Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Two



2701.7.13.08.03 – Wolf 359; Starbase Hera

We woke up together the next morning stirring gently from a remarkably restful night's sleep. We had shared the bed but nothing else overnight, given my unease at Kat's revelations the night before. While I still, and probably always would, love her, I felt that the fundamental basis of our relationship had irrevocably changed. I took a quick shower and made Kat breakfast in bed, letting her snooze beneath the crisp white linen sheets. She stirred and sat up, pulling the sheet up over her chest as I carried in a heavily-laded bamboo tray.

"You still like your eggs runny, yes?"
"Not as much as I like them fertilised." Kat stretched sensuously, yawning for effect.
"Urgh. Kat, please... you're so crude sometimes." I shuddered as I set the breakfast tray down on her lap and sat down beside her, taking my mug of Assam tea.
"Sorry. You know I get like this when I'm excited."
"Or terrified." I said, stroking her arm. "After all, it's a massive change. I had a thought. You don't have to resign. You could take a sabbatical. Medical leave. Fleet would rather give you a two year leave of absence, no questions asked, than have you resign. You're a valuable officer. The best XO in the fleet."
"Hmm. I'll consider it." Kat said haughtily, as she lifted the top off her toasted muffin and prised out a rasher of fried bacon from her Eggs Benedict with delicate fingertips, before chewing it pensively.
"Please do. I'd take you back on board in an instant. It's hard to imagine flying without you."
"Gus, you'll be fine. You'll have officers lining up from here to Sol to be your XO."
"Yeah, but they won't be you."
"Who knows? They might be better." Kat stroked the back of my neck affectionately, pulling gently on the hairs. "I'm not sure I can see myself flying again. Not when I have kids."
"At least I get to keep you for one last patrol."
"You? Looking on the bright side? As I live and breath... What have you done with the real Gus?" Kat laughed.
"A pessimist is never disappointed, though occasionally pleasantly surprised." I kissed Kat on the forehead and stood.
"No breakfast for you?"
"I'll grab something later. I have a meeting with Hyades Fleet Command at nine. I need to get going." I opened the wardrobe built into the wall by the bed and started to put on my No.1 dress uniform. "Will you be here when I get back?"
"Sorry, I've got a few things to take care of. " Kat put the depleted breakfast tray onto the nightstand and searched under the bed covers for her underwear. "I'm moving some of my stuff into storage so I can get it shipped back to Earth before we go on patrol."

I finished donning my uniform and narrowly avoided Kat mauling my jacket and mussing up my hair as she tried to drag me back into bed when I gave her a goodbye kiss. "Hey! Behave yourself. I'll call you later."

I sealed the door behind me, heading briskly for the nearest lift. I only had to wait for a few seconds for a lift pod to arrive. Mercifully, it was empty, allowing me to gather my thoughts in peace.

"CIC." I prompted the lift verbally, validating my security credentials wirelessly via my neural link. The lift accelerated quickly up to the top level of the Starbase, jumping from rail to rail using short, sharp jolts from its electromagnetic propulsion system to avoid other lift pods descending in the opposite direction. I focused on the information screen, rather than the sight outside the lift's viewport. It would be considered career damaging to get vertigo and greet the top brass by throwing up over the floor of the CIC. The Combat Information Centre was the central operations room of the Starbase. All the tactical information from the hundreds of ships on operations in the Sirius sector fed thousands of exabytes of data per second into the Starbase's main AI, called ArtEMIS - Artificial Extended Matrix Information Synthesizer - for processing and analysis. ArtEMIS routinely dealt with well over three hundred thousand billion queries a day and spotted patterns in tactical data in nanoseconds that would take a human operator months, if not years. Artificial Intelligence was the one area where we had a key advantage over the Thrinax - which was just as well, considering their overwhelming technical superiority in just about every other respect. Artificial Intelligence computing had undergone a quantum leap forward in the early 24th Century, with the first graphene and stanene based neural net AIs achieving true sentience, marrying the brute force logical processing capability of computers with the more subtle, human art of intuition. With unimaginable raw computing power and the creativity of true conscious and subconscious thought, those early AIs had started designing their successors without any human input at all, becoming ever more capable. It was now fair to say that no-one, other than an ArtEMIS AI, truly understood how they worked, but each one was capable of processing more information than the entire human race, and they linked together into a galaxy-spanning consciousness via warpspace communication links. Without ArtEMIS and the other AIs like her in each of our ships and Starbases, the Thrinax War would have ended in defeat years ago. Despite the practical omniscience of our Artificial Intelligences, we were still no closer to understanding just why the war itself had started, six years ago, but at least they were able to help us fight more effectively.

I stepped onto the deck of the CIC, with my breakfast tea thankfully still on the correct side of my oesophagus. Here, at the pinnacle of the space station, there was not enough rotation to provide artificial gravity. Instead my boots utilised flexible magnetic strips and a synthetic 'gecko' skin on the soles that used magnetic and van der Waal's forces to keep my feet on the deck. One of my resident Science Officers had once explained to me how they worked: the nano-scale engineered material used in the soles comprised of billions of tiny filaments that multiplied the effective surface area of the boots by a factor of hundreds of thousands, creating a large electrostatic attraction between the surface of the sole and whatever it was in contact with. Allied with the magnetic force when walking on ferromagnetic materials, the effect was so powerful in zero gravity that you could use them to walk on the walls and the ceiling - something that I had seen demonstrated in the officer's wardroom on Pallas by my Chief Science Officer and her lead Astrophysicist while singing an imaginatively obscene rendition of Me and my shadow, as they waltzed together on the ceiling at the end of a particularly raucous quiz and cabaret night. I took a second to get my bearings and then headed for the CIC's command deck at the top of the compartment. Clustered around the thirty metre wide galactic holograph were five officers - the command staff of the Hyades Cluster Fleet.

"Ah, Fearghas. You're early." Fleet Admiral Strauss welcomed me with a warm admonishment. I saluted him and we shook hands. With him were Vice Admiral Moskaleva, Vice Admiral Williams, Vice Admiral Nguyen, and finally Rear Admiral Cochrane, an old friend and adversary from my class at the Academy. We'd known each other since we were 14 year old officer cadets, and our relationship hadn't really matured ever since.

"Good of you to join us, Kinky." Cochrane winked, as we shook hands. If my career had been successful - and it had been - there weren't many people who could boast of reaching the rank of Commodore before they were 40 after all; Alasdair Cochrane's career progression had been meteoric and deservedly so, even if it pained me to admit it. He always insisted on calling me by my infantile Academy nickname, so I responded in return, despite the fact he was a senior officer. The fact we'd known each other for over twenty-five years afforded me some familiarity.

"Nice to see you too, Cocky." I tried not to flinch as the other Flag officers sighed quietly in despair at our pubescent posturing. Alasdair let his handshake linger a good five seconds too long - one of these days we'd both end up in the infirmary with broken metacarpals; our handshakes had become tests of pain endurance over the years. Satisfied that we'd established a mutually agreeable pecking order, Alasdair released his grip and put a hand on my shoulder to usher me to the holograph. I felt sure that at least three of my fingers had picked up new stress fractures, but chose not to show it. Strauss immediately got straight to business.

"Now that you're here, Fearghas, we should begin the briefing."
"I'm all ears, sir."
"Tania?" Strauss looked over at his second in command, Vice Admiral Moskaleva, a trim, diminutive Russian woman with close-cropped blonde hair in her mid-60s.
"Commodore Kincaid," Moskaleva paused awkwardly. "May I call you Fearghas?"
"Please. Or 'Gus' is better." I replied, immediately wary. When flag officers wanted to speak to you on first name terms, it was either a sign they were about to ask you to do something extremely dangerous or were about to give you a promotion. Or possibly both.

"Gus, then." Moskaleva said the name with such gravitas it felt like she was reading my last rites. "Are you familiar with the overall situation of the Thrinax incursion into the Hyades Cluster?"
"Broadly speaking, Admiral. Enemy activity is concentrated primarily in the Vega Sector, with increasing activity in Capella and Fomalhault. Incursions into the Sirius Sector are stable, if not decreasing."
"Correct, Commodore. It's nice to know that at least some of our commanders read the daily intelligence briefings." Moskaleva permitted herself only the faintest of smiles. "We've been very impressed with the performance of Pallas and her battlegroup over the last eighteen months, Gus. You've been punching well above your weight."
"Thank you, Admiral." I said cautiously. It sounded like a loaded complement to me.
"Don't thank me yet, Gus. In normal circumstances, we'd reassign Pallas and her battlegroup to a strike force in the Eagle Nebula. But these are far from normal circumstances."
"I'm not sure I follow, ma'am."
"You haven't just impressed Confederate High Command, Gus. ArtEMIS has detected a higher than average density of enemy vessels converging toward your usual patrol areas, indicating that the Thrinax may be gunning specifically for you. Worse than that, the underlying pattern in their ship movements shows that they may be trying to realign their forces and hit Sol via the back door."
"When do we expect them to attack, ma'am?" I asked. Suddenly Pallas's next tour of duty didn't sound quite so safe and routine.
"Sometime within the next six to twelve months is ArtEMIS's best guess, though we can't be sure for certain." Cochrane interjected. "We might be able to monitor their fleet movement patterns, but we've still not made any headway intercepting their communications. It's almost as if they've never heard of radio or FTL comms. Their fleet movements are clearly coordinated, but we've still no idea how they do it."
"Sir, ma'am..." I looked helplessly between Strauss and Moskaleva. "My battlegroup isn't equipped to fend off an invasion force. We can handle recon flights and the odd stray dreadnought, but anything more than that would be a slaughter."
"We know, Fearghas." Strauss replied in reassuring tones. "That's why we're tripling the size of your command."
"Tripling?" My eyes must have appeared to have been on stalks, I was so shocked.
"More than that, actually. We're assigning Tartarus and Erebus to your battlegroup." Strauss brought up their schematics on the holograph. They were both Primordial-class Dreadnoughts – two of the most powerful ships in the fleet. "You'll need dreadnoughts of your own to stand a fighting chance against a fully-fledged Thrinax invasion force. Which one would you like to be your flagship?"
"Flagship?" I could barely choke out the word; I felt like being sick, though for once it had nothing to do with the spinning vista outside of the CIC's panoramic viewport.
"Come now, Fearghas." Strauss said, chiding me gently. "A command of this size warrants a promotion to Rear Admiral. And it's no less than you deserve. So, which one will it be? Tartarus or Erebus?"

I stared at the holograph for what seemed an eternity, letting the enormity of what I'd been told sink in. Both of them were top of the line vessels - double the size and with six times the firepower of Pallas - but when I looked at their silhouettes on the holograph, I kept picturing target roundels splashed over their hulls. Big and powerful they may be, but in any engagement with the Thrinax, they'd also be first on the hit list.

"With respect, sir, I'd like to keep Pallas as my command ship." Strauss's eyebrows furrowed in confusion, while Cochrane actually smiled.
"I told you he was smart, Admiral." Cochrane said, chuckling quietly.
"I don't understand, Fearghas. Explain." Strauss frowned.
"Pallas is a lower priority target than a dreadnought in any enemy contact, sir. The Thrinax will never suspect it's a command ship. Secondly, I know Pallas and her crew inside out, sir. It'd take me months to get up to speed with a new ship and crew. Months we don't have, if these intelligence reports are accurate." I explained. Strauss didn't look happy, but nodded his assent.
"Very well, Fearghas. Report back here on 2701.7.20 at 0900 for your patrol orders. The ceremony for your official promotion to Rear Admiral will be at 1200 the same day in the Arboretum." Strauss stepped forward to shake my hand again. "Congratulations, Rear Admiral Kincaid. Dismissed."

I stood to attention and we saluted each other, before I beat a hasty retreat to the lift, before anyone could change their mind about what had just happened. I didn't head straight back to my quarters on the habitation ring, but instead stopped by the docks and spent a couple of hours on the observation deck, simply staring at Pallas and her retinue of support ships as worker bees swarmed over their hulls, applying hull patches over damaged bulkheads and upgrading subsystems. It was odd seeing Pallas attached to the docking barrel tipped over on her side, but at least this meant that the ship would experience the same pseudo-gravitational force as the denizens on the station.

"Quite a sight, isn't it?" the unexpected question stirred me out of my daze and my head snapped around to identify the person who'd interrupted my daydreaming. It was Kimi Harmaajärvi, my best friend and ship's counsellor.
"Jesus! Kimi, don't do that to me. You'll give me a coronary."
"You look like someone who needs to talk." Kimi said, in his emotionless yet insightful timbre. "One rarely finds answers staring into the depths of space."
"I was looking at Pallas."
"Yes, I saw." Kimi replied, tilting his head as he gauged the severity of my mood. "You also look like a man who needs a drink. Come on, Gus. I'm buying."

It was a rare enough offer that I followed him without hesitation. Kimi directed me to the nearest lift and minutes later we were sat down in a dimly lit booth in the Moby Dick - a Fleet bar on the lower habitation ring where only the bravest (or stupidest) dare tread, especially before noon. Kimi left me brooding silently in my seat as he ordered at the bar, coming back with two glasses and a bottle of blackcurrant-flavoured Finnish vodka. He filled both glasses to their brim and we toasted each other before downing our shots in a single gulp. Kimi sat back savouring the flavour while I coughed violently into the palm of my hand.

"Fucking hell! What's this made from? Stardrive coolant?" I asked, spluttering.
"Potatoes, fermented with rye." Kimi refilled our glasses. "You might as well talk now, while you still have the faculties for it. What's eating you, Gus?"
"I've been promoted."
"And that's bad news?"
"Maybe. I get a proper fleet, but the Thrinax are coming for us, Kimi. They're going to try to hit Earth. They're going to circle us like a pack of wolves and then come in for the kill."
"We're military men, Gus. We live every day accepting the risks of war. The Thrinax have always outmanned and outgunned us. I don't see what's changed."
"We've always had something to die for, Kimi. The fight for Earth and the survival of humanity - all that patriotic bullshit they trot out hourly on the recruitment broadcasts. But I've never had anything to live for." I drained my glass, coughing again. "And if Intel is right, I never will."
"I haven't heard you talk like this since you and Katrina divorced."
"Oh God, Kat... What am I going to tell her?"
"Any time you'd like to start making sense would be fine by me, Gus."
"Shit. Kat and I... we never told anyone. We've still been seeing each other. But she's leaving, Kimi. She's met someone else, and they're going to have a baby. She's resigning from the fleet."
"She's? What?" Kimi sounded stunned, and it took teflon-coated, tungsten-tipped bullets to get through his emotional armour as a Scandinavian and a psychological counsellor. 
"This was going to be her last tour. Now it might be everybody's last tour."
"Gus, what the hell are you talking about? Try again, this time from the beginning."

Kimi listened to me ramble for the next hour, as I filled him in on everything that had happened to me in the last two days, from my commendation and promotion, to Kat's plans for a new marriage and family, and the potential dangers facing my battlegroup in the Sirius sector on our next scheduled patrol. He sat impassively, sipping vodka, periodically topping up our glasses and listening intently, waiting until I ran out of words.

"What am I going to do, Kimi? What should I do?" I asked, to fill in the terrible silence as I waited for his judgement. Kimi pondered for another minute, before emptying his glass.
"Go home, tell Katrina you've been promoted and everything else you've just told me." Kimi pronounced, reaching unsteadily for the nearly empty bottle of vodka.
"That's it? That's your sage advice? Garnered from twenty years of counselling experience?" I sat back, aghast.
"Jep." Kimi nodded.
"Fat lot of fucking good you are." I clutched my temples. The vodka was already making my brain throb. I was going to have one hell of a hangover by the evening.
"Gus." Kimi snagged my wrist before I could stand. "It's better advice than you think. Katrina would follow you to the ends of the galaxy if you asked her to. You just need to ask her.”
“I still love her, Kimi. I don't want to see her hurt.” I protested. "Not when she's this close to getting what she's always wanted."
“Don't push her away, Gus. Not even to protect her. She'd never forgive you.” Kimi grasped my collar to make sure I was paying attention. “Just be honest with her. Talk to her. If you do that, you'll make the right decision for both of you. ”

I sat back as Kimi let go of my jacket. We stared at each other without a word, seemingly for hours, before I simply nodded and ordered a coffee via the terminal on our table. As I waited, Kimi sadly emptied the dregs of the vodka into his glass, beckoning over a nearby bar droid to fetch him a fresh bottle.

"I'm going to get back to my quarters while I can still walk. You should too, Gus." Kimi lurched to his feet as he relieved the droid of the full vodka bottle and paid his bill using the thumbprint scanner in the middle of the table.
"I'll be fine. See you at the promotion ceremony in a few days." I assured him, still distracted and deep in thought.

I was midway through my second flask of coffee when I realised that someone was approaching my table. I glanced up, relieved to see that it wasn't one of my junior officers. Instead, it was a sleek, petite woman I estimated to be around 30 years old, dressed in a plain, gunmetal grey jumpsuit and deck boots. Her hair was cut in a straight collar-length bob and was dyed a fashionable silver-cobalt. Rich bronze skin and sharp, narrow features completed her exotic look. I wouldn't have called her beautiful in the strictest sense of the word, but I did find her striking and attractive.

"Hey, are you okay?" I struggled to place her accent as she sat down opposite me, a concerned smile on her face. Her English was fluent, though her intonation sounded vaguely Eastern European, with the merest hint of Japanese. "You look like you're suffering there."
"Thanks for your concern, miss-?"
"Malia. Malia Sherazi." Malia gave me a slight bow with her head by way of introduction.
"Honestly, I'm fine." I said, rather unconvincingly as I took another sip of the intensely bitter coffee, trying to stave off the oncoming headache from my vodka-induced hangover.
"You're drinking litres of double espresso at four in the afternoon in a bar. By definition, you're not fine." Malia pointed out, her full lips stretching out into a smile. "So... what's your story?"
"Miss Sherazi-"
"Malia."
"Malia... I'm sorry, but why exactly are you so interested in my 'story'? Are you a journalist?" My hands twitched at the possibility. Admiral Strauss would certainly have second thoughts about promoting me if my face was splashed all over the local news network in this state.
"Hardly." The woman laughed with a pleasant, high-pitched lilt. "I just thought you looked like you needed cheering up. And you seem like my type."
"Oh? What type is that?"
"Melancholic and single." Malia said, her green eyes sparkling with mischief.
"Ouch. Thanks, I guess." I finished my cup of coffee, studying her long, exotic face more closely. Something in my subconscious found her compelling in a way that couldn't be explained purely by her physical appearance. "You're pretty forward, Malia. Does this tactic work for you very often?"
"It does with drunk sailors." Malia said, smiling broadly.
"So you like a man in uniform, huh?" I couldn't stop myself from smiling back at her, enjoying her flirtatiousness.
"I like them out of their uniform, too." Malia shifted slightly in her seat, edging closer to me and lowering her voice. "Why don't you buy me a drink and see where it leads?"

Predictably, it led back to my quarters.
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