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fiction fridays 10 · "Command Prologue" by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

First, Second Installments. Third Installment.

 
Command Prologue by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
 (continued)
 
 

“Third Officer, this is your wake-up call,” the voice said.

“I’m awake,” I replied.

“It is ShipTime 2230. You are due on the bridge in one hour. The uniform of the day is khaki. Have you completed your dispatches for the next messenger?”

“Yes, Yeoman. They’re filed.”

“Very good, sir. Good morning.”

Good morning. Yeah, right. Sigh. Oh well, time to climb out of this damned suit. I looked over to the other bed. Mark was in quarters, too, with the covers pulled over his head so my wake-up wouldn’t disturb his sleep. Such is the glamour of life in Fleet, I told myself.

I stretched stiffly, then unfastened the black suit and began to peel it off. Compartments for officers, even on a huge ship like the Serrano, are not very big. Standing in my shorts and tank top, I immediately hung the suit up on its peg and slid it into the closet.

Unencumbered by the suit and somewhat refreshed, I did several stretching routines and no longer felt any stiffness. I peeled off my clothes and clad only in my ID sliver, stepped into the mini-shower. It is amazing how much you can wash with less than two minutes of water.

Stepping back into the compartment, I was confronted by my dark nakedness in the mirror on the back of the door. I once studied engineering and dance on The Moon, so I was certainly not unattractive, as long as a male viewer held no prejudices against the color of my skin or the kink in my hair. This body was certainly in shape, with a generous but not excessive amount of the extra curves that ‘separate the women from the boys’, as my mother would say.

Sharing a compartment with a male officer was per regulation. The assignments are based on position only -- Third and Fourth Officers room together. Command Officers simply are too busy to worry about anything besides sleep when at home.

The uniform of the day for me was khaki. I decided on the crisp straight skirt, in deference to tradition. Of course, tradition always meets up with technology when in space -- this skirt wouldn’t ride up under zero-gee but always hung straight. Now all I had to do was find the time to brush out my hair and then get it stuffed back up into a bun or something.

Dressed for success, as they say in the manual, I was ready to head off to the bridge.

“Third Officer entering the Command Center,” the vocal box said, as I stepped into the always-same brightness of the bridge.

There were many voices coming from the open doors of the Captain’s Office, but hardly any people on the bridge itself. The Sixth Officer had the conn in a suit. She waved as I went by. The Captain’s traditional Chinese food fest on the eve of deployment was set up and everyone was eating. Captain Lucas himself sat at his desk with his feet propped up, busily working chopsticks on his rice bowl.

“Ah, Three, you’re up early,” the Captain observed. “You’ll take us out at 0000 hours.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Oh, and you’ll be Second Officer then. Two is being sent out on the next messenger. Remember to get your uniforms updated -- second officers must be lieutenant commanders or higher,” he added with a wink.

The instant promotion shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Command Officers are expected to be flexible and adaptive. I joined the Serrano as Fifth Officer and have been through shifts before. But this put me in the “brain trust”. We were going to war, whatever that meant, and I was right in the middle. Where I really wanted to be, I had to admit.

“Thank you, sir,” I managed to answer him, sounding far more calm than I felt. “I’ll be ready.”

“You’ll do fine, Sam.”

***

“Tactical, where’s that inbound shuttle?” I asked, not looking up from the command screen.

“ETA under one minute.”

“Six, I want low power on the main engines in one minute.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bridge, last shuttle aboard,” Hangar 7 reported.

“Helm,” I said, “Begin departure sequence. Set target base course for Pica N9.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Main engines on minimum ascent curve,” the Sixth Officer reported.

At last we had indication of real motion. Various screens showed jumbles of rapidly changing numbers as the power and our velocity began to come up.

“500 kilometers,” Navigation reported.

“Passing through escape velocity,” added the Helm.

“Five percent on the main engines,” I called.

“Gravity compensating,” came a voice from somewhere.

“Engines answering. All levels nominal,” Six reported. “Mass reduced on schedule.”

“Ten percent on the main engines,” I continued.

“Drop report!” Tactical called out. “Inbound type 60. Light cone ETA 2 hours.”

Navigation turned to me, “Do we return to orbit, sir?”

“Fifteen percent on the main engines,” I said in reply.

“Should I report to the Captain?” Navigation persisted.

“I have the conn, Navigator,” I replied coolly. “The Captain has the drop tank report. I want to put those two hours to the best use I can.”

“Uh, aye-aye, sir.”

“Two,” the Captain called in. “Do you have a fix on our company?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, reading the latest screens. “Type 60. From our Fleet records, most likely the Burgoyne, the Regency or the Tartar.”

“Ah-ha. What’s your opinion?”

“If I were to make a wager,” I guessed, “They’re playing star tag on the way to Pica. And making sure we’ve deployed on time.”

“My thoughts exactly. Carry on, Two.”

Smiling, I carried on, “Twenty-five percent main engines.”

The unknown inbound starship was most likely not planning to slow down, but rather make a brief contact and then swing around the star at near-light speed just like the messenger ship did.

Speaking of messenger ships, “Hangar 2, prepare to launch Messenger T-7 in ten minutes. Your countdown. Tell the pilot he is authorized to ping the inbound warship.”

“Aye-aye, Bridge.”

“Bring us up to forty percent on the main engines.”

“Engines answering, forty percent.”

“Doppler on the sensors.”

That report told me our speed, though only the tiniest fraction of the speed of light, was now sufficient the shipboard systems had to start compensating for the forward blue shift in the outside world and the red shift aft.

“Jinking, sir.”

“All right. Continue to monitor it. Keep the deflectors on stand-by,” I reminded.

There is always debris in space, especially in solar systems and most especially near planets. Once clear of a planet, we would deal with most of the debris by either disintegration or shoving it out of the way. But this close in, our course was plotted around the larger pieces and the computers were programmed to make small jinks and jogs around the medium ones. Small debris got soaked up in a low level deceleration field and would be disposed of later to minimize interference with local navigation, or even avoid creating navigational or planetary hazards. Occasionally a small satellite would get caught up in our collection of ‘rocks’ and it could be re-injected into orbit or otherwise returned in our wake.

Twenty minutes out I put us on eighty percent main engines. Shortly after that the main deflectors went on. Our progress slicing across this solar system would be fairly straight forward with no appreciable local traffic. Only the inbound warship and us, and our outbound messenger flight which should pass the warship soon. We could’ve played star tag, but given the geometry of the situation, diving into the sun and whipping around held no advantage in either time or fuel. So our course took pretty much a straight line to Pica.

The Exec retired to his cabin and the Captain stayed in his office. And the new Second Officer sat in the Command Chair, immensely pleased with herself.

At ShipTime 0211, we received our first message.

“Message received from inbound Fleet warship, sir. It’s a single character -- the letter ‘R’. That would make it the Burgoyne, sir.”

“Thank you. Captain, we have a single letter contact with the Burgoyne. From the options matrix, the letter ‘R’ means they will be tagging up on the star and heading out ahead of us,” I informed him.

“Very good. I’ll contact the Exec. Bring us up to ninety percent and transmit the single letter ‘N’. That should be enough message for Fergie,” the Captain chuckled. He was obviously familiar with Captain Ferguson of the U.S.F.S. Burgoyne. Throttling up was apparently his way of acknowledging more than the coded message ‘Serrano understands and is on her way.’

“Comm, I need a tight link on the Burgoyne’s EPOA, send the single letter ‘N’, no call sign, no signature, no compliments,” I instructed.

“Aye-aye, sir. Tight one-shot at EPOA, block ‘N’.”

EPOA was Estimated Position on Arrival. The computers had to figure out where the Burgoyne would be to intercept a very tightly beamed message so the message would not continue radiating past them. That prevented eavesdropping. On the other hand, the Burgoyne was moving at ninety-five percent the speed of light falling toward the sun and its velocity was changing. Since the message would take time to get there, the EPOA was based on standard practice for an inbound warship and it depended on the Burgoyne following that profile. We fully expected it to work, at least this time. Once we regularly engaged in battles, the EPOA’s profiles would be out the window as too predictable. Then one would face the challenge that at a time one most needed to send tight secure messages, they would be least likely to make it.

“That’s probably the last time EPOA will work right for a long time,” the Captain observed, as if he was reading my mind.

I was startled to see him in front of me. I had missed the vocal box announcing him on the bridge, absorbed in my thoughts, staring at the command screens.

“Sir!” I said and stood.

“Sit down,” he instructed, sitting himself down at my left. That was the Second Officer’s chair, my chair now, but the Captain was leaving me with the conn.

“Now,” he continued. “Where are we in this deployment?”

I showed him on the screens where we were and reported on our status.

“I’d like to take us back down to eighty-five percent, if I could,” I suggested at the end.

“Oh yes, I agree, Two,” the Captain said. “Fergie should have seen us light up.”

“Helm, throttle down to eighty-five percent on the main engines,” I said loudly.

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“So how is my new Second Officer holding up at the conn?” the Captain asked quietly.

I nodded with some satisfaction. “The Second Officer is holding up quite well.”

“Does war agree with her?”

“I’d hardly say we were at war, at least at this point. I’d say that the Serrano has not yet been tested, nor do I think Fleet has been tested. This is a point of concern.”

“Agreed. Next, we need to get down to basics here. It is refresher course time, and I shall explain to you what the Exec and I expect of you and what your duties as Second shall be.”

It was a very pleasant chat. I kept the conn for the rest of the watch.

***

“Second Officer wake-up call. Captain wants you on the bridge.”

“I’m awake,” I replied.

“There’s a uniform set out for you on the ready shelf.”

“Which is where?” I inquired of the helpful Yeoman’s voice.

“By the door.”

“Ah, I see it. Thank you.”

Second Officer. Well, it wasn’t a dream. Nor was this single compartment a dream. I nodded in contentment and rose from my bed. No real time to get ready, although I could get used to having yeomen around who set things out for me.

The ready shelf contained a plain khaki pant suit. Easily put on. Just toss off this shirt, hmmm, which drawer has underwear? Ah! One minute to dress, pull my hair back with a clip, out the door.

***

Thirteen days to reach Jump speed. Fourteen more days in jumpspace, with an elapsed time back in real space of zero. Eight thousand crewmen sent into hybe during that time. I should have joined the other officers in some time equalization, too -- but not on this Jump. We had new priorities.

Drop Day. ShipTime 1530, inbound to Pica, faster-than-light. For this one time, the three of us at the top of the Command chain, myself, the Captain and the Exec, were all seated together at the Command Console. The Captain was monitoring his screens, waiting for the right moment to end the FTL Jump. I was observing the image in the drop tank sweep out the patterns of mass and motion, when I picked out the one tiny contrail which hadn’t yet been assigned a tag.

Pointing to the screen, I leaned over to the Captain, “Looks like we have information when we get in.”

“Uh-huh. Presumably we’ll know more from Fleet about how the war is going,” he commented. Then he straightened up. “Well, time to get to work again. Helm, stand by to drop into normal space.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

A klaxon sounded throughout the ship.

“ALL HANDS, ALL HANDS -- PREPARE TO DROP INTO NORMAL SPACE.”

“Lower the potential fields. Take us to the edge, mister.”

A gradual sinking feeling pulled down on us. The drop tank screen flattened as we neared its imaginary surface.

“Final drop tank scan.”

The horizon of the drop tank panned around on two axes while the computers scanned near and far space in detail for the last time.

“On my mark... drop!”

The world wrenched from underneath us. It felt sudden, but the progress on the drop tank was much smoother, like sinking in molasses. Fore and aft screens blazed with the artificial blue and red tinted scenes. We were back into space, stars and all, albeit at well over ninety-nine percent the speed of light.

“Main engines, minus ninety-five percent power, in one minute.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Drop tank report! Probable messenger ship inbound, 87 degrees starboard.”

“Very good.”

“At our vectors, maybe an hour to possible contact.”

“Tactical, I want an update on the planetary system as soon as you can. I know it’s hard at this speed -- just do it.”

“Bridge, Engineering. Main engines coming on-line, spooling up to minus ninety-five percent power.”

“Excellent. Well gentlemen -- all in all, I’d say that this jump was a good...”

“Drop tank report, sir!” a frightened voice came in. “Unknown contact. Repeat. Unknown contact. Computer continues to reject signature. But it’s big.”

“WHERE!?”

“137 degrees starboard, inbound. Inline with third planet.”

The Exec leaned forward and looked at me, very concerned, “I didn’t see anything in the tank.”

“Neither did I,” I replied, my throat tightening, now seeing the expanding ripple afterimage of the drop.

“It’s too damn early,” the Captain muttered.

“Do you want to jump? Abandon the burn?” the Exec asked.

“No, dammit,” the Captain swore. “We need fuel to jump and fight.”

“Drop tank report, the messenger’s jumped. He’s running.”

“Well, at least that solves one problem.”

“If the unknown tags the star,” I calculated, “He’ll be here in twenty minutes. Whether we continue the main engine burn or not.”

“We’re not ready. Not ready for two near-light flights head to head,” the Captain complained. He stood up. “Gentlemen, we prepare to fight. Continue the burn -- I want him to know exactly where we are. And we need the time, dammit.”

“Deploy the drones?”

“Negative,” the Captain shook his head. “There isn’t time. And I don’t want to hide from him. I want to distract him.”

“Distract him?”

“From the planet. He’s on course for an attack.”

“Oh,” breathed the Exec.

“Two, you have the conn. The Exec and I will take Combat and give you your options. You’ll ride it in, Sam,” the Captain ordered.

I smiled, “Gee, thanks, Captain.”

“Don’t mention it. Come on, One,” the Captain said, then stopped. “Who do you want in Auxiliary, Two?”

“Mark. He’s the best,” I replied, as I sat down into the Command Chair.

“Good choice. Sound General Quarters. Announce we are inbound to probably bad-guy. This is for real,” the Captain told the Communications yeoman as he and the first officer strode back into Combat.

“ALL HANDS ON DECK, ALL HANDS ON DECK. GENERAL QUARTERS, GENERAL QUARTERS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. WE ARE INBOUND TO PROBABLE BAD-GUY. ALL PERSONNEL TO YOUR STATIONS,” the voice announced over the red alert siren. “PREPARE FOR BATTLE.”

“Three, report to Auxiliary Center. On the double,” I called out.

“Bridge, I’m on my way,” came the reply.

Officers began to stream onto the bridge and took up their stations. Several I directed to join the Third Officer. Split up the command structure in case of disaster.

“Six, I need a report on the integrity field generators. Like, now!” I ordered.

“Helm, maintain course and power,” I remembered to add. “Tactical, I want green lights from all weapons stations in three minutes.”

I took a breath, staring at the drop tank screen at my own chair’s console. Why the hell hadn’t the unknown shown up before?

“Drop tank, I want you to dump the tapes just prior to the end of our jump. Why didn’t we see this bad-guy? I want a report in five minutes. Maybe ten.” I found myself chewing on an index finger and stopped. “Relativity, what are we running, about thirteen-to-one?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get up a plot of us versus them. I want to know when we’ll see them and when they’ll hit the planet. Assume the worst case, that they don’t slow down.”

“Aye-aye.”

Damn. Relativity reared its ugly, ugly head on this one. Even as we sped on, the light cones of each of our transits headed toward the other. But as long as we were this fast, time was against us. In five minutes, the bad-guy would pass the planet. In twenty minutes we could be head-to-head. But as we continued to slow, it would be an hour before we heard of news on the planet, and it would be two weeks before we would rendezvous after we looped around the sun, scooped up star fuel and slowed to the pedestrian orbital velocity.

“Captain, would you consider shortjumping a billion klicks?” I asked.

“I’d think about it except our weapons aren’t ready. We were caught napping because we didn’t see anybody out there to play with. And I don’t want to jump around the bastard. If he hits the planet, and I’m assuming he will, I want him to pay dearly for it,” the Captain replied.

“Yes, sir.”

“But keep on thinking!” he said cheerily.

Thinking. Right. “Hangar 1, standby a messenger, inbound to Fleet, two or three detours. Standard log dump. Key up a datalink for a late report. When you get it, go.”

“Roger, Bridge. Messenger is T-8.”

A young analyst came into the bridge and came to attention.

“Report,” I said.

“Bad-guy is jumping at a higher level. If you don’t increase the tension on the drop tank, you can’t search that high a frequency on the spectrum.”

“So why don’t we search the higher tensions?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“The higher the tension, the higher the noise,” he said, then added with emphasis, “A lot higher noise.”

Oh? I then asked, carefully, “How much higher noise?”

“Sir, if he’s jumping into the band we think he’s jumping in, then if he has a drop tank like ours, he probably wouldn’t notice you can detect little masses in normal space by retuning. Just like we couldn’t see him when he was FTL.”

“So you’re telling me we each had a blind spot, and we’ve found ours and he hasn’t found his.”

“Yessir.”

“And he dropped when he did because he couldn’t see us anymore. Yeoman -- tape, dump and get T-8 on his way. And copy the report to Combat. Thank you, dismissed. Oh, when we go to FTL the next time, your group now has standing orders to sweep higher frequencies as well as positional scans.”

I was satisfied we had explained our situation well enough. Fleet would be happy to know. A commlight blinked -- the Marines were calling.

“Marines, Bridge.”

“Yessir. Where do you want us?”

“Prepare two boarding teams and stand by in Bays 3 and 4. Full armor, gear, the works. You probably won’t go, but do it anyway. Scatter the rest of your troops to repel boarders and assist in damage control teams. Spread them out, keep some of them deep in the ship. I don’t want them all by the outer hull. Damage control is likely to be the big one. Be as ready as you can be. That’s all.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Captain,” I called out, “Are you going to try to board him?”

The Captain answered negatively, “No. I can’t see that we have time to make it work. The closing speeds are too great.”

“I figured.”

“Hangar 1. T-8 is away, outbound at starboard 160 degrees.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Two. All weapons systems ready. We’re waiting for programs. Ten minutes to possible engagement, he should be tagging the star if he didn’t slow.”

“Copy that to Combat.”

“We heard, Two,” the Captain replied. “We are loading programs now. Set all weapons to full computer control. I don’t intend to fire anything until we’re down his throat.”

“Which side do you want to pass him on?” I asked.

“Portside.”

“Navigation, as soon as we have a fix on the inbound target, I want a autolock sync tight on him. Passing on our portside. Distance, Captain?”

“Close.”

“Set distance to near zero. Add in a random jink program. We’ll line up our computers against his.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

Relativity called up the main battle plot onto the big screen. Event times were calibrated based on worst case. They would be updated as soon as the light cone of the enemy was detected. Assuming this was an enemy.

“Who has first fire, Captain?” I inquired.

There was a pause. “We do. But it will be very close in. If he engages us, I’m expecting him to flinch first.”

A yeoman showed up with a suit. My suit. I looked hard at the clock. Do I have two minutes to suit up?

“Let’s do it. Quickly,” I ordered. I kept my eyes on the main screens as I stepped into the suit pants and two yeomen pulled them up. Then it was the suit top, head through the neckring. Standing while they set the seals and buckled the straps.

“Regulations are regulations,” I muttered, as they forced the gloves on and I fastened them. My hair was secured down inside the neck ring. A move to put on my helmet.

“No, I want the helmet here. I want it open but off,” I insisted. “I want to see this battle.”

At minus two minutes I ordered all crew to begin securing themselves. Non-essential systems began to shutdown.

“Three,” I called out. “How’s Auxiliary?”

“We’re snug down here,” Mark replied. “Strapped in, ready to go. We’ve got the Combat programs loaded. We’re engaged in simulation. It’s not pretty.”

“Well, clear your simulations in one minute,” I warned.

“Roger.”

The time marker for the light cone expired. The reports were all in. All systems were go. But the enemy had slowed down.

“New sub-program,” the Captain called out.

I scanned the command screen. “Helm, bring engines back to minus thirty-five percent.”

“Aye-aye.”

“Navigation, add sub-program Alpha-One-Bee. Main engines will drop to tick-over at engagement and autosync.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Contact!”

“Two minutes late.”

“Thirty seconds!”

It became a terrifying ride down the track of the battle projection. The light event cone was coming from rapidly diminishing distances, with the enemy barely behind the photons themselves.

 

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©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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Last Update: 11 April 2008 Friday