Monday, June 06, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty-Eight

2702. – Caldwell 50; CFV-B Pallas

The transit to the rendezvous point at Caldwell 50 had been the very definition of routine. Any rumblings of Umbra involvement or interference in our mission had been quickly rooted out and stamped on by Robson, and his idea of running sports tournaments to keep the crew occupied had been an unqualified success. Chief Watson had predictably wiped the floor with everyone in the wrestling and mixed martial arts tournaments, though there had been a couple of surprises during the competition. Lieutenant Mitchell had made the semi-finals in the wrestling competition before being put out by Watson, claiming a few notable scalps along the way. One of them had been Marciano, who had been considered by some as a dark horse for the title because of his height and muscular physique. The diminutive Mitchell had effortlessly slapped away Marciano’s attempted grabs, wriggled inside his guard and snagged his wrists, using one foot to kick away his outside leg before hurling him spinning to the deck onto his chest, where she pinned his twisted arms under her body in excruciating swan-neck holds. 'Never start a fight with someone who understands levers better than you do.' Mitchell had told him with relish, after his submission. I suspected that they’d had a more intimate rematch later that night, where they’d both tried to lose. 

The highlight of the tournaments had been the gridiron final between the marines and the stardrive technicians from engineering. Three-quarters of the crew had turned out to support the two teams in what proved to be a keenly and closely contested match. Some of the hits by the defensive tackles were beyond brutal, sending players flipping out of control towards the ceiling of the hanger bay, all to the baying cheers and jeers of the crowd. The stardrive technicians made the winning touchdown on the last play of the game, sending the rest of the engineering techs wild. The climax of their celebration had been knocking off the taps from the pressurised beer kegs, launching them across the bay like rockets. The cleaning drones would be wiping beer stains from the walls of the hanger bay for weeks. With the crew in good spirit, we had arrived at Caldwell 50 without incident and settled into the three watch routine of Condition Three while we held station for Gene Powell’s task force, who were due to rendezvous with us in another five to ten days. I was sat alongside Robson on the bridge, enjoying the fact that I little to do, other than wait. Marciano had returned to Erebus, having completed his work with Lieutenant Mitchell between their bouts of bedroom wrestling. Despite their best efforts, they hadn’t managed to be able to overcome the range advantage the behemoths had over our dreadnoughts, instead simulating scenarios where the initial contact from the stardrive jump occurred inside the maximum range of our mass drivers. This dramatically increased the likelihood of success for the task group, but in full simulations based on the information Number Six had given us, casualty numbers were still horrific, ranging between sixty and seventy percent. I was hoping that the revised orders that were due to arrive with Commodore Powell would limit the scope of our operations to reconnaissance, because unless we got a lot more ships and much better intelligence on what we might be facing and where, I didn’t fancy our chances in the nebula if it came to an all-out battle between us, the rebels and the Elders.

“Admiral, we’ve got a message coming in. It’s marked private, for your eyes only, sir.” Ensign Peng announced from the Ops station.
“I’ll take it in my Ready Room, Ensign.” I left my seat, already having a good idea who the message was from. “Robson, make sure I’m not disturbed.”

I sealed the door of the Ready Room behind me, activated my terminal and turned on the holographic screen, which flickered into existence over the surface of the desk. I was still awaiting word from Sorcha regarding Malia's condition, and I was getting increasingly concerned that with no signs of improvement nearly three months after the accident that she wouldn't be able to break out of her coma. I hoped that this message would give me at least some good news, because if it wasn't from my mother, there was only one other person it could be from.

“ArtEMIS, begin playback.” I ordered, as I settled down to watch.

The screen sprang to life and I saw Kat sitting in the pilot’s seat of Nausicaa wearing only a bra, briefs and a pair of deck shoes. She was facing aft towards the holograph recorder and the crazed, wildly distorted patterns of light visible out of the cockpit window showed that the shuttle was still in warpspace.

“Hi, Gus. I thought about doing this naked, but I wasn’t sure if your heart would handle the excitement. Still, I thought you'd want to see how the buns in the oven are baking.” Kat smiled mischievously at the camera, placing her hands on top of her baby bump, which had grown substantially since we’d said our farewells on Christmas Day. “It might look like the twins are about ready to drop, but ArtEMIS assures me I’ve still got time to make it to Sol with a few days to spare. We’re just about to reach μ Gemini and I’m going to get a once-over from the docs there before making a final decision on whether I head to Sol or not for the birth. I'm going to try to make it to Earth if I can. I'm going to send word to Itzal to meet me there and I’d like to have Sorcha at the birth, too. It's going to be quite some reunion, especially if your new lady joins us in Aviemore as well. It'll be nice to see the look on Sorcha's face when you and Malia make her a grandmother again.
“It’s been a nice, quiet trip. Nothing to do but read, meditate, practice yoga and catch oysters." Pleased with her new favourite euphemism, Kat paused for effect, smiling hazily before adding. "I’ve missed you, Gus. I’ve been dreaming about you, me, Malia, Itzal and the kids, all together at your estate. I hope you’re safe. It’s a dream I want to come true.” Kat’s voice took on a melancholic tone, a sadness and loneliness behind her eyes that made me want to hold her. There was a beeping from the console behind her and Kat swivelled her chair, turning back to the controls of the shuttle.
“And here we are, voila! μ Gemini!” Kat proclaimed with a flourish as the warpspace bubble collapsed around the shuttle, plunging it back into realspace, not into the safety of one of the TCF’s largest starbases and shipyard facilities, but into the chaos of a battle. I leapt forward in my seat, not able to believe my eyes.
“Oh, god.” I heard Kat whisper, her fingers frantically activating controls on her control board. I saw her turn on the shuttle’s ECM suite and the view from the cockpit wheeled madly as Kat started evasive manoeuvres, sinking with a grunt into her seat from the acceleration as she disabled the safety limits on the engines. “Come on, turn you son of a bitch...”
I counted over a dozen Thrinax dreadnoughts and fifty cruisers, ripping the starbase and its defending fleet to pieces with their beam cannons, but worse was to come. When Kat came about, a massive silhouette blocked the starlight. The shape that filled the viewport was unmistakeably that of a behemoth, no more than two kilometres away.
“Oh, no.” Kat gasped, paralysed in terror. She looked back over her shoulder towards the holograph recorder and I saw the fear and resignation in her eyes. “Gus… Gus, I lov-“ was all she managed to get out before the transmission ended abruptly in static.

I punched off the terminal and fled the Ready Room, tears already pooling on my cheeks. Robson saw my distress as I rushed to the lift, my only impulse being to get back to the privacy of my quarters.

CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Admiral? What’s wrong?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You have the bridge, Number One.}-
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