Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty-One

2701. – 119 Tauri; CFV-B Pallas

My task group had arrived on schedule at the deep rim outpost with no complications. Number Six had arrived early, as expected, and had the good sense to power down, stay put and not provoke the station's defence forces. Resupply operations were underway, a constant stream of shuttles relaying food, water, ammunition, fuel and coolant between the outpost's stores and the ships of my task force. Miranda Fforde-Hughes had requested a meeting of senior commanding officers to discuss our patrol orders and I had decided to humour her. I had sent out invitations to the COs and XOs of both dreadnoughts, all the battlecruisers, plus the squadron leaders for my assault cruiser, frigate, corvette and Wild Weasel groups. With nearly a sixty officers to accommodate, Kat had suggested we host the meeting as a formal lunch in Pallas's wardroom.

I sat at the head of the table, flanked by Kat and Robson. The rest of the officers were sat by rank and specialism. Fforde-Hughes and her XO, Aisha Sagar, were sat alongside Robson, while Synnøve Nyhus and Beppe Marciano were next to Kat. Further along were my battlecruiser commanders, followed by the leaders of my cruiser, frigate and corvette squadrons. At the far end of the table was Tom Creighton and his XO, Sub-Commander Jadzia Czajka. Tom gave me an ironic wave-cum-salute as we all took our seats. He was used to being at the bottom of the pecking order when it came to social gatherings of officers. Electronic warfare was a vital but criminally underappreciated role in fleet combat actions. I had to admit that I admired Creighton's bullheadedness for sticking with the specialism for so long without so much as asking for a transfer. Most Wild Weasel COs started looking for an out after a couple of tours. Creighton had been flying Wild Weasel corvettes for over ten years, apparently oblivious to the damage being done to his opportunities for promotion. I made a mental note to make sure that he was placed next to me at the head of the table next time we had a gathering like this. Isolated pockets of conversation began to spring up around the table as the orderlies began to bring out the starter plates and fill drinking bulbs with sparkling water. Robson was already getting his ears bent by Fforde-Hughes, congratulating him on his promotion and appointment as Pallas's XO. I felt slightly guilty for using him as a buffer between myself and Fforde-Hughes, but Robson was effortlessly diplomatic as he deflected her clumsy attentions. In any case, he seemed far more interested in getting to know the younger and far more attractive Aisha Sagar. The feeling appeared to be mutual, as Aisha hadn't taken her eyes off Robson since they'd sat down. Kat was chatting amiably with Beppe Marciano, leaving me with my choice of the two dreadnought captains to talk to. It wasn't much of a contest. I caught Nova giving me a surreptitious look out of the corner of her eye and she smiled ruefully when she realised that I'd noticed.

"You must be very proud of your gunnery team's performance back at ε Orion, Captain. 60% of the task group's kills and that dreadnought kill distance will be hard to beat."
"Thank you, Admiral. We could have gotten the fourth dreadnought as well, but I thought it was more sporting to let Tartarus get a kill on the board." Nova turned to face me properly, her green eyes glittering. I saw Fforde-Hughes bristle, but she ignored the bait, preferring to flirt ineffectually with Robson.
"And they say gallantry is dead. Do you think you can beat 5000 kilometres?"
"It would have to be a lucky shot on a target the size of a dreadnought. In simulations we've been able to get a kill on a behemoth at 7000k, but I wouldn't like to try that one out for real."
"You managed to score a kill on a behemoth? How did you run that scenario? Our sims haven’t been encouraging.”
“The behemoth was set up as non-hostile. I wanted to see what our maximum kill range might be and it's not big enough. We haven’t simmed a survivable scenario yet with a hostile one. It's going to take some rather innovative tactics or a lot of luck to take one down for real.” Nova glanced at her Executive Officer, inviting him into the conversation via their neural chat channel. "Commander Marciano and Lieutenant Kaminski have been working on it for a few weeks now. Using the estimated numbers Number Six has given us about the defences we can expect at the Swarm World and the number of Thrinax we might have on our side, even the best case scenarios look catastrophic."
"The biggest problem is the margin of error on our estimates for the weapon power and range of the stardrive jammer of the behemoths, Admiral." Marciano elaborated. "At the moment there's an uncertainty in the models of about 20%, but that's based on assumptions that might themselves be inaccurate. The effects might not scale linearly with the known values we have from Thrinax dreadnoughts."
"We're going to get an update from the research team at ε Gemini when we rendezvous with the Capella-IV task group at Caldwell 50. That will help refine your models, Commander." I told Marciano, who nodded, but didn't look more hopeful.
"I'm tempted to say stand well back and let the Thrinax fight it out for themselves. It's their civil war, after all." Kat offered.
"We ran that scenario as well, Commander." replied Marciano. "The rebels get wiped every time."
"Number Six put their success probability at more like 50-50."
"Maybe it knows something we don't, Admiral." Marciano shrugged. "But based on the data we have, I'd say it's being unduly optimistic."
"It's worth noting that we haven't actually been ordered to carry out combat operations in the nebula."
"At least not yet, Admiral." Nova looked and sounded downbeat. "When you add Commodore Powell's ships into the mix as well... Fleet aren't putting together a task group of that size to go sightseeing."
"Fleet have the same numbers and models that we do, Nova. They're not going to gamble nearly a quarter of the Hyades Fleet on a reckless punt. And I'm not going to take us into the Crab Nebula unless there's a substantially better than even chance that we're going to come out again."
"We need better intelligence on what we might encounter in the nebula, Admiral. We can't fly in there blind. It'd be a slaughter."
"I couldn't agree with you more, Marciano." I took a sip of water to help wash down a smoked salmon entrée. "We've got to take advantage of any possible information we can glean from Number Six and the rebel Thrinax."
"Do you really think they can be trusted, Admiral?" queried Fforde-Hughes, with her usual brand of sunny positivism.
"Number Six has done everything asked of it so far. The only way you can find out whether someone is trustworthy is to trust them."
"And what if this supposedly trustworthy friend waves you ahead, only to stab you in the back?" Fforde-Hughes asked, her eyes narrowing as she regarded me with open hostility.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Jeez, girlfriend! Get over yourself already!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Wow. A chip on her shoulder and an axe to grind...}-

"Miranda, sometimes in life you have to accept the fact that people aren't necessarily what you think they are, and neither are their motives. Number Six is a resource to be used. Nothing more. I'm prepared to be disappointed." I paused for a second to let the unspoken subtext sink in before lowering my voice to a whisper and leaning conspiratorially toward Fforde-Hughes. "Oh, and Miranda... in case you've been wondering all these years, you were a lousy shag."

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{OH. MY. GOD. You didn't just say that out loud, did you?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Oh, yeah. I went there.}-

Fforde-Hughes's face turned white before she stood up abruptly and stormed out of the wardroom. Nova covered her mouth and stared at me, not knowing whether to laugh or be mortified. Kat wheezed quietly with barely contained laughter, her eyes wide and watering. Kat's fingers went pale as she gripped the table, as if afraid she would float away. I glanced at her, worried for a second that she might be going into premature labour. Kat bent forward, put her forehead on the table next to her plate and waved me away, giggling hysterically.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You bad, bad man. That was epic.}-

Robson and Marciano exchanged confused glances, not entirely sure what had just happened, while Aisha Sagar sat motionless in her seat, uncertain of whether to stay put or make a show of solidarity with her CO and follow her out. Robson made the decision for her by switching seats to keep her company, reasoning with her that someone would have to report the consensus reached on our patrol orders back to the senior staff on Tartarus. Sagar regarded Robson suspiciously for a second before giving him a seductive look and leisurely finishing her starter.

"Anyway, moving on." I looked around the group innocently, pretending the incident hadn't happened. "Marciano, do you have any thoughts as to how we might be able to neutralise the weapons range advantage the Thrinax behemoths have over our dreadnoughts?"
"Honestly, sir, I've been trying to find one for over a fortnight and I'm no closer now than when I started." Marciano sat back in his seat as an orderly removed his starter plate.
"Maybe a fresh pair of eyes would help." Kat suggested, having recovered her composure. "You and Lieutenant Mitchell did some great work together coming up with those fleet manoeuvres. Maybe she could help."
"This is the part where you're going to ask to borrow my XO again, isn't it, Admiral?" Nova pursed her lips, both amused and resigned.
"They do link up very well together, Captain. They're a good fit." Kat said, deadpan. Marciano's cheeks flushed pink and he looked away, apparently distracted by a conversation further down the table.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Katrina, behave yourself!}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Spoilsport.}-

Nova caught the hint of embarrassment from her XO and looked quizzically at me and Kat.

CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Am I missing something, Gus?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Let's just say that Marciano and Mitchell's skill sets aren't the only things they have that join up well together.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Oh. Oh! Oh my. Right. I see.}-

There was an awkward moment of silence as our main courses were brought to the table. The wardroom chefs had miraculously managed to put together a Christmas roast that both looked and tasted something approaching authentic. This was quite a feat, considering the inherent difficulty of eating from plates in zero gravity. Food was typically eaten straight from the microwaveable packet or sous-vide pouch to prevent morsels of food from floating around the wardroom, but in recent years, zero-g chefs had become adept in the art of using viscous sauces not only to provide flavour to dishes, but also to adhere food to the plate for occasions where more formal presentation was desirable. Roast potatoes, julienne carrots and sprouts were secured to the self-heating porcelain plates with individual blobs of gravy, which also coated the slices of turkey in a millimetre-thick layer. Each serving was a work of art, to the point where it almost seemed like an act of vandalism to eat it.

"I suppose I could spare him while we're in transit to Caldwell 50." Nova regarded her XO warmly as she set about dismantling her lunch. "As long as you don't mind, Beppe."
"No, ma'am." replied Marciano, looking sheepish.
"Thanks, Nova. It seems I owe you another one."
"I'm sure you'll be able to find some way of paying me back, Admiral." Nova sucked a carrot baton between her sharp white teeth, licked away the traces of gravy on her lips and smiled, meeting my eyes with a mischievous glint.
"No doubt. We've got a week until we need to ship out to make our rendezvous with Gene Powell. We should make the most of that time to get as much intelligence out of Number Six as we can. It won't be joining us at Caldwell 50."
"What's going to happen to it, Admiral?" Aisha Sagar asked, looking up from her plate.
"There's a specialist team due to arrive the day after tomorrow to lead the interrogation. What happens after that, I have no idea. I don't think anyone does, frankly."
"Who are these specialists, sir?" inquired Robson.
"Your guess is as good as mine, Commander. Fleet were remarkably coy about it. They won't even identify the ship they're coming in on."
"That's unusual, isn't it, Admiral?"
"Almost unheard of, in fact. I don't like all this cloak and dagger stuff.  Fleet must have their reasons, but I'd much prefer to be kept in the loop, especially since whatever these 'specialists' find out will directly affect what we're going to be ordered to do once we reach Crab."
"So what's the plan then, Admiral?" Nova asked, twirling a thick lock of hair behind her ear. "Just hang tight until we make the rendezvous and head for the nebula?"
"I don't think that there's much else we can do, Nova. We can do some research and try to put together some new combat tactics in the meantime, but until we get better intelligence on what we might be facing and actually get told what we're going to be doing there, I don't see that there's too much point in worrying."

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.