The First Exercise
A group of ten shuttles floated at the assembly point over Mizar 4. Lightning storms lit up the planets atmosphere, the flashes highlighting the mountainous terrain. Cadet Maria Espinosa stared out of the window, wondering when the exercise was about to start.
Across the shuttles cramped cockpit, Cadet Michael St. Claire fidgeted, bouncing a ball off the ceramsteel hull. The thudding noises had been irritating after five minutes, now after forty five minutes they were infuriating.
"Emperor's balls, could you stop that!" Espinosa shouted, throwing a nutrient bar at St. Claire's head. He laughed and ducked, the nutrient bar bouncing off the hull and floating towards the ceiling. The bouncing ball didn't miss a beat. Cadet Douglas' Merryweather's earnest face popped out from a hatch on the floor.
"Something the matter, Maria?" he said, smiling.
"Ugh, just St. Claire being St. Claire" she replied, running a hand through her long dark hair. "I swear he was born bouncing that ball."
"Ah." Merryweather lifted himself out of the hatch and turned to face St. Claire "Give it a rest, Mike. Looks like everyone is here now... Soon you'll be too busy shooting at our classmates."
St. Claire caught the ball adeptly, grunted, and stared out of the window. Espinosa looked to Merryweather, smiled and mouthed "Thanks". With a wink Merryweather reached into the hatch, pulling out the helmet for his spacesuit. He then closed the hatch and took the pilots seat, strapping himself in and putting his flight helmet into a container next to him.
Merryweather grabbed a headset from the control console in front of him and tapped the ship intercom button. With a smirk he spoke into the microphone "Milly, looks like it's almost time."
The door to the rear crew compartment opened and Cadet Camilla Pelton announced her presence by sighing "Don't call me that...". Merryweather grinned at her and laughed "Sure thing, Cammy." he replied. She merely rolled her eyes.
Plonking herself down in the co-pilots seat, she looked at the ships clock and frowned. "The commander should be here by now." She said half to herself.
As if to answer, a large, elegant looking ship jumped in with a white flash and came to a halt in front of the assembled shuttles. Its nose was a mass of communication and detection systems and gun turrets lined the top and bottom of the hull. Launch tubes were placed at regular intervals on the sides of the ship and a larger landing bay could be seen underneath.
The now familiar bellow of "Cadets!" came though the cockpit speakers, making the four crewmembers jump at the sudden noise. A screen on the centre console showed static for a moment, and then the grey-haired visage of Commander Strauss came into view.
"Welcome to Mizar, ladies, gentlemen and Cadet Preston. Sadly for you, this wonderful star system is merely a stop-off on your mission, your very first liiiiive exercise! But don't worry, those of you that survive have been cleared for shore leave on Alexandria Station afterwards. If any of you win, well, the rest will buy your drinks. Any of you die, we'll mourn you. Unless you're Cadet Preston."
Strauss's face on the screen faded and was replaced by a ship schematic.
"As you may have noticed, you lucky folks have been issued with A-22 Pegasus assault shuttles. Great little ships, Pegs, and popular too at least until they started deploying the frakking Windrider class. Now nobody wants them anymore and that makes me sad. Plus, these are some specially modified Pegs: They're stealthed against both RADAR and LIDAR, carry plasma cannons and have this nifty black paint job. Ha, well I say they carry plasma cannons, that's all they do; they've not actually been armed. This is an exercise, remember?" Strauss made sure to emphasise the words 'specially' and 'modified'.
The Pegasus schematic shrank and moved to the top left of the display. Beneath it, a system map appeared on the screen.
"Your mission is as follows: Your ships, lovely as they are, only have enough fuel for one jump. You will make that jump over the miniscule distance to Alcor. Now, Alcor is a waste of Deuterium and vacuum, but somewhere in the system is a lone fuel cell, with a beacon broadcasting its location. One of the teams will retrieve it, and then jump back here. Of course, just finding it is far too easy... There will be patrols and all sorts of nastiness with the system. I will be overseeing from the cruiser
Valeria.... And perhaps joining in the festivities."
The map disappeared and the Pegasus schematic reappeared on the screen. "Your ships have had their flight computers programmed to simulate any damage your ships take. Similarly, your weapons are..... Where's that button... Ah.. They're now active and configured for training mode. Any damage you inflict will be treated the same by other ships. I dare you to try your luck against the Valeria."
"I've selected crews based on their experience so each flight crew has a wide range of skills at their disposal." Strauss started laughing "Actually, that's bullshit; I assigned you into groups that would fail in the most comical way possible. You don't get to choose your crew in the Imperial Navy, you work with what you're given. And who knows, maybe some of you will prove me wrong."
Strauss' face reappeared on the screen.
"Now this isn't a team exercise: Only one flight crew can win. If you misjump, there's a QE communicator onboard; just contact the Valeria and we'll refuel you. It'll cost you time, but you'll still be able to jump to Alcor." Strauss put on his most sadistic grin "Unless you're Cadet Preston, of course."
"What has he got against Preston?" Espinosa muttered to St. Claire. "Long story." he replied with a snort.
Strauss continued his monologue "I've assigned commanders to each crew based on who I think is the best suited to lead. If your name is on the following list, congratulations on your ever so temporary promotion: Ahmed, Allen, Chen, Leigh-Smythe, Pelton, Pres-... Hahaha no, Singh, Smith, Wolf, Wong and Zachariah. You have 15 minutes to prepare yourselves for jump but may jump at any time after..... Now. Good luck cadets."
With a raised eyebrow Pelton stared in disbelief at her crew then smiled "Alright, let's get to it, see if we can work out where we need to go."
She stood and ushered them to the rear of the cockpit where the ships navigation section resided. Merryweather removed his seatbelt with rueful grin and headed to the back.
Tapping a panel on the edge of the reflective navigation table, Espinosa brought a map of the Alcor system up onto the screen. Alcors primary and secondary stars were gleaming brightly in the centre, the orbits of the planets surrounding the paired stars with green concentric rings. A blurry grey ring indicating an asteroid field between the 5th and 6th planets.
Pelton stared down at the map. "Alright guys, we need a plan. Espinosa, you're a local, any ideas?"
Espinosa poked an outer gas giant planet with the label 'Alcor 7', causing the screen to zoom in and highlighting its stormy surface "Local-ish. What about jumping straight here?" She said "it'd be sheltered from anyone in the inner system, then we can work out where we have to go from there."
"It's far out, though." Merryweather replied thoughtfully "We're hard to detect, but if the objective is in the inner system or the far side of the star, well, that's a long way to go at subluminal speeds."
"What about here?" Pelton said, tapping the screen to zoom out, then tapping the third planet. The screen zoomed in to show a rocky world of middling size, with a large moon in close orbit.
"That's Damocles." Espinosa replied "The moon is known as 'Sword', named after some ancient Earth figure. Sword is extremely close to its Roche limit, it's reckoned it'll break up within the next 400 years."
"Fascinating." Said St. Claire, grinning maliciously.
"If you don't have anything useful to say, be quiet." Pelton said "That is the kind of twisted place that Strauss would put the fuel cell, I suppose. But is it too obvious?"
"Obvious, maybe." Espinosa said "But there's also an observation platform in orbit, about the only notable fleet presence in the entire system. If they're in on whatever Strauss has cooked up, it's the perfect way to get taken out of the running."
Pelton stroked her chin and sighed "How about the asteroid field then? We'll be impossible to detect and we can travel around the system?”
"Sorry to interrupt, but the other shuttles are starting to jump, Camilla." Merryweather said, studying the space outside the ship. Turning to the navigation table, he frowned "What about a jump near...." Merryweather tapped the map, bringing up Alcor 1 ".... The inner planet. With the planet in front of us and the star behind us, we'll be hard to spot. And we'd be centrally placed."
"Alcor's got pretty high emissions, though. It might interfere with our sensors and communications." Espinosa replied.
"Alright, we need to decide. Or, rather, I do." Pelton said "You've been even more quiet than usual St. Claire. Could it be that, for once, you don't have anything to contribute?"
St. Claire started laughing. He smiled, the picture of innocence. "I was quite enjoying watching you flail around like people who'd been spaced. And while I'd dearly like to see you all fail, I don't particularly want to be a part of that. Want to hear a secret?" he drawled "I took a look at Strauss' plans for the exercise and downloaded them to my tablet." He brandished the offending item, tapped the screen a few times, then held it to the navigation table. There was a chime and an overlay appeared on the map.
St. Claire pointed at the navigation table "So the yellow lines are patrol routes, red dots are mines and automated turrets. And the red line is the patrol route of the Valeria." He then pointed at a green dot "This is where the fuel cell is located. You'd know that on system arrival because of the beacon, but no harm in knowing before we start, right?"
The rest of the crew just blinked as St. Claire continued "Now the beacon is near Alcor 4, a short distance from one of the moons: Well, I say moon, it's more a pebble. The planet is visited by patrolling ships every 15 minutes, the next one arriving and departing, ooh, 12 minutes from now. There are a couple of orbital defences, nothing we can't handle if we get the drop on them. And finally there are also some reasonably sized chunks of rock in the area that'd provide a bit of cover. I suggest we jump in on the far side of that moon, then sneak around, destroy the defences before they see us, then go enjoy our free drink at Alexandria Station."
"Huh." said Espinosa.
"Er..." said Merryweather.
"Well then." said Pelton "I guess that's a solid plan as any..."
St. Claire merely nodded smugly.
"Alright then." Pelton said, tapping jump coordinates into the navigation table. "St. Claire, you're on weapons duty. I remember you showing some skill in that. Merryweather, as ever I want you flying. Espinosa, I want you at the tactical console. Keep us safe if you can." She finished tapping in the details to the navigation table then headed to the copilots seat at the front of the cockpit.
"Valeria's just jumped," Said Merryweather "Looks like just us and one other shuttle are still here."
Moving like they now had a purpose, the crew prepared themselves for the mission. They all put on the helmets of their flight suits, took their assigned seats and belted themselves in. Pelton tapped the ship intercom and intoned "All hands prepare for jump." St. Claire scrunched up his face in disgust and spluttered "But we're all here! In this room!"
"Aaaand that's why I'm in charge... Professionalism." Pelton replied smugly. The nutrient bar bounced off her helmet faceplate with a bonk and floated towards the ceiling.
"Seriously." she sighed, tucking the nutrient bar into a pocket in her flight suit. Looking at Merryweather she asked "Pilot status?"
He looked back and gave her a grin "All good. Ready to jump when you say the word."
Turning to Espinosa, Pelton said "Tactical?"
"All systems nominal. Shields are running, currently at 0.001% of overload. Phase field charged and ready for when we jump. Jammers ready." Said Espinosa.
Finally Pelton turned to St. Claire. "And you, Sun Tzu? Weapons status."
St. Claire nodded, now all business. "Forward plasma cannons charged and ready to fire at your order. Dorsal and ventral turrets set to automatic targetting." He grinned wickedly "Sir."
"Alright then." Pelton said, bracing herself in her chair "Jump!"
The crew felt the strange lurch that happened during a jump. Then the starfield outside the cockpit changed with a flash and Alcor 4 appeared, its surface a mixture of purple and grey illuminated in the light of Alcors primary star. A mixture of meteoroids and asteroids were scattered around the arrival zone, with the smaller of Alcor 4's satellites floating several kilometres away.
"Contact with the beacon." Espionsa said "It's just a few clicks away. I see two turrets. They're scanning, but all this debris has us covered."
"Alright." Said Pelton "No time for subtlety, a patrol will be on its way soon. Merryweather, take us in. St. Claire, destroy the turrets."
A chorus of acknowledgements sounded in the cockpit and there was a low rumbling as the Pegasus surged forward. St. Claire tapped a button on the side of his helmet, a heads-up display descending in front of his eyes. "Targetting. Merryweather, line us up with the one on the left." he said.
"Roger." Merryweather replied, pulling the joystick to the left. The ship responded quickly, and the crew were rewarded by a chime in the cockpit, indicating that - had this been a real battle - the turret would have exploded in a cloud of molten metal.
"Nice shot!" Espinosa exclaimed "The other turret is about to fire, shields are ready but we won't.. Hold on. Antimatter flare, looks like we've got company." Espinosa said "It's coming from behin-... Awww hell."
"There you are! Better late than never!" The all too familiar voice of Commander Strauss emerged from the communications console. A hostile contact alarm started to shriek as the Valeria pulled out from behind an asteroid, ponderously turning to face the Pegasus.
"Shitshitshit!" Yelled Merryweather, slamming the joystick forward and pushing the Pegasus into a steep dive. An alarm started to blare more insistently as the Valeria’s weapons locked on.
Strauss waved from the screen on the command console "Now I could strap myself into a fighter and chase you down personally. But I've got a cruiser and all that entails at my command." With a touch of the theatrical he roared "All batteries, fire at that Pegasus!"
Lights inside the cockpit flickered as the Pegasus flight computer recorded simulated hits. Espinosa started rattling off a damage report. “Shields are breached, there are holes everywhere. The bottom turret is destroyed, top turret is locked at a 252 degree rotation. The port engine’s leaking antimatter, I’m shutting it down and venting the fuel. Oh, and we appear to have lost a wing.”
“Evade!” Pelton shouted. The crew rocked in their seats as Merryweather threw the ship into a spin, neatly dodging between two meteorids.
The rumble of the engine suddenly became a spluttering noise, the Pegasus losing thrust and starting to tumble. Merryweather hit a control and the ship righted itself sluggishly. There was more laughter from Strauss, then suddenly with a chime the ship systems shut down entirely and the Pegasus started to drift. Grumbling to himself, St. Claire dug out his ball and began to bounce it off the hull.
After a few hours of drifting in a darkened ship the Valeria reappeared outside. With a hiss of static the communications console lit up and Strauss' grinning face appeared. "Awwww, shit. You're all dead." he gloated "Well, metaphorically speaking. Looking at my console here it seems I hit your antimatter containment and you all got vapourised."
Strauss could be seen turning off-screen and tapping a console. Instantly the lights came on within the Pegasus and manoeuvring thrusters halted its drifting. Strauss turned back to face the screen.
"Here's the rub. St. Claire, the idea of taking my plans was in fact a very good one. But you must be denser than Neutronium if you believed I wouldn't have some kind of security in place. And your ‘hacking’, if that’s what you call it, had all the subtlety of a nova bomb."
Strauss' face on the viewscreen was obscured by his data tablet.
"Let's see here... System logs... 13th May 3532 CE.... Oh, here we are. Quoth my logging software: Data transfer to tablet, serial number 92347-SOT-125, user ID xXxClaireyBoyxXx. That's you isn't it? Oh Emperor's teeth that ID is golden, you won't hear the last of that. Anyhow, luckily, I had your ship extra specially modified, unique to the entire Imperial Navy in that it has a nice worm inside its flight computer. I knew exactly where you were going as soon as you tapped in the destination, knucklehead."
Strauss' face reemerged from behind the tablet and he started rattling off names. "That said, you were the least awful of the teams. Cadet Smith chose to jump between Damocles and Sword and his ship was torn apart by tidal stresses. The crew were lucky to make it, though I think 2 hours of floating in space while hanging onto a piece of hull has dampened their enthusiasm for spaceflight. Chen and Leigh-Smythe jumped into the asteroids and Chen's ship suffered micrometeor damage. Leigh-Smythe stopped to assist and we caught them both simultaneously."
"Ahmed, Wolf and Wong were all caught by the inner system patrol ships. Zacariah actually did reasonably well, he lucked out and jumped near the beacon, then proceeded to use Alcor 4 as cover; You may have seen him. But he mistimed things and was caught by a patrol. Allen jumped to Alcor 7 and tried to cross the system as fast as she could: Yeah, we got her good. Singh's currently in close orbit with Alcor with fried electronics. We'll retrieve her next."
Strauss put on a mock sad face "Sadly, Cadet Preston survived the mission, but what didn't survive was his status on my shit-list. Congratulations Cadet St. C-... Ha, Claireyboooooi ex ex ex, that prestigious spot is now occupied by you! Now then, you have permission to dock in the Valeria's ventral bay. I look forward to you reviewing your performance in the Jack on the Middle Horse on Alexandria Station. The drinks are on your classmates...."