37: Goblin Driver 3 – Road Kings

“Cutthroat,” snapped Xia.

“Sharktooth,” quoth Viescas.

“Rabbit,” declared the pretty Delaney.

“Tapper,” finished Martins as she leaned forward with her hand out. “You’re the Higgins?”

That’s fighter jocks for you. They get cool call signs, but I am my ship. Over the comm, you call bigger vessels by ship name, not some edgy code name for the pilot. And unlike the smaller interstellar craft like fighters and tactical bombers, Mo is just over that fuzzy boundary into ‘bigger vessels’ that makes it a ship, despite having a crew of only two and looking like a kid’s toy next to the main cruisers in Battle Fleet which we ferried personnel to. Heck, some of the big battle-line jobs actually dock Goblins inside their boat bays rather than having us tie up.

Martins had stuck a ‘the’ in front of Mo’s name, the way fighter pilots and ground-pounders always do. Ship crew never call their ship ‘the’. Your ship is your mother and your baby and your best buddy and you would never call your mother ‘THE Mom’, now would you?

I accepted her handshake. “We call her Mo.”

Mo,” she echoed with a smile. “Got it.”

I turned back to my CO. “We’re only carrying one lander? When Scout Corps used Gobs they ferried three.”

He tapped a key on his laptop, and a diagram of my ship showed up on the screen, sitting behind a big cylinder with a lander in a hollow on one side.  The diagram was a cross-section looking down at the nose. The lander sitting off-center on the port side was obviously based on a Dragon light interstellar craft. It was the same design like a fattened air-to-air missile, the kind with four fins near the front and in back in the shape of X’s in head-on view, except with the two sets of lower fins slightly more out to the sides and the two rear sets enlarged into wings.

By stripping out the interstellar capability and just leaving the in-space system, it had become a well-armed high-capacity lander that was far more rugged than the purpose-built landers carried by assault ships.

I wondered if that was the reason I was chosen for this job. I had flown the cargo variant of the Dragon for a brief time before being transferred to Goblins, so I knew this craft, more or less.

The roof of the Dragon’s cargo bay rested against a slightly off-center access chamber surrounded by a semicircle of four cylindrical holds on the port side. That was the ‘cargo pod’, and it and the Dragon filled the circle that represented a top-down view of the cargo head of my ship.

“One lander, plus a cargo pod purpose-built for this mission profile. He restocks the craft up to four times, mass and cargo. You carry him to his destination with the first flight loaded, for a potential total of five trips to the surface. The mission is under the PTO’s command, but Farley retains final call over his vessel’s safety. He makes only as many of those trips as he deems safe.”

I nodded. Farley, even though he was a mere coxswain driving a surface-to-orbit delivery truck, also had final authority over his vessel. His boat was too small to call a ‘ship’ and he wasn’t a commissioned officer, so nobody would be calling him ‘Captain’, but to a certain extent the same principle applied. The lander was his responsibility, so he had the final say about it during the mission.

So, the benefit of doing it this way was more landings. Three separate landers could make only three trips, not five, and they wouldn’t be either as tough or as large as this bird. He just needed a crew trained to shift cargo as well as their other duties as the defense and maintenance team. His guys would all be well-trained special forces, not ordinary grunts.

The graphics and tables looked suspiciously standardized though, which meant they’d been at this a long time. I turned to Farley. “You fly these missions often?”

He glanced at Avary. My CO gestured for him to go ahead, and he nodded. “I transferred to Aviation Corps four months ago to train with a captain familiar with this type of mission, sir. I’ve done three of these so far. Before this, I flew Surface Corps landers for four years”

“So now I’m in training for this?” I asked my CO. “This will be a regular thing?”

Avary spread his hands with a sort of dismissive shrug. “I don’t think ‘training’ is quite the right word, Captain. You’re an experienced ship master. Chief Farley should be able to provide you enough familiarity with this work for you to jump right in. Mo’s modifications will leave her unsuited to her old job, so a new Argo is being brought in to replace her.”

“What happened to the previous Goblin?” I asked. “You had ships built for this type of work already, right?”

Avary nodded. “I imagine you’ve already guessed. We’ve had twenty five years of attrition since the last Goblin rolled off the line. We still had one of the original five customized for this mission flying up until last year, but it encountered an unfortunate end. All four Gobs now on the job were modified from Type G models just like Mo. Corps policy is to convert Gobs into specialty roles as needed and replace them in their old jobs with new Argos.”

“Which means I’m on this duty permanently.”

“You are destined to move well beyond this work in due time, Senior Aviator. You’re no career truck driver. But Mo has this mission profile from now on, yes. I’ve known this was coming for her for some time. That’s why I gave her to you. I wanted you handling her when the time came.”

They had completely rewritten my future. Everything about his speech said, ‘This is a done deal. We don’t ask you, soldier, we tell you.’

Sure, that’s military life for you, but I felt a little robbed. During the two years and forty two flights since Red and I flew our first mission together, we and Mo had run supplies and rotated crew for passing ships and outlying bases. We had plenty of excitement, even a few running battles with the odd Slave cruiser or patrol, but nothing I couldn’t successfully run away from like a good Goblin. My Gob was an up-engined variant, so they used us as more than just another delivery truck. We weren’t a frontliner. The job had been medium risk while still having interesting challenges. Having seen much worse as a flying cadet, I had appreciated it.

That predictable life had just vanished without warning.

I think it bothered me even more that they would modify Mo. She’d loyally done her duty as a logistics jack-of-all-trades for twenty-seven years, never complaining even once that her job was rougher than the average Goblin’s. Now they would take their hammers and saws to her and cut away the pride of all her well-done service, strip her of the role they had built her for as if it never mattered. And then, they were throwing her at the front line to boot.

Avary tapped a key on his laptop, and the screen changed to display Hell’s Obstacle Course.  I stared in disbelief at a planetary system diagram covered with arc-of-fire halos from various Enemy bases, counter fire arcs from Allied bases… practically nothing but red and orange on the screen, a nightmare jumble of no-go zones and high-risk zones.

“Scared?” probed the chief with a slight smirk. I frowned at him, but I was annoyed with myself. I must have let some of my reaction show.

“Cap doesn’t scare,” Red snapped before I could respond. “He’s concerned about his ship. She wasn’t built for this.”

Red usually clams up when she’s surrounded by officers, but maybe it helped that Farley was a fellow warrant officer who only outranked her by one grade. Or maybe her temper was getting the better of her again. Still, I had to admit, she was wrong. That planetary chart scared the bejebus out of me.

But I could fly it. I could definitely fly it.

Avary covered the landing zone briefly. We had to deliver supplies into a pocket where they had plenty of materiel and provisions for the humans, but an alien weapon emplacement was low on both munitions and supplies. I had heard of the aliens before. The Ondo. I didn’t know anything about them. No idea why Earth had supplies for them, but the rest of their kind had been withdrawn during the Bulge, and then they had been cut off. They were in trouble and the locals had no supplies for them.

The allies were setting up a more reliable supply line, but they needed Mo and Farley to make this run so they could hold out until then. And the locals needed their firepower to hold the area.

Avary tapped to the next screen, which showed the route to the destination. Upstream on the Centauri current, passing Alpha Cent itself and onward more than sixty more lightyears. That meant we had to take some longer way around. Anything more than a few lightyears directly upstream on the Centauri burns all the mass you can carry, so instead you zig-zag on minor currents and hope for folds to shorten the trip. The current best course varies based up current on fold states and the most recent Enemy activity reports. Sixty-four light years was a lot of information to go over, so I would be working a while coming up with a course for this one. I barely kept myself from groaning out loud.

“Please tell me you guys know of a fold that’ll shorten this trip up.”

Mo is pretty fast for her size. She can run circles around fleet vessels. Even so, 3000 cee is just about tops for her. She isn’t capable of small craft speeds. Even if I somehow maintained that speed for the entire trip, sixty four light-years would take at least eight days one-way.

Martins answered, “We came in from that direction, so I have pretty current information on the conditions. Fancy a nav session over lunch?”

Of course I agreed, but my mind had already backtracked to the previous screen. The meeting was as good as over anyway, so I leaned over to my CO and asked to bring it back on screen. I studied the system chart again, asked for a regen four days from now, then six and eight days. It really didn’t get any better at any time, but the implied question kept mocking me from inside all that red space.

Can you fly it? Can you get through all that?

I glanced around the room. The Road Kings jawboned over the nav charts, comparing notes on their recollections of the trip incoming. Red scowled over Mo’s mod specs, the PTO read some paperwork, and Farley looked back at me with a faint lopsided grin, silently asking the same question.

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I looked back to the screen. The destination world’s name, “Sebka B,” stared back at me.

A Youth Aviator only knows one answer.

“Watch me.”

- my thoughts:

Cody has his work cut out for him.

Check out my other novel: Substitute Hero

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