A Point of Honor 13

A Point of Honor
Chapter 13 Draft (09/16/09)

A little more than eighteen hours earlier, still well outside the hyper limit—and well away from any prying eves, and now with the ship moving at just over 3,500 KPS, the Eagle’s landers were set free. Moving at ten times that speed, a fair fraction of light speed itself, the Eagle changed her course for the forth time, making sure she would remain outside even extreme missile range of the orbital forts showing up clearly on her active sensors. Both her landers were by now far behind, under such low acceleration as to be nearly coasting towards the limit. And if things were working out they were still invisible to any Calp paying attention to the Eagle’s back track. With the militarized G-2 about to make her reconnaissance run on the Driessen orbital infrastructure all attention ought to be focusing on them in any event.

The plan was Zavala’s, or mostly so. Dave Gump thought it far too complex and said as much, to which Raquel replied: “No plan is too complicated if you don’t have any other choice except to use it, and any plan, simple or not, gets judged by how it works. No matter what you do; for every action that fails there is an equal and opposite criticism.”

“If we get shot up ain’t nobody to go back for the small craft.”

“Sure—and if we do get shot up they are still better off where they are than being with us and witnessing the event first hand. And so long as we don’t get shot up and make sure everything mobile gets drawn into the inner system the pickings in the belt should be much, much, easier. If Pam Hines doesn’t stray too far from the limit we can get back to her and Ens. Varti faster than anything leaving from Driessen. Once they open fire and get detected any Picket not chasing us, and probably even those that are, will get sent out to swat them. And we can get there first.”

“That’s the only reason I am not fighting this more than I am,” the still worried Captain said. “This maneuver, running past the planet at so high a speed that even a G-4, with all of her accel starting from a dead stop can’t catch us, and then, after passing the limit, making a short jump out and turning right around and jumping right back in again on the opposite side of the system to pick up our auxiliaries—well it’s something I’ve never heard of. And I should have; despite everything I have been reading up on military tactics you know. It makes enough just enough sense that it seems odd it’s not in the books, none that I’ve ever read anyway.”

“Well I never heard of it either,” Zavala said, “But then I’m just a grunt with delusions of grandeur and you’re an ex-merchie. When it comes to Naval Ops what do we know anyway?”

“We know that we better get some damn good intel to justify the risks we’re taking and all the reaction mass even if everything goes right and we come out of this exactly as planned. And we also know just how often that happens. So I think I am going to double check my double check and make sure that everything is ready on this end.”

A day later, on the Eagle’s bridge, Gump sat and, watched while more and more detail painted onto his view screen and the threat alarm stayed silent while Zavala took over on the weapons console normally manned by the ships third officer Ens. Rico Varti who a long way off piloting the second of the Eagle’s two landers.

“They’re lighting us up and we have incoming,”

“Got it Chief,” Captain Gump said at once, then taking a deep breath, holding it, and after seeing the cone shaped by the powered envelope of the Calp missiles ending well short of his intended trajectory, letting it go said, “They’ve got to know even better than we do that they don’t stand a ghost of a chance of hitting us at this distance. I wonder what the point is? —- Can you get a better visual on the docks?”

“It’s breaking up again but it sure looks like a G-3 sitting alongside the main orbital. She’s gonna be hidden on the wrong side of the station and in her shadow before the visuals have time to get a whole lot clearer but we still ought to have enough for a composite. Doesn’t look like a warship but that isn’t certain yet, but we do know her drive is down and we have no power signature.”

“Why? What’s the point of this? I’m looking for speculation here people. An unarmed ship should have left as soon as the saw us coming. After all we might have been bringing friends along with us.” Dave stopped talking and began to look at the bridge display tank and the two tier missile launch heading toward his ship while waiting for a reply.

“I’m not sure why the G-3’s drive is down,” First Officer Lieutenant Commander Vincent Ustinov said almost at once, “but our flight trajectory would kept us too far out to reach them under power if we were still armed with something matching our older style mark IV’s performance, and that could mean they have built a little more range into their own system defense missiles than we have seen in the past.”

With five ShipKillers, Mark?, in each salvo, and unless the Calps really had come up with something new the threat was minimal, because those missiles would be ballistic and easy targets well outside of their warhead’s maximum blast effective range. An unarmored, straight up merchant ship would likely, no certainly, suffer some damage though minor from a near miss, damage to her electronics at least. But even if the Calps didn’t have the Eagle’s ship signature on file the 50 Gs acceleration she had shown made it certain she was not a strictly merchant hull. And Dave had very little doubt that the ship’s identity was any kind of a secret from the systems commander and the people operating the systems defense network. “Hold the course Vince,” Gump said to his first officer, “I want the best data read on the planetary defenses and infrastructure we can get.”

“Aye Aye Sir!”

The Eagles systems kept updating the picture from their sensor and visual suites and the view of the Calp ship became ever sharper as picture piled upon picture, scan upon scan. It was like having a much larger optic than anything possible to carry on a movable platform, and by the time the docked ship slid out of view blocked by the orbital station, the lack of missile tubes and other distinguishing hull details showed plainly she was a commercial transport. If she had been an armed military vessel the Eagle might have been in for a nasty surprise. But if that was the case even before they made out the details the Calp ship would more than likely have powered up and the Eagle would have known by the power output alone to keep her distance and change vector for an even more distant fly-by. And Dave never would have dropped of and left her two landers, now inside the limit and getting in position for an attack on a concentrated cluster of mine and refining bases that represented an important part the systems outermost economic assets.

“She’s a merchie alright—and that explains why she didn’t come out shooting at us,” Commander Ustinov said. “But it still doesn’t tell us why she did not take off as soon as we got here and if it were me sitting there I would still want to have my drive up—just in case. Ah . . . Getting a power read now. She must be planning on heading in the opposite direction after we pass. I was starting to think she had mechanical problems and couldn’t get underway.”

“Major Zavala, get a package ready to send their way so we can see just how they react.” With the status of the Calp G-3 resolved and enough data gathered that he could be sure the Calp incoming were the standard ShipKiller Mark IV and hence couldn’t reach them under power Dave was feeling much more at ease.

“Just how big a package do you have in mind Captain?”

“Let’s make it two launches with one hot and one recon bird in each. We did come here for the information after all.”

The Eagle was a militarized G-2. That meant a more capable grav compensator better sensors, additional compartmentalization and some armor outside of the hold areas and two tubes capable of handling the standard Mark IV ShipKiller. She, like all of her class, had room for more tubes and more offensive fire power but that would have taken away from the cargo she was capable of hauling and her main reason for being.

A minute later Zavala hit store and let Gump know he had the targets programmed. “In the can Captain. It will take another minute to swap out the warhead on the next missile in the queue for a recon head but we can launch the two already loaded at your command.”

“Wait till the second pair is ready then send in sequence with an immediate reload. No point in waiting between shoots. We won’t come close to overloading their defenses but we will make them work a bit harder.”

The Eagle’s launch of four was still under power three minutes from attack range the Driessen orbital platform when the Calp ShipKillers, fired first burnt out confirming once and for all that they were indeed nothing new. “We’ve still got the legs on them,” Gump commented to nobody in particular. “Thirty additional seconds with nukes, sixty without is nothing to sneer at even if to get that much our own birds aren’t nuclear tipped. And using nukes in this case, at this kind of range so close to a planet’s surface isn’t something we would want to do anyway. This is new construction. If the Calps had an improved version of their own missiles ready to deploy they would have out here. And that is our first bit of important intel.”

“Or they could be doing this just to keep us in the dark,” Zavala said. He had just sent a flight of interceptors towards the Calp launch.

“Possible but not likely. The system wide buildup we are seeing indicates the Calps are putting a lot of effort into hardening things up and they can’t want us to get away with our take on what they are doing aside from the fact that we are at war.” Dave went back to watching the tactical display as his anti-missile counter fire neared the Calp ShipKillers and his own ShipKillers began to jink as they closed on Driessen Station in their attempt to make the Calp’s intercept that much harder. The sixty seconds extra drive time combined with his velocity advantage over an effectively motionless target meant the Calps had to intercept while his own missiles were still under power.

They did that handily, sending three SK’s after each with time for more and their close in missiles and energy weapons held in reserve. Zavala’s attack profile called for the Eagle’s armed interceptor missiles to lead the recon birds. Seeing everything unfold, before the anti-missile missiles could reach them the weapons officers at Driessen Station ordered the early detonation one of the Calp’s own ShipKiller warheads. It was use them or loose them and the EM clutter bought a few more seconds life but the remaining three were handled with aplomb as the Eagle slid by her point of nearest approach and without changing acceleration continued to drive towards the hyper limit on the systems other side.

“There she goes,” said Ustinov, commenting on the G-3 at the station dock lighting off and heading in the opposite direction. “Didn’t wait much, did they?”

“It just makes the next part of our job that much harder but if nothing else we got the intel we were here for and what Pam Hines is getting ready for should come as a complete surprise.”

The Eagle had six and a half hours of powered flight time before she could reach the limit and jump again. By that time the Calp G-3, from her standing start would be moving towards her own jump at near 12000 KPS and would be 140 million kilometers distant from her initial position alongside the Driessen orbital. The Calp would still require another six hours in order to get outside the limit on her side of the limit and jump to safety. The civilian ship was 10% slower than a straight up G-3 Battle Cruiser able to maintain 52 G’s or 515 meters per second acceleration but at that she still held a small 4% advantage over the Eagle’s maximum of 50 G’s. And once in hyper the Calp ship by virtue of her extra drive band would increase her advantage by another 20% and become unmatchable. But that was of no concern to Gump and the rest of the Eagle’s crew at this time as they stood down from battle stations but keeping at a state of heightened alert as they continued outwards in the opposite direction at maximum military power.

As a concession to the possibility that system defense picket ships might be in position for a straight line intercept Dave made sure the Eagle’s course was not exactly predictable. Shortly after passing Driessen he broke well away from the systems orbital plane and began the jogs of a standard random evasive pattern that were going to add another couple of hours to his transition time. But that pattern would also add to his peace of mind as it increased by an unknowable amount to the likelihood of getting back outside the limit without being fired upon again.

Pam Hines, piloting the lead of the Eagles two landing craft along with her copilot the only other member of the small ships crew, had plenty of time to spend listening to the Eagle’s continuous broadcast updates. Unlike the larger Cardoman ship, with her drive full up and all sensors actively ranging, where there was no way to hide location and so no harm in broadcasting a running update of her movements and data captures, though encrypted for friendly eyes only, the two support vehicles were as stealthy as their nature permitted. And at the barely 2 G acceleration they were using that was very stealthy indeed.

Her ships communications receiver was picking up two data streams superimposed on the same channel. One was the real time broadcast record sent as events transpired in system and the other a highly compressed burst mode summary of what the Eagle’s captain and/or ship’s signal officer thought important enough to send out as a repeating loop broadcast, one changing as more information was added over time.

The utility of this broadcast, mostly automatic in nature, was self evident as a background to a combined ships operation. For a ship arriving in system but beyond the hyper limit after an action had already started, or perhaps even after one had concluded, the loop function let her catch up on prior events even before a request for information could be sent and a reply received. Because the Calps could detect and figure out the purpose if not the details of the signal which was always being sent excepting when in full stealth mode, the signal opened up the possibility that another ship was now in the area and able to make use that information, but it shed no light what so ever on whether such a ship actually existed. It wasn’t something to give peace of mind to a defending force.

It was remotely possible the Calps could steal the long term key because it needed to be generated in advance and then distributed and stored and kept current on all ships in the fleet. An individual ship might be out of touch and without ability to install a newer version for as much as a year and they could never broadcast a signal in both an older and newer key at the same time because that would mean a crack of the older version would break the newer one as well. But a purely tactical key could be generated on the spot as needed and so communications between the Eagle and Hines was as secure as anything ever was. Even knowing the procedure used to generate a key could not predict what key was actually in use. The message sent said: “Halt current operation and break back towards the limit.” It gave a vector plot of a course that would take them in front and to one side of the direct line departure track being used by the Calp freighter.

“There goes our chance at the out system manufacturing,” Pam thought, “I sure hope this works.”

“Ready to Jump in two minutes Sir,” Lt Commander Ustinov reported as standard procedure demanded even when his ship’s Captain was seeing exactly the same data on his own nav screen.

“Sound the Alarm then Cmdr; we still have some work to do.”

They stayed in hyper for eight minutes, more than enough time for a complete systems check and long enough that the grav pulse generated when they exited would not be detected back at Driessen, if it was detectable at all, till long after it could make any difference. Then they went to maximum deceleration in order to kill the residual velocity relative to the system they had just left and build up a vector pointing back towards the Caliphate controlled star and the two small ships they had left behind. It took a half an hour for everything to be right and Gump gave the order to jump again.

At distances like this, with the kind of computational capability a ship like the Eagle had on board, they could cut quite close to the hyper limit on their way back in. Even so they were making a mockery of the usual safety margins. But with Ed Tubman as the ships Engineering Officer; he was the one who had originally laid down the mechanical and timing limits, and Gump himself double checking the course details, there wasn’t much danger of things going wrong. At worse case a big bounce and the Calp Freighter gets away and Gump looks like an Idiot for giving up the chance at the out system orbitals for some pie in the sky the Eagle’s captain thought.

They transitioned back into normal space only eight light seconds away from the predicted position, virtually motionless in relation to the system as a whole and slightly to one side of the Calp freighter’s course when viewed from their own tactical position and started driving inwards once more. The ship’s grav signature, traveling at the speed of light, would alert the Calp freighter to their presence, exactly what they had done, in eighteen minutes. Then they would then have a similar wait to see if she reacted as they hoped and planned for. Down in the boat bay Zavala was getting his marines ready for a possible boarding action but with the landers away there was plenty of time.

“Pvt. Lotti! Put the fuckin’ bayonet away!” Lotti was one of the marines assigned to the ship just prior to her embarking on her past mission to Alaraf. Sgt Baumgarden wanted to snap him up for Zavala’s own unit. Raquel wasn’t so sure and felt he must have been missing something and his voice did nothing to hide the fact.

“Sir it was issued to me in basic and I have to account for it or it comes out of my pay!”

Raquel glared at the oversized oaf and Lotti extended his half meter long razor edged weapon saying, “Watch yourself Sir, it’s sharp!”

“It’s a relief to know something in this compartment that can be described ins such a fashion Pvt; I was having some doubts,” Raquel said taking the blade and examining it as if he had never seen one before. And brushing the edge crosswise he thought that at least he may have never seen one quite so sharp before handing it back and dismissing the private.

Pam Hines and Ens Varti each from their own ship saw the Calp reaction first, being much closer to the freighter than the Eagle now heading inwards at max G and blocking off a large part of the area in front of the Calp ship. Blocking it in the sense that unless she changed course she would come within range of the Eagle’s ShipKillers before making the limit. And just as they had hoped for the Calp captain changed his ship’s vector, angling towards an area outside of the Eagle’s interception range where he could pass the limit and make his jump unopposed. And by design that was just where the two small landers, armed for an attack rather than a logistics run were waiting, still stealthed and unnoticed.

As soon as Gump saw the Calp’s course change he ordered his own ship to try for an intercept that would herd the Calps even closer to his landers. one they were sure to see as a last ditch effort to be in place to stop them just in case anything went wrong with the freighters drive before she could make the limit and jump to safety. Not worried overly much on that front; the Calp captain still had his people doing everything in their power to make sure nothing of the sort would come to pass.

“They’ve taken the bait and running our way,” Ens Varti on Lander 2 SP-141 said to Petty Officer 1st Class Adams, his co pilot. It will be interesting to see how long before they see us.

“I’m just a bit more interested in what they do afterwards Ma’am,” Adams replied. “I know she’s supposed to be unarmed but I’ll like it a whole lot better when I can see it with my own eyes.”

“Won’t be long and we know for sure but hey! What could go wrong?”

An hour and a half they were about to find out. “Now is as good a time as any,” Pam Hines said as she pressed the button to send the pre-recorded message and that took them out of stealth revealing their position. “They’re in range now and can’t get away.”

The Calps had never given a hint they knew she was out there and Varti on the other lander, some tens of thousands of kilometers away, stayed hidden and did not reveal his own position.

Even as the short signal was reaching the freighter, and long before a response could have been returned, Pam saw two bright tracks flashing red on her display.

“Damn! Those are Calp attack shuttles. What the hell are they doing here! They must have seen us long ago and been ready,” Pam said as the Calp ships started firing, but only at her own ship and not the still hidden SP-141 Varti commanded. Thank God for small favors she might get out of this one yet. Triggering her own missiles Pam went into full evasive mode and watched as one by one the Calp missiles were picked off. The range was too far right now but in spite of max G her vector was taking here steadily closer. In theory this was an even match, but the fact was of small comfort. The Calps were jamming every available band making communications with Varti next to impossible, but also degrading their own sensors and making the second Eagle lander that much harder to find.

“I don’t think they see us,” Chief Withers said. “Do I launch now or wait?”

Rico Varti had shut down their drive and now SP-141 was a hole in space. “Looks like Cmdr Hines is taking care of herself so let’s just wait a while longer. I don’t want them to have a chance once we open up.”

“Ok, do it now,” Varti said and Withers started launching from his two small tubes as fast as the autoloaders could fill them.

Caught unawares, and focusing in another direction it took too long for the Calps to react. They did stop the first dozen or so but scattered wreckage was all that was left in the end.

“Fire a warning shot at the freighter,” the Voice of Pam Hines came in clearly now that the lack of jamming made the com channel clear once more. “Unless she stands down at once take out her drive.”

“How do we stop her from coasting out past the limit and making her jump before we can match velocities?” Raquel asked.

“Not a problem,” Dave said. “We have her jettison her reaction tanks and without a fuel flow she can only destroy herself if she powers up enough to get her bands working. We can pick up our landers then make our rendezvous, get a crew on board, put a tow on a couple of the tanks and bring back and reconnected. Two is enough for what we need. Just enough to dump some waste heat and keep her in balance. We have her ready to jump long before any of those Picket ships from Driessen following so far back can possibly make it out this far.”

And that’s how it was. It wasn’t long and while watching an extreme close-up Raquel saw four cylindrical objects slowly drifting away from the dumbbell shape of the G-3 freighter. “You see Dave. This is how a well laid plan comes together.”

It was almost thirty hours later that the Eagle caught up to the Calp freighter with the hatch on her empty boat deck open to space. Both of the Cardoman landers, switched back to carry mode, were loaded with marines as they made the short trip to the eerily silent coasting vessel. The Calp had responded to commands but asked no questions or made any conditional demands. Raquel was getting a feeling, a sixth sense, one that meant his plan was working out just too smoothly.

Raquel’s lander, piloted by Cmdr Hines, went inside first while Varti stood off, waiting to be called. Securing the bay he went forwards to the bridge and locked it down leaving a couple of his men standing guard. Then, with Pvt Lotti and two others he headed towards engineering. Once that was secure he would call in Varti and the other lander and they would go over the ship from stem to stern. He didn’t say anything but he noticed Lotti was the only one who had installed his bayonet and was spending time making sure the now overly long weapon stayed clear of obstacles and didn’t get in the way of anybody else when he might have paid more attention to his surroundings. No time to waste on it now but he was going to have another talk with the boy real soon. And add a bayonet to his own collection.

From outside the open door to the engineering spaces the relayed message from Signals on the Eagle flashed a warning. “She’s powering up and going to explode without her reaction tanks and a place to dump the waste heat!”

“Suicide bombers writ large.” The thought flashed through his mind as Raquel went charging through the hatch followed by Lotti and then the other two members of his squad. Inside he saw a ship’s officer standing in front of an open electronics bay reaching for something inside. He had his rifle at the ready but firing might well set off whatever was going to happen anyway. Hesitating for just an instant he caught a momentary flashing glint of light from the corner of his eye and he willed his finger to go slack just as Lotti’s rifle, flying straight as an arrow with its deadly tip impaled the Calp engineer’s hand. It continued driving through and into the side of the steel enclosure’s wall, sticking firmly and pinning hand and rifle both firmly against the metal surface just inches from the breaker’s handle. Raquel shifted aim point and drilled the man through the chest then forehead, ending once and for all that threat and any further resistance.

“Well Lotti, pull it out and clean it. I guess you get to keep the thing after all.”