4 Behrlende

Most of the cadets ate lightly at breakfast. Excitement and tension were reflected in every face.

They marched directly from the dining area to the elevator and down to a room identical to the one they'd seen the previous day. They were directed to a small classroom off the back of the main room.

The instructor introduced himself as Greig and launched into a short explanation.

"You will receive all of your flight training and information while you are in the simulators," he began. "The simulator/fighter MI will conduct the training and put you through multiple exercises, gradually increasing in complexity and difficulty."

The first group, including Rilt, was directed into an adjoining room to don their flight suits. Each cadet was visible, sitting in a reclining couch, as technicians and robotic helpers maneuvered them into the large and bulky suits: a cross between an exoskeleton, a NASA space suit, and an alien from a bad sci-fi movie.

The recruits went out through an opening on the far side into the simulator bay. The remaining students were left to study other course material, not related to flight or combat.

Zeke and the other cadets, distracted with anticipation of the challenge they faced, did not spend much time on the material on their terminals. Zeke attempted to learn the Anyari alphabet and did drills to improve his speed with the keyboard.

Around him, the other recruits were paying little attention to their comm screens and entry pads.

After several hours, the first group could be heard filing back into the ready room. As the helmets came off, he could see their faces flushed and sweaty. He wondered why they had not been separated, why they had to wait and watch the previous groups complete the mission.

The suits worn by the first group were removed and the recruits from the first group rose and left as soon as they were free, saying nothing and not looking at those who waited.

The second group was soon called and repeated the process.

Lunchtime came and Yipt appeared to march them for a quick meal. He advised them to eat lightly.

After another interminably long period, they second group re-entered, were helped out of the suits, and left.

Finally, Zeke's group was directed to the dressing couches. He could see the back portion of the suit that waited for him. A technician helped him. The front was attached in several pieces. He could hear the whisper of air start as the breastplate was attached. Finally, the helmet was attached to his suit and he was alone in his own small world. The helmet had a large, clear, rounded faceplate and he was able to look to the right and left, over his armored shoulders.

Robotic assistants helped him up. The suit was heavy, although it was powered in some way; like an exoskeleton, it responded to the movement of his arms and legs. Clumsily he was able to make his way into the simulator room.

As he entered, excitement and apprehension washed over him. He wondered if the astronauts he'd watched felt like this before a flight.

An attendant standing by one of the simulators was looking at him. That must be the one he would "fly." The top, an opaque white, was open like the canopy of a jet fighter. The inside did not have a seat as much as a couch where he would lie reclined.

The attendant pointed to his left foot and patted a spot in the cockpit, indicating how he should enter. He and an attendant on the other side supported him and helped him sit down and lie back. A single hose, or maybe it was a cable near his left leg, was plugged into a receptacle in the front--where he would have expected an instrument panel to be--but the interior was almost bare, just a padded extrusion with a cavity for his legs.

Sitting in the cockpit, the illusion he was in a real fighter was complete. There were joysticks on either side of him, in easy reach of his hands at his sides. He quickly switched from feeling awkward to becoming comfortable, a part of his own small ship.

A female voice spoke quietly, but clearly, into his ear. "The hatch will close in a moment. Do not be alarmed. The gravity will be reduced to one-fourth of normal. Over the first half hour of your training it will slowly decrease to zero."

The hatch came down surprisingly slowly and he wondered to himself why. "Since you are new and unaccustomed to this environment, many aspects of the ship's behavior and this mission will be slower or reduced on your first training missions. This simulator, however, is capable of duplicating an actual mission with extreme accuracy," the female voice explained.

"Please verify your identity."

"Zeke," he answered, "Zeke Taylor."

"Acknowledged, your simulation will begin in four minutes," she said as the canopy closed. An area in front of his face lit up and an image of a ship, evidently what a real fighter looked like, appeared.

He felt a sensation of slowly moving down, which increased as the gravity decreased.

"I can be addressed as 'Ran'," the ship's voice suggested without explanation. "I will provide instruction, some guidance, and notify you of the ship's status. Just as important, I'll keep you informed of the location and heading of nearby enemy craft."

Ran continued, "In a full simulation, you could give me preliminary instructions, but that will not be necessary or appropriate on this first mission.

"The control stick on your right has been configured to control pitch and roll to conform to what is standard on your Earth aircraft. The left stick controls yaw and throttle."

Just like a model plane, he thought.

"Should you choose, now or in the future, the controls can be changed in any way you wish. Many other controls and capabilities that you will not use on this first training mission can be configured specifically for you," she added.

The sense of falling slowly subsided as the gravity stopped changing.

The display in front of him appeared to become transparent, but the view he saw was of other fighters, above and below him, like his, all attached to the exterior of a large ship.

"Although you are reclining, the perspective can change from the front of your fighter to any other direction. Other information can be overlaid on this view, and much more is available.

"The view will change to the frontal view. I will undock your fighter now." He felt and heard the clunk of some mechanism release.

He watched the large ship drift off to the right.

"After I maneuver the ship away from the carrier, you can take control," his guide announced.

He heard the hiss of jets and the carrier receded.

"We are clear, use the left stick to accelerate."

He pushed the left stick forward and felt a moan behind him as he was pushed gently back. He pushed the stick forward a bit more and the G's built up. The carrier was quickly out of sight.

"The distance to the carrier, its relative direction and velocity are displayed on the lower right. Fuel and weapons status are displayed on the lower left."

As she spoke, he continued to push the stick forward and the G forces increased. The interior of the suit was padded, conforming to his body. All that was visible was a field of stars and no motion was apparent, no matter how much he felt.

"The right stick will roll the fighter." A slight pressure and the star field rotated. His inner ear told him he was rolling.

"Pull back on the stick and the nose will pitch up. With no atmosphere, the only change in your velocity vector is caused by the angle at which thrust is applied, so the change in direction will be much less than in an atmospheric craft.

"In practice, I can set the course and maneuver to reach the objectives of your choice. But for your initial training, you will have control. During your first mission, you can fly the fighter or have me handle navigation and can, of course, switch between those at your discretion."

"Your first target is fifty thousand kilometers ahead. You are traveling at thirty km/sec relative to the target. You will reach the target in approximately twenty-eight minutes at your current velocity.

"I have acquired the target on my sensors and the distance and closing rate are displayed in the top left corner of your display. A standard attack would be to increase speed to reduce the closing time to less than ten minutes. At two minutes to closing, we would begin decelerating to ten km/sec which is the optimal speed for an attack with kinetic projectiles."

"Kinetic projectiles?" Zeke asked.

"You would call them bullets, large bullets, on Earth," Ran replied.

"OK. Do it", Zeke ordered and was immediately pushed back as the fighter accelerated.

"I can accelerate at up to two hundred gravities. The inertial compensators can reduce that force on you by ninety percent, but only up to one hundred gravities. At that point, you would be exposed to ten gravities. After that, you would also be exposed to any additional acceleration beyond the one hundred gravity threshold, which you could not withstand for very long. Your suit can provide some support, but only for short periods. Any additional acceleration that you could survive would be of little tactical value.

"We are two minutes from intercept, beginning deceleration," Zeke heard as he was pushed forward, uncomfortably.

"Display is at maximum magnification, you can see your target lined up with the KP targeting."

Zeke saw a small object centered on cross-hairs in the middle of the display.

"You can fire at thirty seconds to target. A five-second burst has been set to start when you press the button on top of the stick. Immediately after firing you should change course in order to avoid colliding with the target or debris."

"Anything more than one degree of pitch or yaw would be adequate to miss the target, but thirty degrees is standard procedure. Thirty degrees is, of course, only the thrust vector, your actual change in direction is a hyperbolic curve."

The target grew in the display and he could see the distance and time to intercept countdown on the display. At just over thirty seconds, he pressed the firing button and felt the fighter shudder. He immediately pulled up on the stick. Reticle like lines and a readout showed him his pitch relative to the previous course.

"Slewing your view to monitor the target," Ran reported and Zeke saw the growing object disintegrate without a sound or a visible explosion.

"You changed your orientation after two point three seconds so that under half of the projectiles impacted the target, but that was adequate to score a kill. We passed fifteen percent farther from the target than standard procedure specifies, but your performance on your first objective was acceptable and within a standard deviation of other trainees."

Over the next hour, Ran guided him through ever more complex exercises--the same ones that had been used by the Anyari for generations. He had a chance to use the other weapons he'd been briefed on.

On the last training mission, Zeke used multiple missiles to destroy a convoy of freighters; then he engaged in a dogfight with the single, simulated, fighter, protecting it. It wasn't a dogfight in the sense he thought of. It was a game of long periods of acceleration and deceleration, rapid closures with moments of intense maneuvering and rapid firing of weapons, usually missiles, and deploying countermeasures. It was more a game of strategy, like chess, than of skill.

With that last task accomplished, Ran informed him, "Stand by for your mission briefing."

The star field vanished and a man appeared in a uniform similar to, but subtly different than, those worn by the Anyari military now.

He began, "You will escort 4 freighters with components and supplies essential to the defense of Mecran. Those freighters will jump to your current location in five minutes.

"Cadet Tilor, you will command assault group Blue. You are charged with protecting these ships and seeing them safely to Mecran. Their contents are critical to the war effort and to the planet's security."

The display shifted to show a planet with a small moon. A slowly flashing arc, which started near the viewpoint, passed near the moon and terminated at the planet, evidently indicated the track the mission was to follow.

"You will be accompanied by three fighters under your command," he went on. "The freighters are unmanned and following a pre-programmed course which you cannot change.

"Rogue ships have been reported in this system. Your fighter, and those of your flight, will be the same, and equipped with the same weapons, as you have trained with today. You can direct any additional questions to your fighter MI."

He concluded, "Your mission will commence in ten minutes. The MI will navigate to a rendezvous with your flight. Good luck."

With that, all was silent. The planet and moon were still on the display and he found that with his joysticks he could change the perspective and zoom in and out.

"I have control. I am navigating this craft to the rendezvous," Ran explained.

Zeke had the overwhelming feeling that he should be asking questions, but the only one he could think of, "What do I do?" he left unvoiced.

Unbidden, Ran began, "You can speak to any of your flight specifically by addressing them. Their call signs are Blue Two, Three, and Four. 'Blue Flight' will open the communications channel to all of them. The channel is muted when you stop speaking and closed when you address me. You should also realize that there may be a delay of several seconds when communicating at large distances."

"Understood," Zeke replied. "Since you are navigating now, can you also fly the fighter during the mission?"

"Yes," she replied, "but I cannot fire any weapons except on your explicit command." He thought of her as a "she." He wasn't sure whether he thought of her as a component of the ship, or the ship itself, so he asked.

"Both. Physically, the electronics are housed in two--redundant--enclosures in the ship. However, all control of this fighter, even your inputs using the joysticks, is routed through me. As I said before, I can change the way they function in any way you desire."

After a moment, he had a chance to think about tactics he might use. He asked, "Do you have any intelligence on Rogue tactics that I can access?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered. "What would you like to know?"

"At what range can they be detected by a fighter's sensors?" Zeke asked her.

"When in inactive mode, a Rogue fighter can usually be detected at five thousand kilometers. Sometimes more. A fighter with engines on, can be detected at one hundred thousand kilometers. With our sensors in active mode, which you should seldom engage, the effective range can be up to ten thousand kilometers, but the amount and type of information returned is significantly improved. Only larger ships use active sensors often. They signals sent out to detect other craft are also a beacon that reveal your location."

As she spoke, he'd watched three blue dots move closer to the green dot representing his craft.

"Standard formation for a four ship flight is a diamond formation, each leg at five hundred kilometers," Ran informed him.

"Instruct the other fighters to form up on me," Zeke responded. He couldn't see the others at that distance. The moon and planet were at the far edge of the display.

"The freighter will jump in two minutes. They will be one thousand kilometers behind us at our current course and speed."

Zeke's apprehension evaporated as he concentrated on the mission. It seemed likely that the attack would come from ahead, with ships hiding on or near the moon, or a high-speed attack from behind as Ran had described.

"Blue Two, take a position five hundred thousand klicks in front of the freighters. Blue Three and Four, maintain your present position. I will drop back a hundred thousand clicks to detect an attack from behind." Zeke's commands were broadcast to the flight.

"How far are we from the planet, and the moon?" Zeke asked.

"Ten million kilometers," Ran answered. "We are limited by the freighter's speed--two thousand kilometers per second. We will reach the moon in about eighty minutes. At that point, they will begin to decelerate."

Nothing happened for the next hour. Zeke watched the screens as Ran displayed different views of the sensor data. These included related data from the other fighters.

"How long until Blue Two is within passive sensor range of the moon?" he asked.

"Twenty minutes," the ship answered. "A Rogue lying in wait would likely power up and attack shortly before they would be detected."

"Can my communications with the flight be used to locate our position?

"I can use a method which cannot," she replied.

"Do so and have Blue Two engage active sensors, focused on the moon," Zeke instructed.

Within a minute Blue Two reported, "Ten drives detected coming around from behind the moon, it will take a few minutes to calculate their distance."

"How long for us to accelerate and reach the freighters and where will they be when we do?"

"We can reach the intercept point of the Rogue and freighters five minutes before the intercept will occur, assuming we decelerate to zero relative velocity. For a standard attack, we would decelerate less and reach the intercept point ten minutes before interception," the ship answered.

"Can we avoid the Rogue's sensors by changing course?" Zeke asked.

"We can. The cone of probability where the Rogue sensors will sweep can be avoided if we initiate a course change within the next few minutes. However, the freighters will not change course, and even if they did, they could not accelerate quickly enough."

To just accelerate and join the fight must have been a common tactic in the many times this simulation had been attempted, Zeke thought. And, most likely the one that Berhlende used on the original mission.

That tactic had not worked as had countless others over the last hundred years. Every sane idea must have been tried, he thought. That is an advantage I have.

He asked Ran, "Can we alter course and swing around the other side of the moon? Surprise the Rogue by coming from behind them?"

"Yes," she replied, "however we will not reach the intercept point until fifteen minutes after the interception, and probable destruction of the freighters and the other fighters. However, the Rogue are far enough behind the moon that we can use it to block their sensors until we are well outside the probability cone where their sensors would detect us. They will be focused on the rest of Blue flight"

"How far away can we be detected if we are outside that probability cone?"

"Just outside the range of our guided ordinance, but there is some element of chance."

"Tell Blue Two to drop back into standard formation in front of the freighters," he ordered. "Set a course that avoids their sensors for as long as possible and brings us in to attack them from as far behind them as possible."

"The best angle we can achieve at maximum acceleration is eighty degrees. The probability of detection will increase as we get to within one hundred thousand klicks."

"What is our maximum acceleration?"

"Standard mission guidelines limit acceleration to one hundred gravities, ten gravities after inertial dampening for periods not to exceed thirty seconds. Even that amount of acceleration is allowed for only short periods."

"How much acceleration would be needed to increase that angle to one hundred twenty degrees?"

"Acceleration would be thirty-one gravities---three point one for you--- for most of the approach. It would peak at one hundred three gravities when we round the moon and slow our closing rate to begin closing from behind. We would still be traveling faster than the recommended velocity when we fired the missiles."

"Also," she added, "I am not permitted to exceed one hundred gravity acceleration."

Zeke thought for a moment and asked, "Are there exceptions where the acceleration limits can be exceeded?"

"For real missions, regulations stipulate that only if there is a reasonable expectation that doing so will avoid or reduce casualties, the ship's MI can determine exceptions to the acceleration limits. The decision tree is complex, but it is designed to keep the total casualties at a minimum."

"However," she continued, "that is intended for real missions, not simulations."

"Can you accurately simulate the conditions of a real engagement, including increased acceleration?"

"Yes," she answered, "but the limits cannot be exceeded in training."

To which Zeke countered, "Just as no one has ever successfully completed this mission."

"You would certainly lose consciousness during parts of the maneuver."

"You can navigate the ship if I am unconscious. Right?"

"I can," her reply sounded more like a complaint than an answer, "but I cannot fire weapons without your orders. You must give immediate orders to fire, you cannot give a command to be executed later."

"Change course to avoid the Rogue's sensor cone, and set a course to go around the moon and attack from behind," he commanded.

"This is not a real mission," she protested. "Exceeding the limits will injure you. That is not allowed in training missions."

"This is a simulation of a real mission," he countered. "The mission was never completed successfully under those limitations. If there is any way to save the freighters, one of the parameters of the scenario must be altered."

He went on, intent on giving this desperate idea a try. "Is it reasonable to believe that knowledge might be obtained if this tactic is successful, and the war effort furthered?"

There was a noticeable delay before she responded, "Yes."

Zeke felt the G forces build up, even before she spoke. "Course changed to avoid Rogue sensor cone. Accelerating to thirty-one gravities, you will feel three point one gravities for the next eighty minutes. I do not believe you will like it."

The next eighty minutes were the most painful Zeke could remember. He could only breathe in gasps and was soon lightheaded, on the verge of passing out.

Ran inquired about the attack plan when they approached the Rogue.

"Fire one kinetic energy projectile for each Rogue," he grunted. "Then prepare to launch all smart missiles at any active targets that are closest to the freighters. Hopefully, the rest of the flight will have disabled or destroyed a few Rogue. Aim and prepare to fire even if I am not conscious. Tell me when it is time to fire and I will give the order."

She replied, "Acknowledged."

He saw the moon grow larger and their course took them down close to the surface. Craters and mountains flashed by.

The acceleration increased and he was unable to hang on. His vision darkened and narrowed to a circle before he let go and the world faded out.

The next thing he knew Ran was repeating something. The pressure was still present, but his vision was returning.

"Three minutes to intercept. It is time to fire."

"Two minutes fifty-five. It is time to fire."

Confused and dazed, he mustered enough concentration to say, "Fire!"

With that effort, he blacked out for another few moments before beginning to recover the rest of his senses.

"One Rogue destroyed. Two, three."

A second later she reported. "Six of the Rogue have been destroyed. Two are disabled. Blue One has been destroyed, Blue Two is heavily damaged. Blue Three is engaging one of the remaining Rogue. The last is closing in on the freighters."

"Are we in range of the last Rogue?" Zeke asked desperately.

"We are. It does not know where we are, we may be able to hold the DEW on it long enough to destroy it."

"Do it," he answered.

He could see the Rogue, large on the view-screen. A spot began to glow back near the engine. A moment later it exploded in a bright flash.

Exhausted, his body aching, Zeke asked Ran, "Does that mean we won?"

"Yes," she answered simply. "It does."