Location: CWS Fortitude, Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“You good, Sir?”
“Yes, I am fine.”
Chief Yates leaned back in his seat and shrugged. Ben wouldn’t say he was pouting, but he wasn’t his usual positive self.
Argo’s OIC and NCOIC sat on the bridge of Fortitude in visitor seats, just like Ben had at the beginning of their journey out to York Sector. But a lot had changed since then.
First thing was that he’d started to develop a working relationship with Chief Yates. The old, silver-haired chief petty officer was a little crusty around the edges, but he was damned good at his job. He’d been all over the Commonwealth and served on everything from gunboats to the latest and greatest assault carriers. He’d been married three times, divorced twice, and his third wife was currently MIA. Not in the military sense of the term, she’d just run off one day and the Chief came home from a deployment to an empty apartment.
Thankfully, after wife number one he’d learned to keep his MWFAS account information to himself. So now, the average height, slightly large in the midsection CPO was finishing out his assignment on this gunboat before heading into retirement.
“Nothing but white sandy beaches, drinks with those little umbrellas in them, and lovely ladies to keep me company.” The Chief had shared his plans over drinks, which only made the rest of the trip a little harder for Ben.
Because the second thing that had happened after he familiarized himself with his crew and his ship was that Sarah had broken it off.
<She did not even have the decency to do it to my face.>
His PAD had chimed at the beginning of the duty day after launching away from Asgard, and a short message from Commander Wythe, not Sarah, had come through ending things. She listed not having enough time to spend together, and the needs of her new command as the primary reasons, but Ben couldn’t stop a nagging suspicion in the back of his mind.
She’d been totally uninterested in him beyond basic superior-subordinate professionalism up until his deal with Rear Admiral Helms. Then she’d become interested, helped him prepare, gotten close, and ended up getting out of the personnel department by doing god knows what at his family’s Memorial Day party.
<No.> He shook his head to clear all the negative emotions. <I looked in her eyes. We slept together and laughed together. It is not possible she faked all of it just to get ahead.>
Still, the doubt persisted, so he concentrated on what came next.
“Transition in three minutes, I say again, transition in three minutes.” A voice announced over the intercom. “All hands, battlestations.”
“Battlestations?” Ben looked around with confusion as he grabbed his helmet and shoved it on his head.
It was a formfitting design, engineered to take up the least amount of space, with a clear armorplast visor that doubled as a HUD. He felt it pop into place and his smart-cloth CMUs automatically formed a neck gator to completely seal his body in. If Fortitude got ambushed coming out of FTL, which was every skippers’ worst nightmare, then Ben would be able to avoid death-by-vacuum for a few hours. The helmet had a small oxygen canister built into it, but it would only buy time, and that was only if the CMU’s integrity wasn’t violated by shrapnel. Then, he’d be dead in minutes.
“Book says you don’t have to be at battlestations when transitioning into a friendly system, but this is the Rim, so better safe than sorry.” Chief Yates placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder, automatically creating a TACCOM link between them.
“That makes sense. Commander Wythe is very good at her job.” It was meant to be a compliment, but it came out cold and stiff.
The CPO wisely didn’t comment.
“Transition in one minute.” The intercom continued to count down.
“Lieutenant Briggs, report Argo’s readiness for transition.” Ben sat back and waited for his XO to answer.
Truthfully, he should have been on his ship and not sitting useless on the cruiser’s bridge. He didn’t know why Sarah had asked him up here in the first place.
“Skipper, Argo is green for transition.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Ben cut the line, and was thankful for the millionth time that Briggs was a competent officer.
He’d learned in the last week that one of the most important parts of being a skipper was to ensure you had a top-notch XO. A good XO was invaluable. A good XO and CPO was hitting the lottery.
“Transition in three…two…one…”
Ben felt the jerk as Fortitude went from faster than light speed to cruising at several kilometers per second. Sarah had cut the ship’s speed down to nearly nothing so they could make a quicker changeover through the system.
The holo-tank slowly expanded the one light minute bubble around the ship as they started to coast into the system.
“Ma’am, I’m picking up Commonwealth comms drones.” The communications OIC identified a few icons in the growing eighteen-million-kilometer bubble around them.
“Interesting.” Sarah was sitting in her command chair with a pensive look on her pretty face. “Check their queues to see if there are any pre-programmed…” Just then the holo-tank chirped as two contacts came into range.
Ben was halfway across the bridge, but he saw the icons in the tank: BB 112 Lancelot and BB 115 Galahad. Both were registering blue, friendly transponders.
<What are two battleships doing out here in a middle of nowhere junction system.> Ben didn’t have time to puzzle out why.
“Fortitude Actual, this is Lancelot Actual, over.” A tense voice announced itself over TACCOM.
“I read you five by five, Lancelot Actual. What’s with the welcome committee?” Sarah asked back, her face glued to the holo-tank.
“Fortitude, change course immediately to niner-zero and go to emergency power.”
“Lancelot…” Sarah was about to protest but a burst of STRATNET data from the pair of battleships updated the tank, and it became obvious why the battleship’s skipper wanted them to haul ass.
“Data received, Lancelot, but we can’t just run off with our tail between our legs. We’re escorting the supply ship Beans and Bullets. They’ve got a battalion of troops along with fuel for the atmospheric exchangers still going on New Lancashire, and tons of food and raw materials. We can’t just leave them.”
“Beans and Bullets has the same information as you, Fortitude. They’re changing course and pulling their max acceleration. Match speed if you want, but be prepared to fight.”
“This is Liberty Actual,” the other Virtue-Class cruiser captain broke into the conversation. “We’re sticking with Fortitude to pull security for Beans and Bullets. Looks like we’ve got reinforcements coming in behind you, Lancelot.”
Liberty was right. Ben saw two FTL footprints on the holo-tank. The one to Fortitude’s port was much larger than the one to Lancelot’s stern, but every energy cannon and missile counted when it came to a fleet engagement.
Ben suppressed the surge of fear and dread that tried to escape, and turned it into a gulp. Whatever was about to happen it could get bloody.
<It all depends on who they are and what acceleration they pull once they exit FTL.> He did some mental calculations, and enemy forces transitioning at even a moderate rate of speed would put Fortitude, Liberty, and Beans and Bullets in a tight situation.
Currently, they were a little under ten million kilometers from the Commonwealth battleships. The presumably friendly FTL signature was another million kilometers behind Lancelot, and the one everyone was nervous about was thirty-fiving million kilometers to the stern of Fortitude’s new heading and negative to the elliptical. The biggest missiles in the battleships’ tubes had a maximum range of eight million kilometers. Everything below a battleship had smaller missiles with a five-million-kilometer range.
Ben was still doing some mental math when a new icon popped onto the screen.
“FTL signature!” Fortitude’s navigation OIC shouted into the already stressed bridge. “Five-zero million kilometers at elliptical bearing two-five-five, designated Delta.”
“This system’s starting to get a little crowded for my taste.” The CPO sitting next to Ben looked calm, but his frown lines betrayed his anxiety.
“Let’s get back to Argo.” Ben and the Chief both got to their feet.
“Lieutenant Commander Gold.” Sarah’s voice popped into his head over a private link. “Your orders are to take the Argo and make all due haste to New Lancashire. The Commonwealth cannot lose this junction system. Apprise them of the situation and return with reinforcements.” Her voice sounded detached as she relayed the orders.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Ben matched her tone. “Happy hunting.”
“Ben…” there was a slight pause and a crack in her professional demeanor. “Be careful.”
“You too, Ma’am.” Ben thawed his tone, but remained professional. She’d made it clear it was over, and he wasn’t going to stick his toes back in only to get hurt again.
He cut the link and hustled off the bridge with Chief Yates not far behind. Thankfully, the corridors of warships, even Argo, were designed with big people in mind, but the hatches were another deal. He had to duck through each of them, and in his haste, he’d smacked his head once or twice.
“Make a hole people!” Chief Yates roared in the way only a senior NCO could, and people parted to let him and Ben through.
“Lieutenant, warm her up! We’re out of here as soon as we get the green light from Fortitude.”
“Yeah, I figured, Sir.” The XO must have been watching the gunboat’s holo-tank because her voice was stressed too.
“Yes, Commander Gold.” The ship answered.
After the break up, Ben wasn’t going to have the ship constantly remind him of the woman who’d tossed him aside for whatever reason. After five minutes digging around in the ship’s settings menu he’d not only changed the name, but the voice of the Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface. So, instead of it reminding him of the woman he’d grown close to, now it sounded like an older English gentleman who’d been present for most of his life. Having Geoffrey present, if only in spirit, helped Ben’s mood significantly.
“What is an ETA on getting all of our systems up?”
“Sir, it will only require three minutes for the reactor to come online from standby mode. Another two minutes and all essential systems will be green. Secondary systems will require another five minutes.”
“Weapons charging has commenced. Missiles are already in the tubes, but charging will take seven minutes.”
“Fortitude Actual, Argo Actual, over.” Ben cut his link to the ship and opened one to the bridge.
Sarah’s voice was beyond stressed now.
“Argo will be ready to depart in five minutes.”
“Make it three, Argo. Or you’re going to get caught in the middle of this. Fortitude, out.”
“I heard, Sir. On your authorization, I can bypass minor protocols and reduce the reactor initiation to two minutes and thirty-five seconds and can initiate other essential systems in-flight.”
“Do it.” Ben’s head rebounded when he didn’t duck low enough, but he kept on going. Three minutes was barely enough time to get back to the gunboat.
They made it in two minutes and fifteen seconds. The flight deck was clear and the gunboat’s engines were already emitting the blue-white glow of engines ready to manipulate gravity to their human master’s will. One marine guard stood waiting at the entrance hatch in full Dragonscale Armor.
“Let’s go!” The outer hatch hissed shut behind the three men, and the interior slammed shut with finality.
“Yes, Sir.” Spacer Apprentice Silas Gilbert, Argo’s helmsman, answered. Thankfully, despite his junior rank, the former Rat from New York’s lower-city was a hell of a lot better at piloting the gunboat than Ben.
“Get us out of here.”
Ben felt the docking clamps disengage a second before the rumble of the retracting flight deck nearly made him smash his head into another bulkhead as he and the Chief rushed through marine country and up toward the bridge. They pushed into the much smaller, but still identical setup to Fortitude’s bridge just as Argo dropped out of the cruiser’s belly and engaged its engines.
“The skipper has command.” Lieutenant Briggs’ relief was obvious as Ben passed through the thick, marine-guarded hatch and into the bridge.
“I have command.” Ben took his proper position at the command chair and looked at the holo-tank.
“Helm, set course to one-zero, and go to full power.”
“Aye, Sir. Course one-zero, full power.”
Ben didn’t feel the gunboat accelerate, but he started to see it on the holo-tank. Gunboats were some of the fastest ships in the fleet, they were small, lightweight, and with an overpowered engine designed to allow them to use their speed to get out of sticky situation. The situation Argo was in was one of the stickiest.
The holo-tank had updated FTL footprint Bravo when the ships transitioned, and it was now reading the ugly red icons of Blockie warships. Specifically, three battleships and a pair of destroyers. If it was two and two it would have been better odds for the Commonwealth, but the additional tonnage of a third battleship gave the Blockies a decisive edge.
“FTL emergence!” Corporal Diez, the infantry grunt cross training with the Fleet, and Argo’s single-person navigation department, yelled out.
You could tell the almost NCO was used to yelling “grenade” instead of tactical information.
“Charlie has transitioned.” The icons were gray for a few seconds until they picked up the transponders and turned blue.
The holo-tank updated with the new information: DD 547 Barton and DD 783 Nightingale.
Ben did the math. <Two battleships, two cruisers, and two destroyers. That’s ninety-four energy cannons and five hundred and seventy missiles per salvo.> It was a respectable amount of offensive firepower, but it still came up short.
He didn’t know the specifics of the Blockie ship classes, but a general assumption would be six hundred and forty missiles per salvo and one hundred energy cannons between the three battleships and two destroyers. None of these calculations took into account Argo’s four missiles and three lasers. Argo might be the biggest and baddest gunboat in the galaxy but it was insignificant compared to the two task force sized elements heading toward each other.
More mental math told him that there was going to be blood. Fortitude, Liberty, and Beans and Bullets weren’t going to be able to escape. Carrying nearly no acceleration over from FTL had them starting the race from a dead stop. The Blockie force had come out of FTL at a sprint and was gaining. The good news was that the two cruisers would rendezvous with the battleships and newly arrived destroyers before it happened, and be able to screen the supply ship as a single fighting wall before they got overwhelmed.
Not that Argo would be there to see it. They’d be in an Alcubierre bubble before the shooting started, and most likely back after it finished.
Ben felt happy his little ship wasn’t going to be there to get blown apart, and ashamed that he felt any happiness. For all he knew Sarah and a sizable chunk of the Commonwealth Fleet in York sector were about to get wiped off the map.
<You can’t do anything.> He told himself over the next hour as his gunboat drew closer to the FTL jump point and the two task forces closed on each other. <Follow your orders. Get help.>
It didn’t help that the Delta FTL contact had dropped an unidentified warship in the assault carrier tonnage category slightly under fifty million kilometers from the two task forces, and they weren’t responding to anyone’s hails. It was just sitting there and watching.
“Skipper, three-zero seconds to Alcubierre jump.” SA Gilbert announced.
“All hands, prepare for FTL jump.”
A wail went through the gunboat, and Ben plopped down in his command chair and strapped in. Jumping into FTL could be a little bumpy, especially on a smaller ship.
“STRATNET coordinates inputted. We have a lock on New Lancashire’s buoys. Transitioning in three…two…one…”
Argo leapt away from System 1552 at faster than light speeds as the Commonwealth and Blockie forces closed into attack range.