Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twelve

2701. – ε Gemini; CFV-B Pallas

As expected, Fleet Command ordered the task group in to investigate the construct. Admiral Strauss had concluded the communication with the ominous instruction 'use extreme caution'. I wondered if he expected us to be successful. The EM scans of the construct hadn't revealed much, other than a much better idea of its overall size and shape. Superficially, it had similar hull morphology to a Thrinax dreadnought with trademark flukes and spikes protruding from the superstructure, excepting the fact that it was four times the size. Kat had called it a 'behemoth' and the appellation had stuck, since it was catchier than 'construct' or 'anomaly'. The microwave scan had shown that it was definitely a ship, as there was evidence of engine exhaust ports at the rear of the vessel. There was no indication that our active scans had woken the behemoth up. The giant ship still floated passively in space, dead to the universe. The crew was still uneasy as we approached. If the behemoth was going to spring an ambush, they knew that it would wait until we were within weapons range before coming back to life. Kimi had reported being a lot busier than usual, as the tension rose on our approach to the alien ship. To try and keep morale up, I had ordered the ship's galley chefs to cook only the most popular meals for the crew. They weren't fooled, of course, but the gesture did not go unappreciated.

Mindful of Admiral Strauss's instructions, I had halted the fleet fifty thousand kilometres away from the behemoth. It was close enough to get rapid EM scans of the potentially hostile vessel, but far enough away for us not to be in immediate danger if it suddenly sprang to life. There had still need no indication that the behemoth was anything other than it appeared to be – a derelict wreck in space – but I was taking no chances. I ordered Lieutenant Mitchell to launch a RASP – one of our Remote Autonomous Survey Platforms. Its instruments were limited relative to those on Pallas, but it would at least allow us to get a much closer view of the behemoth without risking lives. I ordered the other RASP equipped ships in the task force – Erebus, Tartarus and the other five Titan-class battlecruisers – to launch RASPs of their own, so that we could investigate the behemoth much more quickly. I also had the Wild Weasel squadrons form an extended perimeter around the fleet and the Thrinax vessel, ready to jam any outgoing transmissions. I left Kat in charge of the bridge while Mitchell and I relocated to the Ready Room, so that we could use its larger holo-projector to knit together the telemetry feeds from the eight RASPs scanning the behemoth.

The alien ship was truly colossal. At 20 kilometres long, 5 kilometres wide and 4 kilometres deep, it would have dwarfed Starbase Hera. The behemoth had an internal volume of over a hundred times that of Pallas and the bow of the ship bristled with beam cannons, four in total, each of which was twice the size their equivalents on Thrinax dreadnoughts. I didn't want to think about what it would be like on the wrong end of one of those. Mitchell watched the video feeds intently, pointing out the major features as they came on screen and occasionally taking control of a RASP when it showed something unusual.

“What's that?” Mitchell squinted as one of the RASPs flew down the dorsal spine of the behemoth, passing close over the hatches sealing the ship's nuclear missile launchers. Mitchell redirected the RASP in closer to view a clutch of hatches that were still open. “Hmm.”
“They've been fired. This thing's been in combat.”
“Look closer, Admiral. In the launch tube. It looks like a warhead.”
“But where's the missile? Why replace the warhead, but not the launch vehicle?” I asked. Mitchell could only shrug in reply. I was strangely pleased that it didn't make sense to her either.
“Here, Admiral. Drone pods. Some of these are empty, too.” Mitchell pointed to an array of blister-like pods covering the ventral fins of the ship. I tried to estimate how many there were and stopped at a discouraging five thousand. I tried to watch all the video feeds simultaneously, but there was just too much to see. The telemetry from the active scans the RASPs were running showed that there were still no energy signatures from inside the ship. The engines were cold and there were absolutely no signs of particle decays from matter-antimatter annihilation reactions in the behemoth's power core.
“Mitchell, are those the reactor vents?” I pointed to a row of four ovoid hatches on the behemoth's port flank. “They're open.”
“Yes, Admiral. They must've had to dump their antimatter reserves. I don't know why, though. There's no sign of any battle damage.”
“Could we send a RASP in there to confirm the fuel store is empty?” I was still nervous, even though all the signs were that the behemoth had been abandoned.
“Risky, sir. The hull is very dense. We'd probably lose the uplink before it managed to reach the bottle chamber.”
“Hmm. Can you conference me in with Captain Fforde-Hughes and Captain Nyhus, please?” I ordered Mitchell.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number One, report to the Ready Room.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Aye-aye, sir.}-

Kat entered and took the seat next to me just as Mitchell finished linking us up with video and vox to Fforde-Hughes and Nyhus. They were also both seated in their own Ready Rooms, with their XO's on hand. I noticed Mitchell struggle to contain a smile when she saw Marciano, who appeared calm and relaxed, in contrast to both captains.

“Miranda, Nova, thanks for joining us. It would appear that the sleeping giant here isn't going to wake up any time soon. What are your opinions on how we should proceed with our investigation?”
“Admiral, we concur that the vessel appears derelict.” Miranda spoke first. “But we haven't been able to get sensor readings of the core of the vessel. There's just too much metal in the way to get accurate scans. Just because it looks dead isn't a guarantee that it is. Anything could be lurking in there. We should continue using RASPs and remote sensors until we've determined that it’s safe.”
“I'm not sure I agree, Admiral." Nova replied, employing the TCF's universally accepted polite euphemism for 'I think the other guy is talking shit'. "We're getting no internal energy signatures from the ship at all. That thing is dead, thank God, and I think it's safe to assume that it's not a zombie.” Nova drummed her fingers on her table. “If we want to find out what's in the core of that ship, there's only one way to do it. Boots on the deck.”
“Admiral, if I may?” Marciano interjected, and I nodded for him to continue. “Sir, this represents an unprecedented opportunity for us to see the internal working of a Thrinax vessel at first hand. We could learn a lot remotely, but not even a tenth of much as we could if we got properly equipped science teams over there.”
“Admiral, we don't even know what Thrinax look like.” Fforde-Hughes protested. “The hull could be crawling with them over there.”
“You've got a point there, Miranda.” I was forced to agree. “Lieutenant Mitchell, are there any indications of life signs at all in the Thrinax vessel?”
“Negative, sir. No heat signatures or movement at all.”
“So Mrs Gren isn't at home?” I asked, recalling the mnemonic for the seven signs of life I'd learned in Primary School. It was one of the few remaining things that I could actually remember from my science classes.
“No, sir.” Mitchell grinned from ear to ear, despite the seriousness of the situation.
“We don't even know if Thrinax are organic life forms, Admiral. Sending personnel over to the ship at this point would be reckless.” Fforde-Hughes reminded me, before remembering herself and adding slightly more circumspectly, “In my opinion, sir.”
“Ma'am, anything that's alive will create heat, organic or not. That's simple thermodynamics – the law of entropy. Life requires energy, and wherever you have an energy transfer, you have wastage as heat.” Marciano interjected. “There are no infra-red signals that indicate any activity within the ship at all. My guess would be that it's been completely inactive for at least 12 months.”
“I'm inclined to agree with Commander Marciano, but we are dealing with a first contact scenario, here. We shouldn't make assumptions, even based on our best scientific understanding.” I replied, agreeing with Marciano's analysis, but recognising the need for caution. “Mitchell, is there any way we can send in remote probes to assess the interior conditions of the ship?”
“We could modify some of our RASPs to act as comm buoys and link them together to act as a relay network, so that we could send probes into the superstructure of the vessel.” Mitchell suggested before giving a large caveat. “But the density of the hull material would limit the range of the comm buoys' signals. Surveying the interior of the vessel in person would be easier and would reveal more detail.”
"We need to do this quickly, but I'm not going to risk personnel unnecessarily, Lieutenant. How many RASPs do you think you'll need to start an internal survey of the Thrinax vessel?"
"It depends upon the internal configuration of the ship, once we try to get access to the fuel bottle chamber, but I'd estimate between fifteen and twenty, Admiral."
"Do a test with a couple of RASPs to find out what the signalling range on the interior of the vessel is and then reprogram as many RASPs as you think you'll need to perform a preliminary sweep through the ship. If the remotes don't meet any resistance, then we can send over science teams."
"Admiral, that won't leave us with many RASPs for perimeter security scanning." Fforde-Hughes warned.
"I'm aware of that, Captain, but our orders from Fleet are clear. Investigating the behemoth is our highest priority. We'll have to double the fighter CAP to plug the gaps until our initial recce is completed. Our fighter squadrons are going to have a busy couple of days."
"Surely if the Thrinax were going to reinforce the behemoth, they would have done so by now. All the evidence so far points to it having been abandoned months, perhaps even years ago, Admiral. Do we really need to put the extra burden on our pilots?" Kat asked.
"Better safe than sorry, Number One. Who knows where the Thrinax could be reinforcing from and how long it might take them to get here? A fleet of Thrinax ships could drop out of stardrive at any second. We need to be ready for them if they do." I explained. Kat didn't look happy at the prospect, but nodded in agreement. I looked around the group, searching their faces for doubts or signs of uncertainty. "Any other questions?"
"Admiral, if it really is a derelict, what the hell are we supposed to do with it after we've finished our investigation?" Nova queried.
"Whatever Fleet tells us to do, I imagine." I shrugged. "These decisions are left to older, wiser minds than mine. But one thing we should try and do is identify the stardrive jammer. We need to reverse engineer one of the units if we're ever going to find an effective counter-measure for it."
"We'll need to get personnel over to the behemoth to be able to do that, Admiral."
"Quite so, Nova. All the more reason to get the RASP sweep done as quickly as possible."
"Who do you want leading the boarding parties, sir?" Kat inquired. The thought of boarding parties on a Thrinax ship was an uncomfortable one. My eyes flickered between Kat and Allyson. Kat read my thoughts.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 –{Don't you dare. You don't need to protect me. That's Chief Watson's job.}-

"We'll have three teams: one from Pallas, one from Tartarus and one from Erebus. The XO from each ship will lead their respective teams, coordinated by Commander Jameson. Each team will comprise of the CSO, Chief Engineer, plus as many Science and Engineering specialists you believe you can spare. Each team will be escorted by three squads of Marines to provide security." I met Kat's eyes coolly. I wasn't happy about having her over onto an alien ship, but I knew that if I didn't let her go, it would look unprofessional and she'd never forgive me for delegating her job to someone else. She gave me a faint smile as Nova and Miranda nodded in agreement.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Thanks, Gus.}-

"We need to get moving on this. Every minute we're here increases the chance that we'll be discovered by any reinforcing Thrinax vessels." I reminded everyone. "Mitchell, how long will it take to reprogram the RASPs?"
"Four to six hours, Admiral. We should be able to complete a preliminary survey of the interior of the vessel within the next twenty-four hours."
"Get it done. We'll hold the fleet in position here until it's confirmed that there's absolutely no chance that ship is going to wake up and spring a trap on us. Set Condition Two throughout the fleet." Condition Two was still a heightened alert status for the battle group, with personnel working in two shifts, alternating every six hours. At this state of readiness, we'd have 48 to 60 hours before battle-stress and fatigue would start affecting the efficiency and the decision-making of our crews. I hoped that would be more than enough to secure the Thrinax ship. "If there's nothing else..." I paused for a second to give my subordinates a chance to speak up. No-one took the opportunity, so I assumed we had a consensus. "Let's reconvene at 0700 tomorrow to review the findings of the RASP sweep and finalise the strategy for a manned incursion into the behemoth. Dismissed."

The modifications to the RASPs took slightly longer than Mitchell had estimated, needing eight hours to complete the reprogramming and upload of the new software. As soon as they were ready, Mitchell sent them on their way to the behemoth, while I waited on the results of the scan in my Ready Room. In the meantime, Kat was busy making the final preparations for the boarding party. The security detail had been hand-picked by Kat, myself and Chief Watson, so I knew Kat would be surrounded by the finest Marines we had in the task group, not that this fact would stop me worrying about her if or when the expedition was launched. I decided to leave her to it and immerse myself in the bigger problem of what to do if the behemoth suddenly sprang back to life or was reinforced by a Thrinax task group. I was linked into the fleet extranet with Nyhus and Fforde-Hughes, along with the other captains of my task force, running simulations to deploy the fleet in a way that would provide the best protection for Pallas and the other capital ships should the Thrinax behemoth spring back to life, or get reinforced by new vessels entering the system. We had opted to keep a spherical formation, with the heavy-hitting dreadnoughts and cruisers packed into a core formation ten kilometres across, with the rest of the task group falling into a larger, more mobile sphere fifty kilometres wide to provide an effective anti-beam cannon screen, while a third and final sphere of ships, my signal-jamming Wild Weasel task force, formed a diffuse outer picket screen, a hundred thousand kilometres from the behemoth, blocking all EM transmissions in or out of the system. The formation did risk leaving the capital ships of the task groups vulnerable to beam cannon fire if the behemoth was simply lying in wait, but all the evidence from our science teams pointed to an external threat from outside the system posing a greater risk to the task force, so I agreed with the rest of my senior staff and ship captains that we should deploy the fleet accordingly.

The preliminary reports from the RASPs were encouraging. The video feeds being returned from the remote survey platforms showed absolutely no signs of life from within the superstructure of the behemoth. All they revealed as a vast, intricate network of lightless tunnels pervading the vessel, ranging in diameter from one metre across to almost ten. The conduits connected the reactor chamber to every single part of the ship, but there was no sign so far of anything resembling crew quarters, or even a bridge. Tensions rose as the fleet executed its final closure manoeuvre to the behemoth, despite all the evidence showing that the behemoth was an utterly abandoned, lifeless hulk. When the fleet closed to within a thousand kilometres of the Thrinax ship, I ordered the launch of the shuttles carrying the boarding parties. The space between the behemoth and the task force buzzed with half a dozen squadrons of fighter craft flying CAP and providing an escort as the shuttles made their way from the fleet to the alien vessel at what seemed like an agonisingly slow speed, heightening their sense of vulnerability. I sat silently fretting in my Ready Room, the holographic screen showing the outputs from the helmet cameras of each member of the boarding party. Overlaid across the flickering camera feeds were numbers showing the vital signs of each crewmember, including blood pressure and heart rate. The marines were noticeably less apprehensive than the science and engineering personnel, their heart rates averaging between fifty and sixty beats per minute, a good ten to twenty beats per minute lower than their colleagues. I watched Katrina's stats like an overly anxious father at a daughter's gymkhana, ready to pick up on the slightest sign of doubt or uncertainty. I needn't have worried. Kat was calm and rock solid: the all-seeing eye in the storm as the assault on the Thrinax behemoth began. The shuttle pilots were the calmest of all, steering their charges to the alien ship with a detached tranquillity, almost as if they were taking part in a simulation, rather than an actual mission. The three assault shuttles entered the superstructure of the Thrinax dreadnought without incident. I watched the helmet cams of the three pilots with rapt fascination as their tiny vessels swooped towards the cavernous elliptical portals on the flank of the ship that lead to the antimatter storage chambers.

The shuttles navigated their way past the blinking lights of a stationary RASP acting as a comms relay, plunging deep into the heart of the ship, splitting up to find insertion points for their exploration teams, the laser- bright running lights on the wingtips of the assault shuttles providing only the faintest of illumination as their light scattered off the obsidian black walls of the kilometre-wide antimatter storage chamber. Kat's team was to head for the bow of the ship, where we expected to find the command structures of the Thrinax vessel, while Marciano's team from Erebus was due to head aft to search for major engineering systems, including the stardrive jammer. Commander Sagar's team from the Tartarus had been assigned to investigate the defensive and offensive systems of the ship, so would be heading for the dorsal spine of the vessel, where the launch bays for the ship's nuclear missiles and countermeasures systems were located. The three assault shuttles flew upwards, deep into the heart of the alien vessel, and set down almost simultaneously in the broad conduits leading off from the central matter-antimatter reactor space, which was connected to the fuel storage chambers immediately below it by two immense pipes, each of which was fifty metres in diameter. The reactor space stood an imposing eight hundred metres tall, its metal walls blistered and pockmarked by the intense heat and radiation released by the annihilation reactions that had once powered the ship. The boarding parties wore fully-pressurised combat suits made of a light but flexible nanopolymer, that not only afforded the wearer full mobility in a zero-g environment, but also integrated a layer of ablative molecules across their surface, giving the suits a silvery, mirror-like appearance capable of repelling all but the most powerful weaponry utilising optical wavelengths of the EM spectrum. The marine teams exited the shuttles first in orderly pairs, laser rifles nestled at a ready position in their shoulders, using the full capability of their combat optics to scan for signs of danger. The science and engineering teams followed at close quarters once the marines had signalled the all clear.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{We're aboard. No signs of resistance. No signs of any life at all.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Acknowledged, Commander. Proceed with extreme caution. I don't want any casualties.}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Aye-aye, sir. We'll be careful.}-

I watched the video feeds uneasily as Kat took charge of the situation, feeling oddly remote, unable to directly influence what was happening on the Thrinax ship. The space around the behemoth and the system at large was as quiet as a tomb. Despite the lack of activity, or perhaps because of it, I felt an odd sensation of apprehension - as if I expected the system to come alive with mortal threats the second I took my eyes off the screen. With a sense of growing restlessness, I watched and waited.

"Chief Watson, start sweeping for booby traps." Kat ordered, her laser rifle held tight across her chest. She tapped a button on her wrist to open channel to the rest of the boarding parties. "Exploration teams, we've got six hours before we have to return to the shuttles. You have your orders. Priority targets are the stardrive jammer, bridge and offensive systems. Look sharp, I don’t want any casualties. Jameson out."

Chief Watson led the way, the optics on her laser rifle scanning the environment using infra-red and ultraviolet wavelengths to pick up information invisible to the human eye. Satisfied that there were no traps in the immediate area, Watson beckoned the rest of the team forward, away from the relative safety of the shuttle. The power conduit Pallas’s shuttle had touched down in quickly narrowed from a diameter of nearly fifty metres down to ten within the first hundred steps or so, lesser conduits branching off and criss-crossing the ship. I kept my eyes on the monitors as Jameson’s team headed forwards to the bow to try and locate the ship’s command centre, while Marciano’s team headed aft to find the stardrive jammer and Sagar’s team headed upwards to the dorsal spine, where the launch tubes for the nukes were located. We knew from the RASP sweep that the power conduits would allow them to explore the length and breadth of the ship relatively easily, but the preliminary survey by the probes hadn’t revealed how they might gain access into the interior chambers of the ship. Initial scans were unable even to give an indication of where the crew quarters, bridge and engineering chambers might be, much to the consternation of Mitchell and the other science officers in the task force. Mitchell blamed the density of the hull and said that once inside, they would probably have to cut through a weak point at a final delivery point in the power grid to gain proper access to the interior crew space. Helmet and weapon-mounted flashlights illuminated the pitch black corridors, constantly searching for unwelcome surprises and signs of life. I kept quiet and listened in to the chatter of the survey teams as they progressed deeper into the belly of the behemoth.

“I can’t get any readings at all beyond the conduit.”
“The bulkhead walls are just too thick.”
“What’s this thing made from anyway?”
“Iron, lead and nickel in the main, with silicates, a bit of carbon and a few exotics like neodymium and palladium thrown in.”
“Not the most efficient materials you could make a spaceship from. Much too heavy.”
“Evidently the Thrinax don’t care too much about thrust to weight ratios.”
“Neither would you, if you’d cracked a way of generating enough antimatter to power a vessel of this size.”
“There’s an odd residue on the surface of the conduit.”
“Mainly silicon oxides. There’ve been some heavy-duty plasma discharges crackling down here.”
“Zip it, Corporal. Intersection coming up. Stay sharp.”
“All clear, Chief.”
“Move up.”
“Really starting to narrow up now.”
“Yeah, down to three metres. Starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.”
“Clear. Move up. Next junction’s in 300 metres.”
“How far are we away from the shuttle?”
“Knocking on for 3k. Still a long way from reaching the bow. Not even halfway yet.”
“Any sign of crew spaces behind the bulkheads?”
“Not yet. It’s dammed peculiar. Haven’t had a single echo yet. Where the fuck does all the crew live?”
“I don’t understand how this ship works at all. Okay, it might have a distributed energy grid, but where are the computers, the life support systems? It doesn’t make sense. You’ve got all the capability of a capital ship, but no-one to run it.”
“Welcome to the world of alien logic.”
“Hold here. Search.”
“All good, Chief. Junction is clear. Conduit secure.”
“Something’s not right here. We’d need a crew of fifty thousand to run a ship of this size. Where the hell are they?”
“Fuck knows. Actually, kind of glad they’re nowhere in sight. Otherwise we’d be screwed.”
“No crew, no crew quarters, no internal structure beyond power distribution? What the fuck is going on here? This ain’t no normal ship.”
“Take it easy, marine. We finish our sweep. Job’s a good ‘un.”
“Marciano, this is Jameson, We’ve got nothing so far. How’re you doing?”
“Likewise, Commander: negative for contacts. Not even a peep.”
“What about you, Sagar? Report status.”
“We’re almost to the nuke batteries. No resistance so far.”
“Acknowledged, but keep frosty. It might look dead, sound dead and smell dead, but we can't take anything for granted in here."
"Aye-aye, Commander."
"Let me know when you find anything that looks like a crew space. All we've seen so far is bulkhead and power conduit. Nothing even resembling so much as a maintenance hatch."
"Same here, Commander."
"The more I think about it, the less I like this ship. You'd need some pretty epic superconducting magnets to channel plasma down a distribution grid this long. Where the hell are they?"
"Any ideas, Mitchell?"
"No, ma'am. I agree with the Corporal. Nothing about this ship makes sense. I haven't seen a single weld or joint or anything to indicate how this ship was constructed. It's starting to freak me out a little."
"Maybe they're there and we just don't know what to look for."
"Keep your minds on the job, people. Next junction’s in 200."

The conversation dropped off and the three survey teams headed deeper into the vessel, the marines fixing RF transponder markers to the walls of the conduit every fifty metres to maintain a comms link back to the shuttles and leave a visual trail behind them to allow the teams to retrace their steps in the darkness. A midshipman brought me a small platter of sandwiches and a pot of tea to keep me going as I continued to watch the feeds. The conduits had narrowed down to less than two metres now, slowing progress as the teams had to proceed crouched and in single file.

"Getting tight in here. Staggered column. Three metre spread. No bunching up. Baumgartner, take the point."
"Aye, Chief."
"Commander Jameson, this is Sagar. We've reached the end of our conduit, or at least the end of the section we can walk in. We should be right underneath the missile batteries, though we've still got nothing on the echo. The bulkheads must be very thick."
"Roger that. Get cutting and see if you can find the fire control systems."

I watched as Sagar's engineers unleashed their plasma cutters, vaporising the metal on the side of the conduit, trying to burn through the bulkhead to the crew space on the other side. The engineers stopped every few seconds to check they weren't burning into the side of a launch tube, or anything equally as hazardous, and also carry out an ultrasonic echo check on the bulkhead to estimate the depth they still had to cut through.
"How're you getting on, Marciano?"
"Another klick to go, ma'am."
"Copy that."
"Hold up, Baumgartner. This junction looks a little odd."
"The surface of the conduit looks melted."
"An overload, maybe?"
"You take the right branch, I'll take the left."
"When you're ready, Chief."
"Holy fuck. What the fuck is that?"
"What've you got, Baumgartner? Chief?"
"I-I don't know. Commander, you've got to see this."

I magnified the video feed from Corporal Baumgartner's helmet camera. A sixty metre section of the conduit had been melted away. Behind the bulkhead was a vast ovoid chamber, two kilometres across by five hundred metres deep, filled almost entirely by a single structure, bristling with sharp ridges in a seemingly random pattern. It too was damaged at the point nearest the power conduit, a gash three hundred metres long and ten metres deep charred along its side. Baumgartner and Watson shone their flashlights into the gap, revealing towers of interlinked reflective, cell-like spheres connected together with black silicate membranes, hundreds of metres tall.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Oh my god. Are you seeing what I'm seeing?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Yes. Kat, be careful.}-

"Randall, Mitchell. Take a look at this, and give me your best guess."
"Those cells look like valves. There must be trillions of them, if that's a uniform structure."
"What does that mean, Randall?"
"Commander, it's a computer. A massive computer."
"I'm not sure I agree, sir. Look at the shape, it's too organic. That's not a computer. It's a brain."
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