Roll on the Yorktown, the Titan, the Hood, this one engined bucket is no bloody good!
Excerpt unofficial Battle Fleet anthem
I’m sure you’ve all heard the old saying that war is hell. It’s short, it’s punchy and it’s to the point. Definitely a good saying. It’s also flat out wrong.
In time of war, you spend ninety percent of the time sitting on your arse, complaining about being bored. The other ten percent, you’re suddenly remembering that no one has ever really died of boredom.
Anyway on this particular day, Oh six hundred hours found us all sitting inside the main personnel compartment of our ship, the Battle Fleet vessel A-Nineteen, waiting for the skipper to turn up and tell us whether this was going to a ninety or ten percent kind of a day. When he stuck his head through the airlock from the tender and gave us the usual look of faint resignation, we knew that the answer was ten.
I suppose that I should really give some introductions at this point, so from bows to stern here goes. The skipper of the A-Nineteen was Lieutenant Andrew Miller, handsome in a square jawed all American kind of way, but with a permanent expression that said ‘what the hell am I doing here?’, which made him a bit depressing to be around. On the other hand, by that stage we’d all been aboard for about three months now, without coming down with a bad case of dead-as-doornail, so I guess he knew his job. Next up, Rating First Class William Net, helmsman and a man who if whining and complaining were Olympic sports, would bring home gold every time. Moving aft we have Petty Officer Marie Perben, sensor operator and the definite high point of the line-up. French, with a figure that made you wish survival suits were even more form fitting, cheekbones so sharp you nearly shave with them and husky French accent that could make reading a vid-phone directory sound sexy. In short the hottest thing to hit that particular piece of the universe since the big bang. Of course this might just be hazy recollection on my part; I spent a lot of time cooped up inside that tin can and after a while, any woman starts looking pretty fantastic.
Anyway to bring us firmly back to reality, we reach me. Rating First Class Michael Beeson, communications rating. Tall… and that’s where the good stuff ends. I’m one of life’s mediums, medium looks, medium competence, medium initiative, medium courage, the kind of person people miss, particularly when there’s a French goddess in the neighbourhood…
I’m sorry, I again digress.
Moving swiftly long we reach our gunner, the unquestionably least sane person in the line up, Rating Tsenduk Altanhuyag. Small, Mongolian, a man who in short lived for the opportunity to switch the gun to manual and fire across open sights. Given that to do that we’d have to be really, really close to the target, the rest of us felt could manage just nicely without that particular life changing and probably life ending experience. Finally we reach the Chief Petty Officer (Engineering) Horst Halperin, German, beardy, muttered a lot, but just piped at the post for title of ‘most insane’ due to not displaying any noticeably suicidal impulses.
The final, by far least loved, member of our mildly depressive little band was A-Nineteen herself, an A class escort. Now, if you’re reaching for your copy of Jane’s Starships, don’t bother, the A class ain’t in it.
These were the early days of the war. The Nameless, as we all know, fought with ultra long-range missiles. Human warships on the other hand, were built to fight people at relatively short range with energy weapons. Nameless missiles were a bit too sturdy to be reliably shot up by point defence guns, but knocking them down with plasma cannons and railguns was a bit like trying to swat a fly with a hammer. The only weapons the fleet had that could reliably knock down a Nameless missile were flak guns. Therein lay the slight catch; at the start of the war a grand total of seven ships in the entire fleet carried flak guns and about thirty minutes in, that figure dropped to six.
Flak guns could be fitted to cruisers and battleships but only if they were taken out of service while the work was done. Since the Nameless smoked a good chunk of the fleet in the first week of the war, that wasn’t really a runner. Ships that had to put back into docks to be put back together again got them, the rest had to soldier on without them for a while. Then some bright spark in headquarters had an idea. Take one civilian lunar tug, of which there are lots. Cut two holes in the hull. In the upper one, put a small turret with a flak gun. In the lower one, an escape pod. Re-condition the engines so it can just about keep up with a heavy cruiser and hey presto you have an A class escort. A stopgap solution they called it.
I bet someone in headquarter got a medal for the idea. Probably said on the commendation ‘for original thinking’. I’ll also bet that that same person never had to go into action in one.
There were a few… flaws in the concept, to put in very mildly. By the time we got to this particular day they’d been in service for about four months. In that time, the class had racked up an impressive list of nicknames with the fleet. Coffin Ships, One-Hit-Wonders, my personal favourite, The Martyr Makers and the Thirty Minuters, to name but a few. Those of us that actually flew them called them the Five-Minute ships; I’ll let you figure out for yourself why.
Anyhow, the skipper told us that the escort A-Twenty Five and ourselves, were going to be running escort for the Heavy Cruiser Bellerophon. We were going to doing a recon sweep of one of the neighbouring solar systems. Hopefully nothing too heavy.
The A class didn’t have a jump drive, not even an in-system one. When I found myself assigned to A-Nineteen I thought that would mean we would be sticking close to base. Talk about being an innocent. No, the cruisers going out on patrol needed an escort so instead we’d stick close to the cruiser as it jumped out and we could ride down the jump conduit with it. Obviously if the cruiser got smoked we would have no way of getting back to base, but I guess that counted as an incentive package.
On this particular day the journey was completely uneventful and I managed to get a bit of shut-eye. Six hours later we were in-system and doing our stuff. Recon sweeps basically consisted of jumping-in, going to Silent Running and drifting along on a ballistic course listening real hard with passive sensors. Now if you’re about to make a clever comment about ‘Silent Running’ and how scientifically daft it is, then don’t bother, it’s just a term we use, lets just accept it and all move on with our lives.
The reason we went to Silent Running was the other rather unpleasant fact about the Nameless. Their sensors were a lot better than ours. The only way to stay ‘under’ the radar, was to keep all emissions down and hope to God they didn’t spot us as we jumped in.
What we were looking for was Nameless support ships or supply dumps, or some damn thing the heavies could jump in next to and molest with gunfire. So there we were, the skipper and William were busy making sure we held our position in Bellerophon’s two o-clock, while A-Twenty Five held at eight o-clock. Marie was in psyche communion with the sensor display, while the chief was muttering in the back. Tsenduk was sitting up in the turret, twiddling his thumbs and I was trying to keep the laser link to the cruiser, which by the way, should have been automatic but needed to be manually adjusted every five sodding seconds. In short it was all going smoothly. Then Marie went and said some thing that spoilt our day.
“Contact! Bearing zero, eight, six dash zero, eight, zero!”
Oh I should have mentioned, not only was Marie good looking, she was also good at her job. Some people have all the luck. She was looking at the cruisers sensor data, sent to us via the laser link up, the cruiser has at least eight people on sensors but Marie beaten them all to the punch.
“Second cont- third, fourth all on same baring,” she continued. “We have incoming!”
Right about that point, I stopped listening. Bellerophon had just lit up her drive and I needed all my concentration to maintain our laser link. The link isn’t just about communications, it also allowed Bellerophon to control our gun with their much better fire control system.
Now I know what you’ve seen on videos and I know what you think combat in space is like. You probably think that we started jumping around, shouting really macho things at each other. Well, no. If people needed to speak, they used the minimum possible words; instead of shouting and jumping around, you got the really intense silence that comes from six people all concentrating on not dying. The only real break in the silence was the buzz of the gun turret swinging round to bear.
I risked a glance round at Marie’s display and saw enough to know that we were in ‘Houston-we-have-a-problem’ situation. There were at least five separate missile streams coming in on both sides. We had, what in layman’s terms is known as, blundered into an ambush. Or to put it more colourfully, there were several generous portions of hostile intent inbound.
As the first of the missiles entered effective firing range, our flak gun cut loose at the ones coming in from our side. Inside A-Nineteen, it was like being in a tin shack when someone drops a bucket of pebbles on the roof.
What constitutes ‘the worst bit’ varies from person to person, but at that moment, we’d reached my personal choice. I had no way of knowing how we were doing, were we stopping them or were there more missiles coming in than we could deal with. I always hated the not knowing. Marie reckoned the knowing wasn’t much better but as I say, each to their own. What really made it fun, was the fact that our gun was under the cruiser’s control. So they might choose to stop a missile that’s coming for them, rather than one that coming for us. On a professional level I think we could all accept that. What’s more expendable, a ten thousand ton of cruiser with a crew of a hundred plus or a eighty ton escort, with a crew of six. But on a personal level, I have to say it sucked royally.
Nameless missiles take an average of four minutes from detection to reach our effective gun range, from there a further one minute to cross through our firing range. All of which offers a long time to contemplate mortality.
My station came with a powerful camera that I used to keep the coms laser locked onto Bellerophon’s receiver. It also meant that I could see the first of the Nameless missiles arrive.
“Billy Ruffian is taking hits,” I reported using Bellerophon’s nickname. “None of the big hitters have got through, but there’s too much small stuff to stop them all.”
The gun had been firing now almost continuously for two minutes, with only brief pauses to track a fresh target.
“We’re bugging out!” the skipper called out over the intercom. “Everyone button up!”
If you thought it was fun before, let me tell you, this was where you really got to the breakout-the-fresh-underwear moment. If we were to make the jump-out, we had to close up on the cruiser. Usually we’d hold position about forty kilometres clear of the ship we were escorting but to make it into the jump conduit, we had get within three clicks. That made us horribly vulnerable to soft kills; fragments that had bounced off the cruiser could go straight through us. We’d all seen escorts come home looking like a sieve, usually with at least one member of their crew laminated across the inside.
Things were now really tense. I’d just heard the beep that indicated we were down to two minutes of ammo. I could see A-Twenty Five just behind and beyond Bellerophon; they must have got within a few hundred meters of the cruiser. I clearly remember hoping that they hadn’t got too close. The thought had barely crossed my mind, when I saw a flash of escaping atmosphere and then their turret popped off like a cork as the ammunition brewed up.
“Twenty five has just bought it!” I reported out before I was pushed back into my seat as we swerved in toward Bellerophon.
“Jump-out in five seconds!”
“Incoming to the front!” Marie snapped out.
I half turned to look past the skipper and through the front view port. I could actually see three missiles locked on to us and powering in. Space has it’s own ranges, dirtside ten kilometres is a long way away, in space ten clicks is whites-of-their-eyes range. So when I turned and could see the missiles, none of them much smaller than us, with my naked eyes, well lets just say I found god.
Our gun was still being used to fire at missiles targeting the cruiser; I have to admit I really thought we were dead.
“UP! UP!” the skipper barked at William.
My stomach literally headed for my toes as we powered upwards, hoping to get outside the missiles radar cones. I was pleasantly surprised when five seconds later, I noticed I was still alive. I was just taking to be a good sign, when a shockwave sent us tumbling.
“Bellerophon jumped out! We’ve missed the jump!” William screamed.
So our ride had just bugged out. We were under fire and the only friendly unit in the neighbour had shuffled off the mortal coil. Things weren’t looking good.
Ah would you look at that… running dry. I guess that me about done for the night… Another drink? Ah if you’re buy that very good of you. No, no, you go on. I can wait for you to get back.