Amiori had spent most of the next few hours before the Fire of Eridonia was due to depart, deep in thought about the conversation she had with the Director. About her late father's connection to the Corporation, which had, up until now; remained enigmatic at best. It wasn't a subject that Ronin discussed often, and when it was brought up between them; he was more inclined to answer vaguely or brush it off as unnecessary, or 'in the past'. Of course, Amiori didn't fully trust the Director's words, but she did have enough knowledge, perhaps respect, for the 'man' to understand that his vision was indeed more noble a cause than any 'visionary' that came before him seeking to put humanity on the 'right path'.
Regardless, the details of that conversation were sharply brushed aside as the Captain stepped on to the bridge of one of the most advanced and capable warships in human history. Her service with the Imperial Navy was well known, and despite the 'trading of flags', so to speak, many Imperial Officers retained their respect for the woman, not just for being of the Kociero lineage, but for being a damn good commanding officer. Just like her father, she retained the 'cool head' under fire, but differed somewhat in her utilitarian, somewhat pragmatic view to naval warfare even at the expense of humanity in some cases. The latter trait made Amiori quite well suited for the Imperial Navy.
When the time finally arrived, the Captain was already prepared for the briefing of the Fire of Eridonia's deployment; of which would be conducted alongside her new attended fleet - the newly formed Outer Sector Special Operations Task Force. Amiori didn't have time to formally introduce herself or meet the captains under her command; the entire deployment was kept somewhat low-key by the Imperial Navy Admiralty, likely on direct orders from the Director. Still, she knew roughly what the first task would be, based on certain events that had transpired in the cluster in previous cycles.
The chime of her personal communicator broke the silence momentarily, as she stepped onto the bridge deck of the Fire. Imperial Navy ships lacked the formality and tradition of Old Federal warships; something that the rebels of the EPF were keen to imitate. It was refreshing for the Captain to be back on the deck of a to-the-point warship; the crew simply signalled readiness on the ship's Neural Interface in a sort of 'virtual salute' as she arrived atop the Commander's platform in the centre of the bridge deck.
"Linking to Neural". The captain spoke, tapping a switch on her earpiece communicator before taking a seat in the Command chair. She paused for a moment as her implants conducted the necessary self-diagnostics and neural-handshakes with the Fire's control systems. Amiori's implant lacked the draconian Compliance component that essentially every other human in Imperial Aquarius was required to have; a special version created specifically for her on the Director's request. Though she had checked it countless times for back-doors and never found any; she was nevertheless somewhat apprehensive of having Imperial Tech back in her head after all that had transpired.
The linking process was quite distinctive: a slight jerk of the muscles in the neck as electrical impulses fired from the implant to signal pathways in the brain. The process was known as 'latching on' among junior Imperial Officers, for the feeling one gets that something was 'gripping' their cranium; likely caused by nerve endings in the scalp triggering from the neuro-electronic noise - something that often reduced in severity the more times one undertook the process. Amiori had done it enough times in her prior service to not be bothered, though, as she leant back in the command chair; her mind being filled with all the information she needs to neurologically control the most advanced warship in the fleet without so much as lifting a finger.
Well, that was more of a personal choice. Something she did get from her late father was the satisfaction of placing a hand on a physical control column and 'getting a feel' for how the warship responded to haptic input. Fortunately for her, all Imperial Warships possessed back-up manual and auxiliary haptic input systems in case of Neural failure in the field.
Responding to the readiness checks from the crew also linked to the system, the Captain briefly analysed the myriad diagnostics and readiness data fed to her station by the ship's C-AI; everything appeared to be in order.
"Basic system check complete, everything looks OK". She stated aloud. "Comms, patch a communication package to the Fleet Battle Net signalling we are at full readiness. Also, I'm unplugging for a moment - I don't like to be patched into Neural unnecessarily for too long, gives me headaches." She added.
"Acknowledged, Captain. Battle Net reports all ships at full readiness." The communication officer responded verbally; his tone echoing the perfect discipline expected of Imperial Navy officers.
"Since I didn't get a chance to introduce myself before being assigned to Fire of Eridonia, I guess I'll do it now. I like to know my crew, too. I read your files; looks like Command couldn't have given me a finer crew." Amiori remarked, trying to lighten the tone.
"So here's the deal; while I'm in command, drop the Imperial Doctrine bullshit and let your hair down" She paused, looking around at most of the officers' lack of hair, including the female crew. "That's a figure of speech, but never mind."
"My father used to have a saying, he used to say 'you can't efficiently command a starship with a stick up your arse'. Do you get me?"
The bridge officers looked somewhat confused; senior officers were used to the discipline and almost inhuman stringency of imperial service.
"Noted, captain." The executive officer replied; the second-in-command, or XO in naval terminology. He was an older man, probably around a hundred years old, definitely the naval type, likely had a lot of experience with the Fleet.
"Commander Vanna Mancini. Admiralty speaks highly of your exploits with the Outer Sector Fleet, though my dialogue with them was... brief. Since this whole charade seems to have been put together fairly quickly. Regardless, it's good to have you as the Fire's second, I look forward to working with you; I just hope you will see things the way I see them." the Captain paused for a moment, glancing round to the other officers who returned her gaze momentarily from their duties.
"I deal with things a little differently to how the Admiralty would have me, but I'm sure that was covered in your posting brief."
Commander Mancini gave a prompt, formal salute with his hand and a subtle nod to acknowledge the Captain's words. "Thank you, captain. It is a privilege to serve alongside the daughter of Kociero, even if the legend died with the formation of the Imperial States."
"My father always wanted the best for us, for humans. He just didn't see eye to eye with your new dignitary. " The captain replied.
"Indeed". the Commander added, before returning his gaze to his console.
"Just to be clear, Commander Mancini; I am not my father and my loyalty lies with the Fleet standing between humanity and, well, what's out there. Keep that in mind, I have little time for politics or ideology."
The exchange was interrupted by the sound of the Captain's station giving out a chime indicating an incoming transmission. Swivelling the captain's chair back into position, flicking a switch on her ear piece, Amiori gestured at the holodisplay, which brought up some additional details on the holoform projector in front of her.
"Back to business" She remarked, interacting with the console. "Incoming transmission from Command, direct from O-S-F Admiralty. I wonder what they have in store for us, patching on-screen."
"Fire of Eridonia, Captain Kociero, this is Outer Sector Command. We have a priority assignment for your Task Force. Stand-by to receive briefing."
"Acknowledged, Command. Ready to receive." Amiori spoke into the communicator.
"Briefing online. Patching to Battle-Net. Standby"
"Recent developments in the Tempest Ridge have created a situation whereby Imperial State Security is potentially at risk on the G-Eastern reaches of Aquarius. Standard Navy units are conducting operations within the Tempest Sector Command Zone in accordance with the Strategic Defence Initiative laid out by the Supreme Admiralty of the Imperial Navy."
As the briefing commenced, the Fire's war-map holodisplay flickered into life, displaying a strategic map of the Tempest Ridge and the far reaches beyond the eastern borders of the cluster. A few specific points were highlighted; systems such as Montes Lumen - where incidents had taken place in recent cycles. The scale of the Imperial Navy's deployment to Tempest was apparent; though Amiori and her crew were well aware of the developments beforehand.
"The Outer Sector Special Operations Task Force, is to deploy with a minimum-strength Group to Montes Lumen immediately and reach the specified co-ordinates enclosed within this transmission, QEC link standing by to authenticate."
The transmission paused while the war-map updated with a tactical display of the approximate location orbiting the lonely Montes Lumen star, in the far edge of the Tempest Ridge - the boundary of known space.
"Your Group is to make contact with a Special Operations asset already operating ahead of Standard Navy elements in Montes Lumen. The S-O unit will provide an intelligence update on the situation. Understand this operation is of a covert nature and information is on a need-to-know basis, Captain.
Your lack of Compliance Regulation troubles the Admiralty, but we have received personal orders from the ATIS Council, directly, to entrust it to you. This is not a trust given lightly, given your previous history of allegiances. Do not fail us, Captain Kociero."
"I won't." Amiori replied sternly, looking over the War-Map holo projector and running a few thoughts through her head. "Do we have any Intel going in, or is this 'asset' providing operational details, too?"
"We have a priority communication from the ATIS Council. Standby to receive to your personal communicator."
"Sounds important..." Amiori remarked under her breath before interacting with her console. "Ready to Receive, patch them through."
"Amiori Kociero. Do not be troubled by the suspicions of the Admiralty. They seek only to do enact their duty to the Imperial States." the distinctive, synthetic, almost metallic voice of the Director crackled through the QEC link on Amiori's earpiece.
"I have personally put you forward for a mission of critical importance to the States, and to my Vision. This act of trust will also serve as a trial of sorts, if you understand the meaning, do you not, Captain Kociero?"
"I might have known you would want a personal word before we deploy. I appreciate the notion but you already know where my loyalty lies, with the Fleet." She paused, thinking about how vague this entire 'mission' was. "I'm going to need more to go on, than some covert operation. You're withholding something - since Bastion, and the work I did on securing the QEC-Net, there's no way anyone, or thing, can break this line. So what's the catch?"
"A personal favour." The Director replied, the holographic 'eye' forming over the communication's avatar projector at the captain's station. "This is not an Imperial affair."
"I'm listening." She said, raising an eyebrow.
"I prefer to keep my affairs separate from the politics of governance, I am sure you are aligned with this sentiment, Amiori Kociero. This operation is to be conducted under Dark Protocols, that is, there will not be an official Imperial responsibility. We have talked before, about how even the most ordered nation requires tasks to be carried out that said nation, as a state, cannot be held responsible for. After all, I have been overseeing this functionality within Aquarius for centuries."
"Red Sector..." Amiori replied under her breath, memories of her father's exploits with the legendary captain from the Kingdom Fleet, Alexander Walker, centuries before. The stories he used to tell her. It was almost surreal to her, that she was communicating with the very mind behind everything she had perceived to be wrong with Aquarius as a child.
"Yes. But remember our discussion from before - principles and morals only permit survival up until a threshold, one that we, as a species, have already crossed. Only the most pessimistic, pragmatic and ordered civilisation will endure. This requires pragmatic solutions to specific problems that cannot be resolved by the State. This is where you come in.
"I need you to deploy to Montes Lumen and handle a developing situation ahead of the Navy, that requires a careful consideration that I believe you are most suited for, Captain Kociero. It is no co-incidence that I am assigning you to deal with this situation."
"Give me the details." the captain replied abruptly.
"Straight to the point. A view that will serve you well... Very well. Remote sensor probes indicate the presence of several independent space-borne infrastructure in the remote sectors beyond Montes Lumen. Their arrival in the sector was monitored by the Fleet for some time, however, I have up until this moment, prevented any action being directed towards them."
"Independent? I see where this is going." The captain responded, making no effort to mask the concern in her voice.
"That is correct. Recon probes made several passes recently, data confirms they are non-hostile independent civilian groups, likely nomadic tribes from the Tempest Ridge that had previously slipped under the net. While I have maintained a neutral outwardly attitude towards on-aligned human groups in and around Aquarius in the past, this attitude must now change. As part of my vision for Tempest, these groups must be brought under the Imperial Flag or be evicted from their domains; I have specified a list of Star Systems that are to be claimed under the Imperial States - leading directly to the Tempest Far Crossing.
You understand that unification is the cornerstone of survival, and it is unacceptable to permit non-aligned parties to exist so close to an area of such importance to State Security, especially with the rising threat from the criminal raiding groups from the Tempest South region increasing their attacks on border stations every passing cycle.
I am assigning the Outer Sector Special Operations Task Force, under your command, Captain... I think you know why."
Amiori paused for a moment, thinking. Was the Director going soft? Giving her the opportunity to resolve conflict in her manner, 'off the books' so to speak; without the often harsh pragmatic utilitarian attitude usually adopted by the Imperial Fleet? Or was this indeed merely a trial, to test whether she had the resolve to put morality in the back seat when dealing with the 'greater good', whatever that was, or perhaps more fittingly; whatever the director defined it as.
She nodded subtly, looking directly at the holographic 'eye' before her, which returned her stern gaze, squinting as it analysed her facial expression.
"I'll handle it. Forward the data." She finally spoke, this time hiding emotions from her tone and letting her experience as a naval captain take precedence.
"I knew you would, Amiori Kociero. The intelligence gathered by the Tempest Recon operations has been forwarded to the Fire of Eridonia's Battle Net. I am authorising free reign on this assignment, captain. That is, you are free to execute the orders in any way you see fit, even if those methods... conflict with Imperial Navy standards of operation. Closing communication, I will be watching closely."
The communication ended before Amiori could reply; the QEC-Net link disconnected abruptly, almost like the Director didn't want her to reply. Regardless, she had the data needed, the task was set out before her; her first operation under the Imperial flag was now ready to commence. Though, somewhat ironically, it wasn't under the 'Imperial Flag' at all. She couldn't help but believe the aliens of the Vujlcyon Conglomerate where somehow involved, given the presence of one of their cruisers at the dock the Task Force was moored at; and the relative close proximity to the official Vujlcyon-ATIS co-operation with the Tempest Far cluster to these independent groups...
"We have our orders." The Captain exclaimed aloud to the bridge crew. "I'm patching operational details to Neural from my station now, have a look, read the brief and punch in. Just keep in mind I don't sit here in silence with a wire in my brain, so use your voices, we are human after all."
"Comms, signal Wet-Dock we are ready to disengage docking and get underway. Helm, begin disengage process when ready, set drives to ahead quarter when we're clear of the station zone. Commander Mancini, punch through to Battle Net and update the Group." She paused, looking at the holographic display of the current Task Force topology in the Wet-dock, several cruisers, destroyers and light carriers were available under her command.
"Destroyers S-P Two Zero Five One, Two Zero Five Two are to commit. The rest of the fleet stays put." She added. "Let's get underway."
The mighty docking clamps of the Arctic-class naval platform's Capital-class wet-dock roared into action, retracting their magneto clamps that held the four million mass-ton, one-and-a-half kilometre long warship in place. As they did so, the magnetic field disengaged and the Fire of Eridonia began drifting gently away from the station; powerful pressurised gas jets propelled her clear of the docking harnesses. Moments later, the ship's board computer received the clear signal from the wet-dock, and engaged her massive stern drive array; flaring up bright neon blue as it exhausted plumes of condensed plasma into space behind the warship, creating bright trails behind her as she began accelerating away from the station.
The two escorting destroyers, both SP Pattern 2 warships, followed similar procedure as they disconnected from their own moorings on the opposite side of the platform's vast docking arm; following pre-co-ordinated trajectories plotted by the Battle Net, laying down their own neon blue plasma trails as they formed up on the flanks of the Battlecruiser - taking up escort positions as she began to hard-burn into the depths of open space. From there, the group would conduct a single-stage Subspace Transition to Montes Lumen, and the day's work would begin proper.