“Captain Parker, enemy task force is turning onto an intercept course,” Lieutenant Rivera reported from the NAV station. “Speed two-point-nine megameters per second, heading one-six-two-two relative. I count one battle cruiser, one heavy cruiser, five light cruisers, and three destroyers. Approximately sixty seconds to weapons range.”
William Parker looked up from the tablet he held in his lap to the port side view screens where a string of glowing pearls was visible against the dark star field. In the forward view-screen, three fat cruisers from his own task force, guns extended like reaching arms, hung in a staggered formation in front of him. He was strapped into his command chair in the center of the bridge surrounded by the bridge officers manning their workstations. There was a dull roar of activity as the crew worked and communicated with remote personnel.
Parker was middle-aged and balding, but maintained a sparse if not hopeful head of hair. He wore reading glasses hanging on the end of his nose. Pushing the glasses up on his forehead, he turned his head to address a young man sitting to his right.
“Mister Beal, turn the task force to three-four-two-zero,” Parker said.
“Aye sir, turning three-four-two-zero,” Beal responded. He touched flat panels on his work station and repeated his orders into the microphone stuck in his ear.
Parker glanced over his shoulder at the aft screens at two more warships ships staggered behind him. As his orders were relayed, the trailing ships turned on line with his, their images transitioning from the aft screens to the port screens. He turned back to the front as the string of enemy ships centered on the forward screens.
“Magnify,” Parker said. The glowing dots wavered and grew into a line of cruisers. The ships were roughly foot-ball shaped and bristling with guns. As they grew in size on the screen, they turned directly towards him.
“Enemy fleet is tracking our course change, sir.”
“What’s our speed?” Parker asked.
“One-point-two megameters per second,” Rivera said.
Parker leaned forward as far as the seat straps would allow.
“Helm, on my mark, turn fleet to zero-seven-two-zero and reduce speed by one-third,” Parker said. “Port gunners, stand by.”
“Aye sir, on your mark, turn zero-seven-two-zero, reduce speed one-third,” Beal said.
“Port Guns loaded and unlocked, Captain,” Lieutenant Sealer responded from the weapons station. “Gunners standing by.”
“Seventy-two seconds to weapons range,” Rivera announced, his eyes were glued to the readouts on the navigation console as his fingers tapped on the screens.
“Port Guns Captain? What are you planning?”
Parker rotated his chair to face the man strapped in the chair directly behind him. The officer wore a single gold star on the collar of his pressed khaki shirt. A glossy black tag above his breast pocket read ‘Dellar’.
“You’re outnumbered and outgunned,” Dellar said. He nodded his head at the forward screen. “They have velocity, firepower, and the gravitational high-ground, and you’re committing yourself to a frontal attack?”
Parker frowned and nodded his head. “Looks pretty bad for us, sir.”
“Bad? That’s an understatement, Captain.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Normally, I would encourage you to turn down system and get some distance and velocity.” He poked a finger at the glowing ball of a planet in the rear, starboard screen. “You could sling-shot around Garson, gain some velocity and come back at them.”
“Sixty seconds to weapons range,” Rivera said. He glanced up from his console at Parker.
“Well, sir, I could do that.” Parker frowned and gazed down at this tablet. “They are threatening the Omron space port, and I am the only sizable force in range to intercede.” He looked back up at the Admiral. “Besides, I was thinking I’d like to switch things up a little, sir.”
The Admiral nodded, pursing his lips. He glanced at the forward screen at the approaching warships.
“Very well, Captain,” he said drawing a long breath through his nose. “You are in command. Please proceed.”
“Forty-five seconds to weapons range,” Rivera said.
Parker turned back to the main scree. As he watched the magnified image, the enemy ships rapidly grew to fill the forward screens blocking out the visible star field. Their guns rotated, the barrels pointed directly at them.
“Twenty Seconds.”
“Helm, execute pre-planned maneuver in fifteen seconds,” Parker said.
The bridge grew quiet except for the ever-present communications chatter between stations and ships. Riveria’s attention was focused on the clock on his work station, his voice echoing with the comm traffic as he counted down, “Ten seconds… five, four, three, two, execute.”
Even as bright flashes appeared at the tips of the enemy guns, their images slid off the forward screens and onto the port side screens. The other ships in Parker’s task force slid to the fore and rear screens as they turned, their port guns rotating towards the oncoming enemy ships.
“Helm, drop Z-minus-ten-thousand,” Parker commanded, turning his attention back to the port screens. “Roll, starboard, zero-four-five-zero. Launch counter fire.”
“Aye sir, Z-minus-ten-thousand, zero-four-five-zero starboard roll,” Ensign Beal said. Despite his calm demeanor, the excitement in his tone was unmistakable.
As Beal relayed the course changes to the rest of the fleet, the plunging roll of the ship sent the crew’s stomachs into their throats. On the port screens, the enemy fleet slid downward and disappeared, the view replaced by the star field and streaking lines of steel slugs and rocket fire directed at their former location. Matching lines appeared from Parker’s task force and intercepted. In moments, bright flashes appeared as the counter fire exploded and destroyed most of the incoming rounds. Seconds later, the noses of the enemy ships appeared at the bottom of the port screens.
“Fire all batteries,” Parker commanded. “Continuous fire.”
“Commencing fire,” Sealer said. There was a deep throated thumping and the ship vibrated as magnetically-powered rail guns propelled steel slugs at hyper velocities. The first volley of projectiles encountered the enemy’s counter fire and most of them were destroyed. Seconds later, the bellies of the enemy ships exposed in the center of the port screens, another volley of steel thumped out of the barrels. These rounds had better luck, and more than a quarter of them impacted the enemy ships, now sliding rapidly past. Reactive armor blew outward and jagged pieces of the cruisers’ armored hulls splintered and spun away.
“Fire breaking thrusters, Parker said. “Roll to starboard and continue firing,”
The roll of Parker’s ships matched the velocity of the enemy craft as they slid by allowing his guns to continue to pump steel slugs into their sides. Chunks of the armored outer hulls fractured and fell away. Some of the projectiles penetrated the soft inner hulls. Brief flashes of explosions plumed from the closest ships, quickly doused by the vacuum of space. Atmosphere, burning fuel, and explosions from munitions streamed outward in a spectacular show of light and twisted fragments. A light cruiser blew apart, debris hurling in all directions. The remaining enemy ships turned directly away from the murderous fire, expelling protective fire from their aft guns. One ship, lagging behind the others, became the focus of the gunner’s aim. Suffering concentrated fire, it broke apart and exploded in a brief flash.
“Cease fire,” Parker ordered. “Damage report.”
“The Tensor reports minor hull damage, and the Sparta has a damaged warp ring coupling,” Commander Pacilio reported from the communications station. “We destroyed two Confederate light cruisers, and there appears to be extensive damage on a heavy cruiser, a light cruiser, and a destroyer.”
In the port side screens, the massive shapes of the remaining cruisers shrank to points of light as they limped off in the opposite direction trailed by glittering particles of debris.
“Sir, there’s a destroyer lagging behind their formation,” Beal said. He looked up at the screen. “We could swing and catch her away from the herd.”
“Let the destroyer go, Ensign,” Parker said, shifting in his seat. “Set your course for a swing around Garson. I want to get some velocity and take another shot at that heavy cruiser.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” Beal said.
“Sorry Captain,” Admiral Dellar unhooked his straps and leaned forward. “As much as I’d like to see how you handle that cruiser, your time is up.”
The screens around the bridge turned black, and the text “simulation complete” appeared on the front screen. The bridge crew unbuckle from their seats and stood and stretched. Sealer and Pacilio approached Parker as he unstrapped from the command chair and stood.
“Well played, sir,” Pacilio said offering his hand. Parker shook his hand and grinned.
“That was a pretty typical maneuver, Commander. Nothing special.”
“That was hardly typical, sir,” Pacilio said. “That drop and roll is certainly not in the book. Very well done, sir.”
“It was a pleasure working with you, Captain.” Sealer offered his hand.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Parker said shaking hands with the young Lieutenant. “Your gunnery was superb.”
“Not too hard to do when the ship’s right where it needs to be,” Sealer said, laughing. “I understand this is your last run, Captain?”
“That’s right.” Parker nodded. “I’m all done here.”
“Where to next, sir?” Pacilio asked.
“I haven’t seen my orders, but I’m headed for the fleet.”
“Well, good luck, sir,” Sealer said, snapping him a salute. “I hope we can cross paths again one day.”
“Thank you, Gentlemen,” Parker said, returning the salute.
Several of the bridge officers approached Parker, shook his hand, wished him luck, and exited with a salute. Admiral Dellar stood to one side waiting patiently.
“Excellent job, Captain,” Dellar said when they were finally alone. “That was text-book with a flourish. I’ll need some time to analyze that maneuver for your final evaluation, but I’m confident you aced it.” He offered his hand to Parker. “And you’ll be happy to know I’ve already recommended you for a command.”
“A command? Thank you sir,” Parker said taking the offered hand and shaking vigorously. “How long before I know what ship?”
“Actually, that’s already been decided, Captain,” Dellar said.
“Already decided? What ship? Where…”
“Slow down, Captain,” Dellar said raising a hand. “I promised Admiral Gershing he could tell you. He was your boss for the last five years, and I think he earned it.”
“Not even a hint?”
“Not even a hint, but you won’t have to wait long. He wants you to drop by his cabin on your wau out. He’s got the orders all ready for you.”
“Very good, Admiral,” Parker hopped over to the command chair and grabbed his khaki hat from a pocket on the back. “I’ll head over there now.”
“Parker,” Dellar said taking the Captain’s hand in his and slapping his shoulder. “It has been a pleasure to have you in this course the last seven months. You are an excellent student, and there really is nothing more I can teach you. I know you’ll do well in the fleet.”
“Thank you, Admiral. That means a lot to me.”
Parker exited the simulator room and turned right into a narrow corridor. He followed it for ten meters where it opened up into one of the main corridors of the Raveen Military Space Station. The main corridor had a low ceiling but was broad and heavily trafficked by men and women in various styles of Space Corp uniform, and name-badged civilians moving along with a single-minded determination. Numerous tall windows were spaced across the far wall. Broken only by their narrow frames, they presenting a panoramic view of the partial curve of a planet and star speckled space. The capitol of the Human Republic, Raveen was a blue planet covered with white, swirling clouds and small, distinct continents.
Several star ships orbited at various distances from the space station. The closest was a double-ringed battle cruiser surrounded by smaller craft moving about like swarms of mosquitoes. One of the cruiser’s trinitium warp rings was tilted at an unnatural angle and missing a jagged section. There were several black, splash marks on the hull where projectiles had impacted, and one large, jagged hole amid-ship. The ships and men in bulky space suits concentrated at this point attempting repairs.
Ignoring the activity outside the space station and the faces of civilians and spacers passing by, Parker turned right and continued down the corridor at a brisk pace. He walked a short distance and turned down a wide, perpendicular corridor that led 100 meters deeper into the station, the opposite end teeing off into a parallel corridor. This corridor had similar windows presenting a view of the docking tunnel running through the center of the space station. Smaller shuttle craft and winged, atmospheric craft, used to transport personnel and supplies between the surface of Raveen and the space station, were tethered to the interior face of the space station by heavy mooring cables and passenger tubes.
He turned left into this corridor and continued another 200 meters stopping at a hatch labeled with 5 gold stars arranged in a pentagram and “Fleet Admiral Thomas Gershing” engraved on a brass plate. He tapped a pad next to the hatch, and folded his hands behind his back. The hatch slid to one side and a deep voice called out.
“Come in, Captain.”
Parker removed his hat and stepped into the room, the hatch sliding shut behind him. An older man, in his late 50’s or early 60’s, stood at the opposite end of the room in front of a neatly made bed. He wore polished black shoes, khaki slacks, and a white tee-shirt. He was bent over pinning a row of colored ribbons to a kahki shirt lying on the bed. His arms were thick and toned, belying the aged appearance of his skin. He turned his head and smiled, his lined face sagged with age, but his gray eyes twinkled youthfully.
“How did you know it was me, sir?” Parker said.
“Admiral Dellar called to let me know you were on your way. Looks like you got here in record time.”
“Of course sir.” Parker stepped farther into the Admiral’s cabin, his hat tucked under his arm. The cabin was elegantly furnished with golden stained, wooden furniture. There was a wide screen mounted on one of the long walls providing a view of the blue curve of Raveen and the battle cruiser under repair. A desk and high-backed chair sat in the center of the room facing the screen with two brown guest chairs sitting in front of it. The polished surface of the desk was clean except for a few stacks of paper, a white hat, and a few personal items. The hat’s glossy bill was covered with gold braid and reflected the dim light in the Admiral’s cabin. An insignia of a starship crossing a sun glittered above the brim.
“I understand you have new orders for me, sir?” Parker said.
“You’re always one for getting to the point, Captain,” Gershing said, grinning. “Well, I won’t keep you in suspense.” He stepped over to the desk, grabbed a thick manila envelope, and tossed it to Parker who caught it with his free hand. “It’s always exciting to get new orders,” he said as Parker gazed down at the envelope marked with his name in block letters. “You know I had a tradition that every time I got new orders, I would rip the envelope open with my teeth.”
Parker laid his hat on the desk, grinned, and bit into one corner of the envelope, tearing a strip along the edge.
“That’s the spirit, Captain,” Gershing said, laughing.
Gershing turned back to his shirt while Parker pulled the thick stack of printed paper from the envelope and held it up to the light. He read the top page and flipped through a few pages before looking up.
“The Cruiser Morton, sir,” Parker said. “Task force six under Admiral Guerra.”
“Guerra’s a damn good commander,” Gershing said. “It’s a newly formed task force with some of our more modern cruisers. You’ll learn a lot serving under Guerra.” Parker’s smile faded and he bit his lower lip as he gazed at the paper. “The Morton’s a fine ship, Bill. She’s got a good crew and a veteran XO.”
“Oh no, I’m honored, sir.” Parker hesitated, looked up. “But the sixth isn’t part of the invasion plan. I was hoping to partic…”
“I understand, Captain,” Gershing said. “And you should understand this has nothing to do with your abilities. I need veteran crews for Iwajim. Commanding a simulation, and commanding a real ship and crew under combat are not the same thing, Bill. It takes an experienced skipper to hold everything together.”
“I know the plan like the back of my hand, Admiral,” Parker said.
“Look, I’m not saying you couldn’t do it,” Gershing said. “But you’re untested. I need you to take command of the Morton, learn everything you can from her crew, and gain their trust. Give it a year or two. Unfortunately, there will be pleanty of opportunities for combat experience.”
“It’ll be over by that time, sir. This invasion will end the war.”
“I admire your faith, Captain,” Gershing said, laughing. “I really do. And I sincerely hope you’re right. But I think the best we can hope for is to knock Iwajim out of the war. The Confederacy won’t give up so easily, I’m afraid.” He folded his arms across his chest. “There are still a lot of systems part of, or sympathetic to them and what they stand for. Regardless how well the invasion goes, I think we’ll still be facing a considerable insurgency.”
“I assumed once we cut off the head, the rest would follow,” Parker said.
“I’m a natural pessimist, Bill,” Gershing said. “That’s my job.”
“Well, sir,” Parker said, pulling his shoulders back. “I accept command of the Morton, and I will do a damn fine job.”
“I know you will, Captain.”
“After seven months of classroom and simulations, I feel like I’m ready for a command.” Parker slid the papers back into the envelope, hesitated. “Admiral, when you first started me on the simulations, you recall I asked you about the tactics.”
“I told you to ask me again when you were done,” Gershing said.
“Aye, sir. I’m curious. What you and Admiral Dellar taught me is a radical departure from what we learned in the Academy. Why the new tactics, Admiral?”
“It stems from before your time Captain, but Admiral Dellar and I have seen a lot of changes in the fleet,” Gershing said. “And in my opinion, not for the better.” He pulled on his khaki shirt and fingered the stars on the collar.
“Over a hundred years ago, the fleet was smaller, and we had smaller ships with limited fire power. We were still fighting the Seretchka then, and they had larger, more powerful ships like this state of the art battle cruiser,” he said poking his thumb at the screen behind him. “To survive, we had to fight smart. We had to understand the physics and tactics. It was all about about fire and maneuver.
“It was pretty simple for us. If you got too close to a Seretchka cruiser, they’d blast the hell out of you, then shove a platoon of Lizards up your ass. Our cruisers couldn’t stand toe-to-toe with them, and our Marines couldn’t realistically defend against those beasts. All they could do was delay them until the crew evacuated and blew the hell out of their own ship.” He gazed hard at Parker. “If you wanted to keep your Marines and your ship, you had to keep your distance from the Seretchka guns and their boarding craft.”
“In the simulations, I was always outnumbered and outgunned,” Parker said.
“That’s right. Dellar and I designed the simulations to take you back to the basics, Captain. We recycled you through Academy training, but we did it our way, and we did it behind the backs of the officer corps.”
“I don’t understand, sir,” Parker said. “Why the change? Why the secrecy?”
“Change is a hard thing, Captain. When I first proposed this course to the Academy Board, they blew me off.”
“What changed their minds?”
“Nothing. They’ve never backed our proposals. They don’t know about this. They are deeply in debt to their failed strategies.”
“That’s the reason for the secrecy,” Parker said. “Sir, was I the only one to go through this training?”
Gershing nodded. “So far, Captain. You are our proof of concept, so to speak.” He grinned and patted Parker on the shoulder. “And you did a damn fine job. Once this invasion is over, I’m moving forward with training more officers.”
“And why the change in tactics, sir?”
Gershing leaned on the corner of his desk. “Well, back when we fought the Seretchka, we would use gravity wells, and slingshot maneuvers just like we taught you. The key was to keep moving… keep moving…” His voice trailed off as he buttoned his shirt.
“Our tactics were successful, obviously, but mostly because the Grun commanders were so very accommodating. It was their arrogance that allowed them to underestimate what we were capable of, and we used that to good measure. We would lure their fleet into the space between a couple good-sized gravity wells, usually a couple of large planets. Then we’d sling our entire task force back and forth past them.” He raised his hands and made circular motions in the air with his fingers splayed. “Kept our distance as we flew by and lobbed in HE, sabot rounds, and rockets from long distance. It was just enough to get their attention and piss them off. And it worked every damn time.” He motioned with one hand behind the other. “When we’d fly by, they’d break hard and turn to bring their guns to bear, but we had velocity on them and we’d blow right past them. They shoot, they miss, we cruise to the next gravity well and sling-shot around and gain some velocity. It was all about the physics,” he chuckled. “Back and forth and back and forth. The whole Seretchka fleet turning circles in one place. Chasing their tails. They were too proud, and too arrogant to do otherwise. After a while, they exhausted their fuel and ammo and we moved in for the kill. Blew the hell out of them with minimal damage to our own ships.”
Gershing folded his arms across his chest.
“Then that’s the reason for the simulations, sir,” Parker said. “You’ve been teaching me the old maneuvers. But why?”
“Because if the invasion of Iwajim goes well, and I have no reason to think it won’t, and the insurgency appears like I believe it will, they will be outnumbered, out gunned, and flying smaller ships than we have in the Republic fleets.”
“Tables turned on us, Admiral,” Parker said.
“Tables turned, Captain,” Gershing said, pointing his finger at Parker. “We have become our former enemy. Arrogant, over confident, and rumbling about the galaxy thinking we are unbeatable. The problem we have now is we got away from our core values. We beat the Seretchka because we fought smart. We knew the physics and we used it.” He clenched his fist in the air in front of his face. “Now, we teach massed formations and concentrated firepower. That’s what every commander in the fleet has lived and breathed for the last generation. Brute force. Our idea of a trick maneuver is dropping out of warp within firing range of an enemy task force. All we’re really doing is putting our ships and men at risk of annihilation. That’s exactly the reason this war has been going on for ten years. We could have ended this long ago if we had remembered our tactics and fought smart.”
Gershing stood from the desk, becoming more animated and waving his arms in front of him.
“You know, Bill, I get invited to speak to a graduating class, and I tell them stories about how we used to do it back in the ‘old days’. The young ensigns look at me, their jaws drop open, and they act like they’re listening, and they nod their heads and ‘yes-sir-right-sir-of-course-sir-amazing-sir’.”
He lowered his fist and sighed. “But they don’t get it. They get into the fleet and the line officers, the Commanders and the Captains, they turn it all around and yell at them to get on line and fire, fire, fire…
“So now we drive into battle in massive formations.” Gershing held his arms above his head, his eyes wide. “Every damn commander has his variation on the same theme. We have Vitols’ linear formation, Hastings’ massed formation, and Von Kassel’s Wagon Wheel. We blindly fill the space in front of us with steel and rockets; there’s no gunnery skill, no tactics, just shoot as fast as we can and drive as hard as we can. The side that gets their rounds down range first and in the greatest volume wins. It’s as simple as that, Captain, it’s as near-sighted and futile and stupid as that. Hell, years later you drive through that same space and get shot in the ass by all the expended ammo that’s still orbiting around the damn system.”
Gershing stepped to the desk and picked up a folder and shook it at Parker. “I tried to change this. I tried to get them to listen and teach what every skipper and task force commander needs to know. Fire and maneuver, marksmanship, gravity wells, momentum, physics…” He turned and flung the folder against the display on the far wall, a hail of paper floated uselessly to the deck.
“I’m tired of wasting my time, Captain.” He threw his hands into the air. “I’m going to command this last, this greatest battle of my career. Then if I don’t get my ass handed to me, I’m going to retire.” Gershing gazed at the monitor at the star field and cruisers floating in the void outside. He folded his arms, sighed, and said to no one in particular, “Unfortunately, I’m afraid I’m going to kill a lot of men. A lot of good men on both sides. And that brings me no pride.”