“Roll ninety degrees to port!” Ben yelled the order to the helmsman piloting the gunship.
“Ninety degrees to port, aye sir.”
Ben wanted to yell at the Petty Officer for following protocol at a time like this. He knew any helm changes were supposed to be repeated before being executed, but sometimes you needed to be practical.
<Concentrate.> Ben shook his head to dislodge the misplaced anger. It didn’t help that it felt like someone had taken an axe to his skull.
Blood kept trickling down through his eyebrow and dripping into his field of vision. That made it difficult to read the holotank directly in front of his command chair. The situation in the holotank wasn’t good. What started out as a routine commerce patrol had turned into a very bad day.
The mission had been straightforward when Ben received it. He was to take his gunboat into the system and conduct a patrol. The system wasn’t even important enough to have a name, just an alpha-numeric designation. The Commonwealth didn’t even have up to date information on the system. Their last survey was several years old. It was his secondary objective to obtain a current status of the system using the half dozen drones in the gunboat’s cargo hold, but primarily his job was to inspect any shipping passing through the Commonwealth claimed space.
The system didn’t have any terraformed worlds or moons, so there was no assistance if everything went sideways. Ben’s gunboat had dropped out of FTL near the edge of the system and released the drones to start the thirty-six hour survey.
The holotank in front of Ben’s command chair slowly populated with information over the day and a half. The holotank showed a three hundred and sixty degree one light-minute bubble around the ship. Through the holotank Ben could give orders, receive information from the other bridge sections, and even input preferences.
After thirty-six hours, which consisted of a loop covering only a portion of the system, Ben turned his attention to the limited amount of traffic they’d noticed. Scans on the ships identified them as standard asteroid mining vessels. And there were only three of them operating in the large asteroid belt at the fringes of the system.
Ben conducted checks via regulation. They matched their Vessel IDs with licenses, back-tracked those licenses to their sponsoring companies, and then looked for the standard piracy flags. Pirates liked to masquerade as mining vessels, send out a distress beacon, lure in good Samaritans, and then capture the ships; which usually led to the death of the original crew.
The first two vessels checked out, so Ben sent them a friendly hail and allowed them to go about their business. It was the third vessel that made Ben pause. Everything looked like it was in order, but the sponsoring company’s name triggered something in his memory. Ben pulled out his PAD, scrolled through past messages, and found the alert from naval intelligence identifying the company as a pirate front.
Imminent action caused a surge of adrenaline in Ben’s massive body, but he reined himself in. There were procedures in place for this sort of thing, so he went down the checklist: he sounded battlestations, he engaged the gunboat’s armor, sealed his CMUs, secured his helmet, made sure the crew was green across the board, and then hailed the suspected pirate vessel while painting them with his active sensors.
The vessel complied with all of Ben’s orders. They proceeded toward the designated rally point, and then cut their engines and waited to be boarded. Ben thought everything was going perfectly.
Then it wasn’t.
The holotank squawked suddenly, identifying a ship emerging out of the asteroid belt on their flank at twenty-five thousand kilometers. They’d missed it on their original scan because of all the interference from millions of rocks floating and colliding in space. The distance might sound like a lot, but the speed of light was just shy of three hundred thousand kilometers per second; which was the speed at which energy weapons traveled.
The gunboat took the main energy cannon of the second pirate ship directly into their port side. That was how Ben got the nasty gash on his forehead.
Normally, civilian-grade weaponry wouldn’t put a dent in military-grade armor, but whoever this pirate was they’d jerry-rigged a destroyer’s main cannon into what his holotank was classifying as a private luxury yacht.
On the bright side, twenty-five thousand kilometers was right at the outermost effective range of the cannon’s design that tried to punch a hole in Ben’s ship. It wasn’t a question of how fast the energy beams could reach their target, but how quickly the energy dissipated before it hit what it was shot at. On top of the rapid degradation of beam technology, a ship’s evasive maneuver protocols or a pilot’s quick reaction would normally save a ship from being hit by weapons fired from inferior targeting systems.
There was no way a small pirate vessel was operating with a destroyer-grade energy cannon and the fire control to match it. There physically wasn’t enough space on the ship for both.
Unfortunately, Ben’s gunboat was decelerating toward a rally point; which made it a fat, juicy, slow moving target. Even for the second rate system the pirates cobbled together.
<You have got to be kidding me!> Ben’s thought was of little consequence as the pirate quickly accelerated toward Ben’s damaged gunboat.
“Engines full power!” Ben plotted a course, which involved drawing a line on the holotank angling away from the pirate that didn’t expose their vulnerable stern.
The gunboat bucked, and Ben was thrown back into his seat.
“Missile incoming,” the computerized voice of the tactical computer announced.
Usually the spacer at the tactical consul would relay the information, but he was unconscious on the ground and being looked at by the medics.
“Deploy chaff, evasive action.” Ben ordered, feeling the initial fear of the surprise attack level off.
Despite the pirate ship’s lucky hit, Ben’s gunboat was the tougher vessel.
The smallest ship in the Commonwealth Fleet’s arsenal was a one hundred meter long, dagger shaped warship made of duro-steel and a nanite coating of armor. The duro-steel was military-grade and strong, but the nanite armor was the ships toughest defense. Electrostatic force could be run through the nanites, hardening them at a molecular level. The result was an armor that was lightweight and tough to crack.
But no defense was impregnable. Case and point, the gunboat’s entire port-side armor was down to twenty percent from a single shot.
Gunboats were scouts and light skirmishers. They didn’t fight battles with full-sized warships. If things were dicey they could recon a system in force, but even a whole squadron of the small vessels couldn’t stand up to a destroyer. Their guns weren’t powerful enough to penetrate the larger ship’s armor.
With the tactical consul unmanned that meant Ben had to assume tactical responsibilities. And there was no way he was going to lose to a luxury yacht, even if it did have a destroyer’s gun strapped to its belly.
The chaff did its job, and the enemy missile lost its lock and exploded well out of range. Ben didn’t even feel a rattle. He focused on the holotank looking for angles of attack and approach vectors. He would use the chaff cloud to his advantage. The electronic countermeasure turned that section of space to static white nothingness, so that was the best way to approach the pirate without being targeted by its main gun. Ben plotted the new course, relayed to the helmsman, and did a weapons check.
The gunboat had its own main gun. It was far weaker than a destroyer’s cannon, but it would do the job against a lightly armored luxury yacht. There were two smaller energy cannons on the port and starboard sides, along with a missile tube. The hull of the gunboat was littered with railguns for close up action.
“The enemy vessel’s energy weapon will be recharged in approximately ten seconds.” The tactical computer relayed.
That was another problem with energy weapons, they took time to recharge. Most modern navies preferred missiles in their engagements to pound their enemies while the energy weapons forced them into advantageous firing solutions.
Ben didn’t need to waste his missiles. The pirate had more balls than brains. He’d relied too much on the element of surprise, and the intimidation factor of having a big gun. He’d charged right after Ben’s injured gunboat, so when Ben emerged from behind the wall of chaff he was two thousand kilometers away with a perfect shot.
The gunboat’s main cannon bisected the luxury yacht. The small pirate ship split apart and hovered in space for a few seconds before the reactor went critical and it disappeared in the blinding flash of superheated light.
“Status on the other pirate vessel?” Ben asked. There was no time to celebrate.
It was a common trap that Ben had stumbled into. The pirates had one vessel doing the work while the other provided security.
“They’re hauling ass to the FTL line, Skipper,” the helmsman replied. “They’ll be there before we’re in weapons range.”
“Roger that.” Ben couldn’t hide the disappointment. “Catalogue the ID and any imagery we have on the ship. We will report it to the fleet. Recall the drones, set course for home, and prepare for FTL jump.”
“Aye, Skipper. Recalling drones, setting course for home, and preparing for FTL jump.”
Twenty minutes later the drones were safely stored back in the cargo hold, and Ben felt the hum of the Alcubierre Drive coming online. The drive created a warp bubble around the warship, and then expanded and contracted space-time around it. This allowing mankind to travel faster than the speed of light. A gunboat only held enough exotic matter for a max jump of twenty light-years, and a jump of that distance would take them twenty hours to complete. Thankfully, the jump back to the fleet would only be a three light-year three-hour ride.
“Course plotted, Sir. Ready to jump on your command.” The helmsman stifled a yawn.
The whole crew was tired and bruised by the long patrol and brief but violent battle. Ben was among them, but he tried not to show it. A skipper’s job was to be the unstoppable force and the unmovable object on a ship. The crew looked to him for leadership and confidence. He couldn’t look like he was suffering from a little thing like lack of sleep.
The command was followed by incredible, unthinkable pain. Ben screamed, he heard his crew scream. His bones splintered hundreds of times per centimeter. His eyes popped out of their socket, his blood boiled, and his muscles were fileted from his bones.
Everything went white, and Ben opened his eyes to the VR simulation chamber.
“Holy shit!” The helmsman, who was also doing the simulation yelled before leaning over the side of his chair and vomiting all over the floor.
Ben’s heart felt like it was going to explode out of his chest. The neural link in VR was so real that Ben’s mind truly believed it was dying. Now, all of a sudden, his body was completely fine. His brain was expecting pain and agony, so his body was dumping adrenaline, hormones, and other biological countermeasures into his system. People called it the VR Crash, and it was something that took years of practice to get a handle on.
<Just get through the after action report.> Ben told himself. Then he’d take a nap.
“After you, Sir.” The helmsman looked at Ben for guidance as he discreetly wiped small bits of half-digested food from his chin. After all, Ben had the two golden stripes of a lieutenant commander on his CMUs.
Without a word, Ben got up to leave. His mind was still racing to recover from the way-too-real experience of the VR simulation, and trying to figure out why he’d died in the first place. The helmsman got pulled aside by a senior noncom for his debrief, and Ben met up with his commander.
Despite Ben having punched Commander Sarah Wythe in the face during their first fencing match, and defeating her by more conventional means every other time; she didn’t seem to hold that against him.
<Or maybe she does?> Ben rethought his take on her. She had just programmed a tricky simulation for him.
Since graduating from Oxford with his Ph.D., and getting his lieutenant commander stripes, Commander Wythe had been putting him through the paces at the First Fleet Headquarters in London. She had prepared daily assignments to get him up to speed before shipping out.
Usually you had to wait weeks for VR time, but a memo from a certain rear admiral ordered Ben to get all the time he needed. It was a blessing and a curse.
“Do you know what you did wrong yet?” The commander read Ben’s pensive face when he entered her office up in the promotions section of the Personnel Department.
“Not yet.” That was what was bugging Ben most of all.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop.” She held up her hand. “It was a simple but deadly mistake.”
Ben went over the entire exercise again in his head. The engagement, taking damage, defeating the enemy, giving his orders, everyone feeling tired, jumping home.”
<Ugh.> Thinking back on the whole picture gave him the answer.
“I did not run the diagnostic and double check the Alcubierre Drive before we jumped.”
That would explain the gruesome death. There weren’t many worse ways to go than a compensator or drive malfunction.
“Bingo.” She gave him a serious look. “Usually the routine is done automatically, but you took a big hit from that pirate’s cannon. It didn’t help that the petty officer you were working with is a requalifying reservist who hasn’t been in space in years. He should have done it, but…”
“But as the skipper the buck stops with me. It was my responsibility to double check the drive’s safety, and I let fatigue get the best of me.” He finished her sentence for her.
“I told you when you made your deal that you had a lot to learn, and it’s better you learn this lesson in a VR simulator than out there.” She pointed up.
“Yes.” Ben was in the initial phases of beating himself up about the stupid mistake, and the commander noticed it.
“Other than the last minute mistake your performance was exemplary. You got caught in the ambush, but you were supposed to. If you didn’t try to investigate you’d have made a bigger mistake in shirking your duty and not following through with your mission.” Her face remained serious, because disobeying orders and going against the mission was a big no-no. “Your tactics were solid,” she continued. “You rolled your ship to present a stronger defense to the enemy, maneuvered to recover, lured them out, and then counterattacked. You turned your defensive measure into an offensive asset and you killed the bad guy.” Her face transformed into something more reassuring. “You were even following the correct procedure concerning the escaped pirates when you got everyone killed.”
“Thank you for the reminder.” Ben sighed.
When Ben finished his education he’d been transferred to active duty, and out of the Personnel Department. He was currently in a holding company awaiting assignment to his ship. The change meant that his relationship with his former boss had changed. It wasn’t a romantic change, but they had gone from employer-employee to mentor-mentee. Ben’s jump in rank had helped too.
If he was bold enough he might even say they were becoming friends.
“Write up your report and submit it to me, then grab some shut eye.” She ordered, turning back to her work. “You look like you’re about to crash hard. It doesn’t look good having a junior officer passed out in my office. It sets a bad example.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Aye aye, Ma’am.” He got up and went to finish off the final part of the training exercise.
<I really need that nap.>