Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty-One

2701. – 119 Tauri; CFV-B Pallas

My task group had arrived on schedule at the deep rim outpost with no complications. Number Six had arrived early, as expected, and had the good sense to power down, stay put and not provoke the station's defence forces. Resupply operations were underway, a constant stream of shuttles relaying food, water, ammunition, fuel and coolant between the outpost's stores and the ships of my task force. Miranda Fforde-Hughes had requested a meeting of senior commanding officers to discuss our patrol orders and I had decided to humour her. I had sent out invitations to the COs and XOs of both dreadnoughts, all the battlecruisers, plus the squadron leaders for my assault cruiser, frigate, corvette and Wild Weasel groups. With nearly a sixty officers to accommodate, Kat had suggested we host the meeting as a formal lunch in Pallas's wardroom.

I sat at the head of the table, flanked by Kat and Robson. The rest of the officers were sat by rank and specialism. Fforde-Hughes and her XO, Aisha Sagar, were sat alongside Robson, while Synnøve Nyhus and Beppe Marciano were next to Kat. Further along were my battlecruiser commanders, followed by the leaders of my cruiser, frigate and corvette squadrons. At the far end of the table was Tom Creighton and his XO, Sub-Commander Jadzia Czajka. Tom gave me an ironic wave-cum-salute as we all took our seats. He was used to being at the bottom of the pecking order when it came to social gatherings of officers. Electronic warfare was a vital but criminally underappreciated role in fleet combat actions. I had to admit that I admired Creighton's bullheadedness for sticking with the specialism for so long without so much as asking for a transfer. Most Wild Weasel COs started looking for an out after a couple of tours. Creighton had been flying Wild Weasel corvettes for over ten years, apparently oblivious to the damage being done to his opportunities for promotion. I made a mental note to make sure that he was placed next to me at the head of the table next time we had a gathering like this. Isolated pockets of conversation began to spring up around the table as the orderlies began to bring out the starter plates and fill drinking bulbs with sparkling water. Robson was already getting his ears bent by Fforde-Hughes, congratulating him on his promotion and appointment as Pallas's XO. I felt slightly guilty for using him as a buffer between myself and Fforde-Hughes, but Robson was effortlessly diplomatic as he deflected her clumsy attentions. In any case, he seemed far more interested in getting to know the younger and far more attractive Aisha Sagar. The feeling appeared to be mutual, as Aisha hadn't taken her eyes off Robson since they'd sat down. Kat was chatting amiably with Beppe Marciano, leaving me with my choice of the two dreadnought captains to talk to. It wasn't much of a contest. I caught Nova giving me a surreptitious look out of the corner of her eye and she smiled ruefully when she realised that I'd noticed.

"You must be very proud of your gunnery team's performance back at ε Orion, Captain. 60% of the task group's kills and that dreadnought kill distance will be hard to beat."
"Thank you, Admiral. We could have gotten the fourth dreadnought as well, but I thought it was more sporting to let Tartarus get a kill on the board." Nova turned to face me properly, her green eyes glittering. I saw Fforde-Hughes bristle, but she ignored the bait, preferring to flirt ineffectually with Robson.
"And they say gallantry is dead. Do you think you can beat 5000 kilometres?"
"It would have to be a lucky shot on a target the size of a dreadnought. In simulations we've been able to get a kill on a behemoth at 7000k, but I wouldn't like to try that one out for real."
"You managed to score a kill on a behemoth? How did you run that scenario? Our sims haven’t been encouraging.”
“The behemoth was set up as non-hostile. I wanted to see what our maximum kill range might be and it's not big enough. We haven’t simmed a survivable scenario yet with a hostile one. It's going to take some rather innovative tactics or a lot of luck to take one down for real.” Nova glanced at her Executive Officer, inviting him into the conversation via their neural chat channel. "Commander Marciano and Lieutenant Kaminski have been working on it for a few weeks now. Using the estimated numbers Number Six has given us about the defences we can expect at the Swarm World and the number of Thrinax we might have on our side, even the best case scenarios look catastrophic."
"The biggest problem is the margin of error on our estimates for the weapon power and range of the stardrive jammer of the behemoths, Admiral." Marciano elaborated. "At the moment there's an uncertainty in the models of about 20%, but that's based on assumptions that might themselves be inaccurate. The effects might not scale linearly with the known values we have from Thrinax dreadnoughts."
"We're going to get an update from the research team at ε Gemini when we rendezvous with the Capella-IV task group at Caldwell 50. That will help refine your models, Commander." I told Marciano, who nodded, but didn't look more hopeful.
"I'm tempted to say stand well back and let the Thrinax fight it out for themselves. It's their civil war, after all." Kat offered.
"We ran that scenario as well, Commander." replied Marciano. "The rebels get wiped every time."
"Number Six put their success probability at more like 50-50."
"Maybe it knows something we don't, Admiral." Marciano shrugged. "But based on the data we have, I'd say it's being unduly optimistic."
"It's worth noting that we haven't actually been ordered to carry out combat operations in the nebula."
"At least not yet, Admiral." Nova looked and sounded downbeat. "When you add Commodore Powell's ships into the mix as well... Fleet aren't putting together a task group of that size to go sightseeing."
"Fleet have the same numbers and models that we do, Nova. They're not going to gamble nearly a quarter of the Hyades Fleet on a reckless punt. And I'm not going to take us into the Crab Nebula unless there's a substantially better than even chance that we're going to come out again."
"We need better intelligence on what we might encounter in the nebula, Admiral. We can't fly in there blind. It'd be a slaughter."
"I couldn't agree with you more, Marciano." I took a sip of water to help wash down a smoked salmon entrée. "We've got to take advantage of any possible information we can glean from Number Six and the rebel Thrinax."
"Do you really think they can be trusted, Admiral?" queried Fforde-Hughes, with her usual brand of sunny positivism.
"Number Six has done everything asked of it so far. The only way you can find out whether someone is trustworthy is to trust them."
"And what if this supposedly trustworthy friend waves you ahead, only to stab you in the back?" Fforde-Hughes asked, her eyes narrowing as she regarded me with open hostility.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Jeez, girlfriend! Get over yourself already!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Wow. A chip on her shoulder and an axe to grind...}-

"Miranda, sometimes in life you have to accept the fact that people aren't necessarily what you think they are, and neither are their motives. Number Six is a resource to be used. Nothing more. I'm prepared to be disappointed." I paused for a second to let the unspoken subtext sink in before lowering my voice to a whisper and leaning conspiratorially toward Fforde-Hughes. "Oh, and Miranda... in case you've been wondering all these years, you were a lousy shag."

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{OH. MY. GOD. You didn't just say that out loud, did you?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Oh, yeah. I went there.}-

Fforde-Hughes's face turned white before she stood up abruptly and stormed out of the wardroom. Nova covered her mouth and stared at me, not knowing whether to laugh or be mortified. Kat wheezed quietly with barely contained laughter, her eyes wide and watering. Kat's fingers went pale as she gripped the table, as if afraid she would float away. I glanced at her, worried for a second that she might be going into premature labour. Kat bent forward, put her forehead on the table next to her plate and waved me away, giggling hysterically.

CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{You bad, bad man. That was epic.}-

Robson and Marciano exchanged confused glances, not entirely sure what had just happened, while Aisha Sagar sat motionless in her seat, uncertain of whether to stay put or make a show of solidarity with her CO and follow her out. Robson made the decision for her by switching seats to keep her company, reasoning with her that someone would have to report the consensus reached on our patrol orders back to the senior staff on Tartarus. Sagar regarded Robson suspiciously for a second before giving him a seductive look and leisurely finishing her starter.

"Anyway, moving on." I looked around the group innocently, pretending the incident hadn't happened. "Marciano, do you have any thoughts as to how we might be able to neutralise the weapons range advantage the Thrinax behemoths have over our dreadnoughts?"
"Honestly, sir, I've been trying to find one for over a fortnight and I'm no closer now than when I started." Marciano sat back in his seat as an orderly removed his starter plate.
"Maybe a fresh pair of eyes would help." Kat suggested, having recovered her composure. "You and Lieutenant Mitchell did some great work together coming up with those fleet manoeuvres. Maybe she could help."
"This is the part where you're going to ask to borrow my XO again, isn't it, Admiral?" Nova pursed her lips, both amused and resigned.
"They do link up very well together, Captain. They're a good fit." Kat said, deadpan. Marciano's cheeks flushed pink and he looked away, apparently distracted by a conversation further down the table.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Katrina, behave yourself!}-
CMR. Jmsn#11894118 -{Spoilsport.}-

Nova caught the hint of embarrassment from her XO and looked quizzically at me and Kat.

CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Am I missing something, Gus?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Let's just say that Marciano and Mitchell's skill sets aren't the only things they have that join up well together.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Oh. Oh! Oh my. Right. I see.}-

There was an awkward moment of silence as our main courses were brought to the table. The wardroom chefs had miraculously managed to put together a Christmas roast that both looked and tasted something approaching authentic. This was quite a feat, considering the inherent difficulty of eating from plates in zero gravity. Food was typically eaten straight from the microwaveable packet or sous-vide pouch to prevent morsels of food from floating around the wardroom, but in recent years, zero-g chefs had become adept in the art of using viscous sauces not only to provide flavour to dishes, but also to adhere food to the plate for occasions where more formal presentation was desirable. Roast potatoes, julienne carrots and sprouts were secured to the self-heating porcelain plates with individual blobs of gravy, which also coated the slices of turkey in a millimetre-thick layer. Each serving was a work of art, to the point where it almost seemed like an act of vandalism to eat it.

"I suppose I could spare him while we're in transit to Caldwell 50." Nova regarded her XO warmly as she set about dismantling her lunch. "As long as you don't mind, Beppe."
"No, ma'am." replied Marciano, looking sheepish.
"Thanks, Nova. It seems I owe you another one."
"I'm sure you'll be able to find some way of paying me back, Admiral." Nova sucked a carrot baton between her sharp white teeth, licked away the traces of gravy on her lips and smiled, meeting my eyes with a mischievous glint.
"No doubt. We've got a week until we need to ship out to make our rendezvous with Gene Powell. We should make the most of that time to get as much intelligence out of Number Six as we can. It won't be joining us at Caldwell 50."
"What's going to happen to it, Admiral?" Aisha Sagar asked, looking up from her plate.
"There's a specialist team due to arrive the day after tomorrow to lead the interrogation. What happens after that, I have no idea. I don't think anyone does, frankly."
"Who are these specialists, sir?" inquired Robson.
"Your guess is as good as mine, Commander. Fleet were remarkably coy about it. They won't even identify the ship they're coming in on."
"That's unusual, isn't it, Admiral?"
"Almost unheard of, in fact. I don't like all this cloak and dagger stuff.  Fleet must have their reasons, but I'd much prefer to be kept in the loop, especially since whatever these 'specialists' find out will directly affect what we're going to be ordered to do once we reach Crab."
"So what's the plan then, Admiral?" Nova asked, twirling a thick lock of hair behind her ear. "Just hang tight until we make the rendezvous and head for the nebula?"
"I don't think that there's much else we can do, Nova. We can do some research and try to put together some new combat tactics in the meantime, but until we get better intelligence on what we might be facing and actually get told what we're going to be doing there, I don't see that there's too much point in worrying."
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