Saturday, June 11, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Thirty-Four

2702. – Crab Nebula; CFV-B Pallas

The nightmares had started as soon as we’d made the final jump from Caldwell 50 to Crab, but this morning’s had been the worst, with its unexpected final twist.

“What do you think it means, Kimi?” I asked, as we sat together in my quarters.
“Beyond the obvious interpretations of misplaced survivor’s guilt over Kat’s death, I’d say you have some seriously conflicted feelings about Nova. You want to honour Kat’s memory and stay faithful to her, but Nova’s available and desirable, and she wants you.”
“I replaced Kat in my dream with Nova, so you’re saying that I want her to replace Kat in real life?”
“Do you?”
“God, I don’t know.”
“No, you do. You just don’t want to admit it.” Kimi chided. “Gus, Kat would want you to be happy. She wouldn’t want you to put your life on hold and torture yourself like this. You need to talk to Nova and sort things out once and for all.”
“I’m not sure I can afford the distraction right now. The mission’s more important.”
“Gus, if you don’t get yourself sorted out, you’re not going to be in any condition to lead the mission. The fleet needs you rested and focussed. That’s not going to happen until you get rid of these nightmares. Talk to Nova.”
"There's still one thing I don't get. Why wasn't Malia in the dream?"
"Hmm. I wondered that, too." Kimi said, scratching a sideburn in contemplation.
"She should have had the baby the week after we made the jump from Caldwell 50. This damn EMCON... It's killing me not knowing what happened."
"Maybe it's symbolic of the communications blackout." Kimi suggested, with a shrug.

I thought about what Kimi had said as I made my way to the bridge. The nightmare had coincided with our arrival at the fringe of the Crab nebula, and it struck me that I had probably made a subconscious link to the fact that once we came back into realspace again, the weeks long isolation I’d had from Nova would be over. I put those thoughts to the back of my mind as I stepped onto the familiar territory of the bridge. Hal Cunningham had the watch and immediately ceded possession of the command chair to me.

“Good morning, Admiral. All ships have reported in. No-one’s gone astray during the jump.” Hal held open his palm and a holographic screen popped into place above his hand from the microscopic projector on his wrist terminal, showing me the readiness states of the 196 ships under my command. “Remote sensing has done a sweep of the area. No signs of Thrinax activity. A full RASP perimeter has been established at 0.1AU from the fleet. They’ll let us know beforehand if anything is coming.”
“Thank you, Number Two. Sorry for keeping you waiting, go get some rest, Hal.” I was over half an hour late, thanks to the discussion I’d had with Kimi.  
“No problem, sir.”

I settled down into the command chair and mulled over the program for rest of the day. I’d scheduled a holo-conference at noon with the senior commanders of the battlegroup to discuss potential battle strategies and scouting arrangements to gather intelligence prior to the final incursion into the nebula to assume control of the Swarm World. Some of the most important factors that would decide whether an assault on the Elders defending the Swarm World happened at all were still completely unknown. We still had no estimates on the number and composition of Thrinax ships that would be defending the Swarm World, nor how many rebel Thrinax warriors would be assisting us in the battle. The only thing I knew for certain was that on its own, my battlegroup didn’t stand a chance. I also didn’t know when the Thrinax insurgents were due to arrive here at the edge of the nebula, and how much lead time we would have to make preparations, given that Fleet had set us the oddly specific deadline of the 30th to have initiated combat operations. With a couple of hours before the conference, I mulled over the possibility of having a private link chat with Nova beforehand, but decided against it. Instead I decided to check in on Lieutenant Mitchell to see if she and Erebus’s Science team had made any progress on the hacking project.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Good morning, Lieutenant Mitchell. Have you been enjoying your stay on Erebus?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Admiral! Good morning, sir. Yes, everyone’s made me feel very welcome. You should see the main science lab, sir. It’s amazing.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You’ve been making good use of it, I hope. How has your project with Lieutenant Okonjo been progressing?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Well, Admiral. We think we figured out where we went wrong with the drone hacking. We should have tried disrupting the control signal at the source, rather than targeting the drones.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Why’s that, Lieutenant?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{In terms of AI, the drones are quite staggeringly dull, Admiral. In fact, they’re more analogous to anti-phage cells in an immune system. They don’t have the computational capacity to process an IFF overwrite. If we’d hacked the control systems of the base ships to send a corrupted signal, it might have worked.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Something worth bearing in mind for when we enter the nebula. What else did you find?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Lieutenant Okonjo, Commander Marciano and I managed to isolate a neural pathway from a surface structure on the behemoth’s hull to the central core of the brain. We think it’s what the behemoth uses to send communications. It has a lot of the features necessary for a combined EM and warpspace antenna.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Okay, but how does that help us?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{If we can hack the antenna, it will give us a two-way uplink direct to the brain of one of the Elders.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Sounds promising. Please elaborate.}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Commander Marciano and I have spent the last few weeks writing viruses that we can try uploading to the brain core of a behemoth. Using the information from Commander Randall’s ‘brain surgery’ on the behemoth derelict, we think that we can sabotage the weapons, engines and matter-antimatter reactor systems.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Could you use the uplink to download information directly from the behemoth’s brain core? Such as information on fleet movements, numbers, and the like?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Possibly, Admiral. But it would take weeks to download even a fraction of the information stored in a behemoth’s brain. Even all of the ArtEMIS AI cores in the battlegroup couldn’t store it all.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Any other problems?}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Just one – only Tartarus and Erebus have the transmitter power to override the signal from the brain core to the antenna.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{So we couldn’t hack more than two behemoths at a time.}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{That’s right, sir. And we have to bear in mind that opening the uplink does expose the AI cores on Tartarus and Erebus to counter-hacking by the behemoths. ArtEMIS’s firewalls are up to withstanding a cyber attack from Thrinax dreadnoughts, but the behemoths are entirely different beasts; exponentially more powerful.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Do a risk assessment and we’ll discuss whether we want to use it in our battle strategy. Everything depends upon how many behemoths we’ll be facing anyway, and we won’t have that intelligence for another couple of days at least.}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Aye, sir. I’ll get right on it. When do you want me to report back to Pallas, Admiral?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I’ll give you a little while yet, Lieutenant. But I expect you back aboard once the senior commanders have finalised our deployment plan into the nebula.}-
LT. Mtchll#11977811 -{Very well, Admiral. I’ll see you in a few days.}-

I retreated to my Ready Room and left Lieutenant Fisher in charge of the conn while I prepared for the senior commanders conference.

#6~{Admiral, this one sends greetings.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number Six? Where are you?}-
#6~{This one will arrive at your location momentarily. This one gives advance warning. This one is not alone.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 –{You’ve brought help?}-
#6~{Yes, Admiral. Many have answered the call.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How many?}-
#6~{Look, and see.}~

“Enemy contacts! Set Condition One throughout the fleet!” Fisher’s panicked voice sounded over tannoy. I rushed to the bridge, relieving Fisher to take up her usual station at Remote Sensing.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Commander Robson to the bridge, immediately.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{On my way, Admiral.}-

“What have we got, Lieutenant?” I asked Fisher, as she quickly and expertly ran a full EM scan to assess the situation.
“One minute, sir.” Fisher replied, overwhelmed by the amount of data flooding over her screen. "Processing."
“Admiral, messages incoming from Tartarus, Erebus and Asteria, requesting engagement orders.” Ensign Peng reported from Ops.
“Tell them to launch CAP, but stand by for further orders, Ensign. Launch our own Sirens, all wings.” I ordered Peng before turning back to the Remote Sensing board. As the EM scan began to return results, the board began to fill with red dots, indicating Thrinax contacts and their ship class. Dozens of dots turned into hundreds, and then into thousands. “Holy shit.”
“Morning, Admiral, what have we got?” Robson took up position behind my right shoulder, still clutching a warm drinking bulb of coffee. The liquid inside shook gently as the faint vibrations from Sirens launching from maglev-rail catapults on the flight deck propagated upwards through the command spire to the bridge. It took Robson a couple of seconds to register the contacts on the Remote Sensing board, and his eyes widened. “Whoa.”
“Admiral, I make it 47 dreadnought-class, 1538 cruiser-class and 5182 destroyer-class vessels.” Fisher’s voice shook as she made her report.
“Weps, any activity from the Thrinax vessels?” Robson asked.
“Negative, sir. No drone launches, and their weapons systems are powered down.” Hamilton responded, not quite believing what he was seeing on his control board. “They’re holding position at 0.5AU from our formation.”

#6~{Admiral, please stand down your fighters.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I hope those guys are all with you, Number 6.}-
#6~{This one assures the Admiral that the many share a mutual enemy – the Elders.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Very well, Number Six, I will stand down our fighters as an act of good faith. Please hold your position, I wouldn’t want any of my commanders to get twitchy.}-
#6~{This one thanks the Admiral. The many shall remain here.}~

“Ops, recall the CAP immediately, but have the have Siren squadrons held ready at Alert One.” I ordered Peng, who passed on the order to the rest of the battlegroup.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Battlegroup. Relax everyone, these are our reinforcements. Do not approach or signal the Thrinax force unless ordered. Set Condition Two until further notice.}-
#6~{Admiral, this one requests permission to join your formation, alone.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Granted. You’re just in time, Number Six. I was about to discuss our strategy in the nebula with my commanders. We could use your input.}-
#6~{This one has news regarding the Swarm World. The situation has changed.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{How has it changed?}-             
#6~{This one will not say at this range. Others are listening.}~

Rather than travel to my battlegroup using its realspace engines, Number Six simply waited the twenty minutes it took to recharge its stardrive and performed a precision micro-jump into the heart of my battlegroup, less than 500 metres off Pallas’s port bow, saving hours. By this time, Robson and I were seated at my Ready Room conference table, linked via holo-video to the COs and XOs of Tartarus, Erebus, Asteria, Odysseus, Harpocrates and Diomedes.

“Is everyone here?” I checked the roll-call on my terminal and didn’t find any absentees. “Good, let’s begin. As you’re no doubt aware, the rebel Thrinax force that has joined us here is considerably larger than anticipated in our combat simulations to date. Number Six will continue to act as intermediary between our combined forces. Number Six, I believe you had updated intelligence to share on the situation at the Swarm World?”

#6~{Yes, Admiral. This one reports that the distribution of forces at the Swarm World is most favourable for a successful insurrection. Watch.}~

A new window appeared on the screen of my terminal, showing us our first glimpse of the Swarm World. It was completely unlike anything I’d expected. I saw similar reactions of surprise and fascination on the faces of my fellow officers via the holo-video links. From the name and Number Six’s description of it as the progenitor all Thrinax, I’d imagined the Swarm World as some kind of planetary shipyard, consisting of a planet-sized morass of tiny, automated drone-like creatures, sweeping up stellar debris to construct new Thrinax ships en mass. The truth was rather more incredible. The Swarm World was an active black hole. The barely visible event horizon captured the image of the original blue supergiant star at the instant it had collapsed into singularity. It was hard to judge the scale from the image, but I estimated that the Swarm World was no more than fifty kilometres wide, though the accretion disk that enveloped it spanned millions of kilometres across. A hundred Thrinax dreadnoughts skirted the fringes of the luminous accretion disk, using their stardrive fields to manipulate the black hole’s path through the nebula. The shadow of a Thrinax behemoth could be seen silhouetted against the radiant accretion disk, standing a solitary guard, protecting its smaller brethren. Thrinax cruisers and destroyers surfed the fringes of the gamma-ray jets projecting from the magnetic poles of the Swarm World, effortlessly converting the pure energy into new mass, transforming themselves into larger, more powerful forms as the Swarm World drifted through the nebula, sweeping up ethereal tendrils of gas with its powerful gravitational field, radiating brightly as it spiralled towards the broad, yet almost impossibly thin accretion disk. Tens of thousands of tiny vessels, less than a quarter of the size of one of my corvettes, swirled around the jets like flies in eccentric elliptical orbits, buzzing close to the violent torrent of radiation, before soaring away, visibly mutating and developing new forms on each pass, their armoured carapaces twisting into newer, heavier shapes.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me.” Robson blurted.
“Number Six, how old are these images?” I asked.

#6~{These images are real-time. This one has agents active within the nebula.}~

“Admiral, this is incredible! A captive black hole. Do you understand what this means?” Commodore Reynolds asked. “It’s a potentially unlimited source of energy! That’s a Kardeshev Level Three on the scale of galactic civilisation!”
“I think I’m beginning to see why Fleet sent so many of us out here.” I put my hand over my mouth, considering what to say next. I exchanged a look of shocked bemusement with Robson, before turning back toward my terminal and its inbuilt holo-camera.

#6~{Admiral, this one would indicate that currently only one Elder defends the Swarm World. This one advises that we move quickly to secure our goal.}~
“Where are the rest of them? I thought we were expecting up to ten Elders defending the Swarm World.”
#6~{This one does not know. However, this one recommends swift action.}~
“We can’t fly into the nebula blind, Number Six. Can you at least give us an estimate on the strength of the enemy force we’re likely to face?”
#6~{This one’s scouts report that there are currently 2 Elders, 242 dreadnoughts, 1492 cruisers and 4012 destroyers loyal to the Elders currently within 5 light years of the Swarm World. Of those, approximately 50% are sympathetically inclined to an insurrection.}~
“What about the size of the force in the immediate vicinity of the Swarm World itself? We only have a two hour operating window in the nebula.”
#6~{One Elder, 117 dreadnoughts, 638 cruisers and 1855 destroyers are within combat range of the Swarm World based on a two hour engagement. This one estimates only 30% of those forces would join us.}~
“Hell, that sounds pretty good to me, Admiral. We’re still outnumbered in terms of dreadnoughts, but it’s 65/35 in our favour in terms of combat power, even when you factor in the behemoth.” Reynolds observed. “I’ll take those odds.”
“You should know by now that I’m not a gambling man, Gene.” I replied, sounding a note of caution. “Number Six, I need to know how your forces intend to deploy into the nebula. Before I can commit to any operation, we need to coordinate a battle plan. Firstly, how are we going to neutralise the behemoth?”
#6~{Destroying the Elder will be difficult, Admiral. It will take half of this one’s warriors to overwhelm the Elder at close range. It will require a stardrive jump of great precision.}~
“An ambush, in other words?”
#6~{Yes, Admiral. If combat cannot be initiated inside the optimal range of the Elder’s weaponry, the losses will be great.}~
“And if the ambush is successful?”
#6~{This one’s force will attempt to move the Swarm World to a place beyond the Elder’s reach. This will force the Elders to end hostilities between our kinds.}~
“Is it possible to do all this in less than two hours?”
#6~{It is.}~
“Comments?” I invited the assembled officers to make observations.
“We’re going to have to be careful not to get too close to the Swarm World itself, Admiral.” Marciano said. “That black hole is going to be leaking a colossal amount of gamma and x-ray radiation from the accretion disk. Number Six, what’s the mass of the black hole?”
#6~{2.95873 x 1036kilograms, on your measurement scale.}~
“Wow. I make that around 100 solar masses, Admiral. The gravimetric distortions in the space-time around a mass that large are going to severely limit our ability to do precise stardrive calculations. We’re not going to be able to jump within 2AU of that, at least.” Marciano warned.
#6~{This one can provide accurate jump coordinates for your ships.}~
“Does it not strike anyone else that putting the lives of the entire task force in the hands of aliens is a bad idea?” Acid practically dripped from Miranda Fforde-Hughes’s tongue. “It might jump us all right into the black hole!”
“We don’t have much choice, Captain. There’s no other way that we can reach the objective in the time we have to operate within the nebula.” I replied, trying not to bite her head off for voicing such an unhelpful comment.
#6~{This one requires the support of your kind in the nebula. This one has no intention to deceive.}~
“A fair line used by liars and rogues all over the universe.” Miranda snorted.
“That’s enough, Captain. You’ve made your concerns quite clear.” I growled back. “I’ll take them under advisement.”
“You mean you’ll pretend to listen to them and then ignore them anyway.”
“You’re relieved, Captain. Commander Sagar, escort Captain Fforde-Hughes to her quarters and confine her there for the rest of the voyage, pending an investigation for insubordination. Tartarus is your ship now, Captain Sagar.” I cut the channel to Tartarus without waiting to hear Sagar’s response, logging the order via ArtEMIS to make it official that I’d stripped Fforde-Hughes of her command and promoted Sagar to a field commission of Captain.
“Urgh. Dreadful woman.” Commodore Powell shuddered. “For what it’s worth, Admiral, she’s had that coming for a long time. Let’s hope she does the decent thing and spaces herself before we make it back to the core.”
“We’re not that lucky, Commodore.” Nova observed tartly.
“Come on, back to business.” I snapped, getting my officers to re-focus. “So after the insertion jump, Number Six’s warriors deal with the Elder. What are the rest of us doing?”
#6~{The remaining warriors will escort your vessels and deal with the dreadnoughts at the perimeter of the accretion disk. They are the Navigators, who direct the Swarm World though realspace and warpspace. Once they are neutralised, the Swarm World can be moved.}~
“Okay, Number Six. That sounds like a good place to start. We’re going to need a few days to run combat simulations and drills. If everything looks as good as you say, then I’ll be able to commit my forces to the operation.”
#6~{Time is of the essence, Admiral.}~ 
“I’m aware of that, Number Six. But I can’t order my forces into the nebula just on your say-so. As my kind say, failure to plan is planning to fail, and I’ve not come this far to fail. But if things do start to go wrong in there, we need a contingency plan and an exit strategy.”
“The stardrive jammers on the Thrinax ships are going to make any tactical withdrawal impossible if things do start to go fruit-shaped, Admiral.” said Robson.
#6~{This one may have a solution. Observe.}~

Number Six transmitted a simulated video feed to the screen. It showed a dozen Thrinax destroyers surrounding a Titan-class battlecruiser at a range of less than 100 metres. A virtual reality overlay showed the interaction between the stardrive warp fields of the escorts, enveloping the Titan and the Thrinax ships. Simultaneously, all of the ships blinked out of existence.

“Clever.” Marciano nodded. “The stardrive emitters from the escort ships can create a resonant warp bubble around our ships. We wouldn’t even need to use our stardrives to exfiltrate the nebula, we’d just get pulled out by the escorts as they jumped.”
“That’s kind of awesome.” Nova added, impressed. “And good news for our corvette and frigate groups, given that they’ll need to pull out after an hour.”
“Okay, Number Six. I think we’ve got enough to go on for now. I’ll be in touch when we’ve put together a final deployment plan.”
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