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The Talon House

Operation Hammerhead


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Chapter 2

Under Way

Schmit and Harrison talked quietly on the shuttle trip back to Ole Stubby. Bassett and Stewart’s revelations about the upcoming military operations made them both more than a little anxious. If the upcoming convoy and related offensive operations had the potential to be a “back-breaker” for their enemy, the convoy would be a priority target. The enemy would pull out all the stops to stop them.

There was a lot to do in very little time. No one was going to sleep until well after the fleet’s first jump. Ole Stubby was still short eighteen containers and had the appearance of a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces. In the short shuttle hop back to their ship, Schmit and Harrison decided that the best division of their time would be for the First Officer to oversee finalizing the cargo load out and for the Captain to work up the pre-flight checklist. As soon as their shuttle was wheels down, they went about their business.

Captain Schmit took his station on the bridge. Lt. Dan Sokolsky, his Second Officer and astrogator was standing watch. The Captain couldn’t help but like Sokolsky. He was a baby faced twenty-two year old who sounded like his voice was still changing and gave every chore, no matter how petty, his best effort. “Status report Mr. Sokolsky.”

Sokolsky quickly relinquished the Captain’s chair. “Sir, during you absence we have received fleet communications protocols and established a secure channel to our command ship, the Basra. We have received coordinates for our first series of jumps. I have already fed the jump coordinates into the navigation computer and I have also received word from the Cargo-master that we will be short 12 containers when we jump tomorrow morning. We are to pick up the balance of our cargo en route. Adjustments have been made to balance the load. Engineering reports all of their boards are green. They had to fix a heating element in the port side thruster array. That gimpy thruster that we had off and on for a few weeks was caused by the fuel lines freezing.”

Schmit suppressed his grin at the young officer’s enthusiasm. He really did like that chair and made the most of every opportunity he got to sit in it. Schmit had little doubt that he would eventually be sitting in one of his own. “Very well, Mr. Sokolsky. Take your station. We’ll be taking on a fleet liaison officer this afternoon. Make sure he has a berth and his station is shipshape when he arrives.”

“Aye sir”, Sokolsky answered crisply and went about his business.

Raymond T. Burke’s bridge was noisy and hectic. There was an open channel with the Basra supplied an endless drone of routine communications chatter. Everyone had to pay attention while the last four containers were latched into place. One of them had high power requirements that kept the engineers busy and muttering curses under their breath. Sokolsky was busy at his station and a half dozen other officers and men were running through their checklists.

About 1300 the steward showed up with a platter of sandwiches and coffee for the bridge crew.

Shortly after the Captain’s second sandwich, Lt. Commander Harrison arrived on the bridge and reported, “All cargo containers accounted for and secured sir.”

“Thank you Mister Harrison. Now let’s see, what is left?”

Harrison replied, “Sir, I believe that we’re ready to dance.”

Sokolsky snickered at the very idea of a massive kilometer long transport doing anything that might be construed as dancing.

Captain Schmit reached down to his intercom panel and punched the stub marked Cargo-master. The gruff voice of Jeff Anderson answered, “What can I do for you Captain?”

“Everything squared away in your section?”

Anderson replied, “We’re done but why the Alliance is shipping us out with a short load, I just don’t know. Balance is good, and all boards are reading green.”

“Very good Mr. Anderson. The beer is on me once we get underway.”

“Make it scotch and you’re on sir. Anderson out.”

Schmit punched the stub marked “engineering” and his Chief Engineer Lew Chan answered, “Engineering.”

Schmit asked, “How are we doing Lew?”

Ole Stubby is ready to answer all bells Sir.”

Schmit replied, “Than you Mr. Chen.”

Schmit ordered, “Mr. Sokolsky, please set a countdown clocks on the ships main data display for getting underway and our first jump please.”

Sokolsky acknowledged the order with a curt, “Aye sir.” In a few seconds there were two countdown clocks displayed on the ships information screen: Underway: 04:22, Jump 10:22.

The Captain was unusually pensive. Schmit was very concerned because past the first few series of jumps that would take them out of the Alliance core systems, he didn’t have any information about their route. It was difficult to plan for fuel consumption only knowing where you are going but having no idea about the route.

Schmit knew that he had enough fuel to get to their destination. However, once they arrived, their tanks would be dry and he had no desire to sit around in a war zone waiting to tank up.

Every jump consumed tons of refined liquid hydrogen. It was plentiful and could be gathered in almost every system but it did require refinement and filtration. Fuel for the reactors had to have no impurities and the right ratio of deuterium to tritium. Too much tritium would absorb neutrons and cause the fusion reaction to fizzle. Too much deuterium and the reaction would run too hot and damage the reaction chamber and requiring expensive repairs. No Captain in his right mind wanted to enter a war zone guessing about his fuel status or nursing a burned out reactor core.

Big task forces like this routinely included UNREP (UNder-way REPlenishment) vessels for the warships to keep them stocked with fuel and ordinance. He would just have to trust that Admiral Bassett’s staff had thought to include a tanker or two for the big cargo ships in his convoy. Ideally Schmit would like to tank off a week or so before their final destination so they could turn around immediately and get the big, vulnerable ship out of harms way. Since the Fleet was running this Op, there was really no telling. Nobody off Bassett’s flag bridge would know the details and the even the individual Commanders would find out at most 48-hours ahead of time.

Schmit made a mental note to contact Admiral Stewart on the Basra and fish for details.

When the ships chronometer read 15:30 Schmit made an announcement on the 1MC: “All hands, this is the Captain. Raymond T. Burke is going into long range communications black-out in thirty; I repeat three-zero minutes. If you want to get any messages out before we get underway, I suggest you do it now. Remember that any messages going out will be seen by the Fleet’s censors. You may provide no details other than we are going on an extended cruise and won’t be back this way from 14 to 16 weeks. That is all.”

Suddenly the fleet link came to life, “Raymond T. Burke, this if Fleet Shuttle Golf-three-one-niner. We are inbound with personnel and equipment. ETA 2 minutes. Requesting permission to land.”

Sokolsky keyed his mike, “Golf-three-one-niner, this is Raymond T. Burke. You are clear to land.”

“Roger that Raymond T. Burke.”

Schmit stood and straightened his uniform. He turned to Harrison and said, “Let’s go welcome our hero from the Fleet. Mr. Sokolsky, you have the bridge. Send a couple of guys to the hanger bay. That shuttle-jockey said something about equipment.”

Sokolsky acknowledged, “Aye sir. Someone will be waiting for you in the bay.”

Schmit and Harrison left the bridge and took the elevator 4 levels down to the hanger deck. It was larger than most cargo ships flight facilities because the “old sea dog” class modular transports carried their own cargo handling equipment and two shuttles.

When they arrived, Crewmen Morgan and Sanchez were waiting for them in the shuttle control bay.

Sanchez looked up from the bay control console and said, “They’re on final approach boss. Someone said they might have some luggage?”

Schmit grinned and said, “When they called in they said they had personnel and cargo. I’m not sure what they’ve got but what can a shuttle hold anyway.”

Right on que the sleek little shuttle with tail number G319 zipped in the hanger door and gently landed on the pad. Sanchez turned the key to close the hanger door and punched the green button marked “pressurize.”

Schmit, Harrison and Morgan stepped into the airlock to the shuttle bay and watched the atmosphere indicator climb for the red, into the yellow and finally into the green. When the computer was satisfied that the pressure in the bay and the lock had equalized, the air-lock door popped open.

A young naval officer debarked from the shuttle with a duffle over his shoulder and an equipment case in both hands. He was followed by a much older civilian carrying a duffle and a single case. He saluted smartly and said, “Ensign Tom Rivers and Mr. Carter requesting permission to come aboard sir.”

Schmit returned his salute and said, “Permission granted. Welcome to the Raymond T. Burke. Can we help you with your gear?”

Rivers looked relieved and said thanks as Morgan took one of the equipment cases off his hands. “We had better let the shuttle get turned around. He’s on a schedule. Let’s find a place to sit down and talk.”

Schmit, Harrison, Rivers and Carter left the shuttle bay and went back up the elevator to the conference room on the command deck.

Once they got settled, Ensign Rivers immediately got down to business. “Captain Schmit, Mr. Carter is a cargo specialist from DSI. He has a special monitor that he’s going to install in the payload monitoring bay so that he can keep an eye on our more sensitive equipment.”

Harrison blinked at the mention of DSI or more properly Deep Space Industries. DSI was a multi-trillion credit corporation that specialized in heavy manufacturing. They were a prime contractor for the Alliance building everything from chips to starships. They were always squabbling with various Senate committees.

Mr. Carter stood and said, “The sooner I get this monitor installed, the better I’ll like it. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see the cargo master.”

Harrison asked, “Know your way?”

Carter chuckled, “Oh yes. I’ve been all over this class transport. They are simply the best for hauling DSI’s more sensitive equipment.”

When Carter left the room, Rivers continued, “I’ve got some gear that I am going to install on your bridge. It will help your ship coordinate better with the fleets tactical data systems. There are things I can tell you and some things that will have to wait. I’m sure you are wondering why you are carrying a light load. When we reach Capella station we’re going to take on the balance of our cargo and four specially built self-defense pods. They contain point defenses, chaff dispensers and powerful multi-phase jammers. These pods have their own power supply and will link to the bridge over the ships existing network.”

Harrison commented, “That explains the light load. What about the gear you are going to install on the bridge?”

“This class transport is very modern. You’ve got a lot more computer capacity than you really need. Half of the upgrades that I have for you make your ship a node of the fleet’s tactical data systems. The hardware is for hard encryption of your data link to the fleet. We have a protocol that is unhackable and un-jammable. The other equipment monitors the health and welfare of our cargo.”

Schmit saw an opening and decided to take it. “So Ensign Rivers, what is our cargo?”

Rivers grinned a little and said, “I’m sure that you can appreciate that it’s classified but I’ll let you know this: we’re carrying enough missiles, warheads, strike fighters and Gauss ammunition to start our own war. Everything is containerized and monitored so we don’t have any special handling requirements. Good enough?”

Schmit answered noncommittally, “That’s about what I figured.”

Rivers suggested, “If there isn’t anything more we need to talk about, I have to get this equipment online as soon as possible.”

Schmit sighed and paused in though for a moment. Then he said decisively, “Mr. Harrison, please take care of Ensign Rivers. Have Sokolsky give him a hand interfacing with our systems. Oh, and make sure that we have quarters available for Mr. Carter. I will be in my office if you need me.”

Harrison and Rivers left the ships conference room and went to the bridge. Schmit took advantage of the lull in activity to catch up on his log entries. He soon became lost in his work.

It seemed to Schmit that he had only just begun when Harrison’s voice boomed over the 1MC at 1530: “Attention all hands, we are three-zero minutes from getting underway. All hands to duty stations.”

Schmit logged off from his terminal and went around the corner to the bridge.

When he arrived the bridge was buzzing. The Fleet link was alive with ships acknowledging their readiness to get underway. Harrison was standing beside Sokolsky and Rivers station. There was a big display screen with blips of various sizes representing the fleet. As each ship logged their readiness status, its icon turned green.

Rivers saw the Captain and stood but Schmit motioned for him to stay seated, “What do you have here Ensign Rivers?”

“Captain, this is the latest terminal interface for the fleets TacCom or Tactical Command system. When the “Distinguished Captains” class heavy transport ships were commissioned by Argos Transit, they were subsidized by the Alliance so that in the event of war, they could become part of the Alliance Merchant Marine. As such, the data systems were built to spec so that they could interface and work with TacCom. With it we can see the same information in real time that is available to the Admirals on their flag ships.”

Schmit wrinkled his nose and gave his First Officer a knowing look. Sokolsky on the other hand stated, “We’ve done at least a dozen convoys but I’ve never seen this gear before.”

Rivers replied, “There are three big differences with this task force. First, all of our ships are of the most modern type and we can use TacCom and it gives us a big edge. Second, our cargo is vital and absolutely has to get through so we’re using every toy in the box. Last- this is the biggest task force we’ve even tried to take out as far as we are going.”

Schmit and Harrison instantly grasped the implication of River’s choice of words. A convoy and a task force were very two different animals. One is for a cruise; the other is for a brawl.

As the minutes ticked away before the ship was to get under way the Cargo-Master Anderson and Chief Engineer Chen arrived on the bridge and took their stations.

Sokolsky announced, “One minute sir.”

Schmit curtly ordered, “Helm control to fleet. Call the ball Mr. Harrison.”

Harrison called out, “Fleet signals a slow acceleration to maximum sub-light speed over the next hour. Fleet course 330, Z +090. Prepare to engage sub-light drive on my mark. Mark.”

At that instant, the sub-light engines of 92 ships all fired off at the same instant producing blue-white plumes of superheated ions.

Mr. Chen announced, “Primary sub-light drive engaged and running normally.”

At T+30 seconds Sokolsky, announced, “Fleet speed is 250 meters per second and coming up steadily.”

Bassett had his fleet on a course that left Titans orbit and took a wide polar orbit of Saturn and then, with a gravity assist, up and away from Sol’s planetary, orbital plane. Six hours out, the fleet would be far enough away from Saturn’s gravity well to jump.

Sokolsky announced, “T + 2 minutes, fleet speed is 750 meters per second.”

Schmit, ever mindful of his ships equipment ordered, “Mr. Harrison, retract the long-range Communications array and secure all external equipment.”

Harrison worked his console and announced, “The Long Range Comm array is secured. All external hatches are closed and dogged. All external equipment is secure. We are buttoned up for flight. Fleet has a course correction. Coming around smartly to 030, Z+60.”

The fleet passed over a threshold where Titan’s gravity no longer exerted enough force to hinder their progress. Sokolsky announced dryly, “Snap effect, speed is up to 2.25 kilometers per second and accelerating at T + 4:22.”

Over the course of the next forty-five minutes the fleet rounded Saturn gathering momentum to break away. Their flight path provided the fleet with an added bonus: a striking view of Saturn’s rings.

The trip around the other side of Saturn took less than five minutes. With their fleet speed up to 3,500 kilometers per second and climbing, the fleet broke away from the grip of Saturn’s gravity racing off toward deep space.

Over the next six hours, the bridge crew busily and nervously watched every gauge, sensor and readout. The most dangerous part of any interstellar voyage was entering or exiting a planetary system. Starships usually travel alone or in small groups. Task Forces of this size were very rare and the chances for a collision or mishap were very real.

When the time to jump clock reached 30 minutes, Schmit gave the order, “Mr. Chen begin charging jump engines. Mr. Sokolsky, please confirm continuity of jump coordinates.”

Chen reported, “Fusion reactors at 100%, jump drives charging normally.”

Raymond T. Burke’s eight Dassault heavy fusion reactors began feeding power into the capacitor array that drives the ships four jump drives.

Sokolsky announced, “Sir, computers report a valid jump solution.”

“I concur. Our jump clock is synchronized with the fleet.” Harrison reported.

Schmit switched on the 1MC and said, “Now hear this. All stations make final preparations to jump in two-eight minutes and three-zero seconds on my mark.” Schmit paused as the clock counted down. “Mark.”

At ten minutes thirty seconds a broadcast message came over the command net from the fleet: “Final commit to jump in three-zero seconds.”

Schmit ordered, “Mr. Chen, I authorize you to make final commit to jump. Standby to turn the keys.”

Chen took his commit key off of the chain around his neck and put it in the appropriate slot in his console. Schmit’s key was already in place on the arm of his chair. “Captain, I am ready to commit to jump on my mark. Three, two, one, mark.”

On que the Captain and Chief Engineer turned their keys and enabled the ten minute countdown. There was no turning back now. The jump capacitors and engines were charged with so much energy that the crew could no longer safely shut them down.

Now fully committed, all the officers and crew could do was strap in and wait.

At the two minute mark, Schmit allowed the ships automated systems to kick in.

An alarm sounded and the ships computer began an audio countdown at two minutes.

A bead of sweat ran down Schmit’s brow.

Harrison said the ‘Shepherd’s Prayer’ silently to himself. Oh Lord, don’t let me screw up.

At thirty seconds the deck plates began to shake and finally rattle. The sound of the jump drives began to rise in pitch from a deep low hum that could felt rather than hear to a whine. A tailored worm hole began forming in front of every ship in the fleet.

The ships computer counted down, Three, two, one, jump.

There was a flash as each ship of the task force entered its wormhole and vanished.

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