2949-02-09 – Tales from the Service: Riding the Riverbarge

One of the stranger starship technologies ever built by human engineers is the Riverbarge star drive. Like most of you, I’ve never traveled on a ship equipped with one; this drive is all but unheard of outside the Hyades Cluster. While I don’t understand all the mechanics myself, most normal star drives don’t work in the cluster – it represents a concentration of too many massive stars in too small a patch of space.

A few weeks ago, the story of how the Navy lured Wolff-Kumar Enterprises into a dangerous mission with a “name your price” contract appeared in this space. Captain Bradford and his crew returned alive and successful, and their lucrative payout has made them the envy of the mercenary community which still receives contracts from the Fifth Fleet.

Mr. Bradford’s second submission to this publication is not about their mission – which apparently was nearly uneventful – but about the Riverbarge unit aboard his destroyer which drove the Navy to call on their services. Whether the interesting behavior he describes is common behavior for these machines or a result of decades of disuse and neglect of delicate machinery, I cannot say; perhaps a Hyadean member of this audience can explain what happened. I somehow doubt what Archimedes experienced is a drive system that is working as intended.

Captain Cyril Bradford dropped wearily into the command chair on the Archimedes bridge, then waved for Asin Lewin at the helm to proceed. Drifting in the interstellar void three light-years from occupied Matusalemme, he had ensured every possible precaution was taken to make their appearance in the enemy-held system as stealthy as possible. Still, there was a small chance he and his crew would be annihilated within seconds of arrival solely due to bad luck.

“Capacitors are charged and the Riverbarge system has a green board, Captain.” Lewin reported. “Shunting power.”

Cyril nodded an acknowledgement. Archimedes’s twin star-drive units, rare among the warships and mercenary auxiliaries defending the Coreward Frontier against the Incarnation, was a result of the vessel’s Hyadean origins. Jie Yu Enterprises didn’t build export models larger than a pinnace, and only a rare few of the larger vessels it built for the Hyades Cluster’s local navy ever fell into outside hands – Wolff-Kumar’s acquisition of the vessel remained a mystery to even its skipper. While one of those star drives was a mundane, if aging, Himura unit, the other was a Hyadean “Riverbarge” drive – a strange and, under most circumstances, quite impractical machine.

On several occasions, Cyril had debated approving orders to have the Riverbarge torn out and replaced with something more useful, and now he was cursing his reluctance. It was because of that accursed Hyadean contraption that he was about to order a jump into enemy territory. The payout if his crew lived would be substantial, but he had little confidence in survival, no matter what the Navy’s simulations said.

“Shunt complete. Full drive charge in one hundred seconds.” Lewin didn’t sound nervous, but then, he was thinking about retiring from mercenary service after his cut of the payout. He probably had visions of marrying his less-than-secret shipboard lover in a grand ceremony and taking her to settle down down on a balmy coastline far from the war. Cyril knew that dream couldn’t last – two years, maybe three, and Asin Lewin would be going back to space with or without his intended bride.

Cyril took a deep breath, then released it, along with his many misgivings. His crew had a job to do, and whether or not he liked it, he had to make sure it was done right. “Battle stations.”

The lighting dimmed and the insistent bark of the battle-stations alarm sounded. The thirty-odd personnel aboard would have dropped everything to rush to their stations, except that they all had known the alarm was coming for several hours. Most likely, everyone had already been at or near their action stations.

Cyril watched the station readiness display to his left until every indicator was green, indicating that everyone was as ready for what was coming as could be managed. He was gratified to see that Lewin’s sixty-second timer still had almost twenty seconds left on it. “Proceed when ready, helm.”

Lewin’s hands flew across the console, preparing the old Hyadean machine for its first use in decades. The Navy had made sure to send techs to check the Riverbarge out before Archimedes had departed, but these experts had been given less than two shifts to certify the machine for use, but Cyril didn’t think it would fail and force a mission abort before anyone got into danger. He and his crew were not nearly that lucky.

“Brace for transition in ten seconds.” Lewin announced, and this time his voice echoed over the intercom. “Three… Two... One…”

The timer hit zero and the drive woke with a roar, draining the power given to it in a split second and falling back on the ship’s massive capacitor banks. Unlike the subtle crackling pins-and-needles sensation of travel with a Himura star drive or the almost unnoticeable lurch of a Xiou-Edwards unit, the Riverbarge shook the whole ship and filled the air inside with a cacophonous, rumbling thunderclap which seemed to go on for whole minutes.

Stunned, Cyril shook his head against the sudden ringing in his ears. He realized the sound had gone, which meant his ship was now in enemy territory, and by the looks of his bridge crew, they were at least as disoriented as he was.

“Report!” He barked – or tried to. He could barely hear his own voice, and doubted anyone else could.

Unbuckling himself, Cyril staggered across the destroyer’s tiny bridge to the reeling gunnery officer, pushed her aside, and checked the tactical plot which that officer should have mirrored to his station the instant they arrived. The board was mercifully clean – there were no gravitic-drive signatures within several light-hours, though faint hints beyond effective detector range suggested that the enemy was in the system. The Riverbarge had allowed them to use their star drive to jump much farther into the system than any other ship – perhaps far enough to evade any early-warning sensor nets deployed by the Incarnation since their takeover in Matusalemme.

Cyril turned to the helm console, but found Asin Lewin already recovering, his hands dancing shakily on the console. After a moment, he looked up and offered a quick thumbs-up to Cyril. The ship was in fine order even if its crew wasn’t.

Hobbling over to Lewin, the mercenary commander put his lips to the younger man’s ear. “Ballistic course to the Hypercast Relay.”

Lewin nodded and turned back to his console. Plotting a ballistic course would take time – time to determine just where they had landed in the system, and with what velocity. Once they knew that with some accuracy, the computer could do the rest, planning what subtle nudges of the thrusters would bring the ship close to its intended target. If all went well, the enemy wouldn’t see them in time to protect the installation, and Archimedes would be on its way out of the system at emergency acceleration before any pursuit got underway.

Grinding his teeth, Cyril made the rounds to the other officers and shook them out of their dazes before returning to his command chair. Disoriented, half-deafened, and shaken they might be, his crew had a job to do, and their lives depended on making sure it was done right.

2949-02-02 – Tales from the Service: A Departure from Margaux

As her little dropship hurtled upward toward the blue-black zenith of Margaux’s toxic sky, Rosemary Beck tried not to think about things that were behind it. Instead, she had to focus on getting her passengers to safety in one piece. Thirty wounded men, mostly Confederated Marines, lay strapped into medtech stretchers in the troop bay below, with only four medics to watch over them. The rest of the men and women scrambling to patch up the broken Ishkawa Line would hold, or they wouldn’t, and her absence wouldn’t make a difference. 

“Flight Olympic, you are still in the clear.” Somehow, the ground controller at the big Volha Basin strike operations center sounded calm, despite the chaos that threatened to sweep over even that previously-safe location. “Enemy interceptors are still pursuing Flight Pheasant. Looks like they’ve decided you’re not worth chasing. I’m sending you updated nav data for the rendezvous.” 

Rosemary could see two of the seven other dropships out her cockpit viewpanels, though mainly because the disposable liquid-fuel rocket boosters assisting their vertical climb to orbit threw off gigantic pillars of white smoke as they pushed the little ships into the sky. The big gray lump of Olympic Actual’s pinnace at the head of the formation, too big for any bolt-on boosters to hurl into orbit but more than capable of making the sprint on its own gravitic drive, hung directly ahead of her dropship’s nose. The others weren’t far off, visible on sensors even as the bulk of her ship hid them from direct view. 

Flight Olympic had no escorts – the few Pumas which could be spared for tangling with the Incarnation’s vast, sky-darkening force of Coronachs were many kilometers away stiffening the spine of the diversionary Flight Pheasant, mainly composed of Mercenary-crewed strike bombers armed for a punitive strike on Incarnation supply dumps. If intercepted in force, Pheasant was supposed to do exactly what its name implied – scatter and dart back to the relative safety of nearby bases. Atmospheric flight made the normally nimble Coronachs far less so, but at fifteen-to-one odds, even atmosphere-optimized Pumas piloted by Marine hotshots couldn’t stand and fight for long. 

Again, Rosemary forced herself to consider what lay ahead and above, not that which remained behind and below. The eight dropships and one over-engined pinnace of Flight Olympic were, other than the Pumas forming a distraction, the last space-capable Confederated Marines vessels left on Margaux, and they managed in total to haul a bit less than three hundred fifty severely wounded ground-pounders off the besieged world. Thousands upon thousands just as wounded waited their turn in tunnel medical wards throughout the shrinking Confederated perimeter in the Causey Plana, and Rosemary had carefully avoided knowing how these few hundred were selected to be lifted out. There could be no fair way to choose which men would live and which would lay there waiting to die. 

She had promised to return if she could, but even as she’d spoken these assurances, she’d known it would be impossible. The Pheasant diversion would permit the nine outbound ships to leave Margaux orbit relatively unmolested, but it wouldn’t last long enough to prevent them from being intercepted on a return flight a few hours later. Once she docked with the Marine assault transport Alvin York, which was on a stealthy dead-drive ballistic course through the system to drop supply canisters and pick up Flight Olympic, she would be carried with it on its pell-mell outbound dash, and most likely would never see Margaux again.  

Unlike the other pilots and the ten-spacer crew of Olympic Actual, who were all grateful to leave the faltering garrison on Causey Plana, Rosemary didn’t want to leave. She knew her little brother was still down there, somewhere on the faltering Ishkawa Line. Yared had been planning to enlist with the Confederated Marines like his older sister, but he’d jumped at the Frontier Defense Army’s promise to put him into action quickly compared to the years it would take for him to become a Marine. The FDA had made good on that promise – Yared had arrived on Margaux two months before the Incarnation invasion.  

He was still alive and well, that Rosemary knew, but the chaotic way in which unit organization had been shuffled in the withdrawal to the Ishkawa Line, she had no way of finding out where he was. They’d exchanged a few text and recorded-voice missives over the planet’s spotty datasphere, but that was as close as they’d been in her four weeks on Margaux; Yared lived under an overzealous FDA datasphere censor algorithm which prevented him from sharing his location, and he could not leave his post to come find her even after she’d communicated hers. Now, she was leaving the poisoned world without him – and she felt a dread certainty that she would never see him alive again. 

The slowly darkening sky began to shift from deep blue to black as Flight Olympic raced beyond Margaux’s atmosphere and into the emptiness of space. The rumbling of atmosphere battering the dropship’s outer hull faded, and the smoothly motionless feeling of onboard inertial isolation took over. 

There was no time to enjoy the sudden silence, however. “All Olympic units stay in formation.” The snappy voice of Commander Statham – Olympic Actual – snapped Rosemary out of her distraction. “Slave fire control to ours. Anyone who falls behind gets left behind.” 

As her commander spoke, Rosemary’s sensor plot lit up with enemy contacts - the expected light picket net of Coronachs which harried anything the larger hunting formations failed to intercept. With the flick of a switch, Rosemary deployed the twin gun turrets from their transit shields and switched them from local control to the direction of the larger pinnace’s fire control systems. Unified fire from more than twenty rapid-tracking turret systems would probably chase away all but the most determined Incarnation pilots. 

As the twin turrets began to dissuade the Coronachs with rattling bursts of high-velocity slugs, Rosemary set the helm controls to automatic, then hurriedly tapped out what she knew would be her final message to her little brother. 

Rosemary Beck’s premonitions were indeed correct; she was notified upon returning to Maribel on Alvin York that her younger brother had been killed in action on Margaux only two days after her departure. 

Though Yared Beck is not being considered for any awards for gallantry in combat, he was a capable and reliable soldier during his short career with the Frontier Defense Army. 

Sadly, it looks as if Admiral Zahariev’s new ploy to rescue the Margaux garrison has miscarried; his fleet has not been seen here or at Margaux for several weeks, though we would know by now if it came to misfortune. The situation on the ground there is degrading quickly and I will confess that I do not see much hope for the relief of the garrison being squeezed into a progressively smaller pocket of the Causey Plana. Many millions here at Maribel and many billions throughout the Reach are praying for a miracle, however, and perhaps we will yet see one. 

2949-01-26 – Tales from the Service: Three Glittering Words 

The Fifth Fleet's innumerable and highly profitable contracts to mercenary outfits in this conflict have resulted in a massive boom in the mercenary industry in the last year; every outfit seems to be hiring and in the market to outfit new strike squadrons and new warships. When this war ends, that cash flow will dry up, and it seems every mercenary in the Reach, from the giant firms like Sovereign Securities to the small, hardscrabble mercenary squadrons operating out of cheap hauler conversions, wants to grab as big a pile of Navy credits as possible before that happens. 

Unfortunately for some, the sheer size of Navy payouts seems to be having a negative effect on judgement. Risks are being taken by some outfits that they never would make except for the Navy’s tendency to add another zero to the payout to sweeten the deal. I would call it a cynical way to preserve Navy personnel and materiel while still accomplishing risky missions, but more likely it’s simply the Navy using the available resources best fit for each mission. Regardless of the intent, this situation leaves many mercenaries taking too many risks, and it is leading to a higher rate of loss among mercenary units than any profit-making industry can sustain for long.

If an extra zero does not persuade a mercenary company to accept a Navy contract, there is another level of persuasion beyond that – the so-called Three Glittering Words of the mercenary business. “Name your price” bargaining is so rare in mercenary service as to be largely a legend, at least, it was, until this conflict. 

Cyril Bradford stared at the Navy liaison sitting opposite him for several seconds, hoping what he’d just heard had been a poorly-delivered joke. Sadly, there was no indication of humor in the hard edges of Colonel Van Can’s face or the set of his squared, stubble-crusted jaw.  

“Let me guess. You’re not being paid well enough to take that kind of risk?” Van Can leaned forward, taking Cyril’s hesitation as a bargaining position. “The admiral is willing to fix that. Name your price.” 

Cyril’s mercenary heart leapt at the sound of those three glittering words, but he tried not to let it show. They had strings attached, and Van Can knew it. Cyril could name a price in excess of the value of his company, and the Navy would not pay it – they would simply buy out Wolff-Kumar Enterprises, replace Cyril with someone willing to do their bidding, and then do the contract pro bono. There were rumors that it had happened to some of the smaller mercenary units already. 

“It’s not the pay.” Cyril winced as soon as he said it; risk or no, he would have liked to take the opportunity to raise his company’s fees. “Colonel, I don’t think we can do that.” 

“Our command-level simulations give your company a four in five chance of complete success.” Van Can’s poker-face remained unnervingly perfect – he didn’t even try to look or sound sympathetic. “It needs to be done, and nobody better equipped is available in time. Name your price.” 

Four in five was good odds for Navy service, of course, but Cyril hadn’t been in Navy service for more than a decade. If his mercenary crew learned they had a twenty percent chance of perishing on a mission, they would mutiny. Van Can knew that too, so why had he mentioned the odds? 

Wanting to be rid of the colonel by any means necessary, Cyril shrugged wearily. “I have to talk it over with my crew.” A conference with the thirty spacers on his destroyer Archimedes and the twelve more who operated the company’s quartet of strike gunships would take time to arrange since they were all scattered throughout the Maribel system on shore leave, and hopefully the delay would encourage the Navy to send someone else on its “necessary” suicide mission. 

“Your launch window is at the beginning of first shift tomorrow.” Colonel Van Can stood, and a set of documents – a contract – appeared on the display inset into Cyril’s desk. “The necessary supplies should be here in two hours.” 

Cyril scanned the documents for a moment. “Wait, I didn’t accept-” When he looked up, though, Van Can had already gone. “Damn.”  

He had about two hours to decide whether to reject the colonel's supplies – there was no way he could solicit the inputs of more than a third of his personnel in that time. A quick search verified that only four of his subordinates were onboard Archimedes, and nine more were on the station which his ship was docked to. The other thirty-odd were on Maribel itself or the other orbital stations, and since everyone expected two more days of shore leave before their next patrol, most of them were probably drunk, stoned out of their minds, enjoying Maribel’s theoretically illegal but burgeoning prostitution industry, or engaging in other high-speed, high-risk behavior to blow off steam. 

Nevertheless, Cyril sent a recall to anyone who could get back to the ship quickly, then headed down to the mess. As built, the old Anselmi-class destroyer had a main mess compartment for the ratings and a small wardroom for the officers on their own lodgings deck, but in mercenary service the officers’ wardroom had been stripped out to make room for two more cabins. 

Sierra Gotti, the chief engineer aboard Archimedes, beat Cyril to the mess compartment. She waved over a steaming cup of synthetic coffee as he entered. “What’s going on, boss?” 

“New Navy contract.” Cyril obtained his own coffee and sat down across from her just as the other three personnel aboard the ship ambled in. He raised his voice so they could hear as well. “Van Can has a job for us in Matusalemme.” 

Gotti’s eyebrows shot up, and the other three stopped what they were doing to turn to face their captain. “Matusalemme’s enemy territory, boss, but if the Navy’s going there, we can watch their asses.” 

“The Navy isn’t going with us.” Cyril shook his head and stared into his coffee. “The job is to slag the Adimari Valis Hypercast relay.” 

“And I hope you told that lunatic that we’re not suicidal.” 

“I did.” He hated to lie to them, even in such a small way, but it had to be done. “He told us to name our price.” 

Tech-specialist Armelle Roche and helmman Asin Lewin, a pair who were utterly failing to keep their shipboard romance a secret, arrived just as Cyril repeated the glittering phrase. Based on the disorder of their attire, they’d dressed in a hurry before rushing back to the ship. 

Asin, his eyes flashing with avaricious intent, stepped forward and leaned his hip on the table. “Name our price, boss? On a Navy contract, even. Hells, how many zeroes did you tell him?” 

“I told him we’d think it over.” Cyril knew Asin would never understand the Navy’s ability to circumvent Cyril if the price was quoted too high – book-keeping and risk-estimation were not his strong subjects. “We can’t collect a fortune if we’re dead.” 

Sierra, at least, seemed to grasp the inescapability of a contract offered with the phrase “name any price” before she spoke. “How long do we have?” 

“Van Can said we’d be getting supplies in a couple of hours, and we’re supposed to leave at the beginning of first shift. We should probably have our answer before we accept that delivery.” 

“Twenty hours to get everyone back aboard?” Armelle shook her head. “Impossible. The crew’s scattered all over the system. If-” 

Cyril sighed. “There’s no time to get everyone’s approval on this or to call up to the Board.” As he spoke, another two personnel crept in, both smeared with glittering body paint to indicate where aboard the station they’d been. “Who is here now makes the call. Do we name our price and go to Matusalemme? Or turn them down and catch every Hell that Colonel Van Can is capable of throwing?” 

There was a brief silence as each member of the small group worked things over in their minds. Asin, always impulsive, spoke first. “I say we do it. This could be retirement money, Boss.” 

His less-than-secret lover stepped up next. “I’m not ready to retire just yet. I’m not ready to buy the plot either. Tell the Colonel off, and if that means they stop giving us patrols, then we’ll go somewhere else.” 

Sierra Gotti shook her head. “Name any price means they’ll just find our price eventually. Might as well choose it for ourselves.” 

The others quickly voted as well. Armelle’s recommendation picked up only one other vote – almost everyone seemed to have a wish-list they wanted to fund on the Navy’s credit. 

Cyril stood once everyone had said their piece. “If you have anything you want to add to the Colonel’s shopping list, send it to my station and I’ll get it into the paperwork. Sierra, can you be ready to accept that delivery, and Asin, get the station to send out an emergency recall.” 

The brief meeting broke up as everyone departed to start preparing the ship or get a few last hours of shore leave. Cyril, suddenly alone in the mess compartment, sighed heavily, drained his coffee, and sent a comms request to Colonel Van Can. If his crew was going into a one in five chance of death, he could at least ensure the peril wasn’t cheap. 

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.