2949-01-19 – Tales from the Service: Atrocity on Meraud 

At the chiming sound of the alarm in her earpiece, Soraya Levine groaned and levered herself upright. The moment she moved, her cocoon-like sleep-shroud split open, and the chill of the outside air slapped her in the face, and she saw that she was buried in a meter-thick drift of coiling, crawling creepvine which had out what little body heat leaked from the sleep-shroud's insulation. Through this mass, a few rays of blue-white light morning light stabbed accusingly at her eyes. 

Soraya had known before landing that Meraud was nobody’s idea of an idyllic vacation getaway, but she had long since come to regret volunteering for any mission that required exposure to the planet’s punishingly low ambient temperatures, nauseatingly mobile and flora, and unnecessarily creative varieties of crawling and slithering fauna. 

As the sleep-shroud disengaged and began folding itself into a compact package, Soraya tore through the twitching plant-life and stood. After stretching, she pushed her way toward two other mounds of heat-hungry vines and kicked into them to find the green-polymer cocoons within. 

“Get up. It’s time to move.” 

Gabriel and Seppo, both echoing Soraya’s groaning, protested weakly against the interruption to their sleep, but soon both sat up and set about extracting themselves from the unpleasant embrace of the underbrush while their own insulating enclosures begin to self-pack. 

As her compatriots scoured their meager campsite to ensure nothing was left behind in the choking, moving weeds, Soraya keyed in a command on her wrist computer. With a distressed-sounding hum, their hoversled came alive and broke free of a much thinner but quite frozen entanglement of creepvine – the few plants which had greedily sought its residual heat the previous evening but had not been able to find another refuge as it cooled. Their brittle remains would cling to the sled’s hoarfrost-covered housing until it warmed up. 

Bringing the sled in close, Soraya opened the sled’s onboard cargo vault and quickly checked each of the weapons within before handing them out. None of their electronic weapons, designed for the vaccuum of space or for the conditions of a temperate world, could be relied on in Meraud’s conditions. They’d slept with sidearms on their belts, of course – Meraud's wildlife was a threat only to one’s appetite and sanity, but the presence of an Incarnation garrison could not be overlooked – but there was no good way to bring a combat rifle into a sleep-shroud. 

Soraya passed around self-heating ration pouches, then secured the vault and set the sled to follow her. With Gabriel and Seppo falling into step behind her, she brought up the map and led the way through the frozen wilderness. If everything went to plan, they could determine the extent and purpose of the Incarnation base on Meraud and reach the rendezvous in three more local days, but in her years of work for Naval Intelligence, Soraya had never seen a plan work perfectly. She had resigned herself to at least six more harsh sunrises, and perhaps as many as ten. They had brought rations for even longer and could even be resupplied from the stealthy converted cutter waiting to extract them, but Soraya suspected an abundance of supplies wouldn't prevent her from killing and eating Seppo if the mission dragged on. At some point, such a drastic measure would be necessary to preserve her mental equilibrium from another round of his bawdy tall tales. 

“You know.” Gabriel tapped the crystalline trunk of a tree-like local growth with the barrel of his rifle as he passed it. “This place really isn’t as bad as I was expecting.” 

Seppo nearly choked on a mouthful of artificially-flavored nutrient slurry, spluttering a few valuable calories out onto the frozen ground. The warm slurry steamed briefly before the soil stole its warmth. “Really, Gabe? What in all creative hells were you expecting?” 

“A wasteland.” Gabriel turned and pointed to the hills over which the blue-white stellar primary had risen. “You ever see pictures of Antarctica on Earth? That’s not much colder than here.” 

“Shut up, boys.” Soraya gestured to them to be quiet. There was nothing for miles that could hear them, but she didn’t want to hear stories of how things could be worse any more than she wanted to hear Seppo talk about seedy Maribel nightclubs and the things the dancer-girls there would do for a hundred credits. Though not superstitious, she’d come to suspect that the more one talked about worse situations, the more one walked into them. 

“I would’ve preferred the wasteland.” Seppo seemed to be ignoring Soraya again. Even though she was technically in charge, he rarely wasted an opportunity to remind her that he had been working field intelligence for twice as long as she. “We’d be making better time if there wasn’t any undergrowth to cut through.” 

Gabriel, normally respectful of the chain of command, nevertheless let himself be goaded by Seppo’s comment. “We’d also have nothing to hide in when we get to Nate’s compound. I don’t fancy crawling the last kilometer at two meters a day to beat perimeter motion sensors.” 

Soraya reached the crest of a low rise, and the moment she looked down into the lowland beyond, she saw movement. Silently, she dropped to the ground, shivering as the frozen soil’s chill seeped even through her double-insulated smartfabric attire and drank her body heat.  

Following her lead, the sled automatically eased down as well, and the two men belatedly dove for cover as well. 

“What is it, Sora?” Gabriel crawled forward, swatting away a many-legged, asymmetrical critter which ambled into his path. 

Soraya inched forward, using the bulbous bole of a large growth on the ridge for cover. Meraud’s biosphere didn’t contain anything large enough or fast enough to be visibly moving from a distance, so whatever she’d seen had to be related to the Incarnation presence. 

Peeking around the tree-like vegetable, she spied a vehicle – a single ponderous crawler of the sort popular on barren worlds like Adimari Valis, poorly suited for the choking frozen growths of Meraud. The gargantuan machine plodded along atop the ice-river at the bottom of the valley, its boxy upper structures shattering the brittle limbs of the tree-analogues which arched too far over this natural roadbed. No doubt, if it deviated from the ice-river's course, it would quickly become hopelessly stuck and then buried in warmth-seeking plants. 

Gabriel, approaching the ridge and seeing the crawler, shook his head. “The chip-heads are totally mad. Why bring that thing here?” 

Soraya flipped up her helmet’s magnification metalens and scrutinized the vehicle up close. Under a fresh layer of white paint, she could still see red and black markings, including four letters: A, X, A, and I. 

Sending a still of the markings to her wrist computer, Soraya showed it to Gabriel. “Adimari Xeno-Archaeological Institute.” 

“Stars around. Why would they want to haul crawlers halfway across the frontier?” 

“More than just crawlers.” 

Soraya looked up to see Seppo, similarly taking cover at the ridgeline, surveying the scene with his own metalens. He gestured farther along the valley, where a pall of ice-fog hung in the air. Turning her own optics that way, Soraya spotted a boxy outline in the fog that might have been another crawler. All around the cloud of frozen mist, she spied motion in the pseudo-trees. Only when one of the trees shuddered and fell to release a new plume of mist did Soraya realize what she was looking at. 

“Logging operation.” Soraya couldn’t believe there was anything in the icy tree-analogues worth harvesting. “Looks like it’s pretty primitive. There must be a thousand people down there, and no sign of a single timberjack rig.” 

“Clearing the land for some sort of agriculture?” Gabriel shook his head. “Nate does a lot of work with bioengineered crops. Maybe-” 

“This is why I hate working with optimists.” Seppo gestured again. “Have a closer look at the laborers.” 

Gabriel, finally activating his own lens, fell silent and scanned the view, trying to pick out one of the logging teams.  

Soraya, more experienced with the metalens, beat him to it. A team of five men staggered out of the icy fog and toward one of the trees on the verge dragging crude fabricator-printed hand tools. At first, they looked portly and out of shape, but she realized after watching them that this bulk was the product of each wearing multiple layers of decaying, ill-fitting smartfabric. “Creative hells...” 

Gabriel muttered something under his breath, probably creative profanity from one of the many places he’d been stationed in his short Intelligence career. “They don’t have implants.” 

Soraya, shuddering, saw that he was right – the laborers’ temples and foreheads lacked the implants that kept even the lowliest Incarnation person in contact with their domineering data networks. “They’re Confederated citizens. Their outpost here isn’t a military base... It’s a forced labor colony.” 

As Soraya watched, one of the laborers staggered and fell face-first into the trampled undergrowth. The others in his team barely glanced at their fallen comrade as they set to work pulling down yet another local tree. Within seconds, a pair of Incarnation soldiers in pristine cold-weather suits appeared out of the fog to drag the limp figure away. 

Seppo stowed his metalens and elbowed Gabriel, who was still watching the scene below in mute horror. “Still not as bad as you were expecting, Gabe?” 

After the revelation of Incarnation prisoner-transport hellships ferrying mass numbers of people – civilian and military prisoner – off Margaux, many feared that conditions to which these unfortunates were bound would be as bad or worse. I am sorry to say that this fear has been borne out. 

Though nothing but a scientific outpost existed on frozen Meraud before this conflict, the Incarnation has built and expanded a facility there. Naval Intelligence has made recent findings on Meraud available to us here at Cosmic Background, assuring us that they ensured all agents sent to survey the horrors of Meraud have been extracted safely. While I was not permitted to interview Soraya Levine while composing this entry, full audiovisual recordings of her debriefing were provided in addition to recordings her team took at several forest-clearing sites and at the main prison outpost itself. Some of that material can be found the Cosmic Background datasphere hub. 

Unfortunately, there is no good way to rescue these people – Meraud is at the far side of the Frontier from Maribel. What the Incarnation thinks to gain from working Confederated citizens to death on a frozen world is beyond me – surely the resources they might reap from such crude efforts are not worth the effort and lives expended. 

We can only imagine the terrible conditions under which these Meraud hostages live every day, and pray for their survival until the Navy has the ability to drive that deeply into Incarnation-held space and mount a proper rescue.