide to do it sooner.” 

“The Coronachs will find us before that.” Popovic didn’t sound too dismayed by this, but then, he was infamous for having no detectable emotional responses to anything. Whether that was because he was supremely self-controlled or developmentally defective was a matter of strenuous debate among the crew. “We’ll need to leave the pocket before they get here.” 

“We’ll be shredded.” Wilson shook his head morosely. He didn’t think Popovic cared; the skipper probably saw it as death either way, so he had resolved to die in the most inconvenient way for the enemy. Wilson preferred not to die at all, but if everyone was going to die, he would have voted to take their chances fighting off the Coronachs in open space. That way, when it happened, it wouldn’t be his fault as the helmsman. 

“We can take more of that than they can.” Popovic gulped the rest of his coffee noisily. “I wonder how many of those little rigs they’ll sacrifice just to kill us.” 

The obvious answer Wilson didn’t bother to vocalize was that the Incarnation would sacrifice more than enough Coronachs, if they decided that destroying Acosta was mission critical. With at least two heavy cruisers in-system, there were probably at least a dozen squadrons available for the task. Even if the first squadron worming its way deeper into the Grinder after them failed to score the kill, the next one wouldn’t be far behind. 

A flash of motion on one of the secondary readouts caught Wilson’s attention. As he swiveled one of the visual-light cameras in that direction just in time to see a huge ice formation disintegrate into a cloud of glittering splinters under the impact of a much smaller but much denser chunk of ferrous rock. The bulk of the debris was headed into Acosta’s safe pocket, reducing its brief lifespan from hours to minutes. 

“We’re losing our quiet patch.” Wilson sent the spectacular impact visuals to the main display. “I’m not seeing any good escape routes.” 

“Then let’s dispense with escape.” As everyone else on the bridge scrambled back to their crash-pad restraints, Popovic returned to his station with maddening lack of urgency and began strapping himself in. “Take us toward that pursuing squadron. Let’s try this on our terms.” 

Though Wilson couldn’t see how any engagement in the Grinder could possibly be on Acosta’s terms, he was long past objecting. With a resigned sigh, he cancelled his previous evasive course and started to bring the ship about. 

Though Acosta’s rather harrowing experience did not end in the certain destruction that Mr. Boothe asserts he was glumly projecting at the time, it nevertheless was a high-risk tactic that should by all rights have been fatal to the ship and its entire crew. Only the fact that the alternative was even more certain destruction made taking a vessel of war into the Grinder formation the reasonable decision, and then only in hindsight. Had the destroyer been smashed to bits quickly at no loss to the enemy, we would not know of Commander Popovic’s unorthodox decision, but because it worked, there is some discussion of awarding him a Centaur Cross. 

[N.T.B. - Stupid ideas are still stupid even if they work. Though I have to admit, by all accounts this Popovic is a very interesting character who I think I would like to meet.] 

2952-02-21 – Tales from the Service: The Flight through the Grinder 

I had to get this confirmed from three credible sources before I believed it myself: apparently The Incarnation sent a naval task force to raid the Tkachenko system, best known for being the location of the most inhospitable world of Botched Ravi.  

Of all the targets, military and civilian, for them to choose, this has to be the worst. Even Ravi’s own natives – and I have interacted with quite a few in my role in editing this text feed – would agree with me in calling the place worthless in the grand scheme of the Confederated economy, and militarily pointless. We’ve had a few stories sent in by the stubborn hardcases who make that barely-habitable rock their home, and I’ve published at least two of them. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the low habitability and general unpleasantness of the planet is the main draw for most of its colonists. 

Fortunately for the Ravi colonists, there’s little there worthy of a proper raid. The Incarnation’s forces damaged a few orbital facilities, sent a flight of Coronachs down to shoot up the main groundside spaceport, and chased the few starships in the system around, and it is from a spacer aboard one of these vessels that we get today’s entry. 

[N.T.B. - Botched Ravi is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go for a ramble, but I never got a proper chance. Strange that Nate would think the place worthy of an attack, though.] 

“For the record, this is a bad idea, Skipper.” Wilson Boothe, helmsman of the old destroyer Tomi Acosta, turned around as far as his crash-pad chair and restraints would allow, just enough to see the skipper’s station out of the corner of his eye. “It’s called the Grinder for good reason.” 

“Your objection is noted, Mr. Boothe. Take us in.” Commander Popovic’s breezy, dismissive tone was quite at odds with the dim, red-tinted battle-stations lighting and the distressing number of red pips in the main holo-plot at the front of the bridge. That plot was one of the old style fishtank displays, which projected their three-dimensional images onto a carefully managed medium of ionized gas. Acosta was an old ship that had been parked in a reserve flotilla parking orbit until the previous year, hastily refitted for rear-area service. 

Wilson had little choice, partly because Popovic was his skipper, and partly because if he tried to delay things much longer, Acosta would be fending off swarms of nimble Incarnation Coronach interceptors with a fire control system older than anyone on its crew. The Grinder would probably smash the old tin-can to bits, but those chip-headed strike pilots and the heavy cruiser following behind them certainly would. With the flick of a finger, he switched the helm controls over to fully manual mode and called up maximum thrust toward the anomalously dust, ice, and rock-choked region called the Grinder. 

“Maximum power to forward screens.” Commander Popovic cracked his knuckles one by one, to the annoyance of Wilson and everyone else on the bridge. “Comms, give me wide-band jamming. Damage control, stand by.” 

As the rest of the bridge crew busied themselves preparing for the inevitable wear and tear that Acosta was about to suffer, Wilson bent over his controls, peering at the array of visual feeds and radar readouts displayed on his console. Unlike on a smaller ship, there was no yoke or joystick setup to control the old destroyer’s helm; the vessel would not respond to such input fast enough to make its use meaningful. To pass through the Grinder intact, Wilson would have to anticipate threats even before the collision-detection system did, and have the helm controls updated several seconds before impact. 

“Debris strikes on the forward screens.” From the tone of his voice, MacGuire knew how pointless this call-out was, but it was standard procedure all the same. “Small-diameter particulate.” 

The small stuff was, of course, unavoidable. According to the few astrophysicists who had ever bothered to investigate the Tkachenko system, the Grinder was the remains of a cosmologically-recent collision between two planetoids that gravity was still trying to pull into a single solid body. Tens of millions of debris objects with about point-eight Earth-masses together whirled madly around a half-molten core smaller than Earth’s moon with orbital dynamics so complex that the best computers in the Reach would fail to model even a hundredth of its disorder. This was no place to take a ship of any size, but with Incarnation forces on its heels, Acosta was going in. 

“Coronachs are reducing acceleration. New intercept time: three minutes, thirty seconds.” 

“They’ll decelerate more if they’ve got half a brain.” Popovic still didn’t sound concerned. “Gun crews, you are free to engage them at maximum range whenever you have a clear shot.” 

Wilson gulped as two pieces of debris almost half as big as the ship collided off the starboard bow, with the smaller shattering to bits and the larger shedding quite a few splinters itself. A moment later, the hull reverberated with the ping and clatter of a few ejected fragments getting thtough the screens and striking home. He adjusted Acosta’s course toward the spot where the collision had just occurred, hoping that the smash-up had temporarily made that a low-energy portion of the debris storm.  

Fortunately, whether there was anything to that idea or not, Acosta made it through the collision site without injury deeper than her reflective hull coating. Wilson scanned the confused plot, looking for an opening in the mad whirl of rock and ice beyond. When he spotted one, it was already closing – and he didn’t fancy waiting around to see if another would open before the destroyer’s current position itself became untenable. Calling up emergency power on the gravitic drive, he set in a new heading and sent the ship charging for the narrowing gap between one huge chunk of ice and a cluster of jagged rocks moving the opposite direction. The rocks and ice would not collide, but they would pass each other closely enough as to leave no safety between them for a vessel as big as Acosta. 

“Boothe, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Popovic, it seemed, had noticed the closing jaws ahead from the wavering debris indicators on the main plot. 

“Only way through.” Wilson muttered. “Can’t stay still in here.” He wished his controls did have a yoke, if only because that would give him something to grip. Pushing one’s fingers harder onto the smooth touch-pad control surfaces just wasn’t the same. 

“Coronachs are entering the outer debris field. Again, they are slowing. Five minutes to intercept.”  

“Aft gunners, give them a volley.” Popovic, apparently, had accepted Wilson’s muttered explanation, and had returned to his usual detachment. "Even at this range it should make their lives interesting.” 

As railguns seventy meters aft spat thousands of high-velocity slugs into the path of the pursuing strike squadrons, Wilson cut forward thrust and touched the maneuvering-thruster controls to rotate Acosta slightly to port, so that its boosted forward screens faced the onrushing cluster of rocks. The ship slid between them and the ice mass with only a single significant impact, and this, the forward screens absorbed with dignity if not exactly with grace; flickering bridge lights indicated the amount of power that the screens were consuming to break up and divert the debris. 

A moment later, Acosta was drifting in a pocket of relative emptiness. The aft gunners, with their firing arcs blocked, ceased firing, and an eerie calm descended upon the ship. 

“Did... Did we do it?” MacGuire turned around in his chair to look at Wilson, who could only shrug. 

“That depends on how long those bastards plan to stay in Tkachenko.” Popovic rolled his shoulders, then unfastened his restraints and stood up. “Good work, Mr. Boothe. Since we’ve got a few minutes at least before we find out if we’re going to die, I’m going to get some coffee.” 

2952-02-14 – Tales from the Service: Sadek’s Dilemma 

While I will be turning, at least temporarily, to other accounts after this week, Sadek Sherburn’s lengthy story of his time aboard Visitor with a xeno named Kel continues far longer than this. It does not cover the full history of this vessel, but it does cover its first voyage with its new crew, a story that is at the very least well written and believable, if not thoroughly convincing. 

As mentioned previously, I have proof that Sadek is not an entirely reliable narrator, despite his honesty about the concerns about his own role which I have included in this section. Still, I have provided his account the way he intended it, as those parts which he appears to have left out or embellished are only a small fraction of the account, and it is the only one available covering the topic. 

Three days into his lonely eight-day transit into the Sagittarius Gate, Sadek Sherburn realized just how unprepared he was for the role Kel had put him in. True, he’d been a spacer all his life, but half of that life had been spent aboard Thaddeus Wall, doing little but hoping the next asteroid was a unicorn, a find that would buy his way out of the dreary life of converting space rocks into metal ingots for the foundries. None of the skills that had served him in good stead in that life seemed a good fit for this new life aboard Visitor. 

He’d come to that conclusion gradually, by a circuitous route, while scheming about what specialties and skill sets that he and Kel would need in their two other shipmates. Certainly, as he’d said to his new boss, they would need a systems tech, someone who could keep Visitor’s various components functioning as smoothly as they were for many years to come, and who could install new systems in the future. But that left the specialty of their remaining compatriot, and to determine that, Sadek had started to compile the list of skills that he and Kel contributed, only to find that he contributed almost nothing. 

Kel’s own resume was, as far as Sadek knew, almost as thin as Sadek’s own, but Kel had the benefit of being the ship-owner and also the crew’s financier. He could also pilot Visitor and seemed to have some strange powers of persuasion over human spacers – nothing else explained how readily he’d found replacement systems and a fund of credits after he’d had his ship towed away to The Sprawl the first time.  

On the merits, Sadek was unqualified to be aboard Visitor by any metric, except apparently Kel’s own. He was a fair hand at generalist spacer duties, could pilot a launch, and was perhaps better than the average mining-rig pilot at doing his own craft’s repairs, because he’d spent years taking everything apart, cleaning the parts, and putting them back together. 

Beyond that, the only things twenty years of asteroid mining had gotten Sadek were gray hairs above his ears, a sour attitude toward the rest of humanity, and a strong tolerance for terrible chow. At the moment, the gray hairs seemed the most useful of his capabilities, and that only because they would make younger spacers believe him more capable than he really was. Kel didn’t seem likely to want to go into the asteroid mining business, or to have much need for any other sort of launch that Sadek could feasibly pilot. 

Sadek didn’t accomplish much during the remaining five days of his transit except turn a crate of colonist-grade meal bars into a sack full of empty wrappers. Every time he tried to plan out his hiring scheme, he returned inescapably to the fact that no matter who he selected, they would only demonstrate to Kel how badly he’d done with his first hire. He couldn’t even catch up on his reading or on holovid dramas; the problem sapped at his enjoyment of even the most light-hearted material. 

Arrival at The Sprawl briefly distracted him. When Thaddeus Wall had passed through on the heels of Seventh Fleet’s arrival, the waystation had been little more than a commandeered civilian trading post. A few years had turned that seedy little outpost into a metropolis habitat that earned its nickname; the station’s disk-like main sections were encrusted with haphazardly-attached extensions until they were almost buried, and even the more deliberately-planned extensions added later were already beginning to show signs of the boom-town cancer’s metastasis. Satellite facilities jutted out in all directions attached only by networks of semi-rigid support beams that made even approaching the original docking ring an impressive feat of piloting for all but the smallest vessels. 

Fortunately, Sadek was at the controls of a tiny ship; his little mining rig had no trouble finding a berth on the old docking ring deep within the Sprawl’s eponymous structure. Only when the docking cradle’s arms enfolded his little ship and his hands fell from the controls did his mind return from sight-seeing to the problem that had been on his mind for so many days. It was time to see what sort of spacer Kel’s advertisements had attracted. 

Ten minutes and three comms calls later, without even leaving his ship, Sadek had a list of applicants on his console. He was surprised there were so few, especially given the salary range Kel had advertised. Discounting the duplicates and the adventurers of blatantly poor repute, there were less than a dozen candidates to choose from. 

Briefly, Sadek considered hiring a couple of the barely-reformed brigands most spacers would not willingly work with. Though often highly skilled in their own way, this sort of spacer was constantly running afoul of the law and engaging in other high-risk behavior that made them unreliable crewmates. Choosing these might make Sadek himself look like a rock of steady reliability by comparison, but it would also reflect badly on his judgement, since he was the one doing the hiring. In the end, he decided not to only because he couldn’t bear to look too-trusting Kel in the eye and tell him that two ruffians was the best he could do. 

Returning to the eleven reasonably reputable applicants, Sadek quickly eliminated the recently-discharged Marine medic and the grizzled mercenary trooper sergeant from contention. While both of these came highly recommended, neither of them seemed to have a skillset Kel would have reliable use for. True, Kel would probably find both their companies fascinating, but that wasn’t grounds to hire them on. 

Among the remaining nine, another three were easy to exclude on the grounds that their specialty was launch operations. Their skill-sets overlapped – and indeed eclipsed – his own, and neither brought a launch of his own aboard. Having a combat pilot with his own strike-rig would have been quite tempting, but fortunately for Sadek, no such person had applied. 

With his list pared down to six names, Sadek called up the station directory and began to look up contact information. He had a week before Kel returned, plenty of time to meet these applicants before he made any final decisions.