50: Goblin Driver 16 – Battle

An active outer system battle was underway when we crossed the system limit of Sebka/A[hika system, what astrophysicists call the ‘termination shock’, and became officially ‘in-system’.

Actually, that wasn’t a surprise; unlike the equivalent surface navy actions, deep space battles start slowly and take weeks, if not months, because they sprawl across volumes of space that are unimaginably huge in comparison to tiny things like planets or the orbits of planetary secondaries. I had advance warning in the Low Data Rate dispatch I received. What I didn’t have was the leeway to miss the fight entirely. That fact had already been chiseled in stone by my position and velocity before I received the low data rate transmission.

The capital ships were exchanging blows at 15 light-minute ranges. That distance is close to the mean diameter of the Earth’s path around the Sun. Ion projectors are already ineffective at that range. It’s strictly a contest of kinetic guns and warhead-tipped missiles, and little guys like me are just doing their best to be untargetable. I didn’t have enough fleet situation data to tell who had the advantage, but I could see where to not go.

That place, which stretched across more than a dozen astronomical units, was in the direct path for Sebka. Which is why I was on course for A[hika. I would still fall into Enemy range for a long, painful stretch, but veering that direction left me with less hyperlight headwind. I was staying close to a hundred cees, and the greater hyperlight resistance gave me the traction to zig-zag like a drunk man. The take-hold warnings with each gybe were surely wearing the crew out, though, and I was considering simply calling for a belt-in. I was already at battle warning, so they should be in their couches as much as possible, but that would make it mandatory.

“Red,” I called on the flight crew channel, “Daz is re-rigging the sails for drag. Steam-up the jets.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” was the unusual response.

I wanted to ask, who are you and what have you done with Red? I couldn’t remember the last time I got an “Aye, Captain” from her, much less “Aye aye.” I might at most get an unadorned “aye”, without the ‘captain’.

As my boards indicated pressure coming up in the main’s plasma chambers and the skirt fields building, she commented, “We’ve burned through a lot of mass already. We’ll be below half tanks by the time we reach Sebka.”

I nodded (uselessly, since she couldn’t see me from the engineer’s station) and answered, “We’ll be making a stop at A[hika C on the way out.”

Martins had informed me that most people turned the “[” into a “c” and made it into “Achika”. It was unrelated to the Rphuk sound, but they had to say the “[” some way. So, they said it like the letter it resembled.

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A[hika A, the primary was a gas giant similar to Saturn in size, and its larger, spherical secondaries B, C, D, E and F were all either water-ice or methane types. The only airless rocks were the minor secondaries, the ones with roman numerals.

The ESDF doesn’t use the same system as Earth astronomers. The primaries get greek letters and sometimes names, according to mean distance from the star. If the primary has spherical secondaries, you name them, including the primary, with latin letters and the minor secondaries (and minor planets of the star) with numbers, according to size.

So the Earth system would have Solα (Mercury), Solβ(Venus), then Solγ A (Earth) and Solγ B (Moon), Solσ(Mars) with Solσ 1 and Solσ 2 being Phobos and Deimos… but then it has Solε (Ceres), because it’s spherical despite being what Espee astronomers call a ‘minor planet’, before getting to Solζ A (Jupiter) and all its numbers and letters. Of course, we don’t ever use the Greek letters when we have names like Sebka and A[hika to use.

So A[hika A’s second largest spherical secondary was a major refueling stop, as it was basically a snowball. It contained more water than Earth’s oceans.

Red acknowledged my answer and started bringing the jets up. This was the way it was supposed to work. She acknowledged my order, then noted the possible issue properly.

Kirkwood was the one who brought me trouble this time, but it wasn’t insubordination. It was an incoming communication. She had taken the observer seat to monitor comm traffic for me during this critical time.

“Low Data Rate from Cruiser Archimedes, Captain.”

“Got it,” I answered as I mentally icon’ed to read it directly through my nerveware

The message sent a chill down my spine.

Enemy interception dispatched your direction.

I immediately triggered Battle Stations and flashed a heads-up to the escorts while I read the tracking data through my nerveware.

“Belt in, belt in, belt in,” I called out, even though it was a redundant. My crew would say that Battle Stations already implied it, but the ‘Belt in’ call put extra fire under the butts of the ground-pounders aboard. I kept half an eye on the screen showing the couches as I worked all the issues now facing me.

Archimedes had omitted any characterization data they had, in order to get the warning to me faster, but I had a current generation battle comp on my side. I had just finished directing it to zoom in on the location indicated, when Letour called, “Thanks, Captain. I’ll take it now.”

She hadn’t been in her couch when I called Battle Stations, so I was surprised for a moment, until I remembered the wifi tablet she had shown me a couple days previously. She could manage quite a bit through an app as she hurried to her station.

“I’ll keep an eye on it anyway, until you’re belted in,” I answered. “I’ve got some misgivings about that app thing of yours.”

After a pause, she answered, “Just checking, but… you’re the millennial and I’m the gen-Xer, right?”

I laughed and turned it over to her. “Fine. It’s yours.”

Based on the tracking data, I tacked harder antispinward than I would have done otherwise. I needed to cut away from the Enemy’s path more. I was about to cause a need for a serious course correction later,  and that was going to cut even farther into my propellant that I was already over-drawing from.

Sorry, Red, I apologized silently.

My change didn’t make a lot of difference yet, because Daz was in the process of taking down my sails at the time. It would make a much bigger difference once my main jet came up.

Red had that main jet’s plasma pressures up as swiftly as always. “Main engine, steam up…  Port secondary, disabled, Starboard, steam up… Top, steam up… Bottom, steam up. Ready for thrust, Captain. Turning Main over to Jetman now.”

The repeated use of ‘Captain’ instead of ‘Cap’ by Red was beginning to grate on me. I assumed it was her way of saying ‘I’m still upset with you.’ I kept the sigh from escaping me.

Lewis came on, “Sails are down, tails are at minimum.”

The ‘tails’, the anchor connecting us to Normal Space, was never ‘down’– physics insured it could never be, because it’s like how you can never reach the speed of light– but the drag from it could be reduced to near zero. When we were sailing with the hyperlight in any direction other then directly from our stern, we needed it larger, because it acted as a keel against which our sails could vector, but with our sails down, it was just a liability.

But less of a liability for us than for a bigger craft like one of cruiser class. I was hoping for that, rather than craft of fighter class. The size of a ship affected both the drag created by its Meta fields and the size of its tails. Our size was why Aviation Corps craft were so much faster than Battle Fleet vessels.

“Bringing up thrust,” I declared as I began ramping up the main jet very slowly

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By leaving it under half a gee, I was giving the last stragglers an advantage. The lights rapidly went green… in all cases except one.

“Poppy! Who’s missing?”

“Armsman First Class David Gereben,” she read off.

“Start a visual search of the internal cams,” I ordered, and opened a private channel. “PTO Joss!”

“Yes, Captain,” came back the crisp reply.

“One of your troops hasn’t reached his couch. We’re searching the ship for him.”

The tracks were coming on fast, I noticed. Too fast for anything like a cruiser. Or even a smaller fleet vessel. Flipping back to the fighting crew channel, I demanded, “Letour, I need a read on the plot.”

“I’ve pretty high confidence they’re Rednose interceptors,” she reported. “Still trying to reach one hundred percent confidence on that.”

Crap. That was not good.

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