The Fleet’s Old Lady – out for one last dance
Avalon was the flagship of the Castle Federation in the last war, now twenty years past. The first of the deep space carriers, no other warship in the fleet holds as many honors or has recorded as many kills.
No other warship in the fleet is as old.
Accepting the inevitable, the Federation Space Navy has decided to refit her and send her on a tour of the frontier, showing the flag to their allies and enemies as a reminder of her glory – and then decommission her for good.
But Avalon has been a backwater posting for ten years – and has problems a mere refit can’t fix. The systems along her planned tour have been seeing pirates for the first time in decades, and there are rumblings of Commonwealth scouting ships all along the border.
It may be Avalon’s final tour – but it looks to be anything but quiet!
Wing Commander Kyle Roberts did not enjoy being flown by someone else. It was always a struggle for the red-haired pilot to keep his hands and implants away from the controls and overrides when he was a passenger in a shuttle. To make everyone’s lives easier, he normally stayed out of the cockpit.
Today, however, he wasn’t feeling quite so magnanimous, and had unceremoniously shunted the small craft’s normal co-pilot into the bucket seat that was supposed to be reserved for an observer like him. The burly Commander already felt a little bit guilty over that, but that slipped from his mind as the shuttle began its final approach and Avalon came into view.
“There she is, sir,” the pilot told him, her amused tone revealing at least some understanding of her much-senior passenger’s anticipation.
Avalon would not be the first of the Castle Federation’s Deep Space Carriers that Kyle had served on – but she was the first whose starfighter group he’d command in its entirety. Avalon was a legend, the first modern space carrier ever built by anyone, and her SFG-001 had a list of battle honors as long as Kyle’s arm.
The abbreviated arrowhead of the carrier slowly grew in his vision, and he twigged his implants to zoom in on her. The computer in his head happily threw up stats and numbers as he scanned along the length of his new home.
The carrier was small compared to her modern sisters, a mere eight hundred meters from her two hundred meter wide prow to her four hundred meter wide base, angling from a hundred meters thick at the prow to two hundred meters at the base. She was smoother than more recent ships as well, with her weapons and sensors clustered together in the breaks in her now-obsolete neutronium armor.
Several of those clusters were currently open to space, weapons dating back two and three decades, according to his brief, being ripped out for replacement with the super-modern systems delivered by the transport he’d arrived on.
“I never expected to see Avalon fly again,” the co-pilot observed from behind Kyle. “Rumor had it that her assignment as guardship here was just a quiet way of placing her in the Reserve.”
Kyle nodded his silent agreement. He’d heard the same rumors, and he’d seen the rough brief of the work they were doing to make her fit for duty. If nothing else, Avalon was a carrier, and the starfighters she’d carried had been three generations out of date.
That was his job to fix, of course. He’d spent his trip babying six entire squadrons – forty-eight ships – of brand new, barely out of prototype, Falcon-type starfighters. The new ships strapped mass manipulators and engines rated for five hundred gravities to four three-shot launchers firing short-range missiles with gigaton antimatter warheads and a positron lance rated for fifty kilotons per second.
The number of ships told the story of Avalon’s age, though. His last command, the fighter wing aboard the battlecruiser Alamo, had also been forty-eight ships. That ship, however, been almost thirteen hundred meters long, and had carried a broadside of ten half-megaton-per-second positron lances in each of the four sides of her arrowhead shape, plus missile launchers and the seventy-kiloton-per-second lances generally used as anti-fighter guns.
Avalon was less than two thirds the size of modern ships, as the technology behind the Alcubierre-Stetson Drive had advanced significantly in the forty years since she had been built. Past her, he could see the twelve ships of the Castle Federation’s New Amazon Reserve Flotilla – the smallest and oldest of them twenty years newer than Avalon, and a quarter again her size.
“She’s a special case,” Kyle said finally, continuing to eye the old carrier. “The Navy’s Old Lady, gussied up one last time.”
After that, Kyle was silent, considering his new ship and his new command. One last time was true – rumor had it that the tour of the Alliance that they’d been assigned to carry out was Avalon’s last mission. Once they were done, they would deliver the old lady to the shipyards of the Castle system itself, where she would be gently laid to rest.
New Amazon System, Castle Federation
19:00, July 5, 2735 ESMDT
DSC-001 Avalon – Flight Deck
Exiting the shuttle, followed closely by the two Flight Commanders he’d brought with him, Kyle found the ship’s Captain waiting. He was a tall, gaunt man with iron-gray hair who looked like he’d gone best out of three with Death – and the Reaper had kept an eye.
Modern prostheses could be almost indistinguishable from the real thing, but Captain Blair’s was an older model, an emergency implant Kyle had most commonly seen on men and women injured in the War who were proud of the plain but extremely functional metal eye.
“Welcome aboard Avalon, Wing Commander Roberts,” the Captain greeted him with an extended hand. Like Kyle, he wore the standard shipsuit that, despite imitating the appearance of slacks and a turtleneck, was a single piece garment capable of sealing against vacuum and sustaining the wearer for at least six hours, underneath his formal uniform jacket – piped with gold in the Captain’s case for Navy, blue for the Space Force in Kyle’s.
“I am Captain Malcolm Blair,” Kyle’s new commanding officer continued. “I wanted to welcome you aboard in person, though your Flight Group is waiting to show you the song and dance.”
Blair gestured slightly behind him, where the four Flight Commanders leading the squadrons currently aboard the carrier stood at rigid attention.
“Thank you for the welcome, Captain,” Kyle replied. “I understand we have our work cut out for us.”
“We do,” Blair confirmed. “Uniform of the day is shipsuits until further notice,” he continued cheerfully with a tug at the gold-banded sleeves of his uniform. “We have enough work going on throughout the ship that an accidental loss of pressure isn’t impossible.”
“Understood, sir,” the Wing Commander replied, glancing past the Captain again to the men and women he would command.
“Allow me to introduce you to your Flight Commanders,” Blair asked, stepping aside and leading Kyle and his two trailing officers forwards to where the Flight Group waited. “Your senior squadron leader is Flight Commander James Randall.”
Randall stepped forward with an Academy-precise salute and inclined his head slightly.
“Welcome aboard, Wing Commander Roberts,” he said smoothly. “May I say that it’s an honor to serve under the hero of Ansem Gulf?”
Kyle shook Randall’s hand calmly, gauging the man with an appraising eye. The Commander was blond, blue-eyed, and easily ten years older than Kyle himself. His uniform jacket was decorated with the neat blue and gold square ribbon of the Space Force Combat Badge, a badge only earned by flying a starfighter under fire. Technically, Kyle’s jacket should have borne the same badge, next to the tiny gold icon of the Federation Star of Heroism, their second highest award for valor, but only dress uniform required even the ribbons.
“Thank you,” Kyle said quietly, and turned to the remaining officers.
“Flight Commander Michael Stanford,” Blair continued after allowing the silence to drag a moment too long. “Flight Commander Russell Rokos. Flight Commander Shannon Lancet.”
Stanford was a short, pale man with a firm grip and watery blue eyes. He met Kyle’s gaze levelly and nodded his silent greetings. Rokos and Lancet each murmured pleasantries, the former a stocky man of Kyle’s own bulk without the height, and the latter a willowy blond woman.
“These are Flight Commander Wang Zhao and Jose Mendez,” Kyle told the assembled officers, introducing the woman and man who had arrived with him. Wang shared Lancet’s height, but was dark-skinned and haired to the other officer’s fair blondness. Mendez, despite his name, shared every ounce and inch of Kyle’s own imposing height and bulk, with close-cropped blond hair and the brown eyes of his Hispanic ancestors. “Both are recently of SFG-074, aboard Alamo.”
“I will leave you to the formalities of your command,” Blair told Kyle. “Once you’ve read yourself in and the Commanders have given you the tour, please do me the courtesy of stopping by my office.”
“Of course, Captain Blair,” Kyle confirmed. With a firm nod, the gaunt Captain drifted away from the group as Kyle turned to face his command.
The Flight Commanders had managed to gather up all ninety-six of the flight crew for the four squadrons already aboard Avalon, and those officers had been waiting in relatively graceful silence as the Captain had introduced their squadron leaders. Along with Kyle and his two squadron leaders, six more members of the two squadrons he’d arrived with had arrived on the shuttle with him. As they saw Kyle draw up to face the Flight Group, all eight of the new officers quietly moved over to join its ranks.
“Deck Chief, please report,” Kyle said calmly and clearly, projecting his voice across the deck. The projection was unnecessary, as the Senior Chief currently responsible for the Flight Deck had been hovering about ten feet away since he’d stepped off the shuttle.
“Senior Chief Marshal Hammond, sir,” the burly and grizzled non-commissioned officer, a stereotype of any space navy for all that the man wore the blue piping of the Space Force.
“Please record for the log,” Kyle instructed, pulling a sheet of archaic parchment from inside his jacket. Under the parchment was an electronic chip that he would deliver to the Captain when they met later, but for tradition, the parchment was vital.
“To Wing Commander Kyle Roberts from Vice Admiral Mohammed Kane, Joint Department of Space Personnel, June Twentieth, year Two Thousand Seven Hundred Thirty Five Earth Standard,” he read crisply. “Upon receipt of these orders, you are hereby directed and required to proceed to the New Amazon system and report aboard the Deep Space Carrier Avalon, hull number DSC – Zero Zero One, there to take upon yourself the duties and responsibilities of commanding officer of Starfighter Group Zero Zero One in the service of the Castle Federation. Fail not in this charge at your peril.”
At the completion of the formal words, every officer standing in front of Kyle seemed to relax slightly except for Randall and Stanford. The former remained at a perfect attention stance, and the latter seemed surprisingly nervous for a senior squadron commander.
“I assume command of SFG-001,” Kyle informed the Flight Group. “We still have flight crews and deck personnel aboard Sphinx and Chipmunk who will be reporting aboard today. Our starfighters will be coming over sometime tomorrow, so everyone should expect a busy day.”
He glanced around his people, and gestured for the Flight Commanders to attend him.
“Flight Group, dismissed!”
After the collected personnel had cleared the deck, Kyle found himself standing with his six squadron commanders and Senior Chief Hammond.
“Chief, can you have someone take care of our gear?” he asked the Deck Chief, gesturing at the duffel bags he, Mendez and Zhao had brought with them.
“Of course sir,” the NCO replied, moving away to police up someone junior to deal with the luggage.
Kyle turned back to the Flight Commanders. “All right,” he began briskly. “I need to meet with Captain Blair in short order, but we have some time. I presume most of you have duties to be taking care of,” he hinted, “but if someone can give me an abbreviated tour of the Flight Deck, I’d appreciate it.”
“Of course, sir,” Randall answered immediately, living down to Kyle’s expectations of the most senior Flight Commander. “I can show you around while Commanders Mendez and Zhao get themselves settled in.”
Kyle turned to the two officers he’d brought with him. “I want you two to do a more detailed sweep than I’ll have time for,” he instructed them quietly. “Check where your flight crews will be berthed; make sure you’re on hand as our people arrive.”
A pair of salutes answered him, and the two officers from Alamo allowed themselves to be guided away, leaving Kyle standing with Randall and Stanford.
As soon as they were alone, Randall turned to the other Flight Commander. “I’m delegating the ready squadron to you, Stanford,” he said brusquely. “Don’t scratch my paint.”
“Sir,” the pale man confirmed stiffly, and then stalked away towards what Kyle presumed to be a ready room.
“Don’t mind Stanford too much,” Randall advised Kyle after a moment of watching the other officer walk away. “He has a stick up his ass, but he’s a decent pilot.”
“I see,” the Wing Commander replied noncommittally. “Your squadron is the ready one?”
“Yeah,” the Flight Commander confirmed. “My flight crews at least. We moved most of the starfighters over to the Reserve Flotilla’s guard station, so we only have a single squadron of Badgers aboard. We’re trading off which squadron’s personnel are on-call to man them though.”
“Badgers,” Kyle repeated slowly. “This ship is still flying Badgers.”
The Badger-type fighter had been the last product of the wartime crash development programs, deployed to the Navy eighteen months after peace was declared – twenty years ago now.
“I thought Avalon was assigned Typhoons,” he continued. The Typhoon type was ten years old, two generations behind the brand new Falcon, but still at least a usable fighter.
“She carried Typhoons when she arrived,” Randall agreed. “At some point, those ships were pulled to fill out a sale to an ally, and we got the Badgers in trade. We’re all looking forward to seeing the new ships you’re supposed to be bringing, sir.”
While they’d talked, Randall had guided his new superior from the side-portion of the bay set aside for shuttles to an observation railing from which they could view Kyle’s new domain. Avalon’s main flight deck was thirty meters tall, eighty meters across, and stretched four hundred meters deep into the carrier’s hull.
Right now it was an echoing, empty, space. Equipment designed to service and move five-thousand-ton ships was neatly stored away against the sides. A handful of crewmen were rolling up the hoses they’d used to quickly refuel the shuttle from the Sphinx and Chipmunk. From the observation deck, Kyle could make out four hatches, sized to take starfighters, spaced evenly along the opposite side.
“We have four launch tubes per side,” Randall explained, pointing them out. “We kept the Badgers aboard in the tubes – they’ll be easy to deploy out that way once the new birds are aboard. With a full deck load, we can load new birds into the launch tubes every forty seconds.”
The pilot sounded proud of that, and given the age of the equipment they had to work with he was probably right to be. A forty second turn-around on the launch tubes meant a total of over three minutes to put the entirety of SFG-001 into space – three times the design requirement for a modern carrier to deploy its even larger fighter group.
“That… isn’t fast if we have an emergency,” Kyle observed.
“I guess they didn’t realize how important rapid launches would be when they built her,” he agreed. “They did retrofit in an alternative, but I’d be terrified to use it.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“There’s mass manipulators mounted all along the deck,” Randall explained. “All carriers have them to catch the returning birds, but ours are also wired so they can run in reverse – theoretically, we can turn the center twenty meters of the deck into a single massive launch tube and blow the entire Group into space in one shot.”
Kyle shook his head, eyeing the deck askance. The ability to blast everything on his flight deck into space at the push of a button wasn’t entirely appealing to him, though he’d prefer it over having to wait three minutes to put his fighters into space in an emergency.
“Any other old tricks I should know about?” he asked.
The Flight Commander shook his head with a grin.
“That’s the thing about Avalon, sir,” he replied. “I’m not sure any of us know all of her tricks.”