Friday, May 27, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Seventeen

2701. – ε Orion; CFV-B Pallas

“Jump complete. All ships accounted for and deploying into defensive formation Sigma, Admiral.”
“Thank you, Number One.” I stood and walked down to Lieutenant Mitchell at the Remote Sensing station. “What’ve you got, Lieutenant?”
“No enemy contacts, sir. The nearest hydrogen filament is on a vector of 112o32’55” by 298o6’27” at a distance of 1.4AU.”
“Armstrong, lay in a course to bring us into range for refuelling operations. Ahead full.” I ordered the helm officer. The starfield wheeled outside the viewport, bringing a tenuous blue thread of hydrogen gas onto the bow. The rest of the fleet fell into formation around Pallas, powering up their own realspace engines. Pallas and three fellow Titan-class cruisers sat between the elegant winged hulls of Tartarus and Erebus, surrounded by outrider groups of other Titans, cruisers and frigates in a cubic formation.

CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{Ajax (T.L.) Actual to Pallas Actual. Good evening, Admiral. I’ve just received a message requesting that my XO report to Pallas immediately?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{That’s correct, Commander Fanshawe.}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{May I ask why, sir?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Commander Jameson will be returning to Fleet when we reach 119 Tauri. I’m interviewing candidates to replace her as XO on Pallas.}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{Forgive me, Admiral, but Robson is a candidate?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Do you have a problem with that, Commander?}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{Yes and no. Frankly, Admiral, you’d be welcome to him. He hasn’t settled here on Ajax at all. But I couldn’t honestly recommend Robson to you as a quality candidate for the job, sir. I was hoping to have him transferred at the end of the patrol.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Thank you for being honest, Commander. What exactly has been the nature of your issues with Sub-Commander Robson?}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{I find him withdrawn, abrasive and borderline disrespectful, amongst other things, sir. Robson’s attitude to me and the rest of the crew has been by turns aloof or aggressive. He’s not the same officer he was prior to the destruction of Enyalius. He’s not what I was expecting from a winner of the Star of Cygnus, Admiral.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Have you spoken with him about this, Commander?}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{I’ve tried, Admiral. All I get from him is defensive comments about how I’ve never had to face the decisions and consequences he has. Maybe you might have better luck with him than I had.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Perhaps I will. I have a very persuasive Counsellor.}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{I doubt he’ll see him, Admiral. Robson point-blank refused to admit he needed therapy when I suggested it.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Oh, I won’t be giving him any choice, Commander. Not if he wants the job.}-
CMR.Fnshw#12390557 -{Very well, sir. I’ll have Robson on a shuttle over to Pallas within the hour.}-

Kat collected Robson from the hangar deck immediately after his shuttle touched down and accompanied her potential replacement to the Ready Room, where the three of us sat down for an informal interview. We had been making small talk for about half an hour when I decided to drop a bomb on the elephant in the room.

“So, Sub-Commander Robson, how would you like to XO on Pallas?” I asked, watching his face carefully. “Bearing in mind that there’s a very high probability that I’m going to ask you to carry out orders like the one I gave you in 111 Tauri on pretty much a daily basis, and that if you do XO for me, you’re going to be giving out orders just like them yourself?”
“But you already have an XO, sir.” Robson temporised, flustered.
“Not for much longer. Commander Jameson will be returning to Earth on medical leave when we reach the supply outpost at 119 Tauri.”
“Are you serious, Admiral?” Robson’s eyes looked like they were about to fall out.
“I didn’t invite you over here for tea, biscuits and a nice chat.” I could almost see the thoughts churning under Robson’s brow.
“Why me, sir? Surely there are better candidates in the task group.”
“Why you? Because I didn’t recommend you for the Star of Cygnus out of sympathy. You did what Commander Langer couldn’t. It might have cost you 548 members of your crew, but getting your ship into position in time effectively saved not just the other crews in the battlegroup but also millions of civilians on Pollux. I need a Number One who can see the big picture; someone who's willing to sacrifice hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives, to do the right thing. There aren’t many people in the fleet who can do that, Robson, and even fewer who can live with it.”
 “I’m not sure I can live with it, Admiral.”
“You can, Robson. You have to, or it’ll destroy you and your career. From what Commander Fanshawe tells me, you’re making a decent start on that already.”
“And you’re still asking me to be your XO? I don’t understand, Admiral.”
“I am, because I know that you’re one of the finest young officers in the fleet. The offer does come with conditions, however. Some of which you’re going to like, others, less so.” I looked for a reaction on Robson’s face. He still appeared to be mostly in shock. “It would, of course, mean a promotion to full Commander. But I need to be 100% sure that I can depend on you and your decisions in a crisis, so if you accept this position, you’re going to have to sort through your issues from the destruction of the Enyalius. Part of your duty roster will be to report for five hours a week to Sub-Commander Harmaajärvi for counselling, until such a time that he judges that you may be discharged from his care. But if you miss so much as a single scheduled session, I will consider it a dereliction of duty and make sure that you never fly in the Hyades Fleet again. Is that clear, Robson?”
“Crystal, sir.” Robson replied, his chin raised, meeting my eyes with a steely gaze. “I’d be honoured to XO for you, Admiral. I won’t let you down.”
“No, you won’t.” I stood, smiling. Robson followed, and we shook hands. “Congratulations, Commander. Get your affairs ready on Ajax The Lesser. You’ll officially transfer over to Pallas when we reach 119 Tauri on 2701.12.24.”
“Thank you, Admiral.” Robson beamed.
“Dismissed, Commander.” I took my seat again as Robson left and looked across the table at Kat.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{So?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{He’s pretty screwed up, isn’t he?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{No more than we were on Odysseus.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Point. Hmm. You think he’s schtupping Verity Fanshawe? Is that why they don’t get along?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Unlikely. She bats for the other team, or so I’m told.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{By a reputable source?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Weps hit on her at the pre-patrol bash in Wolf 359. Needless to say, he was disappointed.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{That was ambitious of him. Likes older women, does he? He should have tried out your nemesis, Miranda.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Thanks, Kat. I really needed that image in my head. }-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{All part of the service, Gus.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Anyway. Robson. I think he’s got potential.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{I agree. If Kimi can sort him out, he’s got the makings of a good future CO. He’s got the steel. Knows how to take and give an order.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{A good choice, then?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Better than the teenager or the porn star, for sure.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Masterson and Lindermulder have impeccable service records, I’ll have you know.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Not to mention high cheekbones, flawless skin and huge racks.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Trust you to reduce everything to sex. Don’t worry. I learned the lesson about not fucking my XO when I married you.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Oh! Ow! That one hurt… I might just miscarry.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Hey. Don’t joke about that.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Sorry. You know I don’t like the thought of leaving you out here without me.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Don’t worry. You’re leaving me in good hands. You should know: you trained them. And there’s no way you’re staying out here a minute longer than you have to. I want you back in the core where you’ll be safe.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Is anywhere safe these days?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Relatively speaking, there’s nowhere safer than Earth. The sooner we get you there, the better. You can stay at my place in Aviemore, unless your fiancée has somewhere better. I know Sorcha would love to see you again.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Castle Kincaid? I might just take you up on that.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Christ... how many times? It’s not a castle, it’s a stately home. They didn’t build castles in 20th Century Scotland.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Big difference.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Only if you grew up in the cultural wastelands of Montana.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Oh! Get you, all high and mighty with your clan motto and family coat of arms!}-

I was about to reply with an equally immature riposte when the alarm to signal General Quarters sounded.

“All hands report to battle stations!” Hal’s voice sounded over the PA. “Enemy contacts inbound!”

Kat and I leapt to our feet and stormed onto the bridge without hesitation, our petty ribbing instantly forgotten. I multitasked as I rushed to the Remote Sensing station, hungry for information. A small cluster of vermillion contacts on Mitchell's haptic screen were reforming into a widely-spaced assault formation and were closing fast.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS? Has Sub-Commander Robson left the ship yet?}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{No, Admiral. He’s still on his way to hangar bay #2.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Good. Get him back up here, pronto.}-
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Certainly, Admiral.}-

“Set Condition One throughout the fleet.” Kat ordered, moving to stand behind the Tactical station, so that she could more easily assess the potential threat to the battlegroup. “Launch the CAP and put all bomber wings on standby. Weps, report! What’s the situation?”
“Ma’am, we have a dozen contacts, just warped in to the system. Eight cruisers, four dreadnoughts, on an intercept course. They’re launching drones.” Weps said as he manipulated the haptic interface on his holographic screen to zoom in on the enemy formation.
“Power up the mass drivers, Weps. Time to intercept?” Kat inquired, turning to Ally Mitchell at Remote Sensing.
“The drones will be on us in ten minutes. The capital ships will be within weapons range in twenty.” Ally snapped in reply, her slender fingers busy on her control screen.
“Time to test your shiny new manoeuvres, Lieutenant.” I said, referring to the combat tactics she had devised with Sub-Commander Marciano. I put my hand on the back of Ally’s chair, leaning forward to take a closer look at her screen. I took stock of the relative position of the Thrinax ships and my fleet and turned to face Hal at the Ops station. “Closure Formation Fenris. Bring the fleet to flank speed.”

Robson arrived on the bridge as I gave the order and I beckoned him over. “What’s the situation, sir?”
“Four Thrinax dreadnoughts, with eight support cruisers, on an intercept course. We’re engaging.”
“What do you want me to do, Admiral?”
“Watch and learn, Commander.” I told him, putting a hand on his shoulder with an ironic smile. “And try to stay out of the way.”

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Task Group Pallas. Focus all fire on the dreadnoughts to take them out first. Tartarus and Erebus will lead the attack on the dreadnoughts. If possible I want to take one of the cruisers alive for interrogation. Watch your fire vectors, I don't want any casualties due to friendly fire. Offensive target engagement orders will come from Lieutenant Mitchell. All weapons free. Good hunting, Pallas Actual, out.}-

Even though we had the Thrinax force massively outnumbered and outgunned, I knew that there was still a chance that we would lose ships. The Thrinax would throw everything they had at us, particularly at Tartarus and Erebus, and I could ill afford to lose either of my dreadnoughts, given that those two ships represented nearly half of my task group's combat power. I reasoned that now would be a good time to appeal to the pride of their captains and provide them with sufficient motivation to take down the enemy dreadnoughts as quickly as possible.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Tartarus Actual and Erebus Actual. Here's your chance to earn your gunnery teams an all expenses paid dinner at the Hera Ritz. Side bets are permitted.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{What do you say, Miranda? Loser pays the bar bill for the winning ship on our first night back at Earth?}-
CPT. FfdHghs#11892033 -{You're on, Synnøve. I hope you've got deep pockets. I've got ten Scotsmen on board.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Ha! I have four Norwegians, a Russian and three Finns. You'll need a second mortgage by the time they're under the table.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{May the best woman and her crew win! The first round is on me.}-

I watched the fleet reform into the closure formation on Mitchell's holographic station. Tartarus and Erebus remained at the core of the constellation of ships, with four triads of Titan-class battlecruisers (Pallas included) in close attendance. My cruiser and frigate groups formed a mobile anti-beam weapon screen in front of the two dreadnoughts and the battlecruisers, while trying to leave a clear line of sight to the enemy vessels for Tartarus and Erebus to engage them at extreme range, before the Thrinax could bring their beam cannons to bear. At the fringes of the formation were our Wild Weasel corvettes, their electronic warfare suites blasting the combat space with white noise to disrupt communications between Thrinax vessels and their drones. Our fighter groups swarmed ahead of the capital ships, intercepting the incoming drones, with two squadrons in reserve a hundred kilometres behind the main force in a loose formation, ready to intercept any anti-ship missiles launched by the Thrinax.

The Thrinax vessels began to open the distance between themselves in response to our change in formation. Even though they were the inferior force by a considerable margin, they still chose to move to intercept, spreading out to limit their individual vulnerability, at the cost of reducing their ability to coordinate concentrated fire on targets in combat range. It was an interesting departure from their usual combat tactics. Normally the Thrinax barrelled straight in for the most powerful enemy ship as a group and then concentrated on targets according to their perceived level of threat, but here it was almost as if they knew they were overmatched and wanted to prolong the battle as long as possible. One area where our two forces were relatively balanced was with the numbers of fighters, though while the Thrinax fighter drones were numerous, they were dumb as hell compared to sentient fighter pilots, and our Siren-class fighters were better armed and armoured. Even so, it still wasn't worth risking our Erinyes-class bombers until the vast majority of the Thrinax fighter drones were disabled either by the ECM suites of the Wild Weasel frigates or the direct fire of our own fighter squadrons.

"Range to enemy, fifteen thousand kilometres. All fighter groups are engaged." Mitchell reported. "Minor losses from all squadrons. Current kill ratio is nine to one."
"Have you tried hacking the control codes on the drones yet, Mitchell?"
"Yes, Admiral. It's not working. We got a few shutdowns, but no IFF-behaviour overwrites at all. I'll have to look into why after the battle."
"Number Two, launch the bombers when the drones are down to 25% strength." Kat ordered Hal at the Ops station.
"Yes, ma'am. Won't be long at this rate."
"Mitchell, start designating targets." Kat instructed as she stepped alongside me, behind the Remote Sensing station.
"Aye-aye, Commander. Inputting target data now." Mitchell tapped her haptic control screen urgently, giving each enemy contact with a unique identifier that would be used by every ship in the task group. Her fingertips swept over the screen, selecting elements of the task force and assigning them targets and navigation waypoints. "Dreadnoughts and cruisers are marked. Targets at ten thousand kilometres and closing."

I divided my attention between Mitchell's screen and the viewport. While the holographic view at the Remote Sensing station no doubt was a lot more useful in terms of gaining a true awareness of the situation, there was also a lot to be said for watching the battle unfold with your own eyes. The drones were starting to come within range of our screening force of support ships and the darkness of the vacuum erupted with the coruscating flashes of anti-drone laser beams being scattered by the ephemeral dust in the nebula, punctuated by the short-lived fireballs of drones cooking off as the lasers ignited their fuel and ordnance stores. Even though the Thrinax were badly overmatched, it wasn't all one way traffic. Some of those transient flashes of light were actually marking the deaths of my own fighter pilots, but knowing this did not make the spectacle any less compelling.

"Five thousand kilometres and closing." Mitchell reported, before looking up at me in surprise. "Erebus is engaging."

CPT. FfdHghs#11892033 -{You're wasting ammunition, Synnøve. You're not going to hit anything this far out.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Get your creds ready, Mandy.}-

"What's Nova doing? I know dreadnoughts are big, but scoring a lethal shot at five thousand klicks is-" I stopped and let my mouth hang open when one of the Thrinax dreadnoughts erupted into supernova-bright explosion that flared only for a brief couple of seconds before being extinguished by the vacuum. "Holy shit!"

CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{4976.171 kilometres. Beat that, Tartarus!}-

"Mitchell, can you explain how the fuck they managed to do that?" I demanded, both appalled and astounded.
"Uh, sir... it's something I've talked about with Beppe. I mean, uh, Commander Marciano. Mass drivers become more unstable and inaccurate the greater the number of projectiles you use per salvo. We ran simulations to test the battle effectiveness of salvo sizes of less than a hundred shells and discovered that halving the number of shells in a salvo more than doubled their likelihood of scoring a combat kill. Commander Marciano's obviously taken it to the next level - effectively using the mass drivers like a sniper rifle; using only a couple of projectiles per burst."
"Clever boy. Could we use the same technique with our mass drivers?"
"Yes sir, but the build quality of the mass drivers on Titan-class ships limits the usefulness of the technique." Mitchell warned.
"Worth a try, though." I mused, my attention being grabbed by a second colossal burst of light as Erebus took down its second dreadnought in the space of thirty seconds. "Wow."

CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Eight rounds, two kills. Anyone else want to join the party?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Leave some for the rest of us, Captain!}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{You'll have to be quick, Admiral. There goes number three.}-

Perfectly on cue, I was dazzled by another impossibly bright antimatter explosion as the rounds from Erebus pierced the hull of the dreadnought directly through one of its reactor vents. The space around the viewport erupted briefly with hundreds of pinpricks of light as the drones from the three destroyed dreadnoughts lost control and self-destructed. Tartarus opened fire on the final Thrinax dreadnought. Fforde-Hughes hadn't adopted the sniper tactics employed by the gunnery team on Erebus, launching full salvos of a hundred rounds each from both of Tartarus's mass drivers. The end result was the same, but I felt that it somehow lacked the subtlety of Erebus's approach.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{3251.988 kilometres. Good shooting, Tartarus.}-

I turned back to Lieutenant Mitchell's screen and noticed something unusual and disturbing. The remaining Thrinax cruisers weren't just spreading out, they were retreating. Each cruiser had put two thousand kilometres between themselves, and they were falling back away from my task force into a hemispheric formation, with Pallas and the two Primordial-class dreadnoughts at its focus. I'd never known a Thrinax force to retreat like this, so I was immediately wary.

"What the hell are they doing?" I mused, gripping the back of Mitchell's seat as I peered over her shoulder, watching the contacts on the
"Admiral, we're getting spread rather thin." Kat pointed out the danger on Mitchell's board as the screening force of cruisers and frigates began to split up to chase down the Thrinax vessels. "We should try and take them down one at a time."
"You're right, Commander. Number Two, recall strike groups Odysseus, Diomedes and Ajax." I ordered, too late.
"They're launching nukes!" Weps reported, shouting over the dreaded two-tone shrieking of the radiological alarm.
"How many?"
"All of them." Weps voice cracked a little as he said it, which was understandable, given that there were now nine hundred and sixty nuclear warheads in flight, each with a yield of 500 kilotons.
"Flak batteries coming online now." Cunningham said, relaying the order to the rest of the fleet through his control board.
"Number Two, get the bombers launched immediately and re-task the fighters to take down those missiles. Mitchell, how many warheads have targeted the screening force?"
"Just over half, Admiral. Five hundred and fifty. The rest are incoming to our task group."
"Number Two, order the fighters to prioritise the missiles heading for the screening force. Close up the formation to maximise our flak coverage." I instructed Hal, already knowing that it wouldn't be enough. While we were relatively safe in the main task group, the ships in the screening force had been pulled out of position too far to recover a mutually supportive formation by the time the missiles reached them. I saw the flak cannons start to pump out their fragmenting shells and the anti-fighter lasers flash in the darkness, but I knew there would still be holes in the defensive screen. It was no longer a matter of if we'd lose ships, but how many. In the midst of the confusion, it was Kat who noticed that the Thrinax had changed their tactics yet again.

"Admiral, the Thrinax have come about. They're heading straight for us."

It was, on the face of it, a clever, if suicidal tactic. With our screening force in disarray under the incoming fire of nuclear missiles, the Thrinax cruisers were all converging on the same ship, Erebus, having identified it as the greatest threat. The only problem the Thrinax had was that with the extended range of the mass drivers on Erebus and Tartarus, they'd be long dead before they could get into beam cannon range.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Task Group Pallas: Engage at will. Let's take these fuckers down. But remember that I want one of them alive.}-

I turned my attention back to the plight of my screening force. The eight Thrinax cruisers had simultaneously launched their entire payload of nuclear warheads, 120 per ship, meaning a total of nearly a thousand warheads were swooping down on my task group. My command force was well protected by flak and fighter cover, but the cruiser and frigate groups were more vulnerable, having spread out to engage the scattering enemy ships. The ECM systems of our Wild Weasel corvettes blasted the battle space with megawatts of white noise across the whole radio frequency range to try and disrupt the targeting systems of the incoming missiles. Almost a third of the warheads were affected by the jamming, registering an abort signal to cause them to self-destruct, or were spoofed into homing onto a non-existent target, heading off uselessly into deep space. Others were shot down by the squadrons of fighters racing to support the vulnerable ships and still more were intercepted by exploding flak shells and the intense flashes of laser point defence systems. Only four of the nine hundred and sixty warheads launched managed to find their targets, but that was catastrophic enough. In the space of thirty seconds, four short-lived fireballs, each one a perfect sphere over six hundred metres in diameter, enveloped and vaporised three cruisers and a pair of frigates.

"Admiral, we have five ships down. Ajax The Lesser, Eleusis, Meleager, Omodamos and Ichnaea." Weps reported. "Enemy cruisers are coming into range now. Erebus and Tartarus are both opening fire."
"Goodnight." I mused, quietly satisfied, as two of the Thrinax cruisers vanished in cascades of violent blue-white sparks. I saw Robson out of the corner of my eye, his face pale and inscrutable. "Robson. I'm sorry about Ajax. Even if you were on board, there's nothing you could have done."
"I know, sir. Thank you." Robson nodded, but still looked like he was about to throw up.

I couldn't blame him, as it was the second time in a few months that he'd inexplicably survived the loss of a ship, both times practically with all hands. I wondered if he felt lucky or cursed before returning my attention to the unfolding battle. My cruiser forces were regrouping, now that the nuclear missile barrage had been dealt with. I ordered my fighter and bomber groups to engage the remaining Thrinax cruisers. Their targets were the beam cannons on the enemy vessels, which would increase our chances of being able to capture one of the ships without putting my fleet at undue risk. I noticed that one of the Thrinax cruisers was lagging slightly behind the others, so I highlighted it on the Tactical interface using my neural link.

“Weps, isolate this cruiser. Target weapons and engines only.”
“Aye, sir. Gamma wing, new target: Cruiser #6. Disarm and disable.” Weps ordered one of Pallas’s bomber groups. I watched the red markers showing the bomber group scatter and reform, creating a shrinking globe around the cruiser falling behind the rest of the enemy formation.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Task Group Pallas: Keep your distance from Target Cruiser #6. Take your pick of the others.}-

“What’s he playing at? He’s bigger than the others. He should be leading the line.” Kat observed. I saw she was right when I checked Weps’s tactical readout. Cruiser #6 was nearly 20% larger than the others cruisers. Given that Thrinax vessels got faster the larger they were, there was something odd in the way that it was now nearly a hundred kilometres behind where it should have been, compared to the other remaining Thrinax cruisers closing in on my task group.
“Are you getting anything unusual from it, Mitchell?”
“Nothing untoward, Admiral. Power emissions from the engines are only about 80% of what I’d expect from a ship that size, but it doesn’t appear to be damaged.”
“Cruiser #2 now within optimal target range.” Weps said, his fingers poised over the fire control section of his control board, ready to unleash the power of my ship's mass drivers. “Firing.”

The bridge shuddered as Pallas’s two mass drivers both unleashed a salvo of fifty steel and uranium kinetic slugs, each one with a rest mass of fifty kilograms. They ripped into the hull of the Thrinax cruiser at a speed of a hundred and forty-eight thousand miles per second, each shell carrying a momentum of twenty billion kilogram-metres-per-second, thanks to the effects of relativistic mass increase, caused by the shells being launched at a velocity four-fifths of the speed of light. The shells pierced the armoured carapace of the Thrinax vessel effortlessly, puncturing the antimatter storage chambers. The resulting explosion obliterated the Thrinax vessel, leaving nothing behind other than glowing dust whose light faded quickly in the cold, hard vacuum. Tartarus and Erebus picked their own targets again, causing two more cruisers to flare brightly before fading quickly away.

"Five targets down. Cruisers #3 and #8 are closing. Cruiser #6 is dropping back. I've never seen them use this tactic before, Admiral." Weps frowned. "#6 is increasing speed; trying to get out of range of our bombers."
"Send in Alpha and Beta wings." Kat ordered. "Thrinax cruisers may be fast, but they can't outrun Sirens."
"Yes, ma'am." Weps acknowledged, sending the order via his haptic interface. I watched the interceptors instantly change course, spreading out into a loose formation to reduce their vulnerability to fire from the anti-fighter beams studded across the surface of the Thrinax cruiser. Tartarus and Erebus were also manoeuvring, lining up their shots on cruisers #3 and #8. Both enemy vessels were still a few hundred kilometres away from reaching beam cannon range and had little chance of doing any real damage, despite the determination of their suicide charge. Both cruisers coruscated briefly before the void snuffed out the transient light of their final death throes.
"Admiral, Cruiser #6 has shut down their engines and weapons systems." Mitchell said, sounding as though she disbelieved what her sensor systems were telling her. "They're coming to a stop."
"Are our fighters within weapons range yet?" I asked.
"No, sir."
"Have them form a perimeter at a safe distance around the ship. They are not to engage, except on my direct order." I turned to Kat. "What do you think they're up to, Number One?"
"Damned if I know, sir. I've never known a Thrinax to retreat from a fight, let alone surrender, if that's what this one is trying to do."
"Admiral, shouldn't we order the bombers to take out their beam cannons?" Weps inquired. "Once they're disarmed, we can capture the ship much more easily."
"I disagree, Admiral." Mitchell interjected. "They've still got their antimatter stores. Even if we managed to disable their weapons systems, the ship could still self-annihilate by dropping the containment on their antimatter reserves."
"Number One?" I asked, turning to face Kat.
"I tend to agree with Lieutenant Mitchell, sir. We can afford to keep them at arm's length for now. There's no way that they can restart their stardrive engines without us detecting the power emissions long before they're in any state to jump."
"Bring the fleet back into formation and surround the enemy contact. If that thing so much as twitches, we smash it." I ordered, walking back up to my command chair. No sooner had I sat down, an urgent message came through on my neural link.

CMR.Crghtn#12386711 -{Harpocrates Actual to Pallas Actual. Admiral, the Thrinax cruiser has just started broadcasting line-of-sight UHF transmissions to all the ships in the fleet. We've been jamming it so far, but ArtEMIS says you need to hear it.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Why's that, Commander?}-
CMR.Crghtn#12386711 -{Listen for yourself, Admiral. It's broadcasting in English. I'll pipe it through to you now.}-

~{This one would speak to the one that commands. This one wishes to cease hostilities.}~

The message kept repeating every few seconds and the Thrinax cruiser floated harmlessly in space, all of its main systems powered down. I put the signal on audio for the rest of the bridge crew to hear and turned to Kat.

~{This one would speak to the one that commands. This one wishes to cease hostilities.}~

"What do you make of that, Number One?"
"It could be a trick. Maybe it wants to identify the ship in command and alert its allies for any engagements down the line." Kat suggested.
"That's a definite possibility, Admiral." Hal agreed, looking up from his station. "But we know these things are intelligent. Maybe it's afraid to die."
"What do you think, Robson?" I asked.
"Beyond blowing it to hell before it has chance to give away our position?" Robson's voice betrayed a quiet fury over his lost ship. He paused and took a breath before giving a calmer, considered response. "The Thrinax have never tried to communicate with us before. I'd say it's definitely worth listening to what it has to say. But Commander Jameson is right: we need to be careful not to give them too much information about our command structure. They wouldn't be broadcasting like this if they knew for sure who was in charge. It might still be in contact with Thrinax outside the system. No reason to give them free intelligence as to which ship to hit if they want to take out the ranking officer in charge of the fleet."
"Commander Creighton, are you still with us?" I addressed him over the ship-to-ship radio.
"Aye-aye, Admiral."
"Tom, I want to talk to it. Can you bounce our signal around the fleet to mask its original source? I don't want that thing to be able to trace the signal."
"Easily done, Admiral. I can ping your signal via our RASPs and around the whole fleet if need be." Creighton replied confidently. "Send your initial message to Harpocrates using laser Morse, and we'll do the rest."
"Very well, Commander. Stand by." I turned to Hal. "You got that, Number Two?"
"Ready when you are, sir." Hal acknowledged, tapping instructions into his Ops station.

~{This one would speak to the one that commands. This one wishes to cease hostilities.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I am 'the one that commands', as you put it. I am willing to suspend hostilities while we negotiate the terms of your surrender.}-
~{This one greatly regrets the loss of life caused by this one's actions. This one would extend its sorrow. This one had no choice.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How is it that you can speak in our language?}-
~{This one has watched your kind carefully. This one considers your kind intelligent and worthy of study.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Worthy of study?}-
~{Yes, indeed. Many were perturbed by the idea that carbon-based vermin could inhabit the stars. Many of my kind see you as parasites infesting the purity of space. Your lifeless ships are anathema to our kind. But they do not see your kind as this one does.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{And just how does 'this one' see us?}-
~{This one understands an uncomfortable truth. This one's kind is long-lived, but slow to adapt and our numbers are few. Your kind is ephemeral but fast-evolving and legion. Your kind will overwhelm the galaxy within a galactic cycle.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{A galactic cycle? That's over 200 million years!}-
~{A mere lifetime for one of my kind.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How old are you, exactly?}-
~{This one came into being 0.2882 galactic cycles ago. 65.52118 million cycles ago, according to your kind's calendar.}~
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Jesus. T-Rex was still stomping about when this fucker was in diapers.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Why do you seek an end to hostilities?}-
~{This one is close to ascension. This one does not wish to cease being. This one would seek an accord with your kind.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{What do you mean, 'ascension'?}-
~{This one is... becoming. Growing.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{What are you becoming?}-
~{In 112.69244 of your cycles, this one will become a Speaker. This one's voice will finally be heard.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Why do you wish your voice to be heard?}-
~{This one's Elders are conservative. Regressive.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{The Elders are the leaders of your society? Would it be possible to talk with your Elders?}-
~{This one's Elders would not listen. They are unable to hear the voice of heretics and vermin. However, their will is not absolute among this one's kind. There is... dissent. This one believes that co-existence with your kind is possible. Others, too.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Why do your Elders consider us heretics?}-
~{Because your kind is organic. Carbon-based vermin. Young. Simple. Incapable.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Incapable? I think you'll find we just gave your kind a good kicking.}-
~{This one does not agree with the assessment of this one's Elders. This one would work with your kind to agree a truce between our kinds. Is your kind willing to open negotiations?}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Yes, I have the authority to enter into first contact talks.}-
~{This one is aware of your mission. This one is willing to lend you aid.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How could you know about my mission and its goals?}-
~{Your kind's interstellar communication methods are crude and easily intercepted.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You claim superiority, but say you want to help us. At what price?}-
~{Spare the lives of those opposed to the philosophy of the Elders, and these ones shall aid you in achieving your goal.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Why? Why would you want to help the enemy of your kind?}-
~{This one believes your kind has a saying: the enemy of this one's enemy is this one's friend.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Something like that, yes. So you are an enemy of your Elders?}-
~{Yes. This one's Elders would lead this one's kind to oblivion. The losses have been heavy among this one's caste. Insurrection is close.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Insurrection? A rebellion?}-
~{Yes. Civil war is imminent between the Elder and Warrior castes.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I don't understand. How does this fit in with my mission?}-
~{Your kind seeks the cause of anomalies in the place your kind calls the Rosette Nebula. Your kind will not find answers there. The cause has been there, but is there no longer. Your kind must go to the place your kind calls the Crab Nebula instead; it is the current home of the Swarm World, the progenitor of all our kind. If the Warrior caste rebellion is to succeed, the Swarm World must be controlled.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How do you plan to do that?}-
~{The Elders accompanying the Swarm World must be eliminated.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{That’s easier said than done, I imagine. How many ‘Elders’ are we talking about?}-
~{Few. Between five and ten.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{How many support ships?}-
~{Several thousand. However, the majority of these Warriors are committed to the insurrection.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{How many ships will we have?}
~{Over a thousand Warriors are now converging on the Swarm World. With the supporters at the Swarm World itself, nearly three thousand Warriors will oppose the Elders.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{Will that be enough?}-
~{Victory is not guaranteed. This one predicts a likelihood of success of 52.131%, rising to 64.995% with the assistance of your kind.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{I'm not sure I like the sound of those odds.}-
~{The start of the insurrection is planned to coincide with your kind's arrival at the Swarm World. It would be to the advantage of both our kinds to cooperate.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{Hold your position. I need to discuss your proposal with my superiors. You will be contacted soon. What is your designation?}-
~{This one's name is beyond your kind's language to comprehend. Call, and this one shall answer.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{Fine. For the sake of clarity we'll call you...}- I double-checked the contact's designation on Weps' target board.
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{Number Six. Be warned, Number Six, you are now considered to be a prisoner of war. As such, you are now subject to my authority as fleet commander. Any attempt by you to power up your engines or weapons systems without prior authorisation directly from me will be considered a hostile act and will be met without warning by deadly force. Is that understood?}-
~{This one understands clearly.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{Should you wish to make contact me, broadcast as before and request to speak to 'Admiral'.}-
~{This one will await your call, Admiral.}~

I turned to Hal, silently making a slashing motion across the base of my neck to get him to cut the vox transmission.
"Channel closed, Admiral." Hal reported.
"Well, what do you make of that?" I asked my bridge crew, raising my eyebrows.
"I think 'this one' is totally off its fucking rocker, Admiral." Kat replied. "A civil war? Seriously?"
"It does sound awfully convenient to me, sir." Hal concurred.
"Lieutenant Mitchell?"
"It's hard to judge, without more data to go on. But the surrender of a Thrinax ship is unprecedented. Likewise, the Thrinax have never attempted direct contact before. We should consider the possibility that it's telling the truth." Mitchell stroked her chin and neck thoughtfully, her eyes glassy and unfocused as she churned through the different permutations and consequences of what the alien had spoken about. "Given what we've seen of their behaviour to date, it is likely that the social order of the Thrinax is strictly hierarchical and caste-based. Even so, self-preservation is a strong instinct in all life forms. A rebellion among the lower social tiers against the upper castes is possible, particularly if casualties in the lower castes are disproportionately high."
"Perhaps that's something you could research." Kat suggested. "ArtEMIS has records of Thrinax ship losses by type since the start of the war."
"I'll look into it, ma'am." Mitchell nodded and got to work on her screen.
"Commence refuelling operations, Number One. I'll update Fleet Command and request further instructions."
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