Daniela – Double Dip – was a natural-born leader from the first day she slipped into a Direwolf.
That said, she still needed some advice from Flashdance. Actually, what she really needed was a night of drinking, and Flashdance certainly delivered! Then, once she’d loosened up enough to listen, that’s when the real learning began.
I knew what Double Dip could do in a Direwolf; I’d seen her at the demonstration, after all. But I don’t think her kids, sorry, her trainees, had any idea. They simply saw a woman who was their age or (in a couple cases) younger, and discounted her accordingly.
That changed here.
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Nymeria Squadron, Habitat Njord
Double Dip looked out at her squadron, down in the hangar bay. There were twleve of the Direwolves, with six more expected at the end of the week. This put her in a bind.
She was flying four or five hours a day, pushing the limits of the system, practicing, testing, wringing the bugs out of a ship which hadn’t existed a year earlier. She spent another two or three hours in consultation with Hecate. Together they strategized and planned, creating offensive and defensive maneuver plans, running through them in the virtual reality her implant could create, before practicing them the next day. Another three hours was spent with her current pilots, running them through paces, familiarizing them with their ships. The rest of the time in her day was spent in telepresence with the staff of the Academy, reviewing the progress of the next batch of pilots. Plus time for eating, meetings, and miscellaneous paperwork. And, if she was particularly lucky, being able to rack out before oh two hundred.
That filled up about 27 hours each day, to her best guess.
“Hey, Double Dip,” said a familiar voice.
“Hi, Flashdance,” she answered tiredly.
“I’d ask how you’re doing, but I don’t need to. When’s the last time you got five hours sleep?”
“All at once?”
Shannon winced. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“Oh, it’s not bad. The kids are doing well enough. They haven’t bent a bird yet, at least.”
“How many hours do they have in the black?”
“Joe’s got the most; he’s pushing thirty. Will’s tail-end Charlie but still has almost twenty.”
Shannon was nodding. “Not bad, considering you’ve only had them aboard for two weeks. Now for the important question.”
Daniela turned her head to face her.
“When’s the last time you took a night off?”
“Um. The night of the demonstration?”
“That’s what I thought. It’s not going to do any good to kill yourself trying to get your squadron in shape. They need a leader, not a zombie.”
Daniela opened her mouth to argue, closed it.
“Come on. You’re done for the night. That’s an order, Lieutenant.”
Daniela managed a grin. “Pulling seniority?”
“If it gets you to relax? Yes.”
Njord was a huge structure, easily the largest construction in space, and was planned to eventually have a population of 100,000. In addition to the working spaces and the mechanical installations, there were living quarters arranged into neighborhoods. There were restaurants, and pubs, and shops; theaters and sports venues; parks and green spaces for people to gather. The inhabitants filled the neighborhoods closest to their duty stations first, so the area where both Shannon and Daniela lived was only a few hundred meters away, and Shannon led her to the pilots’ preferred pub, colorfully, if confusingly, named Alpha Mike Foxtrot.
The next day, hungover but far more ready to face another seemingly endless day, Daniela decided to drop in on the squadron’s VR training.
Her six pilots were seated in mockups of the Direwolf cockpit, accurate right down to the last detail; they were actual cockpits which hadn’t been installed into ships. There were four such rooms, each with twenty simulators, scattered around the hangar bays, to accommodate the planned strength of the eventual Direwolf wings. As yet, she only needed six, and those six were rocking and shaking as their occupants put them through violent simulated maneuvers.
She knew better than to get close to any of the trainers. In order to better reproduce the violent maneuvers the ships could pull there was a complex network of grav plates above and below each installation. By making adjustments in their intensity and direction, Hecate could make the pilot feel the Immelmans, split s’s, and other maneuvers that might just save the pilot’s ass someday. Grav plates were somewhat imprecise, though, and someone walking within their range could find themselves picked up and pulled to the ceiling before being just as quickly dropped sideways.
As the shakings gradually wound down, Daniela made sure she’d be seen by her pilots as their cockpit hatches opened.
“Welcome back!” she called as the last hatch lifted.
“Boss?” asked Ensign (JG) Ashlyn Bontrager, the first to find their voice. “Did we miss a change?”
“No,” she said. “I decided that I haven’t spent enough time with you lot, so you’ve got ten minutes to get into your flight suits.” They should have been in flight suits for the VR training, but she knew that most probably simply stayed in their skinsuits; it was easier, it was what they’d be wearing shipboard, but it wasn’t according to regs.
“I’m ready,” said Bontrager. That wasn’t surprising. Unlike most of the squadron that Daniela came from, most of the Direwolf pilots, so far, were male. Bontrager probably felt pressure to do things exactly right, and usually did. She wasn’t the flashiest pilot, but she was certainly the most consistent. That counted heavily in Daniela’s books.
“Anyone else?” she said, eyes sweeping across the other pilots.
Nobody else moved. “Five minutes to get changed and to your ship. Move.” Five figures took off running, Daniela walking calmly behind them, Bontrager hustling to catch up to her.
Daniela could almost hear Bontrager trying to pick exactly the right words to ask what she was planning and had to hide a grin.
“Is there a change in our schedule, ma’am?”
“Obviously,” she said, though not harshly. She wanted to see if Bontrager would work through to the obvious conclusion.
“Extra flight training, ma’am?”
“Getting warmer, Bontrager.”
“Dogfighting?” There was an undeniable edge of eagerness to her voice now.
“Dogfighting,” agreed Daniela. “Five on two.”
“Very good. I knew that you could add.” She relented and added, “I’m flying against the squadron; you up for being on my wing?”
“Good. We’ve got about three minutes to plan. Here’s what I want to do…”
When the other pilots trotted in, breathless but in their flight suits, Daniela and Bontrager were in their fighters, running through their pre-flight checklists, and seemingly oblivious to the arrival of the others.
The seven Direwolves that belonged to the squadron were lined up at the starboard edge of the bay, facing the bulkhead and aligned with ten triangular hatches. In designing Njord, it had been recognized that speed would be crucial in responding to any threat. So while the Wolves entered and exited the habitat through the main doors, the offensive- minded Direwolves were launched out through tunnels bored through to the outer surface. It was one of the particular challenges of piloting a Direwolf; throwing a twenty-meter-long craft into a tunnel only centimeters wider than the wingspan had broken at least two potential pilots.
Sixty seconds to launch, Daniela commed. It generally took two minutes to run through a full checklist, which meant they’d have at least a minute’s head start. You five are playing defense. Your mission is to stop us from successfully approaching within a hundred kilometers of the base.
Try and catch us! added Bontrager.
Recovering quickly they ran to their own fighters as Hecate’s voice rang through the bay.
“Forty-five seconds to launch. Thirty seconds to bay evacuation. Get in your ships, boys!”
Five canopies dropped as the atmosphere was pumped out.
“Nymeria Actual, flight of two, requesting clearance,” Daniela radioed.
“All clear, Double Dip. Kick their asses!” the AI answered. Hecate didn’t play favorites; she’d swear to that on a stack of molycirc a meter high, but her persona was that of a near-teenage girl, and she was enthusiastic.
“We’ll try,” answered Daniela, flipping the last three switches to bring her fighter’s powerful engines online. “Bontrager?” Her hand rested on the throttle.
“Ready,” came the confident reply.
Direwolf tactical doctrine called for a launch at fifty percent power. That worked out to 250 g, of which the pilot felt 2.
In unison the first two Direwolves’ engines flared and the ships disappeared down the launch tubes, vaulting into space seconds later and leaving the habitat behind.
“Systems nominal,” reported Boomer. Smoothly Daniela brought the throttle up to full military power, about 80% of the engines’ capacity, Bontrager matching her acceleration neatly.
They took position ten thousand kliks away, killing their momentum and hanging in space.
How long do you think they’ll be? commed Daniela.
Two minutes is the standard, Bontrager carefully non-answered, not wanting to diss her fellow pilots.
Oh, please, Daniela replied. That lot couldn’t organize a fight in an Irish pub. They’re probably still arguing over who’s in charge since you’re not there to herd them.
Me? Daniela could almost hear the squeak.
You, she confirmed. Why do you think I wanted you on my wing?
One potential advantage the Direwolves had over any other ships flying was the integration of the pilots’ implants, the Epsilon-class AI’s built into the ships, and their constant connection to the Q-Net. This allowed for near-instantaneous coordination between ships, even in complex maneuvers, over distances that would defeat lightspeed-limited systems.
Of course, allowing for didn’t guarantee success, as the defenders now proved. Once launched, their coordination was notably lacking, and lagging, as they relied on human reflexes and reactions. It took the best part of three minutes for them to settle into a ragged formation, by which time Daniela and her partner had worked out a number of strategies and contingency plans.
“Nymeria Squadron, listen up!” Daniela gave a two-count pause, then continued. “Your job is to intercept us. Period. Your lasers have been tuned down to a hundred kilometer range. Max accel is 80% of your rated power. Exceed that and your engines will shut down for sixty seconds. Engagement zone is within a hundred thousand kilometers of Njord, equidistant in a hemisphere centered on the habitat and extending anti-orbit.”
“Lieutenant, could you repeat that?”
Daniela sighed. “Check your ‘plant, Hopper. Exit the engagement zone and Hecate’s going to shut down your engines and let you go Dutchman for a while.”
“Go ahead, see if I won’t!” Hecate chimed in.
“Hecate, I can handle this.”
“Sorry Daniela, I just love being included!”
“You lot have twenty minutes, which ought to be eighteen more than you need. Any questions?” When the silence had stretched to four seconds, she spoke again. “Then try and keep up.”
With that the two Direwolves pivoted in opposite directions and lit off their drives at half power. The pursuers split, with two following each and one hanging back, drives opened full.
Stupid, Daniela thought, easing her throttle forward to match the pursuers. Mindful of the boundaries, she led them in a merry chase, never letting the range close to less than a thousand kilometers. She kept an eye on her partner, seeing that she was following the plan they’d agreed upon. Her pursuers, Vancel and Thomas, were competent enough, never slipping too far off her course, but they were entirely reactive, not trying to anticipate her moves and cut ahead for an intercept.
The two behind Daniela were a little more aggressive, trying to angle through corners and shorten the distance between for a shot. Unlike her current crop of students, she’d also been rated as both a CM and EM, and she’d been practically living in her Direwolf before her promotion. She knew how to squeeze a few extra g performance out of her engines without officially crossing the 80% mark.
She glanced at the scanner again, saw that they were on closing trajectories, little more than 2000 kilometers apart, and opened her comms.
“Bontrager, ready?” she radioed on their private channel.
What Daniela had planned was simple in concept, tricky in execution, and required their pursuers to lose their situational awareness of the entire engagement zone. As she and Bontrager closed at 200 KPS, the distance between them vanished. Daniela locked onto the ships chasing Bontrager, while Bontrager in turn targeted the ships chasing Daniela. At this speed, they were only going to have a quarter-second to take the shots; an eternity for a linked human-AI pair.
The first both Maczka and Hopper knew that Daniela had fired was when their Direwolves, registering the insubstantial hits from the attenuated lasers, obediently registered damage to various systems.
Maczka’s AI announced that the fusion plant had sustained a direct hit, cutting all primary power systems, and was switching to emergency power; what did Maczka wish to do?
The damage to Hopper’s Direwolf was less in absolute terms, but more frustrating: the AI notified him that it had been knocked out of commission. Suddenly Hopper was trying to fly his ship by hand and failing miserably, overcorrecting on each attempt.
“Hopper, throttle down,” ordered Daniela, seeing disaster in the making. She sent a command to the AI repeating the order just in case Hopper decided to be defiant. He didn’t, and the ship gradually slowed as he regained some measure of control.
Bontrager’s shots had a more mixed result. Her attack on Vancel succeeded in knocking his lasers offline, effectively taking him out of the fight though he could still fly. She missed Thomas’ ship entirely, and he continued his chase of Daniela, Vancel in formation with him.
“Bontrager, execute theta,” she commed, continuing to evade but keeping them interested. An alert on her scanner caught her eye. “Watch for Robertson.”
“Aye, executing theta,” Bontrager answered and slewed her fighter around. As they had designed it, Daniela swept around the edge of the containment area in a wide arc, allowing Bontrager to cut across the chord of the angle.
“Five seconds,” she radioed as she approached. Again, neither Vancel nor Thomas had been paying attention to the rest of the engagement, and both Maczka and Hopper were too busy wrestling with their own birds to monitor. Only Robertson had noticed Bontrager’s course, but he was too intent on catching her to note where her path led.
“Locked, firing,” she announced, and Thomas’ AI obediently assessed the ‘damage’.
“Engines one and three offline,” it said, shutting them down. “Scanners offline. Life support offline.”
As Bontrager Immelmanned to avoid crossing out of the engagement zone, Daniela reversed her course to close with Robertson. He had the advantage of being several thousand kilometers away, in the wrong direction for her to reduce the gap quickly, so she decided some psychological warfare was in order.
“This one’s mine,” she commed over the open squadron frequency. As she hoped it would, the statement spooked Robertson and his attention slipped for a brief moment. That was all his fighter needed to flash through the edge of their zone; Hecate immediately shut down all systems except life support and he went off into the dark, a high-tech meteor.
“Exercise concluded,” announced Daniela. “Return to base for debrief.”
The squadron’s ready room was dead silent ten minutes later as Daniela fixed her pilots with a glare. She let the silence stretch out for endless seconds before she broke it.
“Situational awareness. Ever hear of it? Robertson!”
He snapped to attention in his seat, still pale from his minute of going Dutchman. “Yes, ma’am!”
“Thomas? Maczka? Hopper?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the three pilots chorused.
“Bullshit. None of you displayed any! There were five of you, two of us. You should have had us wiped out in minutes! Instead, we took out three of you on a single head-on pass which you should have avoided! All you had to do was break off and we’d have been bottled up between you, but you didn’t bother to see what the others were doing!” She stopped and glared again.
“Who thought of splitting up?” The silence returned. “Oh, come on, someone suggested it.”
“I did, ma’am,” Vancel finally admitted.
“Dumb. You gave up the advantage of numbers in order to go for the simultaneous kill. That allowed us to defeat you in detail. You think one Direwolf could have taken out five?”
Six heads shook.
“Right. But one can take out two if they fly smarter than the others. Next question: did any of you think to use your ‘plants?”
Only Bontrager nodded; the rest remained mute.
“When we’re up against Artemis, or anyone else, you have to take any advantage you have. We have ‘plants, they don’t. We have the Q-Net, they don’t. That gives us comms that they can’t tap, block, or intercept.”
More mute silence.
“We are going to do this every day until you lot figure out how to beat us in a five-on-two. Then you’re going to spend another hour each day in ‘what-if’ scenarios in the simulators. Hopper!”
“How much time have you spent learning the fly-by-hand systems?”
“Um. Not much, ma’am?”
“Are you asking me, or telling me?”
“Telling you, ma’am. Not much, ma’am.”
“The AI is almost as well-protected from damage as you,” she said. “But it’s not invulnerable. Enough of a power surge and it’s cut off. You need to be able to handle your ship well enough to continue the engagement.”
She swept her glare across them one more time, then visibly shifted gears.
“Now, here’s the good news. You finally have your handles.”
Expectant faces looked to her. Handles had to be earned, and in a unit as new as Nymeria the CO had the honor of choosing them.
“Your handle is ‘Rubberneck’, because that’s what you were doing instead of staying in the fight. Hopper!”
“’Rube’. You overcomplicate things. You don’t get it, look it up,” she added, seeing the confusion. “Maczka.”
“’Tunnel Vision.’” She looked at each pilot, seeing the chagrin. “You don’t like your handles? Then change my mind.”
She softened her tone. “You seven are going to be flight leaders soon as we get more pilots out of the Academy. Who knows, you might even make it up to squadron command, Gods help us. Show me, show the Admiral, what you can do.”
She nodded once. “I want your evaluation of your performance in my files by eighteen. Dismissed. Yes, Bun-bun?”
Hopper stood. “What about Ashlyn’s handle? Does she get one?”
“She does. ‘Shooting Star’. She’s also earned the XO spot for this squadron for her sins.” She checked her ‘plant. “You have fifty-three minutes. I’d move.” The room cleared quickly, except for Bontrager.
“Ma’am, I don’t know –” she started, but Daniela cut her off.
“You are the best pilot I have. Right now, that’s enough to make you the XO. The paperwork side, well, we’ll both have to learn that.”
“I’ll help!” said Hecate. “I’m already helping Daniela, I can help you too!”
“See?” Daniela grinned. “The point is, I think you’re the best candidate for the job.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“When the squadron’s not around, you can call me Double Dip. Or Daniela. Now, get. I want your evaluation too, and you only have forty-nine minutes left. Tonight, we’ll go over the others’; I’m sure they’re going to have to rewrite them.”
After Bontrager left, Daniela commed to Shannon. I think that went well. Thanks for the course correction.
You’re welcome. Don’t forget to check in now and again.