Friday, May 20, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Eight

2701. – α Orion; CFV-B Pallas

I had relieved Lieutenant Fisher from the night watch and was just getting settled behind my desk in the Ready Room when the door chimed. It was Doctor Brodar, carrying a data tablet.

"Doctor, please sit down." I welcomed her with a warm smile. "We don't see you on the command deck very often. Not at this time of the morning, at least."
"Sorry for coming by so early, Admiral, but I didn't think that this could wait." Brodar settled into her seat, fussing with the data tablet on her lap, putting it on the table and taking it back, before finally deciding that it was better left alone on the table out of easy reach.
"Oh?" I feigned ignorance. "Is there a problem?"
"Not a problem as such, Admiral, no. But I did have a very interesting visit from Commander Jameson yesterday."
"Interesting in what respect, Vanesa?" Despite holding the rank of Captain, Brodar always insisted on being called by her first name, or "Doctor". She claimed that it helped remove barriers from the doctor-patient relationship, particularly when dealing with low ranking crew members. Vanesa didn't really care too much about rank and titles, which undoubtedly explained why she found it so easy to gossip about other officers.
"Interesting as in unexpected. I'm not sure I quite know how to break this to you Gus, but Katrina is pregnant." Vanesa told me in a low, conspiratorial voice.
"Forgive me Vanesa, but you shouldn't really be telling me this, should you?"
"Gus, she's your ex-wife! Not to mention your Executive Officer. Her health has a direct impact on the running of the ship. You have a right to know if there are any major health issues with one of your senior officers." Vanesa replied in an indignant tone, before lowering her voice again. "Were you aware that she was sexually active?"
"Was I aware?" I paused for effect, covering my eyes briefly with my fingers and palm to give her the impression of exasperation and disappointment. Very much so, I thought to myself before spearing the doctor with my best 'serious business only' stare. "Vanesa. Has Katrina's overall health been affected by the pregnancy so far?"
"No. She's in excellent condition and the twins appear to be developing normally." Vanesa showed me the initial scans she'd taken of Kat on her data tablet. The twins showed up as glowing, almost insignificant pixels on the scan. It was hard to think of those tiny white dots as two brand new human beings, who were going to utterly change Kat's life.
"Twins?" I tried to sound surprised, not wanting to let on to Vanesa that I knew a lot more than she thought I did. "Are there any indications that they might have an underlying health issue that could put Katrina at risk?"
"Well, no, but-"
"Then anything beyond that is none of our concern."
"But, Gus..." Vanesa seemed confounded that I was so detached and uninterested in her latest juicy piece of gossip. "Katrina, your ex-wife... Pregnant? Aren't you the least bit interested in knowing who the father is?"
"Vanesa, there's a clue in the 'ex' part. We got divorced seven years ago. Commander Jameson is perfectly entitled to a private life. 'Private' meaning that we should respect her right to privacy. Whatever members of my crew get up to while they're off duty is no business of mine until it affects their ability to do their job." I gave her a second to let the message sink in before continuing. "The sex lives of senior officers are not grist for the rumour mill, Vanesa. It's insubordinate and damages respect in the chain of command. I will issue written reprimands that will be permanently attached to the service records of personnel that leak confidential data or spread rumours about other crew members, regardless of their rank. Assuming Commander Jameson doesn't deal with them first by spacing them out the nearest airlock."

Vanesa picked up her data tablet again, stunned into silence by the barely veiled warning I'd given her. The kind of gossip Vanesa usually spread was mostly harmless rubbish, perhaps because she knew better than most the corrosive effects of rumours, having been the subject of one particularly distasteful tale that had circulated for a couple of weeks, two years after I'd taken command of Pallas. Vanesa was an alluring but resolutely single woman in her late 50s, who was known to regularly engage in short-lived affairs with junior officers, particularly young fighter pilots, who she readily admitted a weakness for. Unfortunately, one of the officers she'd taken a shine to had decided to tell his colleagues about 'special medicals' where pilots could give Vanesa their monthly DNA samples (used to check for stellar radiation exposure) via an unspecified but clinically unhygienic method. One of the younger and more gullible pilots brought the whole sorry episode to a head when he walked into the medlab and demanded Vanesa give him an oral sex act, 'because it was all part of the service for pilots'. The subsequent investigation of the incident had been short, bad-tempered and ugly. At the end of it, the two pilots involved had been given official written reprimands and were unceremoniously transferred to a recon unit in the Eagle Nebula. One had lasted a week, and the other two months, before being reported missing in action. Vanesa herself had been verbally reprimanded for flouting the TCF’s regulations on fraternisation, which specified that both parties had to be within two grades of rank when initiating a relationship, and been warned about her future conduct. There were still occasional murmurings of how Vanesa seduced new pilots during their check-ups, but without an official complaint, there was little I could do about it.  

“Are we clear, Doctor?”
“Yes, Admiral.”
“You will, of course, keep me updated if there is any serious change in Commander Jameson's condition. But beyond that... I shouldn't have to remind you of the importance of doctor-patient confidentiality.”
“Indeed not, Admiral.”
“Thank you, Doctor. That'll be all.” Vanesa left quickly and I hoped that she'd been sufficiently warned off from starting any other rumours. There'd already been a buzz around the ship in recent weeks about the re-sparking of an old flame between myself and Synnøve Nyhus, as we'd been seen holding hands at the reception in the wardroom prior to heading out on patrol. Kat had let the rumour run unchecked for a few days, mainly because she found it hilarious, but also because she claimed it increased my credibility with some of the younger officers. 'The Old Man's still a player!' was how she'd phrased it. Then Kat killed the rumour stone dead by absolutely demolishing a young Ensign who had the misfortune of mentioning it within her earshot during the evening meal in the wardroom, when two-thirds of the ship's officers had been present. I suspected that it would be a while before anyone would be brave or foolish enough to talk out of turn about the romantic prospects of a senior officer again. I couldn't really have asked for a better Executive Officer than Kat. She was approachable, empathic and patient when she needed to be, but she also wasn't afraid to trample viciously on poor discipline and substandard behaviour. When she did eventually have to go on medical leave, I was at a loss to think about who could possibly replace her and do half as effective a job. Fortunately, that was a decision I could put off for a few months. It was, however, a decision I needed to talk to someone about. I checked to see if Kimi was online and sent him a message.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Kimi, do you have any free appointments after the end of second watch? I could do with a chat.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Is 22.15 okay for you?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Perfect.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{I'll break out the Génépi and see you tonight then. }-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Génépi?}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{It's French. An herbal liqueur infused with wormwood flowers.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Sounds disgusting.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Consider it a part of your cultural and spiritual education. Variety is good for your well-being.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{If you say so.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{You can trust me, Gus. I'm your psychologist.}-

Some people had questioned the necessity of assigning a full-time psychologist to act as a counsellor on deep space combat vessels, back when Mankind had first started to explore beyond the Solar System, over 300 years ago. However, NASA studies dating back over 600 years had anticipated the negative psychological effects of extended missions in deep space. The theory was that the detachment from Earth, or indeed any other home planet, caused the problems. When 'home' was no longer visible and was indistinguishable from the other specks of light from planets and galaxies in view, people were confronted with the absolute scale of the universe. This caused problems because even something as big and constant as your home planet could fade into insignificance when out in deep space. This shattering of psychological attachments and realisation of cosmic perspective could have any number of adverse psychological effects, ranging from mild depression to psychotic rampages and everything in between. The problem had only become taken seriously about 200 years ago, when an engineering officer on an assault cruiser had sabotaged the fusion reactor of their ship during a psychotic episode, resulting in the loss of all hands. Now all fleet vessels that flew missions of greater than 30 days duration carried a psychologist to monitor the mental health of the crew and also help mediate disputes in professional and personal relationships. After Kimi's intervention in the breakdown in my marriage with Kat, we had become fast friends and I had ensured that he was reassigned to Pallas with us from Odysseus. Once I had asked him about who watched his mental health, only to be told 'Oh, psychologists are all crazy. We have to be, because it takes one to know one.' Perhaps this was why Kimi kept a more diverse supply of grain alcohol in his quarters than you'd find in thousand-seater bars.

I took a stroll around the bridge and was surprised to see Hal Cunningham on the bridge instead of Kat. Normally Kat was on duty for first watch, which ran from 0700 to 1500, while Hal acted as Duty XO for second watch between 1500 and 2200. As Commanding Officer, I was expected to be on duty for both watches, though in practice I was free to take short breaks as and when I liked, provided that I was on hand to deal with critical issues. Junior officers ran the ship overnight during third watch, assuming the roles of Commanding Officer and XO on a weekly rota, which was a vital part of their training regime, as it helped identify the officers who were best suited to command roles.

"Morning, Number Two. What are you doing here?" I asked Hal.
"Good morning, Admiral. Commander Jameson asked me if it'd be okay swapping shifts for a few days. She said she'd had stomach trouble the last day or two. Dodgy sushi in the wardroom, no doubt." Hal explained. "Not a problem, really. I prefer the early mornings anyway."
"Fair enough. As long as you don't mind." It was not uncommon for officers to swap their duty watches like this, so I doubted anyone would question it. I still checked on Kat, just to make sure it wasn't something serious.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Missing you on the bridge this morning. You okay?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{I'm fine. I just had to do some urgent filing. Vomit, toilet.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Morning sickness?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Always comes early in my family. When Mom had me she was puking from the third week all the way up to full term.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Lovely.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{These toilet pans have amazing acoustics, you know. It's like being underwater during a hurricane.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Too much information, Kat.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You have to get your head right down, otherwise the suction doesn't get it all and you end up with spew globules floating around the bathroom.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Urgh. Please stop.}-

Unlike the Starbase Hera, Pallas didn't use spin to provide artificial gravity for its inhabited sections. The ship wasn't large enough to generate sufficient centripetal forces at low spin rates and having rotating parts in the superstructure would interfere with the stability of the mass drivers. There were other disadvantages as well, such as a constant power drain on the fusion reactor to provide artificial gravity - power that could not be used by combat systems - and the engineering challenges in trying to run a unified power distribution grid throughout static and moving sections of the ship's superstructure were considerable. After an extended consultation process between the Admiralty and contractors that were designing the Titan-class, it was decided that it made more sense to stick with a zero-g design. While it made perfect sense from a military point of view, it did pose certain problems in the day-to-day life of the crew, particularly with regards to plumbing. Zero-g toilets used a strong directional airflow to ensure excreta went where it was supposed to go, once you had opened the lid and strapped yourself in. They took some getting used to. My mother had told me repeatedly that she'd never visit me in space unless they 'sorted out the cludgies'.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You think that's bad? Just wait until you visit me next year and I get you changing diapers. I'm sure that stuff's radioactive. My niece, she-}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You're really selling this whole 'parenthood' thing.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Don't be such a wuss. Okay, I'm going to stop freaking you out now and take a shower. Can we catch up this afternoon?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Sure. See you on second watch.}-

I continued my tour of the bridge, checking in with the officers at each of the key stations, Helm, Stellar Navigation, Ship Operations, Remote Sensing, Electronic Warfare, Tactical and Engineering. The stations were arranged in pairs on sloping tiers, except for Helm, which was set apart on the lowest tier, furthest away from the Command station, where the Duty XO and I had a complete overview across all of the bridge stations. Behind the Command station was my Ready Room, where I spent the majority of my on duty time, unless there was an issue that required my immediate attention, or (like now) I simply wanted to spend a bit of time with the crew. The Helm station was on its own little deck of the bridge purely because it needed the most space. It comprised of a large, triple gimbal-mounted chair surrounded by a translucent holographic pod with a neural-linked interface. The control screens built into the chair itself allowed the helm officer to issue engine commands to Engineering and even fly the ship manually, while the holographic pod gave the helm officer a complete 3D view of everything in space around the ship, up to a range of 50,000 kilometres. It was a role generally given to young officers, but was arguably the most demanding job in the service, due to the level of mental and physical coordination involved. Especially talented helmsmen often ended up on the fast track to senior ranks, as I had done. I often thought that my years as a helmsman had contributed to my later bouts of space-sickness. It was a phenomenon similar to the same way people could get travel-sick when they were a passenger in a hovercar, but were fine when they were driving one. On the mini-deck behind the Helm were the Stellar Navigation and Remote Sensing stations. Both were standard seated consoles with 1.5 metre wide touch-sensitive haptic screens capable of holographic imaging. While it was possible to issue commands to the stations entirely through an officer's neural link implant, trials back in the 2300's had shown that officers maintained their concentration better and were far more capable of multitasking when the neural interface was complemented by a touchscreen. So while the haptic interface looked like it belonged in a museum, they did actually increase an officer's efficiency by as much as 40%. The Stellar Navigation console allowed the operator to view the proximity of nearby star systems and calculate stardrive transit routes. At the moment, Sub-Lieutenant Eleanor Armstrong was inputting the target coordinates for the jump to our next patrol point, κ Orion - a system notable for having an uncommonly large number of planets, including a so-called 'super-Earth' in the star's habitable zone. The planet itself hadn't been colonised, due to its hostile atmosphere and oppressively large gravitational field strength, but it had been deemed a good location for a fleet outpost. We were due to jump at noon, when the crew would transit to down-time and a reduced duty schedule for the eight days or so it would take us to reach our destination. Next to Armstrong sat Lieutenant Mitchell at the Remote Sensing station. She was typing furiously on her screen and adding the finishing touches onto a holographic animation.

"Morning, Admiral. I haven't quite finished my report yet. Could you give me a quarter hour or so?" 
"Don't feel the need to rush, Lieutenant. Better to do the job right than do it quickly. Take your time."

The Remote Sensing station was the eyes and ears of the ship. High powered telescopes sensitive to all frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum were arrayed across the hull in three pallets - one on each flank of the ship and the third on the apex of the conning tower, giving it a panoramic view. Also at Mitchell's disposal were dozens of RASPs, Remote Autonomous Survey Platforms, unmanned mobile reconnaissance probes that could be used for a variety of tasks that required a closer viewpoint. Like the Helm, Remote Sensing wasn't the most glamorous of job roles on the ship, but it required a high level of expertise. All five of the Science Officers aboard who ran the station were doctorate-level qualified Astrophysicists. They made a formidable team in the weekly general knowledge quiz held every Monday night in the wardroom.

I stepped up to the next mini-deck. Next up were the Electronics Warfare and Tactical stations, whose functions complemented each other. The Electronics Warfare suite was typically the reserve of a junior officer, as it controlled the ship's Electronic Counter-Measures equipment used for jamming enemy communications and spoofing incoming missiles - a relatively simple job. The ship also had a specialised AI that protected the computer systems from being hacked from an outside source, and those functions were monitored through the Electronics Warfare suite, though the actual control of the firewalls and counter-hacking subroutines was left to the AI, since it could react and adapt to electronic security threats far more quickly than any human could. The Tactical station was larger, more elaborate and much more hands-on. It was superficially similar to the Helm station, in that the control console was surrounded by a holographic pod, though here it didn't encompass the entire station. The pod had the shape of a cylinder, bisected through the centre of its longitudinal axis, standing two metres tall. A haptic control console was placed on a pedestal at the focus of the curved screen, at a height designed to be used by a standing operator. It gave the Tactical officer a fish-eye view of the space around the ship, just like the Helm pod, but could be quickly zoomed and panned using hand movements, since the operator had to respond far more rapidly to the unfolding tactical situation. A skilled operator could select multiple targets in the holographic interface via their neural link and use the control console to manage the defensive and offensive systems of Pallas in fractions of a second. Lieutenant Hamilton was on duty, keeping an eye on the IFF (Identification-Friend-or-Foe) board that listed all radar contacts, their range, vector and relative velocity.

"Morning, Weps. Anything happening?"
"Absolutely nothing, Admiral. Getting a bit bored of it now to be honest, sir." The synthetic's mocha-coloured skin clouded a couple of shades darker to match his mood, his cool blue eyes narrowing as he hunted in vain for signs of activity on his control board.
"Be careful what you wish for, Lieutenant." I patted Hamilton consolingly on the shoulder and made my way up to the next mini-deck.

The Ship Operations and Engineer stations were placed here, as they ran all of the critical ship systems - communications, life support, realspace and stardrive engines, fusion reactors, power management and distribution systems, fuel scoops, plus stellar radiation and defensive shielding - it made sense to have them on the mini-deck closest to the Command station and Ready Room. Both stations were superficially identical to the Remote Sensing and Stellar Navigation consoles, they just showed different information and allowed for the control of different systems. Ship Operations was Hal's usual seat on the bridge, but since he was currently Duty XO, it was occupied by Ensign Kaylee Peng, a hugely talented fifth generation synthetic and mathematical prodigy whose youthful, innocent looks belied her reputation as an evil poker player. Peng's fifth generation AI core gave her a stupendous natural affinity with numbers and her ability to calculate probabilistic outcomes made her well-suited not just to the poker table, but also to managing the complex power management, communications and life-support systems of a vessel carrying nearly 7500 souls.

One of the reasons for laying over at α Orion was that the supernova remnant was a rich source of hydrogen, which could be used to top up the fuel supplies for our fusion power plants. The red supergiant, Betelgeuse, had only recently (in astronomical terms) gone supernova; less than two hundred years or so, making the region volatile and quite dangerous to small vessels. Radiation levels in the aftermath of the cataclysmically large explosion of the star made layovers in the system of longer than 72 hours highly inadvisable, thanks to the potentially fatal volume of x-ray emissions emanating from the rapidly expanding, superheated filaments of gas being propelled out at velocities of hundreds of kilometres per second from the still collapsing core of the star. These stellar remains would eventually form a black hole that would become a navigation hazard in the region for the rest of eternity, which was a sobering thought. I'd visited the system a dozen times during my career, and every time I felt a pang of sadness. Orion had always been my favourite constellation as a child and even though it would be another five hundred years before the light from Betelgeuse's supernova would reach Earth, knowing that one of the stars that had caught my imagination so strongly as a child (and indeed, that had influenced my decision to pursue a career in space) was no longer there in reality always left me feeling a little depressed that even something that seemed as large and eternal as a star could actually die and vanish into the blackness of the night.

"How are the refuelling operations going, Ensign?"
"We're well ahead of schedule, Admiral. All ships report that they'll be fully topped up in the next five hours."
"Excellent. Carry on, Ensign."

Next to her at the Engineering station was my Chief Engineer. Randall was one of the few officers who preferred to just use their neural link to interface with their station. This was the main reason a lot of officers felt uncomfortable around him, as Randall usually sat down at his station at the beginning of a watch and didn't move a muscle for eight hours, in an almost zombie-like trance. Randall had his eyes closed underneath his cybernetic visor and was currently so deep in thought that he looked like he hadn't moved a muscle in days. Occasionally one of the tools on his artificial arm twitched involuntarily, but beyond that Randall betrayed no signs of being aware of his surroundings. I checked the duty roster and noted that he should have clocked off at the end of second watch on Wednesday. I silently rebuked myself for not having noticed earlier and made a mental note to ask Kat why she hadn't dismissed him when she had taken over first watch yesterday.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Commander Randall.}-

Even communicating directly with him via neural chat, it took a few seconds for my message to sink in.

SCMR. Rndll#1186994 -{What? Oh, Admiral... Sorry sir, you broke my concentration.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You look half-dead, Randall. You need to get some sleep.}-
SCMR. Rndll#1186994 -{Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I was just starting to get somewhere with the sensor logs and thought I'd better stick with it.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You've been sat there for the last 40 hours. You need a break. Go to your quarters. That's an order.}-
SCMR. Rndll#1186994 -{40? What day is it?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Friday, August 2nd. And if I see your name on the entry log for the bridge or main engineering before Monday, I'll kick your arse. I need you properly rested.}-
SCMR. Rndll#1186994 -{Yes, Admiral.}-

I helped Randall to his feet. He tottered for a second before regaining his equilibrium and then headed gingerly to the lift.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{And make sure you remember to eat and drink something. Go on, get!}-

I went up the last step to the Command station and walked up to Hal, who was in the XO's chair.

“Hal, get Lieutenant Santoro up here from Engineering. And add a standing order to the Duty Officer's log that Sub-Commander Randall's duty times are to be strictly enforced until further notice. I'll be in the Ready Room if you need me.”

I was reading the latest intelligence updates when Lieutenant Mitchell brought in the findings of her investigation into Thrinax ship layouts. I listened and watched intently as Mitchell took me through several theorised internal configurations for Thrinax cruisers and dreadnoughts that she had come up with by painstakingly studying the sensor data monitoring EM transmissions from enemy ships recorded during our last dozen ship-to-ship encounters. Mitchell had even put together holographic animations to visualise each of the possible layouts she had come up with, which demonstrated the logic behind how all the different subsystems on the vessels might be integrated together.

"The one thing that really struck me during this investigation, Admiral, was that no two Thrinax ships in the same class of vessel are identical." Mitchell said, highlighting her point by comparing silhouettes of the two dozen cruisers we'd encountered in the last five months. They all had roughly similar masses, volumes and weapons capabilities, but the hull structure showed distinct individual differences to a far greater degree than you'd find in Confederate ships. "That's what made it so difficult for me to come up with a working model that made some kind of sense. Every ship is different. While there is a generalised pattern in the morphology of the hulls, there's a sufficient level of variance in the designs to make it impossible to say with a high level of certainty that a particular subsystem could reliably be found in the same location on the hulls of all Thrinax vessels."
"That doesn't make any sense, Allyson. Considering the numbers of Thrinax vessels we've seen throughout the Local Bubble and beyond, building a number of ships on that scale according to individualised templates would be massively inefficient and wasteful."
"You're right, Admiral. It is. But I cross-referenced everything against fleet combat records for the last twelve months and compared silhouettes for all Thrinax cruisers on record. No two were alike. The closest matching pair had morphology variances of 23% in their hull superstructures."
"That's crazy. I don't get why they'd do it like that." I scratched my head.
"With respect, Admiral, you're thinking like a human. They're aliens. There must be some design philosophy or advantage in doing it that way, otherwise the Thrinax wouldn't do it. But what makes perfect logical sense to them doesn't necessarily have to make sense to us."
"Point. So what does this tell us? Other than the fact that the Thrinax ship builders are utterly batshit insane?"
"Well sir, I was able to find some hull features that have appeared on every single Thrinax vessel seen to date." Mitchell pointed to a short line of four ovoid hatches on the flanks of the holographic dreadnought hovering over the Ready Room conference table.
"What's so significant about these? They look pretty innocuous to me."
"I used the battle vids to look for patterns in the locations of mass driver hits immediately prior to the destruction of an enemy vessel. As you know, Thrinax ships use a matter-antimatter reactor as a power source. Antimatter is incredibly unstable and requires isolation in a Penning Trap - electromagnetic 'bottles' surrounded by a 100% vacuum. If you rupture the bottle, say with a mass driver shell, the antimatter annihilates with any nearby matter, creating a cascade reaction that liberates enough energy to utterly destroy the surrounding ship. This is the reason why we've never been able to study Thrinax technology in depth. By the time you render the ship combat ineffective, there's nothing left larger than a pebble." Mitchell took a sip of water before continuing. "In 93% of ship-to-ship contacts resulting in the loss of a Thrinax vessel, the impact point of the fatal mass driver shell was within twenty metres of one of these hatches."
"What do you think they are, then?"
"Difficult to say for sure, but I'd say they're emergency vents that allow the antimatter to be dumped safely in the event of a reactor emergency." Mitchell zoomed in the holo to show one of the hatches in more detail. "The edges here look very similar to the magnetic field emitters on our hydrogen fuel scoops. Except rather than sucking in interstellar hydrogen, they probably do the opposite and generate a magnetic field to eject the antimatter into tightly confined cones away from the hull."
"So if we wanted to disable and capture one of their vessels for study, the trick is to not shoot anywhere near these?"
"Yes, exactly, Admiral. Though that poses an entirely different kind of problem. How do you get in close enough to disable the vessel without completely destroying the ship, while not getting blown to bits by their beam cannons and nuclear missiles?"
"You're a smart woman, Lieutenant. I'm sure you'll figure it out for me. Dismissed."
"I'll see what I can do, sir." Mitchell blushed slightly and got up to leave.
"Yes, Admiral?"
"Good work. I'm going to give you a commendation in my next report to Fleet. Identifying those vents and targeting them will allow us to make quick kills from now on. That little piece of statistical analysis is going to save thousands of lives. Well done."
"Thank you, sir!"

A thought occurred to me as Mitchell practically bounced with joy out of the door and I hooked myself into the Task Group comm-net.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Erebus Actual. Are you there, Nova?}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Good morning, Admiral. What can I do for you, Gus?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I need a favour.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{What kind of favour?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I want to borrow your XO.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Now you're asking, Gus. Why?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Don't worry, Nova, I'm not going to steal him. You can have him back in a few days. Marciano did three tours as a science specialist, right? I'd like him to work with my Chief Science Officer on some new combat tactics that will allow us to disable Thrinax ships without rupturing their antimatter stores.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Sounds interesting. Why do you want to be able to disable a Thrinax ship? I've always settled for blowing them to hell.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{It never hurts to have a Plan B. I've got my Engineering team working on a counter-measure for their stardrive jammer, but my Chief Engineer says he needs to get his hands on a working model.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Ah, okay. Now it makes sense. Sure, Admiral. I'll send him right over.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Thanks, Nova. I owe you one.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{I'll hold you to that, Admiral.}-
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