The V-Series Destrier Space Superiority Fighter

image: V-2 Destrier parts explosioncaption: Stylized parts explosion of the present-day V-2 Destrier Space Superiority Fighter

Human movement is generally constrained to two dimensions. A person on foot can walk forward, backward, sideways, or something in between, but all of that movement is limited to a relatively flat plane. Actions such as jumping, climbing stairs, or riding elevators can open up a degree of motion into the third dimension—altitude—but even that is heavily limited by gravity. In fact, most humans tend to think in only two dimensions, and anyone who disagrees with this statement should consider just how many three-dimensional maps are published each year. They're all flat, and even most globes aren't anything more than spheres with flat maps wrapped around them.

The advent of flying vehicles opened up a bit more flexibility in terms of movement; however, in one sense, flying humans remain just as dimensionally limited in their outlook as ground movers. Because most vehicles cannot maintain any position above ground—that is, they can't just float—they require constant propulsion in one direction or another to keep them aloft. But constant propulsion in any one direction essentially limits the pilot's available range of motion within that dimension. For example, a jet fighter cannot simply come to a complete stop in midair and begin moving in the opposite direction; it must cut a sharp turn or loop around.

Naturally, there have been many innovations that serve to open up that elusive third dimension. Helicopters have been around quite a while, and VTOLs— jets with Vertical Take-Off and Landing capability—have seen quite a bit of action in recent decades.
And yet, neither of these flying machines is capable of equally unrestricted motion in all three dimensions. It seems that, within a planet's atmosphere, not all dimensions are created equal.

It's an entirely different ball game outside a planet's atmosphere, however. Gravity still exists, but it's not nearly as influential. Just as importantly, the air and pressure that exist in such strength within any atmosphere are missing in the cold vacuum of space; without friction from wind resistance, objects in motion continue in motion, carried by inertia. Thus, absent the presence of significant gravity or friction, it is theoretically possible to create a craft capable of unfettered three-dimensional motion.

The Entertainment Industry's Contribution

It was upon this precept that the Rampant team assembled the software engine behind the Destrier space combat craft (for a more complete history, read about the game). They weren't the first to do what they did, but their practical consideration for addressing the real-world laws of physics set their efforts apart from most of their forebears. The vast majority of space combat simulators published before that time, fun though they were, failed to take full advantage of the freedom of movement possible in vacuum. Spacecraft in games generally moved just like aircraft, which is to say they were capable of moving forward at varying speeds, and directional control was attained by turning and banking.

There was one notable exception, an early precursor of Rampant developed in the late 1990s which later spawned several sequels. In that game, pilots had much more freedom to move in three dimensions, and they were also bound by the laws of inertia; however, certain constraints were still imposed upon how well a pilot could control his movement—constraints enacted not by the game developers so much as by the limitations of existing input devices.

And so one of the earliest goals established by the Rampant team was to develop an input device that would allow free movement in any direction, to make it highly intuitive, and to make it highly responsive. The virtual yoke was what resulted.

image: 3D rendering of gloved hand holding virtual yoke
Unlike a traditional aircraft yoke—or "joystick," in gamer parlance—the virtual yoke was not attached at any point to an immobile surface, which was, of course, what dictated that it must be virtual. The team's concept called for a small sphere that would, in essence, float before the pilot, who would then control the spacecraft by exerting force on the sphere. A burst of speed along any trajectory could be accomplished by grabbing the sphere and punching in that direction or, in the case of moving backward relative to the pilot, by jerking the sphere back towards oneself. Reorientation of the craft could be accomplished by simply taking sphere between thumb and forefinger and turning it; swiping a hand quickly across one side of the sphere would result in spin. By combining a punching motion with a spin, complex trajectories could be achieved, in much the same way a baseball pitcher produces a curveball.

The team implemented the control sphere using virtual reality technology, which in itself was nothing new. Special VR goggles, connected by USB to the gamer's computer, represented the sphere by projecting slightly different images onto the retina of each eye, simulating depth. The real trick was the accompanying gloves. Also plugged into the computer, they tracked the user's hand movement and simulated pressure on the inside of the fingers. For example, when the user reached his hand toward where the goggles told him the control sphere floated, the gloves would cause the user to, in a sense, feel the sphere as well as see it. If the user wrapped a hand around the sphere—which was, after all, the point—the gloves would become rigid to prevent him from crushing it. And naturally, from that point on, any movement of the hand was transmitted back through the glove to the computer, thus exerting the same movement upon the spacecraft itself. The virtual yoke was nothing less than a groundbreaking concept.

photo: Destrier prototypecaption: Recently declassified photo of the V-1 Destrier prototype, christened 'the Relic' (date unknown)
Not that it solved all of their problems. After all, once a pitcher lobs his curveball, he has lost the ability to exert further influence on it, at least until the catcher returns the ball to him. What the team had to do was create a way to return the control sphere to a point right in front of the user without sacrificing the perception of movement. In the end, this was accomplished by placing the sphere within a translucent 3D grid that faded to nothing within a few inches of the sphere. Whenever the user moved the sphere away from its normal position, the grid would remain static in relation to the user while the sphere moved; after a moment, however, the software would smoothly transition the sphere back to its place front and center, and the grid would begin moving to reflect all the movement. The faster the grid moved, the faster the sphere was perceived to move, much as a race car on a television screen is perceived as speeding quickly along, even though it remains centered on the screen while its surroundings blur past on the periphery. In Rampant, perception of spinning motion was made possible by placing a few distinguishing marks upon the sphere itself, thus designating an apparent front and back of the craft.

Meanwhile, the use of the gloves opened up a whole vista of other opportunities. No longer was a user limited to using the keys on a keyboard. With two gloves, he could use one for the virtual yoke and one for a virtual control board—a board that he himself could layout however he desired. The pressure pads within the gloves' fingers even gave the sensation of resistance whenever a button was pressed or a switch flipped. When the game was released, a cleverly developed software utility for laying out the control surface was included, as well as several templates and default configurations.

From Theory to Reality

It was the technology behind Rampant, so well thought-out and implemented, that saved the U.S. Government millions of dollars in R&D, not to mention months it did not have, when the K'luran threat first became known. Nevertheless, there were still many large steps required to achieve real world implementation of the concepts introduced in Rampant.

The V-2 Destrier's double hull design is one example. The craft's exterior is mostly indistinguishable from the model used in-game—a simple sphere, just like the representational yoke—but something a bit more complex was required beneath the surface to make intuitive piloting a reality. Since the pilot's orientation—the direction he's facing—is not always the same as the craft's orientation, the ODC's R&D team needed a way of moving the cockpit interior independent of the craft's exterior. This led to a double hull design, such that a heavily armored exterior shell encased a smaller sphere, in which resided the cockpit with its seat, displays, and control apparatuses, not to mention life support equipment. Through an ingenious application of ball bearing tracks, the inner cockpit—and linked weapons cradle—could be twisted to face in any direction, independent of the outer hull and its propulsion system.

The propulsion and guidance systems themselves required significant rethinking to create a more robust design. The current V-2 employs fourteen non-vectoring emission nozzles tied to a cryogenic bi-propellant fuel system; two jets for primary propulsion plus six installations of linked pairs to provide maneuverability.
blueprint: V-Series Destrier Guidance/Propulsion Systems
The primary jets are the most powerful, placed at the "back" of the craft's outer hull and facing directly outward. The remaining jets are placed around the craft's equatorial circumference and used for reorienting or spinning the craft on its axis, two pairs each for lateral, vertical, and transversal control. The mathematics involved in translating yoke movements into jet firings is, quite literally, dizzying; in short, the current configuration of six linked maneuvering jet pairs is capable of effecting any motion the pilot applies to the yoke.

Countless other differences exist, including quite significantly the fact that cockpit displays—from HUDs to threat assessments to system diagnostics—are rendered entirely virtually, without the use of even a single screen.

Of course, the most common questions posed by enthusiasts are in regard to the V-2's weapons systems, which quite naturally represent a complete departure from the Rampant team's original design; if there's one thing the U.S. Government has a great deal of experience with, it's highly advanced weapons systems. All armaments are mounted on hardpoints on a highly-customizable weapons cradle that acts, in essence, as a third shell capable of independent movement around the outer hull (although for simplicity and accuracy, the cradle is generally slaved to match the orientation of the inner cockpit pod). This freedom of movement is only possible because the system is not, in fact, physically connected to the craft, but rather held in place by a series of electromagnets placed on the inside of the inner hull. As for specifics regarding Destrier armaments… well, those details will likely remain top secret long after the V-2 itself has been retired in favor of newer models.

Suffice it to say, the V-2 Destrier Space Superiority Fighter is not only the first of its kind, it is the most sophisticated vacuum-based fighter craft any nation has developed since the K'luran threat became known. It stands as a menacing first line of defense against K'luran incursion.

adapted from Prometheus Rebound by R.L. Akers

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