Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Thirty-Seven

2702. – The Swarm World; CFV-B Pallas

Twenty five minutes later, the swirling maelstrom of warpspace energies coruscating outside the bridge viewport collapsed back into regimented pinpricks of light from distant stars and the nebula reformed around my fleet. It took a couple of seconds to reorient myself, but I could already see Number Six’s strike force fully engaged with the behemoth. A quick virtual tour of the battlespace showed that my own task group was all present, complete with their destroyer escorts. The turbulent accretion disk was a million kilometres away, but still filled blocked out most of the viewport. The silhouettes of twenty seven Navigators occulted the bright light from the disk, relatively close to my formation, only sixty thousand kilometres away. Between us and them were over seven hundred support vessels, mainly cruisers and destroyers.

"Number Two, start the clock." I ordered Hal, so that I could keep track of when the amount of radiation exposure would start to become dangerous to the crews of my ships.
"Aye, sir. Current radiation levels are higher than expected." Hal reported.
"Define 'higher than expected'." I asked testily.
"13.8 sieverts per hour. Based on this level of exposure, our corvettes and frigates will need to pull out in around 40 minutes if we're to avoid mass casualties due to acute radiation sickness. The rest of us will have about ninety minutes." Hal elaborated.
"We'd better get on with it, then."

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Battlegroup. Ahead full, engage at will.}-

The number of contacts on my augmented reality display increased exponentially as the hostile Thrinax ships began releasing drones and my Sirens streamed from their launch bays, their pilots safe from the radiation permeating the nebula, flying their ships by remote control from simulators on the flight deck. Our escorts also launched their own drones in response, emitting encoded UHF signals to flag themselves as friendly to the IFF systems of my Sirens and capital ships. I concentrated on the larger ships and filtered out the drones and fighters from my AR view, happy to leave that particular battle in the hands of my wing commanders, I was more worried about the Navigators and their screening force. I kept note of the battle-clock time and the cumulative radiation exposure level in a prominent vermillion font in the upper left of my overlay view, conscious of the deadly threat posed to my crews by exposure to the radiation from the nebula and the accretion disk surrounding the Swarm World. The loyalist Thrinax forces were seemingly aware of my concerns and were in no great hurry to engage us, taking several minutes to bring themselves into formation and turn about to close the gap between our fleets. I watched the time ticking by on the clock more apprehensively than the shape of Thrinax formation, though I was still wary enough to reform the front line of my screening force when it looked like the Thrinax were trying to isolate and expose the left flank of Gene Powell's Titan squadron, which was flying in close support of Tartarus.

The nerves were beginning to creep up on me when we approached combat range. The jockeying for position by both forces had greatly extended the nominal time it should have taken for the ships to get into firing position. It had been just over ten minutes since we had entered the nebula. The fighter battle was already well underway at this point. Impatient for the real action to start, I checked on the status of my Sirens. Even though the fighters were being controlled by remote, it had hardly resulted in any loss of combat effectiveness in terms of kill/loss ratio. Despite the control lag between the VR simulators and the autopilots on board the Sirens, my fighter pilots were still well ahead of the Thrinax drones, averaging an impressive eleven kills per loss. I still had almost a third of our fighter and bomber squadrons in reserve, but at this rate, it didn't look as though I'd need them.

Tartarus and Erebus began firing first, when the handful of dreadnoughts accompanying the enemy cruisers and destroyers got within 5000 kilometres of my formation. Both dreadnoughts were now adopting Commander Marciano's sniper tactics and the seventeen Thrinax dreadnoughts intercepting us were reduced to glowing clouds of dust within two minutes. The loyalist Thrinax fleet of nearly three hundred cruisers and over four hundred and fifty destroyers were heavily outnumbered and outgunned by my ships, yet they still headed straight for my task force, now intent on closing the gap between us as quickly as possible, now that their protective escort of dreadnoughts had been destroyed. Hails of uranium-tipped shells blotted the vanguard of the loyalist Thrinax fleet out of the sky in cascades of bright sparks, as the mass driver projectiles detonated their antimatter stores. With their numbers reduced by half in only a few dozen seconds, the remaining cruisers and destroyers broke formation as closed within beam cannon range of my fleet, opening fire indiscriminately, the battlespace seething with hostile and friendly drones, my own force of Sirens picking off incoming nukes as the loyalist Thrinax ships fought an increasingly desperate, losing battle. I kept my own ships in their task groups, resisting the temptation to split up my ships to hunt down the stragglers quickly. I was conscious of the ticking clock again, knowing that it would take more time to mop up the remaining stragglers of screening force between us and the Navigators, but I was determined to keep casualties to a minimum.

I was impressed with the effectiveness of the Thrinax destroyers escorting my force. Their heavy carapaces ablated the worst of the damage from incoming beam cannon fire from the loyalist Thrinax, returning fire with precision and overwhelming intensity, doubling or tripling up on every enemy. The crimson lances of beam cannon fire withered away as the loyalists were swiftly disabled or destroyed. With the way clear to the approaching Navigators, I took stock of my losses. I had lost only a handful of corvettes and frigates. The entirety of my assault cruiser and battlecruiser force was intact, with only minor damage to seventeen ships. I also still had both of my dreadnoughts, which had been well protected by their escorts and fighter cover, reporting no damage at all.

We still had a few minutes until the Navigators came into the range of my mass drivers, so I briefly diverted my attention to the condition of the Thrinax behemoth. Number Six’s fleet had taken rather more of a beating than I had, but the behemoth was definitely in its death throes. All four of its massive main beam cannons had been severed from its superstructure by repeated attacks at point blank range from hundreds of rebel Thrinax cruisers. The behemoth was still putting up a limited fight using its own point-defence turrets, but Number Six’s force were only seconds away from exposing the Elder’s matter-antimatter reactor. The rebel force scattered, leaving a sole dreadnought diving at flank speed towards the behemoth’s antimatter storage bottles on a suicide run, its forward beam cannons flaring beyond their nominal capacity, overloading with a long, sustained torrent of superheated exotic matter, as it sliced a hole through the two hundred metre thick shielding of the behemoth's underbelly, intent on flying through the gap into the antimatter bottle chamber. The resulting explosion was blinding from over 35,000 kilometres away.

“Holy shit, they did it.” Robson swore, dazzled and amazed, blinking away the white spots from his vision.
"That's one big problem fewer to worry about." I said as my sight tried to recover from the brightness of the behemoth's death throes. I took stock of the overall situation and noticed that the battle clock had ticked past the half hour mark. I queried for status reports from all ships and noted that radiation exposure was starting to become an issue with my smaller frigates and corvettes, with some crews already reporting early onset symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. I double-checked the radiation dosimeters from the corvettes and some were only a fraction away from fatal levels of exposure.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Number Six. It's time. Withdraw my frigate and corvette groups to the rendezvous point outside the nebula. Then we could really do with you joining the party. The Navigators will be on us in three minutes.}-
#6~{Affirmative, Admiral. This one will commence extraction operations.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Harpocrates Actual. Commander Creighton, you are to assume command at rendezvous point. If you haven't heard from us in two hours, we're not coming. Don't bother waiting. Return to TCF space immediately and report in to Fleet.}-
CMR.Crghtn#12386711 -{Acknowledged, Admiral. See you back in the Bubble, sir. Good hunting!}-

It was with no small measure of relief that I watched my frigate and corvette squadrons be exfiltrated from the nebula to safety by their Thrinax escorts. While the overall combat power of my fleet had taken a hit of nearly 30%, it reassured me to know that at least some of my force would make it back to TCF space alive. It was already borderline as to whether the larger capital ships would have good enough radiation shielding to successfully engage the Navigators and secure the Swarm World, and I wasn't so ruthless that I would condemn the crews of my frigates and corvettes to a certain and needless death due to radiation poisoning, when the tactical justification for having the ships fight beyond their radiation endurance limits was questionable, at best.

“The Navigators are closing. They'll be within engagement range in 90 seconds.” Weps reported.
“Here we go. Tartarus, Erebus, take them down.” I ordered.
“Target locked, Erebus firing now.” Lieutenant Kaminski acknowledged from the dreadnought.

The lead Navigator was isolated, driving towards the heart of my task force at incredible speed, ten thousand kilometres ahead of its brethren as it closed in on my ships. It was an easy target. Too easy a target. The hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, anticipating danger. I tracked the mass driver shells from their source to their target on my augmented reality display. Nothing happened.

“What the hell? Erebus, was that a miss?” It had seemed like a direct hit on the emergency reactor vents to me.
“Negative, Admiral. Our shells just disappeared.” Kaminski replied, both confused and distressed.
“Hit it again.”

This time Tartarus joined Erebus in firing on the same Navigator. As before, nothing happened, even though the mass driver shells had been perfectly targeted on the Thrinax ship.

“Admiral, I think we’re in trouble.” Robson pointed out of the viewport. Our destroyer escorts were engaging their stardrives and retreating. I checked my tactical display and saw that all of my ships were being abandoned by their Thrinax allies. I did a quick mental calculation and saw that the lead Navigator was less than a minute away from beam cannon range, with the rest following close behind.

“Bring the fleet about, Number One. Flank speed.” I ordered, trying to buy us an extra few seconds.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number Six, what the hell are you doing?}-
#6~{This one apologises, Admiral. This one requires your escorts elsewhere for the time being.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number Six, if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to make you regret playing me. I’m going to put a thousand mass driver shells through your sorry carcass.}-
#6~{Negative, the Admiral will not. The Admiral will see. The Admiral will understand in time. Transmission ends. This one is busy.}~

I checked my tactical overlay and Weps’s board and there was no longer any sign of Number Six’s force.

“Mitchell, what the hell is going on? Why aren’t our weapons working on the Navigators?” I demanded.
“Sir, I have no idea.” Mitchell was entirely at a loss.
“I think I do, sir.” Marciano pitched in from Erebus. “I think I’ve put my finger on what’s wrong. The Navigators aren’t dreadnoughts, not even specialised ones. They’re the Elders.”

~{You are indeed quite intelligent, for primitives.}~

The space around my fleet shimmered and suddenly we were surrounded by all one hundred Navigators, forming an impenetrable shell, 500 kilometres across, encompassing my fleet.

“Full stop.” I ordered. There was nowhere to go, anyway. The Thrinax vessels had us in a perfect crossfire ambush. My heart sank. “Sorry, everyone. I don’t think we’re getting out of this one.”

~{Behold our true form.}~

The space around each of the Navigators seemed to unfold and unravel, their hulls expanding and coalescing into shapes larger even than a behemoth, each one nearly 70 kilometres long on its major axis. The potential power and capability of just one of the vessels dwarfed that of my entire fleet a thousand times over.

CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Well, Gus. I’m glad we had last night. It looks like it was our last chance after all. I love you.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I love you too, Nova. I’m sorry. Miranda was right after all. Who knew?}-
~{Touching. We’ll save your ships for last.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{What do you mean, ‘save our ships for last’?}-
~{Rear Admiral Kincaid, I would have thought that was obvious even for one of your limited cognition. Your battlegroup is doomed. I will take your ships apart one by one, but I will grant you the agony of hope. And just before you die of radiation exposure, I will thrust you, your ship and that of your lover into the maw of the Swarm World. It will be a most exquisite sacrifice. Your atoms will seed our next generation.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You know who I am? Who am I speaking to?}-
~{Kincaid, I have known about you since before you were born. We have been masters of space and time since before your planet even formed. Your kind are nothing but insects biting at the toes of giants. We permit your existence on your precious Earth, but the spread of your pestilence among the stars will be controlled.}~
CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Jesus Christ, they know about Earth.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{We are not a pestilence! What gives you the right to judge us?}-
~{We foresaw your ascension to the stars. But your kind is limited, not ready. We are children of the stars and hyperspace. Be thankful that we did not extinguish your civilisation millennia ago.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{If we’re so insignificant, why fight us at all?}-
~{Your kind needs to learn its place, Kincaid. It has ambition without wisdom, intellect without reason. The spread of such creatures in the galaxy is a plague. Even the resources of the galaxy are finite. Your kind must be confined. If your kind proves capable of living in balance with its resources, we may permit your expansion in the future. If not, you will destroy yourselves and the cycle of creation will begin again. Perhaps the next civilisation to arise on your world will show greater wisdom.}~

I sat back in my command chair, feeling queasy. I checked the mission timer and realised that the sensation of nausea wasn’t just due to the hopelessness of our situation. The intense radiation environment of the nebula was starting to take its toll. Sixty-three minutes had passed since the jump into the nebula. The crews of my assault cruisers would be starting to be exposed to lethal doses of radiation in less than another thirty minutes. The crews on the dreadnoughts and the battlecruisers would be likewise affected in under an hour, and if the way I was feeling was any guideline, the radiation levels were already having an adverse effect on the combat effectiveness of my crews. Any sense of hope drained away. The Thrinax were evolved to live in this kind of radiation environment and could simply defeat us by waiting. They didn't even need to raise a weapon against us in anger. All they needed to do was prevent us from escaping, which was a simple enough task, using their stardrive jammers. I wondered if it was worth ordering the scuttling of my remaining ships, if only to deny the Thrinax the satisfaction of having bested my fleet in combat. As I considered my options, ship icons on my tactical overlay started to flash amber, indicating that the ship AIs were reporting that their crews were displaying symptoms of acute radiation sickness.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{If you’re going to destroy us, Thrinax, get it over with. I’ve got less than an hour to live, anyway. You’ll never get us over to the Swarm World in time.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Gus, what are you doing?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I don’t fancy dying of radiation poisoning, Nova.}-
~{Kincaid, I think you’ll find I can get you to the Swarm World far quicker than you can imagine. But not all of your kind shall make the journey.}~

In a terrifying demonstration of its overwhelming superiority, the lead Elder opened fire on all of the combat ineffective ships on my tactical list; the assault cruisers whose crews were reporting the onset of severe symptoms of radiation sickness due to the synchrotron radiation from the nebula and the gamma ray emissions from the accretion disk surrounding the black hole. The names flashed before disappearing from the list, a hundred crimson beams criss-crossing my formation and obliterating the stricken vessels in less than a second.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{No!}-
~{That was a small mercy, Kincaid, compared to what is in store for you.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Fuck you.}-
~{Save your anger. You will need your strength in the moments to come.}~

The entire ship started to shake violently and the space beyond the viewport distorted crazily, melting, twisting and folding. I felt the entire ship lurch, impelled towards the warped light of the luminous disk by a massive, unseen force caused by the Elder's manipulation of the very fabric of space-time itself.

“What the hell’s going on?” I demanded, angry but powerless in my frustration.
“Admiral, we’re moving towards the Swarm World.” Lieutenant Armstrong reported from Stellar Navigation. “Or rather, it’s moving towards us. I’m registering a massive space-time distortion a hundred metres from the bow of the ship.”
“Confirmed, sir. It’s not just us, Admiral. It’s happening to the whole battlegroup.” Mitchell said.

“Mitchell, have you been able to isolate which Elder is signalling us?” I asked.
“Aye, sir.” Mitchell replied and highlighted it on the tactical display.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Battlegroup. I don't know about the rest of you, but I’m not going down without a fight. As soon as the distortion clears, hit the lead Elder with everything you’ve got. Nuclear authorisation approved. All weapons free. Attack pattern Tiamat.}-

“Weps, arm our nukes and target the lead Elder.”
“Yes, sir!”

The shuddering began to subside and the space outside the viewport began to stretch back to normality. I estimated that we were just two million kilometres above the plane of the accretion disk, directly above the event horizon of the black hole. The impossibly bright x-ray jet blasting from the magnetic pole of the Swarm World streamed perilously close to the port flank of my depleted fleet. The radiation alarm sounded and I turned to Hal at Ops.

“Radiation levels are at 50 sieverts and rising. We’ve got twenty minutes before fatal exposure.”
“Helm, bring us to flank speed and begin evasive manoeuvres. Target vector at 156o11’27” by 013o48’09”. Weps, open fire.”
“Nukes away! Mass drivers firing. All ships report engaged with the lead Elder.”

In perfect synchronisation, the remains of my battlegroup wheeled about and split up into five attack wings, flying at maximum speed on divergent arcs, with the lead Elder at their foci. As my ships broke formation and spread out into the battlespace, I used my augmented reality view to keep track of the nuclear warheads and mass driver shells as they homed in on their target. The Elder opened fire with its point defence systems, swatting the thousands of nuclear warheads out of the sky seemingly without effort. As before, the mass driver shells passed through the Elder as if it wasn’t there. This time, however, we were at such close range that it was possible to detect the warpspace distortions as the Elder phased itself out of realspace for the instant it took for the shells to pass through the volume occupied by its hull. I sat taller in my seat as I watched the mass driver projectiles ripple through the space occupied by the lead Elder. Something disturbed me about the images. It wasn't just that I'd thrown everything my fleet had at the alien and had come up empty. I replayed the video back in slow motion, using my neural link. It was incredibly subtle, but the timing of the disappearance of the mass driver shells and the fluctuation of the lead Elder's warpspace field were off by a tiny fraction of a second. It was only a matter of a bare handful of microseconds, but it was enough to alert the higher functions of my AI core that the situation might not quite be the total lost cause it appeared to be. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the information quite yet, and left it in the virtual hands of my not quite yet fully integrated AI core, while I focussed my ailing attention back to managing the battle at hand.

~{Brave, Kincaid. But futile. You cannot conceive of how badly you are overmatched. I don’t need to resort to anything so crude as weaponry. Observe.}~
CPT. Sgr#11911991 -{Admiral, we're being hacked! ArtEMIS has just gone down! The safety protocols on our nuclear weapons have been overridden!}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Get out of there, Aisha! Abandon ship!}-

I barely had the time to locate Tartarus on my augmented reality view before the ship vaporised in a series of explosions that climaxed with the detonation of the dreadnought's fusion reactor.

“Goddamn it!” I said, feeling utterly helpless. I turned to Robson. "Let's not give the bastard the satisfaction."

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS, begin self-destruct countdown, 10 seconds. Authorisation Kappa-Psi-Alpha-Gamma.}-
AI#CFV-B Pallas-{I am currently unable to comply with that order, Admiral.}-
~{You don’t escape that easily, Kincaid. Watch. Your friend’s fate will soon be your own.}~

I could only stand in impotent rage as Gene Powell’s squadron of Titans dipped out of formation, spiralling end over end, out of control, plummeting towards the black hole at incredible speed, impelled by invisible warpspace manipulations from the Elder.

CDMR. Pwll#11892229 -{Helm controls and engines are dead. See you on the other side, Gus.}-

Asteria and the three other Titans were ripped apart by the incredible tidal forces as they approached the event horizon of the black hole, leaving only a trail of subatomic particles in their wake, glowing ribbons thousands of miles long, pointing down towards the frozen image of the collapsed star. I checked the mission timer again. We still had fifteen minutes before the radiation levels would put us out of our misery. I sat down and self-administered an injection of 5-AED, to try and resist the effects of the radiation a little longer. The other officers did likewise, but they were also already beginning to exhibit some of the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Feeling pretty ropey over here, Nova. We don’t have long.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Our shielding is coping quite well. We might last another half hour.}-

I collapsed in the central command chair, breathing raggedly as the radiation poisoning sapped my energy. Another cluster of ship icons flashed red in my augmented vision, and I looked on helplessly as another squadron of Titans and three squadrons of assault cruisers were hurled by the Elder’s warpspace fields down towards the event horizon of the black hole at unbelievable velocity. I saw the hulls of the ships stretch under the immense gravitational forces and break apart, disassociated into their component quarks and electrons, wriggling like luminous strands of spaghetti in the chaos of the central accretion disk. I was wondering who would be next when I received an unexpected message.

#6~{Patience, Admiral. It will be over soon.}~
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Number Six? Is this what you intended all along? You knew that the Navigators were really the Elders, didn’t you?}-
#6~{Yes, Admiral. This one needed a distraction. But your kind’s sacrifices are not in vain.}~

I staggered over to the tactical console and steadied myself with one hand on Weps's shoulder. The synthetic was faring better than the rest of us with the radiation poisoning, but even he was starting to was starting to waver under the onslaught of high energy particles and gamma rays being emitted from the Swarm World.

"Show me the video from last strike on the Elder again." I ordered Weps.
"Yes, Admiral." Weps prodded the interface on his console and we both watched again in super-slow motion as ArtEMIS slowed the video at the moment of impact of the mass driver shells down to a frame rate of one nanosecond per frame. Weps froze the video, noticing a distortion in the warpspace field around the Elder that was inconsistent with the appearance of a phase shift between realspace and warpspace. "What do you make of that, sir?"
"Sneaky fucker." I cursed. It was the same discrepancy my AI core had noticed earlier. An explanation popped into my head from the analysis carried out by my AI core. I was tempted to accuse myself of clutching at straws, but it did make sense and also explained why the other Elders hadn't engaged my battlegroup. I marked the distortion on the video and extrapolated target coordinates on the Elder's hull that corresponded to the impact point for the anomaly in the alien vessel's warpspace field. "Weps, send these coordinates to the rest of the fleet. Number One, reform the battlegroup into strike formation."

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Battlegroup. All ships target new coordinates. Prepare to fire on my command. Set mass drivers to bursts of two hundred shells.}-
~{What is this? You have still have hope, Kincaid? Your pathetic conspirators will not aid you. They will be dealt with.}~
#6~{Not if this one deals with you first.}~

“Admiral, new contacts.” Mitchell reported weakly, slumped at her station.
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{ArtEMIS, show me. I can’t think anymore.}-

ArtEMIS took control of my augmented vision and zoomed the battlespace view down to focus on the Swarm World. The entire rebel Thrinax force was there, their stardrive engines at full power, distorting the twisted space-time at the boundary of the black hole, feeding off the unimaginable energies leaking into realspace as the matter in the accretion disk was ripped apart at the Planck length on the event horizon.

~{No. Impossible!}~

An ethereal shadow rippled out from the Swarm World, blowing the accretion disk apart and the very fabric of space-time around the black hole appeared to shred. With its connection to the energy emanating from the Swarm World lost, the Elder was no longer able to sustain the illusions surrounding it. I allowed myself a fleeting sense of satisfaction, that my suspicion that the Elder had been faking its invulnerability had proved true. The other Elders vanished from our sensors, having been falsely projected there by the influence of the one true Elder on our sensor systems.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Pallas Actual to Battlegroup. Hit it.}-

The deck sang with the distant thudding reports from Pallas's two mass drivers entering a sustained rapid fire mode. My AR view showed that we were down to just forty-nine combat effective ships, but all of them were engaged with the Elder in a final, last ditch assault. Twenty thousand mass driver shells poured into the hull of the Elder in nineteen seconds, striking an area only a hundred metres across. Overloaded, the warpspace bubble maintaining the holographic projection surrounding the Elder collapsed, revealing its true form. It was only half the size of a behemoth in volume, and the mass driver strike had ripped a mortal wound through its thick, heavy metal carapace. I saw the Elder desperately trying to vent its antimatter stores, but Erebus struck first, with a single pinpoint strike to the Elder's torn reactor vessels. The mass driver shell annihilated enough of the Elder's antimatter fuel to set off a chain reaction, but in a last act of defiance and vengeance, the Elder lanced out a single thin crimson beam before it was consumed by the void.

“Oh, shit.” was all I had chance to say before the bridge exploded.

CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Gus! Gus! GUS! Are you there!? Gus, answer me!}-

I came to almost immediately, bumping my head on the ceiling. The fire control systems were extinguishing the flames billowing from the ruptured consoles, the Halon gas making the air cold and stuffy. Robson floated alongside me in the air, missing both legs below the knee and his left arm. Surface tension kept a growing spheroid of blood massing just underneath his heart in the centre of his chest. I pushed myself off the ceiling toward him and checked his carotid artery for a pulse.

CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Sorry, Admiral. I guess when you spend this long dodging bullets, eventually your luck’s going to run out…}-

Robson’s pulse faded and I looked around the bridge to check on the condition of my other officers. Hal had been cut in two by the explosion of the Ops console and the Helm officer had been ripped to pieces when his station had overloaded. Armstrong and Santoro floated towards the aft bulkhead, lifeless, their bodies peppered with shrapnel and fine globules of blood trailing in their wake, seeping through the holes torn in their stained uniforms. Others had been luckier: Kimi ignored the gashes on his chest and legs as he secured a tourniquet around the stump of Wep’s right arm, the younger officer looking stunned as he watched grey hydraulic fluid leak from the torn artificial muscles. Lieutenant Mitchell only had superficial wounds to her face and neck, which she was bandaging lethargically, her thought processes scrambled by the radiation. Lieutenant Fisher held a bloodied and broken arm against her side, pushing herself over the deck to reach the airlock on the bridge's lifeboat, a trail of blood leaking behind her from a large puncture wound on her left thigh. Having reached the bulkhead, Fisher clawed her way painfully up the wall, yanking hard on the emergency lever to open the hatch. Ensign Peng at the Electronics Warfare station was miraculously unscathed, albeit dazed. The young synthetic staggered to her feet, reaching up to try and pull me out of the air as I span out of control on my back, ten feet above the deck. A quick check revealed that I still appeared to have all my parts, but I was bleeding heavily from a gash in my side, a fist-sized chunk of the Ops station embedded in my right flank, five ribs below my armpit. I left the mangled piece of composite where it was, to prevent the wound from bleeding even more profusely. I could also feel that my lung had collapsed, as I wasn’t getting much air when I breathed.  

CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Gus! Gus! Answer me, goddamnit!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{I’m here, Nova. Just.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Get off that ship, now! We don’t have long.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Long for what?}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Pallas has been ripped in half and your reactor’s down. You’ve got no radiation shielding at all. If you’re not on board Erebus in five minutes, not even our sickbay will be able to save you.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Okay, okay. We’re coming.}-
CPT. Nyhs#11886793 -{Gus! Hurry up and get your ass on that escape pod now!}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Yes, ma’am!}-

I felt three pairs of hands grab my shoulders and legs, hauling me unceremoniously through the airlock into the bridge escape pod. Its engine kicked the pod violently away from the dying ship before I had been secured into one of the seats. As I blacked out from the combined effects of the acceleration, blood loss and radiation sickness, I wondered whether I’d ever wake up.
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