“Admiral, you’re not going to believe what the Isaacs want to try now.”
Carrington looked up from his personal holodisplay where he’d been trying to catch up on the reports and paperwork that were the constant price of good administration. Naomi and company were off on some thing with Major Bennet. It gave him a few hours away from the dignitaries to try and get caught up on his other duties and he really, really wanted to to do anything else. The baffled look on the comm officer’s face promised him something far more interesting. “I take it they’re asking for more than another change in the fleet’s overall formation?”
“They sent over a presentation.”
The Newtonian’s ideas just became a lot less interesting. “Can you summarize?”
“One of their fighter pilots thinks he’s a space pirate now.”
“Does he want to join the Minervan spacers or something? I don’t think the Remus has facilities to service an OF-28, much less the desire. Is he qualified on their gunboats?”
“I don’t know, sir, but he’s not actually looking to defect to the Moonies. He wants hijack a freighter.”
Carrington rubbed his chin, wondering where that idea had come from and why a fighter pilot, of all things, would want to try it. Copernican pilots generally liked challenging flight tasks. Capturing freighters, space bound or otherwise, didn’t really qualify. He’d discussed the movement of materiel on Earth with Ollinger before but he didn’t think that conversation was widely discussed through the fleet. Then again, it was foolish to underestimate the intelligence gathering abilities of bored spacers. “Very well, Lieutenant, I suppose we should look at the presentation. Let me have it.”
Five minutes later he was laughing as he signed off on their proposal.
“The Admiral gave it a go,” control announced, “with a couple of modifications that they’re working into place now.”
“What kind of updates are we looking at?” Bubbles asked.
“For starters, we’re moving Point Break squadron into high orbit over your descent vector. You’re going to have the fleet’s destroyer screen to backstop your approach as well, just in case there are any more of those ground emplacements that we haven’t smashed yet.” Bourne’s display updated with the new projected locations for the ships in question. “Tranquility BASIC projects they’ll be in place in forty minutes.”
“Take your time,” Bourne muttered, watching the freighter’s progress and timing its progress.
“Not too much, though,” Bubbles grumbled. “That fucker’s faster than any aquatic craft I’ve ever seen and if we want to get down to it before it reaches the safe zone around Australia we need to do it soon.”
“Fair point,” control replied. “But the last time you made a descent without a backstop in place only half of you came back.”
“Also important to consider,” Bourne admitted. So they waited.
It took a total of forty two minutes for the fleet to get into position once it was all said and done. At it’s current pace the freighter was one hundred and seventy six minutes away from the Australian ‘safe zone’ where they’d determined ground based projectors could create disassembler fields. The techies still weren’t sure whether the freighter could survive if the field switched on. They’d have to operate on the assumption the disassemblers would shiled the freighter from attack once the ship was in rnage. The descent would take Bourne and Bubbles a total of seventy two minutes from orbit to intercept, giving them almost two hours of padding to deal with any problems that arose.
Either way, Starstream flight was under orders to abandon the raid if UNIGOV tried to play any new tricks. What constituted a ‘new trick’ was pretty vague.
“Prepare to deploy airfoils,” Bourne announced, “check mechanisms and report in.”
“My wings are ready to go,” Bubbles said as soon as he was done. He was just as eager to hit atmo as Bourne was.
Bourne’s lights were also green. “Deploy airfoils and prep jets for atmo, we’ll hold the reaction mass for a quick boost back to orbit.”
“Still think we should do a thruster burn to match rotation, Leader.”
“Your objections are noted, Bubbles. We’ll stick to the plan.”
Bubbles wasn’t a fan of their landing trajectory. Due to their starting over a pole their fighters had very little velocity relative to the planet’s rotation and they were going to have to spend a lot of time catching up to it in order to intercept their target. When plotting their descent Bubbles had suggested a prolonged burn in high orbit to match the rotation followed by a rapid descent to intercept. The whole sequence would take about fifty minutes.
The problem was they would have to burn a lot of reaction mass on inefficient maneuvers in order to match velocities. Burning reaction mass was always a problem. Maneuvers outside of atmo all required some reaction mass but really long, hard burns could empty their tanks in less than two hours. It was much different from the kind of short, sharp bursts employed in dogfights. That was why standard space fighter design theory integrated jet engines and aerofoils for atmospheric flight – it allowed for aerospace operations without spending onboard mass. The pattern Bubbles proposed would have emptied anywhere from one fifth to one quarter of their fighter’s reserves.
The speed gained wasn’t inconsequential. Thrusters were the fastest drive available to the OF-28 and shaving twenty minutes off the descent time gave them more breathing room. At the same time, thrusters were also the safest way to make a fast escape. If they burned mass to match the orbital velocity and then had to do it again to escape Earth’s gravity well they’d be down to about ten to fifteen percent of their starting thruster fuel. And they’d be back in orbit, where thrusters were the only maneuvering option.
So Bourne had insisted on making a slower descent in atmosphere, relying on jets for all maneuvering purposes. The problem was the disassembler fields. During the second part of their intercept course they’d be low enough that they could potentially get caught in one so they had to snake their path around Earth’s major landmasses just to be safe. Thus a much slower descent.
However even with all potential problems in timing of their intercept, control was right. Bourne didn’t want a repeat of his last attempted landing. He was going to take all possible precautions and if that meant poking along via jet engine, so be it. All descending orbits went by faster than you thought anyways.
Starstream Flight had been away for less than twenty minutes when a voice in BASIC called out, “Bogie one has altered it’s course. Advice Principia control that their fighters may be spotted.”
Carrington frowned at that. UNIGOV was many things but interested in what happened above them wasn’t one of them. In fact, the sapiens of Earth actively avoided watching the skies. Furthermore, the freighter’s change in course was plotted in the holotank and it didn’t look like it was taking evasive action. It hadn’t sped up or added zigzags to its route. It was just carving a long, lazy arc through the ocean that turned it away from its original course for no apparent reason.
“Principia control wants to know if they should recall Starstream Flight,” comms announced. “General Ollinger says he’s against it.”
That was acknowledged with a nod and, although Carrington was inclined to agree with his counterpart by instinct he wasn’t sure it was the right choice. It was a bit extreme to risk two lives just to possibly learn what a single freighter was hauling. Still, attacking supply lines had toppled many mighty nations in the past and could easily do the same for UNIGOV.
He racked his brains to try and explain the ship’s odd behavior. It could have been the prelude to another bizarre gambit from the Earthlings but the sapiens had such distorted priorities that he couldn’t be sure. After a moment he commanded his AI to search all his discussions with Stephen Mond for certain terms. Ocean, freighter, shipping and a few other nautical terms.
A few seconds later the AI brought him the solution. “They’re maneuvering around reefs.”
“Sir?” The officer on watch in BASIC gave him a confused look.
“UNIGOV is obsessed with the condition of Earth’s environment, albeit in very strange and often ineffective ways,” Carrington said. “You’d think they’d just implement some terraforming projects. Instead they tiptoe around a bunch of places like they’re going to break the biosphere if they touch the wrong thing. Mond mentioned one of the things they try to do is avoid corral growths at all costs. Look at the course plot.”
The ship’s AI had a constantly updated projection of the freighter’s most likely destinations in the holotank and its change in heading hadn’t really changed any of them. “We don’t have a good map of Earth’s coral beds, no surprise there, so we can’t be sure. But it doesn’t look like their course changes are actually taking them anywhere and they aren’t erratic enough to be evasive. For now, we continue as is.”
“Understood,” the BASIC officer responded. “Advise Principia that they should not recall Starstream Flight but should advise them that their new heading puts them in the path of a significant weather event.”
“What are we looking at, Typhoon Earthling?” Bubbles asked.
“Aren’t you optimistic?” Bourne snorted. “It’s just a tropical storm, Bubbles, calm down.”
The towering storm clouds swept towards them as their fighters swept across the Atlantic Ocean on their penultimate breaking orbit. The atmo was still thin that high up. That didn’t keep the angry winds from screeching across their hulls as the nose of their craft cut into the tops of the funnel cloud.
“Our hulls aren’t rated for this kind of crosswinds, Chief.”
“That kind of rotation isn’t rated for our kind of acceleration, Bubbles. Steady.”
“Starstream, Principia control. You know you’re about to fly through a hurricane, right?”
“Tropical storm!” They both replied in unison.
Carrington abandoned the main holotank in order to loom over the BASIC consoles where a handful of human overseers double checked the ship AI’s efforts to reconcile the dozens of streams of information from the ships in the fleet and the screen of fighters. BASIC was a vestige of old days, before AI made many of the watch stations of the Battle Space Information Center redundant. Now it was basically a secondary comms center. The officer on duty was clearly not used to having the admiral’s full, direct scrutiny.
“Where are the ships in Starstream Flight?”
The man on duty – Lieutenant Gerard according to his uniform – tugged nervously at his collar. “We’re working to reacquire them, sir.”
“Work harder, please.”
“Yes, sir. Principia control insists they told Starstream Flight to detour around the storm system but the flight commander apparently ignored them.”
“How long would the detour have taken?”
“The Newtonians say it would’ve added twenty minutes to the flight. Not enough to lose the freighter, especially with the way it’s acting now, but it would have definitely have cut things close.”
Carrington grunted, not impressed. Lots of pilots would choose risky flying over risky timing and he understood the impulse, to an extent, but it was a bad command decision. There were more opportunities than just the one in front of you. That was true in war and life in general. “How long until the fighters clear the storm clouds?”
“Six minutes? Maybe seven? Depends on how bad the wind slows them down.”
“Well. I suppose we wait.”
“Got a minor hull breach,” Bourne said, double checking the seal on his helmet. “Flight cabin’s pressure is dropping. My suit integrity is fine so it shouldn’t be an issue for the return flight but I’ll try and get a patch over it before we boost to orbit anyway.”
“My wing motors are locked up,” Bubbles replied. “We’ll see if things shake loose now that we’re out of the worst of the wind but if necessary I’ll leave them out for space flight. Not like I need the added integrity if we’re not going to be dogfighting up there.”
“All right, then. I have a bead on the freighter, looks like it’s about ten kilometers off projected intercept, we’ll adjust to catch it. Get ready to spook some Earthlings.”
The basic principle of what they were doing was simple. Earth freighters were fast. Really fast, especially when compared to the water they displaced. If they could get one moving fast enough the physics of the hydroplane could potentially lift their bow part way out of the water – assuming the ship was unloaded. If it was loaded, the ship’s waterline wouldn’t move at all.
Starstream Flight came in low over the freighter’s deck, jets howling in the morning air, plasma guns firing superheated, ionized gasses that shot through the air with a perpetual thunderclap pursuing them. They fired a barrage of plasma all around the freighter to spur it forward and knocked out its primary radio antenna just to be on the safe side. Sure enough, the freighter put its best foot forward to try and escape them but an aquatic ship was no match for a space fighter and they kept pace easily. It took less than three minutes of harrying the boat to get their answer.
“Principia control this is Starstream Leader. The ship is definitely loaded to the top with something heavy.” Bourne looked out the side of his cockpit at the ship and considered his options. Whatever was on there, it probably wasn’t something they wanted the Earthlings to have. “Do you want us to sink it?”