Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Thirty

2702. – Caldwell 50; CFV-B Pallas

I sat at my desk in the Ready Room awaiting Commodore Powell, who was running a little late, having arrived in the system only two hours ago. Powell’s task group, eighty ships strong, had dropped out of warpspace just three hundred thousand kilometres away from the rendezvous point, where my own fleet had formed up in a standard defensive formation. Hal Cunningham was on the bridge directing the operation to merge the two task groups into a single coherent force, while Robson had gone to collect Powell from the flight deck. Powell had flown over from his ship, CFV-B Asteria, in a Siren interceptor, not only to speed up the journey, but also because he disliked the sensation of vulnerability of flying in an unarmed shuttle. The downside was that afterward it did take some time to dispense with the pressurised flight suit and get cleaned up after being immersed in a g-compensating aerogel cockpit. While Powell was making himself presentable, I made small talk with Nova, Marciano and Aisha Sagar. As one of the task force’s highest ranking ship commanders, Miranda Fforde-Hughes had been expected to attend the briefing as well, but she had chosen not to attend, citing illness. Robson had privately elicited the real reason for Miranda’s absence from Sagar when he had greeted her in the shuttlebay. Miranda was still seething from the humiliating dressing down I’d given her in the task group briefing at 119 Tauri following the mysterious appearance and disappearance of Thanatos, and she had vowed not to spend a single minute in the same room with me until she received a public apology. This suited me, because she was never going to get one and I was content enough to break with official protocol if it meant I could avoid dealing with her. It left Sagar in the undesirable position of go-between, but like most XOs, she hadn’t risen to her present position and rank without developing the requisite diplomatic skills. Not that she was being terribly diplomatic during our discussion of the parallels between the current TCF-Thrinax conflict and the Second Israel-Iran War, while we waited for Powell and Robson, however.

“With respect, ma’am,” Sagar looked at Nova, aghast, “the Middle East got exactly what it deserved. If you can't settle your differences and negotiate a lasting peace after two hundred years of trying, then you should get wiped off the map.”
“A nuclear firestorm was too good for them, eh Commander?” Nova scoffed, her skin taking on the hue of a pallid ochre to indicate her disgust.
“It was better than a conventional war that could have lasted decades and spilled over into South East Asia or Europe.” Aisha snapped in reply. "The loss of life was regrettable, I don't think anyone would argue with that, but if you're going to base your culture and politics around the 'an eye for an eye' principle, then the outcome was inevitable once Iran developed thermonuclear weapons at the tail end of the 21st Century."
"I don't think it was unavoidable." Marciano interjected. "If Israel had been a bit more flexible in trying to find a two state solution to the Palestinian occupation in the 2020's-"
"They couldn't be, not when you're under daily rocket and suicide bomber attack." Aisha cut in. "Those kind of indiscriminate attacks are barbaric."
“They may be barbaric, but you have to look at the wider historical context. The root of the conflict dates back to an unconscionable land grab by the West after the Second World War to manufacture the state of Israel in Palestinian sovereign territory. If you steal and occupy a nation state, rebrand it and then give the occupiers the weapons to subjugate and corral the locals to try and strangle their freedoms and culture, what do you expect them to do?" I asked, sadly. "I don't agree with the Palestinian's tactics, but I do understand them. The West systematically marginalised the validity of the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation by branding them terrorists - an easy, lazy label, that allows us to forget that the conflict could have been avoided in the first place, had the grievances of the Palestinians had been handled more sensitively when the British pulled out of Palestine in the 1940's before the UN was able to properly put in place a mutually agreed plan for the partition and constitution of the Jewish and Arab states."
"I agree." Nova turned from Sagar to give me a look of approval. "It's amazing how often that gets airbrushed out of the history books. And the problem with labelling people as terrorists is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. How many 'Wars on Terror' did the Israelis fight in the West Bank and Gaza? And what good did they do? Sure, it makes your politicians look strong and tough, but all it did was create a breeding ground for extremists. Give me a weak, chinless wonder who'd rather sit around a table negotiating, any day."
"You can't negotiate with terrorists!" Sagar cried, horrified.
"Oh, yes you can." Nova smirked. "The only good terrorist is one that you can turn into a politician."
"Indeed. Northern Ireland, for example." Marciano said. "Decades of violence pretty much stopped overnight by getting everyone around a table and asking 'what do you want?' and finding a compromise."
"It wasn't quite that simple, naturally, but that's the essence of it, Commander." I agreed. "If the Knesset had been able to swallow their pride after their first couple of decades of campaigns against the PLO and Hamas and start honest negotiations with the Palestinians, the Iranians never would have gotten dragged into it. Instead, we got pre-emptive strikes against civilian nuclear facilities in Iran and after that, the Iranians were just waiting for a good excuse to wipe Israel off the map."
"But the Israelis were trying to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons programme. Pre-emptive strikes were entirely justified in self-defence and to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation." Sagar protested.
"Didn't work though, did it?" Nova pointed out. "They just did the development where it couldn't be seen, instead. And when the Israelis bulldozed one refugee shelter too many... Every city between the beach at Tel Aviv and the Dasht River on the Iran-Pakistan border was wiped out in the bloodiest hour in human history. Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Iraq were just collateral damage, as far as the Israelis were concerned. Their one last big 'fuck you' to the Arab League. One billion plus, reduced to radioactive ash. It's a miracle humanity made it out of the 23rd Century."
"The USA, China and Russia showed remarkable restraint, given the circumstances." I observed. "One itchy trigger finger among the three of them and the most intelligent life-forms on Earth right now would be cockroaches."
"Some would argue that they still are." Nova quipped, looking pleased with herself, despite the cheapness of the shot.
"So I guess what you're trying to say, Admiral, is that we'd be better off negotiating with the Thrinax than fighting them?" Sagar asked, still not convinced.
"Absolutely. In any war eventually the losses become so terrible on both sides that the only option is to talk. Hopefully the dialogue we've started with Number Six will just be the beginning and we'll eventually get to speak with the Thrinax Elders." I said, as I noticed the door to the ready room slide open. "I'm sure they would be interesting to talk to."
"Evening, sir. I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" asked Commodore Gene Powell, as he strode confidently towards the conference table with his escort, Commander Robson, in tow.

We all stood to welcome Powell, exchanging handshakes before resuming our seats.

“Welcome aboard, Gene. Great to see you. We were just having an invigorating discussion about 23rd Century politics in the Middle East. We're going to move on to religion next." I directed Commodore Powell into the seat on my immediate left, while Robson gratefully took the seat between Aisha Sagar and me.
"Sounds dangerous. Never discuss politics and religion in polite conversation if you want it to stay polite." Powell observed dryly.
"Polite conversation is boring." I smirked, catching Sagar's eye with a sly wink. Tartarus's XO blushed, but a hint of a smile touched the corners of her mouth. "How’ve you been keeping, Commodore?”
“Very well, thank you, Admiral.” Powell eased backward into his seat, rearranging his jacket fastidiously. “Michiko had our third daughter last September. I’m looking forward to getting back to Earth to see her. I’ve got a six month leave of absence put aside to get to know my little Sora.”
“Congratulations, Gene.” I feigned a warmness I didn’t feel. The rawness I felt from the loss of Kat and Malia was still too much for me to be genuinely happy for him. “You managed to make it here without incident, I hope?”
“It’s been a quiet patrol so far, Admiral. We mopped up a couple of recon flights the other side of M37 a few weeks ago with no casualties.” Powell turned to Marciano. “I have to say, Commander, those double-tap tactics you developed for extreme range mass driver engagements have been a real hit with Fleet. We haven’t lost anything bigger than an assault cruiser since we started using them.”
“Thank you, Commodore. That’s nice to know.” Marciano appeared more smug than usual, this time justifiably.
“Don’t be surprised if Fleet are offering you your own command at the end of the mission. I know I wouldn’t mind having you in my battlecruiser squadron.” Powell said.
“Hands off, Gene,” I warned. “I think you’ll find I have first dibs.”
“I had to try, Gus. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Gene chuckled for a couple of seconds before turning serious and handing me a small, sealed package. “Anyway, I guess you’re all dying to know what we’re going to be doing at Messier 1 that warrants putting together a task force of nearly two hundred ships. I know I am.”

I broke the wafer-thin ceramic Admiralty seal and ripped open the silver envelope, letting the contents spill out onto the desk in front of me. Inside was a tiny black RF chip, with a thumbprint reader embedded on one side. I swiped my right thumb across the reader and a green light on the corner of the chip began to flicker, as the data from the chip began transmitting wirelessly to the shipboard AI. The holographic screen on my desk activated instantly, showing a detailed map of Messier 1, the Crab Nebula. My neural link provided the key to decrypt the quantum-encrypted orders and the text overlaid itself over the map, accompanied by a voiceover from ArtEMIS.

AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{To Rear Admiral Kincaid, Officer Commanding, Combined Capella-IV and Sirius Sector Assault Battlegroups, you are hereby ordered to proceed directly to the following coordinates at Messier 1.}-

A bright red spot appeared on the holographic map at the coreward fringe of the nebula, roughly parallel with the location of the central pulsar at the heart of the nebula. Precise galactic coordinates appeared in green text next to the navigational marker.

AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{There you will assume command of friendly Thrinax rebel forces and eliminate all Thrinax Elders and loyalist forces within the nebula to secure control of the Swarm World. On no account should the Swarm World itself be engaged. Combat operations within the nebula must commence before 2702.7.31. The latest intelligence estimates of Elder capabilities based on analysis of battle footage and debris analysis from μ Gemini are attached. Good luck and godspeed.}-

“Short and sweet.” I felt as if I was slowly deflating in my chair as I watched silent video of the behemoth at μ Gemini destroy four Titan-class battlecruisers from a range of 6000km in a matter of seconds on the holographic screen. “So, it’s combat, then. Thoughts?”
“What did I do in past life to deserve this?” Aisha Sagar offered, her voice shaking. Robson put a consoling hand on her shoulder and she grasped it, gratefully.
“We better hope that Number Six rustles up more friendlies before we head into that nebula, or it’s going to be a one-way trip.” Marciano blew out his cheeks.
“Why should we go in at all? Why not try to draw them out to us in manageable numbers?” Robson suggested. “It’s going to be nigh-on impossible to get control of the Swarm World in one engagement, so we should try to fight on terms where we at least stand a chance.”
“Where did you find this one, Gus? I’ll have him, too.” Powell dared a smile. “I like that idea a whole lot better than storming into a lethal radiation environment totally blind and outgunned.”
“Can it be done, though? What do you think, Beppe?” Nova asked her XO.
“Maybe, I’ll have to sim it.” Marciano scratched the back of his neck, deep in thought. “I can only see it working if we get the rebel Thrinax to kite them into the ambush. But doing it that way makes it difficult to get within strike range of the Elders without taking a whole lot of casualties first. There’s also no guarantee that the Elders would fall for it, either. We might just end up with a couple of thousand dreadnoughts and cruisers all over us.”
“I think we’re going to need a much better picture of how big the Elder loyalist force is compared to ours before we can start putting together a realistic battle plan.” I conceded. “If Number Six can’t deliver on that, I don’t think these orders are viable.”
“Honestly, Gus, even if your Thrinax friend does deliver, I’m still not sure they’re viable.” Powell tugged at his ear, sighing. “I think my chances of having a fourth daughter just took a nosedive.”
“Marciano, I want you to go over everything we have on the Elders again. They must have some kind of vulnerability we can exploit.”
“Yes Admiral, I’ll try and find something.”
“We also need to work on extending the effective range of our mass drivers, not just for the dreadnoughts, but also for our cruisers, too. Carl, get Chief Engineer Randall to look over the mass driver specs for our Titans and Heroes. Anything we can do to improve their efficiency and stability that we can implement in the field, I want to know about it.”
“Aye, sir. Right away.”
“Any other thoughts, suggestions or observations?” I asked.
“This might be a bit off the wall, Admiral, but how about using the nebula itself as a weapon?” Sagar offered.
“I like the sound of this already. Explain, Commander.”
“We assume the Thrinax like supernova nebulae because they’re a good source of the heavy elements they use to make their hulls, but they’re also packed with solar masses worth of hydrogen gas.” Sagar explained. “In another few million years parts of M1 are going to reach the critical density to begin the formation of new stars. We could speed that process up and accelerate the collapse of matter at a local level using our nuclear weapons.”
“Oh, that’s delicious. She’s not just a pretty face, is she?” Nova’s smile lit up the room. “Use our nukes to collapse parts of the nebula into giant fusion bombs. That’s genius.”
“It would only work in regions where the density of gas is already very high, but it’s the only way I can see where we could create enough of an explosive yield to scrap an Elder. Our tactical nukes would barely lay a scratch on them.” Sagar added in caveat. “But once we’ve used the trick, it’s unlikely they’d fall for it again, Admiral.”
“Gene, how long do your ships need before we can make the jump to Crab?” I asked.
“They’re going to need a full maintenance cycle, Gus. We’ve just come out of an eight week transit, and it’s going to take us thirteen weeks to reach M1. It’d be too risky to try two jumps of that length back to back without making sure all our stardrive systems are at 100%.”
“Okay, Aisha, you’ve got five days to run the numbers on your starry surprise. I want the sims on my desk before we jump for Crab on 2702.4.2. Anything else?” I glanced around at each one of the assembled officers, briefly. They all shook their heads. “One last thing. We’re holding a remembrance ceremony for Commander Jameson tomorrow night in the wardroom at 2200. You’re all very welcome to attend. ArtEMIS can assign you guest quarters if you’d prefer remain aboard overnight.”
“That sounds good to me, Gus. I don’t think I could face getting into that pressure suit again tonight.” Powell said, relieved.
“If there’s nothing else, you’re dismissed. The wardroom is serving dinner until 2300. Get some food and rest.” I told the guest officers.
“Fancy something to eat, Commanders?” Robson propositioned Marciano and Sagar.
“Sure, Carl. That would be lovely.” Sagar replied, stretching as she left her seat.
“I’d love to sir, but I have a prior engagement.” Marciano replied enigmatically, likewise standing.
“Your loss, Beppe. I get to keep Carl all to myself, then.” Aisha appeared to relish the prospect.
“Behave yourselves, Commanders. But not too much.” I advised them with a grin. “I’ll see you in the morning, Carl.”
“Good night, sir.” Robson left with Marciano and Sagar in tow. Before the hatch closed I saw Marciano greet Mitchell at the Remote Sensing station with a delicate stroke on the back of her neck. Mitchell turned to him, smiling warmly.
“Ah, the first flush of young love.” Gene said, after they were safely out of earshot. “Sickening, isn’t it?”
“Gene, you hypocrite!” I admonished him, scandalised. “I remember you and Michiko back at the Academy. You should have seen them, Nova. Getting those two apart was like trying to separate a kitten from its mother. It was heartbreaking, that cute little mewling you both used to make.”
“Gus, shut up. You’re hardly one to talk when it comes to dignity at the beginning of new romances.” Gene shot back. “There were so many notches on your bedposts at the Academy that your bed had to be condemned as unsafe. And I’m not talking about its structural integrity, if you know what I mean, Captain. He’s broken more hearts than LDL cholesterol.”
“I know, Commodore, all too well. Mine was one of them, albeit after the Academy.” Nova laughed.
“Oh, really? You have my deepest commiserations, Captain.” Gene’s eyebrows shot up with surprise. “Shameless. Just how many women have you slept with, Gus?”
“A gentleman never tells.” I coughed delicately. “Next subject.”
“Bah, where’s the fun in that, Gus? I think I’ll turn in for the night, if it’s all the same to you, Admiral. I’ve been on duty since 0300 this morning. I had to cover for the third watch duty officer. She had a fit during the middle of her shift.”
“Is she alright?”
“Yeah, she’ll be fine. The docs have her on medication now. Undiagnosed epileptic. The MRI showed that she had a small brain injury from early childhood.” Gene explained, bemused. “No symptoms at all for twenty-five years and then, boom! She has a whole body seizure in the middle of the night on the bridge. Thrashed her way down from the command station to tactical before anyone managed to get hold of her. The brain’s a delicate and funny beast.”
“Get some sleep, Gene. We’ll have a proper catch up in the morning.”
“G’night, Admiral. Captain.” Powell nodded to me and Nova in turn, yawning as he allowed ArtEMIS to steer him toward his quarters for the night via his neural link.
“How are you feeling, Gus? Glad to be back on the bridge?” Nova asked, with a half-smile on her face.
“Yeah, I guess so. It helps being busy. I don’t have so much time to brood.”
“Do you want to talk about it? I could keep you company tonight.” Nova suggested, in a sympathetic and compassionate tone. “If you need… comfort.”
“Not tonight, Nova. I need some time to think. We could talk tomorrow night.”
“At Katrina’s wake? You want me there?”
“I’d like you to be.”
“It would be my honour.” Nova stood to leave. “I’ll see you in the morning, Gus.”
“Good night, Nova.” We embraced tentatively for a moment, my pulse racing with the memory of the last time we had been so close. Nova sensed my ambivalence, but respected my need to alone and let me go, caressing my cheek and the nape of my neck with the back of her hand. My eyes followed her out as she left the Ready Room, and I experienced a sharp pang of longing and regret, though I wasn’t sure if it had been provoked because of my implicit infidelity this morning, or because I actually had wanted Nova to stay with me tonight after all.
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