Somewhere outside, stealth gear began operating to stifle the ruckus that Gulf Bay Three was about to make. The nuclear sub guys with their high tech sonar might hear something very muted, but nobody else would hear a thing.
At the same time, near our bay floor, valves opened and seawater poured in, first as roaring cascades, then dropping to near silence when the inlets disappeared below water level. It’s a simple system. Big impellers shove the water in through the bottom, pushing the air into big holding tanks to await the next ship to arrive. And it’s an awesome sight. I’m always a little awed as I watch a space sixty meters wide and four stories tall fill up in far less time than it takes to fill my bathtub at home.
Once the flooding finished, the bay doors slid back overhead, revealing the dark sea above. The top of the bay is over twenty meters below the surface; not a lot of sunlight makes it down that far, so it’s dim out there even at noon. I confirmed open doors over the comm and added, “So you got a load to drop on me, or what?”
“They’re floating it up as we speak, Mo,” the controller answered.
The ghostly form of the cargo pod and the lander drifted into view over the edge of the bay opening. Divers attended it, operating the big flotation tanks carrying it.
Farley appeared next to my couch, craning his neck to see upward. “They’re a little fast, aren’t they?”
“Gulf Base Three’s loadmaster crewmen are first-rate, chief. They haven’t fumbled a cargo on me yet.”
I don’t know why I felt defensive about their work, but I have a lot of affection for those guys. They have a thankless job. Most of Gulf Base Three breathes surface pressure air, but the divers have to live at sea pressure so they can work outside for long periods. They stay in a little habitat of their own, in the middle of the landing bays, where they’re stuck for two weeks at a time, cut off from the rest of the world.
They floated the module down onto Mo’s cargo head, the big flat plate that forms her ‘nose’. An enormous bass gong rang through my ship when the load dropped into place. It was harder that usual, but not hard enough to trigger the alarm.
But I noticed that my starboard landing leg showed more weight on it than the port. My cheeks heated up as I got on the comm.
Right after I was bragging on you guys!
“I have a mis-load of three-decimal-niner tonnes to starboard, Control. Ask them to reset, please.”
After a long pause, Base Comm replied, “Crew confirms the module landed square, and they had no imbalance while floating it in, Mo. Please recheck.”
I scowled at my boards. Yes, I was very sure, but I answered, “I’ll have my plugger double-check.”
After a long pause, Red waffled a little. “Interstage has completed flush and shows good pressure. We have a solid seal between ship and module. The yard had to recalibrate the leg sensors for the added guns and all. Might not have it tweaked in yet.”
The mis-loading was small enough that I could compensate if it were real, and I didn’t want to delay the trip arguing about it. I shook my head and let it go.
“Control, request you log a possible miscal on our starboard leg force sensor and communicate that fact to the Yard Boss, along with the Captain’s concerns. We’ll fly as is.”
The divers had finished bolting down while we talked. The crew chief appeared outside my window and saluted. I returned it and he swam off with his crew leading the float tanks back to their shed.
Farley shook his head as we watched them depart. “You gave up too easy, Skipper. What if it really is mis-loaded?”
I had the same opinion myself, so his question really bugged me. But I gave a flat answer. “Then my punishment is to fly it that way, Chief. It’s within trim limits. I’ve a lot of work left to do. Take your lift-off position.”
Outsiders probably think it’s bizarre to put a space base at the bottom of the sea. We don’t do it because it works better; we’re down here because Earth doesn’t have too many places on dry land left for us to hide.
But sea launches are very tricky for bigger vessels. Fighters and tactical bombers can ride their main jets right from the bottom, but Goblins and Argos are too big and slow for that. Instead, while Red coaxed our main jet to life, I opened big inlets and spun up my hydro-fan motors. The impellers within began to suck sea in and force it out Mo’s tail as thrust. The leg sensors dropped toward zero as the RPMs approached launch speed.
“Main engine, steam up,” Red declared, raising her voice over the thunder. She meant that the plasma chambers in our big jet had reached flight temperature and the skirt fields were ready to use the plasma to generate thrust.
A few moments later, she added, “Port secondary, steam up… Starboard, steam up… Top, steam up… Bottom, steam up. Ready for lift, Cap.”
The process had been faster than she could do it before. It was evidence she now had help with the job of bringing everything online, in the person of our new jetman, Warrant Officer 2C Erno Lastunen.
A few stray fish had wandered into the launch bay during assembly. They fled now as the water around us became warm and turbulent.
I radioed, “Control, requesting clearance to lift.”
“Mo, lift as you are ready. Meteorology reports half-meter seas above, with winds southeast at five knots.”
I already knew the weather, but the launch condition report is a tradition. I radioed my thank-you and proceeded with my lift.
“Jettison umbilical,” I ordered.
“Jettison umbilical, aye,” Red responded, and the ring of the detaching cable sounded through the ship. Our power now came from the mass-conversion core in the heart of Red’s main jet.
“Umbilical Clear,” Crewman Liu reported, upon visually confirming the detachment.
“Lifting,” I called as I eased Mo upward on water motors.
Right away, she skewed off course. I cursed under my breath and compensated, stopping the lateral well short of the bay wall, but still pissed. I could imagine Farley smirking at me from his couch. As a trained pilot, he would have felt it.
Assembled, Mo and the cargo pod stood over twenty five meters, so the nose of the mod was only about ten meters below the surface. It broke into the air above us before Mo’s tail had cleared the bay. I gradually boosted the thrust; for every foot of Mo that rose out of the sea we required more energy to the impellers. The water in front of me rapidly changed from near blackness to bright blue-green, then sunlight broke in as my cockpit cleared the surface. By this time, the fans were shrieking with the effort to drive the ship upward.
Despite the noise, the launching process felt like an elevator ride so far, but this was where the resemblance would disappear. I had to switch the ship over to jets before the water intakes broke the surface.
“Secondaries to eighty percent.”
“Eighty percent,” Red echoed and throttled the jets on the sides of the Goblin. I concentrated on keeping the nose pointed the right direction. One person handles all this work themselves in a fighter, but on a big bird like Mo, it takes all the pilot’s attention just to keep the ship upright during a water launch. A second person has to work the jets.
The white noise and vibrations became just as intense as any launch at Cape Canaveral. Steam and spray burst upward all around me as the ship bucked due to the bubble of seawater steam that suddenly formed under the tail, and she lurched upward. After that bump, she would normally settle quickly into an easy two-gee ride. Naturally, today couldn’t be normal. She swayed drunkenly to one side, fighting me with everything she had, striving her mightiest to angle herself instead for a high speed, low altitude pass over Houston.
I had no time to ask Red to trim ballast. I heaved against the controls, forcing the attitude jets to add to the starboard secondary that was already blasting full power. Mo bucked and fought against me for several long seconds before I had her back into something vaguely resembling the planned launch slot.
My nerves wouldn’t recover for hours. My ship had never been this unstable, even during my first live flights in her, except a couple times when we took damage from enemy fire. Transformed by all the modifications and additions, she had become a stranger to me.