2948-07-28 – Tales from the Service: Behind Enemy Lines 

We haven’t seen much of Adimari Valis since it fell to Incarnation forces earlier this year, and for good reason – the world is not connected to the Confederated Hypercomm network and no Navy vessel has been able to approach within hailing distance of the surface. 

Mercenaries operating high-risk operations have however made limited contact with persons on the surface. From reports they managed to bring back, a large group of scientists, mercenaries, and civilian stragglers have holed up in the labyrinthine Xenarch digs for which the planet is well known, and the Incarnation seems to have little interest in rooting them out quickly. Other pockets of isolated resistance still exist as well, but the enemy is in complete control of all infrastructure and industry on the planet, and has pacified the (largely evacuated) spaceport city with its own. 

Berardo Loncar visited the world relatively recently – indeed, he is the last person of Confederated allegiance that Naval Intelligence will confirm has been to the occupied world. He got more than he bargained for in his brief stay there – still, he counts himself lucky, as he did make it out alive. In this first part of his account (of which more will follow as available) we see how all the preparation money can buy did not protect him from running into trouble. 

Berardo Loncar held his breath as the patrol passed less than ten meters from the stand of caddybush which he had been forced to use as cover. He didn’t dare peek out at them as their boots crunched into the pebbly soil between him and the ship he had grounded in a nearby gully, in case an Immortal happened to be among them. The rank and file masses of Incarnation ground forces were zealous and well organized, but the Incarnation’s elite super-soldiers had far sharper senses than any other human, and the reflexes to decapitate him with a laser carbine before he could get his own pistol out of its holster. 

Holding his breath, Berardo waited until the sounds of boots had faded into the distance before picking up the satchel at his feet and creeping out into the open. Adimari Valis was not a place he would have picked to land, but the number of zeroes his employers had tacked onto the credit value of the contract had changed his mind, at least temporarily. They had used a go-between to hire him, but Berardo knew his way around the Frontier well enough to guess who he was really working for. 

Darting across the open space and into the underbrush around the gully, Berardo gingerly set the bag down on the roof of his ship and began to peel back the adaptive camouflage nets. Smitten Ginny handled well and carried enough ECM systems to foil even notoriously good Incarnation sensors, but he still wished for the increased size, speed, and weaponry on his Whitefeather Keet, which was docked in a storage bay at Margaux. 

“Freeze.” A soft voice behind Berardo commanded, and he felt the cold smart-lens muzzle of a laser carbine press against his back. 

Doing exactly as commanded, Berardo counted his blessings that he had not been shot immediately. Apparently he had not waited long enough for the patrol to pass by. He carried an expensively forged Incarnation identity chip which should fool foot-soldiers and perhaps even Immortals, but he doubted it would stand up to detailed scrutiny if he were hauled back to the spaceport for processing. “Can I help you?” He tried to act bored and annoyed rather than terrified, as if being held up by brain-tweaked counterhuman radicals was just another part of his daily routine. 

“Stand up and turn aroun. Slowly.” The voice – he decided it was a woman’s, though hoarse as if from shouting and at the edge of breaking altogether – stayed quiet, as if his captor too was trying to avoid notice. 

Doing as he was told, Berardo found himself face to face with a lone Incarnation conscript, her temple implant flashing a frenzied pattern of reds, yellow, and oranges. Her pale gray uniform was threadbare and creased as if she had spent the night in the field, but her alert eyes showed no sign of fatigue.  

“Let me know when you want my ident chip.” He shrugged, as if he had all the time in the world. In reality, if he didn’t get Smitten Jinny off the ground in twenty minutes, the next gap in the orbital coverage network would not appear for two more days, but he couldn’t escape if he was shot or hauled back to base. 

“Ident... chip.” The woman briefly appeared crestfallen, then nodded to herself as if making a decision. Before Berardo could gesture to where he’d had the device temporarily implanted in his skin, the wind was knocked out of him by a savage blow to the chest; he found himself on the ground gasping before he had even processed the fact that she had moved at all. While most of his being focused on writhing in the dirt in agony, one distracted corner labeled his assailant an Immortal, and lowered his chances of surviving the encounter by at least half. 

“The errands they have local toadies like you running are of no concern.” The woman was kneeling beside Berardo’s shoulder now, and once more he hadn’t been conscious of her moving. “There is a matter of greater urgency.” 

Berardo, still gasping, did his best to nod. It was all he could do – the laser rifle pointed at his forehead indicated what would happen if he disagreed, even though that was perhaps the most pleasant mode of killing available to one of the Incarnation’s bionic soldiers. 

“Good.” The Immortal stood and looked around, then peered into the ravine, and Berardo noticed that his pistol’s handle stuck out of her utility belt. “Get up.” 

This order Berardo struggled to comply with, as he was still gasping for breath which would take some time to return fully. Still, he got to his knees and crawled forward. “Was about to... dust off.” His voice now seemed as ragged as his captor’s. 

“Not yet.” As she spoke, the woman began replacing the camouflage Berardo had started removing. “We go together, but we have to collect something first.” 

Berardo knew he couldn’t tell her about the launch window – waiting for a hole in the surveillance net would reveal that he was not acting with Incarnation permission. Swallowing hard, he nodded his agreement. He might still make it out of the situation alive, but he needed time to think of a way out of it first. 

As he staggered to his feet with the aid of a conebark sapling, Berardo saw the Immortal stalk off into the lush valley undergrowth, simultaneously managing to stride purposefully and creep silently, and to do it without any obvious effort. 

Catching himself before he muttered anything aloud within a stone’s throw of the sharp-eared cyborg, Berardo silently wished he had turned down the job despite the vast sum of credits on offer. Dealing with Immortals was not worth any level of wealth or fame. 

Just after she had vanished from sight ahead, the Immortal reappeared, scowling. “Can’t you go any faster?” She waved him forward. 

Berardo held up his hands and did his best to pick up the pace, despite the amount of noise he was making in the undergrowth. After all, if he was being led through enemy country by an Immortal, it probably didn’t matter much who heard him. 

2948-07-21 – Tales from the Service: The Garden of the Grand Azure 

Last week, we began the account of Leon Koch-Zyma, a Confederated Navy officer whose odd story seems to line up very closely with previous accounts from this feed (If you have not read Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure, I recommend you do so before reading this week’s entry). While I am personally convinced Leon came into contact with Gus, Blake, Faye, and Sapphire (convinced enough that I have used those pseudonyms rather than the probably-false names given by the mercenaries Leon encountered), there cannot be any proof of this, unless perhaps Junia (who you may recall made her exit from this group on Berkant years before the tale came to us) has any means to confirm. 

As the big, affable repair tech wandered off, Leon’s suspicions that Grand Azure’s crew was up to something were enhanced. “So I’ve met three of the four of you. I suppose we’ll run into the skipper in hydroponics?” 

Gus turned around suddenly, as if stung. “Why would you say that, Lieutenant?” 

You… suggested it as the highlight of the ship. 

“Ah, right. I did.” Hadley scratched his neck again. “Next deck down.” 

Even with the upsell Hadley had given him in the umbilical, Leon was surprised by the size and sophistication of the hydroponics garden aboard Grand Azure. The deck’s double-height overhead paneling allowed for a mix of nutrient vats for traditional hydroponics systems and towering, tree-like specimens which served no obvious purpose but decoration. The most prominent species seemed to be a cream-and-blue organism that looked much like a gigantic mushroom; the jewel-like blue pustules studding each mushroom-tree’s trunk setting a rather pleasing counterpoint to the greenery in the beds and vats below. “Impressive. What is it for?” 

The trees are an exotic specimen we picked up in Allenden. Gus patted one, and Leon noticed that he did so between the gemstone pustules. “Careful, the blue stuff is sticky.” 

“Yes, but what are they for?” Leon pressed, examining one of the sapphire blobs carefully. 

We’re trying it as a nutrient source. These things put out this blue stuff like you wouldn’t believe. It’s an… acquired taste, but the, ah… chemical composition is pretty sound for human digestion once it’s processed right. 

Interesting. Leon knew he had found his reason to strip-search Grand Azure. The mushroom-trees could for all he knew produce a dangerous drug or another substance prized by criminal syndicates. “We’ll have to verify that claim. With your skipper’s permission, I would like to- 

“By all means, Lieutenant, take a sample with you. Gus glanced at the nearest tree, then gestured to one of the smaller blue blisters. 

Leon frowned, then reached out to touch the substance with one gloved hand. It had a thin, brittle skin that gave easily under his finger, and as Hadley had promised, the gooey, viscous mass within felt sticky. A nauseating warmth also penetrated his glove. “Ugh.” He yanked his hand backwards, trailing a long streamer of slime. His fingers didn’t burn or tingle, which meant either it was inert, or his gloves had protected him. “It’s like syrup.” 

“Under some conditions, yes.” Gus Hadley turned to the vats of more traditional hydroponics produce. “Would you like to inspect these as well? I can get some containers from the mess. 

“Ah, no, thank you.” Leon shook his hand in an attempt to free the last streamer of blue goo. A simple glance at the beds and vats suggested they were standard-issue with most of the usual plants found in shipboard hydroponics. “I’ll just sample the trees, Mr. Hadley. We’ll also need to perform a search to make sure you don’t have any contraband flora aboard.” 

The Azure representative held up his hands. “Lieutenant, there’s not so much as a desk plant in the rest of the ship. What you see is what we have aboard.” 

Once again, Leon got the sense the man was telling the truth in the most deceptive way possible. He’d never heard of any food-crop organisms native to the Allenden system, though perhaps only the size of the Grand Azure’s hydroponics compartment allowed the use of the species. The real question was, why would a high-end private-military frigate have such a vast hydroponics capability in the first place? “I’m sure it is, Mr. Hadley. But you understand, I need to prove that for the report.” 

Hadley looked uncomfortable, scratching his neck under his collar once again. His eyes darted distractedly between Leon and the mushroom-tree behind him. “Really isn’t worth the trouble. But if you’ll wait here, I’ll okay it with the... skipper.” 

“I’ll go with you, Mr. Hadley.” Leon insisted. “I would still like to meet the master of this fine vessel.” 

“The skipper is very particular, but I’ll pass your interest along.” With that, Hadley hurried toward the lift. 

Leon took two steps to follow, but thought better of it – he was being left in the suspiciously extensive hydroponics section unsupervised. As he wandered around, he keyed in an encrypted channel on his comm. “Prentiss, it’s Leon. Round up a team for a teardown search of the Azure.” 

“Will do. Something suspicious over there, Lieutenant?” Chief Technician Prentiss Liu replied immediately. 

“Several somethings. Meet me at the umbilical in ten minutes.” Leon cut the channel as he threaded between two precariously leaning mushroom-trees, careful to avoid brushing against the sticky blisters on their trunks. To his disappointment, the only thing beyond them was another row of the same blue-and-cream organisms. If they were part of some sort of war-profiteering scheme, the Azure crew had a lot of nerve to host them front and center – but if they were just an alternative source of nutrient biomass, it was possible what Gus Hadley and his associates were hiding was not contraband, at least not contraband of a type Chief Tech Liu’s team would be able to find. 

Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Leon turned, expecting to see Hadley threading his way through the stands of mushroom-trees. There was, however, no sign of the man. Leon edged back around the stand of trees between him and the lift - the doors remained closed. 

“Mr. Hadley?” Leon’s hand fell reflexively to his side-arm. He had never used the rail-pistol in anger before, but there was a first time for anything. If the Azure’s small crew tried anything- 

The sound of something wet plopping against the deck behind Leon cause him to whirl in place. One of the sapphire nodules had burst, and a glob of thick sap had fallen outside the lip of the root-bed vat below. He wondered if he had brushed against the fragile pustule himself. Despite its contents streaming out onto the metal plating in a quickening stream, the broken boil seemed to be growing in size almost as fast as the puddle on the deck. 

Fascinated, Leon watched the puddle grow deeper at least as fast as its tongue-like edges expanded outward toward his boots. The mushroom-tree goo moved like no other liquid he’d ever seen – it almost seemed to be alive in its own right, searching for him. Out of sheer, nauseating curiosity, he reached out the toe of one boot, wondering what would happen if he touched it. 

“Lieutenant Koch-Zyma, sir. I’ve been asked to recommend you return to Brightley at once!” 

At the sound of Chief Tech Liu’s voice, Leon jumped back, feeling inexplicably guilty of letting his curiosity get the better of him. He keyed in a reply on the same channel. “On my way, Prentiss. What’s going on?” 

“Don’t know, sir. We just went to general quarters over here and the bridge is working to get Grand Azure off our umbilical as soon as you’re back aboard.” 

“Damn.” Leon threaded his way toward the lift, changing comms channels as he went. “Mr. Hadley, where are you? I need to-” 

“Get back to your ship, of course Lieutenant. The skipper has given you priority access to the lifts.” 

“Thank you, Mr. Hadley.” Leon reached the pair of lift doors, and one of them opened in front of him. He didn’t even need to punch in a deck number – the system seemed to know where he was going. “What’s going on?” 

“Our sensor suite picked out a half-dozen Coronachs creeping in just outside of practical railgun range. Anyone’s guess where they came from.” 

Coronachs, of course, were dedicated strike launches – unlike the more well-rounded Confederated Magpies, they had no star drives of their own. The Incarnation’s swift, flashing sabers went nowhere its strong arm – the Tyrant heavy cruisers – did not take them. If Helena Brightley was caught in the open by one such ship, the added firepower of a single untested mercenary frigate would not do anything to save her. “I guess I’ll finish my inspection some other time, then.” 

The doors opened and Leon saw the hatch to the umbilical only a few paces ahead. As he jogged toward it, this too opened for him, to reveal Chief Technician Prentiss Liu waving him on. 

As Leon passed over the threshold, the twin hatches closed quickly, and the airlock between the two ships depressurized. Gus Hadley’s voice came back on just once before the two ships’ diverging courses took him out of shipboard comms range. “Looking forward to it, Lieutenant.” 

As the umbilical retracted, Leon Koch-Zyma watched through its armor-glass windows as the decorative form of Grand Azure peeled off and made a high-acceleration break for the edge of the system’s jump shadow. Somehow, he doubted the crew would allow him, or any other Confederated officer, another chance to plumb their secrets. 

Gus’s observation about the origin of the trees (which Leon describes in uncannily similar ways to how Junia describes Sapphire’s host flora in her own accounts) is here very interesting, because it lets me pin down Sapphire’s probable species. She is not, in fact, a member of some new and unrecognized species – she is very probably a Myxomyceti from the moon Lazul in the Allenden system. These creatures have a strange life-cycle and there is no scientific consensus on whether they are true sapients. Perhaps some, like Sapphire, are – and others are not. 

Grand Azure is currently contracted as a Confederated Navy auxiliary for patrol duties on the Frontier. It has not, despite Lieutenant Koch-Zyma's concerns, been implicated in any illicit activity. 

2848-07-14 – Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure

Lieutenant Leon Koch-Zyma frowned at the representative from Grand Azure. The spacer’s posture, darting eyes, and haphazard grooming status whispered of criminal habits in a way his fresh bleach-white tunic and spit-shined black shoes could not quite drown out. “Your vessel’s mercenary registration checks out, so we’ll let you through to but I’ll still need to see your crew manifest and search the ship.”

Checkpoint picket duty was among the least interesting things Leon had done in his brief military career; a suspiciously spit-shined ruffian with a suspiciously recently issued mercenary registration was the most exciting thing that had happened for six weeks, and he planned to make the most of it. Maybe the Grand Azure was entirely legitimate, or maybe it was one of the many vessels masquerading as mercenaries but intending only to support the black-market economy of the embattled region.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” The Azure representative, who had introduced himself as its liaison officer Gus Hadley, gave a sloppy mockery of the Confederated Navy salute, and Leon did his best not to wince. “I’ll give you the tour right now if you’re ready.”

This level of accommodation was not what Leon had expected. “Ah, yes, Mr. Hadley. That would be acceptable.”

Hadley turned around and led the way back up the docking umbilical between the cruiser Helena Brightley and the much smaller Grand Azure. Through the transparent panels along the tunnel, Leon looked at the graceful lines of the vessel he was about to board – its sweeping white hull looked more like a top-of-the-line private-military frigate than the usual rust-buckets one saw plying the space-lanes in the mercenary business, and the transit shells of dozens of light weapons emplacements studded its hull like jet cabochons on a crown. Nobody with the money to buy something like that vessel would risk it throwing it into skirmishes with Incarnation cruisers or let it be shredded by an unending swarm of Coronachs – it was as much a conversation piece to hang outside a starport boardroom window as it was a weapon.

At the same time, Grand Azure was not the sort of vessel one would expect to engage in smuggling or other black-market activities. Just because the mercenaries had more funds than brains didn’t mean they were doing anything illegal – but given the state of their liaison officer, Leon wouldn’t believe that until he had torn the ship apart hull plate by hull plate. All he needed was to spot some excuse to call in the support of a dozen techs with cutters and spanners while Hadley gave him the tour. “Seems a shame to use a ship like that on Frontier patrol duty.”

“It’s our home. If we’re going to risk getting slagged by counterhuman scumwads, might as well live in style out here.”

“Suppose so.” Leon kept his voice cool as the other man keyed a code into the lock. Without a trace of buzzing or grinding, the Grand Azure lock opened, emitting a breath of surprisingly damp air. For someone used to the super-dry conditions aboard Navy ships, it felt like a tropical breeze.

Gus Hadley gestured inside. “Lift is on your left, Lieutenant. You are free to go where you please, but can I recommend the hydroponics compartment on deck four?”

Leon scrutinized the man. Though he could tell Hadley was hiding something, he did seem genuine about the merits of a visit to the hydroponics compartment. Still, Leon was in no mood to be accomodating. “Let’s go to the command deck.” It wasn’t a military vessel, otherwise he would ask the man to take him to the bridge.

“Command.” Hadley nodded and stepped up to the lift and called it. The doors opened almost instantly. “Works for me.”

Leon stepped into the lift and waited as the man set the destination on his wrist control machine. The lift was spotless, without even so much as a dead lightstrip anywhere. “Pretty clean ship you run here.”

“Yeah, suppose it is.” Hadley scratched inside his collar. “Got a real neat freak aboard. Lucky her it’s a new ship, everything started clean.”

“Those sorts go nuts on older ships, even in the Navy.” Leon agreed diplomatically. “What’s the compliment on a ship like this?”

“The way we’ve got it outfitted, we can run it with four, though we’re hoping to hire on some extra techs and maybe another gunner if we find the right people.”

“A frigate with a crew of four?” Leon frowned.

“Yeah, there’s some custom electronics in here.” The liaison waved his hand vaguely. “I sure as all hells don’t understand it. That’s Blake’s job.”

“Your chief engineer?”

The doors opened and the small command deck and Leon stepped out first before being given an invitation. The space had seven stations, but all but one were dark. The woman at the one console, thin, pale, and about the same age as Hadley, stood up as they approached.

“Faye, this is Lieutenant Koch-Zyma from Brightley.” Hadley gestured around the space. “Faye is our best gunner and a solid backup pilot. And this is command, as you can see. Not the nicest space on the ship, but everything works.”

Leon noticed something was missing. “There’s no command chair.” There was only a circular hole where a crash-padded command chair would usually be mounted to the deck plating.

“Ah, yeah.” Hadley shrugged. “We took the thing out. More consoles here than we need anyway.”

The command chair on a vessel of war, Leon knew, was not just an extra station. It was one of two places on a ship that all the information gathered by other stations and sensors was concentrated, so the commander could make informed decisions in the heat of battle. On most ships, the chair itself and the machinery below it contained more computer equipment than a strike gunship’s entire electronic suite. “Do you run the ship from the command center, then?”

“Advanced holo-systems.” Faye stepped forward, and as she did a hundred rectangular panels appeared in the air around her, each showing a different sensor feed, chart, or monitor. “The ship can be commanded from anywhere aboard, Lieutenant. Any secondary station can be accessed remotely.”

If true, that was a toy not even Navy ships generally had. Sure, the holo-systems aboard Navy vessels could provide some of the services of the command center anywhere aboard, but full command from any compartment was still the plaything of those with more credits than sense. “I see.”

Gus Hadley let Leon wander the command deck, then led him down one deck to the wardroom and the officers’ cabins. There were eight cabins fitted for officers alone, and he began to doubt the assertion that the ship could be run with four hands. The bunkrooms for enlisted spacers would, he predicted, have space for at least fifteen more. Rather than comment on this, he continued his tour in silence.

A bulky man nearly collided with the pair as they entered the crew mess, and Hadley stopped him. “Lieutenant, this is Blake, our repair tech.”

Blake blinked slowly at the Navy officer. Unlike Gus Hadley, he was dressed in a shabby, stained tunic and loose-fitting blue slacks. “Problems, Gus?”

“No, Blake, just giving the Lieutenant the tour.” Leon noticed the man’s voice slowing down noticeably as he spoke to the big mechanic. Like Hadley himself, Blake had the posture and scars of a man familiar with the Reach’s criminal underworld, but he lacked the canny, calculating presence of the “liaison officer.”

“Oh, right. The grand tour.” Blake winked suspiciously at his compatriot, and Leon noticed Hadley rolling his eyes in exasperation. “Have fun, Gus!” With that, he ambled off toward the lift.

It has been some time since any sign of Gus, Blake, Faye, and their mysterious friend Sapphire have been heard from on this feed. Though this report is not a confirmed sighting of these persons, I have taken the liberty of replacing the (apparently false) names given to Lieutenant Koch-Zyma with the pseudonyms of those persons from their previous appearances in this space.

While I cannot confirm those identities, the presence of mushroom-like trees similar to those from prior stories and an expanded hydroponics compartment aboard Grand Azure and the descriptions of the persons matching quite closely, I feel confident that this is them.

I have looked up the records of the vessel Grand Azure and cannot guess how three middle-aged Berkant settlers could afford a vessel like it. Perhaps there is a fourth human aboard who funded the purchase, or perhaps the fourth person mentioned by Gus is Sapphire herself.

2948-07-07 – Tales from the Service: The Padre’s Angel

We have met Thomas Nyilvas in this feed in the past, as chaplain of Xavior Vitali (Tales from the Service: A Pastor and a Prodigal and Tales from the Service: An Immortal's Contrition). When that vessel was sent back to the Core Worlds for a full yard refit, Thomas and most of the junior officers aboard requested transfer to other vessels in the fleet. Several, including the chaplain, were reassigned to the heavy cruiser Hugo Marge, which has just entered the Fifth Fleet after completing its shakedown cruise.

This is the first large warship replacement the fleet has received since the start of hostilities, but many hopes have been pinned on this vessel, the first of the new Daniel Callaghan class to enter the active fleet. The lead ship of the class famously suffered a deadly accident during its shakedown cruise in 2944, after which the remaining incomplete hulls were heavily modified. Marge and the other vessels in the class were also fitted with new fire control and electronic warfare suites (the same equipment attached to Arrowhawk in its post-New Rheims refit, as it turns out, for all the help it did that vessel) which further delayed their introduction into the fleet.

Hugo Marge was sent out on patrol into the outer Nye Norge almost immediately upon entering the theater, escorted by the members of the Carl Gustav Mannerheim’s battle group which survived Bodrogi. Though the group encountered no enemy warships, it did encounter a group of several small Angel vessels. Though the details of any cooperation between Navy forces and Angels following this encounter remain predictably sealed, Naval Intelligence has released Chaplain Nyilvas’s account of an Angel's visit to his ship to us for publication.

The Angel had to bend almost double to pass through a standard airlock, but despite the apparent inflexibility of its huge metal-clad limbs and torso, the motion looked fluid and effortless. Standing behind Captain Mlyarnik, Chaplain Thomas Nyilvas didn’t know whether to feel awed or terrified. The featureless bulge between the xenosapient’s broad shoulders which passed for its head seemed to see everything at once despite its apparent blindness.

The bosun piped the Angel aboard with the traditional notes of greeting for a foreign dignitary, and Captain Mlyarnik stepped forward, right hand snapping up into a crisp salute. Thomas did not follow his superior – dealings with Angels were the business of the local commander. He hung back, along with the rest of the officers present and the six-Marine honor guard, their heavy combat suits painted and polished until they very nearly glowed.

“Welcome aboard Hugo Marge.” Captain Mlyarnik dropped his hand, showing no obvious signs of nervousness in the face of the mysterious xeno.

The Angel did not salute, but it dipped its shoulders in a minute bow. “It is a great honor to board a vessel bearing the name of Colonel Marge.” Its low, gravelly voice, the obvious product of a translation computer, was carefully modulated to be clearly audible without being excessively loud.

“You are familiar with the man?” The captain seemed surprised, and Thomas didn’t blame him. The original Colonel Hugo Marge had been a war hero of the Corona Wars who gave his life to preserve the fracturing and seemingly doomed Terran Sphere. Thomas, along with the rest of the officers and crew, knew the story well, but the names of centuries-dead human martyrs seemed a strange bit of trivia for the Angels to retain.

“Affirmative. Your Navy has chosen well with this vessel’s name.”

Thomas scrutinized the creature with fresh eyes, wondering what its angle was. Angels had been known to humanity for hundreds of years, yet so little about them had been learned in that time that what lay inside their metallic exteriors remained a mystery.

After a brief pause, the skipper soldiered on. “I’ll pass your compliment along when we get back to Maribel. If you’ll come this way, we’ll discuss business in the wardroom.” He beckoned for the Angel to follow, and at his gesture the honor guard unlocked their suit joints and snapped as one from resting pose into at-ease, preparing to escort the Angel to its destination aboard their ship.

“That would be most acceptable.” The Angel barely moved as the Marines took positions around it, but Thomas got the sense it was amused by the show of protection. None of the Navy personnel thought for a second that the creature needed any help defending itself. The one thing humans and their neighbor species had learned about Angels since their appearance so many years before was that they were infinitely competent when it came to defending themselves and anything else they took a liking to.

It was just humanity’s luck that one of those things the Angels valued was Earth itself. Angels had earned their name for the way that they had once saved humanity from extermination, not from any divine origins.

As he fell in with the gaggle of officers following behind the honor guard, Thomas watched the xeno carefully. He did not expect to penetrate any centuries-old mysteries by staring, but the strange fluidity of movement in its rigid metal carapace rewarded curiosity. Little was known about about what an angel was, but much could be said about what they were not. Despite the mystery with which they cloaked themselves, the Angels were not heavenly spirits – at least, not more so than humans. Their technology was beyond human understanding, true, and their motives unknowable, but as far as Thomas was concerned, the spacers’ superstitions which grew up around Angels were simply madness.

At the lift bank, the Angel boarded one lift with Captain Mlyarnik and a lone Marine. The remaining Marines boarded the second, and the trailing officers boarded a third. As the doors closed, Thomas saw several curious crew who had been following the procession bolt for the nearest ladder shaft.

It was only a three-deck ride, but Lieutenant Diane Franco nevertheless used her position to Thomas’s left to strike up the obvious conversation. “So, Padre, what do you think?”

“I think it’s got a better armor-suit than our Marines.” Thomas replied cooly. He knew what she was asking – it was probably what half the people in the lift wanted to know. Though the naming of the Angels by humans had happened long beforehand, the Spacers’ Chapel had on its founding declared the Angels to be literal servants of God Most High, sent from Heaven to protect His people. It had taken nearly a century for the apparently annoyed Angels to disabuse the quickly-growing Chapel of this idea.

“Could it really be a seraph or a demon?” Someone else asked, now that Franco had broken the ice. The demon idea, of course, came from the cultic beliefs of the star-worshipping Sunfire Assembly. In their cosmology, the stars were the palaces for life-giving god-spirits, and the so-called Angels were a sort of Faustian devil, promising protection at the expense of stunting humanity’s progress toward greater spiritual awakening and knowledge of their astral patrons. “Looks like a machine to me. I could hear servos whirring in its joints.”

“It could be a drone.” Thomas shrugged. “Wouldn’t really blame them if it was.” If the Angels knew anything, they had to know what any good chaplain did – that the line between good and evil ran through every human heart, and every human was capable of boundless good, but also of bottomless evil. The temptation to try to take the Angel apart and learn what was inside surely pricked at many hearts aboard Hugo Marge, and the species’s imposing reputation for violent self-defense might not always protect their ambassadors.

“What about-” Fortunately for Thomas, the lift doors opened, and the question died unfinished. The officers filed out in time to see the Angel duck low and enter the wardroom, followed by two Marines. The other four stood outside the compartment, and the officers, most hoping to be summoned by the skipper to be involved in whatever arrangement was being negotiated, loitered beyond them.

Thomas, present more for the opportunity to set eyes on the xenosapient, was just about to return to his quarters to prepare his evening’s message when his earpiece chimed. “Chaplain Nyilvas to the wardroom.”

Tapping his wrist unit twice to confirm, Thomas approached the hatchway, and the Marines made no attempt to stop him from entering. Inside, Captain Mlyarnik sat at the far end of the long table, with the Angel standing stiffly in front of him. “Thank you for joining us, Padre.” The skipper waved Thomas closer. “Our friend here requested your presence.”

That the Angel had requested him set a cold feeling within Thomas’s chest. He would have expected to be nervous, but oddly, he did not. Why would an Angel request a Spacers’ Chapel priest? “Whatever I can do for our guest, sir, I’ll do my best.”

“That is all that may be asked of you.” The Angel didn’t move to face Thomas, but he knew something within its eyeless head was watching him all the same. “Information is desired about the mind of your foe, this Incarnation.”

Thomas, recalling the time he had spent ministering to a repentant Incarnation prisoner, knew why he was being asked. Though several Incarnation prisoners had been persuaded to be cooperative throughout the theater of operations, his experience working with prisoner Ayaka Rowlins – a rare case of a Confederated Worlds citizen going over to the Incarnation and then being coaxed back – had given him opportunities to examine why the average spacer fought for the enemy. “Of course.”

“In your estimation, will these Incarnation humans respect the old arrangements with our kind?”

It wasn’t the question Thomas had expected, and it wasn’t one he had a ready answer for. The old arrangements with the Angels – those which bound human spacers to guarantee free passage for their ships and the provision of active assistance for their endeavors when requested – were older than the Incarnation’s vendettas by centuries. Surely they would not take such a risk as to violate those old customs while also waging war against the vast Confederated Worlds? He shook his head slowly. “How could they gain by violating them?”

The Angel moved this time, raising one three-fingered hand above the table. “That is not the question which was asked, Thomas Nyilvas.”

Thomas stared at it for several seconds, then glanced to the skipper, who remained silent and unreadable. It wasn’t the question that was asked, true - and he recalled from his conversations with Rowlins that it was unlikely to be a question the Incarnation’s personnel would ask themselves, whether they were the ones holding the handle of the digital leash or the ones choked by it. They would judge the matter simply based on their ideas of what furthered humanity’s evolution and what hastened its extinction, and the technology of the Angels would be for them a boon to the cause of survival. “I think they would violate the old arrangements if they thought they could get ahold of your technology.” Thomas replied carefully.

The Angel remained silent for a moment, as if processing – or transmitting – this response. “Thank you, Chaplain Nyilvas.” It said simply.

Captain Mlyarnik nodded his thanks, then gestured to the hatch. “I think that’s all for now, Padre. You may go.”

Part of Thomas wanted to ask permission to stay and learn what was going on, but he knew better than to push his luck. With a salute, he turned and left the compartment, conscious of the utter silence behind him as his commander and the Angel waited for him to depart before making their plans.