A Point of Honor 12

A Point of Honor
Chapter 12 Draft (08/04/09)

Training and more training, then do it all again. That was a constant that never changed never ended, even, or especially, on a loaded a troop ship returning from a successful campaign, at least if you belonged to the Cardoman Seventh Navy. And it applied every bit as much to the ground forces as well.

They were a month out from Alaraf and another ninety-one days to trans-in at Llanfairn, their first scheduled stop. Captain McCormack had taken Clay Grayson and the news with him ahead on the G-4 SnapDragon. Forty percent faster than the Eagle and twice as fast as the Widow the Dragon should be half way home already.

Raquel Zavala was in overall command of the remaining two ship convoy with the job of insuring that the heavily laden Widow made it back safely; though he had nothing to say about the internal workings of either ship’s operation. He could request a flyby (a quick in and out) at the Caliphate’s Class three Driessen, and a month spent drilling his men on zero-G maneuver made him itch to put that training to use. And maybe, just maybe there was a way.

“I don’t know Raq,” Dave Gump, Captain of the Eagle said to the proposal; Zavala was looking for a second opinion before changing the flight plan. “It’s only an extra two days but there is some risk and I don’t see much on the reward side. Any ship the Calps have stationed there will be able to take us without batting an eye if we get close and there is always a chance they have something in just the right place to grab onto our tail before we can disappear.”

“How likely is that?” the former mercenary captain asked. “And what if we go in alone and let the Widow continue on without us?”

“Well that would handle one of my concerns. No one is going to find us out here but we need to be with the Widow when she transitions in at Llanfairn. We are so far behind when it comes to knowing what’s happened in the last half year, ever since we left Novi for Alaraf, that the our destination might well be under siege.—Or worse under Caliphate control.”

“So we do what we did last time. The Widow stops a few light-years early and we join up with her and then take her in. Or even better we check out Driessen we go straight to Llanfairn; even with the detour we will be weeks ahead of the Widow, and find out what our orders have for us next. Depending on the schedule we meet the Widow, someone else meets her or we just drop a signal buoy with a message telling her Llanfairn is safe or to head somewhere else.”

“Now that’s a plan I can get behind!” Gump said with feeling. “The more use we get out of all of our ships the better and except for twice on each trip, transition in and out, an escort even for a G-1 is a waste of our resources. And though I would never permit it to affect by decision, loafing along with the Widow is just so damn boring! I’ll let Kathryn know what’s up and get the timing set and begin cutting the orders as soon as we are finished here. Now tell me exactly what you are looking to do at Driessen.”

“Mostly I just want to see what the Calps have in system and get a feel for the traffic in and out but if the situation presents itself. . .”

Driessen had been explored early on in the second expansion. Now, almost 500 years worth of terraforming later, its population was just hitting the 11 million mark. Originally a fueling station with a limited amount of rock mining the earth sized planet was too close to the outer edge of the habital zone for humans to build a working society. One that included earth type plants and animals in any event. But because there was a station continuously operated, and people being people, over the years mirrors were fashioned and ice flashed to steam sending water vapor from the frozen oceans into the planet’s unusually oxygen rich atmosphere and the greenhouse effect drove the temperature higher.

Climate Science had come a long way since the pre FTL days back on Earth but it was still more art than any practitioner cared to admit. Some two hundred fifty years ago grasses were finally seeded that could grow and survive the extreme seasonal temperature swings and begin to spread beyond the seeded areas. A hundred fifty years ago large animals were introduced and they were trying to get the feedback loops tuned so that the mirrors would no longer be necessary. They hadn’t got there yet but the season and year to year swings were such that the population was starting to take off, growing at five percent a year, and the Driessen system was at last self sufficient in an economic sense, though just barely, putting more back into the Calp economy than it took out.

Critical mass being reached the war made economic explosion inevitable. A small part of the reason was the longtime fueling station. A larger part was the Asteroid mines and the other in space construction facilities, trained manpower, and experience gained building all those mirrors and the other items used in the planetary terraforming project. Without a planetary base station to start from these were far more extensive than a system with such a small population would normally boast. In fact they were unprecedented. The third—and most important driver was as always, ‘location, location, location.’ Driessen was near to the Calp frontier, the closest of all their planets to the Indie Altoona, and there was a score to settle with that system and expansion on the horizon.

Military planning decide that building a fleet base at Driessen would be the way to serve both goals and the funds had been freed up to implement plans already made. The initial parts of the station were complete. Newly built housing and repair facilities supplemented the older construction. The expanded workforce they housed contributed to establishing a system wide sensor network. A few squadron or sub-light pickets were already operating with another squadron on the way and the first operational force of hyper capable ships to be based here due in a few months.

Lt. Colonel Thani was overjoyed at his new command and the promotion that went with it. Only three years from Lt. to Major and now another jump in grade. And even better he was no longer working as a glorified prison guard in the Marais system; at least he had survived the experience, many others could not make that statement.

Promotions came fast in the build up to war but his rapid ascent since was beyond what anyone could even dream of without powerful support in positions of power. His particular claim to fame, and reason for reward went right back to that self same Marais where he had helped destroy an Infidel transport carrying a load of Jews away from the planet.

Thani never bragged about his role in that action. And as a mater of fact he hadn’t harbored the escaping prisoners any ill will beyond his duty to hate all infidels. Still the check mark next to his name had gotten him and a few others he could name away from that hellhole Marais; ‘Allah be praised in things great and small.’ Those he had brought along had ample reason to support him in every particular now and in the future. They were just what he needed now, extra eyes and ears looking out for his well being and their own in his quest to continue his rise through the ranks.

Command of a mobile planetary defense screen was a ticket he needed to punch and this system should do nicely. Too new to have established procedures Molazim could shape them as much as he was able subject only to the Driessen station commander’s will and diligence. But the station commander was not here, might not even have been assigned as of yet. So the new Lt. Col. delighted in his freedom—and power. The highest ranking Caliphate officer under permanent assignment to Driessen.

Thani’s area of responsibility was quiet right now. Only a single G-3 cargo ship at the nearly completed ship base; it had hauled the last of the electronics in from Grange and was almost ready to leave when a power feed running to her aft coil started leaking coolant. Rather than make his return trip without a backup the ships captain elected to repair the thing on the spot. Something the presence of the systems manufacturing infrastructure would make easy, especially here where being the only ship in port he could command top priority thereby keeping his ship’s out of service hours down to a minimum In a pinch he could have made the repairs without any outside help but it would have taken far longer and meant backup power only.

Keeping the costs outside of his normal base’s maintenance budget and off of his own ship’s books was a double win. For safety’s sake he went ahead and shut down is fusion unit and used a power feed from the station for normal ships functions. That meant he could keep his grav field operational further speeding things along and far more comfortably than it might have been.

With nothing else on the incoming scheduled for another week Thani had sent eight of his ten of his pickets out near the limit covering the complete sphere in a full dress training rehearsal of what they would be doing at all times once the base was fully operational.

“All stations up and ready Sir, ready to transition out.”

“Then make it so Chief,” Gump said to the petty officer on the navigation board.

“Two, One, now!” and the universes popped back into place. Dave blinked twice feeling the sense of relief he always felt when he could see the stars again. It might have been irrational but it was there just the same. Concentrating on the navigational repeater it took a few seconds for their position to show accurately.

“Anything on passive?” Gump asked of Pam Hines, in charge of the ship’s signals and sensor stations.

“Nothing Sir. No active drives showing and only normal levels of background com traffic. Be a few before we can sort out individual links enough to do any decoding.”

“Then let’s go active,” Gump ordered, “Their gonna know we’re here soon enough so lets see how much we can find out before we have cause to leave.”

* * *
“I’ve got a grav pulse,” the watch officer said over the sound of a shipboard alarm as he summoned his boat’s captain to the Scimitar pickets control cabin. It was too small an area to be called a bridge or even a flight deck with only room for three. And the Scimitar was a rather grandiose name for such a small vessel. But by some quirk of fate there was nothing else on the navy list with the name and Lt. Abu Zubaida commander of the miniature warship had been happy to remedy the defect.

“On my way,” Zubaida said as he left the aft engineering spaces for the up front control station. Lt. Zubaida had years less seniority than his watch officer. But his family’s prominent economic and social position on Jersey, the second most populous planet in the Caliphate with close to seven billion inhabitants insured his promotion over those less worthy. At once upon arrived he slid into the piloting station’s crash couch. As he strapped himself in he peered intently at the board where data flowing in was firming up what was happening even as he began to wonder if his rapid ascent was such a boon after all.

It was a G-2 of some type, and about thirty minutes beyond the limit; about forty light minutes from his own position. He checked to see the data was streaming towards the almost complete base complex and silenced the alarm completely. It had continued in a muted fashion once triggered and though his response to the watch officers summons caused its volume to decrease it could only be turned of completely from this command couch.

“Not one of ours,” he said as the onboard comps finished a first swipe, comparing the incoming emissions reading with the ship’s database. “At least nothing military.”

“And not one of our civilians either,” the watch officer said as the next pass finalized. “I got her Captain. She’s Cardoman, the G-2 M Eagle. What in the name of the Prophet is she doing out here? And alone? No other ships, just the one Captain.”

“More to the point Ensign Wadi; what are we going to do about it? Figure me an intercept to that ship, one at maximum thrust and another at maximum stealth. And see how long for the other nearest ships to join us using both options. For the time being I intend to start us moving to block her direct path to the base complex, but one with some cushion. We have a lot of time before we can close enough for anything to happen. So let’s nail down all our options.”

Zubaida glanced from time to time at the displayed vector cones and still had plenty of time to get his own course laid in long before the original alert report had a chance to reach Colonel Thani. Some forty minutes later his ship’s sensors felt first a brush then the increasing signal strength of directed active scanning and he knew just how good the stealth systems on his Scimitar, part of the newest class of pickets, would soon be tested beyond the navy’s own acceptance trials.

Raquel Zavala was sitting in the ‘Bull Pen,’ in one of the chairs, not quite crash couches, on either side of the main entrance way into the Eagle’s command deck that were usually occupied by members of the ship’s guard marine force in full space combat armor when she was locked down and ready for battle.

Where the name came from he had often wondered. In fact every time he found himself sitting in one of the seats. He had asked more than once. Those who were former merchant spacers said ‘It must be a military term of art,’ as they had never heard it before. It never seemed to come up when anyone who knew the answer was around. Those who were long time military only came up with blank expressions and fumbling answers in return.

The name might have something to do with an ancient sport his ancestors were said to practice on Earth, one mixed up with legends of Daedalus and the Minotaur. It supposedly consisted of fighting on foot large animals in an arena, waving a cape at them and jabbing short pointed spears into their hides till they weakened and bleed to death, but he had his doubts. The story sounded unbelievable but if true the precision involved in doing something like that must have been similar to what he could see on the bridge in front of him, and the sense of danger only slightly more immediate.

As commander of the ships marine force and especially as the one responsible for, and in charge of, this particular operation, he had every right and reason to be there. But subordinate to Captain Gump in the man’s own citadel, and considering himself a guest, he was careful to watch and not interfere.

Raquel had claimed the same seat he held when the Eagle transitioned in. Now, an hour and a half later he was back because Gump had him messaged that the first returns from the active scan were showing some detail. His own helmet headset was monitoring the com channel used by the sensor section so he heard each new report explained as it’s icon flashed and then solidified in the main deck display just over eye level center of the bridge. He had his helmet display slaved to the tactical board.

The lights in the overhead were only a little dimmer than normal, but with a decided tinge of red. A psychological ploy that played upon the natural sense of urgency and made the subconscious aware that something out of the ordinary might soon occur. The air had an unnatural chill, only a couple of degrees below the rest of the ships internal temperature but again a means of raising alertness. Sound dampers kept the noise level down to a barely heard background except when something was said over the intercom channel.

Like most youngsters Raquel dreamed of being a ships captain before he found his true calling. Or perhaps his calling found him when commerce raiders, the polite term, destroyed an orbital com station while both of his parents were onboard. At the time they were working for a technical maintenance contractor that had offered high wages for a year long even higher risk posting on an out of the way, slowly developing planet named Pillion in a system where the government, exerting its own sovereignty, had decided to start denying unrestricted right of passage and sanctuary in the systems outer reaches to ships not registered and paying a tax to the planets hereditary governing council.

This didn’t cause the free ranging entrepreneurs any loss of sleep as Pillion had no way of enforcing its judgment due to lack of any ships of its own. What did bother them was when a shuttle and crew on a little dirtside R & R were taken and held hostage until payment was made. The crew was ransomed out but then the destruction of the orbital. And after that show of force the system’s political leaders caved in completely, not publicly but as a matter of practice. The incident took place almost forty year ago and Pillion even today was known euphemistically as a port of free entry.

Pillion was unique; of all the colonized planets it was the only one to recreate a full blown feudal aristocracy. Others had the trappings and mimicked the forms, substituting a mostly free technological society for peasants and serfs but on Pillion the whole thing was taken to another level. Here the serfs really did come with the land and the peasants with their employer, and were bought and sold whenever ownership of either changed hands. To say this insured Pillion remained a technological backwater was piling on the obvious. But it also made it a system the Caliphate felt ripe for easy picking when the time was right. As a precursor to just such a move the Calps were transferring small amounts of inexpensive technology; hence the opportunity for Raquel’s parents to be in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

The planet offered so little to anyone outside the system that it was visited by scheduled shipping only once a year and unscheduled ships, until the pirates found it such a desirable rest stop were every bit as rare. Raquel, aged six, was on the ground when his parents lost their lives. They should have left him back in the Caliphate with relatives but they had thought that having him along would make the time pass faster and convinced themselves that they were bringing him along because it would be good for Raquel to see life on another world at such a young age, and not because they knew how much they would miss him in the year (excluding transit time) their contract was set to run.

Having a suspicion about Pillion’s educational system or lack thereof; with the boy they brought the latest educational software and had all of their personal comps loaded with more in the way of medical and technological information than was ever allowed on planet to those of ‘Common Birth.’ As part of their contract the Zavalas were granted a kind of ‘Guest Nobility’; one quite minor but it kept them from being owned by the Pillion corporation that had nominal title to the com sat and it got Raquel a place in the local school for children of the politically powerful where his comp program was a real eye-opener, even though it only hinted at how far behind the rest of human occupied space Pillion truly was.

The Corporate ‘Lord’ for whom the Zavala’s inadvertently gave their lives took his responsibility towards the young Raquel seriously—too seriously. He was so impressed by the boy’s obvious intelligence, and lacking a male heir of his own, decided that when the ship that should have taken the family back to the Caliphate arrived Raquel would stay behind; he being of little importance and somehow lost in the bureaucratic shuffle no one really missed him. If he had relatives who might have been concerned they either assumed he was lost with his parents or the Calps asked to check just put the request so far down on their to do lists that nothing ever came of it.

Raquel couldn’t forget however much his patron wanted him to. And when he ran across a quotation from an ancient philosopher-author, Walter Bagehot, who said, “All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality – the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape,” a permanent link to the young Raquel’s mindset was forged. And what better means of escape than as a Captain of a starship could one ask for?

He had barely reached his teens when he realized for certain that he would never be Captain of a Starship. It wasn’t because of the primitive society and manufacturing base on Pillion but rather a flaw in his own character—no make that his own, unalterable, genetic endowment. He was good, better than nine out of ten, when it came to raw mathematical ability, but that wasn’t good enough.

There were three tracks that could lead to the kind of job he desired, a tactical, a navigational, and rarely one of engineering. All three required innate math skills starting at perhaps the ninety-sixth percentile with bonus points added for even higher scores. And that was on a world that actually built and manned such ships. Devastated with the realization Raquel vowed to find another way. He would escape and he would make a mark in a universe that didn’t seem to care one way or the other. And as the only other option open to him began his soldierly studies.

If not so remarkable for the fact it actually happened; his deliverance from a life on Pillion was straight forward if not ordinary. Raquel’s foster father managed to die in an aircar crash and at twenty-one, a year and a day later he inherited everything. It wasn’t much except on a world like Pillion. Entailing the family fortune Raquel bought passage off planet and taking a dozen of the personal family retainers with him, the others were locked to the land; or in this case the corporation, and started his own mercenary unit. A squad first, later a company and later still had almost an army.

He was lucky, very lucky in his first job and had spectacular successes on the second. But he was also was good, very good at his chosen profession, and only got better until when on an easy contract job fronted by Ryman the wheels fell off. When the supplies, and especially the high orbital cover Ryman’s Oligarchic government promised never arrived to back up his initial landing on Sheppard the operation was doomed and he was lucky to escape with his life, though not with his reputation intact and was back almost to where he had started.

His reputation was tarnished and so he took the only work offered, that with the upstart Cardoman Seventh and vowed vengeance on the Ryman and the leaders responsible for his straits whenever he could make it happen. At first it had colored his relationship with Robbie Davis but as Davis also had some problems with the Ryman government they had become respectful brothers in arms though not friends. Too much competitive drive on both sides for that to happen.

As events transpired he was never going to get the chance to deal with the bastards on Ryman who had served him up for slaughter. Someone else, and a Davis connection at that, took away the possibility of that small pleasure ever occurring and with that possibility out of the way his Pillion derived and ingrained sense of duty to ones Lord, inexplicably he found himself looking at Calvert in that light, was now committed to the Cardoman cause almost as firmly as if it had been his own. In fact it had become his own; a gambler, the battle at long odds was irresistible.

Because of all of that baggage here he was, on the bridge of a starship, and yes even technically in command, while she swept inwards on a system, looking to do some type of damage to a world aligned with the almost forgotten planet of his birth. Had anyone back on Earth taken notice of a missing boy he might have been on the other side of this war. Zavala no longer cared.

Continuing inwards, Captain Gump had to till now kept his own mike and com channel open so anyone with the time to listen could hear what was happening on the bridge. This practice was unique to the Cardoman Navy, said to have been initiated by Admiral Lester Raymond; something carried over from his days as an “Independent Operator.” It was appreciated by all those not engaged in fighting the ship and provided useful information for those going on duty later; that was the real purpose of the innovation.

“Ok everyone! Stay on your division com link from here on, I’ll break in if I need to. Concentrate people, let’s do this right!” Gump’s outward calm collection was at odds with his true feelings. The Cardoman Navy under Les Raymond hadn’t given him the Eagle because he was some kind of a ‘War fighting eff’n genius.’ Still he examined his premises again and the odds still looked good. Active scanning showed no capital ships out to a two hour intercept line and anything smaller he should be able to deal with easily. Nobody was going to catch him unawares or gang up on him and there was no reason to expect the system to have been seeded with mines or other passive defenses. A closer look was called for and he was going to take it.

* * *
“Set a course fifteen degrees off a direct line and we’ll hold it for two hours before we correct. That ought to show us if they are hiding anything.”

Six minutes later Lt. Zubaida on the Scimitar saw the course change and knew his carefully constructed plan just went up in smoke. He might still get in front of the Cardoman’s path but without boosting at a visible level no other ship would be in the area to give him a hand and that would make an attempt on his part both pointless and fatal, a bad combination no matter how one looked at it.

“Get everything ordered and we will send it back to Col Thani. No possibility of an intercept so let’s stay hidden but start back towards Driessen until we hear different. I don’t see them needing us but closer seems better. If this Eagle thinks she can take out the planetary defenses alone she is in for an unpleasant surprise.”

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