Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Eleven

2701. – ε Gemini; CFV-B Pallas

The tension on the bridge was palpable as we prepared to drop out of stardrive back into normal space at the edge of the ε Gemini system. The nature of the odd transmission received by the transit station at κ Orion had been rigorously combed over by ArtEMIS and my scientific dream team of Mitchell and Marciano, but with no success as to divining its meaning. With no real idea of what to expect in the system, I'd ordered Pallas to battle stations so that the ship would be combat-ready before we even dropped out of stardrive. I sat at the Command station with Kat, counting down the last few seconds before we returned to normal space. All seven of my senior officers were on the bridge, as was expected when the ship was anticipated to enter into a combat engagement. Sub-Commander Marciano was also present, trying to make himself useful as he floated between Lieutenant Mitchell at the Remote Sensing station and Weps at Tactical. Pallas plunged back into realspace, her hull shuddering as the stardrive engines powered down. The rest of the task force blinked into existence alongside us. I stood and stepped alongside Hal, who was seated at the Ops station.

“Number Two, set Condition One throughout the fleet. Launch the CAP and have Gamma and Omega squadrons on standby.” I ordered, noting the combat-ready reports cascading in from the support vessels in the battlegroup. I noticed with satisfaction that Tartarus and Erebus were also already launching fighters to help establish a secure perimeter around the fleet. “Lieutenant Mitchell, bring the long range sensors online. Let's see if we can't find the source of that transmission.”
“Scanning now, Admiral.” Mitchell acknowledged.

At first inspection, the star system appeared to be as barren and insignificant as its reputation suggested. We had not been met by an angry mob of murderous Thrinax ships. In fact, there appeared to be very little to suggest that there was anything here at all that warranted our attention. We might have left the system empty-handed, had it not been for the hyper-sensitive scanners and hawk-eyed operators on Tartarus.

CPT. FfdHghs#11892033 -{Admiral, we're detecting an anomalous mass at the edge of the system, 30AU beyond the outermost planetoid.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Acknowledged, Tartarus. We'll check it out. Well spotted.}-

I ordered two squadrons from the task group's CAP to divert towards the anomalous contact and transmit us video footage of whatever they found. A few minutes later, it became apparent that contact wasn't hostile. In fact, it wasn't doing anything at all, other than being impressively large for an object so far out in the star system. I moved the task force onto an intercept course, while our active scanners bombarded it with waves from across the EM spectrum to try and determine more about it. The contact was nearly 70AU away from our initial jump point on the other side of the system, so it would take days for us to get within range for a decent visual. From this range, even the powerful telescopes on Tartarus were not able to see much more than a dimly reflecting, irregular body. The returns from the EM scans would give us more information before the fighters got within range, but even they would take over nineteen hours to make the round trip. So we were dependent on passive scanning techniques for the time being. I walked over to the Remote Sensing station.

"What have we got here, Lieutenant?"
"An irregular stellar body, about 20 kilometres long on its major axis. Not sure about the size of the other axes yet, sir. It doesn't appear to have any rotation and its albedo is low - only about 5% reflection of incident light. That doesn't give us much to go on, but it's definitely an anomaly. It's not on any of the system nav charts." Mitchell reported.
"No rotation at all? I don't like the sound of that. What kind of orbit is it in?" Kat asked as she took up a position behind my shoulder, peering at Mitchell's screen.
"That's odd." Mitchell said as she brought up a scale holograph showing the object's orbit relative to the star and other planetoids in the system. "Orbital inclination is at less than 0.01 degrees to the ecliptic and it has an eccentricity of... 0.00002?"
"That can't be natural." Kat pointed at the orbits of the largest dozen planetoids in the system. "Look, all the other orbits are elliptical, not even close to a circle."
"Are you getting any kind of emissions from the contact at all?" I asked Mitchell, my sense of anxiety building. Kat was right - there was no way an object that far away from the system primary could have an orbit so perfectly regular by chance. The odds against it were literally astronomical: billions to one.
"No, Admiral. It's as dead as dead can be. No EM emissions at all. No particle emissions, either. If there was an active matter-antimatter reactor on board we'd be detecting neutrino and pi-meson readings, even from this far away."
"It smells like a trap to me, sir." Kat said, an unhappy look on her face.
"I agree." I turned to Hal at Ops. "Number Two, recall those fighters. If it is a trap, I don't want them wandering into it without capital ship support."
"Admiral, if that is a Thrinax ship, we're all in big trouble." Kat said gravely. "Twenty klicks long? I don't want to know the range of the beam cannons on that."

It was a sobering thought. I looked again at the fuzzy pictures coming from Tartarus's telescopes. It certainly didn't look like a ship, but the images were so dim and blurry at this range, the object could have been a twenty kilometre tall space rabbit, for all we knew.

"Is there any way we can find out what that thing is made of?" I asked.
"Spectrometer?" Marciano piped in, having kept an ear on the conversation from where he was standing at Tactical.
"What's that, Commander?"
"We could do a colour spectroscopy on the light reflecting off the surface of the object. That would give us a good idea whether it's got the same chemical composition as the rest of the planetoids in the system." Marciano elaborated. I looked down at Mitchell, who nodded.
"That would work. Good idea, sir." Mitchell pondered a moment before continuing. "We could cross-check the results against known readings for Thrinax vessels. If memory serves, the albedo range is similar. I'll get right on it, Admiral."

It was a nervous few minutes while Mitchell ran her analysis. I took refuge in the Ready Room to stop myself from pacing a groove into the deck behind the Remote Sensing station. I had sat down and was just starting to write up the contact report to send to Fleet Command when I got a message from Kat.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Admiral, you need to take a look at this.}-

Kat and Marciano were stood behind Mitchell at the Remote Sensing station, with grave expressions written across their faces.

"What have you got for me, Mitchell?"
"As Commander Marciano suggested, I put the images of the contact through our colour spectrometer, to try and identify elements in the reflected light from the object." Mitchell brought up a wavelength versus intensity chart to highlight the colour spectrum from the object. It showed a distinct pattern of bright emissions and dark absorption lines at different points of the visual spectrum. Then she brought up a second spectrum, where all the lines were in completely different places, indicating a different composition of elements. "This is a spectrograph of a typical planetoid in the system."
"I'm no astrophysicist, Lieutenant, but I think we can safely say that thing didn't originate from this system."
"Correct, Admiral. Then I compared the result for the anomaly with spectrographs on file for Thrinax dreadnoughts." Mitchell brought up a third chart. It matched the one for the anomalous contact perfectly.
"Damn." The hairs on the back of my neck were stood on end. I looked again at the fuzzy image of the contact on Mitchell's screen. The diffuse grey blob suddenly looked a whole lot more threatening than it had done a couple of hours ago.
"I re-ran the tests and checked the results three times, Admiral. Then I had the science teams on Tartarus and Erebus review our findings, just to be sure." Mitchell swallowed nervously. "They confirmed my results, sir. The anomaly is definitely a Thrinax construct."
"I hate being right all the time..." Kat muttered. "Admiral, that thing, whatever it is, is an order of magnitude larger than any Thrinax vessel we've seen to date. It's a threat to entire task force. Should we really risk getting any closer to it?
"I'd rather not, but we don't have to rush into a decision yet, Number One. We've got a few days. I need to get a contact report off to Fleet to request instructions."
"You know what they'll say, Admiral. They'll want it investigated."
"Yes, I imagine they will, Number One. We need to know how long it's been here, at the very least. Mitchell, do you think it could have been the source of the signal picked up at κ Orion?"
"It's possible, Admiral. Though we're still getting nothing at all from it now. Not even an elevated infra-red signal." Mitchell replied. Normally Thrinax vessels gave off a strong heat signature due to the loss of energy from their engines and inefficiencies in their power transfer systems, so this was odd. Mitchell tipped her head over in thought before suggesting an possible explanation. "It could be a derelict, sir."
"I hope so, Lieutenant, because a Thrinax ship that big is going to be scary-powerful. It could eat the fleet for breakfast and still have room for bacon on toast with maple syrup." Kat mused.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Hungry, Commander?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{I've started having cravings. I'd kill for a tuna and banana sandwich right now.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Weirdo.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You have no idea. I ate half a tube of toothpaste this morning.}-

"We proceed with the intercept as planned, while we await orders from Fleet. But we watch that thing like a hawk." I told Kat before turning to Marciano. "Commander, I think we're going to have to say goodbye at this point. Captain Nyhus is going to need you back on Erebus. Give her my thanks and regards when you see her."
"My pleasure, Admiral." Marciano saluted me and we shook hands. I pretended not to notice the affectionate squeeze of the shoulder Marciano gave Mitchell before he left the bridge, inwardly relieved that she hadn't leapt on him to give him a goodbye kiss, or perhaps something more.
"You have the bridge, Number One. Shout if you need me." I told Kat as I returned to the Ready Room to finish my contact report.
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