Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
Ben thought his week-long cruise around the solar system would have been more productive. He hadn’t failed in what he’d set out to do, but he wasn’t as successful as he usually was. He’d qualified on the helm and in navigation, but it took a full two days.
Ben doubted he’d ever have to fly a gunboat. If he had to, that meant his computer systems were offline and just about everyone but him was dead. In that case doing a hard or soft dock with a five thousand ton gunboat was the least of his problems.
After finishing his qualification in the other section of navigation, which essentially revolved around the operation and maintenance of the holo-tank, he’d progressed to weapons. Like in navigation he’d passed the written test easily, but this time the practical examination was easy. The exam consisted of shooting a qualification table similar to what an infantry soldier would do with his rifle. But instead of lying prone in the dirt, Ben sat in front of a tactical console and manipulated the controls to aim the gunboat’s main energy cannon.
The gunboat dumped targets into the vast emptiness of space, and he proceeded to blast them to star dust. With the energy weapon table completed he moved onto the missiles. The missile table was more difficult. He had to analyze the situation, sequence the missiles with pre-programmed attack code, or write new code on the fly depending on what was coming his way. He had to do this with offensive and counter-missiles without getting the ship hypothetically destroyed.
It was a good thing he had great hand-eye coordination and a finesse learned from a decade and a half of fencing.
That took three days. Not because he was failing, but because it took a long time to set up the targets, and coordinating with First Fleet range control to designate the bubble of space around the Wisp as a live range. It was more frustrating than anything else.
With only two department qualifications complete Ben really had to buckle down to finish a third. Engineering was a no go because Ben had never been great at the subject, and there wasn’t enough time to do the operations portion. So Ben was forced to settle with communications.
As it turned out, Ben’s familiarization with the Commonwealth’s main communication’s systems was some of his most enjoyable time on the Wisp. It probably had something to do with the gunboat’s crew ostracizing him after the helm portion of his navigation qualification. Hearing other voices over the communication’s equipment made him feel like a human being again.
The Commonwealth used three primary networks for communication. The first was the basic military network, MILNET, which served as a database of non-classified information or documentation that is for official use only (FOUO) but not classified. Examples of this were general correspondence between spacers and certain technical and field manuals. This was also the system that held each individual soldier or spacer’s basic profile. It was an easy to use, idiot-proof system; and Ben had been using it ever since he’d joined the Fleet. Qualifying on that with administrator access was simple.
The next two networks were more difficult.
The Tactical Communication Network, TACCOM, was the system used by the Fleet and Infantry for field communication. It used a combination of scrambling, burst, and tight-beamed signals to transmit vital information from ship to ship, between ground units, and from ground to ship and vice versa. It was nearly unhackable. Ben wouldn’t go as far to say that it was impenetrable, because time always proved that nothing was completely secure. Nevertheless, a Blockie warship would have to be in the exact right place at the exact right time and dialed to the exact right frequency to receive the communication; and even then it would be encrypted. The odds of that in a place as large as space were astronomically minute.
The third and final network was the Strategic Network, STRATNET, which was both the “on the ground” and “in the air” positioning network of the Commonwealth. It told friendly units where other friendly units were as well as identified and tracked enemy positions or ships. In an ideal world TACCOM and STRATNET would have been one system, but for security reasons they were separate. They could be linked together, but the link could be dissolved quickly in case of a breech.
Ben spent the last two days of his cruise sending, encrypting, decoding, and learning the systems and how they interacted with other aspects of the ship. Most importantly, Ben learned how STRATNET fed into the one minute light-bubble holo-tank, how to diagnose issues, and how to identify when things weren’t always as they seemed.
“That does not look right.” Ben was bent over the holo-tank while a nervous looking spacer stood beside him.
“What doesn’t look right, Sir.” The man, who was much closer in age to a boy, gulped.
“See this here.” Ben pointed as a disturbance that kept phasing in and out of focus on the tank at the edge of the one light minute bubble.
“Looks like a sensor ghost to me, Sir. We get a lot of them.”
Ben stood up straight and scratched his chin in thought.
The deck of the VR gunboat was no different than the one on the Wisp, but appearance wasn’t everything. Ben consciously knew that on the other side of the holographically projected hull was the London planetary headquarters of the Commonwealth and First Fleet, not the empty void of cold, dark space. It made him feel safer, but it also made him feel like he was playing spacer rather than being one. On the Wisp there had always been something going on. There was always some background noise of engineering banging away at something or a crew argument. In VR there was nothing but the beeps, buzzes, and light conversation of the pseudo-bridge. It just felt wrong.
“True, but I still do not like it.” Ben could feel it in his gut that something was wrong. “Communications, get me Two Actual.”
For this simulation Ben had a full bridge crew of spacers and petty officers who’d eagerly waited for their rotation in VR training. Getting saddled with an unknown officer, especially a lieutenant commander wasn’t part of their plan, but they were learning to deal with it.
“Two Actual this is One Actual. Let me know what you’re seeing at…” Ben gave the coordinates of the sensor ghost he’d been watching for the last few minutes.
This VR simulation was different than previous exercises Ben had gone through. First, instead of being alone with a single gunboat, this was a team exercise. Three gunboats with three skippers and bridge crews were involved. Ben was One Actual, the skipper of the first gunboat and in overall command of the understrength squadron of warships. The other two gunboats were captained by Two Actual and Three Actual, who were two junior lieutenants who were getting some of their first training outside ROTC, officer candidate school (OCS), or one of the elite military academies.
Taking that into consideration Ben didn’t put too much credence in what the younger lieutenant was going to say about the sensor ghost, but another set of eyes were never a bad idea.
“One Actual, it looks like a sensor ghost to me. Do you want me to go check it out?” The other skipper sounded eager to do anything else than his current tasking.
The mission for this simulation was simple merchant protection. The three gunboats were escorting a freighter carrying one million tons of food and medical supplies to a Commonwealth colony that had suffered a recent plague. Without the material in that freighter three hundred thousand Commonwealth citizens could die.
Currently, the three gunboats were in a wedge position around the freighter. Ben’s ship was afore the much larger freighter, while the other two warships took up positions to its port and starboard while slightly aft to make sure no one snuck up behind them. The four ships were right on top of each other on the holo-tank, but in reality there was three hundred kilometers spaced between them as required by maritime regulation.
Two Actual was to the starboard side and closest to the sensor disturbance.
“Negative, Two,” Ben replied before the lieutenant could get riled up. “It might be nothing, and if it is something it is still a light-minute away. Stay in formation; One Actual, out.”
Ben cut the line and turned his attention back to the holo-tank. “Keep an eye on that, Spacer, and let me know if anything changes.”
<This is not just a sensor anomaly.> Ben thought as the minutes ticked by into an hour.
One thing few people considered before going into space was just how long it took to get from point A to point B. You could travel between solar systems with a ship’s Alcubierre Drive at roughly a light-year an hour, or you could use the Alcubierre Launchers stationed in a number of systems and travel ten times as fast. Sub-light travel within systems was a whole different story. The four ship convoy was only cutting the corner of the roughly spherical star system, not traveling more than ten percent of the system’s diameter, and it was a six hour trip.
Ben found it incredibly ironic that in the time it took him to get from the entry point to the exit point in this system he could have traveled from the Core to the Mid-Worlds in FTL (Faster-Than-Light); but such was the nature of space travel.
<It could be worse.> He reminded himself. <It used to take years to get from Earth to Mars.>
“No change, Sir.” The Spacer automatically answered Ben’s unasked question, and it showed just how green he was.
“No change means there is a change.” Ben shot back, smacking the button for battle stations. “If it is still there in the same place then that means something is following us. Communications, get me Two and Three!”
<And this is exactly something that Commander Wythe would think up. >
“Three…” the two lieutenants responded over TACCOM.
“All units battle stations.” Ben announced. “Two, paint the area of that ghost with active sensors and get two drones into space; one to aft, and another in the ghost’s direction.”
Drones were nothing more the expensive sensors platforms that could be fired from a missile tube. They had their own generators for propulsion, but their range was limited. Launching two of a gunboat’s compliment of twelve was a big expense of resources, and the skipper of the second gunboat balked at the order.
“Sir, why two?”
“I do not trust the civilian grade equipment on that old freighter,” Ben snapped back a little harsher than he intended. “Do as you are ordered lieutenant.”
The last thing Ben wanted was something creeping up behind their vulnerable stern. The young lieutenant should have been able to come to the same conclusion; especially since his MILNET profile showed he was an Annapolis graduate.
“Yes, Sir.” The junior skipper shut up and did what he was told.
Louder beeps echoed through the bridge as Two’s sensors went from passive to active and scanned the area in the general vicinity of the ghost. Active sensors were both good and bad for a warship. They were great because they cut through a lot of interference that passive sensors couldn’t. On the down side, the ability to cut through that interference came at the price of broadcasting your position to anyone within earshot, and earshot in space was a long way.
More beeps echoed around Ben as the drone launched from one of the gunboat’s two missile tubes. It was represented by a blinking green icon on the holo-tank. STRATNET received that information and updated it simultaneously on all three gunboat’s tanks. It brought even more clarity to the situation.
“Get me the freighter captain,” Ben called.
“Captain, plot a least-time course for the FTL line and go to maximum thrust.” Ben didn’t let the man even get his name out.
The FTL line was the agreed upon safe distance for a ship to activate it Alcubierre Drive. To activate the drive earlier increased the possibility that the gravitational forces of the system would throw off the navigation or worse. It could end in complete drive failure, or a ship coming out of warp somewhere other than its planned destination; like the middle of a star.
Sub-light travel might be slower, but it was infinitely less complicated than jumping between star systems in a bubble that warped space and time around you.
“Roger, Sir, making course corrections now and going to maximum.”
“Helm, make way for the freighter and put us on its starboard side.” Ben ordered.
Compared to the gunboat’s military-grade engines the freighter’s were pathetic, but after a few minutes it slowly started to pull away.
And those few minutes were all the time Ben needed to figure out that they were totally upstream without a paddle.
“Contact, ship identified, bearing seven-eight negative five-zero, designated Bogey One.” The navigation department identified as an orange icon appeared where the sensor ghost used to be.
It took Ben a few seconds to get the bearings down when contact with another ship was identified. Degrees didn’t have the same meaning as on Earth because there was no magnetic pole, but the same concept was still applied. If a three hundred and sixty point circle was draw around the ship then Bogey One being at point seventy-eight meant they were starboard and slightly afore of the midpoint of the gunboat. The negative fifty was the more difficult part of the bearing. Unlike on a planet, there is no single plane in space; up, down, left, and right are all relative. So not only does a navigator need to identify where the ship is, but they needed to identify if the ship was above or below the gunboat’s plane as well. Normally, the plane used by all interstellar traffic was the ellipse of the star system; which was the plane which all objects in a heliocentric orbit rotated around. Most ships travel along this plane because there is less gravitational resistance. Less resistance equaled less energy usage, shorter trips, and cost savings. All of which are a big deal to private transporters.
So, another three-hundred and sixty point circle is drawn, this time vertically instead of horizontally; with the ellipse at its center. Negative fifty meant that the Bogey One was at point fifty below them.
“Get me more information, Operations.” Ben needed more to go on than a single ship approaching from starboard and below them.
It took twenty more minutes for the drone to get closer, and the information to get consolidated.
“Sir.” Ben saw the petty officer at the operation’s section face go white. “Bogey One is confirmed hostile. Bogey One’s transponder registers as a known Eastern Block Severodvinsk Class destroyer.” The orange icon changed to red.
Ben kept his own face from palling with sheer willpower.
“Plot likely intercept course with the freighter as the target.” Three gunboats were nothing compared to a freighter with such precious cargo.
Ben watched as the courses populated, and his heart sunk. At this rate the destroyer would be in weapons range of the freighter for two minutes before it could make its jump to FTL.
Ben knew what to do, and it was an easy decision to make because this was VR and not real.
“Two and Three go to Blocking Formation Alpha.” Ben gave the order and watched the two gunboats shift formation.
Formation Alpha was a typical battle-wall. It could be done vertically, or horizontally, or both depending on the number of ships in a formation. Ben elected to go vertically. The three gunboats stacked up and increased their spacing from three hundred kilometers to a full thousand kilometers to give the freighter as much coverage as possible. The blocking portion of the formation was meant to position the wall at the most advantageous angle. Ben’s gunboat continued on the same ellipse as before, while two went above and three below. Then once they were in the wall formation, they adjusted course themselves so they were directly between the escaping freighter and enemy destroyer.
To get to the freighter the destroyer would have to go through them.
Which was exactly what that Blockie ship would do.
Between the three gunboats they had six missile tubes and three energy cannons. The single destroyer had twenty tubes and five cannons; more than twice the firepower. It also had the maneuverability advantage. Ben’s command had to protect the freighter; the destroyer had no such limitation.
<This is a suicide scenario meant to test our resolve.> Ben saw Commander Wythe’s intent as the Blockie destroyer closed the distance to eight million kilometers.
Soon missiles would start to fly.
<Is the message not to be overconfident? To remind us of our humanity? Or is she just being sadistic and giving us a no win situation to see who panics?> Knowing Commander Wythe it could be any or all of those reasons.
Either way Ben didn’t have to wait long. At five million kilometers a barrage of twenty missiles launched from the destroyer and tore through space towards him. At that distance, which was most missiles max-range, Ben hoped they’d survive. STRATNET linked the fire control of the three gunboats and coordinated their counter-fire. In the outer defensive envelope counter-missiles shot from the gunboats’ tubes. Electronic warfare systems battled and six of the twenty enemy missiles disappeared in explosions that weren’t more than pinpricks to the electronically aided human eye.
The fourteen remaining missiles roared into the middle defensive zone where blasts from the gunboats laser cannons leapt out to meet them. The scarlet energy traced angry lines across space and destroyed another three missiles.
Eleven missiles, more than half the original twenty, breeched the final defensive layer. Here more EW systems from the gunboats themselves and decoys sprang to life trying to spoof the incoming ordinance. That was followed by more laser blasts and hypervelocity rail-gun rounds that filled the space around them with duro-steel slugs.
Only one missile got through the defenses, and it detonated closer to the gunboat a thousand kilometers below Ben. The explosion still rocked Ben’s ship, pulling him tight against the harness of his command chair, but he survived.
“Damage report?” The lists streamed by on the side of the holo-tank, and it was mercilessly short.
But so was the number of gunboats on the display.
“Three is gone.” Ben didn’t need to say it out loud but he did. “Prepare to attack.”
Ben’s own attack was pitiful compared to the destroyer. Four measly missiles were fired and none even made it past the destroyer’s first launch of countermissiles. The skipper of the destroyer didn’t give them time to breath. Another twenty missiles came screaming toward Ben’s command and without the third gunboat there was a giant hole in their defensive network.
Ben didn’t even feel himself die. His ship just exploded and he was brought out of the VR simulation.
Everyone around him looked pretty upset.
“That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Hit the showers and report for after action reports.” Ben recognized the voice of Commander Wythe, and he felt sorry for the other spacers and officers who’d been caught in her simulated web.
<But misery loves company.> Ben tried to keep his chin up as he went to wash off the sweat that had accumulated over the multi-hour exercise.