28: Moon Duty Chapter 18
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Chapter 18 - Patrol Scenario

"Please proceed on a direct outbound route, Earth-normal. You are running a standard patrol scenario, so there is no ceiling."

Tony kept himself from a rude response. Almost all Elimination scenarios were 'Scrambles', pursuits responding to an already detected threat. Less common were 'Target' scenarios, offensive missions. For those, they would receive preparatory briefings beforehand. Least common were 'Patrol' scenarios. He'd never been on the latter, but he would have thought they also came with briefings. Instead, all he had was an order to fly straight up into space, headed the opposite direction from Earth.

Facing a complete lack of targets to work on, his tactical mind went to work instead on what a 'standard patrol scenario' would mean. It implied deep space, so he would have no Base Comm unless they wound up in an RL emergency. He would also receive no warnings or guidance from the ground.

So was the sim a long range planet-based patrol, or carrier ops?

He tried out a hunch. "Battle Group Control, this is Foxtrot-Seven-Seven-Nine."

A text response streamed across his nerve-ware from his flight computer. Current channel not active. Switch to Battle Group Frequency and resend transmission?

He grinned at his correct guess, flashed the 'Affirmative' icon back and then switched over to the 77th's side channel. "Chiquita, switch to 'Battle Group Frequency'. Our comps already have it programmed."

"Seven-seven-seven, Aye."

A new voice, neither of the controllers he'd heard so far, came across the new channel. "This is Control. We copy Foxtrot-Seven-Seven. You are out of sensory range; please update your flight path."

He had no idea where the battle group was. Patrolling fighters gave their flight paths according to the location of the command ship. Lacking that, he gave the only answer he could.

"Flyin' in a straight line outbound from your position, Control. No contacts."

"Report in on five minute intervals or upon vector change. Control out."

He flipped back to side channel. "Let the boredom begin."

"They aren't going to leave us hanging out here, are they?"

He didn't bother answering. They were, and she knew it full well.

The take-off slot from the Farside controller had ended under thrust. Lacking any further instructions, they were still on it. He did the math and realized they would bite too far into their mass reserves unless he did something. "We're already way over escape velocity. Better save mass. Cut jets on my mark."

He set up a sync clock between them, and a few moments later, their thrust cut off in unison. Because it qualified as a 'vector change', he rattled off a quick update to the mystery flight controller.

In the silence following engine cutoff, his winger wondered, "So is this what a real Fleet patrol is like? Just coasting along in a free trajectory?"

"From the inside of a Banshee this is what everythin' looks like, other than planet-based pursuit duty."

"Would a Battle Group just hang around in Normal Space?"

"Cha. Think picket duty. Or Line duty. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those poor slobs aren't fightin' the big Meta Space battles you read about. They're coastin' along in Normal Space, bored to death, somewhere in the middle of the Big Empty. In fact, this can be your definition of interstellar warfare, if you filter out the one percent of the time that it gets hellacious. The Gr'ts'ck think they're gonna catch us half-asleep, so stay frosty."

"Do Gr'ts'ck sleep?"

"No clue, Babe."

They had no ceiling, he mused, but they had a time limit. Rissa and Poe had to fly, and the farther the aliens let him get from the Moon, the more time it would take to return to base so they could launch. By his arithmetic, the Gr'ts'ck had not quite an hour to make their move without putting the contest behind schedule.

Long pursuits down the Centauri had trained him how to 'stay frosty', but Chiquita had never gone on one of those. After the first ten minutes he started making her take detailed sensor sweeps, just to keep her alert.

When that hour had almost expired, he'd begun wondering if the Gr'ts'ck had considered the time limit. He was ready to radio a comment to the controller when the bogeys appeared.

"Tally twelve," Ana called, "Dead ahead. High relative vee, range just under ten thousand klicks."

"I'm runnin' analysis." They might have reversed roles, but on the air he had to keep up the 'One' role, so he didn't tip off the aliens. "You call the range."

Twelve against two? he thought at the Gr'ts'ck with a grin. Swarming tactics were the best you could manage?

"They're on an intercept burn."

Their high relative speeds might have left them only one chance to shoot at the merge. That was the typical precursor to a dogfight. But Ana's words meant the bogeys were curving and matching velocities for a longer visit instead.

"Bring your main engines up, Babe. It's show time."

The plasma in their jets was still hot, of course. They didn't turn them off when they idled them; they just reduced energy use and stopped throwing mass out the back. They now needed a short time to get back to flying temperatures, but within the next few seconds they'd both declared steam-up.

Tony rattled off a quick update to Control as he waited. Ana counted down the distance by thousands, switching to hundreds when they got under two thousand klicks. The intervals stretched out due to the decreasing speeds. He had by now waited a much longer time than normal for his comp to run the analysis. Once it finally spat out an answer, he stared at it in disbelief.

"Kahuna? I've got a fuzzy visual on magnification, but they look like Banshees!"

Her magnification, just like his sensors, displayed fantasies created by the simulation gear. More than likely the real incoming vehicles were RPVs, but on her screen she was seeing what his sensors claimed. Sort of. It worked as confirmation, anyhow.

"Not Banshees, Chiquita. Sesseem."

The aliens who built the hulls for Banshees used the same design in their own fleets. Sesseem were tiny creatures, smaller than Zindavoor. Their versions of the Banshee were ten-crew ships rather than single-seat fighters. When his own screen displayed the visual though, it showed these were the next larger size to Banshees. The ones the ESDF had used for the old two-seater 'Ernies'.

Okay, we're outnumbered, but these are Allies. What game are you guys playing?

"Ping them on the Allied comm channel. Interspecies dot code greeting." He flipped over to Control. "Foxtrot-Seven-Seven to control. Bogeys are twelve Sesseem, on intercept burn, approaching inbound intercepting our vector."

"Seven-seven, no Sesseem operations in this area. Urgent you re-check."

He frowned at the computer console, began firing off a rerun command through his nerve-ware. Then he stopped when he realized it was unnecessary.

"Negative, Control, we have visual confirmation. Incoming are Sesseem, in Normal Space, burning to match our trajectory. Squadron of twelve patrol cutters. Estimate fourteen-crew size."

The response cam after a long pause. "Seven-seven, we are sending inquiries to Regional HQ."

There wouldn't be time in the scenario for the response. In effect, the controller had just said You're on your own. Tony flipped back to Ana. "They answer?"

"Nothing. At this range, there's no way they don't hear us."

His skin crawled. "Get ready for combat."

"Huh? But they're Allies, aren't they?"

Tony realized that Ana sounded strange, like she wasn't quite awake. His uncertainty turned to alarm. "Cadet, begin mental exercises immediately!"

"I... Okay..." She sounded drunk. After a moment, she began mumbling into her mike, unaware she was reciting out loud as she built up each pattern element in her mind. She was constructing mandalas in her mind's eye. Zindavoor had created the geometric images for Human pilots by studying Buddhist monks.

Scientists didn't know if it was the images or the mental effort that helped block Sensitive interference. Pilots didn't care, as long as it worked. He tuned her mumble out and began his own exercises.

Sensor alarms wailed, causing him to lose his first pattern. He watched in horror as a wall of Sesseem fire blazed across his display.

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