Monday, May 23, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Thirteen

2701. – ε Gemini; CFV-B Pallas

Following Mitchell's revelation, Jameson had recalled the other two survey teams and got them to join her own team in the brain chamber, where the science and engineering teams began running tests and taking samples while the marines set up floodlights to illuminate the vast metallic hemisphere growing out of the floor. When their air supplies started to dwindle, Jameson pulled out all three teams and had them return to Pallas for debriefing. Jameson, Marciano, Sagar, Randall, Mitchell and the Chief Science Officers from Tartarus and Erebus were sat around the briefing table in my Ready Room, trying to help me get to grips with the implications of what they had discovered. At my request, Captain Nyhus and Captain Fforde-Hughes were watching and listening in by video link. The survey teams had brought back samples of the valve-like brain cells and their silicate membranes, some of which were on the table before me. The cylindrical brain cells were impressively large - thirty centimetres in diameter and fifty centimetres tall. They were also surprisingly dense and had a mass of about 10 kilograms. As I picked one up to examine it more closely, I was glad for the zero-g.

"So, let's get this straight. These things are analogous to neurons in our brain, right?" I asked, looking at Randall.
"That's right, Admiral. They work on a similar principle to a thermionic valve or vacuum tube in an early 20th Century computer. Each cell can act like a switch or amplifier and responds to an electric current, just like a neuron does."
"And this stuff?" I pointed to the wiry silicate.
"We think the membrane acts like axon cells. Nerve fibres, basically." Mitchell took a piece of it in her hand. "It might seem like an odd material, but inosilicate has a chain-like molecular structure, is ion rich and when it's interwoven with iron and magnesium strands like this, it's pretty effective as a nerve fibre. Not terribly flexible, but it does the job."
"Nerve and brain cells. It's starting to sound like this thing was alive."
"It would explain why there's no sign of a crew. We could be looking at a silicon-based life-form, rather than an elaborate alien construct." Mitchell replied, turning the silicate membrane over in her hands, thoughtfully.
"Hold on, Lieutenant," Sub-Commander Loïc Garand, Tartarus's Chief Science Officer pitched in, holding up his palm to interrupt. "Exobiology isn't my strongest suit, but isn't silicon-based biochemistry too unstable to make it able to support a life-form this large?"
"It's highly unlikely, I grant you that, sir. But improbable isn't the same as impossible. It's a big, quantum universe. Anything that can happen, will happen." Mitchell shrugged. "The conditions necessary for carbon-based biochemistry like ours is relatively unlikely, too. Yet we're here."
"Let's keep the discussions about alien biochemistry for another time." I interjected, since I wasn't going to be able to follow a full-blown argument discussing the merits of carbon-chains over silicon-chains as the building blocks for life anyway. "How smart would this thing have been?"
"I did the calculations on this earlier, Admiral." Randall replied. "There's something like twenty trillion valve cells in that structure. To put that into context, the average human brain has roughly 85 billion neurons. The link between the number of neurons and intelligence is debatable, but purely in terms of computational capacity alone, it makes Pallas's ArtEMIS look like a three rung abacus."
"So, smart then." I put the valve cell back down onto the table. Even a small ArtEMIS AI found on TCF corvettes had a raw computational capacity that exceeded that of the entire human race. My tiny mind boggled at the thought of how intelligent the behemoth might have been.
"Smart enough to manipulate vacuum fluctuations to capture antimatter for fuel, live in deep space and warp space-time to travel across the galaxy faster than light. Yeah, you could say they're pretty fly in the brains department." Marciano sat back in his chair, whistling admiringly. "I wonder how old that thing must have been before it died? A few thousand years? More? Millions, even?"
"How did it die, exactly?" I asked.
"A rupture in the power distribution grid burned through into the brain chamber. Containment field failure, maybe? The damage didn't look that bad, to be honest. It must have nicked something important." Katrina offered.
"Fleet are going to love this." I put my head in my hands. "So, in short, the Thrinax aren't some puny little fleshbag life-forms like us flying around in space ships. They're impossibly intelligent, possibly ancient, space-dwelling monsters with an utterly alien biochemistry and super-heated plasma for blood, who go around the galaxy munching on antimatter and can warp space-time itself at will to travel anywhere they like?"
"Pretty much, sir." Katrina nodded.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{We're screwed, aren't we?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Pretty much.}-

"Great. So what next? What're our options?"
"We need to go back, Admiral." Marciano implored. "I don't think we're likely to learn much more from the interior of the ship, excepting perhaps the brain chamber. But we should send teams back to survey the hull of the ship. It should be much easier to identify key systems and bring back samples for reverse engineering from the outside, rather than the inside."
"I agree, sir." Mitchell concurred. "We assumed that the ship would have an analogous internal structure to one of our ships. Now we know that's not the case, we should work from the outside in, rather than the inside out."
"Like an autopsy."
"Exactly, sir."
"Admiral, if I may make a suggestion?" Randall raised his mechanical hand in askance and I signalled for him to continue. "The best way to figure out how that ship works would be to do some brain surgery."
"What do you mean, Commander?"
"Early 20th Century doctors discovered the functions of different regions of the human brain by using electrical stimulation. We could adapt the technique to the central brain core of the Thrinax ship and see what happens."
"That sounds... dangerous."
"Without its antimatter reserves, it's not likely that any signal we sent from the brain would carry enough power to activate a system that would put the fleet at risk, Admiral. Our portable fusion reactors only have an output in the megawatt range, after all." Randall explained. "But it would allow us to map the central nervous system of the behemoth. That could prove useful if we wanted to try capturing a Thrinax vessel alive in the future."
"It's a good idea, sir." Kat agreed, somewhat grudgingly. "Now we know that the vessels themselves are actually the enemy, rather than some alien species flying them, the next logical step would be to try and take one alive. Dissecting the hull will give us a good idea of where to hit them to disable their weapons and engines without wasting the entire ship, but we should poke around its brain to see which buttons we need to push if we ever capture a live vessel."
"Hmm. Nova? Miranda? You've been very quiet. What do you think?"
"I think we should pursue all options on the table. Draft in personnel from the rest of the task group if we need to." Nova replied. "It's an unprecedented opportunity to gather intelligence on the Thrinax."
"I'd second that, Admiral. Now that we're sure it's not a threat, we should take the opportunity to strip that ship to the bone and find out all we can. My only concern is that it could take months, and that leaves us vulnerable to counter-attack. We need more ships." Miranda concurred, albeit with a note of caution.
"I agree. Okay, then. I'll update Fleet and request assistance. In the meantime, Randall, you'll take the lead on the ship and coordinate with the engineering teams on Tartarus and Erebus to carry out your brain surgery."
"Aye-aye, Admiral."
"Commander Garand, your science team will concentrate on trying to reverse engineer the stardrive jammer and weapons systems. I especially want to know more about their fighter drones and missile systems, but the stardrive jammer should be your top priority." Garand acknowledged my order with a silent nod of the head. I turned to Ugochi Okonjo, Erebus's Chief Science Officer. "Lieutenant, you've got the most experience here with exobiology and exochemistry. I want you to conduct a thorough chemical analysis of the ship's hull and any sample components extracted from the ship. We need to know more about how old this ship was, when it died, how long it had lived, where it originated from, and so on. I also want suggestions on how to improve the efficacy of our weapons on their hulls."
"It shall be done, Admiral." she replied, her voice lilting warmly and musically like a Caribbean calypso. I turned to my own Science chief.
"Ally, I want you to concentrate on two things: firstly, their engines and power systems. They can jam our stardrive, see if you can't figure out how to mess up theirs. Secondly, see if the ship has some kind of data repository. If there are any records of transmissions received by the ship stored in some database somewhere, I want them. Fleet movements, deployment orders, weather forecasts, lottery numbers, space cookie recipes, I don't care. Any records of things talking to that ship, I want them, particularly if it gives you a vector to trace the message back to its source. These things must take orders from somewhere, or something."
"Yes, sir." Ally nodded, scribbling a note with a thin metallic stylus on an ePaper pad. Like most of the science officers on board, Mitchell preferred a physical to-do list, rather than a mental one stored on her neural link. I suspected that she enjoyed the sensation of scratching the task notes into oblivion once the jobs had been completed.
"Questions?" I asked, waiting expectantly for a few seconds, only to be met by silence and a couple of gentle shakes of the head from the assembled officers. I caught the eyes of the visiting officers from Tartarus and Erebus. "Make yourselves at home in the wardroom and get something to eat. It's been a long day. ArtEMIS will assign you guest quarters for the night. Get some rest and we'll reconvene at 0900 tomorrow morning. Dismissed."

I lingered at the table with Kat as the other officers made their way to the wardroom. I struggled to suppress a smirk when I practically saw sparks fly between Mitchell and Marciano as they exited the Ready Room together.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I don't think Mitchell and Marciano will be getting much sleep tonight.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Do you think she'll show him her take on the double-slit experiment?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I'm not sure I'm familiar with that one. Would you give me a demo?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{In your dreams, Gus.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Every night.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Pervert.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Could I tempt you with some dinner?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Thanks, but I'm totally whacked out. Breakfast tomorrow in the wardroom?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{See you at 0700?}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Deal.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I'd better send off this contact report. I'll catch you in the morning.}-

We exchanged a warm smile and Katrina squeezed my hand, giving me an affectionate wink before leaving me in the Ready Room with only a glowing holograph-screen for company.
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