Monday, May 30, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty

2701. – In transit; CFV-B Pallas

Pallas had been in transit for a week when I decided that it would be a good time to sit down with Robson to get to know my XO-in-waiting better. He joined me for an informal breakfast in my Ready Room while Hal took first watch and minded the bridge. I filled a mug of tea through its pressure valve as Robson helped himself to a couple of slices of plain toast.

"How are your new quarters, Commander?"
"Bigger than I'm used to, sir. I've never served on a ship this size before."
"What do you make of Pallas?"
"She's a beauty, Admiral. You run a very tight ship, sir. I don't think I've ever seen a crew this well-drilled and disciplined. Every department is right on top of their game, all maintenance schedules are up to date... Very impressive, sir."
"Your job is going to be to keep it that way."
"Indeed, sir. Commander Jameson's been showing me the ropes. She's a real piece of work, Admiral. In the good way, I mean. Doesn't let anything slide. Doesn't miss a detail. All the crew respect her. You must be sorry to lose her."
"You don't know the half of it, Commander. I trust the senior staff has made you feel welcome?"
"Well, sir, I'm not sure what to make of Sub-Commander Randall, but I like the rest of the officers. Weps is very sharp. He should make a good sparring partner."
"No, sir. Kendo. I was on the Academy team."
"Interesting. I couldn't get used to the armour. Too claustrophobic, not to mention hot. I almost had a stroke the first time I tried sparring in full armour. Never again."
"Is it true you used to fly with the Furies, sir?"
"For my last three years at the Academy. I was Fury 7, the synchro pair leader."
"I was a reserve pilot in my final year. But I never made the display team."
"You must still be quite a pilot to have made the reserves. Competition for places is fierce to say the least."
"Thank you, sir. I still like to get behind the controls of an interceptor and do a bit of astrobactics now and then."
"I should introduce you to our wing commander. He's a former Fury squadron leader. I'm sure he'd show you a few manoeuvres."
"As long as you let me have a bit of practice in a simulator first, sir. I'd hate to embarrass myself."
"Is that why you joined the service? To fly?"
"One of the reasons, yes sir. I come from a fleet family. Seventh generation to serve. My grandfather was Virgil Robson."
"Buzz Robson? No kidding. He was a legend in the Fifth Fleet. Found more habitable planets in the Sagittarius Arm than the rest of the fleet combined."
"And he was the first person to make it out to Eta Carinae and back."
"So, you wanted to be an explorer. Push the boundaries of the frontier."
"I guess I always wanted to know what was out there, Admiral. Now we know, it's not quite so easy to be an idealist."
"Being an idealist is never easy, Carl. Ideals have to be fought for, often at great cost."
"What if that cost is too high, sir?"
"Then it was never an ideal worth fighting for in the first place. Is that how you feel about the war?"
"I don't know, sir. We might not have started it, but we've got to finish it. We've lost a lot already. That sacrifice has got to count for something."
"This war has cost you more than most, Carl. Two ships. Three thousand casualties."
"Yes, sir." Robson's voice went ice cold.
"How does that make you feel, Commander?"
"Guilty. And responsible. Responsible for making those deaths count for something more than a statistic."
"There's no place for a guilty conscience on my command deck, Robson. The only thing you're guilty of is living when your crewmates died. And that's not your fault. If it's anyone's, it's mine. Do you resent me for that, Commander?"
"No, sir. Because I'm still here to make a difference."
"Good. So long as you remember that you're not some kind of avenging angel, you're an officer of the fleet. You're responsible for more people who are alive than are dead. If you don't think you're up to the job, better that you tell me now than let me find out later."
"I'm also responsible for one other thing, Admiral. Justifying your faith in me when you offered me the position of XO. And I will."
"I hope so, Carl. This might be your ship someday. Maybe sooner than you think. You need to be ready for when those hard calls need to be made."
"Permission to speak freely, Admiral?"
"How did you feel when you ordered Enyalius to take the beam cannon hit at 111 Tauri?"
"I didn't like it, Carl. It's not a trivial thing, ordering men and women to their deaths. But that's the burden of command. It was necessary and I'd do it again in a heartbeat, because that was the only option I had to not lose the whole battlegroup. Enyalius was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe the right place at the right time."
"I suppose that's a perspective thing."
"I suppose it is." I afforded myself a thin, humourless smile. "Do you know how many people have died under my command, Carl?"
"No, sir."
"Fifty-three thousand, eight hundred and twenty-two. I get ArtEMIS to keep score for me. So I never forget. I'm directly responsible for each one of those deaths, either because I deliberately ordered a ship into harm's way, or because I made a mistake. I don't see their faces, but I do carry the weight of all those deaths whenever I try to sleep at night."
"Do you feel guilty, sir?"
"No. No, I don't, because I know I did the best that I could. But I don't sleep as well as I used to, Carl." I paused and watched Robson's face carefully, trying to gauge his reaction as what I'd said sank in. "Even though I know how many lives those deaths have saved."
"And I thought I had issues." Robson closed his eyes, rubbing his face.
"It helps to talk about it. How are you getting on with Counsellor Harmaajärvi?"
"I'm not sure, Admiral. He's not what I expected from a Counsellor."
"What were you expecting?"
"Advice? Guidance?"
"Give it time, Commander. Before you can listen to other people, first you have to learn how to listen to yourself."
"That's exactly what he said, Admiral. Kinda Zen. I'm not sure I've gotten my head around that yet."
"Trust me, Commander. It works."
"If you say so, sir. Our next appointment is in twenty minutes, as it happens."
"You don't want to be late. You're dismissed, Commander."
"Aye, sir. Thank you for breakfast, Admiral. And the chat."

I finished my tea to give Robson a head start, before joining Hal on the bridge to get a sitrep.

"Morning, Hal. Comfy in the big chair?"
"Good morning, Admiral. Very comfy. At least while we're in transit. I'm happy to leave it to you and Commander Jameson when we're in realspace, though." Hal stirred in the command seat, his hands fidgeting on the armrest control boards. "There's more to keep your fingers busy on the Ops station. I always preferred system operations to command."
"Dealing with computers is simpler, huh?"
"Yes, sir. Computers always do what they're told. Well, the ones without AI do, anyway." Hal sniggered. "Was there anything you needed, Admiral?"
“Everything running smoothly, Number Two?”
“Like clockwork, Admiral. No glitches or fluctuations in the power grid. The fusion reactor is stable, running at 80% capacity. Weps is going to running a combat sim later to liven things up.”
“At 16.00. Should be interesting. He and Lieutenant Mitchell have modelled their best estimates of the capabilities of the behemoth from the reverse-engineering of its realspace engines and weapons systems. I think I might stick around after the end of my shift to see how it goes.”
“What’s the scenario?”
“One behemoth versus Tartarus and Erebus. My money’s on the behemoth.”
 “That’s a little pessimistic, isn’t it, Hal?”
“Have you seen the predicted specs on the behemoth’s beam cannons, sir?”
“No. How scary are they?”
“Nightmarish. 5.48 petawatt equivalent, with a combat range of 8,000km. That’d rip through a couple of back-to-back starbases, no problem.”
“Jesus. You think that behemoth was one the Elders that Number Six was talking about?”
“I hope so. The thought of half a dozen of those in the same place is terrifying enough, sir. If the Thrinax have ships bigger and more powerful than that… It doesn’t bear thinking about.” 
“Hmm. I’ll ask Number Six about it when we reach 119 Tauri. I’ll be in the Ready Room if anything urgent comes up.”

I'd spent couple of mostly unproductive hours reading and signing off annual personnel evaluation reports in the Ready Room when Kimi paid me a visit.  

“Morning, Admiral. Have you got a few minutes?” Kimi asked, as I waved him down into the seat opposite me.
“Please. Anything to break the tedium of paperwork.”
“I thought you might want to know how Commander Robson’s therapy is going.” Kimi settled into his seat and handed me his ePaper pad, which was covered with illegible, scrawled notes from their session this morning.
“You should have gone into General Practice. Is this actually writing?”
“Illiterate.” Kimi snatched back the pad, with a loud, derisive snort.
“Give me the short version, Kimi.”
“He was a lot more positive today. Our first few sessions weren’t that productive, but Robson really opened up this morning.” Kimi sounded pleased. “He talked a lot about the Enyalius incident.”
“Anything illuminating?”
“A lot of guilt. A lot of anger. Mostly self-directed. Denial, too. Did you know his fiancée was one of the casualties? Julia Mizuno, Chief Engineer. They’d just gotten engaged.”
“He never took the time to come to terms with the loss of the ship and the crew, not to mention his fiancée. He declined leave and got reassigned as soon as he made it back to port. Oh, this is all confidential, by the way.” the psychologist added, looking both furtive and disinterested, as if to downplay the massive breach in doctor-patient confidentiality he had just made.
“No wonder he never settled on Ajax.” I mused, glad that Kimi had broken with protocol to give me a better insight into Robson's state of mind.
“Dealing with grief is never easy. But not dealing with it at all destroys you. The good news is that Robson wants to break the cycle of self-destructive behaviour he was exhibiting on Ajax.”
“Good. I can't afford to have an emotional time bomb as an Executive Officer.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad, Gus. We made a lot of progress today. And he's forming positive attachments with the senior staff. He speaks very highly of you, Katrina and Weps.”
"Nice to know. Thanks, Kimi. Keep me informed."
"I will."
"How's the rest of the crew holding up? Anyone I need to be worried about?"
"No, we're good. No-one's set off any red flags since we left ε Gemini."
"Not even among the enlisted crew? We've got some pretty green junior ratings on board."
"Their crew chiefs are keeping them busy. Busy workers are happy workers. Everyone I've spoken to is pretty sanguine, even about having Number Six in tow." Kimi stashed his pad away into a thigh pocket, relaxing backwards into his chair. "A few people are concerned about the lack of clarity in our patrol orders, but that's just the usual bunch of conspiracy theorists who think the Admiralty are in cahoots with the Thrinax."
"Unbelievable. Keep those bampots away from Kat. She'd space them in seconds."
"Speaking of Katrina. Three weeks to go before she leaves. How are you feeling about that?"
"Honestly? Ambivalent, at best. I don't want her to go, but I sure as hell don't want her to stay, either. Obviously, not letting her go would mean an instant court martial for both of us, and the front line is no place to have babies, but it's a long way home from here. What if something happens to her on the trip back to the core?"
"You wanted to send her back sooner."
"I did. Not that she'd have it. Kat wanted to leave it to the last minute. She's afraid that we're not coming back from this one."
"Are you?"
"I suppose I am, yeah. I don't like being kept in the dark. Half of me wishes that Fleet would tell us what the hell is going on, why we're so far out here on the rim. The other half doesn't want to know."
"Ignorance is bliss?"
"Maybe. What I do know is that, historically, missions like this never end well. I want Kat well out of the way whenever Fleet finally decide to let us in on the big secret."
"So that whatever happens out here, Kat will still make it back?"
"Yeah. And that if the worst does happen, she'll be able to take care of Malia for me."
"Have you thought about what you're going to tell Malia about the baby yet?"
"I want her to have it. I've got ArtEMIS primed and ready to send her the message as soon as we get out of transit. We're going to have one hell of a evening together when I get back to Hera. If I get back..."
"Insurance against extinction?" Kimi said, raising his eyebrows provocatively.
"That's it, isn't it? Why we jump on the genetic merry-go-round. To give us a shot at our own little piece of immortality. I never thought it was important before. What does one tiny double-helix of DNA matter to the universe? We're ephemeral, infinitesimal, entropic anomalies in the greater context of physical reality. As far as 99.999999999999999999999999999% of the universe is concerned, we might as well never have existed."
"There's another way of looking at it, Gus. How do you want that other 0.000000000000000000000000001% to remember you?"
"That's taking the 'glass half-full' philosophy to extremes, Kimi."
"How else can you appreciate the last drops, unless you lick the glass?" Kimi chuckled.
"Urgh. That's not even a metaphor, is it?" I felt my mouth curl in disgust as Kimi's smile grew wider. "Why do I even listen to you?"
"It's important for you to have someone that'll carry your memory onwards to future generations?" Kimi got us back on topic quickly. "To have a legacy?"
"Not so much. I really don't care what history might think about me in the future. I can live with the choices I've made. But protecting the people I care about most; my family, my crew, my command. That's important to me. I don't want them to think of me as someone who fucked up."
"Then all you can do is make sure that deal with the present. History will write itself."
"If Number Six is right, we can end this war. Now that's writing history, Kimi." I sat forward in my chair, lowering my voice. "That's what I want to be able to tell my kids, twenty years from now. That I was there when we pulled humanity back from the brink of annihilation."
"Do you think you will? Twenty years from now?"
"It's not something I'm going to leave to chance or fate, Kimi. I was the son of an absent father. That's not happening with my kids. Not ever. I’m going to be there for them. End of story."
"If you will it, it is no dream."
"Very profound. Zen?"
"Hardly. Theodor Herzl. The Old New Land."
"Hmm. That didn't work out so well for them in the end, did it?" I mused. The whole of the Middle East between Jerusalem and Tehran was still too radioactive for human habitation, five hundred years after Earth's only war involving two nuclear-armed powers. There weren't many pilgrims visiting the West Bank these days and the ones that did brave the fallout had to wear lead-lined exoskeleton suits and respirators.
"History only repeats itself if you fail to learn the lessons from it, Gus." Kimi reminded me.
"Just as well that I got a Master's degree in fin de millennium Military History and Politics at the Academy, then. That's when all the big mistakes were made. They were an ugly couple of hundred years; Makes the Dark Ages seem positively civilised in retrospect."
"Remember that it's not just about the mission you need to think about. Katrina's going be feeling pretty fragile over the next couple of weeks. She's going to need your support. Be ready to listen to her."
"I'm keeping an eye out for her, don't worry."
"I'll leave you to it, Gus. I've got to get to my next appointment. One of the conspiracy theorists." Kimi stood, a knowing smile on his face.
"Yeah. You have fun with that. I think I'll stick with these." I told him, tapping my screen to open yet another personnel evaluation report. "Only another two thousand, three hundred and seventeen to go."

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Nineteen

2701. – In transit; CFV-B Pallas

With the fleet secure in warpspace, I left Robson on the bridge to supervise the handover to the junior officers taking command on third watch and returned to my quarters to freshen up before my late dinner date with Kat. I had only just shut the hatch to my quarters when ArtEMIS alerted me that I had a personal message waiting for me on my private terminal.

AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Admiral Kincaid, I received a data package for you just before we made the jump. Shall I upload it to your terminal?}-
"Yes, please, ArtEMIS." I replied, fetching a clean jumpsuit from the wardrobe and taking a seat at my desk. My pulse quickened a few beats when I saw from the countersign on the package that the message was from Malia. It had been almost a month since I had heard from her last, when she had told me that the upgrades she had been coordinating on FOB Poseidon were complete and that she would be returning to Wolf 359. I loaded the video message first, desperate to see her face and hear her voice.
"Hi, gorgeous. I hope you're safe and well." Malia said, smiling warmly to the camera. She sat on the bed in her quarters, wearing nothing other than perfume and hairspray, to remind me of exactly why I needed to return from my patrol. "I got back to Hera this morning. Quite a dull trip in the end, but with the new reed beds installed on Poseidon, no-one's going to be drinking brown water for the next few years, at least.
"I've got another trip out to the outpost in Gamma Draconis coming up next week. They've been having issues with their CO2 scrubbers. It's not too far out of the bubble, so I should be able to message you a bit more often. It would be nice to speak in real-time, but one of us always seems to be in transit. Videos are great, but it would be better to talk properly." Malia said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, and looking slyly at the camera. "I've missed you. I hope you appreciate how hard this is for me. This is the longest I've gone without sex since High School. I really need to see you again soon. Anyway, the troubleshooting run to Gamma Draconis will be my last trip out in the field for a while. I'm going to need to take some time off. Gus, I didn't want to have to tell you like this, but, uh... I- I have a passenger. I think this is the universe's way of telling me that I need to grow up and settle down. I know we only had a couple of days together on Hera, but I know we could have something special. I felt it the moment I saw you. I've thought about it, and I want to keep him. I know this is partly your decision, too, but I really do. I love you, Gus. Message me when you can."

Stunned, I ran up the rest of the data package. Inside there were a dozen high definition scans of the foetus Malia was carrying. The scans were only four days old and Malia had attached just a simple two word note of explanation. Our son.

I fetched a drinking bulb from the kitchen module and filled it with whisky, taking a large gulp, feeling giddy and lightheaded. Not knowing how I should feel or what to think, I changed into my fresh jumpsuit before sitting down again at my terminal and staring at scans for a second time. It was difficult to reconcile that it was a miniature human being in the pictures, but when I looked carefully, I could see arms and legs that seemed tiny compared to the outsized head. It was too early to be able to see any kind of family resemblance, of course, but instinctively I felt connected to the image of the miniscule baby in a way that I hadn't been when Kat had shown me the scans of her twins. The sensation was utterly alien to me, but not unpleasant. I watched Malia's video a second time, to hear her voice and see her perfect figure once again, this time with the knowledge that a part of me was growing inside her. It only made her even more beautiful to me. I paused the video and gazed longingly at Malia's image, tingling from scalp to toenails.
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Hoy! Gus! Where are you? You were supposed to meet me in the wardroom five minutes ago.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Sorry. I'll be right there.}-

I shut down my terminal before hurrying to the officer's wardroom, grabbing a small tray of sandwiches and taking it to the table Kat had reserved for us. I slid the tray into the restraining rails to keep it in place on the table as Kat filled us a drinking bulb each with water from the pressurised jug she had retrieved on her way in.
"What kept you?" Kat asked accusingly, stealing a sandwich from my tray.
"Sorry, Kat. I got a bit distracted."
"You look a little flustered." Kat said, studying me carefully. "I didn't interrupt something, did I? A little 'me' time?"
"Oh, stop. I got a message from Malia."
"I see." Kat's eyes still sparkled playfully, not ready quite yet to stop teasing me. "She hasn't dumped you, has she?"
"No, but what she told me was even more unexpected than that."
"Oh, do tell." Kat said, taking a large sip of water.
"She's pregnant." I replied, still not sure I believed it myself. Kat coughed and spluttered, barely avoiding spraying me with the water in her mouth.
"Jesus, Gus!" Kat put her drinking bulb back down on the table, hacking intermittently for a good couple of minutes before she was able to breathe properly again. "Have you not heard of contraceptives? Did neither of you have the sense to take precautions?"
"It was a little bit late by the point we thought about it." I admitted, feeling rather embarrassed.
"What are you going to do?"
"Malia wants to have the baby."
"And you?"
"I haven't finished processing it all yet. I'm not sure, but I think I quite like the idea."
"Gus, you're kidding right?" Kat replied, aghast. "You've known this woman for all of five minutes. What is this? Love at first fuck?"
"Kat, keep your voice down." I warned her, worried that our conversation was starting to attract unwanted attention from nearby tables. "Our relationship didn't start too differently, I seem to recall."
"Right, because that worked out perfectly. A whirlwind romance followed by a whirlwind divorce." Kat shook her head. "Don't you think you're rushing things a bit?"
"Look, we were young. We both made a lot of mistakes. I'd like to think we've learned from them."
"Of course, you're so much wiser now. That's why you're having an unplanned pregnancy in the 28th Century!" Kat hissed, barely keeping the volume of her voice under control.
"Kat, what is wrong with you? Why should you even care? You're the one leaving to get married and have a family."
"That's different. Itzal and I have been together long enough to know we're right for each other." Kat took my hand in hers from across the table, concern written across her face. "How can you know that about Malia? And think about the baby. I remember you telling me how you always resented your father prioritising his career over his family. How can you two have kids if you're both flying off around the Local Bubble all the time? I don't want you waking up in a few years' time realising that you've made a horrid mistake."
"I don't know how to explain it. It just feels right. Like the right thing to do. I love her, Kat." I said, shrugging. "When you told me back on Hera that you'd met someone else, it felt like you were ripping my heart out, when actually you were giving it back to me. I'd always hoped that one day we might get back together properly. Sure, it's great being friends that fuck, and I thought I could live with just that, but when you said that you were starting a family with Itzal, I realised that I wanted something more, too. I never thought it would happen this quickly, but how can I let the opportunity go now that it's here?"
"Why didn't you tell me this before? That you still felt that way about me?"
"I didn't want to risk losing what we had. And the ship had sailed, right?"
"Gus, you idiot." Kat grimaced, on the verge of tears. "If only I'd known. If only I'd told you what I really wanted... We never did talk enough."
"It's a bit late for that now." I squeezed Kat's hand sympathetically. "Maybe in ten years time we'll both be divorced again and then we can re-marry. Third time's the charm, right?"
"Oh, Gus." Kat sighed, after a short, bittersweet laugh. "We screwed that up good and proper, didn't we?"
"Not entirely. We're still friends, aren't we?"
"Always. Though maybe we'll have to take a raincheck on the benefits for a while." Kat said and smiled.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Eighteen

2701. – ε Orion; CFV-B Pallas

It had taken a couple of days longer than normal to complete the restocking of the fleet's hydrogen reserves for our fusion reactors. The necessity of making sure that Number Six was constantly guarded by an overwhelming force ready to destroy the Thrinax ship at a moment's notice if it became hostile had slowed down the refuelling process, but in the end didn't constitute a real delay, as Fleet had kept us waiting over a week for new orders. No doubt our last contact report had ruffled a few feathers with the top brass. Securing the behemoth had been an intelligence coup. Capturing a live Thrinax that was offering a truce and an alliance was undoubtedly not part of the Admiralty's original game plan for whatever they had initially had in mind for our mission into the Rosette Nebula. I still didn't really have any idea what that original plan was, but I was certain it was now out of the window and careering in flames headlong down a very deep gravity well, like a comet plummeting into the atmosphere of a gas giant. The news that the Thrinax had the ability to decode our communications had also sent shockwaves of panic around the Admiralty. The qubit encryption keys used by ArtEMIS on all transmissions were supposed to ensure that no communications could be tapped into without collapsing the entangled wave functions of the qubits used to secure the transmission. It was a mystery how the Thrinax were circumventing supposedly infallible security encryptions, but Number Six's awareness of my task group's orders was far too detailed to be coincidence. If the Thrinax were truly capable of deciphering every message sent by the fleet, the implications were horrifying. It was fortunate that TCF data transmissions were not encoded to include details of their point of origin, so it was unlikely that any Thrinax listening in could infer Earth's location from fleet communications, but the idea that the Thrinax could decipher dates and places where TCF ships were being deployed to was a worrying one. Every stardrive jump could conceivably end in an ambush. ArtEMIS had also warned that the latest updates on Thrinax ship movements were starting to show that they were getting dangerously close to finding the secure sectors around Earth, despite all the feints and misdirection actions the fleet were making to try and disrupt their search pattern. The feeling that we were on a clock and that the consequences of the success or failure of the mission were more profound than we could have possibly imagined back at Starbase Hera nagged at the back of my mind and wouldn't go away.

Our revised orders didn't help matters. We had been ordered to escort Number Six to our scheduled reprovisioning stop at the outpost on 119 Tauri, which had been forewarned that we would be accompanied by a Thrinax cruiser. Once there, Number Six would be detained and interrogated by as yet unidentified 'specialists', while we continued on to rendezvous with Gene Powell's task group at Caldwell 50 before heading into the Crab Nebula to investigate whether the Swarm World that Number Six had talked about even existed. What were not in our orders were instructions for what to do if we found it. Kat was the first to bring this up when I discussed our orders with her, Robson and my other senior officers.

"Forgive me, Admiral, but does anyone of flag rank actually have a clue what they're doing?" Kat fumed. "So, the Admiralty believe Number Six enough to change our orders and redirect us to the Crab Nebula, but won't tell us what to do if we find what they're looking for? I don't know where to start on how retarded that is."
"I'm more concerned about carrying out combat operations in the nebula, Admiral." Randall chipped in. "The x-ray emissions from the pulsar are bad enough, but the whole region is awash with synchrotron radiation. Fighter cover simply is not an option. Our pilots would be dead in minutes."
"What's our potential combat endurance in the nebula?" I asked.
"Two hours at most. Anything beyond that and the entire crew would be exposed to fatal levels of radiation exposure." Randall reflexively tapped the conference table with one of the claw-like appendages of his mechanical hand, clearly unhappy.
"Two hours? Is that all?"
"Even Tartarus and Erebus won't be able to operate much longer than that, and their radiation shielding is better than ours. The corvettes and cruisers might be able to last an hour before their crews and systems would be affected." Randall frowned. "And it's not just the organics that are vulnerable, Admiral. The radiation will play merry havoc with ArtEMIS and our electronic control systems, too. We'll start to see degradation in the efficiency of our data network in less than an hour."
"Is there any way we could extend our operating window at all?" Robson inquired. With the destruction of Ajax The Lesser, Robson had been given quarters on Pallas and was unofficially part of the command staff as an understudy to Kat. Some wag among the enlisted crew had referred to Robson as 'Number One Point Five' before being roundly stamped on by Kat for insubordination.
"Possibly, sir." Mitchell interjected, her head tipped over as she thought through the options. "There are a couple of things we could do. While it's not possible to modify the physical shielding and radiation hardening of our electronic systems, we could adjust the output of our fusion reactor to increase the intensity of the ship's magnetic field. That would mitigate some of the exposure to charged particle radiation, but there's nothing we can do about the x-ray emissions in terms of shielding."
"You said there were a couple of things, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir. The other thing we could do is have the crew take a radiation countermeasure drug, such as 5-AED."
"What's that?"
"It's an adrenal steroid, Admiral." Doctor Brodar elaborated, interrupting before Mitchell could reply. "It works by increasing white blood cell and platelet production and can be used to treat acute radiation poisoning. I could synthesize enough for the crew, but its effect is going to be limited with the radiation levels we're talking about. It might give us another ten or fifteen minutes of combat effectiveness. Radiation poisoning is a terrible thing, Admiral. If we're in that nebula for more than thirty minutes, people will start feeling it and I'm going to be treating a lot of crewmen for cancer. Inoculating the crew with 5-AED won't change that."
"Okay, so poking around the inside of the nebula trying to find the Swarm World isn't a good idea. What are the options for surveying the nebula remotely?" Kat asked Mitchell.
"We're limited to our telescopes, Commander. The radiation environment is too intense for RASPs to be practical and the volume of space is too big, anyway. The nebula is over 14 light years across."
"How can we be expected to find this Swarm World when, a) we don't know what it looks like and b) any information we get from observation on its location is a couple of years old at best?"  Kat scowled. "Damn speed limit of the universe. The speed of light's not fast enough for my liking."
"We can reasonably narrow down the search, Commander. The Thrinax presumably occupy nebulae to find resources for breeding, growth and perhaps even gathering antimatter. That means they'll want to be in places where the density of nebula is greatest." Mitchell theorised.
"And where the radiation is most intense." I observed, grimacing.
"Yes, Admiral. Unfortunately. At least now we know why they evolved such dense hulls: to shield their vital organs from the radiation as they feed and grow."
"I wouldn't put it past the bastards to be sitting right on top of the pulsar. There's no way we could even get close to them there." Kat scowled.
"Neither would I, Number One. We'll worry about that when the day comes." I turned to Hal Cunningham across the table. "Number Two, when can we be underway for 119 Tauri?"
"Within the hour, sir. If you don't mind my asking, Admiral, how exactly are we going to ensure that Number Six makes the jump with us?" Hal raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"We ask it nicely?" I shrugged. It had been something I'd been wondering as well. "It's followed all our instructions so far. It wants us to trust it and work with it, so this is just the next step. Number Six knows its best chance of getting our help in the nebula is to do as we say."
"I'm not sure I like the idea of it being that close to one of our outposts, sir." Robson said. "What if it arrives before we do and whacks the station?"
"That's unlikely. They know we're coming, for a start. The station's defences are more than adequate to cope with a single cruiser."
"What if it brings friends? It's communicating with us, why not the rest of the Thrinax fleet?"
"I'm not going to worry about hypotheticals, Robson. If Number Six so much as twitches out of line, it gets destroyed. It knows that."
"Yes, sir." Robson agreed, but looked unconvinced.
"Number Two, get us on the move. We've got a rendezvous to make. Gene wouldn't like it if we were late." Hal nodded in acknowledgement before I turned to Kat. "Number One, put together a maintenance inspection schedule with Robson and show him how we use our downtime. I want to make sure every system on this ship is running at 100% before we reach 119 Tauri. It's going to be a long while until we get the fleet back to a starbase for a proper overhaul."
"Yes, Admiral. Pallas will be running better than new by the time we make the outpost."
"I'll hold you to that, Number One. To your stations, please. I'll tell Number Six that we're off for a little trip." I dismissed my senior staff and opened a channel to the Thrinax cruiser.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{Number Six, this is Admiral.}-
#6~{This one answers, Admiral.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{I've spoken with my superiors and you are to accompany us to the fleet outpost at 119 Tauri. ArtEMIS will provide you with the coordinates.}-
#6~{Your kind's elders have approved a truce between our kinds?}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{I wouldn't go that far quite yet. But they do see the benefit in our cooperation, for now. You have my permission to power up your stardrive engines, but nothing else.}-
#6~{This one understands.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{How long will it take you to reach 119 Tauri?}-
#6~{0.0519 of your solar cycles at optimal efficiency.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{That's... about 19 days. That complicates things. We won't get there for another 10 days after that. Once you arrive, shut down your engines and wait at the holding coordinates. The forces in the system are expecting us. Acknowledge any communications made to you, but do nothing until we arrive. You take orders from me, and me only.}-
#6~{Does Admiral have more instructions for this one?}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{The task group is going to make the jump at 16.00 hours. You will lead the jump and you damn well better be there when we arrive. Admiral out.}-

I cut the channel and made my to the bridge, taking my seat next to Kat. Hal had his head down at his station, ensuring that the power distribution systems were operating at full capacity as the stardrive engines charged. I noticed Robson walking from station to station, chatting with the other officers and seeing how they worked. I was pleased to see that he seemed to already have struck up an easy rapport with Weps. I saw them share a joke as Weps talked Robson through the finer points of the ship's tactical interface. I touched Kat gently on the arm, signalling that I wanted to speak to her privately.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How's Robson settling in?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{He seems fine so far. Very on the ball, actually. Quick learner.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Has he started seeing Kimi yet?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{First appointment's tomorrow at 0800. I'll make sure he doesn't miss it.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Thanks. It can't be easy for him right now. Losing two ships and two crews in the space of a few months.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{I hope that's not an omen. I wouldn't want him to make a habit of it.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{No kidding. Has he spoken to you about it?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{To me? No. I don't think he'd be terribly comfortable talking about it with me. I'm too close to you for a start. He seemed a bit shocked when he found out we used to be married.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Maybe he's worried it's part of the job description. What are the crew saying about him?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{He's made a pretty good impression. Quite popular with the ladies. Ensign Peng even invited him to the wardroom poker night last week.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Did anyone warn him?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Nope.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Ouch.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Yeah. She let him compete for the first couple of hours and then robbed him blind.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How'd Robson take it?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Surprisingly well. He even bought her a drink afterwards.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Still think he's the right man for the job?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{He will be by the time Kimi and I are finished with him.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Good. Keep me up to date and let me know if there are any problems.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Will do.}-

I was about to take a wander around the bridge myself when I heard Kat let out an almost imperceptible sigh.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{What's up, Kat?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{This is it, Gus. Our last jump together.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Only for now. Who knows about the future?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Hard to think that in four weeks, I'll be heading back to the core.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I know, but it's the only option.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Yeah. Just don't expect me to be happy about it.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I don't. You just concentrate on taking care of yourself and the twins.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{And you watch yourself. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to you because I wasn't here.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Kat. Relax. Nothing's going to happen. I'll be back for the wedding.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You better be. I need you to give me away.}-

Kat collected herself, blinking away the first few droplets of a tear, running a hand over her eyes. It was heartbreaking not to be able to give her the reassurance of a hug or a kiss that we both wanted and needed, but we had to keep up appearances for the crew. The bridge wasn't the place for public displays of affection between senior officers. I had to settle for briefly putting my hand on top of hers on the armrest of her station and giving it a squeeze. It wasn't much, but it would have to do until we had proper privacy.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Dinner later?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Sure. Wardroom at 2200?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I'll be there.}-

The bridge hummed with quiet, relaxed efficiency as muted conversations between the Ops and Engineering stations confirmed that the jump countdown was proceeding without problems. The stardrive engines were almost at full charge and the power grid was stable, despite the fusion reactor running at peak output. Stellar Navigation reported that the transit vector and destination coordinates were locked in and that ArtEMIS had finished all the necessary calculations. Ready reports began to cascade in from the other ships in the task group and I watched out of the viewport as my ships reoriented themselves towards their transit vectors and spread out into jump formation. Calculating a stardrive jump over a distance of 1000 light years was no mean feat, even for an AI as sophisticated as ArtEMIS, so it was only prudent for the ships to take up a position where they had a volume of 500km3 to themselves. This would give each ship a reasonable safety margin to avoid collisions at their destination, which could be caused by tiny gravitational perturbations affecting their journeys through warpspace.

"All ships report ready to jump, Admiral." Hal announced as the countdown timer ticked down towards its final minute.
"Thank you, Number Two."

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Task Group Pallas: prepare to jump on my mark.}-

I waited until the timer reached T -30s and opened a channel to the Thrinax cruiser.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number Six, this is Admiral. Make your jump now. And no surprises.}-
#6~{This one will await your arrival and command at 119 Tauri. Farewell.}~

I just had time to look up out of the viewport before the cruiser appeared to twist in space and blink out of existence. Hal marked the final few seconds with an oral countdown.

"Five, four, three, two, one..."

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Task Group Pallas: Mark.}-

There was a loud, guttural groaning from the depths of the ship, a flash of light, and we were gone.