Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Six

2701. – Wolf 359; CFV-B Pallas

It had been a long day. A two hour early morning briefing had segued into my unimaginably tedious promotion ceremony, which had only become bearable thanks to another round of inappropriate comment bingo with Kat over our private neural chat link. Kat had won this time, thanks to an exquisitely-timed and grossly sexually offensive comment she'd made as I was being given my flag by Fleet Admiral Strauss. If he'd had any inkling of the real reason why my eyes had watered at that moment, Kat and I would've both been summarily given a court martial and strung up in Traitor’s Square. Though in truth, it had been a genuinely emotional occasion. I'd always assumed that the designation of 'flag officer' was a traditional one, dating back hundreds of years to seaborne navies on Earth. I had no idea that Admirals were still given physical flags to fly in their ships. Mine acknowledged my ancient family heritage, incorporating a blue and white Scottish saltire with a white, four pointed star in its left quadrant. I now had it framed proudly on the bulkhead behind my chair in Pallas's Ready Room. From then on I'd spent the entire day in meetings, getting updated readiness reports from my department heads, solving last minute equipment requisition issues and finalising ingoing and outgoing personnel transfers, prior to our scheduled departure the following afternoon. My last appointment of the day was a social in the Officer's Wardroom. I'd had Kat invite the captains from Tartarus, Erebus and the other five Titan-class battlecruisers in the SSAG over to Pallas for an informal meal and drinks. The commanding officers from my cruiser, frigate, corvette and Wild Weasel groups had also been invited, but only a few had accepted. 'Ship envy', Kat had called it.

Some of the officers I already knew, either by reputation or from the Academy, and they were the ones most eager to rub shoulders with the fleet's newest Admiral. The younger Sub-Commanders from the corvette and frigate groups mainly kept to themselves, mingling occasionally with my senior staff and junior officers. I took another drink from the bar and looked for a friendly face. Kat was catching up with Commander Laila Shiu, our former Second Officer on the CFV-C Odysseus, who was now its captain, and Kimi was having an animated discussion with Commander Tom Creighton, our Wild Weasel squadron leader. I didn't feel like imposing myself on their conversations, so simply waited at the bar, resolving not to stay up too much longer.

“Admiral, it was so good of you to invite us aboard Pallas for this charming little get-together.”

I recognised the voice coming from behind me instantly and inwardly cringed.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Kat. SEND HELP.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Sorry, Admiral. You're on your own there.}-

“Though I have to admit I was wondering whether I should come. I was awfully miffed when you didn't choose Tartarus to host your flag.” Captain Miranda Fforde-Hughes span the stem of a champagne flute along her thin fingers into her palm and back again, before setting the empty glass down on the bar and sweeping up a refill.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{God help us all, she's miffed.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{We're doomed! All hands abandon ship!}-

“I'm sorry to hear that, Miranda.” As sixteen year old officer cadets, Miranda and I had been very briefly involved in an affair, which I had instigated after a dare from a fellow cadet and then broken off, leaving her apparently heartbroken. Miranda had been trying to make me feel guilty about it ever since, though with little success. “Nothing personal. Tartarus is a fine ship. I just didn't think now was the best time to break up a good crew.”

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{“Break up” - ooh, that was callous! Did you see her twitch?}-  

“Well, perhaps after the patrol is finished you'd enjoy an inspection? I'm sure you'd be impressed, Admiral. Tartarus is the most advanced ship on the line. I'd be happy to give you a... hands-on tour.”

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Oh, I bet you would, you upper-class minx!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Is she flirting? She is flirting with me, right?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Difficult to tell. Why don't you ask her back to your quarters?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Stop it. You're not helping here.}-
“Are you quite alright, Admiral?” Miranda asked, frowning. I must have let my poker-face slip. I pretended to wipe sleep from my eyes using the thumb and forefinger of my free hand.
“Just a little distracted. It's been a long day.” I thought back to what I'd read in Miranda's career file so I could change the subject. “I heard about the little skirmish you had on your first shakedown cruise.”
“Oh, yes Admiral. That was exciting. Stumbling across an enemy reconnaissance patrol, with only a skeleton crew on board.” Miranda took a sip of champagne, no doubt thinking herself terribly clever with her reserved understatement.
“And no fighters or escort ships.” I reminded her. “You did very well. Interesting tactics.”
Tartarus is worth a dozen Thrinax cruisers, Admiral. Dealing with three was child's play. Tartarus's mass drivers are far superior to the ones on Pallas. They may have a stated combat range of only 200 kilometres, but if you aim well enough, you can hit a cruiser-sized target from well outside the operating envelope of one of their stardrive jammers – two, perhaps even three thousand kilometres. Weps – my Weps, Lieutenant Contador – says that Tartarus could take down at least two Thrinax dreadnoughts before they even got into beam cannon range.”
“Really? I'd like to see the numbers on that. How well could these extreme range engagement tactics be adapted for use by our battlecruisers?”
“The fire control systems on the Titan-class aren't quite as good as ours; neither is the efficiency of their mass drivers. But I don't see why you couldn't engage enemies effectively from distances of a thousand kilometres, say.”
“That's worth remembering. We'll have to run some target practice simulations.”
“Lieutenant Contador has put together some VR combat scenarios if you'd like them.”
“Definitely. Have them distributed to Erebus and the other Titans in the battlegroup as well. Perhaps we could set up a competition? Say, the furthest confirmed kill shot for this patrol?”
“Would there be a prize?” Miranda sounded interested, having already had six months' head start compared to the rest of the battlegroup. “Other than the prestige, of course...”
“The winning gunnery team gets a five-course meal at the Hera Ritz, on me.”
“Admiral, you might as well just book a table for my crew tonight.”
“We'll see, Captain.” I took my opportunity to make a break for it, leaving Miranda looking rather miserable at the bar.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Aww. She looks so dejected. Do you torture puppies, too?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I can still take her back to my quarters and do her, if you like.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Urgh. Don't you dare. We'd have to spend a week fixing dents in the deck. You don't get an ass that big if you're doing two hours aerobic exercise a day.}-  
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You are such a bitch! I knew there was a reason I adore you...}-

Across the wardroom was Erebus's captain, Synnøve Nyhus. She caught my eye and invited me over with a friendly wave of her fingers. I had a steward top up my whisky and made my way to join her.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Whoa! Whoa there, cowboy! Back away from the leggy synth-siren!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Jealousy is most unbecoming in a woman, Commander. She's an old friend. We used to serve together on Chrysus.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{I know what you mean by 'serve', you shameless hussy. Another conquest? You didn't tell me about this one. }-
RADM. Kncd#1892166 -{Oh, hush. It was before we'd even met.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{So you have 'interfaced'. I never saw you as a Barbie-botherer. Can't fault your taste, though. She's smoking hot, for a synth. Think she'd be up for a ménage à trois?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You really are terrible. Go away.}-

I was taken aback when Captain Nyhus greeted me with a distinctively informal hug and a warm, lingering kiss on the cheek. Her perfume smelled sweet and floral, with heady notes of ylang-ylang and vanilla. Mixed in with the vapours from my whisky, it was threatening to make me dizzy. We held each other at arm's length for a few seconds, Synnøve giving me a piercing look and a broad, luminous smile. Kat was right: she was extremely attractive, her synthetic skin glistening an exotic silvery alabaster under the wardroom lights and her artificial green eyes glowed faintly as they surveyed my reaction.

“Admiral. Gus. It's so lovely to see you! How long has it been?”
“Fifteen years? No, sixteen.”
“Has it really? You haven't aged a day.”
"Neither have you."
"Well, I wouldn't would I?" Nyhus laughed, her skin pigment rippling with a chameleonic hint of mauve to reflect her amusement.
"No, I suppose not." I smiled back.

Nyhus was a third generation synthetic humanoid and though she appeared to be in only her mid-twenties physically, she was actually well over one hundred years old. The first generation synthetics had been little more than servitor-class virtual intelligences packaged into vaguely humanoid forms, but the second generation synthetics were far more advanced, with true artificial intelligence, their AI cores having roughly double the brain capacity and processing power of an exceptionally talented 'stock' human, with no genetic or cybernetic enhancements. They had first entered society in the late 26th Century, having been designed not by human minds, but by the massively powerful ArtEMIS AI cores that helped coordinate the exploration and expansion of the human race beyond the Local Bubble into the greater Milky Way. Unlike the first generation of synthetics, they were not pre-programmed with defined personalities. Instead, their AI cores were given full access to the Terran Confederation's data repositories, allowing the AI to define its own identity, physical appearance, personality and sexuality, through their own choices, though the ArtEMIS AIs, anticipating that their creations might encounter the all-too human emotions of fear, envy and prejudice, did enforce a strict ethical code into their neural matrices, ensuring that the synthetics were incapable of wilfully harming humans. In less than a decade from their initial inception, over a billion second generation synthetics joined the Confederate population, many of whom chose to join the military, to defend the society that had created them. This had provoked unrest and debate, as some overly paranoid pro-human activist groups worried that the synthetics were trying to take over the Confederation, simply by outliving their human colleagues and rivals. It took years of debate and political wrangling for the synthetic humanoids to become recognised as societal equivalents to humans within the Terran Confederation and for laws to be re-drafted to prevent either the humans or synthetics to have too much sway on what were considered societal norms. Military and governmental posts that had previously been given lifelong tenure were redefined to fixed term posts of between five and ten years, to prevent any single individual from gaining too much power and influence. New laws positively discriminated to ensure that important posts were balanced between the human, cyborg and synthetic communities, so that they all were given equal representation throughout every level of society, from local to confederate governance, and on the boards of corporations and the senior staff of the military forces.

With the normalisation of synthetic life forms into the Confederation, it was inevitable that the two populations, synthetic and human, would begin to integrate. Intimate relationships between stock humans and synthetics had initially been met with outright revulsion and disgust from both sides, though mainly from humans who considered such unions 'unnatural'; their major objection seemingly being that such relationships were incapable of producing children. The introduction of the third generation of synthetics had changed all that. Their physical appearance had been improved to better reflect the local ethnic human standard of where they were manufactured, but more importantly, they now incorporated a miniature biological factory in their chest chassis. The nanobots populating the factory allowed the synthetics to process any organic material right down to the molecular level, including food and even DNA, making it possible for synth-synth and even synth-human interrelationships to produce offspring, as the bio-factories were capable of genetically engineering sex cells that replicated the physical characteristics of the synthetic parent. This had made synthetic/human hybridisation possible, but synthetic/human relationships were still relatively uncommon, even though they now rarely encountered prejudice. Matters had become even more complicated by the introduction of fourth and fifth generation synthetic humanoids during the last few decades, which were practically indistinguishable from unaltered, stock humans, other than the greatly reduced rate at which they aged.

"The eagles suit you, incidentally." Nyhus said, indicating my new rank insignia.
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Nova.”
“Oh, I hope so! I keep trying to tell that to my XO, but he doesn't believe me.”  Nova turned to the young, olive-skinned officer stood next to her and poked him in the ribs. “See, Beppe? That's how it's done! Young officers these days, they just don't know how to schmooze.”
“Sub-Commander Giuseppe Marciano, I presume?” I shook hands with Nova's Executive Officer. “I see you've already learned one of the most important rules of career progression, Commander.”
“What do you mean, sir?” Marciano looked confused.
“How to gatecrash a gathering of senior officers. XO's weren't on the invite list.” I raised my eyebrows at him and took a sip of whisky. Marciano turned pale. 
“That would be my fault, Gus.” Nova interjected. “I have high hopes for Beppe. If he doesn't have his own dreadnought in less than five years, I'll be very disappointed.”
“You've certainly done well for yourself so far, Commander. Not many officers make XO on a dreadnought, especially at your age.” I recalled from Marciano's file that he was only 28, and had been promoted to Sub-Commander at 25, a year younger than I had been. “Do you have ambitions of reaching the Admiralty, Marciano?”
“No, sir. At least, not yet. I'd like to do my part on the front lines first, Admiral.”
“A diplomat and a patriot... You'll go far, Marciano.”
“Thank you, Admiral.” Marciano eased himself away as I turned back to Captain Nyhus. There was definitely something about the way that she looked at him – her eyes lingering just a moment too long as Marciano found some younger officers to mingle with, introducing himself to my Science Chief, Allyson Mitchell.
“I hope I wasn't too out of line in bringing him along, Gus. You should watch out for Beppe. He's one of the best fleet tacticians I've ever seen. You can throw any combat scenario at him, and he'll find some way to beat it. He's going to be a damn fine captain one day. And soon, if I have anything to say about it, anyway.”
“His record is impressive, Nova, I'll grant you that.” I paused before casually adding, “Pretty easy on the eye, too.”
“Admiral!  I'm shocked.” Nova's eyes glittered and her cheeks flushed magenta briefly, either with annoyance or amusement, I couldn't decide. The colour changes to her skin were involuntary, pre-programmed reactions that had been incorporated into the design of third generation synthetics, to allow humans to more easily read the AI's emotional state. The feature had been removed from the more lifelike fourth and fifth generation synthetics, and most third generation synthetics had learned how to suppress the reactions, but Nova had kept the ability, as occasionally she liked to subvert the mechanism to add a nuanced layer of complexity (and occasionally subterfuge) to her conversations. The AIs of early third generation synthetics, like Nova, were known to be quirky. “Now that was naughty, Gus. Especially considering your track record with XOs... How is Commander Jameson, by the way? I was very sad when I heard you'd divorced.”
“Katrina's fine. We work very well together now.” I smiled, interested that I'd touched a nerve, but I decided that it would be best if I didn't pinch it again.
“That's an understatement, Gus. Honestly, I was a little bit relieved when you kept Pallas as your flagship. I wasn't looking forward to being replaced by her.” I sensed there was a silent 'again' in her pause. Nova hadn't taken it too well when I'd left her to hook up with Kat, though she had been professional about it. “And the rest of the bridge crew, of course. Who knows where we might have ended up?”
“I don't think Admiral Strauss would have had you captaining a cargo shuttle in the Eagle Nebula, somehow.” I took Nova's arm gently and led her to an empty table. “I've been on my feet for too long today, let's grab a seat. Ah, that's better.”
“Gus, can I ask you something, off the record?” Nova's mood was suddenly all business.
“Okay, sure.”
“Is this mission what I think it is?”
“What do you think it is?” I met her eyes evenly.
“Come on, Gus. You don't need to play politics with me." Nova looked worried. "A brand new task force, thrown together in a week and put under the command of a freshly-minted Rear Admiral, all to patrol the safest sector of the Local Bubble? You've got to admit something doesn't add up.”
“The Sirius sector isn't as safe as it used to be. We took down a Thrinax dreadnought in 111 Tauri a fortnight ago.”
“True, but two Primordial-class dreadnoughts in the same battlegroup? That's unheard of, outside of Eagle. Just what are we expecting to find out there?”
“I don't know.”
“Gus, I hope you're being straight up with me.” Nova frowned. I could tell that she wasn't going to be palmed off with vague reassurances.
“This is between us, right?” I waited for Nova to nod her assent before continuing at a volume so that we couldn't be overheard. “OXM thinks that the Thrinax might want to do an end around and hit Sol from Galactic South. They don't know exactly when it's going to happen, or how big the enemy force might be, but they're coming. And we're going to be there to meet them.”
“So, we're either on a wild goose chase or a suicide mission.” Nova summarised, before flagging down a glass of red wine from a passing steward. She emptied half of it in a single gulp.
“Or maybe something in between. Hopefully more towards the wild goose chase end of the spectrum.”
“I suspected as much, but wasn't sure I wanted to believe it.”
“You know how reliable OXM predictions are. We're probably just going to spend six months kicking around the arse end of the Sirius sector, mopping up recon flights.” I tried to be upbeat.
“Maybe, Gus. But they're bound to get one of these things right eventually.”
“Captain Fforde-Hughes is going to send you some VR combat scenarios tomorrow that will help us practice extreme-range mass driver tactics. If they're half as effective as she's claiming, we've got a fighting chance against whatever the Thrinax throw at us.”
“I'll have Beppe look at them.”
“Whatever happens, it'll be nice to work with you, Nova.”
“Thanks, Gus. It really is good to see you again, too.” Nova paused, smiling. She shifted her weight in her chair, looking uncertain, her fingers twirling locks of her long, platinum blonde hair. “Gus, now that you and Katrina are divorced, you're not... uh, back on the market, are you? I, uh, always felt there was a bit of unfinished business between us.”  
“I'm sorry, Nova. I'm flattered, but no, I'm not available.”
“Oh. You're seeing someone. Why wouldn't you be? Is it someone I'd know?” Nova babbled, asking without thinking. I didn't reply. After a few seconds Nova twigged. Immediately she was apologetic. “Sorry, Gus. Too personal?”
“Little bit.” I said and held up my hand, a gap of a couple of millimetres between my thumb and forefinger. I took the edge off with a wry smile and a playful wink.
“Sorry.” Nova writhed on her chair in embarrassment, her skin pulsing a mortified magnolia. “Well, if you, uh, well... never mind.”
“It's okay.” I took Nova's hand to reassure her. “Really, I'm flattered, and in other circumstances, I'd be interested.”    

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Hey-hey-hey! Hands off the merchandise!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Sure you don't want that threesome? She's still totally into me, bless her.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You'd better stay out of her, Admiral, or you're going to have a mutiny on your hands! I'll tell your new girlfriend myself!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I take it back. You're so cute when you're jealous.}-

“I had to ask. You were the one who got away, Gus.” Nova squeezed my hand back, looking thoughtful and vulnerable. She shrugged philosophically and gave me a rueful smile. “I guess I’ll see you spaceside, Admiral.”
“Captain.” I finished my whisky as Nova left the wardroom with Marciano reluctantly in tow. I sat back in my chair with a sigh and rubbed my eyes.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You look tired.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I am. The Old Man needs his sleep.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Go on, get some rest. I'll wrap things up here.}-
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