2848-07-14 – Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure

Lieutenant Leon Koch-Zyma frowned at the representative from Grand Azure. The spacer’s posture, darting eyes, and haphazard grooming status whispered of criminal habits in a way his fresh bleach-white tunic and spit-shined black shoes could not quite drown out. “Your vessel’s mercenary registration checks out, so we’ll let you through to but I’ll still need to see your crew manifest and search the ship.”

Checkpoint picket duty was among the least interesting things Leon had done in his brief military career; a suspiciously spit-shined ruffian with a suspiciously recently issued mercenary registration was the most exciting thing that had happened for six weeks, and he planned to make the most of it. Maybe the Grand Azure was entirely legitimate, or maybe it was one of the many vessels masquerading as mercenaries but intending only to support the black-market economy of the embattled region.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” The Azure representative, who had introduced himself as its liaison officer Gus Hadley, gave a sloppy mockery of the Confederated Navy salute, and Leon did his best not to wince. “I’ll give you the tour right now if you’re ready.”

This level of accommodation was not what Leon had expected. “Ah, yes, Mr. Hadley. That would be acceptable.”

Hadley turned around and led the way back up the docking umbilical between the cruiser Helena Brightley and the much smaller Grand Azure. Through the transparent panels along the tunnel, Leon looked at the graceful lines of the vessel he was about to board – its sweeping white hull looked more like a top-of-the-line private-military frigate than the usual rust-buckets one saw plying the space-lanes in the mercenary business, and the transit shells of dozens of light weapons emplacements studded its hull like jet cabochons on a crown. Nobody with the money to buy something like that vessel would risk it throwing it into skirmishes with Incarnation cruisers or let it be shredded by an unending swarm of Coronachs – it was as much a conversation piece to hang outside a starport boardroom window as it was a weapon.

At the same time, Grand Azure was not the sort of vessel one would expect to engage in smuggling or other black-market activities. Just because the mercenaries had more funds than brains didn’t mean they were doing anything illegal – but given the state of their liaison officer, Leon wouldn’t believe that until he had torn the ship apart hull plate by hull plate. All he needed was to spot some excuse to call in the support of a dozen techs with cutters and spanners while Hadley gave him the tour. “Seems a shame to use a ship like that on Frontier patrol duty.”

“It’s our home. If we’re going to risk getting slagged by counterhuman scumwads, might as well live in style out here.”

“Suppose so.” Leon kept his voice cool as the other man keyed a code into the lock. Without a trace of buzzing or grinding, the Grand Azure lock opened, emitting a breath of surprisingly damp air. For someone used to the super-dry conditions aboard Navy ships, it felt like a tropical breeze.

Gus Hadley gestured inside. “Lift is on your left, Lieutenant. You are free to go where you please, but can I recommend the hydroponics compartment on deck four?”

Leon scrutinized the man. Though he could tell Hadley was hiding something, he did seem genuine about the merits of a visit to the hydroponics compartment. Still, Leon was in no mood to be accomodating. “Let’s go to the command deck.” It wasn’t a military vessel, otherwise he would ask the man to take him to the bridge.

“Command.” Hadley nodded and stepped up to the lift and called it. The doors opened almost instantly. “Works for me.”

Leon stepped into the lift and waited as the man set the destination on his wrist control machine. The lift was spotless, without even so much as a dead lightstrip anywhere. “Pretty clean ship you run here.”

“Yeah, suppose it is.” Hadley scratched inside his collar. “Got a real neat freak aboard. Lucky her it’s a new ship, everything started clean.”

“Those sorts go nuts on older ships, even in the Navy.” Leon agreed diplomatically. “What’s the compliment on a ship like this?”

“The way we’ve got it outfitted, we can run it with four, though we’re hoping to hire on some extra techs and maybe another gunner if we find the right people.”

“A frigate with a crew of four?” Leon frowned.

“Yeah, there’s some custom electronics in here.” The liaison waved his hand vaguely. “I sure as all hells don’t understand it. That’s Blake’s job.”

“Your chief engineer?”

The doors opened and the small command deck and Leon stepped out first before being given an invitation. The space had seven stations, but all but one were dark. The woman at the one console, thin, pale, and about the same age as Hadley, stood up as they approached.

“Faye, this is Lieutenant Koch-Zyma from Brightley.” Hadley gestured around the space. “Faye is our best gunner and a solid backup pilot. And this is command, as you can see. Not the nicest space on the ship, but everything works.”

Leon noticed something was missing. “There’s no command chair.” There was only a circular hole where a crash-padded command chair would usually be mounted to the deck plating.

“Ah, yeah.” Hadley shrugged. “We took the thing out. More consoles here than we need anyway.”

The command chair on a vessel of war, Leon knew, was not just an extra station. It was one of two places on a ship that all the information gathered by other stations and sensors was concentrated, so the commander could make informed decisions in the heat of battle. On most ships, the chair itself and the machinery below it contained more computer equipment than a strike gunship’s entire electronic suite. “Do you run the ship from the command center, then?”

“Advanced holo-systems.” Faye stepped forward, and as she did a hundred rectangular panels appeared in the air around her, each showing a different sensor feed, chart, or monitor. “The ship can be commanded from anywhere aboard, Lieutenant. Any secondary station can be accessed remotely.”

If true, that was a toy not even Navy ships generally had. Sure, the holo-systems aboard Navy vessels could provide some of the services of the command center anywhere aboard, but full command from any compartment was still the plaything of those with more credits than sense. “I see.”

Gus Hadley let Leon wander the command deck, then led him down one deck to the wardroom and the officers’ cabins. There were eight cabins fitted for officers alone, and he began to doubt the assertion that the ship could be run with four hands. The bunkrooms for enlisted spacers would, he predicted, have space for at least fifteen more. Rather than comment on this, he continued his tour in silence.

A bulky man nearly collided with the pair as they entered the crew mess, and Hadley stopped him. “Lieutenant, this is Blake, our repair tech.”

Blake blinked slowly at the Navy officer. Unlike Gus Hadley, he was dressed in a shabby, stained tunic and loose-fitting blue slacks. “Problems, Gus?”

“No, Blake, just giving the Lieutenant the tour.” Leon noticed the man’s voice slowing down noticeably as he spoke to the big mechanic. Like Hadley himself, Blake had the posture and scars of a man familiar with the Reach’s criminal underworld, but he lacked the canny, calculating presence of the “liaison officer.”

“Oh, right. The grand tour.” Blake winked suspiciously at his compatriot, and Leon noticed Hadley rolling his eyes in exasperation. “Have fun, Gus!” With that, he ambled off toward the lift.

It has been some time since any sign of Gus, Blake, Faye, and their mysterious friend Sapphire have been heard from on this feed. Though this report is not a confirmed sighting of these persons, I have taken the liberty of replacing the (apparently false) names given to Lieutenant Koch-Zyma with the pseudonyms of those persons from their previous appearances in this space.

While I cannot confirm those identities, the presence of mushroom-like trees similar to those from prior stories and an expanded hydroponics compartment aboard Grand Azure and the descriptions of the persons matching quite closely, I feel confident that this is them.

I have looked up the records of the vessel Grand Azure and cannot guess how three middle-aged Berkant settlers could afford a vessel like it. Perhaps there is a fourth human aboard who funded the purchase, or perhaps the fourth person mentioned by Gus is Sapphire herself.