2949-02-09 – Tales from the Service: Riding the Riverbarge

One of the stranger starship technologies ever built by human engineers is the Riverbarge star drive. Like most of you, I’ve never traveled on a ship equipped with one; this drive is all but unheard of outside the Hyades Cluster. While I don’t understand all the mechanics myself, most normal star drives don’t work in the cluster – it represents a concentration of too many massive stars in too small a patch of space.

A few weeks ago, the story of how the Navy lured Wolff-Kumar Enterprises into a dangerous mission with a “name your price” contract appeared in this space. Captain Bradford and his crew returned alive and successful, and their lucrative payout has made them the envy of the mercenary community which still receives contracts from the Fifth Fleet.

Mr. Bradford’s second submission to this publication is not about their mission – which apparently was nearly uneventful – but about the Riverbarge unit aboard his destroyer which drove the Navy to call on their services. Whether the interesting behavior he describes is common behavior for these machines or a result of decades of disuse and neglect of delicate machinery, I cannot say; perhaps a Hyadean member of this audience can explain what happened. I somehow doubt what Archimedes experienced is a drive system that is working as intended.

Captain Cyril Bradford dropped wearily into the command chair on the Archimedes bridge, then waved for Asin Lewin at the helm to proceed. Drifting in the interstellar void three light-years from occupied Matusalemme, he had ensured every possible precaution was taken to make their appearance in the enemy-held system as stealthy as possible. Still, there was a small chance he and his crew would be annihilated within seconds of arrival solely due to bad luck.

“Capacitors are charged and the Riverbarge system has a green board, Captain.” Lewin reported. “Shunting power.”

Cyril nodded an acknowledgement. Archimedes’s twin star-drive units, rare among the warships and mercenary auxiliaries defending the Coreward Frontier against the Incarnation, was a result of the vessel’s Hyadean origins. Jie Yu Enterprises didn’t build export models larger than a pinnace, and only a rare few of the larger vessels it built for the Hyades Cluster’s local navy ever fell into outside hands – Wolff-Kumar’s acquisition of the vessel remained a mystery to even its skipper. While one of those star drives was a mundane, if aging, Himura unit, the other was a Hyadean “Riverbarge” drive – a strange and, under most circumstances, quite impractical machine.

On several occasions, Cyril had debated approving orders to have the Riverbarge torn out and replaced with something more useful, and now he was cursing his reluctance. It was because of that accursed Hyadean contraption that he was about to order a jump into enemy territory. The payout if his crew lived would be substantial, but he had little confidence in survival, no matter what the Navy’s simulations said.

“Shunt complete. Full drive charge in one hundred seconds.” Lewin didn’t sound nervous, but then, he was thinking about retiring from mercenary service after his cut of the payout. He probably had visions of marrying his less-than-secret shipboard lover in a grand ceremony and taking her to settle down down on a balmy coastline far from the war. Cyril knew that dream couldn’t last – two years, maybe three, and Asin Lewin would be going back to space with or without his intended bride.

Cyril took a deep breath, then released it, along with his many misgivings. His crew had a job to do, and whether or not he liked it, he had to make sure it was done right. “Battle stations.”

The lighting dimmed and the insistent bark of the battle-stations alarm sounded. The thirty-odd personnel aboard would have dropped everything to rush to their stations, except that they all had known the alarm was coming for several hours. Most likely, everyone had already been at or near their action stations.

Cyril watched the station readiness display to his left until every indicator was green, indicating that everyone was as ready for what was coming as could be managed. He was gratified to see that Lewin’s sixty-second timer still had almost twenty seconds left on it. “Proceed when ready, helm.”

Lewin’s hands flew across the console, preparing the old Hyadean machine for its first use in decades. The Navy had made sure to send techs to check the Riverbarge out before Archimedes had departed, but these experts had been given less than two shifts to certify the machine for use, but Cyril didn’t think it would fail and force a mission abort before anyone got into danger. He and his crew were not nearly that lucky.

“Brace for transition in ten seconds.” Lewin announced, and this time his voice echoed over the intercom. “Three… Two... One…”

The timer hit zero and the drive woke with a roar, draining the power given to it in a split second and falling back on the ship’s massive capacitor banks. Unlike the subtle crackling pins-and-needles sensation of travel with a Himura star drive or the almost unnoticeable lurch of a Xiou-Edwards unit, the Riverbarge shook the whole ship and filled the air inside with a cacophonous, rumbling thunderclap which seemed to go on for whole minutes.

Stunned, Cyril shook his head against the sudden ringing in his ears. He realized the sound had gone, which meant his ship was now in enemy territory, and by the looks of his bridge crew, they were at least as disoriented as he was.

“Report!” He barked – or tried to. He could barely hear his own voice, and doubted anyone else could.

Unbuckling himself, Cyril staggered across the destroyer’s tiny bridge to the reeling gunnery officer, pushed her aside, and checked the tactical plot which that officer should have mirrored to his station the instant they arrived. The board was mercifully clean – there were no gravitic-drive signatures within several light-hours, though faint hints beyond effective detector range suggested that the enemy was in the system. The Riverbarge had allowed them to use their star drive to jump much farther into the system than any other ship – perhaps far enough to evade any early-warning sensor nets deployed by the Incarnation since their takeover in Matusalemme.

Cyril turned to the helm console, but found Asin Lewin already recovering, his hands dancing shakily on the console. After a moment, he looked up and offered a quick thumbs-up to Cyril. The ship was in fine order even if its crew wasn’t.

Hobbling over to Lewin, the mercenary commander put his lips to the younger man’s ear. “Ballistic course to the Hypercast Relay.”

Lewin nodded and turned back to his console. Plotting a ballistic course would take time – time to determine just where they had landed in the system, and with what velocity. Once they knew that with some accuracy, the computer could do the rest, planning what subtle nudges of the thrusters would bring the ship close to its intended target. If all went well, the enemy wouldn’t see them in time to protect the installation, and Archimedes would be on its way out of the system at emergency acceleration before any pursuit got underway.

Grinding his teeth, Cyril made the rounds to the other officers and shook them out of their dazes before returning to his command chair. Disoriented, half-deafened, and shaken they might be, his crew had a job to do, and their lives depended on making sure it was done right.