by Robert Deakin
Frontier Carrier Group "Yankee"
- laying off the Mu Hercules 4,
(approx 30 Light years from Earth)
Aboard the New Anglican Confederation fleet logistics cruiser, NSS St. Christopher
With casual self confidence the middle aged women continued her sermon. Captain James Gloster seated himself quietly at the rear of the military conference room. The unplanned briefing had been called for senior strategy and group special operation staff, however amongst the audience where several new faces, and even a dozen or more white collars.
"The Head office line-up this month clearly classify the Pan African Union and subsidiaries, as our best buddies, it insist that we play nice. Therefore, I expect that you will take great interest in military action we tasked against a PAU flagged ship 10 days ago" she stated.
Many in the audience tensed. Engagement rules set down from Confederation HQ were more sacred than the third testament. Declaring that you deliberately breeched a standing peace, in front of a gathering that included Intel Chiefs was probably worse than ritual suicide. The fact that it was General Gordon, a presidential adviser, making the statement meant one of two things; she was on a one way ticket to a section 8, or they where just about to be briefed on the security arrangements for the second coming. General Gordon activated the series of wall displays behind her, and ran up the briefing aids, straight from her personal laptop.
"I will hand over to the NRO to fill you in on the events leading up to the current
situation. Kermit your on point." Gordon stepped back and allowed the Officer from the
NAC Reconnaissance Organisations to use her laptop. Bart "Kermit" Barrington was a
made man in the NAC military hierarchy. Even though Kermit's official rank was
Captain, his old boy network and the political power of the NRO, ensured respect.
Kermit picked up the pace, "7 days ago the NRO surveillance cruiser Fort Meade was on station along the frontier, when it took interest in signals emanating from the Ross 149 system. This system is well outside the 'red line', legally no-mans land as far as the United Nation is concerned. On the fourth planet the PAU have a startup colony taking advantage of a natural atmosphere"
The wall display zoomed out from the star field around Mu Hercules sprinkled with ship and colony icons, and panned across the red frontier line, zooming down to the Ross 149 system.
"They had employed some Starline mercs as skeleton protection and also engaged some NSL staffers, listed as terra-forming advisers. The 'Swab' non-combatants where of course equipped with modern power armour and other heavy kit". Kermit added with a slight smirk. The Neu Swabian League, aka Swabs, often worked covertly with the lesser powers, causing no end of irritation to corporations and destabilising the political ambitions of the other major powers.
"However, the Swab treaty breech was not the reason for our interest in Ross 149. What caught our attention were unusual drive signatures. These signals correlated with drives of the Karl's ships. At this point a probe was inserted in-system for keyhole intel."
Gloster thought, this really was going to be a briefing to remember. Karl was the NAC call-sign for the alien's the UN called the Kra'Vak. The Alien's had not been seen yet, but their ships had appeared a few years ago causing catastrophic losses amongst outer colonies. In response the UN declared a frontier which it promised to patrol to ward of Alien attacks.
"The KH-11 bug arrived around a day later, and picked up additional signals, these where well known to us. They correlated with the PAU outer-limits workhorse, the Lion-Nation, a heavy auxiliary cruiser, which had recently arrived at Ross 149. Extensive fleet and ground chatter was obtained, by the Bug".
A close-up of the Ross 149 fourth planet now filled the main screen, with a window showing the image of the PAU cruiser.
"5 days ago we had processed enough Intel to produce a presidential level sit-rep which was forwarded by General Gordon through channels. I will summaries our assessment; - for reasons unknown an alien vessel uncloaked above the fourth planet of Ross 149, completed a drop of at least platoon strength and commenced an infantry assault on the main colony complex. The locals engaged the assault force. Again for reasons unknown, Karls' infantry operated without regard to casualties as they searched the colony buildings. Heavy casualties occurred on each side. Approximately 45 minutes into the contact the NSL advisers, arrived at the site and where able to re-inforce the Mercs. The Swab trackers identified second elements of Karl's force overwatching the assault. The Swab then moved to engage this force. At this point Karl abandoned the assault".
The audience was captivated.
"By methods as yet unknown, Karl withdrew his remaining force to his ship and peppered the installation from orbit, then vanished. Lacking any counter-ortillery weapons the colony was not able to return fire during the bombardment and was extensively damaged, with catastrophic loss of life. 12 hours later one of the few survivors, an NSL adviser, re-aligned the colonies transmitter and sent a short flash message to PAU Area Command. As the Fort Meadr still had its large array squared on Ross 149, we also were able to detect and intercepted the message. Only a low grade cipher was used, and the flash was detoured for brute force decryption".
Kermit continued, "Shortly after we processed traffic analysis, showing the Lion-Nation had disappeared from it normal route. Also around this time our probe was dispatched to Ross 149 to investigate the drive signatures, and upon arriving discovered the PAU cruiser orbiting the remains of the colony".
"Back on Fort Meade the basic PAU cipher was being decoded. When broken, the message indicated the recovery of alien specimens and a request to evacuate the colony. This message explained why Lion-Nation was in the system".
Kermit paused to let the officers in the room judge the situation so far. This was the first infantry contact with aliens, with survivors and the potential for the recovery of alien corpses.
"At this point, we new that PAU area command had not realised that the alien specimens collected on the Colony were Kra'Vak. As the cruiser did not have an EW kit, so had activated a bubbler to retard any further communications back to area command. This meant the ship and colony where cut off until they returned to the network."
"The NRO and NSA, believed that a window of 16 hours max, was available to produce an extraction solution for SF (special forces). Any longer and the PAU would have notified the UNSC of events, cutting us out of the loop, and denying us a competitive advantage, regarding Karl".
Kermit rolled on, "After the identification of the Lion-Nation as the target, General Gordon gave the green light for the mission to - a) contain the situation from the UNSC, and - b) obtain Alien tissue samples and other material".
As usual keeping the UN out of the loop was more important than samples, thought Gloster.
Kermit paused to point at the screen, "The Lion-Nation departed Ross 149, adding to the complexity of a strike. However, we anticipated that the PAU pickup crew would want their names all over the find and the bonus which where sure to be paid. Our hunch paid off , and the ship was located here, near ISO 417 in deep space, just inside the frontier, attempting silent-running".
Gloster could just imagine the battered survivors arguing with the ships crew. The arrogant Swabs insisting they head for the safety of Area Command, while the crew tried to lever the situation to their own advantage. Gloster would not be surprised if the PAU Captain had thrown the survivors in the brig, or shot them into space as a win-fall bonus clouded his judgement. Greed has done stranger things to crews in this situation. "The mission was classified as wet (covert with political casualties), and weapons-free declared on atomics as an evidence pre-caution. An Australian SAS (Special Atmosphere Service) team, was FI-LOed (FTL Insertion-Low Offset) onto the targets position".
The screen flashed with the location, and icons showing insertion.
"Our team successfully made soft contact with the hull and was snug on the ship, ready for work. The Lion-Nation continued silent running, unaware of the team as it penetrated the ship. Over the next hour interstellar comms were isolated, terminals rigged and scuttle charges fixed".
Gloster was a veteran of numerous wet ops and political hits, but he was still impressed with the handy work. When it came to vacuum work nobody could top the Ozzies. And, as far cold boarding went, the Australian SAS were second only to God.
"We knew the Lion-Nation's main CPU was a Cryodene 43.5. So, the SAS had taken the full kit to breech a military rig, but as usual, the PAU Navy had applied no service packs or hardening. So, the boys just about stealthed the ship with their pen-knifes".
A smirk crossed the faces of most of the Tech Marines amongst the crowd. Typical Navy! They just won't listen to the importance of anti-stealth upgrades and system patches.
"At the 2 hour mark we had siphoned the ships records into our sniffers. These included several detail autopsies and test results, which we shall talk about soon. All that remained was to get a tissue sample, and any tactical data. Team 2 disabled escape pods as Team 1 was tasked to Medlab. CM-20 nerve agent was used to take out the Medlab crew and minimise harm to the specimens. A full corpse was selected and encased for transit. The SAS exited the ship and cool thrusted for free drift. Total time on ship 2 hours 43 minutes "
Gloster imagined the black clad SAS huddled in a tight circle, with a bagged corpse, drifting in deep space, light years from Earth. The Lion-Nation moving away, as they hung in the dark, silent, waiting for a pickup. The thought of a free drift could always gave him a chill.
"At a safe distance the SAS were recovered. Five minutes later the Lion-Nation, a heavy cruiser, property of the Zsanti Corp, crew 45, passengers 6 and the alien specimens ceased to exist, becoming a cloud of plasma as the result of a reactor implosion."
The NRO briefing completed, Kermit moved to allow the General back to the stand. The General squared herself against the lectern, "You will be pleased to know that our boys and girls are now home in their pyjamas, enjoying the NAC's finest ice-cream. Not even a splinter, reported. Any questions to this point?"
A hand raised, "Do we know the current location of survivors of the original assault?" asked a Major.
"The ships logs show that all corpses and survivors from the Colony were transferred aboard the Lion-Nation" came the answer from the now seated Kermit.
Another hand raised, "What type of ortillary did Karl use? Conventional?".
The General passed the question to a junior officer sitting next to Kermit, "Karl has
been highly liberal with atomics in the past. However, this time it appears some form of
hyper velocity rounds were used directly against the surface. We have not made an
assessment as to why this installation was not fireballed, as has previously occurred.
Perhaps the ship involved did not carry nukes. Another stronger theory is that Karl does
not have terra-forming technology and they wanted to preserve the environment for
future use. The other sites that were roasted were all un-inhabitable at the time".
More hands shot up. The General began to select the next query, but paused as the conference door opened. A civilian carrying files and disks, walked purposely to the lectern.
The General reached out his hand, "Folks, the rest of the questions will have to wait. I'd like you to welcome Dr Redkin from the Society of NeuroScience, San Diego. S.O.N.S. do specialist R&D for our bio-weapon programs. Dr Redkin is one of their best bug boys. He has been going over the data we obtained with our team, and I have asked him to provide us with a briefing on the results of our gene series. Over to you Doctor".
The Doctor began, "Yes, ok, Sorry I was late, thank you Mr, I mean General Sir". Behind him, on the video screen, lab notes scrolled, "We have scanned the autopsy reports and material collected from the PAU ship, and have in addition conducted gene series over the last few days" he began, not looking up from his notes.
He paused to transfixed by a feature on the lectern. There wasn't an officer in the room who couldn't pick that Redkin was running on stimulants, the nervous broken pace and heavy sweat. They had probably worked him non-stop since they delivered the package.
He broke the stare and continued "As you can see the species is a bipedal vertebrate", he turned to check the image on the screen, as a 3D graphic of the subject appeared. "They are carbon based, oxygen breathing, warm blooded, having body chemistry essentially the same as Earth lifeforms. The samples averaged around 198 centimetres in height". He paused and wiped his sweating forehead. "The endoskeleton, arms and legs are jointed like those of primates. However, the neck, spine and pelvis have a maximum load bearing at least 15% above humans. The feet have two clawed toes each, between which is a retractable flap of skin. The hands have three digits, the outside digits are both opposable, giving the creature two thumbs and one finger on each hand".
"They are covered in a thick dermis, which is a tan colour freckled with green and brown." he looked up at the audience, for the first time, taking a breath "It would be best described as having an appearance similar to that of new-born crocodile. However, the skin is not scaled, with a tensile strength around that of a bovines or pachyderm".
"They have no body hair, but do have several dozen soft hair-like strings attached to the rear of the skull. These structures have thin tubes which are linked to the lungs, acting as additional oxygen storage. They can probably stay submerged, or survive without atmosphere, for several minutes longer than natural born humans".
"The skull is heavy ridged, with thick bones protecting the eyes and nose. On each side of the jaws are tusks or upward facing mandibles attached to the face with large muscles. All teeth are simplex tearing cones, no grinding or specialist teeth except for the mandibles are evident. With age, they appear to gain more teeth. 20 incisors were found in the youngest, while 40 teeth were found in the oldest specimen".
"The two eyes are complex, providing binocular vision, a little more sensitive in low light, than ours. They are also sensitive to ultraviolet allowing these creatures to see unaided, deep into the ultraviolet band. The eyes are set in deep socket, giving poor vision at under 15cm, however at long distances they appear to have exceptional vision"
"Internally, the creature has membranes which create compartments, similar to those found in some crabs. Running from the mouth to anus there are six corridors, each containing duplicate organs for breathing, digestion and reproduction. This provides a form of organ redundancy that is uncommon among vertebrates. They are also born fairly mature. At two years they are probably able to function at full capacity."
"Apart from their physical appearance the most distinguishing feature of this race is the unusual reproductive cycle. The reproductive organs have been clearly identified. These creatures do not have a male and a female form, rather they are simultaneous hermaphrodites, equipped with both working testes and ovaries. The main difference being the wombs, of which there are six, which are not fully formed in the juvenile creatures".
"In the sample of 14 creatures recovered on Ross 149, two distinct classes where found. 10 of the creatures appear be juvenile and of the older 4 remaining creatures, there were varying degrees of development, with 1 having fully developed wombs and was carrying children. That is a quick summary, I though it might be, um, best now to answer questions."
The clinical discussion documenting humanities killing of another sentient creatures babies was bizarre. It stunned many in the audience, even some of the special forces types who pondered its significance.
Gloster broke the stillness as he raised his hand "Could they be decoys?"
The Doctor answered unsurprised by the question "The gene string is several hundred pairs longer than natural human DNA. It would not be impossible to manufacture a creature like this, there is nothing exceptional in their ladders. But the cost of such a feat would be beyond even the UN, and would surely have been detected by our people in place. It is improbable that our competitors are behind this organism" Another Captain enquired "Any guess on the species age?"
"Assuming the same mutation rate as our own, I would suggest the species are similar in age to humanity, on the galactic scale. However, this still means they could have been space-faring for thousands of years before us".
Gordon looked across to a civilian in a fashionable suit, and mouthed instructions.
The General stood, "People, I think we will move onto psych, and then come back
to a panel discussion for questions and pick up all the loose ends. Mr Orion is our next
It was not clear who Mr Orion worked for, or what he actually did, but he did show up from time to time and was always entertaining. He sprang from his place, straighten his dark green suit, as he slid across to the lectern.
"We still know nothing about the existence of home worlds or exact points of origins, and most of what I will tell you is just conjecture. However, I can say that up until we recovered the bodies, we had collected sufficient information, to narrow down Karl to a couple of dozen social models".
The displays behind him were blank.
"Most of the good Intel came from two long range missions, very daring I must say! Although we picked up mainly fleet chatter, we also got some C-cubed, and have started to built a rough dictionary. Now that we have Karl or should I say Karla, based on the biology discovered, we have narrowed down to less than a half dozen probable social models". He sounded impressed with himself.
"From the sample we collected, Dr Redkins undertook additional gene series, beyond that available to the PAU Medlab team. We were able recognised cells that produce peptides important to sex changes and cells that produce arginine vasotocin (AVT) neuropeptides, which regulate reproductive behaviour in many vertebrates. We hope to conduct the rest of the series and proper clone tests when we can secure a full-function facility. What we have found is gene and other information about the gender gymnastics in the Karla. This may be the key to the forces that shape their psychological orientation and social behaviour".
"Insights into their society may be gained through an unlikely source - fish! On Earth and Kagoshima we have many species of fish which are serial hermaphrodites, changing sexual orientation, triggered by social interactions. Mysteriously, most of these species are found in tidal estuaries or shallow ocean waters. Take note that we have found several physical characteristics in Karla that are common to species found in tidal estuaries".
"In our known environments, the most common type of these social systems found is; females mature, reproduce, and then become males. Their ovaries disappear almost entirely, they grow testes, and their hormonal systems switch. Many creatures also change colour. They act like males, which includes protecting their nests, behaving aggressively, and courting females.
"It is uncommon for the change to occur from male to female. However, one social system, that of the Earth sea bass, "Serranus tortugarum" has animals becoming more female with age. This fish develops more female gonadal tissue as it grows bigger, causing it to release more eggs and fewer sperm. It appears that Karla undertakes a similar, yet slower change, and generally from "mainly" male juvenile to "mostly" female adult. Kra'Vak do not truly change sex or become adult, rather as they age they become "more" female. However, there is some weak evidence that the change could be reversed. I should note at this stage that of the 400 species that demonstrate the capacity for gender change or reversal, only two known are not fish. An African frog and a Sea Snake on Kagoshima".
"We believe that at around 40 years, the juvenile Kra'Vak, goes through a kind of puberty, meaning that its wombs become viable for reproduction. It appears that the eggs carried, can simultaneously be the offspring of different 'fathers'. The mother creature recovered from Ross 149 carried six young sourced from three different partners. It also appears the parent can suspend the development and maturation of the young, so there is no fixed gestation period for this species. For example a fertilised egg could be carried for many years until the parent chose it for development".
"This phenomena fits in with our model. When coupled with the location of the erogenous trigger zones, hidden high up-under the muscle flaps that holds the mandibles, we reveal more of the social system. We believe the dominate matriarch uses its mandibles to press against younger mate's nerves during intercourse. Thus mating can only occur when mandibles are long enough to reach these zones, ensuring that it is difficult for younger creatures to successfully mate. The older, and thus dominant creature in the family, could select which partners to take, and which young will be borne from a selected mate"
"This relationship could be similar to those found in the Anemone fish, which live in groups, with only the dominant female and selected males reproducing. If this female dies or leaves, one of her mates becomes a female; the largest juvenile fish in the group then can mate with the new female. With the Kra'Vak we think the change can also be hastened in response to an altered social environment, not just the death of the dominant female. There is some hormonal evidence that suggest the dominant female's aggression inhibits sexual development in juveniles. It may be more complicated than that. In some fish, for example, sex changes won't occur if the group sex mix is not balanced. We all agree that the speed of gender changes must depend on the stability of their social system".
"We also believe that the senior creatures mature for one of two roles in the family. This is similar to the Midshipman fish living off the West Coast of Northern America which has two distinct types of males, in their case. The type 1 takes longer to mature and acts as guards or nest builders, while the Type 2 puts its energy into becoming sexually mature, spending their time trying to invade their neighbours' nests to steal mates. We are confident that there is a similar pattern in Kra'Vak families. This may be an instinctual pattern that could explain much of the Kra'Vak aggression towards each other and toward other creatures".
"Now, I will go out on a limb, and give you my best guess from the evidence as to their origin. I have formed a vision of the Kra'Vak developing in a dark, yet tropical estuary environment. Certainly they prefer an environment that is hot and wet. I believe they evolved from a some form of crocodilian predator, and became a pack hunting animal, preying along the shoreline".
"We believe that a large matriarch dominates the pack or family of several hundred members. The other senior Kra'Vak would take the role of protecting the matriarch and keeping the juveniles disciplined. The juveniles are probably not highly valued, being used almost like slaves until their social potential is demonstrated. As the juvenile approaches puberty around 40 years, good performers would tend to be a breeding target for the families Matriarch and other seniors. To ensure her political position in the family, it is likely that the Matriarch strictly controls who the seniors can mate with, and how many offspring they may have. Poor performers who survive to 40 years are likely to be assigned low status roles. On a large scale we expect to see families aligned with clans, where a clan Matriarch imposes controls over family Matriarchs".
"In infantry terms this would see squads of juveniles run by an older 'brothers' who serves an 'uncles" reporting through to senior 'aunties' on to the Matriarch."
Orion started "Their preference for high velocity projectile weapons is somewhat explained by their vision..." but he was cut short as the lights in the room, flicked to emergency lighting and the ship condition status indicator switched to yellow alert. Several of the special forces types instinctively moved to cover the exits.
"Kris, Dave, and you Major" General Gordon signalled for the attention of senior officers, as she pressed her hand against her ear.
"Confirm" she replied to the comm link chatter, as several the senior officers gathered around her. The civilians still in their seats gawked at each other, their minds trapped in suspended animation compared to the reactions of the military staff to the alert.
"Understood, I concur, concur, Understood Go Red" her face wrinkled with concentration as she spoke to a disembodied presence. Sirens began to wail and the room lights flicked to glow red. An officer punched the alarm panel to kill the room siren and restore normal lighting.
"Understood" she repeated, then looked up to address the officers around her.
"Folks. Fleet HQ have just picked up 7 blips approaching at high speed. They have confirmed 2 UNSC strike cruisers and 5 capitals, they believe one may be a PAU attack cruiser Nigerian-Glory. Fleet expects they are accompanied by several other vessels not yet detected by sensors".
"I will be joining the Group Commander on the Nimitz. I am instructing General Hollson to make preparation to repel boarders, Kermit, Orion you come with me." She saluted Holland "Take over" with that she and walked to the door with her entourage.
Civilian mouths still gaped wide. In less than a minute their world had turned upside down, and now they looked like being in the middle of a full scale fleet battle, with the United Nation Space Command. Something had gone horribly wrong, the PAU must have back tracked something, and now they would extract revenge via the UN.
They say that General Kris Holland is one of those Generals who never laughs and never cries. He launched into his task without taking a breath "I want all Special Ops on a rolling net within 5, I want all Marine commands patched in at brigade level and a line to the Fleet's point defence gunners within 20. Who is attached to the St. Christopher?" he bellowed over the crowd, as signals officers broke away to make calls.
Gloster stepped forward "DST Piper'" the Deep Strike Team Captain announced.
The General raised his eye brow.
From the back of the room, "Sir! 52nd Frontier, Bravo Company, Sir!", another Royal Marine Captain bellowed.
"Captains, converge on my position. All other military personnel return to your host ships, ready-5 your troops and await orders. All civilian personnel remain seated". The civilians in the rooms, sat with monkey faces, those half standing dropped back into their seats, as the room quickly cleared.
The General addressed the Royal Marine Captain first, struggling to read the mans name from his uniform patch "Captain Kesselphrain? What signal functions do you have operational?"
"Sir!,Fleet, surface, interdict, an E grade burner plus standard issue P2P gear, all go Sir! Sir!, My men call me Kess, Sir!!!" snapped Kess. Royal Marines just loved to yell.
"Captain Kess" he signalled to a pair of officers standing to his left "Take my staff to your digs and set up the nets with the other grunt points of presence. I will join you shortly".
"Sir yes Sir!" Kess yelled.
Holland fell silent as the officers left the room. The doors slid shut leaving Holland and Gloster in a now silent room, with a dozen mute civilians scattered throughout.
The General lowered his tone "James, how many men do you have on board?"
"Twelve, including myself" replied Gloster, in a familiar tone. He did not mention that "Crux" had a broken thumb and Sergeant Hoag was currently wearing and eye patch. Still, that was able bodied, if you where a member of a Deep Strike Team.
Speaking to the audience the General said " Ladies and Gentlemen, the samples and you are the most valuable asset the Confederation has, consequently I have put you under the special protection of Strike Captain Gloster. Please do exactly as he says, and you will soon be out of danger" he moved towards the exit and motioned Gloster to follow. The civilians began to murmur amongst themselves.
Standing in the doorway, he turned and looked the Captain squarely in the eyes. Quietly he said "This ship will have forensic cleaning underway. Your primary objective is to prevent any expert witnesses, or material evidence, falling into the possession of the competition. You are authorised for home-side kills to achieve this objective". The Holland stared for a few seconds, waiting for any questions, none came. He turned and walked down the corridor at a brisk pace. He had not saluted as was customary when working with Special Ops staff.
Gloster flicked his P2P, as he returned to the centre of the room, "Mr Hoag, gear-up for 'de-pod', and send a section to me in the deck 10 conference room, pronto". He focused himself, taking a deep breath then let his eyes drift around the room, the volume dropped as the faces looked back at him, waiting for the first word.
A hush descended on the room.
It was not to stay long.
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