Chapter 1: The Grand Tour

Admiral Bernard "Battling" Bickerson leaned to his aide. "How old is she again?"

"Thirteen, Sir," Lieutenant Yohko Tanaka responded, her face a mask. She knew who this child was, as she'd had sense to subvocally ask the AI. Bickerson clearly had not, and this particular AI clearly had a sense of humour. It didn't bother telling Bickerson who the person was who had greeted them.

Admiral Bickerson turned back to the fresh-faced, tiny girl in Confederacy Navy black and smiled politely. Her mother must be humouring her by letting her wear that outfit. He'd have a word with Commander Marcie Haywood later about allowing minors to misuse official Confederacy uniforms. "Thank you for meeting us, young lady. Would your mother, Commander Marcie Haywood, be around?"

"I am Marcie Haywood. Commander, Confederacy Navy. The AI will be glad to confirm my identity. My mother is Colonel Marianne Haywood, Chief of Medical Training." Marcie was grim-faced, used to the confusion but still annoyed by it all.

Admiral Bickerson blinked. A 13-year-old, running the newest, hottest, most successful experimental warship project so far?

"No, I'm not yet an MIT graduate, but my professors have assured me it's a mere formality, a matter of setting a date for the mortarboard ceremony. As far as they're concerned, I should be wearing the Brass Rat already. In the meantime, would you like a tour of the new vessel?"

Unable to trust himself to speak coherently, the Admiral nodded, and Marcie turned to the ensign manning the transporter nexus. "The Archerfish, Mr. James."

"Yes, Sir. Link set, Archerfish standing by."

Marcie went into pedant mode. "The Archerfish is of a new type of ship designed to carry a supply of anti-ship missiles stealthily — or at least stealthily in terms of the Sa'arm sensors and organic inputs. They're small — a crew of twelve, plus twelve concubines — but pack a powerful punch. The missiles are the latest from Azahar's brain trust, a super-large dual-charge round based on the shaped-charge methodology of Earth tanks' HEAT rounds, launched from a missile tube and capable of homing in on the enemy. The ship's design is simple, elegant and can be mass-produced in prodigious quantities, just what we need against something as fecund as the Sa'arm. It's simply four pods in tandem in front of a pair of engines, within an armoured shield that includes a coating that absorbs all radiation in the spectrum covered by the Sa'arm's optics."

She pointed to a schematic that the AI had placed on the wall. "The first pod contains the Missile Module, which has six tubes facing forward and space for 48 missiles in storage. The second pod is the Command Module, with the CIC, CO's ready room and chart room on the upper deck and workshops on the lower. The third module is the Accommodations Module, which has staterooms for all personnel. The fourth is fuel storage. Tanks between the inner and outer hulls contain raw materials for the replicators."

"It looks like a submarine without the conning tower, sort of like those very early pre-World War I Holland type subs," the Admiral observed.

"That's no accident. It needs to be fairly rounded to ensure it doesn't give a large sensor footprint, and we really don't need a conning tower or tall periscope. The CIC handles the job just fine. Shall we go?" Marcie politely gestured to the nexus.

On boarding the ship, the Admiral heard, "Officer on deck!" and crew and concubines came to attention. He found himself in the lower level of the Command Module, surrounded by men in Navy daily uniform and women in grey concubine shifts. "Carry on," he yelled, and the room erupted into noise.

"This way, Sir." She waved him forward. "This is the Missile Module."

The ship was tight. The only hatches were the seven in the Missile Module forward (six for the tubes and one for missile loading), one for remote sensors, one for message drones and eight hatches for inflatable lifeboat deployment split between the Command and Accommodations modules. The lifeboat hatches just held an inflatable lifeboat, with no access from inside; the lifeboat was designed to inflate after deployment and held a nexus that would be used to evacuate everyone on board. Even the best-sealed hatch could leak, and they wanted to keep the potential for telltale traces of atmosphere down to the barest minimum.

His first impression of the Archerfish was one of claustrophobia. The cabins were tiny, the corridors were narrow and the overhead was low. Being petite helped Marcie scramble through with relative ease, but nobody with a standard Marine package could walk upright anywhere. The Admiral noted that neither crew nor concubines had particularly large physiques.

The missiles looked long and lethal. Their size was slightly larger than the US Navy's Mark 48 torpedo and the shape similar, but with a thin probe-type head and an ionic engine and manoeuvring thrusters rather than propeller and fins. "How many crew man this compartment during normal and combat operations?" he quizzed.

"Nobody. The automatic loaders are strictly mechanical to help the AI isolate itself from the actual firing of the weapon, and as a result can mindlessly try to load a crewman who accidentally got in the way, an easy thing to happen in this cramped space." She grinned mirthlessly. "The Soviets had a similar problem with the autoloaders on their tanks loading the gunner instead of the shell. This module is actually only accessible when not at battle stations, so we can perform routine maintenance. To avoid accidental decompression, this entire module is sealed from the rest of the ship during combat operations."

A decidedly low-tech ladder led to the door to the upper half of the Command Module. Marcie scrambled up the steps with the grace of a macaque, whereas Admiral Bickerson was a trifle more ponderous, closer to a three-toed sloth. His bulk was closer to the Marine standard, after all.

They entered the forward upper deck of the command module, which housed work stations for weapons, navigation and sensors. A female sailor was sitting at the primary weapons station tuning one device with the help of the AI and an oscilloscope, a male concubine assisting. Large lockout keys with yellow "Do Not Remove" tags on them decorated the second weapons station, indicating that the hatch to the Missile Module was open and preventing any attempt to load the launch tubes.

Marcie then led the Admiral into the CIC. Every millimetre of the CIC's walls, ceiling and floor displayed a Virtual Reality view of the scene outside the ship. The Admiral glanced around in wonder — he'd heard it described before but seeing it was still amazing — and appreciated the technological wonder that he was seeing. It was as if the Captain would be sitting in a chair with no ship around him — just him, two helmsmen and his executive officer all floating in formation in space. The compartment, for the nonce, was empty. Marcie invited him to sit in the command chair.

The chair was somewhat cramped, being built like the rest of the craft for someone with a slender build. The view was superb. He could see the water world of Atlantis below and to his right, and the CSS Sir Caradoc floating nearby ready to disgorge trainees for yet another class in the art of attacking the Sa'arm from the depths of the oceans at the Confederate Navy's Sir Bertram Ramsay Amphibious Assault School.

The Admiral had a chance to reflect on the schools associated with Atlantisat. The Alexander Vraciu Advanced Flight School operated from a base camouflaged as a moonlet — the base, named Fort Drum, also held the 214th and 219th Scout Squadrons, armed with F105 Arrow long range scouting interceptors and the 183rd Interceptor Squadron with F104 Starfighters. The three squadrons kept sharp by practising against the students of the school.

Down on the surface was the Navy's Sir Bertram Ramsay Amphibious Assault School, named after the admiral who led Operation Neptune, the landing portion of D-Day. Attached to the Sir Archibald Mcindoe Rehabilitation Hospital was the Sir Harold Delf Gillies School of Rehabilitation Medicine. There was the Halsey School of Carrier Warfare and the Mush Morton School of Submarine Warfare, training Marines on operations on worlds with large oceans. One island held the George Patton School of Armoured Warfare, which was already generating designs for AFV's that took advantage of Confederacy advanced technology.

Each school was tasked with working out new tactics and new designs to be proved and forwarded to the various colonies for local manufacture. The schools' instructors shared a common mess, officers and sergeants alike, and all were encouraged to kibitz whenever tactics were dissected. The discussions were encouraged to be freewheeling, and more than once a grizzled old Marine Sergeant would say to an equally experienced Admiral, "Excuse me sir, but that's moronic!" followed by a lengthy dissertation as to WHY the idea was moronic, and usually getting the AI involved. Often, the discussions would end up with simulations being run on the spot to determine who, if anyone, was right, and what the best solution would be. The mess was by no accident in the same geofront that housed the Mcindoe Rehab Hospital, and all patients housed within its gleaming white walls were de facto members of the Joint Training Schools' Instructors' Mess. Being around the stimulating debates might, it was felt, help the patients mend battered psyches.

Coming soon was MIT, via cube ship — they had an entire geofront earmarked for themselves, between and connecting the colony's main administrative and residential geofront and that of the Navy's. One of the underwater colonies housed the School of Aquaculture, sharing very uneasy space with the Draper Lawrence Kauffman School of Underwater Demolition. As the third of so far seven colonies with self-sustaining populations of bunnies, and the first with a self-sustaining population of cats (none feral), it also was the home of the still-developing James Alfred Wight School of Veterinary Medicine, its sole instructor also being the planet's sole veterinarian.

Admiral Bickerson couldn't help but feel that the entire planetary system was one vast campus.

As her charge continued to stare at the surrounding nothingness, Marcie realized he was beginning to succumb to the same syndrome as the early astronauts and cosmonauts — a fascination at the beauty around him. She decided it was time, otherwise he'd still be here when the ship made its maiden voyage tomorrow. "Charlie," she muttered subvocally, "VR off."

"VR off," acknowledged the feminine voice of Charlie, the ship's AI. The scene returned to bare bulkheads and the Admiral blinked in confusion.

"This way, Sir?" Marcie suggested politely as she gestured to the hatch leading to the upper deck of the Accommodations Module.

Just inside the door to the Accommodations Module were two stations directly opposite each other: an elevator plate to the right and a transporter nexus to the left. The corridor then cut hard right to the port bulkhead and jogged left again, heading aft to a second emergency nexus. This stretch, along the far port side of the module, was lined with six pocket doors. Marcie opened one to show the Admiral a typical stateroom.

Like the rest of the crowded ship, the stateroom was tiny, the layout best described as "efficient". Two levels of bunk bed ran the right hand side, four tiny lockers, a sink and desk took up half the other. Four armoured suits in their storage brackets filled the remaining wall space on the left side. The Admiral turned to the youngster. "How many bunk here? Two, or four?"

"Two sailors and their two concubines. Because there's no separate concubine quarters and really huge issues if even one compartment vents to space, when they go into combat all hands on board are to be wearing armoured battle suits, even concubines."

The last compartment at the end of the corridor was the primary ship's head with four toilets, two urinals and two sinks.

They used the elevator pad to descend to the lower deck. Here there was the Captain's and XO's Cabins forward (even more minute than the compartments above, but only housing one officer and one concubine at a time), a mess compartment capable of holding half the ship's complement at any one time, a tiny first-aid station and the compartment housing the bathing facilities — a four-head shower.

"You must choose your crews very carefully for this, I take it?" the Admiral ventured.

"Yes, Sir, they not only have to be the right physical shape, or be willing to be modified into the right physical shape, their personalities must mesh and their concubines must add to the ship's efficiency as well. The concubines are not just entertainment, they're expected to perform a vital job as well. We typically try for two concubines with medical training to man the sickbay, and train others to stand watches or handle communications."

The Admiral snorted. "There are those who would disagree with having concubines work in that manner."

"Then those are the ones who would waste valuable resources," Marcie replied with icy coolness. "The Diaspora has no such resources we can afford to waste, and this ship is a superb example of that."

The Admiral nodded in approval. "Good, good. I like that philosophy."

"Admiral Bickerson, I have the honour of presenting the Captain of the Archerfish, Commander Wilhelm Koenig." The slight young German gave the Admiral a sharp salute.

"Sorry for interrupting your preparations for sail, Mr. Koenig. I know Sir Caradoc arrived earlier than expected, you can chalk that up to impatience on the part of all her passengers, myself included." The Admiral chuckled, an evil sound. "How is the Archerfish? Ready for duty?"

"Not quite yet, Sir, but we will be well before our scheduled departure time. We're loading on the last supplies we need and making some last-minute calibrations to our sensor rig. I have been briefed on my orders, unless you have any changes?"

"No, none. It still remains, 'hit targets of opportunity within Sa'arm space'. Good hunting, Captain." He shook the Commander's hand.

Admiral Bickerson, his aide Lieutenant Tanaka and the 13-year-old prodigy Commander Haywood emerged from the nexus back onto the decks of Fort Drum.

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Story tagged with:
Science Fiction / Space / Violent / Nudism / Military /