2949-12-28 – Tales from the Service: Grand Designs on Margaux

Last week’s account of the arrival of the mercenary warship Sundiver at Sagittarius Gate, along with similar accounts sent to other publications, has generated a great deal of datasphere activity. Much of it seems to be of the fearmongering variety, I’m sorry to say. Given the less-than-wholesome reputation the Sovereign Security Solutions company has acquired since its founding, I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Sovereign’s secrecy and close ties with Hegemony intelligence agencies, however, don’t constitute evidence that the company is preparing to betray the Seventh Fleet. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; the Hegemony has expressed interest in sending a task force to the Coreward Frontier to fight against the Incarnation ever since learning about the ties between the Incarnation and Reach-native Ladeonists.

Unfortunately, since Sundiver is the product of a Ladeonist-era building program, and also part of the legends and prophecies the Ladeonists regularly reference its twin, the much more well-known Dawnglider, I can see where the overactive imaginations started generating conspiracies.

Fortunately for us all, Sovereign has never demonstrated any Ladeonist sympathies; its leadership is a mix of Confederated Navy and Hegemony Navy veterans. Even if the organization is as liberally salted with reformed brigands as the rumors claim, most pirates aren’t particularly Ladeonist-aligned either.

Also contrary to the worst fears of some datasphere commentators, Sundiver didn’t stay long. By the time of this writing on the twenty-sixth, it has already departed Sagittarius Gate, leaving a frigate and two supply vessels from its small flotilla behind. Most likely, it’s going to be doing something similar to the raids Trafalgar and other fast, long-range capital ships have been carrying out, but I suppose we’ll hear about that in a few weeks.

Over on the Coreward Frontier, other Sovereign units have been heavily committed this week in raids on Incarnation bases near the contested system of Berkant. A small flotilla led by the large destroyer Van Praag even sortied to Margaux, though they were driven away from the orbital infrastructure around that world before any real damage could be done. Though Sovereign personnel rarely if ever leak accounts of their activities to the media, this raid was a mixed force including the regular Navy fast frigate Chloe Hightower, whose Margaux-native second-in-command was only too happy to relay their account of the assault and rapid withdrawal. The most interesting part of that account is the following.

Tom Beckett cleared his throat as Hightower’s skipper paced past his station. “Sir, do you have a moment?”

Commander Marioni whirled on Tom, his bleary eyes showing every minute of the thirteen hours the ship had been set to battle-stations. Even though nothing had happened yet, the ship and its fellows were cruising through an enemy-held system, their full-power gravitic drives announcing their presence to any enemy ships nearby. Blinking, the skipper nodded his assent.

“Permission to follow a hunch, sir.” Tom pointed into the display, where the planet of Margaux was depicted by a cyanotic sphere on the system map. “I put one of the telescopes on the planet, and something’s not right.”

Marioni frowned. “You think this is a trap?”

“Oh, no, no.” Tom shook his head. He could hardly blame his commander for focusing on the mission so tightly. “I mean, something’s not right on the planet’s surface. Might be there’s something important down there worth a missile.”

“We’re four light-hours from the planet, and you think you can pick out ground targets with a standard ship’s telescope? Beckett, that’s nonsense.”

Tom winced. “That’s not-”

“Look, I told you to keep the scopes on the planet to look for any sign of Tyrants lying cold in tight orbits. We’re here to smash orbitals, not pick off ground targets.” Marioni pointed to the screen. “If you can follow your hunch while still doing that, you have my permission, but we’re not firing on the surface.”

Tom opened his mouth to reply, but the tightly-wound commander was already gone, pacing toward the front of the bridge. With a sigh, he lowered his head and opened the data-screen he’d been hoping to show the skipper. On it, Margaux showed in twin mirrored crescents, with insets showing maximum-magnification shots of the outermost limb, where the difference was most pronounced. For some reason, the atmosphere of the planet had changed enough to visibly change color between the first image and the second, and since one was taken when he’d last departed the system three T-years ago, and the other only minutes before, it seemed a fair bet the Incarnation occupation had something to do with it.

Ignoring Marioni’s disdain, Tom set the ship’s main computer to examining the spectrographic profile of Margaux’s atmosphere and called up what the databanks said the composition should be. Using the computer for such things during a battle alert was theoretically discouraged, but with no enemy ships on the board and hours left until the computer would be needed to plot firing solutions, it seemed likely this would go unnoticed. The skipper had, after all, technically given him permission to follow his hunch.

When the spectrographic analysis came back, Tom spotted the difference immediately. “Hellfire. Look at that.”

Marioni, hearing Tom’s muttered exclamation, was back in an instant. “What is it, Beckett? Enemy activity?”

“None yet.” Tom pointed to the pair of spectrographic readouts on his display. “It’s the planet, sir. Archive data says its atmosphere is this, but this is what it is today. See these extra lines? Those elements are in the soil down there, but not the air. The battle would have thrown some up, but it would have all settled months ago.”

Marioni was silent for a few seconds, probably working on how this was relevant to detecting the enemy ambush he clearly expected.

“It means they’re doing something on the surface big enough to churn up dust on a global scale. Something that might just be worth a missile, sir, if I can find it.”

Marioni stared at Tom for a moment, then nodded. “Do what you can, Beckett, and if you do find it, you have your missile.”