Location: Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies
Ben was in a unique position. He was still in the holding company, and would remain in it until his gunboat’s maiden voyage. Holding companies were larger than the regular hundred-person companies in the military’s table of organization and equipment (MTOE). These companies served no operational purpose. Their only job was to maintain accountability of personnel, ship them off when their orders arrived, and allow officers to get command experience.
Anyone below the rank of E-6 had to physically report to the company every day for accountability formations. Ben, other officers, and senior NCOs just had to call in. For most soldiers and spacers this meant an abundance of free time that was unheard of anywhere else in the military.
Ben didn’t have that luxury. He had to condense years of knowledge into a few months before he took command. Commander Wythe was merciless in her pursuit of that mission. With every resource available at her disposal, thanks to Rear Admiral Helms, she was becoming increasingly creative with her assignments.
“Pack your bags, Lieutenant Commander.” She proclaimed when she strode into her office one morning.
Ben had his head buried in a field manual, and it took him a moment to catch up. “Ma’am?”
“Pack your bags,” she repeated. “You’ve spent enough hours in VR. It’s time for the real thing.”
And that was how Ben found himself on a week-long cruise around the solar system on the Commonwealth Warship (CWS) Wisp.
CWS Wisp was a gunboat assigned to First Fleet. It was an older model, first commissioned forty years ago, but it got the job done. Wisp’s mission was patrolling humanity’s home system. It was about as glamorous as it sounded, but these were actual spacers doing actual gunboat operations. The experience Ben would gather from this one week was invaluable.
He arrived onboard with the objective of qualifying in as many of the ship’s departments as possible. It was a herculean task, and Ben expected to be fully sleep-deprived by the time his feet touched back down on Earth.
<You can’t be an effective commander if you don’t even know what your own crew is doing.> Ben thought practically.
Ben needed to know what he was doing, more-so than other ships’ commanders. He was going to be fighting an uphill battle from the moment he stepped onboard his ship. Any service member could look at another service member’s public information, and one look at that would show anyone Ben was nothing more than a very junior lieutenant commander who should not be the skipper of a warship; even a small gunboat. He would have to show his crew that he was capable of being their leader. A golden stripe on his uniform might earn him salutes and “good morning, Sir” from the spacers, but that was it.
To make matters more difficult, the skipper of the Wisp wasn’t ecstatic to have someone tagging along on her patrol, but she’d been in First Fleet long enough to read between the lines of Ben’s assignment orders.
“If you want my advice start with navigation,” she said when Ben met with her in her cabin. “If you can’t fly the ship then nothing else matters.”
Ben saw from the female lieutenant commander’s basic profile that she had five years in her current rank, and two of those years captaining the Wisp. So he felt she knew what she was talking about.
“Yes, Commander.” They might be the same rank, but she was the commander of this vessel and Ben needed to respect that.
Ben didn’t see her again until he was allowed behind the proverbial wheel of the gunboat twelve hours later. There were no wheels on spaceships. There were stations with panels and instruments. Those machines did the flying. A person just entered commands, and if absolutely necessary, there was a joystick for certain operations.
Qualifying for a position on a ship was a process. First the spacer, NCO, or officer needed to study up on the material. Usually, they had days or even weeks to do this. Ben had hours. After the service member thought they’d studied enough they took a written examination. Sometimes there were verbal aspects from a subject matter expert, usually a chief petty officer, but the point of the examination was for the person seeking qualification to show the theoretical knowledge of the position they were qualifying for.
Ben passed his examination with flying colors. His in vitro enhancements allowed for well above average cognitive processing. In some pre-Expansion militaries, the written test would be the end of the qualification requirements; but not in the Commonwealth Fleet. It was all well and good to talk through a docking procedure, but it was something entirely different to do it.
“Easy does it, nice and slow, don’t force it, Sir.”
Ben sat in the helmsman’s seat, while the skipper sat behind him in the command chair, and the helmsman hovered next to him. The helmsman, a low-ranking spacer’s apprentice, sounded condescending; like he was talking to a child.
Ben could have taken it the wrong way. A lot of people would have, but he didn’t. He was a guest on someone else’s ship, and if he screwed up then he was going to do a lot of damage to that ship. The helmsman was naturally protective. It was his job to make sure the ship never crashed.
“Ease off a bit, reverse thrusters a quarter pulse.”
Normally, no one would be talking to the person taking the hands-on exam, but Ben wasn’t going to argue if someone gave him pointers. Ben kept his one eye on the range-finder while he pulled back gently with the joystick.
In order to make this qualification possible, the Wisp had stopped a Commonwealth flagged freighter. While the marines and a few spacers were busy doing a routine commerce inspection the freighter’s captain had agreed to allow them to do training against his hull. He just didn’t want them to scratch his new paint job.
There were two docking procedures that Ben had to complete to finish his qualification in navigation. He could already fly the ship, initiate manual evasive maneuvers, and calculate jumps with the Alcubierre Drive. The warp jumps were only theoretical though, they wouldn’t be able to initiate an actual jump this close to Jupiter’s gravity well. The Wisp’s commander checked his math and then marked the section complete on the electronic evaluation form.
The first docking procedure was a “soft” docking. This required Ben to pull up alongside the freighter, match their speed and course, and then extend a tether from the gunboat to the freighter. The tether would attach to an external hatch, pressurize, and then people and supplies could move between the two ships. It was the least favorable docking procedure militarily speaking because the tethers were vulnerable, but it was the easiest to complete.
Ben did it on his first attempt.
The second procedure was the more difficult “hard” docking. This required Ben to link the two ships together without the use of a tether. A ship-to-ship hard dock was the standard in the military, but it was also the hardest to do. Normally, computers handled everything flawlessly, but there was always a chance computers could fail; especially after a battle where a ship had taken damage. So every qualified helmsman needed to be able to do a manual hard and soft dock.
Ben failed his first attempt. He approached too fast, and the freighter had to break away. Both skippers had not been happy. Ben could feel the other lieutenant commander’s eyes burning a hole through the back of his skull, so he approached his second run more cautiously; gently easing the joystick forward and closing the space meter by meter.
<I feel bad for pilots a few hundred years ago.> He paid special attention to his instruments as he slowly approached the freighter again.
A few hundred years ago, pilots not only had to manually dock all of the time, but they also had to do it while ships rotated. Before mankind mastered gravitics, spacecraft spun around a central axis to generate limited artificial gravity. Past hard docks required pilots to match course, speed, and rotation. There was more than one video in the study material about what could go wrong during a hard dock.
Ben was glad he was being given the opportunity to qualify, but rushing it like this wasn’t the best idea. Flying a warship was like driving an air-car for the first time. Your brain needed to get used to how the craft handled and its dimensions. Rushing the process didn’t allow those mental pathways and memory to form. Stuff like this led to those grainy old images of spacecraft missing a lock, colliding, or only getting a partial lock and being torn apart by decompression.
Ben carefully thumbed the joystick while gently nudging the engines to make sure that didn’t happen with the Wisp.
“Ok you’re lined up, quarter pulse forward…and,” there was a loud thump and a brief screech before the green light of a good lock flashed across the helm station.
“Helm?” The Wisp’s skipper’s facial expression betrayed her irritation.
“It’s a good lock, Ma’am, but we might have scratched that paint job.”
“Very well.” The skipper took the news remarkably well. “Let’s get our boarding party back and continue our patrol. Send a voucher to the captain and thank him for his time.”
Scratching the freighter’s paint, even if it was only a half meter scar, didn’t endear Ben to the freighter’s captain, the Wisp’s commander, or the gunboat’s crew. No one was outright disrespectful to him because no one talked to him at all from that day forward. Not even a nod in the hallways. He was only spoken to if he initiated conversation, and even then they were short, to-the-point responses. The message was loud and clear; Ben was not welcome.
<Good thing I am getting this over with now.> Ben thought to himself as he sat alone in his cabin pouring through the system specifics of the gunboat’s weapons systems.
Ben might have passed, but he’d failed in the eyes of everyone on the bridge. That only made it worse when paired with what people could find out about him from a casual search. It didn’t go unnoticed he was a member of that Gold family.
<Rich kid’s daddy is getting him a command.>
<Blue in your eye equals officer’s privilege…typical.> Ben could practically see the thoughts in the other spacer’s eyes.
If he’d done this while in command of his own ship it would have devastated crew morale. Morale was important over a six month mission. Ben could deal with being ostracized for a week, but getting the cold shoulder for months would drive anyone insane and critically affect operational readiness.
<I need to get this over with.> Ben pushed the negative thoughts aside. He was almost done with navigation, but he still had weapons, engineering, operations, and communications to complete.
Being the smallest ship in the fleet meant that a gunboat had fewer departments listed on their MTOE than a larger warship. Destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and assault carriers could have over two dozen departments from administration to carrier air wing intelligence.
That didn’t mean all the same work didn’t need to be done. It just meant that officers and senior NCOs got assigned additional duties to cover the holes. Ben didn’t know all of the specifics, but he was pretty sure he’d get to it before this week-long cruise was over.