Three: The Deliverance
The morning after basic was over, I received my orders to report to the LSS Deliverance for duty. The name seemed an unlikely coincidence. Likely they were either using a new ship, or they had rechristened an old one. I was looking forward to seeing it. I’d been on a naval vessel a few times, but they were usually cutters or something small. This vessel was bound to be at least a frigate, which would make it the largest spaceship I would have ever been on.
I opened up the wardrobe in my barracks. Hanging there was my officer’s uniform and my duty fatigues. I packed the fatigues into my travel case and put on the Class A uniform. It was protocol to do so when reporting to a new vessel, but I was also proud to be wearing the uniform of the ISG, particularly an officer’s uniform. The classic black jacket on black trousers, lieutenant junior grade’s gold stripe-and-a-half on the sleeve, crisp white hat. It was an ancient tradition and one I was proud to be a part of. I put on the uniform and regarded myself in the mirror. I smiled. An officer of the Intersystem Guard, ready to set sail in order to save the only worlds I had ever known. Much to my surprise, I actually looked the part.
I was scheduled to leave on an orbital shuttle at 16:45 that would take me to the harbor. So I had almost an entire day to kill in Novaroma.
Novaroma was an old city on New Sydney. Early on, the Pioneers realized the need for a port and a navy base. And while the continents of the eastern hemisphere of New Sydney were the most amenable for human settlement—the most vegetation, freshwater, and cultivatable land, the continents of the western hemisphere had the best terrain for a spaceport: miles and miles of salt flats, with dry weather that would not impede spacecraft launches. Its climate was due to the presence of a massive mountain range at the western edge of the continent that wrung all the moisture out of the air for hundreds of klicks. The western face of the mountains was almost like a rainforest.
And so here in the middle of a broad salt flat was the “city” of Novaroma. I say “city” because if it weren’t for the spaceport, there wouldn’t be any reason for anyone to be here. Novaroma was full of mercantile offices, cargo warehouses, hotels, bars, and sex workers. Pretty much anyone who catered to the needs of travelers, businessmen, or the military. I had some time to kill, and while I thought that it would be nice to have a woman’s company before heading out on a mission from which I might never return, I also didn’t want my last experience with sex to be something I’d had to pay for. The bar seemed like a better bet.
There was a bar just across from the passenger terminal for the sub-orbital flights. When I was in the Merchant Marine, it had been called Vincenzo’s. Now, it was named Dominic’s. I walked in, and but for the change in name, the bar had not changed that much. A few changes to the décor: a new game in the corner, different sex workers, but otherwise, the same place. I sat down at the bar. The bartender approached me, and I just pointed at the taps. “Give me a draft,” I said. “Doesn’t matter what.”
“Nice to have selective clientele in my establishment,” the bartender quipped.
“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m from outside of New Kalgoorlie. Don’t remember what brands you have available here. I’ll trust you.”
The bartender shrugged and grabbed a glass, pulled a tap, and drew me a beer. Then, glancing at my uniform as he put the beer down in front of me, he said, “Where you off to?” That was a lot weightier a question these days. I wondered how many people had come through who were off to do recon or rescue in the Kittim system or off to Fairhaven to shore up the defenses. The next battle was still a long way off, but no one had any illusions that it was going to go better than the last one had.
“I’m going on the Expedition,” I said. Even in my head, the word had a capital letter.
The bartender paused and looked at me. Made me wonder if I’d been the first one he’d met who’d said that.
“It’s a waste of time,” someone further down the bar said.
“What’s that?” I replied, turning in his direction.
“Frakkin’ waste of time,” the man replied. “They’re all dead. Every last one of ’em.” Judging by the number of empty bottles in front of him, this man had been going at it for a while.
“Easy there, Chollie,” the bartender said. “You got no way o’ knowin’ that.”
“Sure, I do,” said Chollie. “Look, we been out here what, four hundred years, and they ain’t never come lookin’ for us. It’s not like they didn’t know how. It’s not like they didn’t have the money. It’s not like they didn’t have the ambition, yeah? Always a buck to be made in trade, yeah? So, why ain’t they come? It’s because there ain’t no one to come. They’re all toast, that’s why. Frakked. Dead.”
The bartender sighed. He’d clearly heard this before. He gave me a look that said you can try arguing with him, but I’m tired of it. Well, hell, I did come here to kill some time.
“So, what killed them?” I asked. The bartender gave me another look that said Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“Them same bastards what wiped out Farmark. They’re just now getting to us to finish the job.”
“But,” I began—I could see the bartender watching, waiting to see which argument I was going to use—“these guys came from the wrong direction. They came from the opposite direction of the Commonwealth.”
“Chorg that,” Chollie said. I had no idea what chorg meant, but I could guess. I was still trying to figure out where this guy’s accent was from. Was that a Farmark accent? Could that be it? Lu didn’t talk like that, and neither did the Chancellor, but there was likely more than one accent on Farmark. There were plenty right here on New Sydney.
“Then how do you figure the aliens wiped out an entire civilization, hundreds of light years wide, then traveled over seven hundred light years to get here, skipped our systems, and went right to Farmark, all without any evidence of faster than light drive?”
“Well, if it wasna them, it was somebody goddam like ’em! Either way, the Commonwealth is frakked, and we’re frakked, too. Just like Farmark. Just like Farmark….” He downed the contents of the bottle he was drinking and slapped his hand on the bar. “’Nother.”
“C’mon, Chollie, you’ve had plenty,” the bartender said. “You want I should lose my license?” But Chollie kept slapping the bar until the bartender finally relented and pushed another bottle over his way.
In the meantime, I sipped my beer—it was good, I had been right to trust the bartender. When the bartender came over after a few minutes to see if I needed another, I tilted my head toward Chollie at the end of the bar and said, “What’s his story? From Farmark?”
“Yeah,” said the bartender. “He was here on business when it all went down. Was headed back to a commercial liner in orbit when the ISG shut down all civilian use of the port and started mustering. By the time the emergency was over and he could leave, there was nowhere for him to go. He’s been in the hotel here ever since. The government is paying his bill as part of the Refugee Act. I think he’s spending the rest of his money here. Poor bastard; his entire family was on Farmark, and he hasn’t heard if they made it off in the general evacuation. That’s why he stays close to the spaceport. Just in case they should get off one of those shuttles someday and call him. They could be in a slowboat or worse, left on the surface. So he just sits here and waits. And drinks.”
The beer was good, and the place was alright, but I didn’t feel like drinking anymore. I got up, put my thumbprint on the payment pad in front of me, then pressed it again to add more credits. “Tell him, next round’s on me.”
The bartender confirmed the payment and nodded. He pulled out another bottle of whatever Chollie was drinking and put it down in front of him, telling him it was from me. Chollie looked up at me.
“We’re going to get them,” I said. “We’ll bring them back. And when they come back with us, we’ll avenge Farmark.”
“You do that, delivery boy,” Chollie said. “You run out and bring back those ghosts.” He turned back toward his bottle, shoulders slumping. I nodded to the bartender.
“Thanks for the hospitality,” I said, turned, and pushed the door open onto the street. The mid-afternoon sun in Novaroma was pretty hot. I still had a couple hours to kill but figured I could do it at a public net terminal. I had been putting off writing my goodbyes to a lot of folks. Including my parents. So I went to the net café in the passenger terminal and grabbed a terminal. Swiping my military ID gave me free and unlimited use. I wrote the letter to my parents first. It was going to be the hardest. Might as well get it out of the way.
I took my seat on the orbital shuttle at 16:30. I was in the second row, right behind the pilots. So I had a view out of the forward windows as well as out of the side. There were the usual announcements about safety protocols. I just stared out the window. The landscape around Novaroma was stark but beautiful in its own way. And in any event, it was New Sydney. Home. I wondered if I’d ever see it again. If we’d be able to keep it safe. If Chollie’s grief would become everyone’s grief until there was nowhere left to go. I looked around the cabin—everyone was looking out the window. I guess we all felt the same way.
At 16:44 the gangway retracted and the shuttle tipped up. I could hear all the other passengers breathing in deeply for calm. I was, too. No matter how many times you’d done it, an orbital shuttle launch was nerve-wracking. Sitting on that many tons of liquid explosive, riding a missile into space. Suddenly there was a deep rumbling as the engines began to fire. The rumble was followed by a shriek as main ignition took hold and then it was as if we’d all been smacked backward into our seats as the engines kicked in and we launched upward.
In only a couple of minutes we were outside the atmosphere and looking down upon New Sydney as a big blue-green ball in space. That view never got old. A couple of people got sick as soon as we entered freefall. For a shuttle like this, it didn’t make sense to have gravitic plating, and some folks aren’t used to the sensation. You could always tell the inexperienced ones; they instinctively looked for a handhold. Those of us who were used to it trusted in our harnesses and enjoyed the feeling. After a few moments, I could feel the shuttle turning and matching orbits with a structure higher up. I looked out my window and could make out the distant form of the naval harbor and the starship drydock high in orbit. And within the dock walls was a starship: the Deliverance.
The Deliverance was a magnificent ship. At first, I couldn’t believe how big it was and then I realized that what I had mistaken for a really large ship was merely a standard-size cruiser with what appeared to be two large cargo containers attached aft, like you often see on tow vessels or cargo ships.
All of our starships follow the same basic design: a long, tapered cylinder with a conning tower toward the back end where the communication and sensor arrays are located. Civilians always assume that the bridge is in that tower, but the bridge is deep within the interior of the ship. I mean, why would you put the most important room on the entire vessel in the most exposed section of the spacecraft? Yes, there were observation decks in the tower and even a formal reception area for state functions, but given that the screens on the bridge were more efficient and effective than windows, there was no need for the bridge to be anywhere other than safely within the depths of the ship.
The donut-ring-shaped Sheridan drive and the fusion reaction engines are at the front. Hyperspace engines don’t really push you through hyperspace as much as pull you. And it makes sense to have the sublight engines nearby. That leaves the back end free for storage containers or tow cables for smaller vessels.
I turned to the shuttle pilot. “Any idea what’s in those cargo containers?”
“Antimatter fuel,” she said matter-of-factly, although with a twinge of something else.
“That much?” I asked.
“Yes. I wonder if you’ve left any for the rest of the fleet while you go off on this wild goose chase.”
Ah, that was it. This expedition was going to need a lot of fuel, and antimatter wasn’t cheap. Never had been, but it was absolutely necessary for interstellar space travel. You simply couldn’t generate the energies needed for hyperspace travel without it. And the cost and scarcity of antimatter meant that there were necessary restrictions on space travel.
Our League had good communications among the worlds and there was trade, of course, but most citizens of our four worlds never traveled beyond the boundaries of their own systems. It was just too expensive. The military and merchant marine were the biggest consumers, and even they used antimatter sparingly. In system, most vessels, urban centers, power grids, and so on, were fusion-powered. Some of the poorer regions of Farmark used fission and—I’ve heard—even fossil fuels. If the ISG were conscripting every last bit of antimatter for this expedition, that meant it was going to leave everyone else with a shortage. I could see why that would annoy some people. It’s not as if our mission was a guaranteed success. We might get all the way back to Commonwealth space and find no one. In which case we would have taken a lot of precious starship fuel with us, thousands of light-years away from where it would be needed most.
It occurred to me further that the League was down one of its antimatter fueling plants. The loss of the Kittim system in which Farmark was located also meant the loss of the Triton Antimatter Facility on Falstaff, one of the outlying planets in that system. The League wasn’t just down whatever stores we were taking with us, it was down one-third of its production capacity since, I was sure, the ISG had scuttled the facility when it became clear that the system was lost. So, if we didn’t find anyone at the end of this ride… well, I didn’t want to think about it. We were going to find them. We had to.
The shuttle pulled alongside the Deliverance and docked. Once the docking sequence was complete, we removed our restraints and started floating toward the hatch. It opened into the standard docking collar and we started floating through. At the end of the tube was another hatch with a blinking green arrow pointing down. The gravity warning. You’re about to fall, and it’s good to know which direction that will be. Fortunately, the docking collar on the far end had handhold grips for exactly that purpose. I grabbed the grips and eased myself through, feet first. That way, you have a better chance of landing standing up.
Once on the deck, we were greeted by a petty officer who led us down three levels to a briefing room. As we followed her, I took a look at the ship we’d be traveling in. It was new; it was not in dry-dock because of a refit—this would likely be its maiden voyage. I wondered why they would be sending us on a new ship when the best ships would be needed back here.
“Drive efficiency,” the petty officer replied.
“Sorry?” I said, a little embarrassed that I’d been musing aloud.
“Yeah, drive efficiency. The newer ships have a better light-hour to gram of antimatter ratio than older ships. If the fleet is giving us most of its antimatter to get back to Commonwealth space, they want to make sure that it’s used efficiently. They’ll want whatever’s left for the war effort when we get back.”
I thanked her, and she nodded. She was career, and I hoped that her impression of me as an officer was not diminished by my not seeing something that I should have picked up on. If her impression had been diminished, she gave no sign of it as she stopped and gestured and showed us into the briefing room.
The room had rows of chairs, like a theater or lecture hall, with a podium up front. On the walls were tactical screens showing mission status, duty rosters, and other mission-related data. We took our seats and waited.
Eventually, an average-height man came in, wearing commander’s stripes on his sleeves. We leapt to our feet. “As you were,” he said in a very thick northern Fairhaven accent. We sat.
“My name is Husayn Delacruz, Executive Officer of the Deliverance. I am here to give you a mission briefing and to answer any questions you might have. Lights.” At his word, the lights dimmed in the room, and the main screen displayed a star chart. It was recognizable as the League of Four Worlds.
“You are here,” whispered some guy behind me, promptly elbowed in the ribs by the person sitting next to him. Delacruz continued.
“For the last 400 years, no League starship has ventured beyond the boundaries of these three systems. Our mission and that of the Brunswick, which will be traveling with us, is to travel back to the last known boundaries of the Commonwealth and make contact as quickly as possible with any authority present. This will not be an easy task.”
The screen shifted, and the scale of the map changed radically. The three bright stars that represented our league now retracted until they were almost a single point of light on the chart. Now visible on the display was a much larger collection of dots, ringed by a blue border. It wasn’t really the size of the Commonwealth that impressed us in the room—we had known of its scale—it was the size of the void in between our little dot of a League and that blue line marking the border.
“The colony ships that brought us here were equipped for such a journey. They had antimatter stores that could be used for interstellar travel, and the reserves would be used to found the colonies. As you know, the Pioneer generation decided to use more of the reserves to continue scouting for habitable planets. By the time they reached the Sharon system, their reserves were seriously depleted. They had barely enough to scout Roger’s Star and Kittim before they were forced to cease interstellar travel. The original colony ship was landed on New Sydney, where it became the barracks and base camp for colonization.
“I tell you this so that you understand just how unprecedented this mission is. We have not had the means for such a trip since that first colony vessel left Commonwealth space. We have strung together storage canisters to house sufficient antimatter reserves for a round trip. This has necessitated the commandeering of all available military and civilian reserves. As you can see, the expanse between our space and theirs is vast. If we reach Commonwealth space and find the first system uninhabited, we have enough reserves to explore another few systems inward. At a certain point, we will be forced to choose between turning around or making a one-way trip for one or both ships in the expedition.”
We all looked at one another. This venture could turn out to be an all-or-nothing kind of trip.
“I’ll take your questions.”
“Sir,” said a voice from behind me. “How many jumps will we need to make to reach Commonwealth space?”
“Our engineers figure that with current engine design, only about sixty.”
Sixty! The largest number of consecutive jumps anyone had made in centuries was two: Farmark to Fairhaven to New Sydney or Pherat. Sixty! The maximum range of a hyperspace jump on a single fueling was about twelve light-years. I did the math in my head; that meant we were not necessarily jumping system to system but trying to jump directly there, twelve light-years at a time.
People in the room shifted nervously. We were going to be pushing the limits of the Sheridan drive. If something went wrong… well, you didn’t want your engines to fail. When they failed coming out of hyperspace, that was one thing. That was just getting stranded. When they failed in hyperspace, you dropped into normal space at lightspeed. That usually turned your ship into a big shiny ball of plasma. I’ve heard it’s really beautiful to see, but not for the people who are now the big shiny ball of plasma.
“Sir,” piped up another voice. “What’s the system that we’re aiming for?”
“According to our records, the first Commonwealth system that we should reach will be Sigma Librae and New St. Louis. That is, of course, assuming that the Commonwealth has not expanded in four hundred years. In our best-case scenarios, we’ll encounter Commonwealth settlement before then.”
“Is there a worst-case scenario?”
“Yes,” Delacruz responded soberly. “We get deep into Commonwealth space without finding anyone, having exhausted our supplies and our fuel.”
“What do we do then?” I asked. “Is there a plan for that contingency?”
“It might surprise you to know, Lt. Killian,” Delacruz responded, demonstrating that he’d done his homework in getting to know his crew, “that command has planned for every contingency. If we wind up deep in Commonwealth space, not having made contact and unable to return, we are ordered to find the closest inhabitable planet and establish a colony. It is hoped that between the two crews, there is enough genetic diversity to sustain a viable settlement. Both the Brunswick and the Deliverance are carrying frozen embryos for additional population support.”
“And then what?” I followed up. Though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
“Then, Mr. Killian,” Delacruz replied, “we do our best to build a thriving human society that will one day be able to generate enough materiel and antimatter fuel to make the return trip to League space.”
“If there’s anyone left alive to return to,” I said, perhaps a little more glibly than a junior officer should in front of his XO.
“The likelihood that we may be on a colony world for a longer period than the League has left to fight the invaders has already been contemplated. It’s why the first priority is not our return but the establishment of a thriving settlement.”
Abe’s God. This was actually the fallback plan from ISG Command: in the event of mission failure, start a new colony and become the new home of humanity. If we can come back, great. If not, well, I suppose there would be plenty of distance between us and our sub-lightspeed nemeses that we should be safe for a long time. Of course, if there was no sign of the Commonwealth in the first place, there was always the risk that whatever had happened to them might happen to us, too.
This mission had always felt like a long shot, but now that we were contemplating the risks involved—traveling too far, too much stress on the hyperspace engines, depletion of fuel and resources, inability to find any human civilization—the odds felt all the longer. I suppose we had to try, no matter the odds.
I was shown to my quarters—a small cabin, but at least it was my own. Rank does have its privileges. There was a simple bunk along the wall, a wardrobe, a small writing desk with a terminal interface embedded in the surface, and a small head, including a shower. Not a lot of room to socialize, but I’d served on ships before—you are much more appreciative of the opportunity to get away from people than the opportunity to get together with them.
There was no window in the room, of course. There are no windows anywhere on a starship, despite what the popular entertainment suggests.
First, the crew cabins are all safely in the interior; it makes no sense to expose your crew to cosmic radiation at the hull. The outer layers of the hull carry our water supply, which doubles as cosmic ray shielding. There’s nowhere to put a window.
Second, whatever psychological benefits can be gotten from being able to see outside are mitigated by the high-resolution display wall that each cabin offers. If you like, you can have it show a representation of the space outside—the external cameras and a bit of computer smoothing can give you the sensation of looking out a window into deep space.
But why not program it to give you a view of the slopes of Mt. Mbenga, with almost-pines and snow drifts? Or the beaches of Crescent Bay on Fairhaven, with the gentle rhythm of the waves along the shore to help you drift off to sleep?
See, when you work in space, you’d much rather be able to look at the scenery of a planet than the infinite abyss of the cosmos. All that to say, this cabin would do fine.
I unpacked my bag, undressed, took a quick rinse in the shower, and climbed into bed.
Shiptime was 20:35, the same as Novaroma time. But for reasons that I’ve never understood, all fleet vessels—including their bases, like that in Novaroma—operated on a standard twenty-four-hour clock, despite the fact that none of the four worlds had a twenty-four-hour day. New Sydney’s day was 25 hours, Pherat’s 21 hours, 25 minutes, Fairhaven’s 19 hours, and Farmark’s 30.
Shiptime took getting used to since it slid out of sync with whatever planet you were from. Strangely, most people said that once they made the adjustment, they felt like it was a more natural cycle for them.
Maybe there is something to that. Maybe the ISG studied human physiology and came up with that number. Or maybe it’s just that it’s more easily divisible by three eight-hour shifts.
It still doesn’t explain why the ISG uses a 365-day year.
In any event, I needed to be on the bridge at 0800 tomorrow morning. So, however it was that the ISG had computed the day, they had given me a good eleven-plus hours to sleep before my first shift. I was going to take advantage of as many of them as I could. I was asleep before I could even make a decision as to what view to set my wall to.
The following morning, I was up early, showered, and dressed. I went to the galley and had a quick breakfast: just some eggs and coffee. In spite of all the training, in spite of all my years in the Merchant Marine, I was nervous. I was a bridge officer on an ISG starship. This was not any posting I’d ever had before.
I made my way down to the bridge—yes, down. My quarters were on Deck 5, but the bridge was on Deck 12 in the middle of the ship.
The decks of a starship are perpendicular to the central axis of the vessel; if you saw a cutaway of the ship, you’d think all the decks were sideways, but spaceships—real ones, mind you, not the ones you see on popular entertainment—are really just tall buildings lying on their side.
Most starships today have gravitic plating, which provides a measure of gravity when the ship is at rest, but it is a fairly costly energy system and is used when the ship is in extended periods of null-g free fall. Otherwise, most shipboard gravity is generated when the ship is under thrust, accelerating or decelerating. That means the forces of acceleration are in the direction of the ship’s motion. So, unless you want to be thrown against the wall for the entire time a ship accelerates or decelerates, it makes sense to have the decks perpendicular to the thrust vector.
Of course, because the decks are also metal, magnetic boots can be used as well in null-g, but they don’t create gravity; they just keep you from drifting away from the deck. If you get queasy in free fall, you get queasy with magnetic boots on.
Seasoned spacers get used to it, and there are even a number of advantages to null-g, like the ability to sail from one deck to another through the access portals. It’s better than any elevator.
But today, the gravitic plating was on creating an “up” and a “down.” So, I headed down the gangways to the bridge deck.
There was a marine standing outside the hatch to the bridge. That’s not entirely unusual, but you tend to see it in heightened security situations. I guess this counted.
The marine—Lance Corporal Okafor-Srinivas, judging by her insignia and name tag—turned toward me. “Identification, sir.”
“Of course,” I responded. I held out my thumb and pressed it into a plate she held in front of me. There was a beep, and a light shone green.
“Thank you, Lt. Killian,” she said and pressed another button. The hatch door was pulled inward before sliding to the right, clearing the hatch. “Mind your step.”
The hatch opening was like that on space vessels from time immemorial, and I stepped over the bulkhead into the bridge.
The bridge was the circular design that had been favored by ship designers for centuries. On the far bulkhead, opposite the entry hatch, was a massive viewscreen showing the view from the bow of the ship. At the moment, that view contained a portion of the nightside of New Sydney as we sat in dry-dock high above the planet in geostationary orbit.
The workstations were arrayed in two semicircles around the center facing inward. On the bulkhead behind each station was a flexdisplay that could become an instrument readout, a data interface, or even a viewscreen. Sometimes, in port, a bridge would set all of its bulkheads to viewscreen mode, to give the crew a panoramic view of the planet they were orbiting and of the space around them. It could combat the claustrophobia that was endemic to every command and control center aboard a vessel like this. Of course, if you weren’t ready for it, it could give you vertigo and the feeling that you were about to fly out into space.
At the center of the circle was the helm and navigation station, where the helm officer and chief navigator sat behind a large console. The console itself was a flexdisplay, with customizable controls and contextualized readouts. The helm officer’s side, however, could turn into a bio-responsive interface. Normally, piloting a starship involved telling the computer where you wanted to go, and it would take you there. But there were times when you actually needed to maneuver in ways that you could not program. Sometimes the computer’s automated systems could handle it; sometimes, they couldn’t. And that was when your helm officer actually needed to pilot the starship. To do that, they would place their hands into a special interface port and steer the ship through a bio-mechanical link. It’s not that the ship was reading your mind or that you were controlling it with your thoughts, but the computer could detect very subtle shifts in your hand gestures and your muscles.
Pilots are trained to communicate their intentions through these subtle gestures. The really good ones would say that it was like the ship became an extension of their hands and fingers, almost as if they were steering the ship by thinking about it.
Behind that console were two chairs, each with an attached arm display and control panel, that could swivel to see all of the stations on the bridge. One of those chairs swiveled now as I walked in. Its occupant was a tall woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair and a light complexion—Captain Juliana Kavanagh.
“Mr. Killian,” she said.
“Captain,” I responded, saluting.
She rose and made a gesture that was half salute, half waving me off.
The man in the chair beside her was the XO, Delacruz. He rose as well and walked toward me.
“Your station is over here,” he said, gesturing to the second station along the starboard side console ring.
“Aye, sir,” I replied.
“Mr. Killian,” the captain said. “I know this is your first time as part of an ISG crew and that things were somewhat different in the Merchant Marine, but you can relax. There’s no need to be nervous.” Dammit, I thought. Am I that flegging obvious? Also, how much does this woman already know about me?
“If you were the kind of person who should be nervous stepping onto the bridge of a League starship, you wouldn’t be stepping onto the bridge of a League starship,” she continued.
There was a certain logic to that—and a certain brilliance. She was simultaneously affirming her confidence in me and in the ISG command who placed me here and letting me know that I could trust in them as well. I paused a moment before responding and regarded this woman; she was formidable, but in a completely disarming way that made her even more impressive.
I nodded appreciatively. “Aye, sir,” I responded at last and moved to the station Delacruz had indicated.
I took my seat at my station and began to review the displays. In front of me was a flexdisplay console that showed the logos of the ISG and the Deliverance. I placed my hand on the display, and it verified my identity by palm print and became a standard tactical readout. In one window was a graphic representation of the Deliverance in orbit. Centered was a tactical cutaway display of the entire vessel that slowly rotated in three-dimensional space, showing every open hatch or lift outlined in green, every sealed bulkhead or passageway in red.
On the right-hand side was a personnel roster, slowly scrolling with updates as to each person’s location and status: green for on duty, red for off. If I touched on any name in the scrolling list, a popup of the individual’s duty and service record would appear. As security officer, I had access to all of the personnel records; it was going to be a long trip, and I needed to know who was aboard. Everyone had been screened, but weeks in deep space might have effects on the crew that no one had anticipated. To keep the ship safe, I had to know who I was dealing with.
I made a few cursory reviews of the crew roster and the cargo manifests and mostly just took the time to get used to the ship’s operating system and the manipulation of the console. I was reviewing the duty rosters for the security personnel when suddenly, a chime came over the speakers.
A tall olive-skinned woman with almond eyes looked up from her console opposite mine. My bridge display informed me this was Marissa Flores, our communications officer.
“Captain,” she began. “Fleet command is hailing us.”
“Put them through, Lieutenant,” Captain Kavanagh responded.
“Aye, sir.” A moment of silence, then:
“Deliverance, this is ISG command.”
“This is the Deliverance. We read you, Command,” said the captain.
“Deliverance, you are cleared for departure. Godspeed, Captain. Fair winds and following seas.”
“Acknowledged, Command. Keep the beacons burning for us.” She swiveled to look at Flores. “Lieutenant, patch me in ship-to-ship to the Brunswick,”
“Aye, sir,” Flores answered. Then: “You’re on.”
“Brunswick, this is Deliverance. We are cleared for departure. Time to set sail, Captain.”
“Acknowledged, Captain,” came the voice of Captain Brevi. Captain Kavanagh turned back to the front viewscreen.
“Mr. Delacruz, stand by to make sail. Lay aloft and loose topgallants; clear away the jib!”
I was baffled; what the hell was she talking about? But Delacruz only smiled and turned to the helmsman, Ensign Pyotr Thorsten.
“Mr. Thorsten, detach all moorings. Aft thrusters one quarter. Take us out.”’
“Aye, sir,” came the response in a thick Farmark accent. “One-quarter thrust aft.”
I was still confused as to what all that bizarre language was when I got a text message on my readout from Miguel Filipov-Ibañez at tactical: “The captain loves archaic naval terminology. You’ll get used to it.”
“Thank you,” I typed back. “I was beginning to feel like I’d missed something crucial in abbreviated basic.” I saw Filipov-Ibañez smile when my response came across his terminal.
I tried to return to my duties, but it was too hard to focus when the ship was leaving drydock. Even in the merchant marine, I’d never gotten over the feeling you get when the thrusters move you out of port into open space.
The walls now gave us a panorama view from the perspective of the conning tower. It was as if the bridge were atop that slender projection jutting out from the ship’s hull. This really was the best of both worlds: we got the security and safety of a logically-placed command center, with the view of a bridge atop the conning tower.
I turned to look at the screens at the back of the bridge that displayed the view aft. The dry dock fell away as the thrusters accelerated us away. The gravitic plating was on, but even so, I felt the subtle effects of our acceleration, even at this slow a speed.
“Gravitic plating off,” Delacruz said.
Hannover at operations responded. “Gravitic plating off.”
I felt a small lurch in my stomach as I became appreciably lighter than I had been a few seconds before. I could still feel the downward force of our meager acceleration, but the sudden change was jarring.
The captain pressed a button on her chair console. “All hands, prepare for acceleration burn in thirty seconds.”
By now, we were already a couple of kilometers away from drydock, and the Brunswick had cleared its moorings and fallen into formation to our right astern. It would be safe to use the fusion engines now, and the captain wasn’t going to waste any time.
“Mr. Thorsten, bring us about to three-one-five mark four-five.”
“Coming about, three-one-five mark four-five, aye.”
“Mr. Filipov-Ibañez, has the Brunswick made its turn as well?”
“Aye, captain,” Filipov-Ibañez said. “She has made her turn and is in formation with us.”
“Mr. Thorsten, bring the fusion engines online and bring us to a cruising acceleration of one-g,” the captain said.
“Aye, captain. One g in five, four, three, two, one, engaging.”
I suddenly felt a lot heavier. The weak downward thrust of the maneuvering thrusters was now replaced by a sudden sense of being pulled down, much more forcefully than any gravitic plating.
Now, I have been under thrust many times, and even a few times at sustained bursts of one-g, but usually, we’d worked our way up to those accelerations. But this was no merchant marine vessel; it was a League naval vessel with much more powerful engines and a frame built for high-g maneuvers. I was impressed with how smoothly everything went, even with the high accelerations and the sense of suddenly weighing several kilos more than I had a few minutes ago.
I had never understood why one-g was an acceleration higher than any of the gravities on a League world. New Sydney was 0.8 gees, Pherat 0.6 gees, Fairhaven 0.7 gees, and Farmark 0.75 gees. How was the standard gravity decided upon, and why did anyone think it a good idea to make it higher than the gravity that anyone was used to?
Along with the increased weight, now that we were under acceleration, I could feel the rumble of the fusion engines through the bulkheads and deck plating. Like I said, I’ve been on a number of ships, and the experience of setting sail was always thrilling. But I’d never been on a naval vessel before, especially a brand new one, as it fired up its top-of-the-line fusion engines and got underway.
Thrilling didn’t even begin to describe it.
In a few days, we had reached the Sheridan line in our system, the line beyond which the sun’s gravity well was shallow enough to risk the hyperdrive. Bad things could happen to a starship in hyperspace if it got too close to a gravity well. We needed this trip to go well and so the captain took no chances; we traveled a whole extra standard day past the Sheridan line just to make sure.
We got to the jump point and you could feel the anticipation on the bridge. Everyone here had made a hyperspace jump before, but no one had ever made a jump in this direction. The stars we were aiming at weren’t the stars of the Roger’s Star or Kittim systems. These were the uninhabited stars beyond League space. The stars that would take us to Commonwealth space and our deliverance—or to ruin.
We drifted in null gee at our jump point; the Brunswick five kilometers off our starboard bow.
The crew was performing the last checks and run-throughs before the jump.
The engineers were inspecting the antimatter injector nozzles and the deuterium tanks. Stellar cartography was matching the sky we could see with the star charts we had brought with us four centuries ago, checking and rechecking its computations on the direction to Commonwealth space. My security folks were maintaining a quiet but watchful presence. The stresses of this mission were unlike any that any League crew had ever experienced; people were bound to react badly.
The captain’s voice cut through the tension. “Mr. Hannover, ship status?”
“Board is green; clear for jump, captain,” Hannover replied from his station.
“Mr. Thorsten, initiate hyperspace jump on my mark.”
The stars disappeared.