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.
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