Sunday, June 05, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty-Six

2701. – 119 Tauri; CFV-B Pallas

No sooner had I left Thanatos’s shuttlebay, I started getting deluged with urgent and irate messages from captains in my task group demanding to know what was going on and what I had spoken about and with whom while I was onboard. Unwilling to broadcast anything over open channels, I asked all of my task group captains to immediately convene aboard Pallas for a private briefing. Tom Creighton was bemused yet delighted to find himself at my right hand, conveniently forming a barrier between myself and Miranda Fforde-Hughes, who did not appear to appreciate the gesture. Robson sat on my left with Nova Nyhus beyond him and the other sixty COs crammed themselves around the wardroom’s central table as best as they could. I had not ordered refreshments to be served, as I wanted the meeting to be over and done with as quickly as possible. I waited for everyone to settle into their seats and the excitable buzz of conversation between the captains to quieten down before speaking. One by one, they all turned their heads toward me at the head of the table, expectant and eager for information.

“Thank you all for coming. I know there’s been a lot of speculation over the last couple of days over the situation regarding Number Six and the specialists who arrived on Boxing Day.” I intentionally avoided referring to Thanatos by name, which in itself provoked a murmur of consternation among a few of the captains. Suddenly a dozen questions were thrown at me simultaneously by various officers in the group.
“Did you speak to Commodore Reynolds, sir?-
“What happened to Thanatos, Admiral? Where has it been for the last two years?-
“Are Fleet Intelligence involved, sir?-
“Is this now an Umbra-led mission, sir?-
“What’s going to happen to Number Six, Admiral?-
“Will we be conducting combat operations in the Crab Nebula, sir?-
 “Captains, please.” I only heard a few of them and chose to ignore answering them, holding up my palms to quieten the group. “Let us make one thing clear. Our patrol orders are unchanged. We jump tomorrow to rendezvous with Commodore Powell’s task group at Caldwell 50 and then proceed to recon for Thrinax activity in the Crab Nebula. Any modifications to those orders will come from Fleet, nowhere else.”
“What aren’t you telling us, sir? There’s got to be more to it than that. Who did you talk to over on Thanatos? Was it Umbra?” asked one of my assault cruiser captains from the other end of the table.
“Commander Espinosa, let me make another thing quite clear. Thanatos is not here. It was never here, and never will be here. I expect your logs to reflect that.” I kept my voice low, calm and clear. It didn’t do any good, because suddenly the room was in uproar.
“Fuck, I knew it! It’s Umbra!-
“Oh, shit-
 “Man, we’re all screwed! Fucking Umbra!-
“I never should have signed up for this patrol-
“Shut up! Pipe down, goddamn it!” Creighton yelled over the din, quieting down the other ship captains. “Admiral, surely you’re not asking us to deliberately falsify reports to Fleet, are you?”
“Tom, you of all people ought to know the virtue of knowing when silence is preferable to transmitting something that could land you in a big heap of trouble.”
“Admiral Kincaid, this is outrageous!” spluttered Fforde-Hughes. “I demand to know what you were told aboard that ship!”
“Demand? You don’t get to make demands of me, Captain.” I snapped back, emphasizing her inferior rank. I looked around the group, who were stunned into silence for the moment. “For the sake of your own careers, I’m giving you a direct order to remove any mention of Thanatos from your daily reports. ArtEMIS will ensure any previous mentions are redacted.”
“Admiral, you’re asking a lot.” Nova sucked a sharp breath between her teeth. “Can you at least tell us why? Who did you speak to? Was it actually Commodore Reynolds or someone from Umbra?”
“I can’t and won’t tell you, Captain. It’s better the less that you know. Trust me on that. As task group commander, I will take full responsibility for the accuracy of your logs if people from Fleet start asking difficult questions.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing. They- they’ve gotten to you, haven’t they?” Fforde-Hughes voice shook along with her hands. “I’m not going to obey an unlawful order, Admiral. I’ll log what I see fit.”
“Miranda, you follow your conscience. But understand this: if you mention Thanatos in a single one of your logs, even obliquely, you’ll be mopping out latrines with your tongue at the Academy for the rest of your career. And that’s if you’re lucky.” I used the anger in my voice to hide my true feelings. Miranda was right about one thing: Umbra had gotten to me. Nick’s warning about sleeper agents and the ice queen’s comment back at the shuttlebay had shaken me to my very core. Everyone was suspect. No-one could be trusted. 
“I’ve heard enough, Admiral. I won’t be threatened. Not by you, not by anyone, Admiral. I didn’t enlist in the TCF for this.” Fforde-Hughes tried to muster her dignity and left as quickly as she could.

The rest of the officers sat in silence, not quite knowing what to do next. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to regain my calm. Hal’s voice interrupted my train of thought, echoing from the speaker on the armrest of my chair.

“What is it, Number Two?”
Thanatos and Number Six have just left the system. No warning at all. They’re gone.” Hal reported. “Should I check with the outpost whether Thanatos logged a flight plan?”
“Don’t bother, Number Two. They won’t have. Continue jump prep. I’ll be on the bridge shortly.”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Hal cut the channel, allowing me to redirect my attention to the gathering of ship captains.
“Ladies. Gentlemen. I don’t expect you to be happy with what you’ve just heard, but I do expect you to do your jobs professionally. It’s not an order I ever wanted to give, nor one I’d give lightly, but believe me when I say that it’s necessary. Return to your ships. We jump for Caldwell 50 tomorrow at 1200 sharp. Dismissed.”

I tried to assess the mood of the group as they stood and left the wardroom in small groups. The buzz was unsettled rather than hysterical, which I suppose was about as good as I could have expected. Nova remained in her seat, watching me intently and showing no signs of leaving. Robson hesitated as he got up, uncertain as to whether he too should stay.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Mind the bridge for me, Number One. I’ll just be a few minutes.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Very well, Admiral.}-

“What is it, Nova?” I waited until we were alone before speaking.
“Gus, what happened on that ship? Tell me.”
“I’m sorry, Nova. Talk to me about anything else, but we’re not having that particular conversation.”
“Umbra is behind this, aren’t they?”
“You’re going to think what you want, whether I say anything or not. Leave it, Nova. Please.”
“Gus, come on! You know me, you can trust me.”
“Can I?”
“Jesus, they have gotten to you. What did they tell you? Surely you don’t believe the bogey stories of Umbra erasing entire families from existence.”
“What you think I believe or don’t believe doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we make our rendezvous at Caldwell 50, recon the nebula and make it home intact. Those are our orders. We follow them, we go home. That’s all I care about.”
“Alright, Gus. Have it your way.” Nova frowned. “You know how to reach me if you do want to talk about it.”
“Let’s just concentrate on the mission. When can Marciano transfer over so he can use the transit time to work up behemoth engagement tactics with Lieutenant Mitchell?” I asked, just to change the subject to something I could actually talk about.
“Jump prep is complete. I can have him come over as soon as I get back aboard Erebus.”
“Good. With any luck they’ll be able to keep their hands off each other for long enough to come up with some viable tactics.” I joked, trying to lighten the mood as I stood and made my way to the door, anxious to get back to the bridge and my usual routine.
“I’m sure whatever they come up with will be a real labour of love. Or at least lust.” Nova chuckled. “And I thought it was you who wanted to get their hands on my XO. I never suspected your Science Officer.”
“It’s always the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for, Nova.”
“Beppe doesn’t know what he’s missing. I remember how good you are with your hands.” Nova looked me up and down suggestively, drawing my attention to the voluptuous curve of her chest as she stood, raising both arms and tying her platinum hair back into a ponytail.
“It’s nice to be remembered, Nova.”
“It’s even better to be reminded.” Nova said, arching both her pale eyebrows, as she let one hand tug gently at the fastening on the collar of her jumpsuit, placing her other hand on her hip, her long fingers pointing inwards along the top of her thigh, before allowing her palm to slide sensuously inwards and down.
“I’ve got to get to the bridge. We’ll talk later, Captain.” I decided that a tactical retreat was the best course of action and that to even acknowledge Nova’s unashamed pass would be unwise.
“Goodbye, Admiral.” Nova sounded disappointed but chose not to push her luck any further, standing by her seat as I left.

I took refuge in my Ready Room and wasn’t disturbed for a couple of hours. Robson announced himself before he reached the door.

CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Do you have a moment, Admiral?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Certainly, Number One. Come in.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{The crew have been asking a lot of questions about what really went on over on Thanatos. I gave them the official line, but a few of them aren’t buying it, sir.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Send them to me if they keep giving you trouble.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Yes, Admiral. Can you at least tell me what really went on? This chat uplink is as secure as they come.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Carl, I need you to trust me about this. Our orders come from Fleet, no-one else. Thanatos was never here, I never visited it. Any memories to the contrary should be ascribed to mass hallucination.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{If you say so, sir. You’re really not going to tell me, are you, Admiral?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{It’s not that I don’t want to, Carl. I can’t. The ship’s at enough risk as it is. I know that sounds paranoid, but it’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you. It’s prudence.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{‘They’ being Umbra?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{You don’t need me to answer that, Number One. Try to keep a lid on the worst of the conspiracy theorists. We’re going to be in transit for eleven weeks. That’s a long time for pressure to build up. Give the crew a way to vent.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{I’ll organise a few sports tournaments, Admiral. Contact sports are best. Boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts, we could even do gridiron in the main hanger.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Good idea, Number One. How are the jump preparations coming along?}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Done, sir. We’re fully restocked with consumables and I’ve just had word that Sub-Commander Marciano is on his way from Erebus.}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Excellent. Have him report directly to me when he comes aboard. That’ll be all, Number One.}-
CMR. Rbsn#11922827 -{Yes, sir.}-

It was halfway through second watch when ArtEMIS interrupted me, derailing my train of thought. I had spent the last hour gazing out of the Ready Room windows, mulling over what Nick Reynolds had told me and the implications it had for the rest of the tour.

AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{Admiral Kincaid, you have an incoming message from Captain Jiang on Starbase Hera. Shall I put him through?}-
"The base commander? What does he want?"
AI.#CFV-B Pallas -{I don't know, Admiral, but the signal has been marked as urgent and private.}-
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that. I'll take it here, ArtEMIS." I instructed the AI, swivelling my chair back to face my terminal. Jiang appeared on my screen, his forehead creased with worry.
"Admiral Kincaid, I'm sorry to bother you. I know you must be very busy right now." Jiang apologised, immediately making me suspicious.
"That's quite alright, Captain. I could use a little distraction. What can I do for you?" I replied, trying to put him at ease. I had only met Jiang on a couple of occasions before. His reputation as a first class administrator was well-earned, but I didn't really know him personally at all.
"You're listed as the primary personal contact for Miss Malia Sherazi, is that correct, Admiral?" Jiang said stiffly, making me sit taller in my chair, alarmed.
"Yes, Captain. She's my partner. What's happened?"
"I'm sorry to inform you that Miss Sherazi has been involved in an accident, sir." Jiang swallowed hard before continuing on quickly. "She was working with a maintenance team carrying out routine repairs to the methane biodigester facility this morning. There was an explosion, sir. My security chief suspects sabotage, but she hasn't found definitive proof as yet."
"How is she?" I asked, fearing the worst.
"Miss Sherazi was one of the lucky ones, Admiral. Seven of her team were killed. Miss Sherazi was on the edge of the blast, but she still suffered minor burns, a broken arm, several fractured ribs and compound breaks in her right femur and tibia. I'm afraid that she also suffered major head injuries, including a fractured skull. I'm told that she wouldn't have survived had she not been wearing her safety helmet."
"What's the prognosis?" I could barely get the words out, my heart sinking in despair.
"The swelling from the fractured skull induced a bleed in Miss Sherazi's brain and she had to be put into an induced coma to be able to operate safely. The neurosurgeons were able to repair the burst blood vessels successfully, but she hasn't regained consciousness."
"Any signs of brain damage?"
"No, Admiral. But her doctors are concerned that she hasn't come out of the induced coma when they expected."
"What about the baby?"
"In good health, sir. I'm told that Miss Sherazi should be able to carry the child to full term without any further risk."
"Even if she's still in a coma?"
"Yes, Admiral."
"Did the doctors say how long the coma might last?"
"No, sir. They've recommended that we transfer Miss Sherazi to a specialist neurological unit in London on Sol, just in case there's any underlying damage they've not been able to find with the equipment we have here on Hera. Every brain injury is unique, Admiral. The consultant neurosurgeon said that she might wake up tomorrow, in a couple of months, or never. There's no way of telling."
"What are her chances of a full recovery?"
Jiang closed his eyes briefly before answering. "Slim, Admiral. Based on the severity of her initial injuries, twenty to thirty percent at best. I'm sorry, sir."
"Thanks for telling me personally, Captain. I appreciate it."
"Admiral." Jiang nodded courteously before cutting the channel.

I took several deep breaths to calm myself before doing the only thing I could in the circumstances. I called my mother.

"Hello, Feargus. This is an unexpected pleasure. Finally remembered that you have a mother, eh?" Sorcha glared at me in mock-disapproval.
"Mum, I need a favour."
"Of course you do. Why else would you call me?"
"This is serious, Mum." I said, before telling her everything that had happened to Malia.
"Oh, sweetheart. That's terrible. What do you want me to do?" Sorcha's sternness melted away and she looked at me with total sympathy and love.
"Find Malia in London and take care of her until I get back. She's going to need someone when she wakes up."
"Consider it done, darling. Are you going to be alright?"
"Oh God, Mum. With Kat gone and now this..."
"Feargus, listen to me. You can handle it. You don't have a choice now. Not with a son on the way and a woman who needs you. Believe me, life is going to throw a lot worse than this at you along the way, but you're strong enough to deal with it. That's one thing you do have in common with your father."
"If you say so, Mum."
"You're going to need to keep your head together. A lot of people are depending on you. Try not to worry about Malia. I'll let you know the minute there's news."
"Thanks, Mum. Give her my love when you see her."
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