Saturday, June 04, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty-Five

2701. – 119 Tauri; CFV-D Thanatos

‘When I can’ turned out to be over two days, before Reynolds finally sent out a message inviting me over to his ship. I had asked for the invitation to be extended to Captain Fforde-Hughes and Captain Nyhus, as I felt it was important to keep my senior captains as up to date as possible on the latest developments. Reynolds had denied the request, saying that the information he was about to give me was for my ears only and could not be shared with anyone else in the task group.

I had borrowed one of the outpost’s supply shuttles to fly over to Thanatos, taking the opportunity to survey the vessel’s damage from up close, approaching the ship from the rear, passing underneath the reactor core and stardrive engine, before looping back up and around the forward battle section, over the empty nuclear missile launch tubes and along descending alongside the habitation spine as I came in for a routine landing on the ship’s port flight deck. Thanatos had taken an absolute pounding. Scorch marks from nearby radiation bursts scarred the outer casing of the ship’s fusion reactor and stardrive engine nacelle. The starboard wing was melted almost clean through, with only heavily-patched power conduits and jury-rigged reinforcements on the internal chassis keeping the ion thruster pods at the end of the wing attached to the main body of the ship. As I came in to land, I saw that almost half of the compartments on the habitation spine had been breached, as their emergency shutters had been sealed over smashed windows. The conning tower appeared relatively untouched, but it was a wonder that the ship was still flying at all. I slowed the shuttle to a crawl as the outer airlock door closed behind me; waiting to get the green light to proceed to the landing pad I had been assigned. The inner airlock door slid open and I applied the smallest of delta-v’s to thrust the shuttle the final few dozen metres to the landing pad. I let the shuttle spin through a half-pirouette to face back towards the airlock and applied the reaction control thrusters to let the shuttle settle down perfectly in the centre of the landing pad with a barely perceptible bump.

I had expected Reynolds to be waiting for me at the entrance to the shuttlebay, but was disappointed to see that, again, apparently I didn’t rate that highly. After Nick’s revelation on Boxing Day, I was convinced that I was now mixed up in the murky business of Umbra, the black ops section of the Fleet Intelligence Arm. In retrospect, had I been given the choice back at Wolf 359 knowing what I knew now, I’d rather have declined the promotion and been assigned to the Eagle Nebula. I was acquainted with Nick’s XO and occasional paramour Esther Goldstein through Kat, but whoever the officer was that had been sent to meet me, it certainly wasn’t her, nor was it anyone else I recognised. She wore the three circled stars of a TCF Commander on her epaulets, but her uniform didn’t have a nametag or ship emblem and the severe look she wore on her taut, lined face discouraged casual chit-chat. I used my neural link to have ArtEMIS do a facial recognition search against the TCF’s personnel database, but it came back blank.

“Good morning, Admiral.” The commander’s voice was about as warm and friendly as her facial expression. “Please follow me. Commodore Reynolds is waiting for you in the Ready Room.”
“Thank you, Commander…” I used an upwards inflection with my voice and left a pause to invite an answer into the gap, but I was coolly rebuffed.
“This way please, sir.” The mysterious officer pointed the way down the corridor to the nearest lift and headed off, without checking to see if I was keeping pace.

There were several minutes of discomforting silence as the woman directed me to the lift and we rode it up to the top of the conning tower. I stepped out onto the bridge to find a scene of almost total devastation. Almost every square inch of the floor and walls were covered with burn marks and there were dozens of jury-rigged patches on the wall and ceiling. Five of the bridge consoles were buckled and twisted, having overloaded and exploded from within. Three temporary consoles had been spliced into the sides of the Remote Sensing and Operations consoles to access their power and data network uplinks and the bridge crew appeared to be understrength by four officers. The commander steered me gently but insistently with a hand in the centre of my back to get into the Ready Room as quickly as possible. I stepped inside to find Nick Reynolds sitting at his desk eating breakfast. He stood and beckoned me in, looking genuinely pleased to see me. The Ready Room was in much better shape than the bridge. It appeared untouched by the calamity that had befallen the rest of the ship. The frosty commander vanished back onto the bridge, leaving Nick and I alone. Nick pounced forwards, grabbing my hand and pulling me into an unexpected hug.

“Gus! It’s great to see you again! Come, sit! Have you had any breakfast yet? Do join me.” Nick let me go and directed me to the seat next to his.
“It’s nice to see a familiar face, Nick.” I sat down and helped myself to a fried egg on toast and a bulb of tea. “Where’s Esther? And what has that ice queen done with her?”
“Esther’s dead, Gus. The ice queen is my new Number One.”
“Shit, I should have thought… how insensitive was that? Nick, I’m so sorry. What happened? The whole ship looks like it’s gone ten rounds with a giant plasma torch.”
“You sure you want to know? It’s a pretty depressing tale.”   
“Start from the beginning and tell me everything.”
“Okay, Gus. You asked for it.” Nick finished his orange juice and swivelled his chair to face mine, looking haunted. “You know that we went MIA two years ago. What you don’t know is how and why.
“I’d been assigned to take my battlegroup out to the California Nebula on a routine patrol. When I got there, I found out that there was nothing routine about it. We’d been set up.”
“Set up? By who?” I exclaimed, only for Nick to hold up a hand, stopping me from bombarding him with questions.
“Waiting for us on the fringe of the nebula, 5000k from our arrival point, were twenty Thrinax cruisers and six dreadnoughts. I had Thanatos, four battlecruisers, ten assault cruisers, ten frigates and fifteen corvettes. The dreadnoughts went down pretty quickly, at the cost of two of my Titans and eight of my corvettes. By then the cruisers were all over us like vampire bats on a herd of cattle, and it was carnage. We threw everything we had at them and they did likewise. Two thousand nukes in the air, every fighter and bomber we had, the battlespace swarming with drones.” Nick paused, closing his eyes as he recalled the battle. Nick then gave me an irreverent, quizzical stare. “You don’t happen to have any booze on you, do you?”
“As it happens…” I pulled a half-bottle of Southern Comfort out of my thigh pouch that I had commandeered the previous evening from Kimi’s private supply and set it on the table. It was Nick’s favourite spirit. I had originally planned on giving it to him as a present to welcome him back from being MIA at the end of our meeting.
“Gus, ya dancer.” The old Scots slang sounded wrong with Reynolds’s Melbourne accent, but Nick’s eyes gleamed as he poured us both double measures into fresh drinking bulbs. “We’re both going to need this, believe me.
“So there we are - bashing seven shades of shit out of each other with every weapon we’ve got. Every fifty seconds there’s a ship going pop: either one of theirs or one of mine. We're getting pretty badly creamed and we take a nuke close aboard, the flak catches it only 800 metres away. The gamma shockwave knocks out our main ion drive and we’re in deep fucking doo-doo, ‘kay? Suddenly every fucker is onto us and we start taking more hits, getting hull breaches all over the habitation spine and engineering section. That’s when I go ape. I’d been holding my nukes in reserve and we launch the lot. I figure, might as well, right?
“The Thrinax are down to seven cruisers and a handful of drones at this point and all I’ve got left are Thanatos, a squadron of Sirens, one assault cruiser and a frigate. The frigate gets taken out protecting Thanatos from a beam cannon hit and the assault cruiser whacks a Thrinax before getting suicide rammed. I order the Sirens to scatter and get out of the blast radius, because there are still 720 warheads in the air, right? The nukes come down on the Thrinax cruisers and when the blast clears, there’s just one of them left and me. It’s pretty fucked up from the nuke hit, but don't you just know it, it still has a functional beam cannon.
“The Sirens are headed back in to do what they can, but they’re not going to get there in time. I think it’s all over, because Thanatos is literally dead in the proverbial water. I’m trying to get a shot lined up with our mass drivers, but that damn thing’s still mobile and all I’ve got to manoeuvre the ship are the RCS thrusters. The cruiser must have been getting nervous about the Sirens coming back in, because it fires before it’s lined up the killer shot. Though it still damn near ripped off the starboard wing and took out the starboard mass driver and one of our flight bays.
“And you saw what happened to the bridge. The beam cannon hit caused a feedback spike in the power grid and half the bridge just fucking explodes. Ka-boom! Fire and fucking shrapnel everywhere. Most of the bridge crew get it there and then, including Esther.” Nick paused, taking a long hit from his drink. “A chunk of the tactical station took her head and arm clean off.”
“All we’re worried about is putting out the fires, but the Sirens are still able to fight. Enough of them get through the cruiser’s defences to take out the beam cannon and engines, but they don’t have enough missiles left to destroy the ship entirely. So we’re both left there floating at the fringe of the nebula, no weapons, no power and no manoeuvrability. We can’t even ram each other. What’s left of my engineering team is trying to get the power grid back online when Remote Sensing picks up another fifty ships coming in.
“We thought so at the time, because they were TCF: two Primordials, ten Titans and a buttload of support craft. I get my Science Officer to try to ID them, but they’re not even registering on the IFF. We try to get a visual on their registries, but their hulls are clean. It’s like they didn’t exist.”
“What happened next?”
“We get hailed by the lead dreadnought, saying that we should evacuate any injured via escape pods to be dealt with by the relief fleet, but that any able personnel should remain aboard to assist with the recovery of the ship. I should have smelled a rat, because the captain refused to identify himself or his ship, but it wasn’t like we had much choice. The med bay was in ruins and my medical staff was dead. So we rounded up everybody who needed treatment for burns or trauma, everyone in worse shape than walking wounded, loaded them into escape pods, sent them on their way and… Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! The bastards blasted them all.”
“What? Why?”
“No loose ends, I suppose. They never bothered trying to justify it.” Reynolds emptied his glass and refilled it. I declined a top up when he proffered me the bottle. “We weren’t supposed to have survived, you see? The whole thing had been a setup by Umbra. They’d leaked our patrol schedule to the Thrinax to provoke an ambush. We were supposed to soften up the Thrinax so that the Umbra battlegroup could disable and capture a couple of their ships when they picked up the pieces in the aftermath of the battle. They hadn’t counted on us surviving and taking out the almost all of the Thrinax force. Kinda screwed up their plans.”
“Why didn’t they just destroy Thanatos? You were defenceless, right?”
“I suppose even a damaged Primordial was too valuable a resource for them to pass up. The next thing I know, we’re being boarded by engineering teams from the two Umbra dreadnoughts. It took five weeks to get the ship patched back up into a state where it could make a stardrive jump. In the meantime, the rest of the Umbra fleet is rigging some kind of webbing around the Thrinax cruiser to tow it using half a dozen of the Titans. The Umbra captain offered to take my crew aboard his ship to transfer them home, but after what happened with the escape pods there was no fucking way I was letting anyone leave the ship.”
“How many people did you have left?”
“Less than a third of the crew. About four thousand. Umbra backfilled us to half-strength, just enough to fly the ship on two watches.” Reynolds set down his glass. “We don’t mix well. There’s a lot of resentment and distrust.”
“No shit. The ice queen is Umbra, then? She wouldn’t tell me her name.”
“Number One is Number One. Once you join Umbra your identity gets wiped from all records, everywhere. You don’t exist and you never existed. Names don’t really have any meaning for them anymore. They don’t even call each other by name, just rank.”
“Who gives the orders?”
“In theory, I do, but in practice, Number One gets her orders directly from Umbra and she lets me give them to the crew. Very gracious of her when you think about it, really.” Bitter sarcasm dripped from Nick’s every word.
“Why don’t you chuck them off the ship or fly to the nearest starbase?”
“Our whole families would be dead before we got within a hundred light years of the core. They already threatened as much when one of my marines put an Umbra technician in the med bay for saying something about his girlfriend back on Earth. Umbra has us by the balls, and they know it. The only reason they haven’t made us disappear is because officially we’re already MIA, presumed dead.” Reynolds drained his glass a second time, but didn’t refill it. “We’re stuck in this for the long haul.”
“What exactly does Umbra have planned?”
“It wants the same thing Number Six does: control of the Swarm World to leverage the end of the war. When Umbra recovered Thanatos and the Thrinax cruiser from the nebula, they took us to one of their research stations beyond the rim. Don’t ask where. You don’t want to know and I’m not going to tell you. Anyway, they hooked up the Thrinax cruiser to a spacedock and blasted it with electric shocks for months until it started talking.”
“What did it say?”
“It told us everything: about the Swarm World, about the Elders and how the Warrior caste was starting to become dissatisfied with the way the Elders had lead them into a war with the TCF.” Nick paused and looked into my eyes intensely. “Gus, you have to understand, these are seriously old and intelligent creatures and the Elders have been using them like cannon fodder. There aren’t as many Thrinax as we originally thought and it takes millions of years for them to grow to maturity. We’ve already wiped out half a generation of Thrinax warriors in less than ten years, while our fleet numbers have remained relatively stable. As long as we can stop them from finding Earth, we’re on the threshold of victory. We can replace ships a helluva lot more quickly than they can.
“There were only two problems. One, Umbra had no idea where this Swarm World was, because the Thrinax warrior said that it’s always on the move between nebulae, and two, Umbra had no idea how many of these Elders there might be guarding it or what their capabilities might be. They’ve spent the last eighteen months trying to find out.”
“How does Number Six fit into this, and why are you here now?”
“Umbra made a deal with the captive cruiser: that they’d repair it and send it on its way if it agreed to give us further intelligence on the Elders and stoke up a rebellion within the Warrior caste. It agreed on the condition that we’d give it support in any face off against the Elders.” Nick considered going for more Southern Comfort, but went for a drinking bulb of coffee instead. “I’ve spent the last eighteen months on patrol with the Umbra fleet, periodically checking in with the cruiser and assisting in the capture of more Thrinax vessels to convert to the cause.”
“Let me guess, that cruiser you captured at the California Nebula was Number Six?”
“Yeah, only Umbra calls it Dolos.”
"The personification spirit of deception, treachery and guile."
“Appropriate enough, I guess. So you’re here just to safeguard your agent provocateur?”
“It’s not that simple, Gus. When you discovered the derelict behemoth at ε Gemini, Dolos confirmed to us that it was an Elder. The final piece of the puzzle of what awaits us at the Swarm World began to drop into place.”
“How come that Elder ended up at ε Gemini? It’s nowhere near a nebula.”
“Sometimes Elders go rogue. No-one’s sure what set that one off, but Dolos says that it’s been there for over a million years.”
“Umbra arranged all of this, didn’t they? My promotion, my patrol orders, the expedition to the Crab Nebula…” I mused, my mind racing.
“Gus, Umbra is the TCF. They run everything from the shadows. You’ve probably got sleeper agents infiltrated among your crew. You need to be careful about who you trust.” Reynolds warned.
“Can I trust you, Nick?”
“Umbra has had me over a barrel for two years, Gus. Draw your own conclusions.” Nick replied, with a tired sigh. “One last thing; they almost certainly don’t expect you to be successful. But you can be sure that they have a contingency plan.”
“They come in afterwards, clean up the mess and take the credit.”
“You’re learning, Gus. You’re learning.” Reynolds smiled without humour. “Now we’ve got an idea of what the Elders are and what they’re capable of, helping the warriors’ rebellion is a viable proposition, but Umbra sure as hell isn’t going to be on the front lines taking the big risks. But if they succeed, the war’s over and the TCF can go back to being explorers and pioneers.”
“But we’re expendable? Two task groups? That’s nearly half a million people, all told.”
“Gus, I was serious before. These guys don’t fuck around when they’re pulling strings behind the scenes. This goes higher up than you could possibly believe. They’re big picture people. Individuals don’t matter in the context of the greater good as far as they’re concerned. That’s why they give up their names. It’s a symbolic thing for them.” Reynolds cautioned, looking over my shoulder at the door to the Ready Room. “You can’t breathe a word of this to anyone else in your task group, not even your XO. They’ll know. They’ll find out. And then they’ll destroy you and everything in your life you hold dear.”
“How? How will they find out?”
“Gus, listen to me.” Reynolds implored. “Umbra knows the unknowable. It’s their business. Not a single word, for both our sakes. We don’t exist. We were never here. Understood?”
“Okay, Nick. Not a word.” I promised. “Are you going to be joining us at Caldwell 50?”
“No. Dolos and I will be gathering what forces we can to meet you at the Crab Nebula, though you won’t see me there. Thanatos isn’t combat-capable anymore.”
“Why didn’t Umbra refit the ship? They clearly have the resources.”
“They keep us like this so that rebel warriors can identify us as allies and share information. Thrinax distinguish between individuals based on shape, they don’t use IFF. That was one of the reasons the Elders started the war in the first place. They couldn’t handle the idea of our ships being lifeless and identical.”
“What a stupid reason to start a war.”
“Are there ever any non-stupid reasons?”
“I guess not.” I joined Reynolds as he stood and we shook hands. “Anything else you want to tell me?”
“Thanks for the booze. You can always trust a Scot to deliver.” Nick grinned and gave me a farewell wink. “Watch your back, Gus.”
“Be seeing you, Nick.”

The ice queen was already waiting for me when I stepped back onto the bridge. She wordlessly shepherded me swiftly to the lift and we made our way back to the shuttlebay in complete silence.
She opened the hatch and stood by the bulkhead controls as I stepped over the threshold, back towards my shuttle.

“Hmm… Fag officer.” I heard her mutter, quietly amused.
“What? What did you say?” I demanded, turning to face her angrily, rooted to the spot.
“Your ex-wife is a funny woman, Admiral Kincaid.” She closed the hatch in my face, her expression dead as stone.

I stood for a moment trembling with shock and anger. It was the joke Kat had made over our supposedly private and unrecorded neural chat link during my promotion ceremony. The threat was implicit but clear. I took a deep breath, tried to steady the shaking of my hands, boarded the supply shuttle and flew back to the safety of my ship.
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