2947-10-01 – Tales from the Service: Gabriel’s Dutchman

The war is getting really interesting, and Duncan has agreed to let me directly publish more stories to this feed (though he still insists on mangling my text in the service of his too-dry editorial standards). He told me not to spend much time discussing the events elsewhere on the Coreward and Sagittarius Frontiers since Saint-Lô left Maribel, but the two attacks at Margaux and the loss of contact with remote Kistler Junction do not seem to be raids, just as the attack at Berkant was not a proper raid.

The Incarnation thinks it has the advantage – I personally don’t think so, but it’s possible – and Captain Liao thinks they’re hoping to make the Fifth Fleet look like a bunch of fools until some political nincompoop up and gives them what they want.

Trouble is, hell if anyone knows what they want – the prisoners taken by the Navy think they’re fighting to save humanity from extinction, the damned fools. Hardly a position that can be distilled into actionable demands – far as they see it, we’re either with them and surrender without any more fighting, or against them and due for destruction to preserve the species.

This week’s entry is another anecdote told by Source Gabriel, (as before, identified in this piece only as such) a captured Incarnation strike pilot who has been at least partly cooperative with Naval Intelligence interrogators. Evidently, the chip-brains in Nate command had at one point the utterly mad idea of snatching as worthless and boring a place as Deana’s Rock – the very hind end of the Frontier – and it’s apparently all it took was an apparent Dutchman sighting to scare them away from the misfortune of holding it.

We haven't seen Dutchmen in the Reach (credibly, anyway) in nearly 200 years - maybe they're more common in Sagittarius?

[Editor’s Note: Deana’s Rock is a touchy subject for Nojus – I tried to get him to tone down his scorn, but he wouldn’t budge, and we all know nobody on this ship can budge him if he digs his heels in. I’ll try to tease the story out of him later. Also keep in mind that this occurred at least a few weeks before Source Gabriel’s final mission (Tales from the Service: Source Gabriel) -D.L.C.]

The order to change course fed directly into Gabriel’s brain through his implants, and the sleek Coronach moved to follow the new heading even before he had registered the change, staying in pristine but rapidly-flowing formation behind the flight leader. Precision formation flying in tiny, nimble ships with nearly identical drive signatures was the Coronach’s best defense; like a school of fish, a squadron of the little interceptors made it difficult for attackers to identify single targets.

Of course, a course change not on the flight plan indicated trouble, and Gabriel immediately began to parse the flow of network traffic through which any pilot’s mind tumbled. The squadron leader had received an encrypted update from the mothership’s flight control system, and though Gabriel himself couldn’t decode it, he knew how to query its contents.

“Lead, what is the nature of our new orders?” Gabriel sent over the radio, though his mouth never moved inside his helmet.

In his augmented vision, the lead Coronach blinked to indicate successful reception. A moment later, Flight Leader Yasin’s reply arrived, read out for Gabriel’s auditory nerves. “Strange mass detected on our new heading. We’re checking it out.” Yasin, unlike many squadron commanders, did not lord his position over his subordinates. His squadron was the best – Immortal-only units excepted, if such things were more than rumor – and he knew any of his pilots were qualified to be flight leader of any lesser squadron.

The other pilots on the circuit blinked their silent acknowledgement in the augmented vision of Coronach flying, and shortly a spherical search area appeared ahead. The stars usually didn’t show from the cockpit, but inside the circular area ahead, the system let them show, in case the target object occluded any stars. Gabriel didn’t see anything, and as far as his light ship’s sensors and external cameras knew, the search area was just another patch of hard vaccuum.

As the squadron’s three sections separated to fly their parts of the helical search pattern prescribed by the computer, Tashi’s Coronach blinked to Gabriel’s left. “What do you think about the news from the home sector this morning?”

Gabriel could almost hear Yasin roll his eyes. Tashi had, as usual, waited until the section was alone on the short-range chatter circuit before bringing up uncomfortable topics. “It’s a rumor, Tashi. Nothing more.”

“Nobody would dare lie about matters the Inner Presence. What if there’s something to it? What if His visage really did react to news of our successes?” She trusted Yasin, Gabriel, and Azurra – trusted them more than Gabriel thought was healthy. He’d heard hushed rumors of people, co-opted by security systems, unwillingly turning in their own lovers, siblings, and children.

“If it’s true, it is proof we are the destined agents of humanity, and these weaklings must fall.” Azurra, always the most orthodox pilot in the section, might have been quoting out of the old, tattered texts preserved through the Schism.

“Of course they’ll fall. Half their systems are defended only by pathetic mercenaries. What I mean is-”

“Heads up!” Yasin put an end to the chatter. “On my datastream.”

Gabriel saw it instantly as the flight leader’s data gushed into his systems on a tight-beam transmission. The instruments usually used to track drive-wakes in the void had picked up a tiny ripple in the cosmic fabric – weak, but wide and constant, like ripples emanating outward from a tiny waterfall.

Gabriel, whose implants had somewhat better technical analysis algorithms, drank in the data, and let his implants digest it. “Not a drive-wake. Central source, low system-relative velocity, no visual. I have no ID, lead, but it’s small.”

“Keep processing. We’re going in close.”

The four Coronachs turned in unison as Flight Leader Yasin set a new course to fly closely past the ripple’s source. The other two flights, only labeled pinpricks in the distance, continued their search patterns; a tiny object didn’t match what the strike-director system had reported.

When the view ahead changed, filling with a red-shaded bulk, it did so in an instant. Gabriel’s head was filled with the screeching of a collision alarm designed specifically to trigger a response even in an unconscious pilot. Reflexively, he took manual control, flicked the Coronach end-over-end, and kicked the drive to maximum. If Azurra’s formation-holding was off by even two meters, this maneuver would cause his ship and hers to collide head-on, but he knew his section’s formation-holding was impeccable, even if they were forced to do it without the implant-driven automatic.

The automatic interlock kicked back in and Gabriel returned to a position beside Yasin, who’d picked a new course skimming along the length of the object which had appeared. Azurra and Tashi soon returned to formation as well.

Azurra broke the section’s silence first. “Son of Sapience, look at that.”

On the augmented-reality seen through his ship’s sensors, the object he’d nearly run into was a titanic unknown – bigger than a cruiser by half, obviously artificial but equally obviously not the work of the pathetic Confederated Navy. It lacked a spatial drive signature or emissions indicative of any large powerplant, but up close, what had seemed to be a ripple in the cosmic fabric now showed its true nature – not a mere ripple, the ship was entirely wrapped in a twist of space-time, so only the tiniest ripple showed outside. The tight flyby course set by Yasin had apparently found the tiny aperture of the spatial fold.

“Still no identification.” Gabriel started calculating the power requirements of that system, but even a conservative estimate put it far beyond the powerplant output of an entire squadron of Incarnation cruisers. That the object – the ship – had no measurable heat or particle emissions was more sinister than a ship lit from stem to stern, all viewports blazing – the fold in which the ship was tucked was proof it had power, and probably a crew which didn’t appreciate being spied on.

“Lost our mothership transponder signal.” Tashi observed, apparently not understanding what she was seeing. “Did they leave us behind?”

“Negative.” Gabriel sent her a copy of his in-progress mathematics, hoping she had enough software to interpret it. In case she didn’t, he struggled to come up with an analogy for the situation. “They’re sewing a pocket in space-time.”

Yasin highlighted a feature on the hull ahead, and though Gabriel couldn’t be sure, it looked a lot like a weapon emplacement. It was far bigger than the prow-mounted bombardment laser on their own mothership. As he looked, he began to pick out other features indicative that he was looking at a warship.

Yasin, evidently, had seen enough. He charted a new course for a broad sweep out from the hull and back on the vector which they had come in on.

“Wait.” Tashi called out, highlighting something on the hull ahead. “Visual-spectrum light source.”

Just as she pointed out the spot, a network of blazing blue-white lines burst forth from it, spidering across the whole hull of the hidden ship. The sensors automatically prevented any of the pilots from being blinded, and the light let the Coronachs’ telescopes see better the shadowy hull they’d been overflying. Stepped structures protruded at odd angles from the hull like grown crystals, some of them pocked and scarred by decades – maybe centuries – of superficial impacts. A pair of jutting, jawlike structures at the bow could only be weapons – weapons big enough, Gabriel thought distractedly, to vaporize entire capital ships. Nothing about the ship’s design could have been devised by human minds, but to the human sense of aesthetics, it was a beautiful ship, an apex predator lurking in ambush.

Gabriel watched the datastreams in awe. “Power to the fold pocket is falling. They’re coming out!”

“We’re getting out.” Yasin engaged the new course, and the four-ship formation flipped end-over-end in unison and scurried away from the hull toward their point of entry just as the pocket collapsed. Space seemed to wheel around the confused Coronach’s sensors, and Gabriel knew that if he had been able to see the stars, they would have spun madly as they reverted to their proper places.

“What is that light?” Azurra, little else to do but hope the four strike-ships were beneath notice, turned her attention back toward the great ship.

Gabriel spun his view backwards as well, drinking in the datastreams from all four Coronachs. “They’re folding the fabric again.”

Yasin made a few adjustments to the course, and sent out orders to the other two sections, which had reasonably panicked when the towering ship appeared. “Is it going to vanish again?”

“I think it’s a drive, but it’s-“

Gabriel never finished the thought, even though his thoughts were being transmitted directly. The spiderwebbed network of light along the ship’s vast hull pulsed once, then it went out from bow to stern – and where it went out, the ship vanished along with it.

“Weak reading from earlier is gone.” Yasin confirmed.

When the recall order arrived from the strike coordinator a moment later, it surprised none of the pilots. The cruiser’s command crew had seen the ship, and they knew any territory such behemoths lurked in was no place for the Incarnation to tread – not yet.