Monday, May 16, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Four

2701. – Wolf 359; Starbase Hera

It had taken several hours of intense discussion bordering on outright argument, but eventually Kat had accepted that my fledgling relationship with Malia was not a meaningless rebound reaction to the news Kat had given me about her plans to leave military service and start a family with her new lover, Itzal. Kat had still accused me of being a fast worker in finding someone else to replace her in my affections, but had nonetheless accepted, somewhat reluctantly, that occasionally fate conspired in unpredictable and improbable ways, and that my attraction to Malia was more than purely physical. It had still proved necessary to take Kat out for dinner at the starbase's most expensive restaurant, Les Quatre Saisons, however, before she felt assured that my feelings and connection to her were undiminished. Only then did she agree to meet up with me later in the week to discuss the plans for her resignation from the fleet.

Malia and I had reinforced our nascent bond with an intimate farewell meal at Starbase Hera's premier Italian restaurant, Bella Fiore, the afternoon before she was due to leave for FOB Poseidon on the fringes of the Omega Nebula. With only a few hours to spare before she was due to board her transport ship, the Gigantes-class assault frigate Enceladus, Malia invited me back to her apartment, ostensibly to help her finish packing for her trip. In the cool, red light of Wolf 359's day, unimpaired by questionable influence of volumes of alcohol that could be used to anaesthetise fully-grown elephants, Malia and I made the most of our time together, leisurely making love in an exhaustive and exhausting exploration of each other's bodies, before I walked with her, arm in arm, carrying her luggage to the docking bay. We parted reluctantly at the airlock to her ship on the docking barrel, kissing until we ran out of breath.

"The last couple of days have been amazing, Gus. I can't wait to see you again." Malia's hands braced the back of my skull, her slender figure already pressed firmly to my chest.
"You don't get rid of me that easily." I promised her, enveloping Malia's shoulders tightly and nibbling at her left earlobe provocatively.
Malia took my cheeks in both hands, kissing me hard, tugging my lower lip painfully between her sharp teeth. "Gus, watch yourself and come back safe, please."
"I will."
"Promise me." Malia demanded, her ribcage heaving as she breathed deeply.
"I promise." I assured her, biting hungrily at her exposed neck. "I'm going to miss you."
"Oh, Gus." Malia groaned as my lips nuzzled seductively beneath her sharp chin. "That's so nice..."
"I love you, Malia." I breathed into her ear unconsciously, taken aback by just how strong my feelings were for her.
"I love you, too. If someone had told me a week ago I'd be saying that, I would have said they were mad." Malia responded, her long, thin fingers tugging at my hair as she gazed up into my eyes. "It's amazing what you find when you're not looking."
The revelation seemed to have surprised us both, but I could feel by the way she held herself again me just how happy Malia was. It was a sensation I shared, the delirious realisation of fresh romance and love - something I had doubted I'd experience again after my divorce from Katrina. After a final, prolonged kiss, I let Malia disappear aboard Enceladus, promising that I'd write to her that evening, once she was safely on her way to the nearly-complete Forward Operating Base.

Kat visited me for dinner later that evening and we spent the next few days together without leaving my quarters, talking about the developments of the last forty-eight hours and the possibilities for the future. Kimi had been right about the need to be upfront with Kat. Once I'd explained what I knew about the possible risks of Pallas's next patrol, I told Kat I'd support her whatever she chose to do, regardless of whether she stayed with the fleet, took a sabbatical or resigned her commission. She took it all in calmly and thanked me for not trying to make the decision for her. In the end, I wasn't surprised when she chose to stay on board for the tour. Even though the estimated risk level had escalated on our next patrol by at least an order of magnitude, Kat said she'd rather stay with me until the last possible moment, until her pregnancy advanced to the point where she would have to relinquish her post. Even though she was remarrying, Kat told me that she still cared about me, and that she would do everything she could to help keep me and my battlegroup safe until she had to return home.

“I'm going to be keeping my eyes on you until they have to wheel me off the ship like a beached whale.” Kat said.
“Thanks for that image. Very sexy.” I replied, prompting her to climb on top of me on the couch, flailing her arms and legs around in mock distress and bellowing like a humpback. “Hey, cut it out!”
“Yes, Admiral. Sorry, Admiral.” The look on Kat's face told me she wasn't sorry at all, and I had to laugh. “Wow. It's going to take some getting used to, calling you that.”
“No kidding. I'd only just gotten used to being addressed as Commodore. How do you think the crew will take to it?”
“Pretty well, I think. Though a few of the senior officers are going to be hacked off that we aren't going to transfer over to Erebus. It's one hell of a ship.”
“One hell of a big target.” I reminded her.
“Yeah. They'll get over it. Well, maybe not Sub-Commander Randall, but he's an asshole.” Kat did not get on with our chief engineer on account of him having the interpersonal skills of an abacus. The cyborg was a supremely talented and innovative engineer, but far better equipped at dealing with machines than people.
“He's not that bad.” I paused a moment to reflect on my initial reflexive, defensive answer. “Okay, he is that bad. Let me deal with him. If I give him a research assignment, we won't hear from him for months.”
“Cunning. I like it.” Kat nodded approvingly before turning to the viewport to gaze at Pallas, which was just about visible, attached to the uppermost ring on the docking barrel. “I suppose I should report in at some point. I've not been in my quarters for three days. Chief Watson will be getting ready to send out a search party.”
“Armed to the teeth, no doubt.” Marianne Watson was Pallas's Chief of Internal Security – a fierce friend of Kat's and an even more ferocious warrior. Standing at nearly two metres tall, Watson could best everyone on the ship in hand-to-hand combat, bar none. She'd held the TCF Mixed Martial Arts Combat Medal for the last seven years running. Even I was wary to stay on her good side. We were interrupted by the doorbell. “If that's her, I'm calling for a medic now.”

Cloaked in a dressing gown, I checked the camera at the front door. I was relieved to see that it wasn't a detachment of eight angry Marines demanding their XO back, but a short, blonde Midshipman in her late teens, who had the look of a courier about her. I double-checked that I was something approaching presentable and opened the door with a smile. The girl snapped to attention and saluted, looking petrified.

“As you were.” I checked her nametag. “What brings you here today, Larsson?”
“A p-package for you, s-sir.” Larsson stammered, raising it toward me with her trembling left hand. “F-from Admiral Strauss, s-sir.”
“Relax, Larsson. I don't bite. Not in public, anyway.” The joke failed to reassure the teenaged courier, who almost dropped the sealed, silver package. I took it from her, noting that it was heavier than it looked. Larsson lowered her empty hand and stood at attention, uncertainly. “Do you need anything else?”
“Um, no sir.” Larsson shifted her feet uncomfortably as wrinkles of tension formed on her forehead, beneath the band of her uniform cap.
“Thank you, Larsson. You're dismissed.” I bit my lip to stop myself from laughing as the Midshipman practically collapsed to the deck in relief. I wondered what stories she'd be telling her bunkmates later about her first encounter with a flag officer, who was still only partially dressed, over three hours after the beginning of first watch. I secured the door and turned the package over in my hands as I walked back to the lounge and took my seat next to Kat on the sofa.
“What's that?” Kat asked as I fingered the silver envelope in my hands.
“Special delivery from Admiral Strauss.” I flipped it over one last time and then tore off the zip-seal, tipping the contents of the envelope out onto my lap. Kat scooped up the data tablet while I rolled my new rank insignia around on the palm of one hand.
"'By order of Fleet Admiral Johann Wolfgang' - Wolfgang! How classy is that? - 'Strauss,'" Kat read aloud, "'and the Hyades Fleet Command, Fearghas Urquhart Kincaid is hereby appointed to the rank of Rear Admiral, and the position of Officer Commanding, Sirius Sector Assault Battlegroup, effective 2701.7.15, 1200 hours.'" Kat lowered the data tablet and met my eyes. "I guess it's official, then."
"Does it say anything else?"
"Not much… 'Report as ordered for official handover of the SSAB at 0900 on 2701.7.20, Hera CIC. Godspeed, JWS.'"
"I suppose I can wear these now." The effective date of my promotion was a couple of days ago, even if my official promotion ceremony wasn't for another three days. I replaced the Commodore's rank insignia of a single, silver eight-pointed star on the epaulettes of my No.2 Uniform with my new ones. The design reflected the status of a true flag officer. The insignia was a large, silver sea eagle, carrying an eight-pointed star in each of its claws, set on a lustrous blue shoulderboard. I discarded my dressing gown, slipped into a navy blue under-tunic and put on my uniform jumpsuit. The shoulders felt heavier than usual, though I was sure that the effect was mostly psychological - the burden of a larger command. "How do I look?"
"Mmm, very handsome. I wouldn't mind you admiralling my rear." Kat eyed me suggestively, her tone seductive and playful. "Again... After all, you did such a good job of it last night."
"Don't start. I might have to head back to the ship for my own safety. Not that I don’t enjoy being held prisoner in my own apartment by a gorgeous, redheaded sex maniac."
"Let me report in first. I want to make sure everything's ship-shape before I welcome an Admiral on board."
"I've got a few things I can do here. I'll give you a couple of hours. Senior staff meeting at 1700?"
"Aye, aye, sir." Kat nodded gave me an affectionate kiss goodbye. "Love you, Gus."
"Me too." I held Kat around the waist tightly, the figure I knew so intimately now feeling strangely odd in my arms. I knew that this would probably be the last time we'd be able to be so close until after the end of our patrol and I wanted the moment to last. It wasn't the same sensation I had felt with Malia when she had left for the Omega Nebula. The love I felt for my ex-wife was cooler, less passionate, but nonetheless deeply ingrained in both of us. We smiled and squeezed hands before I let Kat go. "See you soon, Commander."

I watched Kat slip on her shoes and give me a wave as she stepped out of the door. I stepped over to the kitchen module and prepared a large mug of Earl Grey (no milk, no sugar) before settling down at my ArtEMIS terminal, logging in with a retina scan and neural link. Immediately I noticed something new on the terminal desktop. It was a small cluster of silver stars labelled 'Admiralty Portal'. I double-tapped the icon on my haptic interface. The stars flew apart across the screen, wiping the background and replacing it with a holographic representation of the galaxy. I recognised it from the holograph that had been showing in the CIC when I had met the Hyades Fleet command staff a few days ago. I spent a few minutes manipulating the display, realising that the holograph was being fed real-time data from every single active ArtEMIS AI in the galaxy. I could see full-scale fleet battles being played out in the Eagle and Lagoon nebulae in the Sagittarius arm, see random skirmishes occur in the Vega and Capella sectors, or simply watch the worker bees refitting damaged corvettes and frigates in my battlegroup here at Hera. "Awesome. The big picture."

As tempting as it was to lose myself playing with the map for the afternoon, I quit back to the desktop, resolving to experiment with it later. Instead I brought up the files relating to the new additions to my battlegroup. I wanted to learn as much I could about the capabilities of the new vessels under my command and read the dossiers of the senior officers running each ship. I set an alarm so that I wouldn't be late for my staff meeting aboard Pallas and settled down for an afternoon's light reading.
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