Early the next day, Alexander opened up her doors and released Mo from the grip of the maneuvering braces. I gave a short burn of the port attitude jets (full on the forward and just enough on the aft to balance out the slightly higher mass to the rear. It’s tricky to go sideways when the forward forty percent of your ship is a dead load without thrusters of its own.) She gently slid out of the bay while Lastunen began the work of preparing the jets.
We wouldn’t be using the Main Jet, just the Top and Bottom secondaries along with the attitude thrusters, but we had to have it hot before we went out to the Group perimeter. You never know when the Enemy might decide to launch an attack.
We weren’t going far, just positioning ourselves out above the main battle group to where Farley would have safe sailing. We wouldn’t be returning to Alexander unless we took battle damage again.
The way an orbital line of battle works, the big ships form up in a line along the chosen orbit and the smaller ships either line up with them or take short lived trajectories outside, above or below the battle group. That’s what we were doing. We were making a short jaunt outside to get Farley on his way, then dropping down below to get back to our original station, lining up with the big ships like just another battle wagon. We would do it again when Farley returned.
Red supervised the launch from the cargo pod while Lastunen manned the flight engineer station, running his jet from there while he also tended the secondaries. It was a strange feeling for me. During the flight here he had been playing flight engineer on the shifts that Kirkwood flew, so I was still accustomed to having only Red in that role.
“Ready to steam up, Captain,” Lastunen commed.
I went onto Battle Group Frequency. “Battle Group One-Eight Control, this is Tango-Victor-Eight-Oh-Three.”
“This is Control. Copy Tango-Victor-Eight-Oh-Three. You are currently negative two meters per second primary normal with respect to Charlie-Hotel-Four-Niner.”
I’m not even going to begin to parse that one for the non-pilots. Suffice it to say, Mo was moving at the speed of a fast walk away from CH-49 Alexander and Sebka A.
“Permission to steam up and proceed on filed mission plan.”
“Hold off initialization of mass-conversion until you have four hundred meters distance from Charlie-Hotel-Four-Niner. Thrust as you are ready.”
The radio traffic continued like that until we thrusted away. Alexander dropped away below us as we thrusted for higher altitude from Sebka A.
At two hundred kilometers up above the Battle Group, we sent Farley off without a hitch and then retro-fired to drop back toward the planet.
Red did what she could during the long wait to shorten up the loading process for the contents of Hold One, but that mostly consisted of evacuating the central chamber so the bosun’s mate and the deck hands could move the first few items part of the way. That was how we had worked it. I put my deckhands on the job, since they had more experience dealing with working in a vacuum. Farley’s people, for all their loadmaster skills, were trained to work mostly in a shirtsleeves environment with an atmosphere.
Hopefully the extra help would ease some of Farley’s complaints. Hopefully.
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It was all quite orderly. Farley made the first trip without a scratch and the Road Kings easily destroyed the only threat, a couple atmospheric fighters that made a run at him as he departed the LZ. Forty hours of worrying ticked by without any other incidents.
I relaxed. I decided I was worrying for nothing. Farley, no matter what his faults, was legit as a pilot. Maybe he lacked wide enough nerveware channels to navigate Meta-space, but his stick and rudder skills in Normal Space needed no enhancement.
Optimism just isn’t a good idea for Goblin drivers. I know that. Farley proved it by becoming intensely frustrated with the process as we loaded him up for the second trip. Although they were trained in vac-suit work, Farley’s people were just not experienced in it. We eventually had to withdraw them except for the two with vac-skin, which came with more advanced training. Farley and Senior Armsman Patel directed my guys, with Red and me pitching in, and we eventually managed it.
The second trip had gone without any threat at all except for some ineffectual missile fire from so far out that the Road Kings had easily disposed of it.
# # #
Close to midway through Farley’s third trip, I was at the helm station, monitoring the radio traffic from the lander. After days of avoiding me, Red had come in and taken the observer seat without a word.
I was fine with her being like this. She’d performed like the old Red during the last firefight, and that’s what I wanted from her. I didn’t need her love, I needed her to keep my ship alive so I could keep her alive. But it was good to have her show up at the helm at last.
We were listening for the call sign “Molly”, Farley’s name for his craft, along with those for the Road Kings who were flying air cover.
It was quiet, and I wanted some kind of conversation, so I commented, “You always bore me to tears with stories about your boyfriends. You not gonna start again?”
For a moment, I got silence. Then I got an answer I didn’t believe. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
I looked over at my shoulder at her. “You know, that’s not what it looks like.”
She humphed and then did that thing where you grab your elbow above your head and stretch. I don’t know what you call that. It’s pretty distracting when Red does it.
“We’ve played around a little. I admit that,” she said mid-stretch. “He’s really hot.”
She put her arms down and folded them. After taking several seconds to contemplated it, she shrugged. “He’s good at making out, but he’s too much of a jerk.”
“Huh,” I commented. I mean, how in heck does a guy respond to that?
“It really is time we should hear from him…” she then noted, with some concern. I did a time check and realized she was right. We had contact after he landed, so he’d got down okay, but he should have been returning.
It was the second seaters on duty, because Martins considers Normal Space flying to be ideal conditions for them to get experience. It wasn’t long before they were having the same thoughts as us.
“Ivan to Googly, you have Molly yet?”
There was that ‘Googly’ call sign again. I really needed to meet the woman and erase that awful image.
“You’re close to altitude limit. Don’t descend further.”
“Roger. Leveling out. Establish a holding pattern?”
“Circle at twenty thousand meters, fifty klick radius around intercept point.”
“Two-Five-Four-Three aye,” she responded with her ship’s formal id to acknowledge Ivan’s order.
“Road Kings, we’re joining her,” he told the rest.
“Poco, got it,” said one new voice.
“Spider, understood,” said the other.
Get on the same page already!
A call icon showed up at that moment on the mental ‘screen’ that acts as my default nerveware interface. I patched it into the audio.
A computer stated, “Incoming call from Battle Group One-Eight Command.”
Not local control. It wasn’t the Sky Boss or his subordinates checking on something. The comm was on speaker for Red’s benefit. I saw worry grow in her eyes.
With considerable concern of my own, I took the call. “Tango-Victor-Eight-Oh-Three Morris Higgins responding.”
“Call for your captain, Higgins.“
“Go ahead, Ground.”
A different voice came on. The man sounded like he was outdoors. “This is Major McNeil, Two-One-Three-Seven Mobile Artillery Company. Is this the commander of the special assault vessel that’s been landing supplies at position mu-alpha-seven?”
Yeah, Mo was now classified as a ‘special assault vessel’ instead of a transport, despite still having the designation “Tango Victor” for ‘Transport, Versatile’ in her call sign. “Captain Resnik speaking, Major.”
“His LZ took heavy fire, right after we had radio traffic that he was taking off. My radar operator thinks she saw him for a moment, but lost contact right away. He was about two hundred meters up.”
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