2949-04-13 – Tales from the Service: Sangster Stretched Thin

Nojus here. Duncan’s feeling a bit poorly this week and asked me to write an introduction for this piece he’d already finished preparing for the feed. Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious, but you should hear him whining – it might almost convince you he was on his deathbed.

Though the Navy’s battle fleets and their mercenary auxiliaries tend to get the best press, they aren’t the only spacers caught up in this war. Thousands of support ships are needed to keep things ticking, and though their service isn’t nearly as likely to end under Incarnation guns, that doesn’t make their jobs safe or pleasant.

Steffen McTaggart, one of these so-called “rear area” spacers, sent us a message to describe how badly these crews are being overstretched. Apparently the Navy planned for this war to be a short conflict, and is patching the gaps with contract work from civilian vessels like his own, the heavy salvage tug Aram Sangster. These vessels and their owners are profiting from the exchange, but they can hardly refuse an urgent Navy contract (all Navy contracts are, it seems, urgent) without getting the money turned off for good. Most of them haven’t had a full shipyard workup since they arrived on the Frontier.

For the moment, the Navy seems content to just let these crews or ships wear themselves out. There are new ones coming in from the rest of the Reach to more than replace them, even if the growth rate of the rear-area logistics system is fairly poor. Eventually, I’m worried when something in this system breaks, it’s going to break hard and fast.

For those of you wondering, the ship Mr. McTaggart's crew salvaged most recently is one of those destroyed during the Battle of Berkant. Until his message, that the wrecks from that battle were still drifting there until recently, having only minimal recovery operations attempted, is something neither Duncan nor I knew.

“Hells.” Steffen McTaggart scowled out the command deck viewscreen over a mug of acrid spacers’ coffee. As usual, the view forward of Aram Sangster was nothing short of discouraging. “They always stick us with the worst gigs, don’t they. Why didn’t they say the damned ship was blown near clean in two?”

Jeanette Vang, the ship’s navigator and second in command, chuckled from her station. “That’s why they pay us the big credits, Boss.”

Steffen drained his coffee in one gulp and tossed the empty cup in the general direction of the pile of similar disposable containers spilling out of the bridge beverage dispenser’s broken return receptacle. “The big bucks ain’t nearly enough sometimes, Vang. I’ll go see Tyson. We’re going to need the torches for this one.”

Steffen sighed and limped toward the lift, trusting his second to see to the minutiae of edging Sangster closer to the shattered hulk of the heavy cruiser Ravi Songbird. There would be an extensive debris field around the shattered cruiser, but Sangster’s extensive screening fields and multi-layered armor-hull would let it bull through this with ease. Berkant being, at least for the moment, still a Confederated system, there was little chance of anything more dynamic than tumbling debris threatening his ship.

Being the commander of the biggest, most rugged FTL tug operating in the Coreward Frontier had its advantages, but today, like most days, Steffen wished for a command his Navy paymasters didn’t hold in such high regard. The Navy saw his ship and crew as the ultimate fixers for a sticky salvage situation, and for the moment they weren’t wrong, but the hardware and personnel of Sangster were beginning to show the strain. The bridge drink-dispenser was hardly the only symptom of the slow decay which had overtaken his once smartly-run ship.

Once in the lift, Steffen instructed it to carry him down four decks to the launch deck. Trying to haul both halves of a dead cruiser in one run would have been a tricky proposition even before the war, and now with his crew wrung out from eight months’ dashing from one job to the next with no shore leave, he didn’t doubt there would be complications. It would be far safer if the torches made sure the wreck stayed in one piece before Sangster tried moving it – but the torch hands and their machines were without doubt the parts of his outfit that most needed a rest and refit.

The lift disgorged him into the launch deck gallery. Through the armor-glass bulkhead opposite, he could see Sangster’s six torch launches lined up in two neat rows on the main launch deck below, umbilical cabling snaking to connect to each.

Hobbling toward the launch ops station at the end of the little gallery, Steffen barged in to find Freddy Tyson and two of the torch jockeys sitting on the consoles, chatting and passing around a flask of something that he doubted was water or coffee.

Tyson stood – not entirely steadily – at Steffen’s approach. “Boss, to what do we owe the-”

“Get your torches ready.” Steffen grabbed the flask from his subordinate’s hand, sniffed it, and recoiled at the sharp odor that only a crude shipboard distillery could produce. Before the war, he’d tolerated Tyosn’s alcoholism and the hobby that sustained it, and every wartime gig made him regret this leniency. “The Navy failed to mention that this wreck is only in one piece because a few hull panels didn’t quite get the memo that the bow and stern are getting a divorce. Can you and your boys make it stay in one piece?”

The two torch pilots slunk out the compartment’s opposite door, heading for their own ready-room. They wouldn’t launch on their initial survey run for at least two more hours, so Steffen hoped they would have enough time to sober up.

Tyson frowned, his eyes unfocusing as he worked on parsing Steffen’s words and formulating a response. “Anything’s possible, Boss. I’ll get on it.”

Steffen gritted his teeth. While sober, Tyson could be a borderline savant at directing torch operations – he had a knack for knowing just what parts of a wreck could be cut, which needed to be reinforced, and where the trouble spots would be. While drunk, on the other hand, and this had become an increasingly common state since his home-world of Mereena had been overrun by the Incarnation, Tyson lost his focus and his edge. Even drunk, he was better at his job than most, but most didn’t stand a chance of keeping the derelict Ravi Songbird together through a pair of Himura jumps. If either end of the ship broke loose during a star drive maneuver, thousands of tons of potentially salvageable Navy hardware would go tumbling off into interstellar space, along with Sangster’s reputation with the Navy.

Sensing Steffen’s concerns, Tyson stiffened his posture, clearly offended. “We’ll get it done, McTaggart. We always have.”

For all his slow downward spiral, the man and his torch pilots did always come through in the end. Steffen sighed and waved the half-empty flask out the viewpanels toward the torch launches on the deck below. “We can’t afford any mistakes on this one, Tyson. You’re off the bottle until that hulk is secured and we’re under way, do you hear me?”

Though his first reaction was a wince, Tyson nodded. “Makes sense, Boss.”

“Good.” Steffen turned on his heel and hobbled back toward the lift, taking the flask with him. He could almost believe Tyson would honor that request – almost.