Chapter 4. 1301 hours TFT, Gray's POV.
Trevor Gray held his gravfighter snug against the deck, streaking across open water a scant twenty meters up. His velocity now down to eight kps, he was still throwing up a hypersonic shock wave that dragged across the surface of the shallow sea, sending up a vast, white wall of spray stretching out in a knife-thin line for over a hundred kilometers behind him.
The Marine perimeter was five hundred kilometers ahead.
Talk about terrain-following flying. 20 meters up at a little less than 18,000 mph is nuts
. Also, liquid water on the surface of Ate a Boot. Which is appropriate: Average temperatures are below the boiling point of water at 1300 mmHg (the number was in an infodump in chapter two that I snipped up, not realizing it could be important later).
The surface was gloomy after the brilliant sunlight above the cloud deck. Haris -- Eta Boötis IV -- was shrouded in thick clouds, a solid blanket tinted red, orange, and yellow by various sulfur compounds in the atmosphere, and those colors were echoed by the oily sea below. The surface temperature was hot -- hotter than the world's distance from its sun would suggest. The cloud deck and airborne sulfur compounds created a greenhouse effect that substantially warmed the planet -- not nearly to the extent of Venus back in the Sol system, perhaps, but enough to render the place less than desirable as real estate, even if humans could breathe the air. What the hell had the Mufrids seen in the place, anyway?
The temperature outside his hurtling Starhawk, he noted, was 48 degrees Celsius -- a swelteringly hot day in the tropics back on Earth, and it was only a short time past local dawn.
A wet Venus, someone in the fleet called it. Pretty accurate description.
Targeting data flowed through his IHD, appearing in windows opening against the periphery of his visual field. God ... the Marines had listed hundreds of targets out there, far too many for one lone gravfighter.
But he began dragging down targets with his eyes and locking on. He heard the tone indicating a solid lock. "Mike-Red, Blue Omega Seven. I have tone on the first six targets on your list. Request firing clearance."
"Blue Seven, hell yeah! Slam the bastards!"
"Copy. Engaging." He lifted his fighter slightly higher above the water, up to eighty meters, to give himself launch clearance. "Fox Three!"
Six Krait missiles dropped clear of the Starhawk's keel, emerging from exit ports melting open around them in the hull, then accelerated. Fox Three was the firing code for targets on the ground, or for extremely large ships or bases in orbit. <snip how Fox One through Three meant something else in the 20th century>
Guided by their onboard AIs, the six Kraits streaked ahead of the Starhawk, their grav drives glowing brilliantly as they plowed through the dense atmosphere. Gray banked left and accelerated slightly; Turusch sensors in orbit would have spotted that launch even if they'd missed his fighter, and they would be trying to target him now.
A blue-white detonation flared at his back, searing a tunnel down through the atmosphere and vaporizing a stadium-sized chunk of seawater. A second blast ignited the sky to his right. He was traveling too fast for the shock waves to catch him, but he cut right and slowed, riding the fast-expanding wave front of the second explosion in order to take advantage of the mushroom cap of superheated steam overhead. Those shots had been from a Turusch orbital particle cannon; each shot ionized air molecules and tended to momentarily block sensors trying to read through the muck.
It's tricky to spot small stuff from orbit but launching six grav drive missiles will get the enemy's attention.
And if I'm not mistaken, with that "stadium-sized patch of water" line, we've got something we can get ballpark firepower numbers from at last! I'm just going to pick Yankee Stadium pretty much at random, which this guy
calculated as 24,315,600 cubic feet in volume. Assuming pure water, Wolfram Alpha gave me 1.75 x 10^12 kJ for that particle beam
on enthalpy of vaporization alone. That's a lower limit of 418.3 kilotons from a capital ship particle beam. Quite respectable.
Additional data: According to the infodump on Ate a Boot's physical characteristics in chapter two, the surface pressure on Ate a Boot is about 1300 mmHg, and we just learned the surface temperature is about 48°C. Wolfram Alpha gave me the boiling point of water at that pressure as 116°C. So the beam also had to heat that absurd volume of water by roughly 68 degrees. But at this point I'm butting up what I can remember from chemistry without consulting a textbook (which I don't have handy ATM). I know I need to do something with delta-T and the specific heat of water but I don't remember how to set up the equation and Wolfram isn't helping.
On a completely unrelated note, I had to feed that Wolfram URL through TinyURL because the BBCode wasn't cooperating.
"Target fifteen on the Red-Mike targeting list ahead, coming into range," his AI announced. His IHD showed the target as a red triangle on the horizon -- some kind of Turusch gun emplacement or surface battery. It was already too close for a Krait lock-on; he switched to his PBP, his particle beam projector, or "pee-beep," as it was more popularly known.
At his AI's command, the nose of his fighter melted away half a meter, exposing the projector head. "Fire!"
A beam of blue-white light stabbed ahead of his gravfighter, intolerably brilliant; a high-energy UV laser burned a vacuum tunnel through the air, followed a microsecond later by the proton beam, directed and focused by a powerful magnetic field. Twenty-some kilometers ahead, a surface crawler, a squat and massive floater nearly one hundred meters long, was struck by a devastating bolt of lightning before it could fire its next gravitic shell. Secondary explosions lit up the sky, visible from the Starhawk's cockpit as Gray broke hard to the left.
Inner workings of the pee-beep, and the result of shooting it at a Trash self-propelled artillery piece.
I notice it fired a two-part beam this time instead of just a neutron bolt like he used to destroy those missiles during the fight in orbit last chapter. Possibly indicative of different firing modes for atmospheric and space combat.
His AI began loosing Krait missiles, each locking onto a different target on the Marine list. More energy beams and high-velocity kinetic-kill slugs slammed into the sea a few kilometers astern. Gray increased his speed and began jinking, pulling irregular turns left and right to make it harder on the Turusch gunners some hundreds of kilometers above him. At a thought, a half dozen decoys snapped clear of the Starhawk and streaked in various directions, trailing electronic signatures like an SG-92.
Electronic warfare drones, and the Trash are spamming where they think he is with beams and KK rounds.
Skip the part where Gray's nukes hit and he fires off his last missiles and:
"Red-Mike, this is Blue Omega Seven. I'm Echo-Whiskey and coming in toward the perimeter."
"Copy, Blue Seven," a Marine voice said. "We're getting drone evals on the eggs you laid. Good shooting. Looks like you tore the bastards up pretty good. Nice shooting!"
"Almost up to Marine standards," Gray quipped.
"I didn't say you were that good, Navy...."
The Turusch particle beam stabbed down out of the cloud deck, a violet-and-blue bolt meters across, scarcely ten meters off Gray's starboard wing. Static shrieked from the electronic interference and blanked out the displays in Gray's head. The shock wave caught him from the side, tumbling him over wildly. His AI intervened with reflexes far faster than a human's, engaging full thrust and pulling up hard before the blast could slam him into the sea.
Then his power system shut down, and with it his weapons, his primary flight controls, and his life support. He had just enough juice in reserve to put full thrust into his secondaries before they, too, failed and he began dropping toward the alien sea. Slowed now, to less than a kilometer per second, he tried to pull his nose up for a wet landing, but then everything went dead, leaving him in darkness.
Oh shit. Capship pee-beep ten meters off produces enough EMP to completely fry a Starhawk.
"Eject, eject, eject!" his AI was shouting in his ear before its voice, too, failed. The Starhawk's ejection system was self-contained and separate from other ship systems. He grabbed the D-ring handle on the deck, twisted it to arm the mechanism, and pulled.
The cockpit melted away around him, the nanoflow so quick it was more like an explosion than an opening, the blast of wind shrieking around his helmet. Rocket motors in the base of the couch fired, kicking him clear of the falling spacecraft seconds before it slammed into the surging red waters of the sea.
With his inertial compensators out, the jolt of acceleration rattled his bones and brought with it a stab of terror. Despite both his flight training and numerous experiential downloads, Gray didn't share the seamless relationship enjoyed by the others in his squadron. He couldn't. For a long moment as the couch carried him in stomach-wrenching free fall, panic clawed at the back of his mind, and he struggled to control it.
The eject sequence, fortunately, was entirely automated, a precaution in case the pilot was crippled or unconscious. Scant meters above the surface of the sea, braking rockets fired with another jolt, slowing him suddenly, and then gray splashed down in the shallow, oily water.
Smoke boiled from the sea a kilometer or two away as his Starhawk dissolved, its nano components turning suicidal and melting the rest of the ship so that it wouldn't fall into Turusch hands ... or whatever they had that passed for hands.
Description of a Starhawk's ejection sequence. Interesting technological whiplash: we go from high-tech melting of the cockpit roof (Goose doesn't break his neck), to low-tech chemical rockets to get you clear, just like in current fighters. Then instead of a parachute (probably useless at this altitude anyway) it uses retro-rockets. And of course the entire system is automated and isolated from anything else, which is just sensible. This message, er, gravfighter, will now self-destruct.
Also, the third paragraph mentions something we discussed in the Space Wolf
and "40k canon policy" threads: knowledge downloads that don't necessarily translate into a behavior change and that have to be practiced.
He struggled to free himself from the chair's embrace. He felt heavy, dragged down by the planet's gravity. The water, he was surprised to note, was only about a meter deep. He'd come down perhaps a kilometer from the shoreline -- he could see an orange-cloaked land mass toward local north -- but the seabed here was extremely shallow -- a tidal flat, perhaps. Eta Boötis IV had no moon, but the large sun exerted tidal forces enough, he knew, to raise substantial tides.
Gray tried standing up, leaning against the chair, and nearly fell again. The artificial spin gravity on board the carrier America was kept at around half a G -- a reasonable compromise for crew members from Earth and those born and raised on Luna, Mars, or Ganymede. The surface gravity on Eta Boötis IV was 1.85 G, almost four times what he was used to. Another low swell passed, hitting him waist-high, and he did fall; the water was heavy, with a lot of momentum behind it. He landed on his hands and knees, struggling against the planet's dragging pull.
His e-suit would keep him alive for days. Skin-tight, pressure sealed, and with a plastic helmet almost invisible in its clarity at optical wavelengths, it was colored bright orange to help rescue craft spot him, though on this red-orange world, they would have to rely on other wavelengths to see him. A nanobreather pack was attached to his right hip, with its small bottle of oxygen beneath. The unit would recycle oxygen from CO2 for days, and in an atmosphere, even a toxic one like this one, could pull oxygen and other gases from the compounds outside, extending the unit's life, and his, indefinitely.
None of that was likely to help, though, if he couldn't reach friendly forces. He'd been shot down several hundred kilometers south of the Marine base -- exactly how far, he wasn't sure. Using his radio might well call down the Turusch equivalent of fire from heaven, so he wasn't anxious to try that. His couch should have sent out a marker code when it touched down, a burst transmission, meaningless -- he hoped -- to the enemy, but indicating a successful ejection and landing.
The question, however, was whether to stay with the couch or try to reach the Marine perimeter. Red-Mike was a long hike, but, on the other hand, he was nakedly exposed here on this tidal flat, and there would be clouds of Turusch drones moving through the area very soon, looking for him. And the drones would bring larger, more dangerous visitors.
Better, he decided, to be moving. He could work his way closer to the Marine perimeter, and give friendly forces a better chance of picking him up. If they could find him...
Description of Gray's survival suit. Shot down behind enemy lines, Gray decides he's safer on the move.
Also, they keep the grav on America
at half Earth to accomodate folks from other planets and moons.
The back of the couch opened up to reveal a compact emergency locker. Inside were extra bottles of oxygen for long-term excursions in hard vacuum, an M-64 laser carbine, medical and emergency survival packs, and a spider.
The spider was the size of a flattened football, with four legs folded up tight. When he activated the unit, it began unfolding, each extending for over a meter from the central body. Immediately, the unit moved behind him, put the tips of two legs on his shoulders to steady him, then began to snuggle in close, the main unit snuggling up against his spine, each leg adjusting and reconfiguring to conform exactly to his body. In seconds, it had adhered to his e-suit, clamped tight at ankles, knees, and hips. There was a vibrating whine of servos, and the unit straightened up, pulling him upright.
He stood now in knee-deep water, supported by the exoskeletal unit, or ESU, and when another heavy wave surged slowly past, it adjusted with his movement, shifted with his weight, and kept him upright. He took a sloshing step forward, and then another. He still felt like he weighed 150 kilos -- he did, after all -- but he could stand without feeling like his knees were about to buckle, and the spider on his pack fed his servos power enough to counteract the drag of gravity. The extensions secured to his arms were flexible and slack at the moment; if he tried to lift something, however, they would match his movements and contribute with support and lift of their own. Wearing one of these rigs, a person could do anything he could do in his normal gravity field, including running, jumping, and lifting heavy objects. The word was that with practice he could run a Marathon and not get winded. They were standard issue to civilian tourists from low-G worlds like Mars.
Med kit and survival gear snapped to clamps on the spider, and the carbine slung over his right shoulder. He wouldn't need the O2. There was plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere, bound up with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbonyl sulfide, and a witch's brew of other gasses, and his suit would have no trouble processing it to keep him alive almost indefinitely. The little unit would handle his food and water requirements as well, so long as he fed it CHON -- shorthand for carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. He needed to add an occasional handful of dirt or organic matter to provide trace elements like phosphorus and iron, necessary for the nanufacture of certain vitamins and amino acids.
Gray's emergency kit contains a collapsible exoskeleton. Nice to see people think ahead like that. And his suit can fabricate food, water, and breathable air from nonbreathable air and dirt.
In fact, nanotech is the main way anything is manufactured in this setting. I'm almost certain the word "nanufacture" up there isn't a typo (and if it is, it's an appropriate one).
His personal e-hancements, computer circuitry nanotechnically grown into the sulci of his brain, had downloaded both the ghost-shadow of his fighter's AI and the position of the Marine base in those last seconds before he'd crashed. As he turned his head, his IHD hardware threw a green triangle on the horizon ... in that direction, toward the beach.
That was where he had to go, then. Taking a last look around, he started wading toward the shore.
Gray's off and running, erm, walking. Also mention of how his IHD works. It's grown right inside his head with nano.
Switching over to Koenig's perspective for the next segment. 1330 hours.
Admiral Koenig checked the time once again. The fleet had been traveling for 9.4 hours, accelerating constantly at 500 gravities. They were nearing the midpoint now, halfway between the Kuiper Belt space where they'd arrived in-system and their destination. Their speed at the moment was .77 c, fast enough that for every three minutes passing in the universe outside, only two minutes passed within the America.
Fleet's position and speed.
He checked the time again. The Dragonfires had been mixing it up with the bad guys for forty-five minutes already, an eternity in combat. It was entirely possible that the fighting was over.
If so, twelve brave men and women were dead now -- dead, or trapped in crumpled hulks on high-speed, straight-line vectors out of battlespace.
Lightspeed lag alone would make it impossible to know what was happening. The Dragonfires are still fighting but Koenig has no way of knowing that.
"Admiral?" the voice of Commander Katryn Craig, the CIC Operations officer, said in Koenig's head. "Mr. Quintanilla is requesting permission to enter the CIC."
Koenig sighed. He would rather have given orders that the civilian be kept off the command deck entirely, but he was under orders from Fleet Mars to cooperate with the jackass, and playing the martinet would not smooth the bureaucratic pathway in the slightest.
Politics. He made a sour face. Sometimes, it seemed as though his job was nothing but.
Koenig hates his political officer. Film at eleven.
Mr. Q asks "Are we there yet?" Koenig says "Halfway," thinks "Go away." (Okay, I made up that last part.)
The carrier task force had no way of receiving telemetry from the fighters it had launched nine and a half hours earlier, of course, not while its ships were encased in their Alcubierre bubbles, but if everything had proceeded according to the oplan, the Dragonfires should have reached the vicinity of Eta Boötis IV some forty-five minutes earlier.
"Does that mean we're going to do a skew-flip, Admiral? To start decelerating?"
"No, sir, it does not. You're thinking of the gravitic drives on the fighters. The Alcubierre Drive works differently ... an entirely different principle."
"I don't understand."
Koenig wondered if that man had been briefed at all ... or if he'd been given a technical download that he'd failed to review.
Quintanilla seemed to read Koenig's expression. "Look, I'm here as a political liaison, Admiral. The technology of your space drive is hardly my area of expertise."
Obviously, Koenig thought. "The type of gravitational acceleration we use on the fighters won't work on capital ships," he said, "vessels over about eighty meters in length. With ships as large as the America, projecting an artificial singularity pulling fifty-kay gravs or so ahead of the vessel would cause problems -- tidal effects would set up deadly shear forces within the ship's hull that would tear her to bits.
"So for larger ships, we use the Alcubierre Drive. It manipulates the fabric of spacetime both forward and astern, essentially causing space to contract ahead and expand behind. The result is an enclosed bubble of spacetime with the ship imbedded inside. The ship is not accelerating relative to the space around it, but that space is sliding across the spacetime matrix at accelerations that can reach the speed of light, or better."
"That makes no sense whatsoever."
Koenig grinned. "Welcome to the wonderful world of zero-point field manipulation. It's all pretty contra-intuitive. Free energy out of hard vacuum, artificial singularities, and we can reshape spacetime to suit ourselves. No wonder the Sh'daar are nervous about our technology curve.
Exposition on the key "impossible" tech of the setting, spacetime manipulation.
"Why only one squadron? That's ... what? Twelve spacecraft? But you have six squadrons on board, right?"
Koenig blinked, surprised by the abrupt change of topic. He'd been expecting another physics question.
"Six strike fighter squadrons, yes," Koenig replied, cautious. What was the civilian hammering at? "Plus one reconnaissance squadron, the Sneaky Peaks; an EW squadron, two SAR squadrons, and two utility/logistics squadrons." EW was electronic warfare, specialists in long-range electronic intelligence, or ELINT, and in battlespace command and control. SAR was search and rescue, the tugs that went out after high-velocity hulks, attempting to recover the pilots.
That's the number I was looking for earlier. 60 fighters counting the Dragonfires/Blue Omegas, a recon squadron, EW squadron, SAR ships, and utility/logistics. Call it 132 auxiliary craft in all.
Quintanilla shrugged, the movement giving him a slight rotation in microgravity. He reached out awkwardly and grabbed the back of Koenig's seat. "Okay, twelve fighters against over fifty-five capital ships, then. It seems ... suicidal."
"Then why --"
"Every man and woman of VFA-44 volunteered for this op," Koenig told him. He could have added that Koenig's own contribution to the plan hashed out by Ops had called for three squadrons, half of America's strike-fighter complement. Ultimately, that had been rejected by the Fleet Operations Review Board at Mars Synchorbital. His was still the final responsibility.
Koenig wanted to send half his fighters on the near-c
strike, not just the Dragonfires. He got overruled by command.
"But you could launch the rest of your strike squadrons now, couldn't you? We're a lot closer to the target. It would take them --"
"No, Mr. Quintanilla. We could not."
Koenig sighed. Would it serve any purpose whatsoever to educate this ... civilian? "I just told you how the Alcubierre Drive works, Mr. Quintanilla."
"Eh? What does that have to do with it?"
"As I said, each ship in the fleet is imbedded inside a bubble of warped spacetime, contracting the space ahead, expanding behind. The bubble is moving. Right now America's bubble is moving at about three quarters of the speed of light. But each ship in the task force is imbedded within the spacetime inside its bubble and is relatively motionless compared to its surroundings."
"So? Why can't you just drop out of this bubble and launch more fighters?"
"Because we would drop back into normal space with the velocity we had when we engaged the Alcubierre Drive, out in this system's Kuiper Belt, something less than one kilometer per second. We would then have to begin accelerating all over again. If we started decelerating at the halfway point, our total trip would take twenty-five and a half hours. If we keep accelerating, we'll reach Haris in a total of eighteen and some hours. At that point we'll be zorching along at one-point-oh-eight c, just a hair faster than light, but we'll cut the Alcubierre Drive and drop into normal space at a modest one kps."
Ack. That last paragraph pretty much directly conflicts with the second passage I quoted from chapter two, which said that they have to decelerate in to the target after the halfway point. I get the impression Bill Keith hadn't quite mentally finalized his phlebotinum's rules and his editor didn't catch the continuity fuckup.
The hell of it was, however, that Quintanilla was right about one thing. The oplan should have called for more fighters in the first strike. The mission planners on Mars, however, had feared the consequences if America didn't have a sufficient defensive capability once she started mixing it up with the Turusch.
Had it been up to Koenig, he would have launched all six fighter squadrons from the Eta Boötis Kuiper Belt, and trusted the destroyer screen to keep the carrier safe.
But, as he'd told the damned civilian, it was too late for second-guessing the mission plan now.
Koenig's mental plan was even more aggressive than the one he actually pitched to the planners. Confirmation of six squadrons, sixty fighters (the phrasing of the last quote that brought it up was a bit ambiguous).
Shifting to Commander Marissa Allyn, leader of the Dragonfires, for the last page and a half. Time, 1335 hours.
A nuclear fireball blossomed a hundred kilometers ahead, and Commander Marissa Allyn twisted her gravfighter hard into a tight yaw. A trio of Turusch fighters flashed past her starboard side, bow to stern, particle beams stabbing at her Starhawk. She sent three Kraits after them, then followed that up with the last two Kraits in her armament racks, locking onto an immense Turusch battlespace monitor just emerging from behind the planet.
Allyn's out of missiles, having sent her last pair after a command and control vessel.
Golf-mikes -- gravitic missiles -- were looping through the battlespace, their sensors locking on to any powered target not transmitting a Turusch IFF code. The damned things were next to impossible to shake, and there were so many of them in the battle now that the Confederation pilots were having to concentrate on evading them more and more.
"This is Blue Eleven! Breaking right! Breaking --"
The voice cut off with a raw burst of static. The icon representing Oz Tombaugh, Blue Eleven, on Allyn's tactical display flared and winked out.
I'm not entirely certain if golf-mikes are the same kind of missile we saw earlier or something different that you just spam into the battlespace and hope the IFF is foolproof. Blue Eleven's gone.
"Omega Strike, this is Blue Omega One!" she called. The squadron's expendables were almost gone, and there was little more serious damage they could do to the Turusch fleet with what was left. "Let's get down on the deck! Make for the planet and home on Mike-Red!"
Eight members of the squadron remained in action, including Allyn.
And they still had more than nine hours to go before the relief forces arrived.
The squadron boosts for the Marine base and relative safety, roughly forty minutes after deploying their strike packages. Discounting Gray who we know is more or less all right, albeit short a Starhawk, three fighters disabled and/or destroyed.