Tales from the Service: The Cursed Callahar
Saint-Lô is going to be a far more comfortable place to watch this war than either Nojus or myself expected. It has more pressure hull volume than Anselmi spaceport in Håkøya, and a similar crew compliment.
Nojus and I will be sharing a cabin, and our techs will be sharing a second cabin. Our team is the only media presence aboard the ship, as the other media outfits who have sent embed teams have been distributed somewhat evenly throughout the heavy elements of the Fifth Fleet. The ship's skipper, Captain Jayendra Liao, is an occasional Cosmic Background media consumer, mostly of the vidcast series, and he has been quite welcoming.
While he can't tell us (or this audience) anything about the fleet's plans for security reasons, the captain wanted me to assure this audience that he means to provide us with a very good view of the action. I'm not sure if I like the sound of that, but Nojus is pleased that we have landed on a "fighting ship" - as if there's another kind of battleship.
I suppose Dawnglider is another kind of battleship. The museum kind, which stays parked in orbit back at Centauri and never fires its weapons except as part of memorial ceremonies. It wouldn't be much good to cover the war from a cabin there, though.
Today’s entry is a story I can’t confirm; Naval Intelligence is not treating it as credible, but Nojus was convinced enough to shuttle over to one of the fleet’s support ships to interview the story’s source. Having seen the interview (portions of which will be featured on the main vidcast later this week), I can only say I am convinced that the source, a junior logistics officer named Qillak Falk, believes his story to be truth. He has no images to back it up, but one of his crew-mates (who features in his account) asserts that she saw the imagery, if only briefly. The accident aboard the tanker ship which claimed the life of the skipper is very real, but it was attributed to an orbital debris collision, not to any form of attack or sabotage.
“Mister Falk, would you please explain to me what this is?”
Qillak Falk studied his shoes for a moment, before looking up at his skipper. “Battle trophy, sir.”
“Lieutenant, this is a victuals ship. We don’t take battle trophies.” The skipper tossed the offending object dismissively onto his desk, where it clattered to a stop just short of the edge. “Where did you get it?”
Qillak studied his prize carefully. He had analyzed its composition the day he’d acquired it; the object was made of a rather complex titanium alloy with an odd crystalline structure. He’d proved it was safe; no nanoparticles, no circuitry on any scale, no power sources. As far as he could tell, his battle trophy was nothing but an alien ornament, scorched on one side by the fiery death of its owner. “Delaney and I found it while we were servicing Brook Montana, skipper. There was some other stuff as well, but I think he bartered all his bits already.”
“Montana... That was a week ago.” The skipper winced. “You idiots had time to go all the way to the battle-site and sift the debris without anyone noticing?”
“Well...” Qillak returned his gaze to his shoes. “We were out catching a tank of nutrient slurry that got loose.” It had been Qillak’s fault the tank had snapped its lines and tumbled free, but nobody had noticed.
The look of utter disdain with which the skipper fixed Qillak informed him that his fault for the incident would be duly recorded. “Get out of my office. This gets offloaded to Intelligence the moment we get back to Maribel. If you ever go on another unauthorized salvage expedition, you will be scrubbing the bio-waste tanks with a dental pick for the rest of the tour.”
“Aye, Skipper.” Qillak saluted and retreated into the corridor, still cringing. The ornament had no intelligence value, of course; it would be used as a paperweight on some Naval Intelligence paper-pusher's desk. He wanted something to take home, something to set next to the Taixha knife his great grandfather had claimed as a ground-pounder in the Terran-Rattanai War, and the tattered tapestry-like ornament his father had collected from a dead ship after Cold Refuge. Consigned to the logistics service, he knew the ornament had been his only chance to place a new heirloom in the family reliquary, and he’d blown it by bragging to the wrong people.
Given the minor skirmish which had left the debris field, it was a wonder they’d found anything bigger than metal splinters. Qillak had pulled the records after he’d returned with his prize – Brook Montana and three other light cruisers had chased off a single Tyrant before it could raid a backwater colony’s orbital installations. A few drone-sized launches had been destroyed, and the Tyrant had slugged it out with one of the cruisers inconclusively before retreating. Short of a miraculous hull breach evacuating an officer’s quarters, there was no reason for an odd, decorative paperweight and a few other curios to be left behind, floating in space.
Grumbling, Qillak boarded the lift and headed down to his quarters. He’d bragged about his prize to everyone, and now his off-shift activities would be ruined by inability to back up the tale. He had stills of the object and the odd markings on its surface, but not the hard evidence of his little expedition. Delaney would back him up, but his word was not entirely useful; the manipulator arm operator was a notorious exaggerator.
“Gee, for a guy who’s got me waiting outside his cabin, you look pretty glum.”
Qillak looked up at his visitor. “Good to see you, Lisbet.” The smile on her face was infectious. Petty Officer Lisbet Akiyama had occupied a place of honor in Qillak’s daydreams since the ship had left the Core Worlds, and it had taken the mostly-true tale of recovering a miraculous find for him to finally catch her attention. Now, she would never believe him. “Sorry, the skipper just got finished chewing me out.”
“For what?” Lisbet stepped aside and let Qillak key open his cabin door. “Oh wait, let me guess. Your battle trophy.”
“Yeah.” Qillak held the door open. “I still have still shots in the computer, but the real thing is on his desk right now, and I’m not getting it back.”
Lisbet sighed, but followed him inside the cabin. “I told you to keep it to yourself. Still, I’m curious what it looks like.”
She had, of course, but by the time she had, it was far too late. Humoring his promise of images was likely little more than a polite gesture. Qillak had promised an alien curio, and he had failed to deliver. His chances with Lisbet had collapsed, and he knew it. Waving her to the cabin’s tiny desk, he called up his personal archive. “Here you go.”
The image that appeared above the desk, rendered in life-size holo-imagery, proved that Qillak had not completely made the story up, but Lisbet had no proof of the image’s unaltered state. The object looked something like a knife, though its double-curved handle resembled no functional knife he had ever seen, and its blade was a squared-off peg with no point or sharp edges. An ellipsoidal disk sat between these two parts like a guard, and its false-blade bore a complex pattern of triangular impressions, and the inside of each impression had been darkened to set them apart from the otherwise shiny metal. A severe scorch-mark marred the pattern, likely caused by whatever catastrophe had set the object adrift in space.
Lisbet leaned in to examine the image eagerly, then drew back in alarm. “Qillak, this... This isn’t an alien curio.”
“What?” He frowned at the image, then turned to face his guest. “What do you mean?”
“This is a callahar. A Ladeonist calling-card. There’s a code to those tick-marks...”
Qillak looked back at the image. He saw no trace of human markings on it, only triangular impressions in an oblong dome of alloy which the computer had not matched to any human make. “How do you know that?”
“Listen, we need to warn the skipper. Whoever holds a callahar is marked for death, whether or not they are the intended target.”
“Unless you think there are Ladeonists on the crew, I don’t think-”
Lisbet grabbed Qillak’s shoulder. “We need to go warn the-”
The hologram vanished, interrupting her terrified insistence. A moment later, the lights went out as well. Before either could react, the lights came back on, and Qillak’s desk console began to reboot. When it did come back up, it displayed a rotating error indicator rather than the image.
The overhead speakers came to life immediately as well. “Damage control to deck three, forward!”
Lisbet shook her head, stunned. “Officer’s quarters. We’re too late.”
Qillak took her arm and rushed to the lift, taking it back up to deck three. Sure enough, they found the damage control team standing by a sealed emergency bulkhead halfway down the corridor, each of them pale as a sheet.
“Was anyone in there?” Qillak knew the answer, but he still hoped he was wrong.
One of them turned to acknowledge the newcomers. “Aye. The skipper, Mr. Falk. We don’t know anything yet. Let us handle this.”
Lisbet seized Qillak’s wrist and dragged him back toward the lift. “Whoever holds a callahar is marked for death.” She kept her voice low, to keep her reminder from distracting the damage control team. “Hopefully it’s out in the void again, where it belongs.”
Qillak, despite losing his imagery as well as his trophy, couldn’t help but agree.