2948-08-18 – Tales from the Service: A Conference at Dawn

Azure Kulmala graced this feed last week in her thrilling account of flying a dropship down to Margaux following the Incarnation attack on the system (Tales from the Service: The Bumpy Ride to Margaux). This week, we pick up her account the following morning local-time. The Battle of Margaux is developing in the mean time, but this embed team is being forced to withhold all details for the moment.

It seems that Margaux’s garrison – a mix of Marines and FDA – has something to hide, and it honestly surprises me that Naval Intelligence has cleared this story for publication. Perhaps the vagueness of what Azure knows up to this point is sufficiently unhelpful to the enemy (it contains nothing they can’t learn from orbital imagery) that it is deemed harmless, or perhaps not.

[N.T.B. – Naval Intelligence is so tightfisted most of the time that I wonder if someone over there fell asleep with this one. Still, it’s their call. Maybe they are cleverly releasing this to overturn an overly information-restrictive local commander’s decision – but if so, this would be a unique situation: Naval Intelligence advocating more openness with the media than the on-scene officers, rather than less. Maybe they just don't care about this because it refers to ground-side skulduggery. I suppose we'll find out.]

Azure Kulmala woke to a thumping so loud she rolled out of her bunk and leapt up, sure it was a collision alarm or that Gerard Lovell was under attack.

In shipboard gravity, this reaction would have had her standing in an instant, but in the roughly point-nine gee Margaux gravity well, her legs failed her and she flopped down on her knees beside the bed. The dusty fabcrete under her hands and knees brought back into focus where she was, and why she was there. Gerard Lovell was somewhere in orbit, and she was still stuck on a poisonous rock for which a great many men and women were dying. A quick look out the window – a real window, though sealed airtight to minimize invasion by several species of poisonous seasonal pollen – revealed the dim gray of pre-dawn.

The thumping repeated, and Azure recognized that it was not a collision or weapons fire, but the pounding of a Marine’s meat-haunch-sized hand on the metal-cored synthplast door of the lodgings she had been given. “Just a minute.” Azure called groggily, shaking her head as she stood slowly. Point nine gees felt like a lot to a spacer used to point-five or point-six, but she was at least current enough on her exercise regimen that the difference would be no more than a nuisance.

Shedding the skivvies she’d slept in, the pilot quickly threw on the new set of smart-clothes left for her by the Outpost Judicael staff. The at first loose and baggy material quickly adjusted to Azure’s preferred fit, so that when she opened the door, she looked almost composed. “What is it?”

“The Colonel sent for you, Lieutenant Kulmala.” The towering Marine outside the door – a specimen very nearly two full meters tall and almost broad enough at the shoulders to completely block the door – pointed down the hall.

Azure glanced back at the pre-dawn gloom outside her window. Outpost Judicael was awash with light, and though the local primary had not yet peeked its way over the distant eastern horizon, she could hear the murmur of activity as Marines, FVA conscripts, and supporting personnel hurried to their morning duties. “What for?”

The big man shrugged. Reasons were, apparently, above his pay grade. “This way, when you are ready.”

Azure sighed and hurried back into the room to collect her wrist computer and boots. The rest of her possessions which she had unloaded from the damaged dropship would have to wait until she was ready to leave. The mechanics had assured her it would be at least two days before they finished prying all the pieces of Coronach out of her vessel’s dorsal hull and port-side engine cowling, and a full precautionary inspection and nanotech sweep would probably take longer.

Returning promptly to the Marine at the door, Azure nodded her readiness. The man tromped off down the hall, and she trotted behind him to keep up. There was no attempt at conversation during the brief walk – the Marines, for fear of infiltrators and informants, refused to hold even the most routine conversations in the corridors of Outpost Judicael. The Lovell Marines had picked up this habit from the unit already on garrison seamlessly.

Fortunately, this silent walk ended quickly. The big man gestured to a door – an outer door, near which a rack of air filtration masks sat waiting for poison-pollen season – and stood aside, indicating that Azure should continue alone. As she approached the door, it opened automatically, and a gust of air billowing out from the positive-pressure air filtration system swept her sleep-mussed hair over her face as she crossed the threshold.

“Lieutenant Kulmala.” The smooth baritone of Colonel Monoghan greeted her. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim outside light enough to pick out the gray-haired Marine officer leaning against the thick fabcrete guardrail around a wide balcony. Beyond him, the eastern horizon was beginning to pale with the beginnings of dawn. “How are you feeling?”

“Well as can be expected, Colonel.” Azure walked out onto the balcony toward him. At both extreme corners of the balcony, rapid-tracking turrets for close air defense had been bolted to the artificial stone, though the rotary-barreled autocannons pointed blankly off into the horizon with nothing to shoot at. Outpost Judicael was not large, but she had seen enough weapons to prevent anything short of an orbital bombardment from overthrowing it. Perhaps they had anti-orbital weapons too, but if they did, those wouldn’t be left anywhere a stranded Navy pilot could see them. “Did you need something?”

Monoghan turned around to face her, and though the usual mask of confidence affected by the commander of Lovell’s Nineteenth Marine Regiment remained solidly in place, she thought it seemed more strained than usual. “Answers, mainly. I think you can help me get them.” The colonel held up his left hand, revealing a surveillance scrambler swallowed up by his huge palm. “Colonel Keo still hasn’t given me a briefing of the situation. He isn’t patrolling the perimeter, and he’s got no local air assets. A site like this one should have at least one full squadron.”

Azure frowned. “I noticed that. A landing field, full staff of flight mechanics, and underground hangars, but no assets?” The sophistication of the base’s landing pad had surprised Azure and the other pilots, most of whom had disgorged their Marines and thundered back into the sky as quickly as they could get clearance. Only Azure herself had remained to puzzle over the question of why the FDA had deployed enough ground crew for three squadrons of space-capable strike launches or four squadrons of combat aircraft such as the Siroccos Colonel Monoghan was expecting.

“It’s more than that. There are at least five incomplete structures on this outpost, but no staff was working on any of them when we landed. The construction crew is preparing to pour a new foundation southeast of the second perimeter this morning.”

Azure was no expert in groundside logistics, but the idea of building new structures outside the main and secondary lines of defense during an ongoing invasion of the planet seemed so foolish as to border on the farcical. “What’s to the southeast?”

The colonel shrugged. “Nothing, as far as anyone knows. That way goes into the most rugged part of the whole Causey. The local datasphere says nobody but a few hermits live out there.”

Azure had seen enough of the Causey Plana on her way down to want nothing of a hypothetical more rugged portion of it. The plateau, cut through as it was with jagged, zigzag canyons, each of which harbored a panoply of toxic and/or predatory life-forms, was as forbidding as any terrain she had ever seen. “You want me to go have a look.”

Colonel Monoghan nodded. “I served with Keo in the Fifth when we were both lieutenants. If he’s not telling me something, it’s because he’s under orders not to.”

Azure approached the railing, resting her elbows on it. Her gaze wandered over to the shadowed southeast horizon, and she picked out the blue-white radiance of work-lights reflecting off a steep crag. That, she decided, must be Keo’s new construction project. Beyond this, the increasingly pale horizon had taken on a slight orange color. “I suppose I can ask for a test flight…”

“And if you should happen to take your test flight in that direction at random…”

Technically, she mused, Monoghan was not her commanding officer. Lovell was a Marine ship, not a proper Navy warship, but its flyers and spacers still answered to its skipper, a Navy officer. She could technically even waive some of the diagnostics and boost for orbit as soon as they’d repaired the critical plating. Blundering into a clandestine project seemed like a good way to take unnecessary fire – hopefully metaphorical, but possibly literal as well.

“Sounds like fun, Colonel.” Azure didn’t turn back to look at the old Marine; she kept her eyes on the work-lights on the horizon, increasingly lost against the light of imminent dawn. “Is there anything else?”

There was no immediate answer. The limb of Margaux’s yellow-white primary crept over the craggy horizon, casting rivers of light down the valleys and creeping down canyon walls toward the toxic abundance below. Forbidding as the world was, Azure grudgingly admitted it knew how to be pretty when it wanted to.

Only after watching the sunrise for a minute did Azure realize that Monoghan still hadn’t replied. She turned, only to find him gone as if he had never been, vanished back into the compound.

2948-08-18 – Tales from the Service: A Drop to Margaux 

This week, the Incarnation began an attack on the Margaux system, triggering a response in force from the Confederated Fifth Fleet. As Margaux is very close to Maribel, by the time this feed item is dispatched, I expect Saint-Lô will be in-system at Margaux. 

Despite destruction of the main Hypercomm relay in the Margaux system, we are still receiving reports from the surface, since the Navy set up a series of backup relays in-system which the enemy has not managed to destroy. The best information I have (and this will be several days old by the time you receive it) is that the enemy has about twenty cruisers and five of their big transport ships in Maribel orbit, and that their ground forces have entered Port Mahew to little opposition. This is surprising, as Mayhew is the largest metropolis on the planet and contains most of the ground-side spaceport facilities. The FDA garrison appears to have ceded the city and retreated into the upland Causey Plana without much of a fight, suggesting they are vastly outnumbered. Since most of the extensive industrial base of the planet is found in the Causey Plana region, it seems likely that the enemy will not be content with taking the population centers. 

Several things about this battle seem strange to me already from the reports I have seen, but we can discuss those once the situation in-system has become clear. For now, I will observe that I suspect the Incarnation has overstretched itself to attack a world so close to Maribel and the inner edge of the Frontier; even assuming they are staging their forces at Mereena, the logistics situation for a full-scale battle at Margaux is not in their favor. 

This week’s entry comes to us from the ground at Margaux – a stranded Marine dropship pilot sent us the story of how she managed to get herself and her ship stranded. While I would normally assume the described stunt was the product of brazen flight-crew bragging, she does have Intelligence-sanitized flight logs and a confirmed kill to back up her story, and this pilot does not seem to be cut from the usual braggart cloth. 

[N.T.B. - I wouldn’t underestimate Nate. If they’re hitting a place like Margaux and landing troops in force, it’s because they think they can take it and keep it. I won’t be doubting that until I see some evidence things aren’t going according to their plan. Perhaps the Navy showing up in force with multiple battlewagons will do something to change their calculations, but it certainly didn’t work at Bodrogi.] 

When the outer doors of the launch bay opened, Lieutenant Azure Kulmala had a moment to admire the mottled blue orb of Margaux before the launch system hurled her dropship out into the orbital void. Though it looked tranquil from a distance, she had been well briefed on what she was about to drop a platoon of fully-equipped Marines into. The toxic biosphere surrounding Outpost Judicael, where the Marines would disembark, turned an unprotected stroll into a quick way to buy the whole farm without ever facing enemy fire. 

Fortunately, the environment worked for the Marines at least as much as it worked against them. With their heavy armor-suits, the Confederated Navy’s shock troops could march through the local flora without any trouble, provided they didn’t need to crack their seals before the suit exteriors had been thoroughly hosed down. Combined with detailed maps of the field and pre-constructed fortifications courtesy of the FDA, the Marines planned to make the most of the home-field advantage. 

Gerald Lovell maneuvered sharply in the last moment before dropship launch, and instead of the cloud-flecked planet below, Azure found her forward view occupied by the glinting knife-points of no less than twenty Tyrant cruisers in tight formation around a half-dozen boxy transports. A halo of flashes surrounded the enemy fleet, showing that at least a few of the orbital missile batteries defending the planet had survived the battle’s first twenty-seven hours. 

The battle in orbit was not the concern for Azure or the other dropship pilots, however. Lovell, an assault transport, was not equipped to fight heavy cruisers – it would put the horizon between itself and the enemy formation for as long as possible, keeping supplies flowing down and wounded Marines flowing back up to its medical bay. 

As the high-gee acceleration of the launch system dropped off, Azure kicked in the dropship’s A-grav system and slewed around to follow the pre-plotted course down to Judicael. All around her, the other first-wave dropships and their escorts, Marine-piloted Puma interceptors, were coming onto the same bearing.  

“Orchid, Hawthorn, we read you on course to make landfall at ship time 0755.” The launch controller aboard Lovell always had a calm voice, even in a situation like this one. “Be advised, Coronachs have vectored to intercept.” 

“Orchid lead confirming, launch control.” Commander Trengove’s gruff voice didn’t sound flustered, but it never did. 

“Hawthorn lead confirms. Looks like two groups of hostiles. They’ll intercept about sixty seconds apart.” Commander Vargas, the interceptor squadron leader, did seem nervous, but Azure didn’t blame her for that – this was Vargas’s first combat as squadron leader. “We’ll try to keep them at a distance, Orchid, but get those turrets warm.” 

Without waiting for Trengrove to relay the suggestion, Azure flipped the switch that retracted the protective shells over the dropship’s dorsal and ventral turrets. Unlike the Navy’s gunships, which used rapid-fire railguns, the Marine dropship turrets used plasma lances, which fired slower, but didn’t need to score a direct hit to cripple another small strike-craft. Combined with the practiced marksmanship of her two gunners, Amjarr and Cearra, the weapons should make short work of any Coronachs which slipped past Vargas’s Pumas. 

With the course set in and the gunners preparing their weapons, Azure switched circuits to the troop bay intercom. “Comfortable back there boys?” She had never been considered attractive, but she knew how to sweeten her voice so the Marines in the bay thought they were being piloted by the most beautiful woman on Earth. For the period between launch and touchdown, after all, they had nothing to do but lock their suit joints and pray or fantasize. On most drops, there would be time enough for both. “Could get bumpy before we go atmospheric, but nothing we can’t handle. Turret feeds are on channels nine and twelve.” 

The confidence she used when talking with the troopers was, of course, entirely false. Azure had dropped Marines in combat situations before, including once in a raid on a small Incarnation outpost in January, but this was the first time Lovell and its compliment had faced massed opposition. As the first Confederated ship to respond to the attack on Margaux, Lovell was laughably outgunned, and its 19th Marines could only delay the inevitable on the surface, but nobody had questioned the deployment all the same. 

Ahead, the thrusters of several escorting Pumas flared into sudden acceleration, and Azure checked the plot to see what they were chasing. Though it was too far ahead to see the fight clearly, the plot showed four Pumas tangle with a group of six Coronachs, the agile Marine interceptors nearly able to match the lightweight Incarnation units turn for turn. Seamless teamwork and the Pumas’ heavy armament soon reduced the enemy formation from six to three, and the survivors broke contact and fled. The second group of interceptors received a similar welcome, though Azure did not watch it long enough to see the outcome. 

“Orchid units, we are now tracking a third enemy formation vectoring to intercept.” The launch controller’s warning corresponded with the appearance of four new pips on the plot. Azure groaned; only two of the Pumas were in any position to intercept, and they would have to fight the Coronachs practically on top of the dropships. 

“Gunners, heads up.” Commander Trengrove growled. “Looks like there’s going to be a furball right on top of us. Hit a friendly, and you’re staying with the ground-pounders to dig latrines.” 

Given Margaux’s toxic reputation, the commander’s threat was probably idle, but Azure didn’t envy any gunner unlucky enough to test it. The Pumas, being far more durable than their opposite numbers, could stray close to the scorching plasma lances of the dropships safely, but the powerful turret weapons could still slag a Marine interceptor with a direct hit. 

“Enemy will be in weapons range in thirty seconds.” Azure sent on the ship-wide comm, to both the gunners and the payload of Marine grunts. The false-confidence act sounded so hollow in her own ears that she doubted it did much good for the morale of her human cargo, but she soldiered on anyway. “You might experience some mild turbulence caused by your wonderful pilot keeping all your sorry asses alive. No change in ETA.” 

The timer ticked down until the quartet of Coronachs caught up with the formation of dropships, swooping past the rearmost ships without even bothering to close in to the optimal firing range of their own plasma weapons. Azure had just enough time to see the quartet diverge into two independent pairs before the leading Incarnation interceptor hurtled into weapons range. Cearra’s turret belched a dart of white-hot contained plasma at the leader, but the Coronach snap-rolled out of the way quickly - inhumanly quickly. 

“Damn it all.” Azure double-checked to make sure she hadn’t leaked her alarm into the ship-wide circuit as the Coronachs slashed at a dropship just ahead. The two turrets on the targeted ship spat their own fire, but neither scored a hit on the nimble enemies. “Orchid Actual, these Nates are Immortals.” 

“Concur, Orchid Eight.” Trengrove replied. “Hawthorn is appraised.” 

Even as he spoke, the Coronachs swept around for another pass. The dropship they targeted lurched and gushed a hazy cloud of crystallizing atmosphere as the needling plasma weapons in the interceptors’ noses managed to pierce its weak gravitic screens. A moment later, the stricken ship seemed to simply come apart, without even the dignity of an explosion. 

“Hells.” Someone shouted on the squadron channel. “Orchid Ten is gone. Kicking out a beacon for recovery.” Surely most of the suited marines and the equally protected crew of the ship were still alive, but Azure knew no recovery tug was coming for them. Lovell couldn’t stick around long enough to pick up survivors. 

The swerving Coronachs drifted for a moment into weapons range of her own ship’s turrets, and Azure felt the dropship lurch as both gunners fired forward at almost the same instant. Neither seemed to be hit, but Azure thought one might have had a close enough shave that some of its sensors would be damaged by the plasma flare. Already, the formation had closed up around the space left by Orchid Ten’s destruction, and the enemy couldn’t fly straight for more than a second without running into turret-fire. Despite the danger on all sides and the two Pumas close behind, the Coronachs prowled wolf-like among the dropships, their Immortal pilots seeming almost to live up to the name. 

As the enemy slashed at a second dropship behind Azure’s own, one of the Pumas managed to get a targeting lock and fired a missile. Azure winced at the risk being taken; an exploding missile could cripple several of the tightly-flying dropships at once. Still, it seemed to pay off; the targeted Coronach tumbled skillfully out of the engagement, trying to outrun or outfly the missile.  

Azure lost track of it; by the time it returned to the fight, the dropships would be entering atmosphere, and safe from the lightly built Coronachs which could not survive atmospheric insertion at speed. She looked back to the other side of the plot just in time to see the second targeted dropship explode. Looking up, she saw glowing pieces of its hull tumble past her viewpanel, outpacing the racing formation in their plummet toward the atmosphere.  

A warning indicator squawked, and Azure threw the helm to one side before she even registered which one it was. The second pair of Coronachs zipped past her at a steep angle, and the screens registered glancing hits but no damage. “They’re on me.” She called, though there was nothing anyone could do about it. One of the Pumas was coming about to try to chase them away, but she needed to survive at least one stern-to-bow pass before it could do anything meaningful. 

Acting more on blind instinct than on any knowledge of what the enemy would expect, Azure threw her ship into a series of random jukes and rolls to the extent of what her slot in the formation would allow. One of the enemy interceptors flashed past already in a turn, seeming to intend to head off the rescuing Puma to let its wingman close in for the kill.  

This time, his weapons found a solid hit on Azure’s gravitic screens, and new alarms began to wail. Another hit like that, two at the most, and she would be as finished as their other victims. The turrets spat fire once more, but the superhuman pilot of this final Coronach avoided the shots with a flamboyant maneuver far more elaborate than was entirely necessary. “Show-off.” She grumbled. Naval Intelligence said that the Immortals thought themselves a superior breed of human, and perhaps for once the spooks had gotten something right. 

This time, the nimble Incarnation ship came at her ship head-on, weaving through the spurting fire of the other gunships’ turrets. Azure grinned, despite the expectation that she was about to die. If the smug bastard wanted to play a game of chicken, he could learn that the Confederated Marines didn’t flinch. She flipped the switch for the rotary strafing cannon mounted under the gunship’s nose and aimed it manually. There was no hope of hitting the Coronach with such a clumsy weapon, but she knew it could at least influence his choice of which direction to get out of the way.  

“Boys and girls, you might want to brace yourselves.” Azure pushed the cannon’s firing stud, and glowing tracers zipped out into the void. She had only a second to walk them closer to her assailant, not enough time to see what he did about it. Instead, she fired all thrusters and slammed the main drive into reverse, hauling her clumsy dropship around until its broad back flipped forward in the opposite direction from which she had herded the Coronach with the cannon. 

The rending crunch and screech of no less than five new alarms signaled success, but Azure had no time to celebrate, as she had to scramble to reroute power between her damaged systems and bring the ship back into the proper alignment for an imminent atmosphere insertion. The tough-built gunship had survived a glancing collision with the much smaller Coronach in good enough order to make landfall, but only tumbling debris remained of the Incarnation strike-craft. Getting back to Lovell, she knew, would be another matter. Hopefully Outpost Judicael had a few mechanics on site. 

By the time Azure had wrestled the ship into some semblance of order, the engagement was over. One of the other Coronachs had taken a glancing hit from a plasma-lance turret and limped away, and its unharmed associate had remained with it, keeping the pair of Pumas from closing in for an easy kill. The missile-targeted interceptor was nowhere to be seen. 

“Hope everyone’s all right back there.” This time, the syrup-sweet confidence was less of an act. “That bump you felt was a bit of science up here in the cockpit. Turns out these Immortal guys... aren’t.” 

2948-08-12 – Tales from the Service: An Immortal’s Inquisition

Berardo at length became aware of angry voices barking invective in his direction. The pain in his head, worse than any hangover, made it hard to concentrate on them, and his thoughts flitted gamely away each time he tried to give one any serious attention.

Cracking open his eyes proved a challenge nearly beyond him, and the reward for his effort, a stabbing blade of light eviscerating each retina, allowed no feeling of accomplishment. The blinding blue-white beam came from a spotlight pointed directly at his face, and the invective seemed to be coming from shadowy figures milling behind it. There were two voices, but Berardo was sure there were more figures.

The louder, gruff voice barked something that sounded vaguely dire, and Berardo this time matched it to a square-shouldered shadow to the left of the spotlight. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered why he hadn’t had his brain scooped out by some Incarnation nightmare-machine yet. The counterhuman invaders of the Coreward Frontier were not known for being patient interrogators.

The second voice countered with something equally sinister, but in a more measured and refined tone. Berardo suspected he was supposed to be listening, but even half-conscious and concussed he recognized the ancient good-cop and bad-cop interrogation routine. Why he merited this relatively light treatment from the Incarnation remained unclear.

The gruff bad-cop spoke again, and someone behind Berardo grabbed his hair and lifted up his head, exposing his neck enough that the edge of a blade could slide into place over it. Perhaps it was time to start paying attention to the words of his interrogators, before his good fortune ran out. Wincing, he focused hard on the refined good-cop voice.

“…need for anything like that. Surely this comrade will prove useful to us in the future, if his loyalty can withstand a trial such as this.”

“Useful?” The gruff voice laughed. “He’ll take his assignment and vanish into the deepest, darkest hole he can find as soon as he gets out of sight, even if he isn’t tainted.”

Trying not to gulp and thus come into more intimate contact with the blade, Berardo decided it was time to speak up for himself. “Wh-what do…” His voice was hoarse, and he realized he hadn’t had a drink since shortly after making planetfall, at least eight hours before his ill-fated encounter with the Immortal Katia. “What do you want?”

“You have had dealings with one called Katia.” The measured voice’s strained tone suggested they’d been over this while Berardo had been less than fully conscious. “Explain every detail.”

The knife slid away, and the hand gripping Berardo’s hair loosened its painful grip. He told them what he knew, taking time to make sure to include every detail from the moment Katia discovered him to the moment the sentry had bludgeoned him. It helped that none of these moments were incriminating – even the camouflaged ship in the gulley was not too far out of norm for Incarnation black ops. At every pause, he was terrified the men would ask him about his mission for their cause, but this seemed to interest them not at all.

When he had finished without being interrupted once, Berardo wondered why. The shadowy figures were still there, but they had remained silent throughout his account. He waited, certain they were about to ask the question that would blow his flimsy cover wide open and send him tumbling through the infinite Hells which passed for standard Incarnation intelligence gathering methods.

Eventually, as the silence lengthened, Berardo wondered if his interrogators had been listening at all. If they had what they wanted, why were they still there, and if they didn’t, why weren’t they continuing their irritating routine?

“I have another question.” This voice was new, soft, and somewhat less hostile. “Are you ready to leave?”

The man with his hand on Berardo’s scalp loosed his grip and stepped away suddenly. “It’s you!” The voice was that of the sentry who’d clobbered him, and so Berardo was not overly saddened by the sound of tearing flesh and gurgling as something tore out the Incarnation soldier’s throat.

Berardo couldn’t turn around enough to see the man crumple to the floor, but he could only guess one culprit for the killing. “Katia, I assume?”

Another shadow moved behind the spotlight, and suddenly the fixture shut off. Behind it, Berardo saw two figures slumped against purloined civilian office chairs, their throats cut from ear to ear and the implants in their temples smashed into tangles of flesh, wires, and metal shards. At least one more corpse lay on the floor in the shadowy space beyond the interrogators.

“You performed your duty admirably.” Katia lounged against the rear of the spotlight mounting, splatters of blood crisscrossing her tanned skin and vanishing into the crimson cloth of an Incarnation naval dress uniform she had picked up somewhere since shoving him toward the sentry. “We should leave before more inquisitors arrive.”

“Inquisitors?” Only after she had named his tormentors did he recognize their gold-and-sable uniforms. The Inquisitors were Naval Intelligence’s opposite number in the Incarnation, focusing mainly on counter-intelligence efforts. inquisiton operations were an enigma for the Confederated military, mainly because they were so successful. What was known about them came from the small number of officer defectors and prisoners of war.

Katia trotted across the room and sliced Berardo’s bonds with a few swift motions of the blood-streaked knife in her hand. He leapt up and backed away from her. “If they’re after you…”

Katia’s temple-implant flashed wildly from orange to red. “I have malfunctioned.” She twirled the knife, then tucked it into one sleeve. “Aberrance is not permitted.”

Berardo nodded. “I know.” He hurriedly searched the pockets of each body, grabbing a few data-packs and other assorted items. Incarnation personnel carried almost no physical items, so his entire haul fit in a single pocket. “Shame you smashed their implants. That’s where the good stuff was.”

Katia shrugged, entirely unperturbed by Berardo’s rather non-subservient looting. He realized she probably had never bought his cover, but had pretended to in order to get him to play along. It was a cynical approach, but it had proved successful. “You are still leaving the planet?”

“Hells yes.” Berardo straightened from his grisly work and straightened, wincing as the quick motion made his head swim. Luckily, Smitten Ginny had enough autopilot to get offworld in the next orbital coverage gap on its own; he was in no state to fly the ship manually. “Let’s go.”

Naval Intelligence learned a great deal from Berardo’s account when he returned from Adimari Valis, even before Katia’s debriefing. This aberrant Immortal is not the first such to defect to the Confederated side, but she is the first to do so without being captured in action first.

The Inquisition referred to in this account is a little-known organization, which Naval Intelligence cannot or will not provide us more background on at this time. A centralized, ideological state such as the Inquisition inevitably needs such secret internal police, though most likely their enforcement is handled digitally through the implants they almost all have been fitted with.

[D.L.C.: Apologies for the delay in this feed item. As many of you know, there was a stellar storm along the Hypercast relay network linking Maribel to Cosmic Background’s Planet at Centauri headquarters. Rather than pull up one of the canned Tales from the Inbox stories saved there in case of such disruptions, HQ decided to wait for the conclusion to Berardo’s story once Hypercast connectivity was restored.]

2948-08-04 – Tales from the Service: An Immortal’s Whims 

This week’s entry continues the story of Berardo Loncar which started last week with Tales from the Service: Behind Enemy Lines. Mr. Loncar’s adventure on an enemy-held world is the only window into the life on an occupied world that we have – with most of the civilian population evacuated, it seems strange that Adimari Valis is, in his telling, so heavily patrolled and garrisoned. Perhaps garrison duty is how the Incarnation uses its greenest troops, or perhaps there are more surviving gureillas than most Confederated estimates suggest. 

The Immortal jogged through the forest that covered the valley floor at a maddeningly fast rate, her precise footfalls mocking Berardo’s own stumbling, tripping, and crashing. Wherever she intended to take him, he knew he wasn’t going to make his intended launch window – and he didn’t want to until he could be certain to lift off without her aboard. 

After a few kilometers of travelling in beeline fashion through the wilderness, in flagrant disregard for the network of footpaths and roads Berardo knew crisscrossed the valley, the Immortal stopped suddenly, holding up a hand to suggest her charge do the same. Breathing heavily, he halted a few paces back and leaned against a tree. He wanted to know where he was being taken and what for, but he also knew that irritating an Immortal could be a fatal mistake, even for someone believed to be an ally. 

A rumble of engines overhead marked the passage of a squadron of Incarnation “Repine” ground-attack aircraft, their tailless delta-wing shapes seeming to skim just above tree level. They were flying northwest – almost on a line, Berardo estimated, between the numerous landing-fields of the spaceport and the hills around the Xenarch digs, where Confederated partisans were rumored to hide. He hoped the partisans – which in practice were probably little more than a gaggle of terrified civilians from the outlying settlements – were well hidden. 

Returning his attention to his surroundings, Berardo was surprised to find the Immortal pressing herself against the bole of a gnarled tree, eyes turned upward to follow the Repines as they vanished over the distant hills. It looked almost like she was more afraid of these air-breathing gunships than he was. Berardo shook his head. Immortals, though ostensibly human beings, were paragons of their masters’ counterhuman goals – while connected to the Incarnation’s datasphere, their implants kept their heads full of orthodox Incarnation dogma, and they were not permitted to remain outside datasphere range for long. Any appearance that this one might be a fugitive from her comrades, he decided, was just that – an appearance. 

“Not far now.” The Immortal waved Berardo onward and began moving forward once more at the same impossible pace. 

Staggering to catch up, Berardo decided to hazard a single question. “Where are we going?” 

“The town in this valley. It is called Halloway City.” She didn’t stop to answer, and her voice was just loud enough for him to hear. 

Berardo knew that, of course – he had met his opposite number at the outskirts of the humble “city” to collect the package his employer had paid so highly for him to retrieve. That time, he had paralleled the main road into town, and had thus approached from another direction. 

Thinking about the package, Berardo winced, remembering that the prize which made all the risk worthwhile now lay on the dorsal surface of Smitten Jenny, protected only by the camouflage netting over the little ship. He didn’t want to imagine what would happen if he lost it. 

When the outlying buildings loomed into view through the tops of the keyring-trees, Berardo’s guide halted once more. The buildings were of course all Confederated Worlds prefabricated affairs, and Berardo thought they looked like humble warehouses, but the Immortal seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time scanning their silhouettes. 

“You will proceed to that structure." She pointed to one of the outbuildings ahead. There is a sentry. Tell him that you have information from Katia.” 

“Katia, that is your name?” 

Berardo expected to regret the question, but the Immortal just nodded. “Correct.” 

“Do I get the information they’ll want?” He didn’t dare ask why she wasn’t doing it herself. 

“Just answer their questions.” This time, a touch of annoyance entered her voice, and Berardo knew he had exhausted her patience. He gave his best version of the Incarnation chest-thumping salute and sauntered off through the undergrowth, looking immediately for some way out of the errand without Katia noticing his disappearance. 

Unfortunately, he rounded a stand of thornferns to find himself in direct view of a sentry leaning idly against the rear door of the building he’d been sent to. The man took notice, but didn’t leap into a more alert stance, suggesting back-door visitors through the woods were not altogether unusual. 

As purposefully as he could, Berardo marched up to the sentry, offering another Incarnation salute. 

“This is a restricted area, Comrade.” The man observed. That was true, but laughably so; Berardo knew the entire valley, and indeed most of the surrounding arid uplands, were marked as a restricted area by Incarnation occupation forces. “Let me see your ident chip.” 

Berardo held out his arm, and the man scanned the chip, quickly glancing at the forged identity documents it provided. When the scrutiny began to drag on long enough for discomfort, he cleared his throat. “I have information from Katia. She-” 

“Katia?” The sentry glared daggers at Berardo, no longer looking at the scanner-screen. “How does a collaborator agent just in from Maribel know that name?” 

“She interrupted my small effort to help postpone extinction.” Berardo hated the Incarnaton platitudes, but he was able to echo them smoothly all the same. “I was of course happy to further aid-” 

“This should not be discussed here. Go inside.” The sentry unlocked the door and gestured for Berardo to enter the dim interior.  

With some misgivings, he stepped over the threshold. It was too late to run – he needed to see the mysterious errand through and then get away as best he was able. 

Berardo's misgivings, as it turned out, were entirely too warranted. By the time he heard the rattle of the sling-swivel on the sentry's laser carbine, it was too late. The weapon’s stock came down on the back of his head, and with a crashing wave of pain, Berardo lost consciousness.