More than just metal

Written by Green on . Posted in AE Stories

Sixty seconds to launch.

39 metal_01

The Captain's warning repeats in my head as if it was still echoing around inside my helmet. I mute my mic to curse and try to steady my hands and warm my quickly icing blood, knowing just how futile the effort is. It's the same every time, those last few seconds, watching the hangar doors creep open as the surrounding shields flicker and finally clear the path into empty space. This is when the carrier is most exposed and vulnerable, when a single well-placed shot could take out the entire wing, all of us strapped in and securely clamped to the deck rails. In these last few seconds, there are so many things that could go wrong, with the final result always the same. I die in my seat, with no way to stop it. That's what gives me the shakes.

Less than a minute from now and my small fighter will be flung free, and I’ll have control, and the shakes will stop. Every time without fail, the transition is as fast as the launch itself. There is peace in knowing that I'm no longer helpless, but ready and free to act and decide my own fate.

Thirty seconds to launch. Launch bay personnel clear the bay and take stations.

My final checklist is short. Propulsion and weapon power cells are full, I flip the trigger to release the charging cable and it retracts up to the ceiling of the launch bay. To save weight and power, our ships have no life support—we fly in pressurized suits. Command seemed pretty proud of this decision, and I will admit it makes me feel a little safer, knowing that a shot to the cabin glass isn't going to blow my air and kill me. Still waiting for their brilliant itch-scratching innovation, though. Last is a radio check. I bite my lower lip and take a deep breath through my mask to steady my voice and clearly call out into the mic:
"Green squadron radio check, sound off by number. Green leader check."

In come the eleven responses, "green 2 check…," each acknowledgement ticking off another second closer to launch.

Ten seconds to launch. Charging catapults.

The launch bay has five catapults, with rails feeding an entire squadron of twelve ships to each. Being squadron leader, my fighter is in front—there's no leading these pilots from behind. My second takes the 12th position, ready to assume command if I buy it coming out. Not my favorite thing to think about. Looking through the floor-mounted view plate between my feet, I can see the catapult hook drawing back under my ship as it compresses a huge magnetic spring beneath the launch bay deck. Another clever innovation from our tech guys, they call it the fail-safe catapult. I’ve been told that years ago in the old mark 5 carriers they used electromagnetic accelerators, only to have one too many fail when the carrier lost power, stranding the entire wing in the bay. At least this way we've got a shot from each catapult charged up if there's a power failure. With a distant click, the hook connects with the underside of my fighter just as my silent count reaches 1.


I won’t be as cliché as to say the launch is indescribable, but the truth is any description is going to fall short of experiencing it. There's obviously an intense forward acceleration, we learned in training it’s about ten gee's, more than enough for you to black out if you're not in a p-suit. As you'd expect, this feels like someone ten times your weight sitting on your chest, with even the slightest bump of turbulence pummeling you like weighted fists. But there’s nothing new or extraordinary about that, in fact the carrier itself can pull a six-gee acceleration just to break out of planetary orbit. The part that's so hard to explain, and is in fact the reason we use catapults for launching, is the effect of leaving the carrier's artificial gravity field. I'm no tech-head, so don't expect me to explain this in any detail, but something about the intersecting acceleration components of the launching and grav fields wreaks havoc with your inner ear and makes it impossible to manually pilot a ship out of the launch bay at any significant speed. And believe me, we need all the speed we can get clearing those doors and getting out into the fray.

The catapult gives you a full second of hands-free, driven acceleration to the edge of the launch bay, in theory enough to throw your ship into space too fast for enemy fighters to target. At ten gee’s, a full second is more than enough time to tense every muscle in your body at the weight, and let you remember that you’ve forgotten what breathing feels like.

Finally separation comes, and with it my head clears and training-honed instinct takes over. My fighter’s thrusters kick in and continue a gentler acceleration once I’m free of the carrier.
“Green leader clear! Circling the carrier, form on my wing as you make your launch.”
I pull up and start an orbit around the carrier 500 meters out, waiting for the rest of the squadron to make it out. Being close to the carrier, my internal navigation displays hook in directly to the carrier’s computer and I have an instant picture of the battle. We’re obviously late to arrive; the majority of the enemy capital ships are disabled, and I’m cruising in a sea of friendly green on my display. Dual hooks on each catapult allow for launching a fighter every second, so by my second orbit the full squadron is formed up. We’re going to need to spread out and mop up the few remaining enemy fighters.
“Alright squad, separate into three by four, let’s get to hunting.”


Awake. Cold. How long have I been here? Dark displays, nothing but stars out my windows. At a hazy memory of red lights and panic I gasp for air. I blink hard and reach a gloved hand up to my forehead only to hit it against my helmet visor. The sharp clank shakes me out of my daze and I key my radio to call for help.
“Mayday, Green leader to any available pickup, disabled with zero on the cells, anybody read me?”
No answer. I feel the cold pushing on my lungs and cough hard, and repeat my call, still with no response. Coughing between calls, I keep trying.
“Green lead to any pickup”
“Any pickup”


“Welcome back lieutenant, glad to see you pulled through. We weren’t sure if you were too far gone when we grabbed you.”
I open my eyes to find myself in bed in a medbay, with the corpsman welcoming me back peering over a chart from the side of the bed. Straining to look up at his shoulder, I don’t recognize the unit insignia. Before I can open my mouth to ask my obvious question, what ship is this?, the corpsman turns his clipboard and holds it up to my face.

“Sure is a good thing our recycler got to you when it did—If you’ll excuse my saying so ma’am, you damn near froze to death out there. Go ahead and sign here to acknowledge your treatment and start your term of service. Your caps sure did a number on our fleet before our reinforcements jumped in, we’re gonna need all the replacement squadron leaders we can get to fill in the ranks.”

Story sent by Green for the AE Stories event.