The Measure of Humanity – Chapter NINE

Keeping Direwolf pilots in line is like herding cats.

At least, that’s what Danni and Ash tell me.

They’ve been chosen for their independence and self-motivation, which is good in a fighter pilot, but terrible for getting them to actually, you know. Follow orders. Pay attention to details. Little things.

At least until they outgrow it. And if they don’t? Well, there are very few old immature Direwolf pilots, one way or another.

Put it on your calendars now: November 24.

Why?

Because Adam is going to do a blockbuster sale and promotional blitz that day!

He’s going to be all over the web, including at least one (and maybe two) LIVE appearances, PLUS giveaways and contests and all sorts of other fun things.

MOST of this will be on Facebook (see the button below), but he’s also going to be on the Meet The Author Podcast at 7pm EST (4pm PST) on the 24th as well.

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CHAPTER NINE

Njord Space

“Nymeria Squadron, Division Two, to Njord.”

“Go ahead, Ashlyn,” replied Hecate.

“We’re fifteen minutes to bingo.”

“Division Three is five minutes from launch and will take over CAP.”

“Roger, Hecate. Out.”

Ashlyn looked around at her half of the squadron. No, third, she corrected herself. Six more birds had been added, giving them three six-fighter divisions, and rumor had it another six, and the pilots to go with them, were in the pipeline. Fortunately for her, Double Dip was the final evaluator for the new pilots; unfortunately, that meant that she was having to pick up her game as XO and really start running the squadron, not just her division.

Speaking of her division…

“Drifter, where are you?” Her voice was quiet.

“Ten o’clock, fifty klicks out.”

“Gotcha. Any reason you’re not on Rube’s wing like you’re supposed to be? He’s at two o’clock, eighty klicks.”

“Sorry, Double S.” The Direwolf changed course to rendezvous with his partner. “I was following a twitch on my scanner.”

“Goddammit, Drifter! First you report, then you investigate, and always with your wing. You know better than that!”

“Aye, ma’am.”

The next few minutes were routine for the new CAP that had been instituted and Ashlyn allowed herself to think of the changes in the past weeks.

The Tigers still maintained their own anti-shipping patrols at the edge of the Federation exclusion zone, extending 30,000 kilometers Luna-ward from Njord. The Wolves added to the CAP as well when the Enterprise wasn’t on patrol, but they were a strictly supplementary force. Unfortunately, while a Wolf-class MOV had greater endurance and absolute range than a Direwolf, they couldn’t match the acceleration. That meant they had a longer reaction time for any given incursion. For most of the threats, that wasn’t an issue; the best the Artemis or Solarian Navies could manage was 8 g’s, and while that would build up to impressive totals eventually it certainly didn’t match their 200 g’s.

The suicide ship from Titan, though, changed everything. The acceleration was pathetic, but the time it had to use that acceleration let it pile up lots of velocity. The first one – and nobody doubted that there would be more – could cover the exclusion zone in twelve seconds, far too fast for a Wolf to intercept. And the other shortcoming of the Wolves reared its ugly head here as well: their effective weapons range sucked. Yes, their phased particle emitters packed a punch, and could deliver continuous fire without needing to recharge, but the range was five hundred klicks!

Direwolves, though, partnered with Njord’s sensors, changed everything. Njord could see everything within ten million klicks of its position, determine velocity and course, and do it all in real time with no light-speed lag. That gave them over an hour to react to the approach of any more suicide ships, and that’s where the Direwolves came into the picture. With their acceleration they could match speed with the incoming from a dead stop in less than nine minutes.

In theory, then, the CAP, which usually patrolled the anti-Luna side at about 200,000 klicks, would rally to the incoming, while the next division would take their place on patrol. They’d match course and speed with the target, engage with their lasers as far out as they could manage, and maintain their fire until the target was destroyed or one of the starships was available for support.

That was the plan.

Executing it, though, was going to be a bitch.

“Division two, this is division three.” The voice of Itzeel Arriaga, the pilot in command of the newest division, broke her reverie.

“Go ahead, Zero,” she commed back.

“On station.”

The next minutes were occupied by the usual routine involved in the change of posts. Even though there wasn’t anything to report to Zero, she still had to tell her in full detail. Of course, that was nothing compared to the report she’d have to write before she was finally off duty.

“Hey, babe, we done yet?” Starbuck hadn’t gotten any more subtle; if anything, the regular patrols had brought his adopted personality more to the fore.

“Not yet, and why won’t you use my implant like the other AI’s do with their pilots?”

“What? You don’t like my voice?”

“Oh, frak me,” she muttered. “Zero, if you’ve got this, we’re RTB.”

“Starbuck giving you a hard time? Your mic was live,” Zero said with a chuckle.

“Yeah,” agreed Ashlyn.

“You could always turn on the steam vents,” suggested the voice of Zero’s AI, Athena.

“I heard that, and that was totally not my fault!” said Starbuck indignantly.

Laughing, Ashlyn said, “I might try that. Have a quiet flight.” She switched over to her division’s frequency. “Set course for Njord, and give me a bingo check.”

One by one her flight reported their time to bingo, the point where they were no longer guaranteed to have enough fuel to return to Njord. There was some variation, because no pilot wanted to tell their CO that they were bingo fuel and so would try to cram just a few extra grams of reaction mass in before takeoff, but maneuvering burned fuel. So it was no real surprise to her when Drifter said sheepishly, “Flight, I’m actually at bingo minus two.”

She closed her eyes and offered up a silent prayer for whatever guardian angel had the unfortunate duty to watch over Drifter.

“Fine. Rubberneck,” she said to her own wingman. “Partner with Rube and get the rest back to base. I’ll stick with Drifter.”

“Aye, ma’am. You heard her, guys. Form on me, return to base.” The other four Direwolves joined formation and smoothly accelerated.

“Starbuck, talk to me.”

“Hold on, hold on,” said the AI. “I’m going over options with Greenbean. Boy, the people you let go into space!”

Greenbean was the AI in Drifter’s Direwolf.

She could hear rising frustration in Drifter’s voice over the circuit. He wasn’t talking to her, instead running through checklists and cursing vehemently at irregular intervals.

“Drifter. Drifter!”

“What?” he snapped, then corrected himself. “I mean, ma’am?”

“Chill. We’ve got this. You’re only minus two, and –”

“No, ma’am, that’s the problem. I’m minus four now and still dropping.”

“Starbuck?”

“Confirmed.” The AI’s tone lost all of its usual banter. “There’s a problem with his fuel containment.”

“Dangerous?” Reaction mass for a fusion plant was less hazardous than the antimatter the starships relied on, but fuel was fuel. It was never good to have it floating loose.

“Not according to Greenbean, but all of our calculations just went out the launch tube.”

“Crap. Drifter, how much fuel do you have left?”

“About ten percent and dropping fast.”

Ashlyn thought quickly, throwing questions through her plant to both Hecate and Starbuck.

“Okay, Drifter, confirm you’re on course for Njord.”

“On course at the blistering speed of three hundred meters per second, ETA sometime next week.”

“Can it, Drifter. On my mark, give me a full-power burn for ten seconds, then shut it down wrong.”

“Huh?”

“Use the override to cut the power to the engines, don’t do the regular shutdown.”

“That’s going to trap fuel in the lines, oh.”

“Right. You ought to trap at least that much in the lines, and if there’s even a few extra milligrams in the tanks that’s a bonus.”

“On it.” There was a few seconds pause, and then: “Ready on your mark.”

“Good. On three. Three, two, one, mark.”

Drifter’s Direwolf jumped forward at 500 gravities. In ten seconds, he cut his engines, but he had accelerated by nearly fifty KPS.

“Starbuck, match course and speed.”

“Matching course and speed.”

“Hecate, Nymeria DivTwo declaring an emergency.”

“Understand, Nymeria Two.”

“Nymeria Two, this is Spurgeon. What’s your emergency?”

Glen Spurgeon had overseen the evolution of the Federation’s construction capabilities from Spacedock to Diana to Njord. Even though Hecate handled most of the regular duties and the day-to-day operations, Spurgeon was a near-constant presence in the control center and stepped in when needed.

“I have a Direwolf that’s losing fuel and is coming in on a cometary.”

“Velocity?”

“Fifty KPS. He should have enough fuel to kill his velocity, but it’s going to be close.”

“What do you need, Ashlyn?”

“Have the tractors standing by for recovery.”

“We can do that, as long as you can get him below 2 KPS. My numbers say you’re an hour out.”

“Hour and change, yeah.”

“Okay, we’ll be ready. Anything else?”

“Watch for the rest of DivTwo; they’re inbound.”

“Roger, Ashlyn. Out.”

“Double S?”

“Yeah, Drifter?”

“We’ve got another problem.”

“What?”

“Power.”

“Oh, frak.” Without the fusion plant running, the fighter had to rely on old-fashioned storage cells. Those were only good for a few minutes of full power.

“Wait. Drifter, what’s your capacitor charge?”

“Huh? Full, just like it’s supposed to be for CAP.” He sounded defensive.

“Starbuck, can he tap the capacitor to power his systems?”

“Never considered that before.”

“Consider it now.”

“Hold your horses!” There was a few seconds’ pause, an eternity for an AI, before Starbuck spoke again. “Yeah, he can. It won’t be pretty, but hell, he’s going to need garage time anyways. What’s a capacitor between friends?”

“Drifter, Starbuck is going to send Greenbean some specs so you can reroute power from the capacitors. That’ll keep you going until we hit the bay.”

“I hope you didn’t mean ‘hit’ literally, Double S.”

The next almost hour was both tense and boring as the two Direwolves drifted in formation towards Njord. The two AI’s were in constant communication, analyzing the fault and searching for the source of the problem. Ashlyn took advantage of the unexpected time to catch up on paperwork, while reassuring Drifter that it could have happened to anyone and she wasn’t going to hold that against him.

“Nymeria Two, Njord.” Spurgeon’s voice interrupted her latest task.

“Go ahead.”

“We have you at an ETA of five minutes.”

She checked her onboard systems. “Concur.”

“Any change?”

“No. We think we’ve sussed out the problem, but it’s non-reparable in flight. Drifter is currently at zero fuel, excluding whatever’s trapped in his lines.”

“Okay, Two. We’re ready on our end to grab your wayward bird.”

“Roger, Njord. We’re going to execute our maneuver at the one-minute mark.”

“Understood. Standing by.”

“Drifter, you ready for this?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Okay. This is going to be very rough and ready, so don’t worry about doing it by the numbers. There are no numbers for a problem like this.”

“Got it, Double S.”

“Three minutes. Let’s go over it one more time.”

There wasn’t really much to go over, but Ashlyn knew that she needed to keep Drifter focused on solving the problem, not the problem itself, and so they reviewed. He flipped orientation so he was positioned to decelerate.

“Ten seconds. You’ve got this, Drifter.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you totally owe me a beer.”

“Yeah, yeah. What?”

“Five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.”

Drifter’s Direwolf seemed suddenly to stand still, his engines flashing back into life, Ashlyn speeding past before she executed her own flip and matched his efforts.

“Hold us steady,” she said to Starbuck, concentrating on her instruments and trusting the AI with the controls.

“You got it.”

“Looking good, Drifter. I’m showing you down to six KPS.”

“Yeah, but I’m almost out of, oh, crap. That’s it, I’m dry.”

“Confirmed,” echoed Hecate, who had been monitoring the telemetry. “And he did a number on his engines, too. Going to need a rebuild.”

“That’s assuming I land, not crash,” Drifter said bitterly.

“You’re not going to crash,” assured Ashlyn, then switched frequencies.

“He’s not going to crash, is he?” she asked Spurgeon.

“Working the problem,” he answered.

“My calculations show that our tractors should be enough to reduce his momentum to zero before he runs out of bay,” said Hecate, with a hint of uncertainty.

“’Should’?” repeated Spurgeon. “Explain.”

“He didn’t quite make the target number,” said Hecate.

“How close is not quite?”

“His velocity is only 2.3 KPS; I can handle that.”

“That’s not what you said earlier, and remember, you can’t catch him until he’s less than ten klicks from the bay,” added Spurgeon. “Run the numbers again.”

As the human and AI bay supervisors bickered, Ashlyn turned back to Drifter.

“Frak, frak, frak! I’m going to go splat, I know it!”

“Drifter! Knock that felgercarb off! I’m not going to lose you over less than half a KPS.”

“What are you going to do? Tie a rope on?”

“No, but we’ll figure something.” She tried to sound reassuring. “You did good. Go ahead and flip your fighter so you’re nose-in.”

Something was tickling the back of her brain, but she couldn’t quite figure what.

“Rotating.” The Direwolf moved gracefully, invisible puffs of gas pushing the craft into the right attitude, and suddenly it hit her.

“Drifter, what is your OAS state?”

The Orientation Adjustment System was similar to the Orbital Maneuvering System on the ancient shuttles and the new Wolves. Strategically placed nozzles were scattered around the ship, connected to centralized tanks which contained pressurized atmosphere. When the ship needed to turn, the OAS was triggered, releasing precise amounts of gas to nudge the craft into the correct attitude for the maneuver. They jets weren’t powerful, but they were all over the body of the fighter, including facing forward.

“Nearly full,” answered Drifter.

“Hecate, Glen, what if Drifter fires off his OAS? Would that kill enough velocity for the tractors to do the rest?”

“Calculating,” said Hecate, as Glen simultaneously said, “Does he have enough to make a difference?”

“It’s a different system from the engine,” she replied. “He reports nearly a full tank; that’s several liters of compressed atmo.”

“With what he has remaining, and holding five percent in reserve, yes, Ensign. That will make the capture much less problematic,” said the AI.

“Drifter! Fire your forward OAS!”

“Why? That won’t stop me!”

“No, but it’ll slow you enough so that Hecate can and make sure you don’t end up like a bug on the windshield. Stop arguing and do it!”

“Aye. Firing.”

“Run it down to five percent of your tank,” she added.

Almost imperceptibly, he slowed. After long moments, he reported, “Five percent, cutting off OAS.”

“Hecate?”

“His velocity is down to 1.9 KPS. I can catch that and not even rumple his uniform!”

True to her word, Hecate did just that. Her tractors reached out invisibly just at ten klicks, grabbing hold and starting to dump velocity. By the time he was within a klick of the bay he was barely at 500 MPS and slowing rapidly; she dumped more velocity and brought him into the bay at a sedate 10 MPS. His ship settled on the floor of the bay without so much as a bump.

Ashlyn paced him the entire way, only waving off for the final landing, holding position just outside their squadron’s bay. Her landing wasn’t quite as smooth, but then again, she was only human.

As the bay doors closed and the atmo was pumped in, Ashlyn cracked her cockpit and jumped down to the deck. A rescue squad was already trotting from their position at the back of the bay, equipment in hand.

She used the handholds to climb up the side and pounded on the optical sapphire cockpit. She saw Drifter turn to face her, then reach for the controls to open up as her suit registered full pressure.

“What?” he said peevishly when the cockpit was fully opened. “You couldn’t wait another twenty seconds?”

“No, I just didn’t want you to try to weasel out of my beer. Come on, let’s figure out what broke your bird, then we’re going to hit the O Club.”

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