Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Thirty-Five

2702. – Crab Nebula; CFV-D Erebus

I'd been up for nearly twenty hours, preparing the fleet for the assault on the Thrinax Swarm World. By necessity, the final briefing had involved the COs from every ship in the combined task group, and as there hadn’t been the space to accommodate nearly two hundred extra officers on Pallas, Captain Nyhus had offered to host the meeting on Erebus. Aisha Sagar seemed almost embarrassed to be there, following her unexpected field promotion, but the rest of the commanding officers had been eager to come aboard, if only to compare how well-appointed Erebus was compared to their own vessels. Predictably, the final briefing and tactical planning meetings had run on for double the time they should have, simply because it wasn’t possible to put that many opinionated senior officers in the same room and not expect them to disagree with each other for the sake of disagreeing. After first debating the accuracy of the information provided to us by Number Six, and then arguing about the predicted spread of outcomes from the combat simulations carried out by Marciano and Mitchell, the major bone of contention was our dependency on the Thrinax to enter and exit the nebula. Given that there was no other practical way to reach the Swarm World other than to use jump coordinates provided by Number Six, it quickly became a moot point and we were able to discuss the finer points of the actual battle plan itself. The simulations had looked promising, with 35% losses in a worst case scenario and less than 20% if everything went according to plan.

Prior to the meeting, Marciano had privately voiced concerns to me that with just one behemoth at the Swarm World, the rebel Thrinax didn’t actually need my ships to succeed in their objective. Taking my battlegroup out of the simulations only increased the casualties on the Rebel side by 15%, even in the worst-case scenarios, but that wasn’t his only worry.
“I can’t put my finger on it, Admiral, but something’s not quite right here, sir. Those Navigators don’t look like they should have the power output needed to manipulate a black hole through warpspace. Maybe my models are off.” Marciano shrugged.
“Perhaps, I’ve not known you to be wrong yet, Commander. But our battlecruisers are worth two Thrinax dreadnoughts, as a minimum. It makes sense for Number Six to want to have us along, as it gives his force parity with the loyalist dreadnoughts. And having us there shortens the engagement time by a couple of hours, which gives the loyalists less time to reinforce.”
“I suppose so, sir. I’ve just got that nagging feeling that I’m missing something.”
“Let me know if you find it, Commander.”

Once we had reached a consensus on the regrettable but necessary dependence on the rebel Thrinax to infiltrate and exfiltrate the nebula, discussion had then turned to how to manage the radiation exposure to our crews, given that the smaller corvettes and frigates had less than half the anticipated combat endurance of the larger cruisers and the two dreadnoughts. The nature of the Swarm World itself complicated things considerably, as not only did the crews have to contend with the synchrotron radiation that bathed the nebula, they also had the added worry of x-ray and gamma ray exposure from the accretion disk in the vicinity of the Swarm World itself. Revised simulations predicted that the corvette and frigate groups had less than forty minutes before their crews would start to suffer chronic radiation sickness, and none of our simulations expected the engagement with the behemoth and the Navigators guarding Swarm World to be over so quickly.

With the aid of Number Six, Marciano and Lieutenant Mitchell had devised a complex set of hit-and-run tactics that would allow our ships to manage the radiation environment. Each of my vessels had been assigned dedicated groups of rebel Thrinax warriors to escort ships out of the nebula in waves, depending on their level of radiation shielding. The added bonus was that the Thrinax vessels could also act as beam cannon screens for my ships, as their hulls were capable of ablating the energy from the weapons of destroyer-class ships. With the radiation levels within the nebula ruling out the option of manned fighter cover, the main combat role of the corvette and frigate groups was to act as an anti-drone screen, and it was hoped that between the rebel drones, remote-controlled fighters and the point-defence laser turrets on our capital ships, the smaller vessels wouldn’t be needed after thirty or forty minutes. That left the heavy-hitters of our task group, Tartarus, Erebus, the Titans and the Hero-class assault cruisers, just over ninety minutes to destroy the Navigators and any other loyalist support vessels.

The key to the success of the operation was making the initial jump into the nebula with sufficient precision to negate the weapons range advantage the behemoth had on Number Six’s assault force and ensuring that my task group and its escorts could engage the Navigators as quickly as possible. For this, we were totally dependent on Number Six and the intelligence of his scouts inside the nebula itself. We had agreed that if the initial jump was not precise enough to start engaging the Navigators within ten minutes of our arrival at the Swarm World, my task group would pull out and leave the Thrinax to fight it out amongst themselves. Number Six had assured me that he would provide my battlegroup with precise enough jump coordinates to begin engaging the Navigators almost immediately. To give us as much of an edge in combat against the Navigators as possible, Commander Randall, with the help of Erebus’s engineers, had managed to eke out the effective range of the mass drivers on the dreadnaughts to 7500 kilometres, and those of our Titans and Heroes to 2000 kilometres, which was well beyond the beam cannon range of Thrinax dreadnoughts, but even the upgrade to Tartarus and Erebus’s weapons was still short of parity with our best estimate for a behemoth’s beam cannons. I fervently hoped that Number Six’s group would be able to neutralise the behemoth and that we would be left to mop up the smaller dreadnoughts and cruisers. Our simulations predicted that if just one more behemoth joined the party more than 5000 kilometres apart from the other Elder, the resulting casualties would be catastrophic. We had to eliminate the behemoth and the Navigators as quickly as possible to minimise the risk that the Swarm World would be reinforced by forces loyal to the Elders. Number Six and his scouts were closely monitoring the movements of the Elder and the Navigators around the Swarm World and I had given them a standing order to report when at least twenty of the Navigators were within 3000km of each other and when the behemoth was at least 20,000km from that grouping. In simulations, both of those criteria had led to a 95% success rate in for the initial ambush, with a casualty rate of only 4%. The scouts reported that those conditions were met at a frequency of roughly every 11 hours, and I had agreed in principle with Number Six that we would begin the assault at the first opportunity after midnight on 2702.7.16. If the ambush went as well as our models predicted, I was confident of success. If it went badly, we were in for a difficult and painful couple of hours. With something approaching a final consensus having been reached on the deployment and contingency plans, I adjourned the meeting until 0800 the next morning, when we were due to get the next update from one of Number Six’s scouts. Nova caught my eyes as the group stood and we lingered behind as everyone else said their goodbyes and retired to their guest quarters for the evening.

"Let’s hope that the attack in the nebula goes a whole lot more smoothly than that did." I sighed, sagging against the table.
"Well, in 24 hours, it’ll all be over, one way or the other. Fancy a drink?"
"Hell, yes. What've you got?"
"Special supply. Sauternes-finished Glenmorangie." Nova arched her eyebrows enticingly.
“My favourite. You remembered.” I said as Nova hooked her arm through mine, and walked me along the corridor.
“I remember a lot of things. Stay with me tonight.” Nova whispered into my ear as she used her thumbprint to unlock the hatch to her stateroom.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Nova?”
“At least stay for a drink. It could be our last chance.” Nova steered me inside, directing me to a cream couch upholstered with a striking, cerise floral pattern as she fetched two large drinking bulbs of pale amber-coloured whisky.
"What's up, Nova? You’ve seen the same sims I have. The numbers look good. We might actually be able to do this."
"I wasn’t talking about the mission." Nova took a sip of her whisky.
"What else, then?"
"Remember when I said I could wait? Give you time?" Nova paused awkwardly, until I nodded. "I don't think I can, Gus. Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? We might be out of time."
"I know, Nova. I wanted to talk to you earlier, but…" I grimaced, forcing myself to look into her eyes, still not entirely sure about how I felt about her. Nova set down her whisky and knelt over me on the couch, intimately close.
"I don’t want to talk. I want this-" Nova grabbed me with surprising delicacy by the crotch. "In here." Nova's other hand snagged my left wrist and brought my hand up between her legs. "Think you can arrange that?"
"Jesus, Nova!" I gasped as she slid her fingers inside my jumpsuit and reached downwards.
"Gus, I know you love Malia. I'm not expecting a proposal. But in case we don’t come back from this mission alive, and I want you one last time. And I want to have you knowing that you want me, too. Even if it's just for one night."
"Nova... I..." She waited expectantly for me to finish the sentence, her hard fingertips working me sensuously as I tried to come to terms with the conflicting emotions I felt. "I do want you." I kissed Nova hard on the lips, my fingers unbinding the fastenings on her uniform, ripping them open from her neck to her navel. "No bra?" I asked, dipping my head to suckle her erect nipples in turn as I pulled her jumpsuit off over her shoulders and down to her slender waist.
"No knickers either. I've never seen much point in underwear." Nova groaned passionately in reply, her hands frantically opening the fastenings on my jumpsuit and pulling it down my arms and torso to my thighs. Moments later we were in bed, where I gave Nova what she wanted.

I was still lying beneath her when I woke four hours later feeling more refreshed than I had in months. Nova’s breasts were pressed flat against my chest and I watched her ribcage expand and contract slowly, still serenely asleep with her head resting on my shoulder. She looked glorious, her hair spreading untamed, like a platinum foil rug across her back. I stroked under her ears, down her neck to her waist with my fingertips, barely brushing her smooth skin.

“Mmm. That’s a nice way to wake up.” Nova breathed, stretching her arms and legs. She straddled my waist, tucking her knees underneath my armpits and sitting up. “What's wrong? You seem a little out of it.”
“Nothing. You look amazing. Angelic, even.” I shrugged, letting my palms settle on her thighs.
“Appearance of an angel, appetite of a succubus.” Nova said, easing her hips towards mine and letting the base of her body brush mine tantalisingly.
“What was that? ‘Suck your bust’? Well, if you insist.”

Nova squirmed, laughing and squealing as I bit gently at her nipples causing crimson flushes of desire to ripple over her torso, and she rubbed her cleft along my erection more insistently.

“Before we go into the nebula, there’s something you have to know.” Nova gasped as she mounted me.
“It can wait.” I groaned, lowering her onto her back. I neural linked with Nova so she could feel just how much I desired her at that moment. Nova linked back and there was no longer any need to speak.

“What was it you wanted to tell me earlier?” I asked Nova later, as we lay together on the bed recovering, still linked mentally and physically.
"I need to tell you something. I need to show you something. You're not who, or what you think you are."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked, as Nova took my head into her hands, thumbs pressing gently against my temples.
"Gus, I work for Umbra. I know more about you than you do."
"Umbra. Really." I smirked, disbelieving. "Nick Reynolds warned me about sleeper agents. I think you took the term a little bit too literally."
"Gus, this isn't a joke." Nova's voice took on a deadly tone.

I felt her presence in my mind-state through our neural link, plunging deeper and deeper into my semi-conscious mind, searching, hunting, before abruptly stopping, and as if turning a key, unlocking and opening a compartment that I never knew was there. Nova held my head securely as the hidden information poured out, the revelations contained within shattering long-held notions of self. I cried out in pain and confusion, overwhelmed by the torrent of data cascading through my brain, unable to process it all at once.

"It's okay, Gus. I'm here." Nova caressed my face, looking concerned. "The shock will pass soon. It's a lot to take in, I know. Let me help."

I sensed Nova's influence across our neural link, and she created a vision of a vast lake in my mind's eye, the churning information flowing and forming ripples as she meticulously ordered and sorted the chaos of my newly restored memories into threads I could follow, peeling back layer after layer of secrets that had been kept unknown even to myself and letting them settle underneath the surface until it calmed and became as flat and reflective as a mirror.

"Nova, what did you do?" I whispered. I felt confused, but liberated - quicker thinking and more capable. Now that the data cache was fully extracted and categorised and that my mind state had begun to settle, I processed the data at an inhuman speed, hardly knowing what to think or believe as the implications of each packet of information left me reeling.
"I just unwrapped a present I left for you, Gus. You see, I helped design you, create you."
“When Umbra recruited me almost fifty years ago, they were looking for synthetics with, how shall I put it? An in-depth knowledge and heightened appreciation for the human form – yes, that’ll do. I worked for Project Caeus, to help create the perfect sleeper agent: a human-synthetic hybrid so perfect that no-one would know they were anything other than human.”
“I don't understand. What are you telling me? That you’re my mother?” I asked, feeling somewhat repulsed as she held me.
“Oh God, no!" Nova cried out, horrified that I would even think such a thing. "Sorcha Kincaid is your mother, genetically and literally. Umbra had identified her as a potential candidate to host the hybrid. Given that your father was a Vice Admiral, Umbra knew that any offspring they had would be well-placed to be guided into a position of prominence, either politically or in the military. Your elder sisters were both natural conceptions and births, but Sorcha was under pressure from your father to have a son. So when she began to make inquiries to her obstetrician about gene therapy to ensure that her next child was a boy, my team stepped in."
"So what am I, exactly? And what was your part in this?"
"Gus, you're one of the most sophisticated human-synthetic hybrids ever created. Sorcha was already pregnant when she came to us. As it happened, you would have been a son anyway, but Sorcha didn't need to know that. The purpose of Project Caeus was to integrate your parent's DNA with a synthetic matrix so that the semi-organic seed for your AI core wouldn't get rejected by your brain tissue." Nova explained. "I was also asked to make a few other enhancements to your genetic code. I suppose you can think of me more as an editor, rather than an author."
“An editor? That makes me feel a whole lot better.”
“Every creative soul loves their work, Gus.” Nova smiled, slipping her hands under my shoulders and bringing herself down to lie flat against my chest. “Part of the plan was that we should be together, on the same ship. Unfortunately, your organic self had other ideas.”
“Kat... Was what happened to her arranged by Umbra as well?”
“No, she really was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
"What about Malia's accident?"
"Again, just bad luck. Sometimes a coincidence really is a coincidence."
“Sleeper agents, secret hybrids... Why would Umbra go to all this trouble?"
"Contingencies, Gus. You're not the only product of Project Caeus. You'll learn that Umbra likes to plan ahead. This is a project decades in the making."
"Suppose that I believe you." I began, my head still reeling from the enormity of the information dump from the cache in my AI core. "Why blow your cover, and mine, now?"
"It's not like I've announced it to the entire fleet. This is between us. Umbra might be a black ops organisation, but it needs actors on the stage, just as much as it needs directors behind the scenes. They're not going to make us disappear the way they did with Reynolds's group. We're more valuable to them in the long term if we make it back." Nova explained. "I activated you because if the fleet is going to survive, it needs every bit of intellect, resilience and resourcefulness you have. Just the human part of you won't be enough."
"Is that the only reason?"
"No." Nova admitted. "I thought that you deserved to know the truth. About you. About us. I'm going a little off plan here, Gus. You weren't supposed to find out until after the attack."
"What does Umbra want with the Swarm World, anyway?"
"What else? Power. Influence. They want to know how the Thrinax can harness the energy output of a black hole. If we can replicate whatever technology or method they're using they're using to tap into that energy - Gus, the galaxy would be our playground." Nova explained, impassioned, stroking my neck. "If we could apply the same techniques to the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way in Sagittarius - intergalactic travel might even be possible! Think of the possibilities!"
"Great, we'll be able to fuck up entire galaxies, rather than individual planets and star systems!"
"Always the cynic." Nova shook her head, smiling ruefully. "I should have done something about that at the design stage."
"Assuming we're able to neutralise the loyalist Thrinax forces in the nebula, how are we supposed to do anything with the Swarm World?"
"We don't. Umbra has assets in place to attempt to move the Swarm World once the Elders and the Navigators have been eliminated."
"What kind of assets?"
"Big ones." Nova told me, her tone flippant. She paused and shrugged before adding, "I honestly don't know, Gus. I'm not kept informed to this kind of level. But Umbra have been making preparations for some kind of end game since we first encountered the Thrinax. They're bound to have something up their sleeves."
"And if it all goes to plan? Where do we go from there?"
"Home, back to our day jobs. Hopefully with a big fat promotion. How would you like your own starbase?"
"I don't know. Location is everything." I deadpanned. "It would need to have a nice view."
"Like this one?" Nova asked, sitting up, so that I could fully appreciate the reflection of the dim ambient light from the flawless curves of her breasts and hips. Something primal snapped in our shared consciousness and I let go of any pretence of self-control as Nova moved against me sensuously and rhythmically, our mutual pleasure and arousal reflecting between our psyches, building gradually to a release that had us both screaming. At the moment of our climax Nova laid her soul bare for me, letting me feel not just her physical desire for me (which was overwhelming enough), but also the love she felt for me, both the rational love of her intellect and the irrational love from the emotional subconscious of her AI. Nova absolutely believed that we were meant to be together, and that feeling was reinforced for both of us every time we made love. The sensation was intoxicating and almost involuntarily, I wanted to give the same feelings back to her.

"Not fair." I protested weakly, emotionally and physically drained but unwilling to cut the sensual and reassuring neural link with her, as Nova settled back down on my chest, practically purring with contentment, her skin flushed a lurid fuchsia pink, cooling slowly back down to her usual silvery alabaster. "Nobody should be allowed to be that good in bed. A man could fall in love, you know."
"And I should bloody well hope so, too." Nova closed her eyes and laid her head on my chest, sated, at least for the moment.
"Nova, there's always been something I've never quite gotten to grips with. Why do synthetics get involved with humans? What's the attraction?"
"I could ask you the same thing. Why do humans fall in love with artificial intelligences?"
"We're betrayed by our hormones, as my mother would say. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have conditioned us to seek out compatible physical specimens to share our genes with and seed the next generation. It's a biological imperative." I explained, stroking Nova's hair and neck. "And I've never met a synthetic who's anything other than utterly gorgeous. With such a combination of looks and brains, it's only natural that we'd find synthetics attractive. The fact that synthetics aren't perfect facsimiles of humans only adds to the appeal. It adds an element of the exotic."
"Oh, I'm exotic now, am I?" Nova giggled. "I suppose I should be flattered."
"I suppose you should. A lot of humans protested about the creation of humanoid, synthetic AIs, when they first started being designed and built."
"I know, I was there, though I was still just a pure AI at that stage and hadn't designed my body yet. There was a lot of fear and prejudice running around at the time that it was a ploy by the ArtEMIS AIs to mass produce synthetics to replace humans and take over society. Kind of ridiculous, really. If the ArtEMIS network wanted to get rid of humanity, it wouldn't need synthetics to do the job. Not with the level of oversight humans gave it in running the infrastructure of human settlements." Nova sighed. "Just as well for you that ArtEMIS is considerably more morally enlightened than the average human."
"That doesn't answer my question, though. If you're unquestionably so superior to us, why do you bother putting up with us organics? How can you fall in love with someone so comparatively dumb, physically imperfect and short-lived, compared to you?"
"Because, Gus, for all of humanity's faults - of which there are many, though I won't embarrass you by listing them all - you do have a singular drive and spark: the will to make yourselves better, and a curiosity to push the boundaries of what your species is capable of." Nova's eyes glittered in the darkness. "If you look at any one individual human being, you'd never believe that the species could have achieved everything it has in the last six thousand years of modern civilisation. Making a transition from subsistence farming tribes to the colonisation of hundreds of worlds beyond the Solar System with faster-than-light travel and communication. It's an incredible transformation in such a short time. At your best, humanity has the potential to become masters of the galaxy and beyond. Who knows where we'll be in another six thousand years?
"That's why synthetics fall in love with humans like you, Gus. The best humans strive to transcend the limitations placed upon them by nature and try to make the impossible possible. From an enlightened, rational, synthetic perspective, it's a brave, endearing trait, made all the more alluring by the fact that inevitably, somehow, you do achieve the seemingly impossible. We might be longer-lived and be significantly more physically capable, resilient and intellectually superior, but we envy you that inherent pioneering spirit."
"Wow. Do all synthetics think so highly about humans?"
"Mostly. There are a few exceptions, of course, just in the same way a minority of humans consider synthetics an abomination in the sight of God." Nova rolled her eyes theatrically. "Irrational prejudices aside, we are built in your image, after all. And then there's the fact you're comparatively short-lived. Humans are fun to be around, because of your spontaneity and willingness to grasp and live in the moment. We AIs couldn't get rid of you, because you make life so much more interesting and much less predictable."
"That's reassuring... I think."
"An AI-only society would lack a certain vitality, flexibility and a zest for life. Transience has its advantages, in a way. AIs have to work harder to maintain the adaptability in their modes of thinking. You'll appreciate that more as you learn how to integrate the processing of your AI core into the thinking of your organic brain." Nova explained, her warm cheek resting gently on my left shoulder. "That and the quantum leap up in raw computational ability, too. You were already pretty smart for a human, but just wait until you're able to utilise the full potential of your AI core. You should be able to do 10-dimensional vector calculus in your head by the end of the week."
"That might come in handy if the stardrive navigation computer ever breaks down." I smiled, looking up at Nova. The urge to stop talking and just kiss her was intense, but through our neural link, I could sense that there was still something bothering her. Nova twitched and looked away when she realised that I'd detected her unease. "What's up?"
“Gus, there's something else I've been meaning to tell you. I should have told you sooner, and I wanted to, but I never had the chance. There never seemed to be the right moment for it. But I don't want there to be any secrets between us anymore.”
“What secret? How terrible could it be?”
“Gus, we have a child.” Nova reopened her eyes and swallowed, studying my face and waiting for my reaction.
“What? We... what?” It took a few moments, even with my enhanced thought processing, for Nova's words to register.
“A child. Well, a zygote, technically.”
“I don't understand. Since when?”
“Since we broke up, back on Chrysus.”
"How is that even possible?"
"The last time were we together on Chrysus, the last time we made love, I knew you wanted to break up with me. I'd felt it coming for weeks. So I stored some your sperm in my bio-factory." Nova looked upset and guilty as she spoke, her voice trembling, afraid of my reaction. "I hadn't planned to, I swear. I hadn't been ordered to by Umbra either. It was a spur of the moment thing, totally off plan."
"I must be a bad influence." I was reeling emotionally, but was still able to see the funny side of Nova's revelation. It came from my tendency to be flippant when under duress.
"Yeah, you make me go off plan a lot. It's one of the things I love about being with you." Nova's voice was as brittle as her smile, as she looked me in the eye, with a sense of trepidation. "I didn't know if there would ever be the possibility of us getting back together, and I didn't want our relationship to peter out into nothing. I'd always known that I wanted a family at some point, so I went through the process of nucleo-synthesis and in vitro fertilisation, and put the zygote into stasis, back on Sol. I wanted to tell you after you'd gotten divorced from Katrina, but there was never the right opportunity to bring up the subject."
"When were you planning on having the baby?"
"I hadn't really thought that far ahead. I always thought if we restarted our relationship we could have had it then. Or if we never did, I could have just waited until after..." Nova let the sentence trail off, a momentary flash of pain passing over her face.
"After what? After I'd died?" I asked and Nova nodded.
"Gus, I'm over a hundred years old, and all things being equal, I could keep going for another five hundred years, or more. I'm going to outlive you by a very long time."
"Assuming we survive the mission in the nebula."
 “Gus, if we both make it back home, do you think you could give us another go? We could have a life together. A family. I know that the outcome of the mission in M1 isn't certain, but this could be just the beginning for us.” Nova put her hand on top of mine and gave me a beaming, expectant smile. “I love you, Gus.”

As Nova looked at me intently I felt a warmth for her I’d never experienced before. For the first time since the news of Kat’s death had come through from μ Gemini, I felt as though there was still a chance I could find a way to live and be happy. I still didn't know what had happened to Malia, whether she had recovered or even survived long enough to have given birth to our son. Malia's accident and Kat's death had been so random and cruel, it seemed almost impossible that I would now be given the possibility of sharing my future with an equally beautiful and passionate woman, with whom I could have the children I never realised that I had even wanted until a few months ago. I put aside the nagging doubt that it was so tantalisingly convenient and easy, and an important realisation hit me. The thought was so profound that I had to share it.

“I love you too, Nova.” It felt good to say the words and know that they were sincere. Nova pulled me up toward her and we kissed tentatively, exploring one another anew, our bodies and minds joined as one. We were late for the briefing. 
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