Just over a week to go!
Supposedly – and I say this with great dubiousness – my proof copies will arrive Tuesday. I know there aren’t any major mistakes in there; I’m just hoping that between myself and the Beta readers we caught all the minor ones as well!
In any case, here’s the next chapter. Enjoy, say hi to Flashdance and Menace, and don’t forget to buckle your safety harness!
Oh, and pre-order HERE!
“Dammit, Zhukov, hold your position!” Flashdance snapped over the comms.
“Sorry, Lieutenant,” answered Zhukov’s CM, Heidi ‘Hangover’ Adams. “Adjusting.”
“At least she didn’t make an excuse,” said Menace from his Engineer’s position.
“Point,” grumbled Shannon. “Not much of a redeeming feature, though. Leonidas! What are you doing? You’re supposed to be at Patton’s nine o’clock, not three o’clock!” She knew she was crossing a line; Leonidas, Patton, and Zhukov weren’t even part of her squadron, but she figured they needed the help.
The exercise hadn’t even started, and she was already getting a headache. Her squadron, the reconstituted Wolf Squadron, was more or less holding their own so far. She’d had to temporarily turn command over to Hopalong in the Julius, which meant she should have been able to relax a bit. For this evolution they had been assigned the notional role of defenders, tasked with intercepting the enemy before they could attack the Njord. That gave them the advantage of having a fixed point, relatively speaking, and could concentrate their attention outward. Her coxswains and engineers all had more experience in their birds as well, which would seem to give them an unfair edge.
Command of the Wolves had fallen on her shoulders when she was one of two surviving CMs from the original Wolf Squadron, excluding the Garcia triplets aboard Enterprise. She’d found herself responsible for enough tasks to make Hercules ache: flight testing new MOVs as they rolled off the assembly line; working with HLC to integrate their flight training with the academy the Admiral wanted; training new CMs; supervising the EM training that Menace was doing; running exercises, singly and in groups, with her new flight crews; supervising the transfer of Wolves and personnel from groundside to Njord; the list went on and on. Running the MassEx was yet another straw, with the added stress of the Tigers’ inexperience.
But, she mused grimly, the best swordsman doesn’t fear the second-best; she fears the worst, because you never know what the bastard’s going to do.
Not that the squadron slated for the Opposition Force was the worst. They were just…inexperienced would be putting it kindly.
The crews of Flying Tiger Squadron had all come through the new HLC/Academy training regimen. Nobody who’d gotten through – and there were plenty who had washed out, unable to keep up with the pace, or didn’t have the reactions needed, or lacked spatial awareness, or grew suddenly phobic, or just not good enough – was a slacker. They could all fly and control their birds through every maneuver the training program threw at them. They’d even begun to accumulate some substantial hours of flight time, and Fowler had to admit they’d done well enough.
The problem was ‘well enough’ wouldn’t cut it in the black. That’s what this clustergrope, the first combined exercise between the squadrons, was intended to fix.
“I got turned around,” radioed back Leonidas’ CM, Jay ‘Simple’ Simon. “Maneuvering now.”
“Watch your flight path!” Fowler yelped as the MOV suddenly accelerated, passing within a hundred meters of Hindenburgon its way to the proper position. “Jesus. Were we ever this green?” she muttered to Menace.
“You maybe,” he joked. “Me, I was born to be an Eng.”
“Yeah, you have to drop your trousers to count to eleven,” retorted Flashdance. She’d been partnered with Menace for nearly a year now and had grown as close to him as any of her blood siblings.
“Looks like the formation is settling in,” said Menace now, all business again. “They’re right on the range marker.”
“Matt, all your sheep look like they’re in position. Confirm.”
“Yeah, thanks for the assist with Leonidas,” answered Ensign Matt Riddle, Coxswain for Subutai and CO of the Flying Tigers. He was the other surviving CM from Wolf Squadron, and for that he’d been rewarded with a promotion and command of the rookies. “Looks good on my end. Give me a minute to do a final check-in.”
“Take your time, Wrangler.” She changed frequencies and radioed Julius. “Julius, Alexander. Position check.”
“Alexander, Julius. Just verified, all Wolves in position. We’re ready to howl.”
“Roger, Hopalong.” Fowler couldn’t resist the same smile that rose whenever she said COX Ginsberg’s name; he’d actually been given the name Hopalong by his parents, and nobody’d been able to come up with a better handle for him. She trusted his flying, though, which was why he was her XO for the squadron as well as the only fully-rated Coxswain in the fledgling TFN.
“Subutai, Alexander. Finished counting sheep?”
“Three bags full, Flashdance. We’re ready to get it on.”
“All boats,” she said, changing again to the group channel. “We’re going to review the exercise parameters one more time.” She had to grin at her own words; she’d sat through far too many of the exact same exercises, and had hated the last-second reviews. Now she was doing one. The irony was not lost on her.
“The scenario is a close range attack of a fixed point. Close range is defined as a thousand kilometers or less. Any simulated attacks launched from beyond that range will not be scored. Tigers. You’re the Opposition Force. You win by either destroying all of the defenders or causing more than twenty-five percent damage to the target. Wolf, you are the Defending Force. You win by having at least one boat survive and preventing damage from exceeding twenty-five percent. Pretty simple, even for you sky jockeys. You’re going to have two hours total for the exercise. That’s seventeen, if you maybe forgot how to add.”
She assumed there was a ragged chorus of acknowledgements, but she had their incoming signals muted.
“Ground rules. All scoring is done by Diana, and her decisions are final. If you’re out, you’re out. She will have override control over all of your birds, and if I catch any clever EM trying to block her overrides then we’re going to go a few rounds.” She’d known too many EM’s who’d think nothing of trying to program or hardwire around lockouts and other controls. The problem was they were just as likely to cripple another system in their efforts, and while an experienced crew might be able to get a Wolf to limp home with half the OMS thrusters out…
“Along the same lines, the hard limit on the approach to Njord is one hundred kilometers. Not ninety, not ninety-nine. One hundred. Anyone who flies closer than a hundred kliks of the station is going to get my boot up their ass! We don’t take any chances with our home base. Wolf squadron, that means you, too. The engagement zone for the exercise starts at a hundred kliks and extends outward from there to the Artemis limit, 25,000 kilometers. Leaving the engagement zone will result in Diana taking control and you becoming a spectator for the rest of the day. For both of you lot: max accel for this exercise is limited to 50 g. I know your birds can pull 200. Don’t. Do. It. This is our first MassEx, and I do not need to be writing accident reports for the next week because you bent your bird.”
She looked over to Menace and raised a quizzical eyebrow, which he returned with a shrug and a shake of his head.
“Exercise commences in thirty seconds. Good luck!”
Menace keyed on the interior screens so they had a panoramic view of the engagement area.
“This could be a long-assed day,” he commented, sizing up the positions of the two squadrons. “Limiting them to 50 g accel?”
“Like I said, I don’t want to write up any accident reports. What do you think Wrangler is going to try?”
He looked carefully at the plot as Diana’s voice counted down the last few seconds.
“If I was Wrangler, I’d keep it simple.”
“And that’s what I’d think if I were Hopalong, so I’d try to put a couple wrinkles in it.”
Diana’s voice penetrated their consciousnesses. “Three, two, one. Engagement commence.”
The icons that represented the two squadrons started to get underway. Wolf’s boats were quick off the mark, jumping to their max accel to get into position. Fowler thought that they’d take positions right about the thousand-kilometer perimeter and said as much to Menace.
“That’s doctrine,” he agreed. “Get in position then shut down drives, make like holes in space.” The MOVs had capable sensors, but they didn’t compare to those mounted on the starships; where Enterprisecould ‘see’ out to forty light-hours, the Wolves had the same sort of resolution to about two light-minutes. That was sufficient to spot major objects, like planets, asteroids, and larger comets; ships, and other Wolves, could be spotted at three or four light-seconds.
If they were underway.
A Wolf that was powered down was virtually invisible to the current generation of passive sensors. They were too small to make much impact on the gravitic detectors, they weren’t actively radiating anything in the electromagnetic spectrum, and spotting one visually was nearly impossible. Radar and LIDAR could paint one, but those systems also gave away the distance and direction to the originating craft. So as the doctrine of small boat combat evolved, it often came down to passive detection as well as the Mark One Eyeball, still unsurpassed for detecting minute motions. That cut the range down to a few hundred kilometers.
“Looks like Hopalong has decided to be cautious,” said Menace. Sure enough, the Flying Tigers were staying in a relatively tight formation. They’d accelerated for only a minute, reaching a velocity of just under 30 kilometers per second. That would put them in attack range of Njord in about thirteen minutes if they didn’t decelerate, which they probably wouldn’t. Thirty KPS was interplanetary speeds, to be sure, but only just, and would allow them over thirty seconds in approach to Njord to attack.
“Smart, though. He knows that his only chance is to smash the Wolves by massing fire; his crews aren’t good enough to take them one-on-one, and if he splits them up he risks being defeated in detail.”
“And it forces Wrangler’s hand; if he’s going to intercept them, he’ll have to pull his forces back together, and do it soon.”
Menace and Shannon kept a running commentary as the two squadrons slowly closed the gap. Menace was right, and Wrangler’s force oriented itself into a shallow hemisphere with the focus point along the most probable line of advance for the Tigers. Hopalong, for his part, was managing his more inexperienced crews skillfully, keeping them in formation. They could eavesdrop on their communications, and did so shamelessly, but there wasn’t much going on. Both squadrons knew they could be tracked by the other and so were maintaining strict radio silence.
As the minutes ticked past it became clear to Shannon what both squadrons were attempting. The Wolves had taken a position which would keep the Tigers in their firing basket for as long as possible, though that would be measured in seconds. Hopalong, meanwhile, knew that he would lose boats to the initial fire, but hoped that his relatively tight column would speed through their effective range with enough survivors to make their mission achievable. The Wolves would be at a standstill, and with their accel limited to 50 g they’d never be able to catch up to the Tigers once they passed.
“I don’t know how effective Wrangler’s tactic is going to be,” said Menace, examining the plot and doing some mental math. “How deep is his basket?”
“A little less than hundred kilometers, and about that wide.” The main weapons on the Wolves had an effective range of fifty kilometers; keeping his basket to under a hundred meant that there wasn’t a ‘safe’ range, once the Tigers had started their run.
“That’s three seconds to acquire, lock, and fire.”
Now it was Shannon’s turn to consider. “Wrangler’s not stupid,” she mused. “He’s got to have something else in mind.”
“And he does, I guess,” answered Menace. “His boats are moving. Looks like they’re closing the net.” The icons for Wolf Squadron were underway, closing the distance to the projected course.
“That doesn’t get them any extra time,” argued Shannon. “And all Hopalong has to do is – yup, there he goes. They’ve lit off their drives again, max accel.”
“So now they’ll blow through the basket in even less time. That’s surprisingly dumb for Wrangler.”
“I’ll bet he’s got something sneaky up his sleeve,” said Shannon with a confidence she didn’t entirely feel.
“You’re on. Ten credits?”
“Make it twenty.”
“Oh, look at Miss Big Shot Lieutenant Squadron Commander! I’ll take your twenty.”
The Tigers had accelerated to nearly fifty KPS, reducing their potential ‘basket time’ to a bare two seconds, while the Wolves had narrowed the basket to more of a needle, not quite twenty kilometers wide, before decelerating to stops.
“Remember, Wrangler’s only got to knock out enough of the Tigers to prevent them from doing major damage,” Shannon said, still glued to the display. “And if it turns into a furball around Njord, then the speed advantage the Tigers have now goes away.”
Menace was unconvinced. “But unless Wrangler’s micromanaged the targeting…”
“Engage!” Hopalong’s voice, which had been steady in the background, suddenly grew louder. They could see the false-color images of the notional phased particle beams lancing out from the attacking squadron. In reality, they weren’t even as powerful as a flashlight beam, but Diana dutifully noted their positions and assessed damage to a few of the Wolf boats. Minor damage was indicated by a yellow band around the icon, moderate damage by orange, and severe damage, or destruction, by red. There were a number of yellow rings, but no orange or red. Yet.
Then Wrangler sprang his trap.
“What the…?” Menace exclaimed as the velocity of the Tigers fell precipitously. Targeting computers lost lock as their equations went out the window, and chaos erupted on the squadron frequency as crews reported the massive…what?
“Diana? What happened?” asked Shannon, as Wolf Squadron started picking off the other boats.
“I picked up a surge of collimated gravitic radiation from the Wolf Squadron MOVs,” said the AI.
“Tractor beams!” exclaimed Shannon, laughing. Some of the Tigers had managed to turn and were attempting to flee, but they’d lost their velocity advantage and presenting their tails to their attackers was a recipe for slaughter. One by one their icons were ringed with the red of ‘Total Destruction’ as the computer judged their simulated damage sufficient to knock them out and dutifully powered down all systems.
“What?” Menace was still catching up.
“That’s why they closed the gap, to get into tractor range. They must’ve thrown out the gravitic equivalent of a spider’s web, and the Tigers ran smack into it.” She turned to Menace with a triumphant grin. “That’s twenty credits you owe me.”
“Yeah, yeah. You know how badly they’ve probably frakked up their tractors?”
Shannon hadn’t considered that, but she was a Coxswain by training and only had a familiarization with the engineering side of the boat. Now she did, and she winced.
“Those systems weren’t intended to do what Wrangler had them do,” he continued. “If they didn’t trip half the overload breakers, I’ll give you another twenty credits!”
Now that they were looking, they could see that many of the yellow-ringed icons had changed to orange, and a couple to red, even though not a single Tiger was still attacking. Menace zoomed in on one of the red-ringed icons.
“Yeah, the codes are coming up for a total power failure,” he said, investigating. “They’ve still got engines and environmental, mostly, but it looks like they fried most of the other systems. I won’t say that bird’s going to be deadlined, but it’s going to be close.”
The last of the Tiger Squadron boats grew a red ring, and Shannon opened the all-squadron comms.
“That’s it, exercise is called at fifteen twenty one forty two,” she said, checking her ‘plant for the exact time. “Congratulations Wolf Squadron, you have successfully defended Njordfrom destruction. Return to the barn. Last one in buys.”
“Lieutenant?” The speaker was CM Jim ‘Jammer’ Warren, from the Frederick, one of the Wolf boats that had suffered a failure.
“Go ahead, Jammer.”
“Uh. Needs A Sock –“ Will Dobie, the EM “- says that we’ve blown the main breaker board. We don’t have any navigation, sensors, nothing. Just enviro and engines.”
“Suit radio, Lieutenant.”
“Well, Jammer, I think that’s a problem for your CO.”
“But you’re the CO, Flashdance!”
“Not this time. That would be Wrangler’s problem. Flashdance out.”
“That’s mean, L-T,” said Menace.
“They got into it. They can get out of it.”
“What about the Tigers?” The other squadron’s boats were all still doing a Dutchman, powered down at the orders of the computer.
“Diana, terminate exercise simulated damage.”
“Certainly, Lieutenant. Systems restored. I still think they should have been allowed to drift for a while longer.”
“No bent birds. Bad enough what Wrangler did to my squadron, but he’ll get his.”
“Oh?” asked Diana.
“He gets to write the After Action Report. Him and Hopalong. I’m just going to review it.” She fired up the engines and turned the Alexander back to Njord. “You owe me twenty credits. You can pay it off in the Officer’s Club.”