Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“What time shall I return, Master Gold?” Geoffrey, the family butler, expertly parked the luxurious air-car on the landing pad next to the Commonwealth Headquarters in downtown London.
Ben already had the door open and was exiting the vehicle. If you sat still more than a few seconds in the landing area air-cars began to back up for blocks. A lot of those air-cars belonged to people who outranked a lowly lieutenant commander, so Ben always made sure to hustle.
“Seventeen-thirty will be fine, Geoffrey. I will call if something changes.” Ben slid the door into place without waiting for a response and began to walk quickly toward the main entrance to the building.
Normally, two heavy infantry soldiers stood guard at the entrance, but today there were four. That meant one of two things. Either someone important was coming to visit or there was a heighten security posture. It didn’t matter much to Ben, most of his day was going to be spent in Commander Wythe’s office going over the engineering manuals on gravitic impellers. Despite Ben’s heightened general intelligence, the engines that used gravity to propel Commonwealth warships through space were outside his wheelhouse. He was not an engineer, and he would never be an engineer; but he still needed to pass the basic qualification.
<I will worry about that after my briefing.>
Apparently, despite losing most of his audience during his original briefing on the Star Kingdom of Windsor, the senior officers loved it. Now, as part of the out-processing of everyone heading off to York Sector they had to sit through Ben’s hour long lecture. Naturally, after nearly putting dozens of people to sleep, Ben had changed the material a little bit. The holo presentation still talked about criteria such as power distance and individualism vs. collectivism, but Ben had modified it to fit his military audience.
He still talked about the strict hierarchy in the Star Kingdom, but he related it more to things the most junior soldiers and spacers in the crowd would understand. Now he talked about how the Star Kingdom military was culturally honed to not question orders. For the most part they were loyal to a fault. He also discussed how the generally collectivist culture of the lower tiers of the hierarchy made them more likely to sacrifice for the greater good of the Kingdom while the high ranks were more likely to look through the scope of individualism or career advancement.
These new points went over much better than the original presentation, and it even got his audience discussing strengths and weaknesses of the society. Strengths they would have to look out for and weaknesses they could exploit in a military engagement.
Ben was feeling pretty confident as he walked into his normal briefing room at 0900.
When he walked out at 1015 he felt like someone had dropped an anvil on his head. There’d been more senior officers in the briefing than before. One Captain in particular seemed to think it was his personal mission in life to deconstruct everything Ben was saying and try to disprove it. Since Ben had only done a surface level review of the culture, there were obvious holes in his presentation. Holes that were acceptable to his normal audience. These holes could have been filled with additional research, but research took time, and time was something Ben did not have in abundance.
Ben left the briefing room with a new personal hatred and a festering headache. Thankfully, he kept some aspirin in Commander Wythe’s office. Reading FMs and TMs tended to have that effect on the brain.
The Personnel Department was its usual hustle and bustle of organized chaos. Ben weaved his way through the torrent of moving bodies, only nearly knocking over one diminutive PO3 who looked ready to tear him a new one before seeing his gold stripe, a solid seventy centimeters, and at least forty kilos of mass difference. The stout NCO still walked away fuming.
Commander Wythe wasn’t in yet so Ben took his customary seat at the table and pulled up the engineering FM for gravity plates.
Grav-plates were scattered throughout ships and were the primary components in the impeller drives. There were more mathematic equations than words in this FM, but thankfully most of them were built into the diagnostic systems. Someone would need a week and a Ph.D. in Physics to do it by hand.
<So the plates exert opposing gravitational forces onto each other that need to be carefully calibrated in order to achieve everything from Earth-like gravity within vessels to the thrust necessary to move them.> That was the basic gist of what Ben got from the much more complex wording of the FM.
The gist was all Ben needed. What was really important was the maintenance. <A routine daily diagnostic followed by a thorough thirty day maintenance to troubleshoot and correct any deficiencies.> Ben put those timeframes into his mental banks. They would be on the exam for sure.
He was just digging into the physical handling of the grav-plates when Commander Wythe burst into the office. She wasn’t running, because an officer running around her own section usually meant the sky was falling, but she was moving with a purpose.
“I’ve got your birthday present, Gold.”
Commander Wythe rarely had an organic, sincere smile on her face. She played the political game of the Fleet Headquarters, so she was always smiling around senior officers; but Ben rarely saw a true smile on her face. It was a shame, because Sarah Wythe had a beautiful smile.
Ben knew from experience that the Commander shied away from using anything close to feminine wiles to advance her career. And she didn’t need to. After spending just a few weeks under her tutelage Ben realized that she was a brilliant tactician, strong leader, and just a fascinating person. It didn’t help that Ben found her good looking, and constantly working with her was starting to affect his professional judgment. He couldn’t stop his crush on the woman, but he could keep it under control.
Technically, they weren’t under the same chain of command, so asking her out on a date wouldn’t be against regulation. But he valued their teacher-mentor relationship too much to put it in jeopardy.
<Bad timing.> He kept reminding himself. But that didn’t mean it didn’t sting a little.
“My birthday was earlier this month. And in case you have forgotten I received command of a fresh out of the yards warship as my birthday present.” Ben still put down the FM and gave her his full attention.
“Really?” she waved aside his rebuttal.
Ben’s attention shifted from her smile to her cute dimples before he was able to refocus his attention.
“We both know it wasn’t the Commonwealth. You made a deal with the devil.”
Ben had told her all about his father and their deal while she got him ready to take command.
“What I’m giving you is much more valuable to your current studies.” She held up an onyx black box in both hands like it was a precious, fragile jewel. “I’ve got a contact down in Supply, and they were able to get this. As the future skipper you’re authorized.”
The box scanned Ben’s GIC and popped open silently. Ben reached inside and gingerly removed a square data-chip about the size of the tip of his pinky. It was obviously important, but Ben still wasn’t quite sure how important. Judging by her expression he needed to insert it into his PAD right now.
Commander Wythe stood there still grinning as Ben grabbed his PAD from the leg pocket on his CMUs. The port practically sucked the chip in the moment it was close.
ACCESS DENIED. SHIELD ROOM NOT DETECTED.
“Shield room?” She bent over Ben’s shoulder. Her shoulder length auburn hair smelling faintly of lavender. “Since when do ship schematics need a shield room?”
“You got me my ship’s schematics?” Ben asked in surprise.
This really was a treat.
“Of course,” she said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I want you to go into command more knowledgeable about your boat than anyone else.”
Ben had an overwhelming desire to kiss the senior officer, but he restrained himself.
“Well. . .um. . .thank you.” He honestly didn’t know what to say. “We need to get to a shield room then.”
The Fleet’s security protocols and electronic systems were state of the art, especially at a Fleet headquarters. Still, cyberwarfare between the Commonwealth, Eastern Block, and to a lesser degree the European Union was more common on Earth than anywhere else in human explored space. That’s what happened when you all lived under one roof in only one place in the galaxy.
Whatever was on the small data-chip that Commander Wythe procured there were additional security measures required to open it. It was sensitive enough that no one wanted to take any chances. Thus the shield room.
A shield room was a room that stopped all electronic means of communication from entering or exiting. It accomplished this on an atomic level, and was the most secure defense procedure in a galaxy dominated by wireless networks. In accordance with Fleet regulations every department had a shield room, and the Personnel Department’s was down a hallway with an unarmored soldier standing guard next to it.
“Please sign the log.” The stone-faced private’s expression didn’t change as the two officers stopped in front of him.
Ben and Commander Wythe both scanned their GICs and were allowed to enter.
The room looked just like any other conference room. Ben had been in here enough times during his tenure with the department that the only thing he noticed was the chime of lost connectivity from his PAD when the soldier closed the door behind them.
“Ok.” The commander was visibly excited now. “What’s the big secret?”
Ben placed his PAD on the table, physically linking it with the holo-display. He scanned his GIC again, and the screen sprang to life with a blue and white depiction of a Commonwealth warship. There was a lot of detail, but his eyes were immediately pulled to the header at the top center of the display.
“The CWS Argo.” Ben felt his chest swell with pride.
<This is my ship.> It was one thing to pour through FMs and engage in VR training, but Ben was actually seeing his future command hover right in front of his eyes.
For a few seconds Ben just took it all in.
“Wow!” Commander Wythe’s exclamation brought Ben out of his silent revelry. “They’ve done a lot of work to this class of gunboats, the Seafaring Class. May I?” She requested the PAD and Ben handed it over.
“Let’s start with structural.” She made a pulling apart motion that zoomed in on the dagger-shaped ship. “The actual layout of the gunboat looks the same. You’ve got your main cannon on the tip of the ship here. Behind that is a meter-thick armored wall. That way if you take a shot right down the throat you might just lose that compartment.” It was a cold way to look at the situation but that was war.
“Behind that armored hatch you’ve got the crew quarters and rec area.” She pointed at a chunk of the ship that was about a third of the entire space.
That might seem like a lot, but in a small gunboat that was the definition of cramped. “Rec is a catch-all term meaning everything from personal recreation to mess hall. The bridge is behind the crew area, but you see this.” She pointed at where two corridors seemed to split and wrap around a central sphere. “The bridge is a self-contained environment encased in a two-meter thick ball of duro-steel. The idea being that if the rest of the ship gets trashed the bridge will hopefully survive. And if everything goes to hell there are life pods just outside the hatch.”
“Seems to be tactically solid thinking.” Ben had been sitting silently as she reviewed the schematics. He’d only ever been on the bridge in VR.
“Behind the bridge section is the armory and storage bay. This is Marine country. The only reason you’ll pass through there is to get to the main docking hatch. Just let the marines do their thing back there. They’ll spend most of the cruise tinkering with their armor and getting pissed off. When you find a bad guy just let them loose.”
The advice was a little more hands-off than Ben was comfortable with, but he’d take it under advisement.
“The last third of the ship is engineering’s turf.” She finished the general outline of the ship.
“Let’s see what’s new. . .and Hello!” She pointed emphatically at the hull of the ship. “Do you see this latticework here.” She stabbed her finger into the virtual hull and what looked like hundreds of tic-tac-toe boards “If I’m reading this right they’ve reinforced the three-meter duro-steel hull with carbon nannotubing. That’s going to make the Argo a tough nut to crack. And yup. . .you have the coating of nanite armor on top of it.”
Ben watched as she sighed heavily with a wanting expression. “You’re a lucky man, Gold. She’s a beauty. And we haven’t even gotten to the weapons systems yet.” She hit a few buttons and the view changed. “And of course you’re going to be the captain of the best armed gunboat in Commonwealth history.” She shot him a good-natured glare.
“You’ve got four missile tubes on each broadside, that’s double previous gunboats. You’ve also got two two-hundred terawatt lasers, that’s more punch and an additional laser.” She rotated the view and focused on the dagger’s tip of the ship. “You’re nose cannon is five-hundred terrawatts, holy shit!”
Ben looked up in surprise from the specs. He rarely heard Commander Wythe curse.
“That’s just shy of a destroyer’s broadside cannon. The yard monkeys have given Argo some serious juice. They must have made some serious upgrade or had a breakthrough in miniaturization to make that happen.”
Ben watched with a bemused expression as she dug into the technical details of the power plants that fed energy into the weapons systems. By the hand gestures it looked like the Commonwealth was making some headway in weapons technology that she understood a lot better than him.
“You’ve got more railguns than before.” She pointed out the raised portions that looked like metallic pimples on the otherwise smooth ship. “I’m counting twenty per side, but that’s just because Argo is longer.” She squinted at some numbers down at the bottom. “Argo is a hundred and twenty-five meters long and weighs in at seventy-five hundred tons. That’s the biggest, badest gunboat I’ve ever seen.” She practically fell into the seat. She looked exhausted.
Ben saw an opportunity and he took it.
“I am sure she will be in the system for a while when the crew gets settled. I would love to have you come up and take a look.”
Ben didn’t know if she totally missed the veiling invitation of a quasi-date, but her smile was blinding and full of renewed excitement.
“That would be fantastic!”
“Ok then.” Ben smiled back. The excitement was contagious. “I have a good relationship with the skipper, I do not think he will mind.”
Commander Wythe rolled her eyes and looked ready to give him a snappy response when something on the schematic caught her eye. “What’s that?”
Ben swiped the screen and scrolled down to a blacked-out section of text. “I do not know.” Ben leaned forward in his chair and started entering commands into his PAD.
PLEASE RECONFIRM AUTHORIZATION.
Ben scanned his GIC again. His PAD beeped in confirmation and then a blue line of light shot out of the PAD and scanned the room.
ADDITIONAL PERSON DETECTED. PLEASE AUTHENTICATE.
“This is unusual.” Commander Wythe held out her GIC to be scanned.
COMMANDER WYTHE, SARAH B. SFSJS0921239375234, TS CLEARANCE CONFIRMED
The darkened text block dissolved into legible code and they both spent several second deciphering it. Ben saw her plain brown eyes narrow in confusion.
“Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface, SISI,” she pronounced the acronym “Sissy”.
“I have never heard of that.” Ben scratched his head, digging through all the FM knowledge he’d absorbed in the last few weeks.
He came up with nothing.
“I’ve been in the Fleet for eighteen years and I’ve never heard of a ship’s interface before.” She leaned back and pulled a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. “Well at least we know why the data on this chip requires a shield room.
“Yes.” Ben frowned. “That’s standard procedure for new prototype systems.”
The information was a double-edged sword for Ben. He had the ability to really prove himself with a thorough testing of the new equipment, but if he screwed up he’d never get another command again; and that included command of a diplomatic mission.
<As my father would say. Go big or go home.> Ben really didn’t have any other choice.