Location: CWS Fortitude, Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Transition in five minutes, Sir.”
“Thank you, Helm.” Ben was sitting ramrod straight in his command chair with his eyes fixated on the blank holo-bubble.
He’d been like that for the last half hour of the nearly half a day long FTL journey to New Lancashire. Outwardly, he was trying to remain cool and collected for his crew’s sake, but what Ben had really been doing was fighting the urge to chew his fingernails. It was a bad habit he’d picked up as a kid, and his father had smacked his hand every time he saw him doing it. Still, it was a nervous tick, and an action not becoming of a gunboat captain running for help.
“Three, minutes, Sir.”
Ben found his hand unconsciously moving toward his mouth and he returned it to the arm of his command chair. The holo-bubble was the blank white it always was in an Alcubierre Bubble. So far, no one had found a way to detect anything outside the bubble while inside it, nor figured out how to attack a ship traveling in it, which meant it was one of the few times in space travel when you were safe.
“One minute, Sir.”
“XO, battlestations please.” Ben ordered and heard the loud claxon blaring as the alert spread through the ship.
The Argo’s crew of twenty souls had been ready for the last twenty minutes, but the wailing claxon gave piece of mind to everyone aboard, especially after what they’d run into back in system 1552.
The bridge crew of the gunboat was already suited up with sealed CMUs and helmets. Everyone was on an independent oxygen source in the event of extreme and sudden decompression from something exploding. Ben looked around and spent the last minute visually verifying that everyone was good to go. It was unnecessary, but it helped with the nerves.
The bridge of the Argo was a miniaturized version of other warships in the Commonwealth’s arsenal. It had its dedicated stations to the fundamental departments of naval warfighting, and each of those stations was manned. Since the crew of the Argo was small, and space on the bridge was limited, a lot of the crew ended up pulling double duty.
Spacer Apprentice Gilbert was on the helm. Once they dropped out of FTL, he’d be encased in a digital sphere of information not that dissimilar from Ben’s tactical holo-bubble. The helms station didn’t have the same range as the one light minute tactical station, but it was enough for the young spacer to have time to enter commands into the console to avoid hitting anything, or plot a course by touch and feel. Ben didn’t miss his training on the helm. He didn’t have a knack for it.
Corporal Diez was at his navigation terminal double and triple checking the FTL buoys Argo was honing in on. Without those buoys to mark the end of the valley between the star in System 1552 and New Lancashire’s star they could end up dropping out of Alcubierre in the wrong system, or in the right system, but billions of kilometers in the wrong direction. Since time was of the essence, they wanted to avoid that at all costs.
“I’ve got a good lock on STRATNET.” Diez confirmed as the clock ticked down to their transition. “Navigation reports ready for transition.”
Chief Yates sat manning the weapons station. His fingers danced over the controls that controlled the gunboat’s modest armaments. The spacer in charge of weapons on a gunboat had one of the toughest jobs in the navy. On a regular warship an OIC or a small team commanded the overall weapons picture from the bridge, but individual weapon’s crews refined targeting solutions, troubleshot problems on the spot during combat, and even did repairs and manual loading if necessary. On a gunboat, it was just one man or woman dealing with all the ship’s cannons, missile launchers, targeting data, and any corrections that needed to be made in the heat of battle. Ben was lucky to have an NCOIC with a weapons specialty.
“Weapons is ready for transition.” The CPO gave an extra thumb up so Ben could see.
“Engineering is ready for transition.” SP3 McKinnie reported from the rear of the ship.
That meant that him, Spacer Aiko Lee, and the two maintenance hands, one spacer and one spacer apprentice, were ready to fix anything that broke.
“Communications is ready for transition, Sir.” SP2 Olvera called out.
The SP2 had a prerecorded message ready to transmit the moment they exited FTL. Ben had recorded it himself, and added the sensor data that Argo had captured before transitioning out of the contested system. He hoped by doing the equivalent of screaming for help the moment they entered New Lancashire space they’d be able to get reinforcements to the system as soon as possible.
“Sir, all stations report ready for transition.” LT Briggs who had assumed the operations OIC position informed Ben.
As the Argo’s captain, Ben handled all tactical decisions, so the XO’s job in battle on a gunboat was primarily to coordinate damage control and being ready to jump in wherever else the skipper needed them. Usually, command teams had a little more time to get their bearings before something like this happened, so Argo’s was learning on the fly.
The whole process was a little too by the book when it came to something as simple as an FTL transition, but Ben wanted his crew on point. The brown stuff was already hitting the fan, and he wanted more than blinking green lights to indicate his people were ready for action.
“Transition in three…two…one…”
Ben felt the typical jerk of an Alcubierre Bubble disintegrating and a warship dropping back into normal space.
“Message broadcasting on all military channels, skipper.” SP2 Olvera informed as Argo began to squawk to anyone nearby.
Ben watched the holo-bubble slowly expand over the next minute until he had an eighteen million kilometer view of the space around him. What he saw surprised him.
“Argo, this is Gawain Actual. Message received. Please change course to two-eight-zero, and follow approach vector to dock with Honest Abe, over.
Ben spotted the Knight Class Battleship marked BB 118 Gawain on the holo-bubble about ten million kilometers away near a newly constructed Alcubierre Launcher. Argo’s silicon brain told Ben she was the same class of warship as the two battleships engaging in System 1552.
While CWS Gawain looked to be running a patrol, Argo’s destination, identified on the holo-bubble as CV 62 Abraham Lincoln looked to be stationary in space between the launcher and the planet where most of the system’s traffic was clustered around.
What Ben didn’t recognize, and Argo’s computer system also failed to classify, was a large gray icon floating about ten thousand kilometers away from Abraham Lincoln.
“Geoffrey, what the hell is that?” Ben asked.
“That is an unidentified ship, Lieutenant Commander Gold.” Argo’s semi-intelligent ship interface did a good job of sounding confused. “Ship design is unknown, but a passive scan shows it would sit between an assault carrier and a battleship in terms of sheer tonnage. Weapons unknown, disposition unknown. Proceed with caution, Captain.”
That was exactly what Ben intended to do.
“Abraham Lincoln, this is Argo actual. Challenge code romeo-delta-six-six-niner.” Ben pulled the information from memory and sent the challenge over TACCOM to the assault carrier.
In the event a warship was boarded and overtaken without any outward signs of a battle, a captain could challenge the other captain with a simple code phrase. Each captain was required to memorize two responses. One response was an “everything is fine” response. The other was an “in distress” response. It was a simple, but secure way for a ship to not get blown out of space by a presumably friendly warship.
“Argo, reply Charlie-foxtrot- two-eight-seven-five.” The information came over TACCOM at the same time and showed Ben everything was fine.
“Good copy, Abraham Lincoln. Anyone want to tell me what that unidentified warship is doing sitting off your starboard bow within knife range?”
“Argo, approach along vector one-one, bay seven is yours. Come aboard and find out.”
Argo’s holo-table updated from the carrier’s STRATNET data and the gray, unidentified icon shifted. It now read FRIENDLY/NONHOSTILE, and below that, HMS Francis Drake.
Vector one-one took Argo in on the carrier’s port side and shielded it from what was clearly a warship from the Star Kingdom of Windsor. That realization just made Ben that much more excited to get off his little gunboat and onto the much larger carrier.
<I may actually be able to engage in some diplomacy on this deployment after all.> The thoughts had him pacing back and forth as the gunboat pulled into one of the ten bays designed to hold the carrier’s compliment of ten hundred-meter warships.
Thanks to Argo’s larger size she barely fit.
“Permission to come aboard?” Ben hopped down from the hatch and onto the flight deck.
Ben and officer of the deck, a young-looking lieutenant, exchanged a brief salute. Ben also saluted the Commonwealth Flag hanging at the front of the bay, before turning to LT Briggs.
“Top off the exotic matter tanks. If we need to make another run I want us fully loaded. Have Sergeant O’Neil get with the carrier’s marine detachment and get caught up on how business is done around here.”
“Aye, Sir.” The LT spun around on her heel and disappeared back into the gunboat.
“Sir, if you’d follow me.” The deck officer led Ben out of the bay, to a lift, up a dozen decks, and then on a several hundred meter walk to a large conference room.
The conference room was clearly meant to impress, and the large amount of food and drink made Ben keenly aware that he was arriving in the middle of something. His social training set off warning bells from the moment he stepped into the room in field CMUs he’d been in for hours.
“Lieutenant Commander Gold.” The man who called his name was pretty average looking aside from the four golden stripes down his CMUs. They were on a dress setting, and if medals and ribbons weighed anything he might have fallen forward from the sheer weight of his hardware.
“Sir.” Ben braced to attention as Rear Admiral Nelson approached him with another man in tow.
The other man was much taller than the Commonwealth officer, but not quite as tall as Ben. His uniform was a mix of black and red, with a fair amount of gold embroidery. Ben noticed the starbursts on the man’s cuffs, which matched the one on his collar and shoulder, but couldn’t associate it with any rank without more information. The other officer’s left breast didn’t have ribbons like Task Force 33.4’s commander, but was comprised entirely of real medals, not holographic images of ones projected by the smart fabric.
“Lieutenant Commander, this is Lord Captain Joseph Churchill , Fourth Duke of New Oxfordshire, Commander of the Francis Drake, and representative of Her Majesty the Queen.” The look on RADM’s face, a face the Lord Captain couldn’t see, clearly showed the RADM thought all the title stuff was complete bullshit.
But Ben didn’t. He knew those titles meant everything to a member of the Star Kingdom’s High Nobility.
“Your Grace.” Ben gave the Duke a courteous bow.
He might be a ship’s captain, but Ben knew the title that mattered was the peerage.
“Any relation to Winston Churchill?” It was exactly the right question to ask.
Ben had looked at the pre-Commonwealth British Prime Minister’s picture during his studies at Oxford. Despite the weight and height difference between the two Churchill’s, there was still a glimmer of familial resemblance. Despite many generations, the Duke still had the chin and shape of his ancestor’s stern face.
“Indeed I am.” The Duke practically beamed. “He is my twelve times grandfather.” The noble ignored the Nelson in favor of Ben, something the RADM seemed to appreciate.
“I am fascinated by him and his tremendous job as prime minister during World War II. I studied his legacy while studying at Oxford myself.”
“That old place is still standing.” There was a wishful look in the Duke’s eyes; like he wished to see it one day. But it quickly vanished. “We recreated the university from the original blueprints on Windsor, and have made substantial improvements ever since. I would contend that our Oxford University is the finest university in the galaxy.”
The dig was subtle, but Ben heard it. <Our new university is better than your old university.>
Ben made sure to not mention that the Gold family had bought Blenheim Palace. The country estate in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England was the former seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. If the Commonwealth hadn’t dissolved the English nobility, Joseph Churchill would be the twenty-something Duke of Marlborough.
<Your university might be new and shiny, but I own your house now.> Was not a very diplomatic thing to say.
“Lieutenant Commander Gold,” the RADM interrupted them. “Lord Captain Churchill arrived with news only a few hours before you. The Royal Navy sent one of their dreadnaughts to System 1552 to investigate Blockie aggression there. Their orders were to assist Commonwealth units in defense of the system.”
“Did Horatio Nelson arrive at the battlefield in time?”
“We had another FTL contact as my ship was leaving, Gentlemen. But I am unaware of the specific nature of that contact.”
“I am confident it was Nelson.” The Lord Captain waved away Ben’s worries. “Together with your ships I am assured that our forces will emerge victorious.”
“And to check on the status, I sent Yawin to investigate while the Lord Captain has graciously agreed to remain on station with his dreadnaught.”
“It is no trouble, Rear Admiral.” A glass of wine had appeared in the Duke’s hand, and he raised it to the senior officer. “My orders are to establish diplomatic relations, and I can think of no greater way than to assist a friend in need.”
There was a lot more said in that statement than what was on the surface, and from his look, Ben knew Admiral Nelson knew that just as well as him. Despite the expertly congealed tension in the room, Ben felt more alive than ever before.
<This is what I want to do.> He might be a warship captain, but he knew he was built for interstellar diplomacy. <Now’s my time to prove it.>