Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Thirty-One

2702. – Caldwell 50; CFV-B Pallas

“So Sergeant Tanner is there in the airlock, right, brickin’ his frickin’ pants.” Chief Watson was surrounded by twenty officers in the wardroom, including myself, Kimi, Robson, Sagar, Powell, Marciano and Nova as she recounted a story of one of Kat’s infamous threatened spacings, tears of laughter bulging on her cheeks. “He’s practically clawing his fingernails off on the hatch as Kat gives him the countdown and the air pressure starts to drain. ‘Five, four, three… are you sure you don’t want to reconsider your statement?’”
“Oh, come on, she didn’t do that. Really?” Sagar asked Watson, her mouth wide open in disbelief, as the giant marine paused to take a swig from her beer.
“I shit you not, Commander. The pressure’s down to 600 millibars and she only halts the purge cycle when the air starts to turn yellow.” Watson paused to take another large gulp of beer. She was already quite drunk.  “I don’t need to tell you why.”
“That’s pretty extreme, even for a case of assault, if you ask me, Chief.” Sagar grimaced.
“What can I say, Commander? As far as Kat was concerned, there's no justification for violence against women. Tanner got too fresh and took a slap, but you just don't hit back. It's inexcusable. End of story.” Watson shrugged. “He didn’t step out of line again, I’ll tell you that. He’s the perfect, reformed gentleman these days.”
“If there was one thing about Kat, she couldn't abide poor discipline.” I reflected, with a smile.
“That’s for sure, Admiral.” Watson agreed, sadness starting to creep into her voice. “She always used to tell me that holding the highest standards were their own reward, and goddamn, she was right. She led by example and expected us to keep up, even if we had to run. I’m going to miss her, sir.”
“We all will, Chief.” I replied, a lump in my throat.
“Permission to speak freely, Admiral?”  Watson asked.
“Granted, Chief.”
“Kat told me that nothing made her happier than being with you, serving on this ship. It's a shame you two never got back together. You would have made great parents.”
“Thank you, Chief.” Tears of my own began to well in the corners of my eyes. I wiped them away with precise fingertips.
“It’s not right, Admiral. It’s not fair that she should have gotten caught up in that ambush. Kat would’ve wanted to go down fighting, not be left defenceless in some frickin’ unarmed recon shuttle.” Watson’s own grief mixed with anger as she drained her beer and sat down, exchanging her empty beer can for a fresh one, opening the pressure valve with a hiss.
“Life is rarely fair, Chief.” Kimi concurred. “But in this case, the circumstances do seem unduly cruel.”
“Commander Jameson was a fine officer and a better person, Admiral. She taught me more in a few weeks than I learned at my last three postings. Not just about being an XO, but about the qualities you need as a person to be respected as a senior officer on a ship this size. It was a privilege to have known her, Admiral, even if it was only for a few weeks.” Robson offered.
“Thank you, Number One.” I took the seat next to Chief Watson, beginning to feel overwhelmed.
“What happened to Katrina was a tragedy, Gus.” Nova said as she took the other seat next to me, recharging her drinking bulb with Bordeaux from the pressurised carafe in the middle of the table. “But out of all of us, you were the luckiest. You knew her the best and loved her the most.”
“I'm not feeling terribly lucky right now, Nova.”
“That’s because you’re focussed on what you’ve lost.” Nova put her arm around my shoulders. “You need to think about how knowing Katrina changed you. What is it that you gained?”

I sat there drinking steadily, with Nova’s supportive embrace around me, listening for hours to the chatter in the wardroom as people reflected on their personal memories of Kat. Their accounts were by turns mundane, funny, terrifying and inspiring, as her friends and colleagues recounted their stories of my ex-wife and former Executive Officer. As I listened silently, I ruminated on Nova’s question: how different would I be as a person if I'd never met Kat?  I stood when there was a lull in the conversation in the room, flicking the rim of my glass rhythmically. It didn't take long for silence to descend on the room and for me to gain everyone’s attention.

"First of all, I'd like to thank you all for coming. Kat would've been humbled to know that so many of you are here tonight." I felt everyone's eyes on me as I spoke, expectant, yet sympathetic. "I first met Katrina Jameson almost seventeen years ago. If I'd known just how much that chance meeting in a bar on Starbase Hera was going to change my life beforehand, I probably would have stayed in my bunk. Of course, I had no idea, so before I knew it, I was captivated by this enigmatic, slender, copper-haired goddess tearing up the dance floor in a crimson mylar dress and high heels so sharp you could use them to fillet Atlantic salmon. For the best part of ten years, we had a fantastic marriage, at least until we started living together and then we had a terrible marriage, followed by no marriage at all.
"For most people, that would have been the end of the story. You should've all realised by now from knowing Kat, she was anything other than ‘most people’. She was special: the word unique doesn’t do her justice. You couldn't know her without loving her. Kat was demanding and uncompromising, yet loyal and compassionate in her relationships, both personal and professional. She gave the best of herself and demanded no less in return. She was empathic yet infuriating, understanding but unyielding and always tenacious in her expectation of excellence.
"I know that the five years she had here on Pallas were the happiest of her life. Kat was more than a part of this ship's crew: she defined the standard of what a member of the TCF should aspire to, and because of her example, we didn't just aspire, we achieved. This ship won't be the same without her, but we can all honour her memory with our service. She wouldn't expect anything less." My voice cracked a little as I raised my glass. "To Kat."
"To Kat!" chorused the gathered officers, clinking glasses and pressurised beer cans in a final, farewell toast.
"Well said, Gus." Nova squeezed my shoulder as I took the seat next to her.
"Agreed." Kimi sat down on the free seat to my left. "Heartfelt, but not too sappy."
"You'd tell me if I'd sounded like an idiot, right?" I fixed Kimi with a doubtful stare.
"No." Kimi said and pressed a fresh drinking bulb of whisky into my palm.
"Don't listen to him, Gus." Nova put her hand on my arm, reassuring me with a feather-light caress. While I welcomed her support, I silently fretted about how many of the assembled officers and men would take notice of Nova's casual intimacy with me and start spreading rumours. "It was a good speech and just like her, in a way: passionate and to the point. Just the way I'd like someone to give my eulogy, when the time comes."
"Thanks, Nova."
"Not that I have the intention of dying for another few centuries yet." Nova said with a wry smile.

SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{I should hope not! Someone's got to keep Gus sane and happy, and I'm pretty sure that's not me!}-

Nova and I both looked at Kimi simultaneously in surprise, shocked into silence. A hint of a smile played across Kimi's thin lips. Nova's luminous green eyes narrowed and she transfixed us both with an accusatory glare that could have etched steel.

CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{What have you told him, Gus?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I'm not sure that this is the time and place for this conversation, Nova.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Spill it, Gus. Or I start posting my neural link records from the last two days onto the Fleet extranet.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Captain, please. Don't take it out on Gus. It's my indiscretion, not his.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Breaching doctor-patient confidentiality? I could have your license for this, Commander!}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{I know, Captain. But we both have Gus's best interests at heart, do we not? And, more pertinently, those of the battlegroup?}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Say your piece, Commander. But make it good.}- 
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{We all agree that the loss of Commander Jameson was desperately unlucky and tragic, given the circumstances of the timing of her arrival at μ Gemini. Doubly so, considering Miss Sherazi's accident and her injuries. However, weighed against the lives of the half million servicemen and women in the battlegroup, it would be beyond unprofessional for our personal feelings interfere with the best interests of the mission.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{I'm still waiting for the part where you convince me not to have your ass busted back down to Midshipman and stripped of your medical license.}- 
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Patience, Captain. I know that under the circumstances that it's difficult for you both to acknowledge the feelings you have for each other in public. That's understandable and natural. All I'm asking is that you don't deny them to each other in private. This battlegroup needs you; both of you. We all stand a much better chance of coming out of this mission alive if you're working with each other, and for each other. The battlegroup needs its senior commanders to show a unified front. Something that's already difficult enough, thanks to the rift between the Admiral and Captain Fforde-Hughes.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Is it true, Gus? Do you have feelings for me?}- 
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{After what happened a couple of nights ago, it's hard not to.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{What kind of feelings?}- 
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{We've always made a good team, Nova. I don't want to lose that, but I'm not sure if I'm ready for anything more quite yet. Maybe in time.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Gus, time is the one luxury we don't have.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{All the more reason to stay focussed on the job at hand, then. Survival comes first. Anything else beyond that is a luxury.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Gus, why do you think that Pallas got all those unit citations? Why do you think that Katrina drove the crew so hard? It was because you didn't just have a professional relationship, but because she loved you so much, she knew that the ship needed to have the very best crew to keep coming back alive from patrols, so that you could still be together. Only the stakes are much bigger now. It's not just about you, Katrina and Pallas anymore. It would be easy just to focus on your sense of grief and loss, but it would also be wrong. You have to remember that there are still things in your life worth fighting and living for.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{You know how I feel, Gus. You know what I want. We can face this together, beat this together.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{And live happily ever after?}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Yeah. Why not? Erebus should have been your flagship in the first place. It still can be.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I can't abandon my crew. Not now. It would be a betrayal of everything Kat and I worked for over the last five years. But after the battle... we can talk about it.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Let's make sure that there is an 'after the battle', okay Gus? And let's make sure we're both still in it.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{You're both assuming that our incursion into M1 will end in combat. I've seen the combat sims and none of them look good. Maybe you should put some thought into trying to find a non-violent solution.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{There's no way that the Thrinax Elders are going to give up the Swarm World without a fight, Kimi.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{How do you know? Have you asked them? Self-preservation is a powerful instinct in higher life-forms.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{He's got a point, Gus. Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Nice quote. Winston Churchill. Very salient.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{I thought so... }-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{We've still got a few weeks before we reach M1. That gives us some time to come up with a way of fulfilling our mission orders without a bloodbath.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number Six said that the Elders think of us as vermin, heretics and abominations. That's not a terribly hopeful starting point for peace negotiations. We have to figure out some way to start a dialogue. So, how do we get into the head of a race of space-dwelling aliens whose Elders probably pre-date the dinosaurs?}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{I have a few ideas. Gus, I'm going to need to borrow your Chief Science Officer while we're in transit to M1. Lieutenant Okonjo has been doing a lot of work on the brain structure of the behemoth since we left ε Gemini, and she could use Lieutenant Mitchell's input.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{No problem. It's only fair enough to return the favour for you lending me your XO, anyway. What are you going to have them working on?}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Okonjo thinks she's close to understanding the behemoth’s brain structure. It’s similar enough to a computer that she thinks she might be able to hack it to access a behemoth’s memories.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Is that going to be a practical tactic in the middle of a battle? Trying to hack the drones didn’t work so well.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Maybe not, but if there’s any way that we could disrupt the thought processes of the behemoths, that might give us an edge in combat. It’s got to be worth investigating.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Yeah, it can’t hurt. I’ll have Mitchell transfer over in the morning.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Great. Our best chance of getting out of this alive is to avoid hostilities if we can.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{True, but that’s rather incompatible with our orders.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Gus, our orders are bullshit. If it comes to a battle, the Elders are going to fight tooth and claw to retain control of the Swarm World and even with the help of Number Six’s turncoats, I don’t think we have a chance. We don’t have the firepower or the combat range to take on more than two behemoths.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{We’ve still got a few weeks to refine our combat tactics. And no-one really knows the strength of the force waiting for us at the Swarm World yet. But I’d rather face a court martial than take the battlegroup into the nebula on a certain suicide mission.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, Gus.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Me, too. I don’t have any intention of dying soon either, Nova. Come on, let’s mingle. I shouldn’t ignore my other guests.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Okay. But can we talk about us later?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I promise. But not tonight.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886796 -{Of course, tonight’s Katrina’s night.}-

Things were gradually starting to wind down, with groups of guests starting to fragment into couples or foursomes before giving their final condolences to me and returning to their quarters for the night. I chuckled as Robson and Sagar slinked off together, not nearly as subtly as they intended, their hands all over each other. With the advent of STI control implants in the late 23rd Century, the risks of casual intimate relationships were now only really psychological, so it had become relatively commonplace for couples to act on their physical desires, even if they weren’t emotionally attached. I thought it oddly appropriate that some of the guests at the wake would commemorate Kat’s death with an act that celebrates the possibility of new life. Kimi tapped me on the shoulder, handed me another refill and directed my attention to the far end of the bar.

SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{I think you’re going to need to appoint a new Weps in the morning.}-

Weps was hemmed in between two stools and the window, being propositioned by Vanesar Brodar in a manner that could be described as unsubtle at best, or as coercion at worst.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Do you think he needs a rescue party?}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{It’s okay. I think Chief Watson has it covered.}-

The giant marine staggered over to them, wrapped her huge arms around Weps and told him loudly, “I’m drunk. I need someone to take me to bed. Well volunteered.” She then hauled Weps to the exit, tottering uncertainly. The look of bemused terror on the face of Weps was priceless. Brodar just shrugged before surveying the remaining crowd for a new potential companion. She sidled over to Lieutenant Santoro, casually offering him another drink.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I better not think about what I’ve just seen too much.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Marianne’s a hard woman to say no to.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I hope that’s second hand information and that you’re not speaking from experience.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Well, let’s just say she’s not just a lioness on the wrestling mat.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Too much information, Kimi. I don’t need to know that kind of thing about my subordinates.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Count yourself lucky, Gus. Marianne was telling me earlier that Kat had given her a free pass to hit on anyone at her funeral, including you.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{So much for the fraternisation regs.}-

Fleet regulations forbade anyone to conduct intimate relationships with other officers and crew if they were more than two degrees of rank apart in seniority at the beginning of the relationship, to reduce the risk of developing abusive relationships that could compromise discipline or respect in the chain of command.

SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Under the circumstances, it’s probably better to let this one pass under the radar. Speaking of radar, I have an appointment at the bar with Lieutenant Fisher. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.}-

Kimi gave me a pat on the shoulder and joined Kelly Fisher, taking the stool alongside hers. The tall brunette greeted him with a beaming smile and nudged a full drinking bulb of green spirit along the surface of the bar towards him. I turned and walked across the room to stand at the window, looking out into the void, watching the lazy, almost imperceptible undulations of the ionised blue, green and red gases at the edge of the Caldwell 50 nebula, as the tenuous filaments grasped outwards and expanded into the surrounding vacuum. The running lights of the other ships in my fleet shone brightly in the foreground, briefly washing out the starlight and the nebula if I looked too closely at them. The vessels represented the height of humanity’s technological achievement, but paled into insignificance compared to the scale of the nebula beyond them. Once the nebula had been a supergiant star, burning brightly but briefly in the darkness of space before exploding into a beautiful, almost ghostly cloud that would one day see the formation of a new generation of stars within it. Awed by the desolate magnificence of the nebula, I simply stood and stared, wondering what stars and planets would be here in a couple of billion years time, long after humanity was a long forgotten footnote in the Milky Way’s history, reassured that this gaseous graveyard might in time become a stellar cradle for new stars and planets, and the multitude of possibilities they offered.

“Hey, Gus. You still with me?” a feminine voice whispered in my ear and I felt warm, soft fingertips brush the back of my neck in slow, affectionate circles.
“Kat?” I asked without thinking, my thoughts still dwelling on the far future of the nebula.
“No, it’s me.” Nova kissed my cheek and I turned around self-consciously, wondering if we were being watched, only to find that the bar was deserted. Nova and I were the only two people left in the wardroom. “You’ve been stood there for hours.”
“What time is it?”
“Nearly 3am. A penny for your thoughts, Gus. You looked like you were doing some hard thinking there.”
“You didn’t have to wait for me.”
“That bonkers counsellor of yours was right about one thing. Someone has to take care of you, Gus. I’m here for you, you know that. Anyway, stop dodging the question. What were you thinking about?”
“It’s all kind of futile, isn’t it? None of it really matters, ultimately, does it? What does the galaxy care about us or the Thrinax?  In a billion years, who’s going to care?”
“Uh-oh. There’s the danger of thinking after drinking. Gus, it's just... life. It is what it is.”
“Life.” I scoffed. “The universe’s biggest mistake.”
“Now I know that’s the drink talking. Okay, so in a billion years this nebula will give birth to new stars that will be around for aeons to come and we’ll just be memories, if we’re lucky, but so what?” Nova blocked my view out of the window and forced me to look into her eyes, which glistened with her passion as she harangued me. “Stars and nebulae may be perfectly beautiful and exist for billions of years, but they don’t ‘live’ like we do. They can’t love, find happiness or meaning. They’re just random collections of atoms, mixtures of elements. We have form, we have consciousness, we have intellect, but we only have a few hundred years at best. Life is short and brutal and fragile. That’s what makes it so precious. That’s what makes it so important to live, not just exist. It doesn’t matter who’s going to care in a billion years – it only matters who cares right now. And I care.”
“The Thrinax live for tens of millions of years. By comparison we’re gone in the blink of an eye. There hardly seems much point in us being here at all.”
“You should have studied more Physics at the Academy. Then you’d be able to stare into the dark heart of the universe and see how insignificant everything is without flinching. What’s the point of life? To paraphrase Niels Bohr, we’re the universe’s way of helping it understand itself.”
“Very meta. Very deep.” I didn't have the energy to scoff properly.
“It’s not, really. Life is possible, therefore it exists. You’re just afraid of being alone in the face of this.” Nova stuck a thumb over her shoulder to point at the nebula outside the window. “Come on, let’s get you to bed. You need to sleep.”

Nova escorted me back to my quarters down the deserted corridors with her arm hooked through mine at the elbow to help me keep my balance. I couldn't recall how many whiskies I'd been force-fed by Kimi over the course of the evening, but I knew that it had been enough to make me regret drinking them all the following morning. I opened the door to my stateroom with a thumbprint and retinal scan, letting Nova hug me. It felt good to be held and have her close to me, comforted by her warmth and the sweet, fresh smell of her perfume.

“Goodnight, Nova.” I was suddenly reluctant to let her go.
“You don’t have to be alone, Gus.” Nova said, sensing my vulnerability.

Nova led me inside and closed the hatch behind us. She took my hand and walked us over to the bed, where she undressed us both, slowly and calmly. Nova slid into the bed beside me, taking me into her arms and letting her body mould itself around mine. I adjusted the covers around us to make sure they were secure, listening to Nova’s soft breathing gradually get slower and slower. In a few seconds she was sound asleep, with the quiet serenity only a synthetic could achieve, as they switched their AI core into a maintenance and recovery cycle. I closed my eyes, only to be haunted by images of Kat’s final video message: her look of despair as she turned back to the camera, one hand on her pregnant belly, as the colossal Thrinax behemoth yawed into a firing posture, seconds away from obliterating the tiny shuttle into atoms. It felt like a cruel trick of cosmic improbability that she should have happened to be right there, just at the wrong time. With the one person who was most important to my existence dead and Malia in all probability lost to me forever, somehow I found myself with a replacement already in my bed. Was this just another example of the universe’s ironic sense of timing, or were there some other forces at work? Unable to comprehend the meaning of it all, I silently wept for Kat and Malia, and all the potential of their two lives snuffed out by random chance and misfortune. I wondered what kind of fate the cosmic roulette wheel had in store for Nova, myself and the battlegroup. I held Nova’s hands tightly in mine, overlaying my palms over her fingers and pressing them against my chest, comforted by the soft heat of her skin against mine. Eventually, I slept.   
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