Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Five

2701. – Wolf 359; CFV-B Pallas

I arrived unannounced at the forward airlock less than half an hour before the Senior Staff meeting I'd arranged with Kat, hoping that would prevent her from organising some kind of toe-curling, awkward ceremony as I boarded Pallas for the first time as a flag officer. Of course, I should have known better. Chief Watson was already there waiting for me, standing at attention with seven Marines in full dress uniform, complete with ceremonial rifles.

“Am I under arrest, Chief?” I said deadpan, unable to resist joking.
“Negative, sir! It would be our honour to escort you to the bridge, Admiral!” Watson stood tall, proud and firm, bringing her rifle up into the port arms position. “Honour guard, left shoulder, ARMS!”

They'd obviously been rehearsing. Rifle drill hadn't been part of the training regimen for Marines in over three hundred years. I was amazed that we even had drill-purpose rifles on board. Despite this, they were flawlessly synchronised. We exchanged salutes and Watson led me towards the bridge. I even felt compelled to march in step with them. They filed onto the bridge in two columns, Chief Watson at their head, guiding me onto the command deck between them, forming a ceremonial arch with their rifles. I was almost deafened when I passed Chief Watson.

“ATTENTION ON DECK FOR PALLAS ACTUAL!” Watson yelled, causing everyone present to jump to their feet, backs ramrod straight and eyes front.
“Admiral on the bridge!” this voice was less loud, but had even more authority to it. Kat stepped forward, her eyes gleaming. I pinged a message to her over our private neural net link. It was intended to allow us to talk about mission-critical intelligence and operational matters that required higher security clearances than the senior officers and the rest of the crew. The link was quantum-key encrypted, and to prevent intelligence leaks, particularly in the event of the ship being captured, messages weren't recorded by the shipboard AI, unlike regular neural link chat. Which was just as well, considering the puerile nature of the conversations Kat and I generally used it for.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I'm going to get you for this, Kat.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Promises, promises! Spank me.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Temptress.}-

We'd developed this kind of banter over the years into a game where we tried to make each other crack at inappropriate moments - kind of like Russian Roulette with provocative chat messages - and we both played to win. Kat and I both managed to keep a straight face as we saluted each other.

“Welcome back, Admiral.”
“At ease.” I told the bridge crew, who spontaneously gave me a round of applause.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{This isn't mortifying at all.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Enjoy it while you can.}-

“Thank you, thank you...” I held up my hands, to try and quiet the outbreak of uncharacteristic revelry from my bridge crew. “As you were. Please, carry on.”

Immediately I was surrounded by my senior staff, all eager to shake my hand and congratulate me on my promotion. I weathered it as graciously as I could, before letting the atmosphere settle back down to the efficient, quiet buzz of a happily busy group of officers and men.

"Well, thank you everybody. Now, if the XO has quite finished embarrassing me-" Kat's expression would have made a professional poker player proud, for all the emotion it revealed.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Maybe...}-

"Shall we convene in the Ready Room?" I suggested. "Lieutenant Fisher, you have the deck."

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my Ready Room had been upgraded since I'd last been aboard ship. The tech crews must've been working around the clock. The Ready Room had almost doubled in size, with my desk being replaced with a holograph-enabled conference table, conveniently large enough to seat all of my senior officers. I had expected to make them stand. I made a mental note to ask Kat what they'd removed from behind the old bulkhead to create the extra floor space.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Ooh, new toys! Aren't they shiny!}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Careful now, they were expensive. You break it, you buy it.}-

I took my seat at the head of the table and the other officers took their places, sorting themselves out according to rank and job role. Kat sat immediately to my right, with Captain Vanesa Brodar, Pallas's Chief Medical Officer, taking the seat at my left hand. Next to her sat Kimi Harmaajärvi, while seated opposite him and next to Kat was Sub-Commander Hal Cunningham, Second Officer and Chief Operations Manager. Next in line were Sub-Commander Terry Randall, our beloved Chief Engineering Officer, and Lieutenant Allyson Mitchell, Chief Science Officer. Finally, at the opposite end of the table, sat Lieutenant Maxwell Hamilton, Chief of Security and Senior Tactical Officer, a role colloquially known as 'Weps'.

"First of all, I hope you've all had the opportunity to take a few days' leave to recharge your batteries. If not, Commander Jameson will dismiss you for two days R&R - no exceptions. You're going to need them. Once we ship out on the 21st, I'm going to need you all at your sharpest."

"I'll check the duty rosters and see to it, Admiral." Katrina rubbed the back of her neck, as was her habit when she was making a neural log entry.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Think they'll use their R&R as productively as we did?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Not fucking likely. Excuse the pun. Though maybe Vanesa will, the old cougar...}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Meow! Kat!}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You wouldn't love me if I didn't have claws.}-
"I'm sure you've all heard the rumours rumbling around Hera by now. We've been reassigned to lead the Sirius Sector Assault Group. Final orders for our next patrol aren't confirmed as yet, but the OXM reports indicate that we might face stiffer than usual resistance on our next patrol." 'OXM' was Fleet shorthand for 'oxymoron' - in other words, Military Intelligence. Several officers bristled at my announcement, Hal and Weps in particular.
"Just how 'stiff' are they expecting our opposition to be, sir?" Weps asked.
"The task force will consist of Tartarus, Erebus, six Titan-class battlecruisers, including Pallas, eighteen Hero-class assault cruisers, three squadrons of Gigantes-class assault frigates, six squadrons of Muses-class corvettes and four Wild Weasel ECM squadrons, plus associated fighter groups. Draw your own conclusions, Weps."
"Fucking Christ. Beg pardon for my French, Admiral." Weps shook his head, making his short dreadlocks seethe like a bag of tetchy rattlesnakes. There were several other short intakes of breath around the table, but otherwise no histrionics.

CMR. Jmsn#1894118 -{They took that quite well.}-

"Quite. But Admiral Strauss wouldn't have given us the assignment if he wasn't confident we could handle it." This was about as blatant a lie as I'd ever told. My own suspicion was that he deemed us competent and effective, but expendable enough to take a gamble on. "With Tartarus and Erebus at our disposal, we should have the firepower to handle anything the Thrinax send our way. Not only that, we'll have access to the research labs on Tartarus and Erebus as well." I took a second to gauge the mood of my senior staff. They seemed to buy it. A big enough lie, told with enough conviction, could be more persuasive than a truth. I turned to Chief Engineer Randall. "Terry, I'll want you to coordinate with the engineering teams on the dreadnoughts as soon as possible. We've got to find a method of circumventing the Thrinax's stardrive jammer. If we can do that, then we stand a fighting chance if we're engaged by superior forces."

SCMR. Rndll#1186994 -{Interesting, sir. Th-}-

"Terry." I interrupted him. Randall cringed, having forgotten there were other people in the meeting.
"Sorry, sir." The engineer looked around the table, embarrassed, the dozen multi-tool appendages on his mechanical hand twitching in distress. I noticed Kat subtly give her eyes a roll in exasperation. Thankfully, Randall was too deep in thought to pick up on it. "Though that's going to be difficult unless we can get our hands on a Thrinax ship. Even a semi-intact one would be a start. The problem with their use of matter-antimatter reactors is that rendering one of their vessels combat-ineffective always results in the total destruction of the ship. And it's practically impossible to reverse-engineer a device unless you can study a working example."
"Then I suggest you work on a way of disabling a Thrinax ship that doesn't rupture their antimatter containment systems."
"I'll put some thought into it, Admiral."
"Lieutenant Mitchell, perhaps this is something you could help Mister Randall with?" Kat suggested.
"Yes, ma'am. I'll review the sensor records of the combat actions from our last patrol and see if I can't get a better idea of the internal layout of the Thrinax vessels we've seen so far. If we can isolate the location of the power reactor in their ships, we should be able to increase our chances of being able to disable their ships without destroying them completely." Mitchell replied, after some consideration. "If nothing else, we can put together a scanning algorithm that should help us lock down the transmission source of the stardrive jammer."
"Very good, Lieutenant. Make it so." I ordered. "Any questions?"

My seven senior officers were conspicuously silent.

"Okay then. Just remember, Vice Admiral Moskaleva called us the best crew in the fleet for a good reason. We are. Command might have given us more to fight, but they've given us more to fight with, too. Continue to do your jobs with the same level of commitment and dedication you've given me over the last four and a half years and we'll get through this patrol." I looked at each of my officers in turn and they met my gaze evenly. Kimi and Weps even smiled. "Final pre-patrol briefing will be at 1900 hours, 2701.7.20. Make sure your teams are up to speed by then. Dismissed."

My staff stood in silence and made for the exit.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{See you later, fuck-toy!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Watch it, cock-mitten!}-

Kat feigned a coughing fit to suppress a bout of highly inappropriate laughter. Our eyes met briefly and I allowed myself only the merest hint of a grin.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Oh Gus, we're TOTALLY going to Hell.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Truce?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You win this round. I guess owe you dinner at the end of the patrol. Well played, Admiral.}-

I caught Kimi's attention with a flick of my fingers before he reached the exit.

“Mister Harmaajärvi, may I borrow you for a minute, please?” I asked while the rest of the officers filed out in quick succession.
“Certainly, Admiral.” Kimi replied, and I pointed him to a neighbouring chair. He waited for the rest of the staff to leave, rocking casually in his seat, before speaking again. “What's up?”
“Do you happen to recall the conversation we had in the Moby Dick a few days back?”
“Vaguely.” Kimi replied, straight-faced and non-committal.
“Well, let me put it this way, anything you do remember is confidential, right?”
“Of course, Admiral.” Kimi's grey eyes twinkled.

SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Especially the part about Commander Jameson's condition.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Jesus, Kimi! These things get logged, you know!}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{All covered by doctor-patient confidentiality, Gus. Chill.}-

“I'm glad you took my advice.” Kimi added. “Pallas wouldn't be the same ship without the both of you.”
“I'm going to miss her, you know.” We were both careful to leave names out of the conversation. The walls had ears, and not just electronic ones. The rumour mill was undoubtedly already in full flow generating conspiracy theories about just where the Old Man and the XO had disappeared to for five days after making port; the irony being that the conspiracy theories were probably a lot tamer than what had actually happened.
“She's not gone yet.” Kimi stood, even though I'd not dismissed him. “You know where to find me if you need to talk.”
“Deal. Only no engine coolant next time.”
“Admiral, you need to better educate your palate. Have you ever tried Aquavit?”
“Maybe some other time. I'll catch you later.”
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