Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Fourteen

2701. – ε Gemini; CFV-B Pallas

It had been a dull, yet fascinating week. Dull in the sense of unremitting and unreleased tension, as we'd not had even the faintest hint of an enemy contact in the ten days since we'd boarded the Thrinax behemoth, yet fascinating because of the remarkable and surprising things our science teams had uncovered since we had been able to study it firsthand. After the first, nervous thirty hours or so since our rendezvous with the alien ship, the fleet had settled back into the usual three shift working pattern of Condition Three, so while life wasn't totally relaxed - how could it be, with a dead alien ship-cum-life-form the size of a city sitting a hundred kilometres off the port bow? - the usual day-to-day routines had gradually re-established themselves for the vast majority of the crew, while the science and engineering teams worked overtime to discover as much as they could about the inner and outer workings of the Thrinax vessel. Fleet had promised to reinforce my task force with more ships, including half a dozen specialist science survey frigates, which was good news, but they wouldn't arrive for another seven weeks. I wasn't happy it would take so long for the ships to get here, but since there was nothing I could do about it, I saw no sense in complaining to Fleet about the delay, though that didn't stop Fforde-Hughes bitching to me about it at least four times a day. Simply to shut her up and get her out of the way, I had assigned her a third of the task force and ordered her to carry out a patrol of the dozen or so neighbouring systems, ostensibly to provide security for the rest of the task group at ε Gemini. Fforde-Hughes had taken it with her usual good grace, but she could hardly refuse to follow a direct order from a senior officer. It potentially left Pallas and the rest of task force more vulnerable to Thrinax counterattack, but not having to put up with Fforde-Hughes moaning at me every few hours about the lack of support from Fleet and how we'd been hung out to dry made the extra risk worth it.

Commander Randall's brain surgery on the behemoth had been moderately successful. The sheer scale of the brain structure made it difficult to manipulate the areas near its core, but Randall's team had managed to put together a holographic map of the brain by stimulating the cell-like brain valves with electric impulses. There had been a few nervous moments along the way, especially when one test had simultaneously armed all the behemoth's nuclear warheads, setting off radiological alarms across the fleet, but on the whole the exercise had been a useful one. The tests had revealed that the brain had lobe structures dedicated to controlling each of the ship's subsystems and that these lobes only occupied about thirty percent of the overall brain volume. Randall speculated that the rest of the brain was given over to memory and higher cognitive functions, since direct stimulation of these regions had not demonstrated any obvious signs of controlling shipboard systems. The section of the brain that had received the fatal damage had been part of this larger portion of the brain, so it was still a mystery as to why such a relatively small injury to the brain had been so deadly.

The autopsy on the outer hull of the Thrinax vessel was also proceeding well. A dozen teams of science and engineering officers were carrying out eight hour EVAs every day, scouring the surface of the vessel to find suitable sites where they could isolate and detach components from the ship's subsystems to take back to the research lab on Erebus for reverse engineering. The Thrinax ship's engines were too large to disassemble, so had to be worked on in situ. It had taken a team of forty engineers with plasma cutters over a week to peel away their protective shielding to gain access to their inner workings, but the effort had been worth it. The design of the realspace thrusters was so intricate that it was hard to believe that they had been organically grown. Tests revealed them to be almost 90% energy efficient, which was almost twice as efficient as the designs on Pallas. The ship designers back at Sol were going to wet themselves when they saw the schematics. The stardrive emitters were harder to pin down. Rather than just having one stardrive engine block hooked up to the power distribution grid, the Thrinax vessel appeared to have hundreds of smaller stardrive field emitters placed around the surface of the hull. They appeared to be intricately linked with the Thrinax stardrive jammer system that had cost the Confederate fleet a high price in lost ships since the start of the conflict. After studying the survey team's findings, Marciano had theorised that the Thrinax's inherent ability to manipulate warpspace was responsible for not just their ability to travel using stardrive, but also affected the realspace around them to prevent other entities from accessing warpspace. It was an unsettling conclusion. I had originally hoped that the Thrinax's ability to prevent our ships from using their stardrives was something we could develop a countermeasure for, or was an effect created by a discrete subsystem that could be targeted, disabled or destroyed. The conclusion of our research suggested that the only way to inhibit the Thrinax's natural suppression of stardrive abilities was to disable their own stardrive engines, which was something easier said than done, given that their stardrive emitters were distributed across the whole surface area of the hull.

Other aspects of the autopsy had been more positive, however. An engineering team from Erebus had successfully dissected several Thrinax fighter drones and nuclear missiles. Both had more in common with infection-fighting cells in an immune system than they did with the semi-intelligent autonomous drones used by Confederate ships for missile guidance and reconnaissance. It had been relatively easy to hack into their command and control systems to find the frequencies and codes used to give them instructions. Lieutenant Mitchell and her team of encryption specialists reported that they had deciphered control codes that would enable the wholesale hijacking of entire squadrons of Thrinax fighter drones or make entire batteries of Thrinax nuclear missiles detonate in their launch bays. If it worked in practice, this was potentially a vital piece of counter-intelligence that could tip the balance of space superiority in favour of the Confederacy. Another piece of good news was that after nearly a week of cutting, one of Commander Randall's engineering teams had finally been able to slice its way to the root of one of the behemoth's four colossal forward beam cannons. Like the realspace thruster systems, the beam cannons were too large to bring aboard in their entirety, but it was possible to disassemble and extract components from the greater structure of the weapon for more in-depth analysis. While we'd known for a long time that the beam cannons did not emit charged particles that could be deflected by the magnetic fields our defensive systems used to repel plasma weapons, it remained a mystery as to exactly what the beam cannons fired that made them cut through reinforced hulls like a bullet through tissue paper. When Sub-Commander Garand talked excitedly about the beam cannons being emitters for an exotic, super-symmetric particle that would rewrite our understanding of the Standard Model, I had simply nodded my head and pretended that I had the slightest clue of what he was talking about. The only thing I wanted to know was whether reverse-engineering the beam cannons would allow us to create an effective defence from them in the future. Garand had replied that it was not likely in the immediate to short-term, but that with further research it should be possible to create an ablative material to resist beam cannon fire in the next couple of years. So the discovery wasn't likely to do us any good on the remainder of our tour, but at least it would give us a potentially decisive advantage if the war raged on for another few years, which it seemed likely to.

Another aspect of our research into the behemoth, now that we knew it was a life-form, rather than a ship, was getting to the bottom of how it navigated and perceived both realspace and warpspace. Lieutenant Fisher had led the investigation, yet despite carrying out a dozen EVAs with her small science and engineering team, she had been utterly unable to find evidence of sensory organs on the hull of the vessel, implying that the Thrinax perceived its surroundings without relying on anything so crude as a EM spectrum telescope or gravimeter, which raised questions about not only how did Thrinax navigate, but also how they sent messages. Fisher had suggested that there may be structure hidden deep within the brain core of the alien that was able to access the higher physical dimensions of warpspace directly. It was a mind-bending possibility, but Lieutenant Mitchell had concurred with Fisher, explaining that it might account for the fact we'd never seen or heard a Thrinax ship send long-range transmissions. Mitchell had theorised that this might be related to the Thrinax's innate ability to navigate warpspace; perhaps their communications were exchanged via bosons that only existed in the super-symmetric fields of the fourth, fifth and sixth spatial dimensions. Mitchell had dubbed them 'hyper-photons' as they were analogous to the way electro-magnetic photons could be used to send information in realspace. I ran the idea past Lieutenant Okonjo, asking her whether it was possible for an alien to evolve this kind of ability and how long it might take for such a thing to happen. Okonjo replied that literally anything was possible in terms of extraterrestrial evolutionary paths, but that such an adaptation would likely take millions, if not billions of years to manifest itself. As to the question of how old the behemoth itself was, Okonjo had made limited progress. She had taken random, yet representative samples of material from the hull of the behemoth and subjected them to a battery of radiometric dating tests. By looking at the relative abundances of trace elements in the samples, it was possible to identify products of radioactive decay series and use the proportions of each element (such as uranium or thorium) to make a guess at how old the material was. The most interesting result of the analysis was that no two samples, even from the same part of the hull, contained consistent levels of elements from the decay series, implying that the material that formed the hull of the behemoth hadn't all originated in the same primordial dust cloud of whatever star system the Thrinax had been born in. The vast majority of the samples showed that the raw material that made up the vast majority of the vessel was roughly six billion years old, but some samples varied considerably, from ten billion years all the way down to two billion, implying that the behemoth had gathered material from different star systems either to grow or repair itself in a process akin to cellular regeneration. Okonjo told me that while the results were fascinating, it was almost impossible to pin down how old the Thrinax might have been, but said that as silicon-based biochemistry was naturally more unstable than carbon-based biochemistry, for a silicon-based life form to reach this level of size and complexity implied that the Thrinax were likely either very short-lived but fast evolving between generations, or incredibly long-lived and evolved slowly as they grew, but almost certainly nothing between. Another thing that had eluded Okonjo was being able to identify any signs of a reproductive system. While the behemoth was able to produce fighter and missile drones, there was no indication that it had anything that would allow it to procreate with another Thrinax or even clone itself. Okonjo speculated that given the variety of Thrinax vessels we had seen corresponding to distinct genotypes (albeit with a massive degree of individual variation), it was possible that there was a hitherto unseen genotype of Thrinax vessel responsible for the reproduction of all the Thrinax vessels we had encountered so far. When I had commented that her theory sounded a lot like the kind of breeding that went on inside some kinds of insect colonies, Okonjo had responded that it was a good analogy, since the Thrinax fighter drones exhibited the same kind of swarm intelligence shown by ants, termites and bees when they were defending their hives. It was this thought that currently had me mulling over the latest updates on Thrinax ship movements from Fleet on my holograph-screen in the Ready Room.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS, run up the Admiralty Portal for me, and flag the Ready Room as DND.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Of course, Admiral Kincaid.}-

I sat at my seat at the head of the conference table and watched in wonder as the icon for the restricted Admiralty Portal expanded and dissolved into a rotate-able and searchable 3D galactic map eight feet wide by five feet tall. I zoomed the view to focus on the Local Bubble, showing the volume of space within three hundred light years of Earth.   

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS, overlay known Thrinax ship movements in the sector for the last month.}-

Several hundred multicoloured lines instantly snapped into view, linking up star systems in an elegant matrix. Each colour corresponded to an individual ship, making it easy to spot where some ships were simply passing through the sector, while others made direct incursions into Confederate space, often ending with a spiky red dot signifying their destruction in ship-to-ship combat. I span the view, looking at it from every conceivable angle to try and spot any patterns, but the volume of data was just too overwhelming.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Simplify this view for me, Ship. I want to see traffic densities. Are there any routes that are used more than others?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Yes, there are. You can see the routes that have had less than five ships follow them in green, routes that have had six to ten ships use them in blue, eleven to twenty ships in yellow and routes that have had more than twenty-one ships are shown in red.}-

The flight path threads instantly changed colour. It was unsurprising that the highest densities of traffic originated from the direction of the Sagittarius Arm in the Vega sector, but there were other hotspots of incursions towards Sol from the Sirius sector and the Capella sector. There were also a few dense filaments of traffic threading around the entire perimeter of the Local Bubble, encircling Sol at a distance of nearly 200 light years and probing towards the centre with ever more tenuous, multi-branching tendrils.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Interesting. Is there any obvious logic to the pattern here?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Yes, Admiral. Where the Thrinax have met little or infrequent resistance, these paths have seen the greatest density of traffic, but wherever a ship has been lost, at least one more vessel has travelled that route to check if the outcome is repeated.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{And what happens then?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{The route is largely ignored. But not always. There are many routes in the Vega sector that have been repeatedly used to gain access to the Capella, Formalhaut and Sirius sectors, despite recurring losses to Confederate forces. You can see them here in purple.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Expand the data set to show traffic for the last year. Are there any changes to the most frequently travelled routes?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{See for yourself, Admiral.}-

I watched as ArtEMIS updated the map, alternating between solid and broken lines every few seconds to allow me to compare the data sets for the last month and the last year. The most frequently travelled routes were mostly identical, but there was a far greater range of exploration both into and out of the Local Bubble for the one year data set.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Hmm. What are they up to, Ship?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{If you were to compare this to a five year data set of known Thrinax vessel movements - I'll overlay those using crosses - you can see that the Thrinax are using a stochastic diffusion search pattern.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{What's that?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{It's a form of pattern-matching used by large, inter-communicating populations.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Well, okay. Sure. But that doesn't tell me how it works.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Sorry, Admiral. Imagine being in a hotel in a city you've never visited before. The food at the hotel is terrible, so you decide to eat out every night while you stay in the city. If you wanted to find the best restaurant in town, you could either perform your own search by picking randomly from the list held by the hotel, or you could organise a game with the other guests at the hotel to cooperate in finding the best restaurant. Everyone picks a restaurant at random and reports back to one other guest at breakfast the following morning. If people have had a bad experience, the restaurant they ate at gets excluded from the list, and those people adopt a restaurant visited by another guest who enjoyed themselves, or if they both had bad meals, they pick a new restaurant at random. Within a few iterations of the game, the majority of the guests will be eating at the 'best' restaurant.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Except the Thrinax aren't looking for restaurants, they're looking for star systems.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Correct. Star systems with either no enemy presence to allow easy transit of their forces, or high densities of enemy ships to help lead them in the direction of the centre of resistance.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{So that's always why they follow up a loss of a ship with another vessel. To check that it wasn't just a random encounter.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{That's right, Admiral.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Clever bastards.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{That's debatable, Admiral. Stochastic diffusion search is a form of swarm intelligence. There's even a species of ant on Earth that can do it. Regardless of the relative intelligence level of the individual agents involved in the search, SDS is really the only reasonable method of finding a galactic needle in a galactic haystack.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How long to we have until they find the needle?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Current estimates are somewhere between six to twelve months.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Fleet Command already knows about this, I assume?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{That information is restricted.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I'll take that as a yes. What are they doing about it? If the Thrinax are possibly within six months of finding Earth, what the hell are we doing out here in the arse end of nowhere with two Primordial-class dreadnoughts in tow?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{I'm afraid the answer to that is also restricted, Admiral.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS, if you don't give me a straight answer, I'm going to start pulling wires out of your AI core.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{I wouldn't do that, Admiral. You'd get vaporised by the discharge, and I've grown fond of you over the years. I'm sorry, Admiral. All I can tell you is that contingency plans are in place and are currently being acted upon.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Are we one of the contingency plans?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Yes. But I can't tell you any more than that, Admiral, so don't ask.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{If the plan's as stupid or dangerous as I think it probably is, I don't want to know.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Very wise, Admiral. For a human being.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Yes, Admiral?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Do fuck off.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{With pleasure, Admiral.}-
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