3 Prelude

The flight filed into the classroom. A young officer, slender, with tousled reddish-blond hair, awaited them. "Now the fun starts," he said after they were all seated. "I am Glin."

"Tomorrow, you will experience your first simulated mission. Between now and the end of the day, you will be given enough information to complete the mission, the same information that every new training class has received here at the Academy. This is the same mission that cadets have experienced for the last hundred years. It is in part tradition, and in part a way to measure yourselves against all that have come before.

"In the next sixteen weeks, you will be taught as much as possible about the technology we've learned from the Rogue, and about the tactics we have developed. Our information on the Rogue is minimal and our experience actually fighting them almost non-existent, yet we do what we can to prepare. For this mission, though, you will have only your intuition, logic, and creativity to solve a tactical problem that has eluded all who have attempted it."

With that, he launched into the specifics. Videos accompanied his lecture, and it was clear that the material was presented in a very specific way that minimized any variation in what each group received.

Each of them would command a mission squad of four. The other three would be "piloted" by MI's---Machine Intelligences. Their simulators would duplicate every facet of a real mission: communications delays, fuel expenditures, and G-forces. Every way--they were told--except that they would survive the mission.

The simulated craft would be slightly modified, primarily to make them simpler than real fighters. Simple enough to allow them to be reasonably piloted after a half day's training. They would have this afternoon for classroom training and time in the simulator tomorrow, to become accustomed to the fighter simulators in simple mission scenarios. Their simulator time would end with their attempt at the mission.

"You have not used or been trained on your comms yet. Normally, they would be a major part of controlling your ship. However, they were not used when this training scenario was first created and would give you an advantage over those cadets with whom you will be compared.

"The fighter you will use is a training level craft. It is very similar to actual warcraft used when this training evaluation began. The basic controls and weaponry are essentially the same in combat craft today. Communications and tactics are the areas where major improvements have been made."

A video was shown which described the cockpit layout, controls, and displays. Zeke was relieved to see that a joystick was the basic flight control element. Evidently, it was an optimal solution.

The craft they would "fly" were called Elise class fighters. They could accelerate at more than a hundred G's. At that acceleration, they were told, you could approach a considerable fraction of the speed of light in a matter of days, though a fighter did not carry enough fuel to accelerate for more than a few hours.

Such acceleration would kill a human, but inertial dampers reduced the effect of the G forces by a factor of ten. Still, ten G's could not be tolerated for long, even with some mechanical help provided by their suit.

"The inertial dampers use energy that increases with the G forces it counteracts. For this mission, and also for the beginning of your training, this will be controlled automatically."

"Later, you will learn the intricacies of energy, acceleration, and tactics," he said, concluding his briefing on the simulated ships they would "fly."

He released them for a short break. Zeke sat at a table in the break area, sipping a container of an unidentifiable fruit juice, with two other members of his group, Sephen, Mairn and Sakin. It seemed it was the first time since he'd been here that he had a moment to catch his breath and take notice of things.

"Why aren't there any women in our group?" he asked the two, "are they uncommon? We've seen several in the different simulator rooms. Are the flights separated by sex?"

"No," Mairn answered. "In fact, it is unusual. Usually, I believe, they make up about thirty percent of cadets. I think it is unusual for a flight to be completely male."

"So males and females share a barracks? What about the toilets and showers?" Zeke wondered aloud.

"Barracks, yes, the other, no," Sakin said with amusement. "There are separate facilities in each barracks. Is the custom different on Earth?"

"We think of ourselves, I guess, as believing in equal opportunity for the sexes, but women are separated in all the Earth military organizations I know. And they are not allowed in combat, although that seems to be slowly changing."

"We have few such distinctions here," Sephen replied. "We need all the competent pilots, engineers, technicians... and warriors that we can get. Our society is quite a bit different from yours, although I don't imagine you've had much time to learn about it.

"More men are in the military, and more women teach and rear children, but that is by each individual's preference. Assignments and advancement are by ability and merit."

When they returned to class, Glin continued the mission description. "Your flight will be escorting a group of four robotic freighters. It begins just after they enter the planetary system from the jump point. You will escort them to planetary orbit. The mission is a short one, approximately two hours."

"As most of you know, robotic ships have no weapons, so all responsibility for their defense is up to you."

A three-dimensional map was displayed behind him. It was marked with the location of the inbound jump point. He pointed out the planet, the cargo's destination, and a moon that lay near their path.

His presentation ended with a video to familiarize them with the performance of the fighter and its weapon systems.

The fighter was powered by a miniature fusion system similar to the one Zeke had already encountered. The power-to-weight ratio was necessarily much higher on fighters and gave it an acceleration in excess of a hundred G's.

The primary weapon was the DEW, the directed energy weapon. Zeke thought of it as a laser though he wasn't sure how accurate that was. It remained usable as long as the ship had power, which was its advantage. Its disadvantages were many.

First: its range was only a thousand kilometers. If that's the limited weapon, he wondered what the main weapons were capable of?

Second: It was easily defended against. Rogue ships had a coating that reflected most of the energy. To be effective, either the craft had to have sustained damage, and the coating compromised, or the beam aimed accurately at a single point for a long time.

"How long is a 'long time'?" Zeke asked.

"One hundred milliseconds within an area of a square meter," the instructor answered. "Our best weapons control systems cannot maintain that unless the enemy has been damaged. In that case, it is also likely that the defensive coating will have been damaged as it is not very rugged.

"If the beam hits an area of the hull that has been compromised, the beam will penetrate the entire craft and the reaction will cause damage to the area nearby, so a large area will quickly sustain severe damage.

"Finally, the DEW must be used judiciously. Its normal mode is microsecond bursts which cause a minimal drain on the reactor. Bursts of up to a half second can be used and are sometimes needed, but such a burst will use a significant fraction of your fuel."

There were no questions. Maybe, like Zeke, they didn't know enough to ask.

"The second weapon you have is the SRG, the Smart Rail Gun. It consists of a smart projectile that is launched at very high velocity with an electromagnetic mass driver. The projectile itself can be inert high mass metal, but more often it contains a projectile which can be guided, or guide itself after it is fired. For the exercise tomorrow, you will have a limited selection of warheads available. Only three were available when the baseline for this evaluation was established.

"The first has a very high acceleration and rapid closing time, but has less ability to change its direction. The initial accuracy of the shot must be within a degree.

"The second has a lower acceleration, but more cross-range maneuvering and more ability to track enemy targets.

"Finally, you'll have a simple mass projectile. It is primitive, but at the time of the original mission, the smart projectiles were expensive and each fighter carried only a small number. These were inexpensive, required much less energy than the DEW, and against lightly armored craft, are extremely effective. Most of your ammunition will be of this type. Even now, they are on the load-out for most missions.

"Since the baseline was set, a number of other models of projectile have been developed. You will be trained on their use in the future."

Someone asked, "Are the capabilities of the enemy the same as they were a hundred years ago? Since we're using older tech, are we facing newer technology?"

"The information that has been released to the public is that we have had no contact or information of the Rogue since the second attack," Glin replied. "That is not just a story to keep the populace calm; we had seen nothing of the Rogue since the second attack. The mission you will fly tomorrow was our last contact with them, until this last attack."

"Lastly, you need to know about the enemy capability and tactics, what we knew at the time of the baseline," Glin told them.

"Obviously, they do not have physiological factors that limit acceleration, but their fusion drives are neither as efficient nor as powerful as ours. However, since they don't have life support, they can carry more fuel, and they have greater acceleration than our fighters.

"So they can out-accelerate you, but they must limit their acceleration by the amount of fuel. Also, as far as we know, they do not use carriers, or carrier-like ships, as much as we do, so they have farther to go to return to their main ships. They use larger ships as fuel tankers. It appears that they may physically connect many small, fighter class craft when making hyperspace jumps."

Glin concluded, "Normally your comms would allow you to study and access more information after hours, but since they have not yet been completely programmed, and because you have not been instructed in their use, that will wait for future training and missions. If you have no more questions, you are dismissed."

Yipt was waiting outside and they marched to their evening meal and were soon back in the barracks.

Zeke checked for messages, but the imposed delay meant he had none. He considered sending a note to Enne, but decided that the next move was up to her.

The other cadets spoke of the mission tomorrow. Zeke heard the name Berhlende mentioned several times and it was clear that he had done something memorable.

"Who is, or was, 'Behrlende'?" Zeke asked of the nearest group.

"He was the flight leader of the original mission that the simulation tomorrow is based on," someone answered. "The freighters were carrying fusion reactors to Mecran Delta from a manufacturing station on Anyar. The convoy was attacked. He, and the rest of his flight, were able to protect only one of the freighters.

"In the one hundred years since we added this to our training, no one has ever saved more than a single freighter. Even experienced pilots, in repeated attempts, have never saved more than two. Even then, the escort has always been destroyed."

The remaining hours until lights out were filled with conjecture about tomorrow's events. Zeke could feel a tension, or maybe it was just intensity. It must be, he decided, like having the chance to compare yourself to Babe Ruth--to have the chance to equal, or even surpass him, and have your name written in the history books.

The lights dimmed and the talk quieted. As the room darkened, Zeke could see the stars through the small windows above the lockers.