Monday, May 30, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty

2701. – In transit; CFV-B Pallas

Pallas had been in transit for a week when I decided that it would be a good time to sit down with Robson to get to know my XO-in-waiting better. He joined me for an informal breakfast in my Ready Room while Hal took first watch and minded the bridge. I filled a mug of tea through its pressure valve as Robson helped himself to a couple of slices of plain toast.

"How are your new quarters, Commander?"
"Bigger than I'm used to, sir. I've never served on a ship this size before."
"What do you make of Pallas?"
"She's a beauty, Admiral. You run a very tight ship, sir. I don't think I've ever seen a crew this well-drilled and disciplined. Every department is right on top of their game, all maintenance schedules are up to date... Very impressive, sir."
"Your job is going to be to keep it that way."
"Indeed, sir. Commander Jameson's been showing me the ropes. She's a real piece of work, Admiral. In the good way, I mean. Doesn't let anything slide. Doesn't miss a detail. All the crew respect her. You must be sorry to lose her."
"You don't know the half of it, Commander. I trust the senior staff has made you feel welcome?"
"Well, sir, I'm not sure what to make of Sub-Commander Randall, but I like the rest of the officers. Weps is very sharp. He should make a good sparring partner."
"No, sir. Kendo. I was on the Academy team."
"Interesting. I couldn't get used to the armour. Too claustrophobic, not to mention hot. I almost had a stroke the first time I tried sparring in full armour. Never again."
"Is it true you used to fly with the Furies, sir?"
"For my last three years at the Academy. I was Fury 7, the synchro pair leader."
"I was a reserve pilot in my final year. But I never made the display team."
"You must still be quite a pilot to have made the reserves. Competition for places is fierce to say the least."
"Thank you, sir. I still like to get behind the controls of an interceptor and do a bit of astrobactics now and then."
"I should introduce you to our wing commander. He's a former Fury squadron leader. I'm sure he'd show you a few manoeuvres."
"As long as you let me have a bit of practice in a simulator first, sir. I'd hate to embarrass myself."
"Is that why you joined the service? To fly?"
"One of the reasons, yes sir. I come from a fleet family. Seventh generation to serve. My grandfather was Virgil Robson."
"Buzz Robson? No kidding. He was a legend in the Fifth Fleet. Found more habitable planets in the Sagittarius Arm than the rest of the fleet combined."
"And he was the first person to make it out to Eta Carinae and back."
"So, you wanted to be an explorer. Push the boundaries of the frontier."
"I guess I always wanted to know what was out there, Admiral. Now we know, it's not quite so easy to be an idealist."
"Being an idealist is never easy, Carl. Ideals have to be fought for, often at great cost."
"What if that cost is too high, sir?"
"Then it was never an ideal worth fighting for in the first place. Is that how you feel about the war?"
"I don't know, sir. We might not have started it, but we've got to finish it. We've lost a lot already. That sacrifice has got to count for something."
"This war has cost you more than most, Carl. Two ships. Three thousand casualties."
"Yes, sir." Robson's voice went ice cold.
"How does that make you feel, Commander?"
"Guilty. And responsible. Responsible for making those deaths count for something more than a statistic."
"There's no place for a guilty conscience on my command deck, Robson. The only thing you're guilty of is living when your crewmates died. And that's not your fault. If it's anyone's, it's mine. Do you resent me for that, Commander?"
"No, sir. Because I'm still here to make a difference."
"Good. So long as you remember that you're not some kind of avenging angel, you're an officer of the fleet. You're responsible for more people who are alive than are dead. If you don't think you're up to the job, better that you tell me now than let me find out later."
"I'm also responsible for one other thing, Admiral. Justifying your faith in me when you offered me the position of XO. And I will."
"I hope so, Carl. This might be your ship someday. Maybe sooner than you think. You need to be ready for when those hard calls need to be made."
"Permission to speak freely, Admiral?"
"How did you feel when you ordered Enyalius to take the beam cannon hit at 111 Tauri?"
"I didn't like it, Carl. It's not a trivial thing, ordering men and women to their deaths. But that's the burden of command. It was necessary and I'd do it again in a heartbeat, because that was the only option I had to not lose the whole battlegroup. Enyalius was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe the right place at the right time."
"I suppose that's a perspective thing."
"I suppose it is." I afforded myself a thin, humourless smile. "Do you know how many people have died under my command, Carl?"
"No, sir."
"Fifty-three thousand, eight hundred and twenty-two. I get ArtEMIS to keep score for me. So I never forget. I'm directly responsible for each one of those deaths, either because I deliberately ordered a ship into harm's way, or because I made a mistake. I don't see their faces, but I do carry the weight of all those deaths whenever I try to sleep at night."
"Do you feel guilty, sir?"
"No. No, I don't, because I know I did the best that I could. But I don't sleep as well as I used to, Carl." I paused and watched Robson's face carefully, trying to gauge his reaction as what I'd said sank in. "Even though I know how many lives those deaths have saved."
"And I thought I had issues." Robson closed his eyes, rubbing his face.
"It helps to talk about it. How are you getting on with Counsellor Harmaajärvi?"
"I'm not sure, Admiral. He's not what I expected from a Counsellor."
"What were you expecting?"
"Advice? Guidance?"
"Give it time, Commander. Before you can listen to other people, first you have to learn how to listen to yourself."
"That's exactly what he said, Admiral. Kinda Zen. I'm not sure I've gotten my head around that yet."
"Trust me, Commander. It works."
"If you say so, sir. Our next appointment is in twenty minutes, as it happens."
"You don't want to be late. You're dismissed, Commander."
"Aye, sir. Thank you for breakfast, Admiral. And the chat."

I finished my tea to give Robson a head start, before joining Hal on the bridge to get a sitrep.

"Morning, Hal. Comfy in the big chair?"
"Good morning, Admiral. Very comfy. At least while we're in transit. I'm happy to leave it to you and Commander Jameson when we're in realspace, though." Hal stirred in the command seat, his hands fidgeting on the armrest control boards. "There's more to keep your fingers busy on the Ops station. I always preferred system operations to command."
"Dealing with computers is simpler, huh?"
"Yes, sir. Computers always do what they're told. Well, the ones without AI do, anyway." Hal sniggered. "Was there anything you needed, Admiral?"
“Everything running smoothly, Number Two?”
“Like clockwork, Admiral. No glitches or fluctuations in the power grid. The fusion reactor is stable, running at 80% capacity. Weps is going to running a combat sim later to liven things up.”
“At 16.00. Should be interesting. He and Lieutenant Mitchell have modelled their best estimates of the capabilities of the behemoth from the reverse-engineering of its realspace engines and weapons systems. I think I might stick around after the end of my shift to see how it goes.”
“What’s the scenario?”
“One behemoth versus Tartarus and Erebus. My money’s on the behemoth.”
 “That’s a little pessimistic, isn’t it, Hal?”
“Have you seen the predicted specs on the behemoth’s beam cannons, sir?”
“No. How scary are they?”
“Nightmarish. 5.48 petawatt equivalent, with a combat range of 8,000km. That’d rip through a couple of back-to-back starbases, no problem.”
“Jesus. You think that behemoth was one the Elders that Number Six was talking about?”
“I hope so. The thought of half a dozen of those in the same place is terrifying enough, sir. If the Thrinax have ships bigger and more powerful than that… It doesn’t bear thinking about.” 
“Hmm. I’ll ask Number Six about it when we reach 119 Tauri. I’ll be in the Ready Room if anything urgent comes up.”

I'd spent couple of mostly unproductive hours reading and signing off annual personnel evaluation reports in the Ready Room when Kimi paid me a visit.  

“Morning, Admiral. Have you got a few minutes?” Kimi asked, as I waved him down into the seat opposite me.
“Please. Anything to break the tedium of paperwork.”
“I thought you might want to know how Commander Robson’s therapy is going.” Kimi settled into his seat and handed me his ePaper pad, which was covered with illegible, scrawled notes from their session this morning.
“You should have gone into General Practice. Is this actually writing?”
“Illiterate.” Kimi snatched back the pad, with a loud, derisive snort.
“Give me the short version, Kimi.”
“He was a lot more positive today. Our first few sessions weren’t that productive, but Robson really opened up this morning.” Kimi sounded pleased. “He talked a lot about the Enyalius incident.”
“Anything illuminating?”
“A lot of guilt. A lot of anger. Mostly self-directed. Denial, too. Did you know his fiancée was one of the casualties? Julia Mizuno, Chief Engineer. They’d just gotten engaged.”
“He never took the time to come to terms with the loss of the ship and the crew, not to mention his fiancée. He declined leave and got reassigned as soon as he made it back to port. Oh, this is all confidential, by the way.” the psychologist added, looking both furtive and disinterested, as if to downplay the massive breach in doctor-patient confidentiality he had just made.
“No wonder he never settled on Ajax.” I mused, glad that Kimi had broken with protocol to give me a better insight into Robson's state of mind.
“Dealing with grief is never easy. But not dealing with it at all destroys you. The good news is that Robson wants to break the cycle of self-destructive behaviour he was exhibiting on Ajax.”
“Good. I can't afford to have an emotional time bomb as an Executive Officer.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad, Gus. We made a lot of progress today. And he's forming positive attachments with the senior staff. He speaks very highly of you, Katrina and Weps.”
"Nice to know. Thanks, Kimi. Keep me informed."
"I will."
"How's the rest of the crew holding up? Anyone I need to be worried about?"
"No, we're good. No-one's set off any red flags since we left ε Gemini."
"Not even among the enlisted crew? We've got some pretty green junior ratings on board."
"Their crew chiefs are keeping them busy. Busy workers are happy workers. Everyone I've spoken to is pretty sanguine, even about having Number Six in tow." Kimi stashed his pad away into a thigh pocket, relaxing backwards into his chair. "A few people are concerned about the lack of clarity in our patrol orders, but that's just the usual bunch of conspiracy theorists who think the Admiralty are in cahoots with the Thrinax."
"Unbelievable. Keep those bampots away from Kat. She'd space them in seconds."
"Speaking of Katrina. Three weeks to go before she leaves. How are you feeling about that?"
"Honestly? Ambivalent, at best. I don't want her to go, but I sure as hell don't want her to stay, either. Obviously, not letting her go would mean an instant court martial for both of us, and the front line is no place to have babies, but it's a long way home from here. What if something happens to her on the trip back to the core?"
"You wanted to send her back sooner."
"I did. Not that she'd have it. Kat wanted to leave it to the last minute. She's afraid that we're not coming back from this one."
"Are you?"
"I suppose I am, yeah. I don't like being kept in the dark. Half of me wishes that Fleet would tell us what the hell is going on, why we're so far out here on the rim. The other half doesn't want to know."
"Ignorance is bliss?"
"Maybe. What I do know is that, historically, missions like this never end well. I want Kat well out of the way whenever Fleet finally decide to let us in on the big secret."
"So that whatever happens out here, Kat will still make it back?"
"Yeah. And that if the worst does happen, she'll be able to take care of Malia for me."
"Have you thought about what you're going to tell Malia about the baby yet?"
"I want her to have it. I've got ArtEMIS primed and ready to send her the message as soon as we get out of transit. We're going to have one hell of a evening together when I get back to Hera. If I get back..."
"Insurance against extinction?" Kimi said, raising his eyebrows provocatively.
"That's it, isn't it? Why we jump on the genetic merry-go-round. To give us a shot at our own little piece of immortality. I never thought it was important before. What does one tiny double-helix of DNA matter to the universe? We're ephemeral, infinitesimal, entropic anomalies in the greater context of physical reality. As far as 99.999999999999999999999999999% of the universe is concerned, we might as well never have existed."
"There's another way of looking at it, Gus. How do you want that other 0.000000000000000000000000001% to remember you?"
"That's taking the 'glass half-full' philosophy to extremes, Kimi."
"How else can you appreciate the last drops, unless you lick the glass?" Kimi chuckled.
"Urgh. That's not even a metaphor, is it?" I felt my mouth curl in disgust as Kimi's smile grew wider. "Why do I even listen to you?"
"It's important for you to have someone that'll carry your memory onwards to future generations?" Kimi got us back on topic quickly. "To have a legacy?"
"Not so much. I really don't care what history might think about me in the future. I can live with the choices I've made. But protecting the people I care about most; my family, my crew, my command. That's important to me. I don't want them to think of me as someone who fucked up."
"Then all you can do is make sure that deal with the present. History will write itself."
"If Number Six is right, we can end this war. Now that's writing history, Kimi." I sat forward in my chair, lowering my voice. "That's what I want to be able to tell my kids, twenty years from now. That I was there when we pulled humanity back from the brink of annihilation."
"Do you think you will? Twenty years from now?"
"It's not something I'm going to leave to chance or fate, Kimi. I was the son of an absent father. That's not happening with my kids. Not ever. I’m going to be there for them. End of story."
"If you will it, it is no dream."
"Very profound. Zen?"
"Hardly. Theodor Herzl. The Old New Land."
"Hmm. That didn't work out so well for them in the end, did it?" I mused. The whole of the Middle East between Jerusalem and Tehran was still too radioactive for human habitation, five hundred years after Earth's only war involving two nuclear-armed powers. There weren't many pilgrims visiting the West Bank these days and the ones that did brave the fallout had to wear lead-lined exoskeleton suits and respirators.
"History only repeats itself if you fail to learn the lessons from it, Gus." Kimi reminded me.
"Just as well that I got a Master's degree in fin de millennium Military History and Politics at the Academy, then. That's when all the big mistakes were made. They were an ugly couple of hundred years; Makes the Dark Ages seem positively civilised in retrospect."
"Remember that it's not just about the mission you need to think about. Katrina's going be feeling pretty fragile over the next couple of weeks. She's going to need your support. Be ready to listen to her."
"I'm keeping an eye out for her, don't worry."
"I'll leave you to it, Gus. I've got to get to my next appointment. One of the conspiracy theorists." Kimi stood, a knowing smile on his face.
"Yeah. You have fun with that. I think I'll stick with these." I told him, tapping my screen to open yet another personnel evaluation report. "Only another two thousand, three hundred and seventeen to go."
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