Friday, May 13, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter One

2701. – Wolf 359; Starbase Hera

The encounter with the Thrinax dreadnought had not been as costly as I'd feared it might have been. I'd lost two corvettes and an escort frigate, plus 15% of my fighter group, but the debriefing with Vice Admiral Moskaleva had vindicated my command decisions and she had recommended Pallas for a unit citation for our performance in the battle. Commander Langer had not been one of the survivors that had escaped from the doomed Enyalius, so at least I was spared having to testify at a court martial. I was pleased to learn, however, that Sub-Commander Robson was among the fifty-two survivors from the vessel and cited him for a Star of Cygnus, in recognition of his professionalism and valour. It was a well-deserved award, as not many people were lucky enough to survive a beam cannon assault on their ship, such was the superiority of the Thrinax's anti-ship weaponry.

The Thrinax themselves were an enigmatic alien race that the Terran Confederate Fleet had first encountered in late April, 2695, on the fringes of the Omega Nebula, over 5000 light years from Earth, in the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way. A lightly-armed survey group of a dozen Hephaestus-class science vessels had stumbled across a pair of Thrinax cruisers while refuelling their fusion reactors with hydrogen gas from the stellar remnant. They had signalled the alien ships cautiously and courteously, only to be met with an unequivocally hostile response. All but one of the Hephaestus frigates had been destroyed in a matter of minutes by the Thrinax cruisers. The last remaining TCF ship had been allowed to retreat unmolested, reporting back with a full holographic record of the short, brutally one-sided battle. The Thrinax had refused to acknowledge any attempt at communication and had simply let the science vessel escape, to demonstrate their inherent superiority and send a powerful, yet unspoken message to the TCF: You are not alone. You are inferior. You are prey.

The Thrinax had rebuffed any further attempt at communication with them in the years since that first contact, and made no effort to explain the reasons behind their antipathy towards the TCF. Further incursions into TCF space had resulted in catastrophic losses of space-based facilities and ships, yet the Thrinax had shown no interest in acting against populations based on planets or natural satellites, as if they only wanted to restrict our access into the arena of outer space and the wider Milky Way. Whatever their motivation was, the Thrinax were singularly unwilling to communicate or share it, instead staging slow, steady incursions into TCF space, wiping out any opposition before them. With no possibility of negotiation in sight, the TCF had, with great regret, reoriented the whole society's economy onto a war footing, mass producing warships of increasing size and capability to repel the Thrinax invasion. In the last three years, the TCF had more than doubled the size of its fleet and was now starting to push back the Thrinax forces beyond the pre-war boundaries of the conflict into what was generally considered to be their own space. Despite having driven the Thrinax out of the Omega Nebula and further back through the Sagittarius arm to the Eagle Nebula, there were still lingering questions as to the effectiveness of the TCF's campaign, as Thrinax activity had started  increasing in the Perseus arm of the galaxy, over 10,000 light years from what was currently thought as the centre of Thrinax activity. Most perplexing of all was that even after six years of conflict with the Thrinax, the TCF had been unable to find a single world in all the star systems under Thrinax control that had been colonised or occupied. Even the TCF's all-powerful ArtEMIS AIs had been unable to theorise a reason why we had not yet encountered a single Thrinax ground settlement. Our only contact with them at all had been through ship-to-ship combat. No-one even knew what the beings crewing the alien ships looked like.

Despite this rather surprising lack of knowledge about the Thrinax as life-forms, the TCF had still been able to make significant advances in its weaponry and tactics since the beginning of the war, meaning that the total loss of battlegroups in enemy engagements was now relatively uncommon, though not entirely unheard of. The losses my fleet had sustained were below average, compared to similar incidents on file, and Pallas herself had escaped the battle without any major damage, though one of her six fighter squadrons had taken nearly 70% casualties; the majority of the fighter groups' losses. It would be another few days before replacements could be backfilled from Starbase Hera's reserve squadrons, along with pilots to fly the ships. This gave the crews in my battlegroup a vital few days of R&R, after having been on patrol in the Local Bubble for a couple of months without a break. In that time we'd not only encountered the Thrinax dreadnought, but also six Thrinax assault frigates on reconnaissance missions. The four Wild Weasels in my battlegroup (specialised corvettes equipped with electronic counter-measures equipment for spoofing drones and missiles as well as jamming communications systems) had ensured that every vessel we had encountered had not been able to send radio messages back to their main fleet, hopefully making them vanish without a trace: 'hopefully' because despite all the encounters the Confederate fleet had had with Thrinax vessels, not one of them had ever overheard a Thrinax transmission. Pallas was beginning to get a reputation for being a 'lucky' ship, or at least one that made a disproportionately large number of kills, given the superiority of the Thrinax's technology and weapons. Obviously this reflected well on me and my crew, but I was worried that this would draw the attention of the top brass and result in us being given ever more risky assignments. So far my fears hadn't been justified. If anything, Pallas's reputation meant that I constantly had a flood of memos across my desk from eager, talented and ambitious young officers – the elite of the Terran Confederate Fleet Corps – practically begging to be considered for assignment to my ship. So while Pallas might not be the most powerful ship in the fleet – that honour was reserved for the TCF's eighteen Primordial-class dreadnoughts – it arguably had the best crew. As I read through the latest batch of career profiles of officers and enlisted personnel to submit themselves for consideration to join my crew, the doorbell chimed.

“Come in.” My voice unlocked the door and it hissed open. The quiet, measured footsteps told me who it was, without even needing to turn from the screen. “Hey, Kat. What can I do for you?”
“Evening, sir. I was wondering if you were hungry. The Akash is doing their Friday night special.” my ex-wife told me, her voice tinged with anticipation and a hint of trepidation. We both loved Indian food and the Akash Restaurant on Hera had been one of the first places we'd ever gone on a date, almost twenty years ago.
 “Kat, you can drop the formality, we're both off-duty.” I told her, shutting down my network terminal. I swivelled in my chair to look at her. She was dressed in a skin-tight metallic sapphire evening gown and matching high heels, her shoulder length copper-red hair hanging loose and untamed. “Wow, Kat... you look amazing.”

My heart rate surged by about twenty beats per minute, re-experiencing the first flush of attraction I'd had for her when we'd both been greenhorn Sub-Lieutenants in our early twenties, meeting by chance through friends in a notorious fleet bar on Hera. After an unreasonably short and intense courtship, we'd gotten married after only a few weeks of shared shore leave from our respective ships. Six month tours of duty on separate ships were punctuated by frenzied weeks of R&R spent mostly in bed or at restaurants and we existed this way happily for ten years. Our relationship had only begun to fall apart after we were assigned to the same ship: the Hero-class Assault Cruiser Odysseus. It was my first command and Kat had been appointed as my Executive Officer. At first it had seemed like the dream assignment for the both of us, but things quickly began to deteriorate, both personally and professionally. Boundaries would become blurred and professional disagreements soon spilled over into personal ones. Kat and I were constantly at loggerheads, arguing for the sake of it and turning trivial issues into major problems that not only affected us, but also the crew of the ship. It was only the intervention of the ship's counsellor, Sub-Commander Harmaajärvi, that prevented us from both destroying our careers. Ironically, our divorce was the best thing that could have happened for our relationship. By reinserting professional and personal boundaries again to take the emotional charge out of our relationship on the command deck, we could communicate without provoking a conflict and the effect on the morale of the crew was dramatic. Within weeks Odysseus had gone from being the most dysfunctional ship in the fleet to one of the most combat effective. The improvement did not escape the notice of top brass at Hyades Fleet Command, and after three successful tours of duty in Beta Pegasi, Kat and I were both transferred to assume command of the newly commissioned Titan-class battlecruiser Pallas.  

“Thanks, Gus. So, can I tempt you?” Kat raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“With the Akash's luscious onion bhajis?  Hell, yes.”
“Great, I'll get a table booked.” Kat held a hand up to her right ear to activate her neural net implant, closing her green eyes to concentrate on sending instructions via her neural link. “Done. They'll be ready for us at ten.”
“That's not for two hours.”
“Oh my, whatever could we do to keep ourselves occupied for all that time?” Kat wondered aloud, with heavy sarcasm, slipping the straps of her dress off her shoulders, sitting naked on my lap and draping her arms around me.

It didn't take long for us to find something to do.

Three hours later we were sat eating dinner at our favourite Indian restaurant on the Olympian-class Starbase. Kat and I shared a vegetable biriyani, with saag aloo, Bombay potatoes, onion bhajis and chicken tikka samosas on the side. As a main dish Kat had chosen a lamb rogan josh, while I had opted for a beef vindaloo and a keema naan to mop up any remaining sauce. We'd ordered far too much, as was our habit, but at least that gave us an excuse to talk over a long meal. Despite our divorce, Kat and I were still the best of friends. We knew each other too well, and liked each other's company far too much to want to shut each other out of our lives completely.

“Do you ever regret accepting the post of XO on Odysseus?” I asked, taking a sip of lager to calm the heat from the vindaloo.
“No. Not really.” Katrina considered, picking out a cardamom pod from her rice with her fork and nudging it to the side of her plate. “I regret not being able to separate the different parts of our relationship. We should have spoken with Counsellor Harmaajärvi much earlier than we did.”
“Do you think we could have saved our marriage?” The divorce was still something that rankled with me – my family was from old, traditional Scottish Catholic stock. I had never been able to move on from our relationship, despite knowing that Kat had occasionally taken other lovers since our divorce.
“Not this again. We get on so much better now – we actually talk.”

This was possibly the most curious thing about our divorce. As our marriage had nosedived into oblivion, Kat and I hadn't been able to say two words to each other without turning it into an argument. Now, we were probably more intimate than we ever had been, even compared to the first few months of our relationship. I hoped that one day Kat would want to resume our partnership formally, but I knew better than to propose to her again, despite being almost certain that our initial feelings for each other were undiminished. I didn't want to risk descending into the same kind of emotional chaos that had affected us on Odysseus, and there was a danger that if we were to openly re-instigate our relationship and marriage it could undermine Kat's authority with the crew of our ship, which was simply untenable. While on board the Pallas we hardly even looked at each other to maintain a coolly professional relationship, but while on leave we enjoyed spending as much time together as we could without drawing suspicion from the busybodies who liked to try and keep track of what their senior officers got up to during their R&R. It was a completely bipolar relationship, but it worked for us.

“I'm not going to argue with that.”
“Clever boy.” Kat smiled broadly before pausing for thought. “I like the way we do things together now. We're not competing any more. We just do the right thing, for us and the crew.”    
“Fleet think so, too. Admiral Moskaleva said Pallas had the best operating crew in our sector. She put us in for another Confederate Unit Citation."
"How many is that now, five?"
"Five citations in seven tours of duty."
"Any more and they're going to have to promote you to Rear Admiral." Kat joked.
"God forbid." I grimaced, signalling to the waiter to get me another half-litre glass of lager. "Though that's perhaps better than the alternative. Units this successful tend to be sent to the front lines and beyond."

Kat played with her fork for a minute before responding.

"That happened to Nick Reynolds and the Epsilon Eriandi battlegroup, didn't it? A recon mission into Thrinax space."
"And no-one heard from them again. Forty ships, gone without a trace."
"Well, that's cheery. Come on Gus, we're supposed to be celebrating another successful tour. Did the Admiral tell you how long we're going to be off the line?"
"Another week until they can ferry out replacement pilots for our fighter group. Then we're scheduled for another patrol of the Sirius sector, out to η Leporis."

The so-called 'Local Bubble' of stars and space around Sol in the Orion arm was broken down into four patrol sectors, depending on their position relative to the Galactic Centre. The Vega sector encompassed the 0-90 degrees from Galactic Centre, and was referred to as Galactic North. From 90-180 degrees, Galactic East, was the Capella sector. The Sirius sector was Galactic South, taking in the arc 180-270 degrees from Galactic Centre, and the final quadrant from 270-360 degrees was the Fomalhault Sector, otherwise known as Galactic West. The greatest concentration of Thrinax forces was generally agreed to be in the Vega sector, but that didn't mean the others were safe. With over 2000 star systems within 50 light years of Sol, the Local Bubble required constant patrolling to ensure that the Thrinax were not able to secure a forward base from which they were able to strike directly at Earth.

"That's not so bad. If they were really trying to kill us, they'd have given us a transfer to the Eagle Nebula." Kat said, valiantly making another attempt to finish her lamb. The Eagle Nebula was arguably one of most scenic regions of the galaxy - an immense region of new star formation in the Sagittarius arm, 7000 light years from Sol - but it also happened to be the fiercely contested front line between Confederate and Thrinax forces. I didn't reply. I knew she was right. Kat always was, but I was worried nonetheless. It seemed only a matter of time before we got an assignment we wouldn't come back from. Kat sensed my mood and quickly settled the bill via her neural link before I even had a chance to offer up my share of the cost. "Alright, let's go, before you get too maudlin. No more beer for you tonight. Alcohol always makes you depressed."

Kat took my arm and walked me back to my quarters in silence. The red dwarf of Wolf 359 glowed pitifully in the distance, occasionally eclipsed by worker bees skittering before the viewports or the streamlined shapes of frigates and cruisers manoeuvring into a docking pattern. The stars wheeled in the sky as the Starbase's habitation ring span to maintain a comfortable 0.7g of pseudo-gravitational force. I turned away from the viewport, as staring out of the window for too long always made me spacesick.

"Here we are." Kat stopped me outside my quarters and I unlocked the door with a thumbprint and retina scan.
"Thanks for buying dinner. Sorry I got a bit down."
"That's okay. It does feel like we're on borrowed time sometimes." Kat put a hand on my cheek and we both smiled. 
"Want to come in for a nightcap?" I asked, expecting her to decline as she usually did.
"I'd love to. There's something I need to tell you."
"Oh? That doesn't sound ominous at all." I replied, completely taken aback. Kat took a seat on the sofa by the viewport and sat gazing at the stars while I prepared glasses of 18 year old Glenmorangie whisky with a splash of iced water. I handed Kat her glass and took a seat next to her. "There you go. So what's on your mind?"
"I'm resigning my commission." Direct as ever, Kat just came out with it. I almost dropped my glass.
"What? Kat, why?"
"Gus, I'm 38 years old. Time's running out for me. Biologically speaking."
"You mean having children? You've got decades yet. My mum didn't have me until she was in her sixties."
"And look how you turned out." Kat said, with deadpan sarcasm. "Look, I know they can do wonderful things with gene therapy these days, but humans aren't evolved to live until 150-plus. I want to do it naturally. An all-natural conception and birth. No tinkering, barring something life-threatening to the baby. And if you do it that way, the risk factors get stupidly big after 40. But having a family and fighting thousands of light years away from home don't exactly mix."

I could tell from looking at her that Kat had spent a lot of time putting thought into it. Her face had an earnest brittleness, which I was used to seeing whenever she felt this strongly about something. She looked so beautiful and vulnerable right at that moment, I knew it would be futile to talk her out of it, even if I'd wanted to. She'd already made the decision. All she wanted was my approval.

"Jesus, Kat... I don't know what to say."
"I know it's a shock. It was a shock to me, too. But it's now or never for me. We've got one more tour together, and then God knows what's going to happen?"
"But your career..."
"Isn't what's really important to me right now."
"Kat, all I've ever wanted was for you to be happy. If you think this is the best thing for you, I'm not going to stand in your way."
"Thanks, Gus. I knew you'd understand." She put down her glass, took mine out of my hand, placed it on the floor and kissed me on the cheek. "Though I hate to break up a winning team."
"I'm sure the fleet will cope, somehow." I replied, holding her shoulders. I noticed that she was trembling. "There's something else, isn't there?"
"Gus, I've met someone." Kat's voice was soft, worried about how I would react.
"I should have known that I couldn't keep you to myself forever." I said, trying to smile, even though it felt like my heart had turned into a black hole inside my body, twisting and ripping at my insides. "Who is it?"
"No-one you know. He's not in the fleet." Katrina's eyes studied my face, hunting for signs of the pain she knew I was feeling. "He's an architect, specialising in zero-g deep space installations and surface habs for hostile environments."
"How long have you been together?"
"Off and on for a couple of years. Gus, you'd like him. Itzal's a great guy. When we met up on my last R&R he told me that he wants to marry me and start a family."
"He's the real deal, right? Loves you? Spoils you like an empress?" I asked, getting a nod in reply. "Good. Then I've got no right to try and keep you apart."
"You're being very understanding about this." Kat said, her eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"Only on the condition that we'll stay friends."
"Always. Though you won't get benefits anymore once Itzal and I are married." Kat smiled, half teasing, half in relief that I had taken the news so well.
"I'm surprised I'm still getting them now. What if I was the one to get you pregnant?" I asked, as Kat took my hand and led us over to the bedroom, peeling off her dress as we walked.
"I wouldn't worry about that, Gus. Itzal and I took care of that weeks ago..."
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