Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Operation Mollusc: The Heikegani Incident (pt VI)

19th February 3303: Unnamed system, secured location near Heikegani

The small cloud of precious cargo quickly diminished in size as limpets tirelessly transferred the meta-alloy to the hold of a Python floating nearby.

Three Asp's manoeuvered past an escort corvette, their cargo racks recently emptied, and set navigation over 500Ly back to Merope before jumping clear of the mass lock.

"Charybdis is on the station now, overseeing the last few deliveries and counting the cargo. Let him know we have another run inbound."

19th February 3303: Heikegani system, Bartlett Gateway

The bridge operations room in Bartlett Gateway was crowded and in an upbeat mood, one that hadn't been seen in the station for a while. The Ops Officer leant forward, trying not to break out into a smile, and said "We're nearly there. The replacement parts are being manufactured, and the tech crews are now well trained and very experienced in removing the alien investation."

She continued warmly, "Your friends are patrolling nearby systems and looking for signs of incursion. The inbound couriers carrying the meta-alloy are escorted as they leave Merope, and transfer cargo to a single ship only one jump out from Heikegani. The remainder of the run is escorted by a combat wing, and then we can bring that single ship into one designated pad. Our security around that pad is as tight as we can make it, and the cargo is unloaded and handed over to Sirius Corp tech crews. It's been a smooth operation, Charybdis. Our thanks go out to your NULL friends in the Pilot's Federation."

Charybdis acknowledged the gratitude with a nod, breaking eye contact as his attention was drawn to an incoming message from another NULL commander. He turned to the bridge crew to issue instuctions: "The transfer has been completed. Flight control. Priority docking for HT-583, now inbound. Landing pad. Prep your crews please. This should now take us over 800 tonnes of meta-alloy delivered."

That smile of the Ops Officer that had threated to emerge now faded away as darker thoughts crossed her mind. "Have we made any progress in finding out who did this?"

Charybdis didn't answer the question immediately, instead looking out through the bridge viewport and towards the array of landing pads below. A Python slide in through the station entrance, and then twisted away from the central axis towards the secured docking bay. Landing struts flexed under the ship's heavy momentum as the ship settled to a rest. A swarm of figures rushed towards the ship bringing with them the equipment to unload the meta-alloy from the ship. The barnacle pods emerged one at a time from the cargo bay, still glowing an eerily green luminesence. The Sirius Corp tech crews in their bright overalls carried out their quality control processes on the meta-alloy in a manner than could only be described as... reverent. Charybdis brow furrowed, more so than usual.

"No, we haven't." he said. "But it is only a matter of time now."

Operation Mollusc: The Heikegani Incident (pt V)

18th February 3303: Merope 5c (-28.24,-109.52)

The Federation's Farragut cruiser was an unexpected complication.

Hovering above the alien barnacle, and not present during an earlier visit in the heady days of discovery, it showed how far the long arm of the military had reached into this backwater system. A patrol wing of fighters banked slowly overhead, opening displaying their boredom through their lazy and uncoordinated manoeuvres. The warship itself looked to be asleep. The barnacle conveyed a studied indifference, and lack of intimidation, to the show of human force and might overhead.

Charybdis tried to stifle a yawn, the lack of apparent threat was certainly taking its toll. With his ship parked on the edge of the canyon around 7km away, the SRV journey down between the dark shadows of the canyon walls was a dangerous one, and needed full concentration. Licking a mild stim tab inside his helmet brought full awareness back, as the destination barnacle finally came into view.

The barnacle was in bloom and regularly grew harvestable meta-alloy pods, with two more currently visible on stalks near the shell like central structure. Carrying them back to the ship was hard work while traversing the terrain, but there were always more pods to pick up on the return.

Detatching and collecting the pods had become routine now and, with a full cargo hold of meta-alloy, Charybdis returned back along the canyon floor to his ship, and a cargo hold that was almost full.

The sleeping giant continued its slumber high above, caught in daydreams of conquest.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Operation Mollusc: The Heikegani Incident (pt IV)

17th February 3303: Maia system, Darnielle's Progress ground base

“They haven't got enough.”

Charybdis slammed the console in frustration. Darnielle's Progress had run dry, with only one tonne released into the commodities market in the last hour. There was clearly a problem with supply, and even black market contacts couldn't deliver. The meta-alloy needed to repair the damage to Bartlett Gateway was a difficult thing to obtain.

The excitement and interest in these newly discovered alien organic growths had given way to an uneasy fear as their effect on human technology became apparent. Nobody knew the agent or the motive behind delivering alien artefacts into populated areas, and stations had been closed and lives put at risk because of it.

A hologram promotion of Li-Yong-Ru, the venerable chairman of Sirius Corp, flickered onto a nearby projector. Recent political events in the volume of space around The Seven Sisters, just outside the bubble of human occupation, had developed in an alarming direction. The discovery of these alien structures, origin unknown and quickly nicknamed barnacles for their appearance, had attracted significant attention. What had once been the province of explorers had more recently seen Federation military blockade, new Federation border stations, and the corporate marketing influence of Sirius Corp, all seeking a power play for military and economic control.

Charybdis mulled over a few options in his mind. Sirius Corp engineers had now started arriving at Bartlett Gateway and were expecting a steady influx of meta-alloy. The local market mini-boom had died around the same time.

“There is an alternative source, one that bypasses whoever is choking this market.” A search through journals soon recalled the location of several barnacle exploration sites in a nearby system.

“Let's just hope they're still there...”

Operation Mollusc: The Heikegani Incident (pt III)

14th February 3303: Unknown location, NULL steering council

"It has begun."

The silence among the group ran on for longer than was comfortable, as all present reflected on what that meant.

"How are they doing?"

Charybdis pulled back the memory of his visit a few hours earlier and relayed it concisely back to the group. The Orbis station had already developed a noticeable precession off the main axis that added some risk to any approaching ship. Tech crews were working under dangerous circumstances to bring that back under control, and two people had already lost their lives after a key safety system had failed under alien influence. They were still cleaning up that mess.

Internally the station was running on emergency power, and air recycling was laboured and barely sufficient. Hydroponics had failed and along with it so had all self-sufficiency. The commodities market was open to emergency food supplies only, while the remainder of station services had been shut down for safety. Non-essential personnel had started evacuation, but there were few ships now entering and leaving the stricken station.

"The Chief of Operations is taking it hard. She's done everything by the book, and even added a few pages to it as well, but it hasn't changed the outcome. The station is now in need of a greater resourcefulness and assistance, something I think we can provide."

The room broke out into a conflicting storm of voices. Outrage expressed at the attack on the station, offers to track down those who had created the harm, or locate and buy more meta-alloy to stem the damage. Bringing in food and supplies to the stricken station was called for, as well as helping to safely carry those who were able to leave.

One seasoned tactician leant forward, breaking through the noise with the hardened accent of an isolated southern continent in Sol system: "We know what we have to do. They have taken us in, supported us, and we have a care of duty towards these people."

There was a strong murmur of assent from those tele-present and the room took on a determined resolve while the rescue operation was planned. Ships changed course, their previous missions abandoned, and pointed as one towards a single small volume of space around a star 500 light years distant.

The battle for Bartlett Gateway was joined.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Operation Mollusc: The Heikegani Incident (pt II)

17th January 3303: Station council, Bartlett Gateway

"It's gotten worse since you were last here, Commander". The station Chief of Operations passed over a report, highlighting the incident summary page.

Charybdis nodded imperceptibly while reviewing the figures. As soon as the issues with communications had become apparent, the number of redundant comms arrays and channels had been increased. Ships that were docking and leaving were governed by three physically separated command teams, each with more than two independent networks.

Systems still failed however, at unexpected times, and manifested a wide system corruption that vanished quickly. The problems weren't just limited to the comms array either, and there was an understandable nervousness around the risk of failure in the power grid safety systems.

"Our engineers have traced through the stations internal and external infrastructure, and located several sources of infestation in the form of unidentified alien artefacts. While we try and clear them, we've found that we're not particularly successful on that front."

Charybdis raised his eyebrows at this. "These are new?"

"Yes. " A grim tiredness from a high level of alert, and the long shifts of dangerous work, had taken their toll. The Chief of Operations carried a slumped posture and a tone of resignation in her voice. "Areas we've already searched are then contaminated at a later date. We haven't found out who is doing this, and can't find out how they're being brought onto the station covertly. What little meta-alloy we've been able to obtain has hardly had any effect."

Recent scientific investigation by Sirius Corp had found ways to make the removal of the influence of alien artefacts more successful, but it was a specialist job to manufacture the hardened and resistant components. Sirius Corp Tech crews were very much in demand these days it seemed.

"I'll take this back to the Federation of Pilots. I have contacts with NULL: a like minded group that watches over this part of space. They can help. We'll also need some of those Sirius techs: to make our dealing with this situation more effective."

With unknown agent provocateurs damaging the station more quickly than meta-alloy could be obtained, Bartlett Gateway was losing the battle.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Operation Mollusc: The Heikegani Incident (pt I)

9th November 3302: Heikegani System, Bartlett Gateway

The creaking and rattling of the hull plating subsided as the Cobra Mk3 slid back into normal space. The beige planet watched quietly from below, indifferent to the appearance of the new arrival. The comms chatter of local ships burst through the transition bow wave as it dissipated, and the ship pitched gently to align itself, travelling parallel along the full length of the Orbis space station.

"Faulcon DeLacy call sign Charlie Hotel Alpha to station flight control. Requesting approach vector. Enroute from Lagrange point 4 with cargo for NULL command."

Two shuttles dropped away from the busy space around the station, and started their casual de-orbit to the planet below. Almost certainly supplies and repair crews destined for one of the myriad of small mining stations on the planet's surface.

The Cobra cleared the station's spinning habitable ring and slowed to assess the volume of space around the station entrance.

"Maintain holding Commander, landing pad zero-five will soon be available." The stressed voice of flight control continued with something non-committal. "We're running a little busy here at the moment, wait while we clear some traffic."

Nine ships held still around the entrance, quietly waiting their turn, and sitting in the dark eclipse of the planet. A large and lumbering Anaconda, visible only for its engines and thruster glow, was on final approach to the station's entrance. A complex cluster of communication lights winked acknowledgement of the demand for a security scan, and the Anaconda reduced speed in order to comply.

"Beluga Xray Alpha Victor you have NOT been cleared for launch! There is...<static>". The panicked voice of Flight Control was drowned out completely by a haunting sing-song tone that disappeared almost is quickly as it had begun. The voice of station control broke through again momentarily before the alien signal returned with a vengeance, and a deep thrumming combined with rattling purrs overpowered the channel completely.

While the Anaconda's pilot was still distracted by the security protocols, the Beluga star liner emerged from the station and only saw the darkened incoming ship at the last moment. Both ships initiated slow panicked escape turns as collision klaxons screamed, but it was too little and too late. The blue on blue of shields sparked brightly as both ships were shunted violently into the safety grid.

The alien sing-song died away to an eerie silence. Comms chatter resumed moments later, calling frantically for the launch of rescue ships.

Bartlett Gateway was under attack.