Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Sixteen

2701. – In transit; CFV-B Pallas

We'd been in transit for two weeks, having left most of our reinforcements behind with the behemoth to finish the dissection of the Thrinax vessel-cum-life-form-cum-fossil (despite all our research, we still weren't really sure how to classify it). Everyone had settled back down into their normal daily patrol routines, now that the high-stress (yet low-activity) period of guarding the derelict alien in ε Gemini was over. Pallas and the rest of the battlegroup were due to reach our next port of call in around sixty hours. ε Orion, also known as Alnilam, was known to most amateur astronomers on Earth as the central star of Orion the Hunter's belt. It was better known to Terran Confederate Fleet officers as a bright, blue-white supergiant, surrounded by a diffuse reflection nebula called NGC 1990, which was a convenient source of molecular hydrogen that happened to be the primary fuel used in the fusion reactors aboard TCF ships, which made it the ideal stopping off point for deep rim incursions into the Sirius sector beyond the Orion Nebula itself, which was only a handful of light years beyond ε Orion. Our next scheduled jump to the TCF's most distant outpost in the Sirius sector, 119 Tauri, was a distance of nearly 1000 light years, so it made sense to ensure that the ships of the task force had full reserves of fuel before attempting the journey.

I was sat with Kat and Kimi, having a late breakfast in the otherwise empty wardroom. The details of Kat's pregnancy had finally leaked out to the crew. It had been inevitable, given that once her pregnancy had been officially registered via Doctor Brodar with the Terran Confederation, freedom of information laws meant that anyone with an interest in such things had the right to search for and be given the data. It was testament to Kat's standing with the crew that the news had been digested with no ructions or conniptions at all. Or maybe anyone who was inclined to kick up a fuss was scared that Kat would summarily throw them out of an airlock. Even the reaction from the senior staff had been muted. Their congratulations had been heartfelt and respectful, without even the merest hint of shock that Kat was resigning from the service to start a family. Obviously, I had underestimated the tolerance and empathy of my crew, but the senior staff ensured that the crew attended to their duties and kept the ship ticking over with no disruption to the established daily routine.

"I don't know whether I should take it as a compliment or an insult." Kat mused, tearing off the end of a pack of sous-vide poached eggs with fried bacon, squirting in a tablespoon of maple syrup, adding two sachets of pepper plus one of salt and stirring it thoroughly, before digging into the infernal mixture with a regulation issue white cellulose spork.
"I'd take it as a compliment." I said as I used a blob of brown sauce to attach a crispy rasher of bacon to a slice of french toast, reflecting that you could take the man out of Scotland, but you could never take the Scotland out of the man. As far as I and my ancestors were concerned, breakfast wasn't worthy of the name if it wasn't deep-fried.
"I'd take it as a sign of respect." Kimi interjected, nursing his drinking bulb of sweet, milky tea.  He pulled a face showing his barely contained disgust as he watched us dig into our cooked breakfast. Kimi rarely let anything solid pass his lips until at least noon.
“And I was hoping to get to threaten at least half a dozen crewmen with spacing. Disappointing, really.” Kat sighed. “Hard to believe I’ll be heading back to Earth in seven weeks. I’ve never had to cut a tour short before.”
“Well, it’s understandable, considering the circumstances. Though if it were up to me, you’d be going back as soon as we reach ε Orion.”
“Just as well that it’s not up to you, then. Beached whale, remember?”
“All too well.” I winced, before turning to Kimi. “You’ve got a list for me?”
“A short one. I could only find three suitable candidates within the task force.”
“Candidates for Acting XO?” Kat’s ears pricked up. “Oooh, go on. Who are they?”
“Not quite. Candidates for XO. Even if you change your mind about resigning and take medical leave, I can’t appoint an ‘acting’ XO for two years. No-one would take the job.” I interjected before Kimi could even begin naming the officers he had selected as suitable for the position. Kat scowled in disapproval but held her tongue, having understood my reasoning, at least in principle, even if she didn't entirely agree with it.
“As I said, it’s a short list.” Kimi handed me a datapad. “Alexis Masterson.”
“Too young.” Kat interrupted with her summary opinion, looking over my shoulder at the personnel records on the datapad.
“Lara Lindermulder.”
“Too blonde.” The tip of Kat’s nose wrinkled in horror.
“Carl Robson.”
“Interesting." Kat’s left eyebrow arched. "Wasn’t he the XO on Enyalius?”
“He was indeed. Robson’s last fitness report isn’t up to much, Kimi. Why’d you pick him?”
“Robson’s record up to the incident at 111 Tauri is exemplary. He has gone a little off the rails since he was reassigned, but that’s understandable, given what happened in the battle: Enyalius took 92% casualties. Classic survivor’s guilt; I can sort that out with therapy. Otherwise his psychological profile is a good fit. The most important thing is that you can trust Robson to follow and carry out difficult orders under extreme pressure.”     
 “Okay, get him over here when we reach ε Orion so Kat and I can interview him.”
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