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The King Gustav Disaster

Senior Chief Coxswain Timber Lupindo, KE, DGC, RMN
Gravitics Specialist Warrant Officer Project
Instructor: Commander Randall Todd, RMN

Introduction: This is an original work of fiction. It is deliberately not set in the Honorverse, yet uses ideas of gravitics, artificial gravity, and inertial compensation which are tropes of Space Opera.

Senior Chief Gravitics Mate Randy Sullivan looked at the stack of change orders and sighed. The project was getting out of hand. The Sovereign kept asking for more guns and more acceleration, and the accountants were breathing down the necks of the project managers to keep costs down. Something was going to break, and Sullivan wanted to be far away from it when it did. 

The rule-of-thumb was that if you were near something dangerous like a house on fire or tower about to collapse, hold your thumb out at arm’s length. If you can cover up the dangerous thing, then you’re probably far enough away to weather its most dangerous effects. This held generally true for most situations except nuclear weapons and stars about to go supernova. 

How far did he want to be from the NSS King Gustav? Sullivan’s thumb was about four centimeters long and about forty centimeters away. So about fifteen kilometers should do it—if the latest change orders didn’t increase that distance by lengthening the ship even more. Sullivan sighed and began the long slog of reviewing the change orders. 

A starship is a complicated beast; a warship even more. Any increase in the basic parameters would have, literally speaking, geometric effects throughout the rest of the design. Change Order 12-4784 called for an increase in the number of rail-guns from ten in each row on each broadside to twelve. The increase in cost would not be merely 20% on the railgun budget. Sullivan had to factor in a longer basic hull (so he now would want to be at least seventeen kilometers away) which meant that much more belt armor, structural titanium, two more bents (he’d get the structural guys to figure that out), power substations, conduits, ammunition magazines, projectile handling systems, spare parts stores, and—his own specialty—gravitics. 

The enlarged ship would require longer gravity plates, recalculation of the entire artificial gravitational field, more inversion points for center-deck transfers, and more balancers. Grav plates were the solution to starship designers’ problems, but the NSS Vasa, first ship they tried them on, destroyed itself in a way that made the designers (and their bosses) all slap their foreheads. When they switched the system on during the first test, two things happened. 

Well, more than two things; a whole series of things, any one of which could have been eliminated and the outcome would still have been just as bad. The gravitational field came up instantly—or as close to instantly as any instrument could measure. There was no rise time, just bang, gravity, in huge amounts, exactly as happens in a motor at zero RPM—theoretically infinite torque. 

As electrical systems always have rise time, there was an instant—a measurable instant—during which the electrical supply was overloaded by the gravitic generators. The extra current melted the power switches, so even if anyone had been able to reach them, they would not have worked. 

Humans cannot tolerate a gravitational field increasing strength too quickly. Pilots of high-performance atmospheric craft trained in centrifuges to compensate for high gravity, but were always limited in how fast gravity could increase. Jerk—the technical term for increasing acceleration—can cause a pilot to pass out. Which is what happened aboard the Vasa

Newton’s Laws might be centuries out of date, but in their essence they still apply: every force must be countered by another force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. Unless you want acceleration, that is. Gravity causes acceleration. The grav plates of that ill-fated ship faced only in one direction, “up.” When the technicians turned the system on, they were smashed to the floor by the grav plates and by the ship accelerating like mad. The power systems eventually gave out, but by that time the Vasa had been accelerating for hours, and it took weeks for a frigate to catch up to it. 

Since then, ships were fitted with double grav plates that had slow response times and very sensitive balancing circuits. Starships thus had two “up”directions diametrically opposed, and at right angles to the ship’s “forward” direction. Moving from “upstairs” to “downstairs” was described as interesting when one experienced it for oneself and entertaining when one watched midshipmen experience it for the first time. Loading heavy cargo or equipment required careful mass calculations and was generally done with the artificial gravity turned off. Turning the gravity off could also be considered entertaining under the right circumstances. 

The same technology that enabled grav pates also enabled compensation for the starship’s massive acceleration drive. The control circuits for these inertial compensators—grav plates by another name—were tied in to the control circuits for the main drive. As the throttle response time of the main drives was limited, and relatively slower for larger drives, so the inertial compensators could be built more cheaply and less massively. 

The third application for gravitic generators was recoil damping for electromagnetic rail guns. Isaac Newton would understand that to throw a slug at eight hundred gravities in that direction would require the same force to be applied in the other direction, and that’s where the gravitic generators found another application. With careful calculations and control circuitry, the recoil from a rail gun could be absorbed by the gravitics. The compensator’s localized gravitational field had been carefully calculated and tweaked by engineers with a better grasp than Sullivan, and would damp the rail gun’s reaction. If the control circuitry could be developed that would mirror the railgun’s recoil precisely enough.

“Precisely enough” meant within the tolerance of the physical mounting systems of the railguns, which involved dead mass, springs, and old-fashioned viscous dampers. 

Sullivan made a list of the systems that could fail, the ways in which they could fail, and the likely consequences of such failures. He held this thumb out at arms length and decided he wanted to be even father away than that. 

“Cooper, I’ve got a task for you.” 

“Yes, Chief?”

“Look over this list and my notes and check them over for errors.”

“Errors, Chief?” 

“Of course. I may be more steps to God above you than you can count, but you know which end of a calculator to hold, and I’ve told you before that all calculations need to be checked and checked again.”

Gravitics Mate Second Class Cooper nodded.

Sullivan handed him the notes and watched as Cooper read them over. 

“You can do that at your desk.”

“Yes, Chief.” 

Sullivan needed to get up anyway to get a cup of coffee. He brought back two, one for Cooper, who had a worried look on his face. 

“Thanks, Chief. Uh. You’re not gonna like this.” 


“Yeah. This failure mode on the secondary compensator supply circuit: The result is ten times worse than you thought. Ah. …”


“You misplaced a decimal point.” 

Sullivan furrowed his brow and looked at the notes Cooper had made. 

“Well, fuck me. You’re right, Cooper. Look over the rest of this. There’s a bottle of beer in it for you for every error you find.” 

“When do you need this?” 

“In an hour, in time for the staff meeting.” 

Cooper grabbed the cup and took a sip, then a swallow of coffee, and read the report intently. Sullivan smiled and nodded. 

The staff meeting saw all the usual suspects: Admiral Colby of BuWeaps, a couple of captains, and some wonks from weapons development and BuShips. The usual progress reports were presented, with grumbles from Colby any time there was a report of a problem. He was not going to like Sullivan’s report. 

“Chief Sullivan. What complaints do you have for us today?” 

Sullivan began to read his report. 

“To start with, the expansion from ten guns per deck to twelve is going to incur about six million credits of cost overruns—“

“That’s not so bad.”

“Per deck. So about fifty million credits.” 

“Harrumph. Thank you for your report.” 

“I’m not done, Admiral.” 

Colby looked up from his notes and glared at Sullivan. 

“By my calculations, the additional railguns will add stresses to the structure of the ship and to the electrical power systems, stresses I don’t see the architects or the power boys accounting for. The additional grav plates need to have the total field recalculated, and the interactions between that and the compensators need to be analyzed over at the research center.” 

“Chief Sullivan,” said Captain Mackinaw. 

“Yes, Captain?” 

“Are you a qualified structural engineer?” 

“No, Captain.” 

“So you’re not actually qualified to make a judgment about the structural strength of the hull of this ship?”

“Not to the kind of precise detail needed to—“

“So you’re not swimming in your lane, are you?” 

“I’m pointing out where I think structure needs to be recalculated.” 

“Recalculation. Are you aware of the costs of supercomputer time for these calculations?” 

“No, Captain.” 

“Then I suggest you leave this to the naval architects.” 

“It is my official position that the structural strength of the ship needs to be reevaluated from the beginning. We can’t just add—“

“So noted, Chief. Now, about these power requirements. Are you an electrical engineer?” 

“I have a minor in electrical engineering.” 

“So ‘No’. You know, you can’t just multiply the power requirements by one point two and say we need more power.” 

“That is exactly my point, sir.” 

“I suggest you leave this issue to the electrical engineers.” 

“Captain, it is my official position that the power supplies for the railguns, grav plates, and inertial compensators need to be reevaluated from the beginning. As you said, we can’t just multiply—“

“So noted, Chief. A word of advice. Swim in your own lane. We’ve got top men on this project. Top men.” 

“Yes, Captain.”

Admiral Colby looked up from his notes and frowned at Sullivan.  

“That’s some important advice, Chief. You should follow it.”

“Yes, Admiral.” 

“Very well. If no one has any objections, let’s move on to important business. Have we decided what color we want the boat shed to be?”

Sullivan did his best to hide his frustration as he listened to the intense discussion about which shade of blue would best suit the boathouse, and whether they should use acrylic or latex paint. 

“This is going to be a disaster,” said Sullivan, lining up the fourth bottle and getting it somewhat neatly in a row with the other three. He had been dismissed from the King Gustav project. He took his assignment seriously, but no one wanted to hear about the problems he was uncovering. So they had transferred him safely out of the way, into the heart of a orbiting defense fortification. 

“Do you know about the Rule of Thumb, Cooper?” 

“The Rule of Thumb for direction of a magnetic field, the Rule of Thumb for estimating the size of a power conduit, or the—“

“The Rule of Thumb for disasters in progress,” said Sullivan. 

“Hold out your thumb and if you can cover it up—“

“Yup. And for this disaster, you’ll want to be ten times as far.” 

Cooper looked at Sullivan and held out his thumb in his line of sight. 

“I’m not far enough away, Chief.” 

Sullivan furrowed his brow at Cooper, then smiled slowly as realization began to dawn. He smirked. “Cooper, you crack me up. You need to stop that. You know I like men who are smart and funny.”

“Tell me again when you’re sober. You need to get your ass into bed, Chief.” 

NCOs had gathered around the big viewscreen in the enlisted mess to watch the events. 

“It sure is too bad I can’t be up close to watch this systems integration test,” said Sullivan.  

“You don’t sound all that unhappy about it, Chief.” 

“Of course not. I’m counting on being right here on this station, with a hundred meters of armor and decking between me and what’s gonna happen.” 

“You had to send them that report, didn’t you?” 

“Of course I did. I couldn’t let you do all that work and not send it in.” 

Cooper and Sullivan had done some back-of-the-envelope calculations, using time borrowed on dozens of otherwise free computing cores, to simulate the effects of overloaded gravitic compensators on a structurally overloaded experimental dreadnaught. The results, and the animation they had created, were spectacular and terrifying. Quite a number of high-ranking design officers had taken exception to the report and its overly dramatic conclusions. Admiral Colby had seen to it that Sullivan and Cooper were transferred out and disinvited from the reviewing stand ceremonies. 

The viewscreen showed a scene much more peaceful: against a starry background hung a Ship of the Wall, larger than any the Navy had built. Anyone who could count gun ports could see that this was no ordinary battleship. This was the King Gustav, calculated to strike fear into the hearts of any potential enemy. 

Someone shushed and turned up the volume on the video display. 

“All systems have been checked and are live for the full system integration test of the dreadnought King Gustav. Director of Naval Public Relations Commodore Randall Clark is here with me today to explain what’s happening. Commodore Clark, this is a momentous occasion for the Space Navy, in the first full systems integration test. What will we be able to see?” 

“Thank you. As you know, the King Gustav is the Navy’s greatest achievement in starship design. She—he sports ninety-six railguns in two broadsides, four decks of twelve. They are fully recoil-damped with gravitic compensators, allowing rapid and even simultaneous fire.” 

“Commodore, this project has been rife with cost overruns resulting from what critics have called Feature Creep. As originally planned, the King Gustav would have had forty-eight railguns—“

“Naval intelligence on potential enemies has made it clear that larger capacities would be required.”

“I understand that. What do you make of rumors that the expansion was not properly handled?”

“I assure you that every change order was carefully reviewed and effects of increased demands, both systematic and synergistic, were fully analyzed at every step of the design process.” 

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Sullivan. 

“What’s the problem?” asked a Chief Gunner’s Mate. 


“Hey, no need to be rude about it.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know I was talking to a non-expert. I wasn’t calling you a jerk. Jerk is increased acceleration. So. Distance is meters, right? Speed is meters per second. Acceleration is meters per second per second. And the rate of increased acceleration, meters per second per second per second is? Anyone? Anyone?” 

“Jerk,” said Cooper. 

“See,” said Sullivan. “He knows.” 

“So what does jerk have to do with anything?” asked the gunner’s mate.

Cooper put his palm on his forehead.

“Glad you asked,” said Sullivan. “See, that ship out here has multiple control loops between the railguns, the gravitic compensators, the grav plates, and all the power systems that keep them fed. In theory—“

“In theory,” said Cooper. “The test is about to start.” 

“Prepare to receive casualties.” 

“What?” said the gunner’s mate. 

Someone turned the volume back up on the view screen. 

“Power, check. Grav plates, check. Compensators, check. Cannons loaded, check. Full broadside firing interlock, check. We are prepared to fire. Admiral, on your word.” 

“This is Admiral Colby. I give the word. Fire. Fire. Fire.” 


King Gustav’s running lights blinked, ninety-six railguns emitted their rounds, followed by ninety-six plumes of incandescent rage, thence by a great orange and red bloom of destruction, and a rapidly expanding cloud of chunks and shrapnel.

Although the debris cloud expanded at a rate not quite as fast as light, once the spectators aboard the NSS Daneborg realized what they were seeing, it was too late, as the ship could never develop the required acceleration fast enough to get out of harm’s way. The missiles hadn’t been aimed at them, but the spatial deformations caused by interactions between the gravitic compensators and the gravity plates caused the ninety-six missiles to carom in wild directions, a half-dozen of which were the Daneborg. 

Aboard were the command staff, the crews of the bridge and engine compartment, cooks, stewards, and distinguished guests including six admirals, their chiefs of staff, two dozen captains, and their entourages of junior officers and non-commissioned officers. Three of the more watchful officers had been observing the King Gustav with binoculars through transparent viewports. Telescopic images on large screens were nice, but nothing compared to watching with your own eyes and seeing the distortions in space give the momentary illusion that the rail gun ports and the missiles they emitted were aimed straight at you. 

“There you have it, ladies and Gentlemen, the awesome destructive force of the battleship King Gustav. Uh. One moment. Communications are frantic.” 

A crackly channel reported, “All telemetry is lost. There was a spike, and now nothing.”

“Commodore Clark, what do you make of what we just witnessed? Where is the Daneborg?” 

“Uh … that was not expected.”

Clark seemed to listen intently to something in his ear. 

“That was not supposed to happen.”

An alarm sounded in the Enlisted Mess. Sullivan had not heard that specific once since the last drill: the space junk warning. Reflexes took over. 

“Everybody into skinsuits or survival trunks! Marines! Get into your boarding suits on the double!” 

“Attention, Attention,” came the announcement. “Incoming orbital projectiles. Don pressure suits and proceed to shelter. Don pressure suits and proceed to shelter.”