You know, it's conversations like the one in the last chapter which made me grateful I had Davie on my side.
Which meant she got to deal with all of the military bureaucracy.
In turn, this allowed me to do what I wanted: get out exploring!
Playing to people's strengths, right?
I was a natural leader (apparently - not that I thought so!), and she was a natural organizer.
Ham and eggs.
No wonder our partnership worked for decades.
“This is going to be a piece of cake.”
Zero, this one’s yours.
“Vortex, observe radio silence.”
“But skipper, nobody’s listening!”
Double Dip stepped in on a directed frequency.
“You were given a direct order.”
“You and me. Twenty minutes after the exercise. My office.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” The ensign could be heard deflating. Double Dip didn’t often have to correct her pilots. Part was due to her positive leadership, but part too were her dressing-downs. They were legend.
“What’s going on? That’s the second pilot who’s bucked you today.”
“No excuses, Ma’am.”
“Didn’t ask for excuses, I asked what’s going on.”
“I’m not sure. I think it might be a combination of restlessness and cockiness.”
“Well, you know what to do about restlessness.”
“More drills. Got it in one, XO. As for cockiness…”
All four dozen Direwolves were in space, far to the down-orbit side of Njord, conducting the weekly MassEx. Nymeria Squadron was taking the role of attackers, and Red Squadron were going to be the outnumbered defenders. They had the ‘assistance’ of the Roosa and the Richard, which complicated issues across the board.
Unfortunately, the MassEx was taking a while to set up on the defenders end, and the Nymeria pilots were getting antsy. Maybe it was time for something different.
“Shooting Star, what’s the hold-up?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said, but she sounded stressed.
“I know you can handle it, but maybe our boys are girls are ready for a change. Tell you what, why don’t we call off the official MassEx today and try again tomorrow? I’ve got an idea.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“I’ll contact the CAG and fill her in. You get your squadron on our coordinates.”
“Roger, Double Dip. Out.”
“Change of plans.”
“I was listening.”
“You’re gonna love this.”
After explaining to Flashdance the change in plans, and noting the approach of Red Squadron, Daniela switched back to the squadron freq. “Okay, flyboys and flygirls, the MassEx is officially called.”
There were various pro forma protestations, but nothing too strenuous. All of the pilots could see an unexpected afternoon off in their future, gleaming in the rays of the sun, until she spoke again.
“I’ve heard you lot have been thinking you’re king of the hill. That right?”
There was no immediate answer, then a voice said, “Nobody’s beat us yet, Commander.”
“Bun-bun, I can fly rings around you. I have flown rings around you.”
“Ah. So you think maybe now you can?”
Indistinct chatter came over the open mics.
“Fine. Shooting Star!”
“You and me.”
“Aye, Ma’am!” Daniela saw Ashlyn’s Direwolf peeling off in her direction.
“The rest of you. Form up, groups of five or six. We are going to take you all on, one improvised division at a time, and when we finish kicking your asses from here to Njord we’ll have a nice little chat about the difference between confidence and cockiness. You’ve got ten minutes.”
The squadrons, predictably, wanted to divide into their usual divisions. Daniela noted that between Zero and Ashlyn’s XO, Locksmith, they managed to integrate them fairly evenly.
“So what are we doing, skipper?” Ashlyn asked.
“We’re going to show these cubs who the baddest Direwolves are on the block.”
“I got that, but did you have any particular plan?”
“Nope, just outfly and outshoot them.”
“Ah, it’ll be just like old times,” said Starbuck.
“Nobody asked you,” said Boomer.
“Hey, buddy, did I ever steer you wrong?”
“Well, I always bailed you out, didn’t I?”
It was hard to imagine an AI sounding grudging, but Boomer managed it. “You did.”
“See? What could possibly go wrong?” Starbuck retorted.
“Don’t even think that!”
“Hey, it’s like drawing to a full pyramid!”
As the AI’s bickered, Daniela and Ashlyn planned. After all, though they’d taught their pilots how to fly, they hadn’t taught them everything.
The first group bored straight in, trying to overwhelm them with firepower before they could react. The two veteran pilots countered the assault by putting their Direwolves into a rotation around their long axis, never presenting the same aspect to the oncoming ships, and holding their own fire until point-blank range.
Group two tried a variation on the tactic, spreading their oncoming ships in a wide pattern with all twelve of their lasers converging along the most likely incoming path. Daniela tantalized them by showing them her tail, staying just outside the range of the apex, and distracting them. Ashlyn cut her power and became a hole in space, waiting while the six whipped past. Then they sprang their trap.
Ashlyn powered up, vaulting from zero to 500 g in a heartbeat. Simultaneously, Daniela pivoted her craft, cutting her engines so as not to change her trajectory but leaving her facing the onrushing half-dozen. It wasn’t pretty.
“Nice try. Next!”
Group Three had the advantage of Zero choosing to join their flight. She wasn’t the best pilot, but she did bring them a focal point, and thus they came in more coordinated than either of the first two groups. The tactic they chose was, perhaps, less than optimal. The group split into three two-ship wings, with one wing assigned to take on Double Dip, one taking on Shooting Star, and the third held in reserve for support.
In theory, that was a logical tactic. In practice, for all the hours of training their pilots had endured, being thrown together in unplanned pairs threw off their carefully-crafted timing and precise flying. This, in turn, played into one of the strengths of the two commanders: their relationships with their AI’s.
Most of the pilots used their AI’s in a passive manner, trusting them to do the tasks necessary to fly a Direwolf. In many ways they treated the AI’s as no more exceptional, or capable, than the fly-by-wire systems of the 21st century. This was despite knowing the Epsilons were at least as capable of creative thought as their human pilots. Daniela and Ashlyn, however, both accepted the capability of their AI’s and treated them as co-pilots rather than a mere auto-pilot.
In a practical sense, most Direwolf pilots were at their best in combination with another pilot flying wing. Both commanders were equally comfortable flying without a wing, although they too benefitted from flying in tandem. The increased process power and speed that their AI’s brought to the mission were able to be multiplied across two ships instead of just one.
When Zero’s group made their run, expecting to have not just a numerical advantage but the upper hand when it came to coordination, they instead encountered two ships which seemed to violate every tactical norm.
Tunnel Vision and Battle were the pair tasked to take down Shooting Star. Their approach was right out of the book: one lead ship, one trailing, separated by enough distance to preclude a single shot taking them both out, and running at about ¾ throttle.
“Target acquired,” Battle reported from the lead ship. “Why isn’t she evading?”
“Do you have lock?” Tunnel Vision asked.
“No, I can’t quite get tone.”
“She’s evading,” answered Tunnel Vision. “Look, she’s jinking.”
Shooting Star’s Direwolf was swerving back and forth across her trajectory.
“Dammit, Vision, she’s on a straight-line course, it’s just those stupid wiggles! She’s not even trying to outrun us, just maintaining separation.”
Tunnel Vision considered the situation. Lasers are light-speed weapons, of course. From a practical perspective if a target was locked, ‘shoot’ was generally synonymous with ‘kill’. At the range they were at, less than a thousand kilometers, any shot would take a tiny fraction of a second to cover the gap. She wouldn’t even be able to tell Battle had fired until the bolts hit home. So why wasn’t she trying to evade?
“Battle, back off. She’s up to something.”
“No way, man! She’s mine!”
“You don’t have lock!”
“I don’t care!”
His thumb depressed the trigger.
With shocking speed Shooting Star’s Direwolf executed a skew turn hard to the right, dumping most of her velocity and allowing her to double back on her pursuers.
“Where the fuck is she?” screamed Battle. “I’ve lost her!”
“On our three o’clock!” answered Tunnel Vision. Any cohesion in their pairing dissolved as both attempted to elude the suddenly-aggressive Shooting Star. Tunnel Vision dove down as Battle tried frantically to spot her, ignoring his sensors.
A tone sounded in Battle’s cockpit and he lost all power, the standard ‘you’re dead’ during a mock dogfight.
“Tag,” he heard over his comm.
Zero’s wing broke to cover Tunnel Vision, but they were a good minute away, which allowed Double Dip to spring her trap.
She’d been running from her pursuers as well, but Jimmy and Chewbacca were more skilled in their coordination than Tunnel Vision and Battle. They’d kept up the pressure, maintaining full acceleration, not allowing her any space to maneuver. However, by going in pursuit, they’d ceded the choice of direction to Double Dip, and she’d been steadily edging upwards, out of the ecliptic.
“Just don’t puke on me. You’re going to get hit with some heavy negative g’s.”
“I promise. On your count.”
Her Direwolf stopped building velocity; she was already well over 300 KPS and almost two thousand kilometers ahead of the pursuit. She hoped it would look like she lost power. Sure enough…
“Nymeria Actual, this is Red Nine.” Chewbacca. “Status check.”
She deliberately let the call go unanswered. Thirty seconds later, and the oncoming Direwolves 150 kilometers closer, the call came again.
“Nymeria Actual, Red Nine. Are you declaring an emergency?”
She resisted the impulse to answer.
From vents all around her Direwolf puffs of gas emerged, generating a random-looking tumble. She was still on her trajectory, though, which was what counted.
“Nymeria Actual, Njord. Come in.” Flashdance.
“Hey, Shannon, can we – ugh - talk later? Middle of – oof - an exercise.”
“Red Nine called in that you lost power and are tumbling.”
“Yes. Part of – unh – the training.”
“You’ll have to tell me later. Njord, out.”
The two Direwolves had closed another 200 kilometers. With a real target they would have taken it out already, but since it was Daniela they held their fire.
“Boomer, you have a lock?” Her hand rested over the firing control.
“Affirmative. Say the word and they’re toast.”
“The word is given.” She pressed the trigger, the physical connection necessary to commit to firing.
Chewbacca and Jimmy never stood a chance. Boomer’s ‘tumble’ was neither random nor uncontrolled; instead, it aligned the lasers at each ship once every 4.2 seconds. Admittedly, it was only for a fraction of a second, but with an AI in charge of the actual timing, a fraction was an eternity.
“Suckers,” she commed, zeroing out the tumble and coming back up to full power. “Shooting Star, check in.”
“Tunnel Vision is mine whenever I want him.”
“Still trying to work an intercept on my six.”
“On the beam.”
“Got them.” She changed course. “Forty seconds, and Zero’s going to be very surprised.”
Zero and Doc were. In fairness, when Tunnel Vision’s systems went dead a second later, he wasn’t surprised. He’d known it was coming.
Group four never stood a chance. While they were still trying to organize, Double Dip and Shooting Star came screaming in, firing wildly. After all, lasers had virtually unlimited range in space; firing at 50,000 kilometers carried the same killing power as firing at 500; the only difference was the size of the fraction of a second between firing and impact. The two survivors scattered. After that it was just mopping up.
Group five was much more cautious, sending a ship ahead to probe while the others organized.
Double Dip and Shooting Star held position, targeted the oncoming ship, ‘destroyed’ it a half light-second distant, and then acted as if it were still a threat. Once it had closed to within ten thousand kilometers, they turned and accelerated away, carefully not pulling too far away and varying their speed to make it seem as though their pursuer was still active. Following their ‘zombie’ leader, the other five ships tagged along a few thousand kilometers behind, even when Double Dip peeled away, crashing up to max accel and simply disappearing. That should have panicked them, but since Shooting Star was carefully maintaining her distance from the ‘zombie’, the group focused on her.
Ten minutes later, when Double Dip circled in behind them at 3000 KPS, they learned not to hyper-focus.
“Okay, last victims!”
The final group was less a group and more a collection of individuals. These were the pilots who were most like their commanders, yet lacking the tempering those worthies had received: Wingbat, Frak Me, Al Bundy, Rube, Drifter, and Jerry’s Kid. Instead of coordinating their assault it was simply a bull rush; Double Dip and Shooting Star separated. Four followed Double Dip, two Shooting Star, cutting inside the chord of the angle and making up huge chunks of ground.
“I think they’re serious,” commed Double Dip.
“Need some help?”
“I wouldn’t say no.” She shot a set of coordinates across. “Let’s make this gradual. I don’t think they’ll notice.”
“Starbuck makes it nine minutes. Can you hold out that long?”
“As long as they don’t buy a clue, no problem.”
The commanders began arcing north, above the ecliptic, on a semi-circular course that would have the two groups of pursuers interpenetrate.
Four minutes. Five. Six.
And now the circles were complete. They were still separated by a little less than three light-seconds, 862,000 kilometers, but that gap was shrinking at 4000 KPS.
“Three minutes, thirty seconds.”
“Engage at thirty,” answered Double Dip. “Hecate, you clear on what to do?”
The ‘teenaged’ AI replied. “Got it! As soon as they read as ‘dead’ they get a full decel, we don’t want them smacking into each other on a Dutchman, it would be messy.”
“Thank you, Hecate.”
Two minutes later.
“Starbuck, got the range?”
“Got ‘em, sweetheart. Like fleecing Taurans.”
“Double Dip, we’ve got tone.”
“So do we. Hold fire until my signal.”
“Always the toughest part,” said Starbuck.
“Waiting for the other guy to fold.”
“They’re not going to fold.”
“You want a bet?”
“Ten seconds.” Double Dip’s voice interrupted them.
“Five. Two, one, fire.”
The range was still over 100,000 kilometers, but both Direwolves went into rapid discharge on their lasers, making minute adjustments in aim. In two seconds both oncoming OpFors were decimated. The only remaining functional craft belonged to Wingbat, and she’d locked hard onto Double Dip’s six.
“I don’t have a shot!” Shooting Star commed as she maneuvered clear of the ‘zombie’ ships.
“I’ve got one trick,” commed Double Dip. “Boomer?”
“I still say you’re nuts.”
“On two. Two!”
The maneuver was similar to the one used earlier, with her ship rotating around the Z axis instead of the Y axis, leaving her inverted to Wingbat. This time, though, Double Dip’s engines roared back into life, throwing their full 500 g into killing her velocity.
“Break off, Wingbat,” she ordered. “You’re done.”
“You haven’t tagged me yet,” Wingbat commed back. “Not done!”
“Fine. Boomer, got tone?”
“We shook something lose. I can’t get a lock.”
“Crap. Wingbat, break off, break, break, break.”
“Goddammit, Wingbat, this is – fuck it!” With a snarl, Double Dip swerved her Direwolf out of the path.
“Not getting away that easily!” Wingbat commed, matching the course change to intercept.
Declaring an emergency was anathema to every pilot. It wasn’t just the paperwork involved. It wasn’t the disruption it meant to all other Starfleet craft within five light-seconds, as all routine traffic was shut down and redirected. No, the real problem was it meant, in the unspoken code, they’d run into a situation they couldn’t handle. Oh, sure, it happened, but not to them. It was always the other guy.
She didn’t even blink. “Njord, Nymeria Actual, declaring an emergency.”
Hecate’s response was exactly as it needed to be.
“All vessels, all vessels, emergency declared, clear zone,” and Hecate recited the grid coordinates Double Dip occupied. She saw the other Direwolves scattering, heading for the edge of the off-limit space.
“Dammit, Wingbat, break off! An emergency is declared!”
She didn’t reply.
I know you can hear me! Break off, Ensign! Double Dip sent over her implant. Still no reply.
“Boomer! Give me quarter-power on the lasers.” They’d been at two percent for the exercise. Quarter power would ring Wingbat’s bell but, hopefully, not damage her ship.
Double Dip brought her nose roughly in line with the oncoming ship. “Spray and pray time.”
She pressed the trigger and held it flat as Boomer tried to adjust the ship to its target. A few seconds, and then, “Gotcha!” she exulted, then opened the comm again.
“Wingbat, do I have your attention? Break off!”
“No more practice rounds, eh?” Wingbat replied. “Fine!”
“We’re hit!” Boomer said.
“Avionics out. I’ve locked down the system and switched to secondaries.” Double Dip waggled her stick; her Direwolf, normally almost twitchily responsive, was sluggish.
“Comms are out too.”
As she pushed the throttle forward and started attempting to evade, she opened her ‘plant to wide broadcast. Everyone in the System would hear her, but she didn’t care.
Shut down power to Red Eight! Wingbat’s gone screwy!
Done, answered Diana.
“Firing’s stopped,” Boomer said. “She’s got a dead stick.”
The two ships were still closing at more than 3400 KPS and they were barely three seconds distant. That’s how long Double Dip had to realize that Wingbat really was that good a pilot, having brought her ship into a zero-zero intercept flight path.
The only thing which saved her was her inverted position, relative to Wingbat. In that fraction of a second, as the two ships crossed paths, the tail of Wingbat’s Direwolf came up almost the exact centerline of Double Dip’s ship, scraped over the canopy, then mangled itself on Double Dip’s tail.
Wingbat went tumbling.
Alarms shrilled and her control panels turned crimson.
“What do we have left?” she said, slapping the alarms into silence. The feed from Boomer flooded through her ‘plant and she winced.
“Remind me that I owe Starbuck one for talking us into this.”
Despite the chaos Double Dip had to grin. “I think I’ve got some response from the engines.”
“Yeah, topside engine’s shot and you’ve got an imbalance. Portside’s lost about fifteen percent power, starboard’s lost forty. We’re not going anywhere fast.”
“You work on stabilizing us, then we can try to dump velocity.”
“I have about half a working OAS. This is gonna take time.”
“Hold on. Ashlyn’s pinged me.” She shut her eyes, not because she needed to do so for the ‘plant but because the as-yet uncontrolled tumble was finally affecting her.
You got the squadrons?
Yes. You okay? Your comms are down.
We’re a bit crispy around the edges, but yeah. Wingbat’s status?
Her comms are down and she’s doing a Dutchman. Both of you are.
I think I can fix at least part. Diana, give, no, scratch that. Take control of Red Eight, lock her out of her systems, and bring her back home.
The AI sounded apologetic. Red Eight is offline, Commander. I have no communication with them at all.
That was stunning. Nothing should have been able to knock out the Q, no matter the damage to the Direwolf. Diana was continuing.
Enterprise is en route.
Red Eight is the priority.
Yes, Commander. I will pass that along.
She opened her eyes. The stars had stopped their spinning.
“Tell me something good, Boomer.”
“OAS wasn’t as bad as I thought. There were a couple stuck relays and valves that blew loose when I kicked secondary systems on.”
“Good! Now, how about the engines?”
“They’re going to be a pull-and-replace if we’re lucky. I’m guessing we’re going to need an entirely new body.”
“Yowch. Well, let’s start to dump some of this velocity. Can you align us?”
“Yeah, I can do that.” With excruciating slowness the injured ship pivoted.
“What’s our best balanced thrust?”
“We shouldn’t go over 50% on either remaining engine.”
“That’ll give us what, 1.6 KPS?”
“And we’re moving at 1340 KPS?”
Double Dip sighed.
“May as well get started. It’s going to be a long burn.”
For the next almost fourteen minutes Double Dip and Boomer balanced the output of the fusion plant and the engines, dropping their speed agonizingly slowly. Finally, Boomer shut down the engines and said, “Zero motion relative to Njord.”
“I should probably check in. Any joy on comms?”
“No; best I can figure, the guts of the system are a few hundred thousand klicks behind us.”
“Implant it is.”
Anyone on the net, this is Nymeria Actual.
Nymeria Actual, CAG. Go.
We’re stationary. What’s the plan?
Enterprise is still recovering Wingbat. Endeavour will rendezvous with you.
There were complications. The implant stripped tone and emotion from messages; a user could add back the voice of the sender if they wanted, but the meta-content was gone. That didn’t mean Daniela didn’t hear the gloom in Shannon’s voice.
She’s dead, Daniela. I’m sorry.
They’re still working on that. I’ll fill you in when you’re safely back.
Ah, crap. The stars started wavering, or maybe her eyes started to water. Roger that.
Nymeria Actual, Endeavour. We have you on sensors. Thirty seconds. Can you self-recover or do you want an assist?
An assist would be appreciated, Endeavour. Out.