A Point of Honor 20

A Point of Honor
Chapter 20 Draft (12-14-09)

The new Planetary President of Triocat had been adamant about where he would take his oath despite the fact that few had even tried to dissuade him. It had been by anyone’s standards one hell of a 45 day long dream since the comm call that changed this world. Following what was by now being called by the chattering class, as if from a history book, ‘The First Strike Complete’ the present near chaotic condition by contrast seemed perverse and unending.

As soon as the fighting died down all 565 medical cases, the ones too serious for treatment in the medical facilities and with the technology here on Triocat, were lifted to the Ryman G-2M Masada. With less than 12 hours of an acceleration the old slang called ‘Redlining to the Max’ the ship passed the limit and transitioned out leaving Triocat far behind.

The rest of Ryman’s troops then started staging for a return to their home world as the Triocat military got another stunning shock. “Oh, all the Armor and Artillery we landed, and the unexpended munitions—it’s yours!”

Anyone on Triocat who had to this point been skeptical about how tightly the Rymans had planned all this, ascribing a major portion of the success to luck, had their bubble burst when three days after listening to the Lying Bastard’s transmission the Ryman upscale merchant vessel G-3 Pride of Mills Valley and a G-2 Union contract freighter came over the wall, turned and began a slow reversal until messages from Ryman out system pickets reached them.

They had been ready to run if Ryman had lost. Reaching Triocat orbit they began to empty their holds disgorging ‘stuff’ into orbit. Some of the material was seized by orbital shuttles that began to reposition it. Some was grabbed by system shuttles who went screaming towards the asteroid belts. Still more was loaded onto system shuttles that went to seemingly random locations scattered throughout the system and then returned empty. The Pride had taken onboard another 675 of the worst walking wounded and a Triocat Diplomatic detail then left post haste. The contract G-2 took a little more time and loaded up all the rest of the Ryman troops she could carry then left a few days later.

The executive officer of the ship Lying Bastard contacted the Triocat government and said that even though they had to save their H3 to get home if the ground could use their fusion power plants to crack LOX and LOH for them they could spend the next 30 days, days they were going to have to wait for their new Recon unit to be ready in conducting a compete planetary geological survey. They would cover everything but the deep ocean bottoms for which they hadn’t brought equipment. The Bastard’s exec quipped about being able to find a gnat in a corn field and running the crew ragged with training drills on sensor suites!

That was the situation when Don Tomas de La Torrance stood 100 yards away from the property representing the only price Ryman had asked in return for their service: 80 acres of fairly level ground with perpetual Diplomatic status. The acreage was now surrounded by a split rail fence that Strike Alpha had hand built, and green grass again planted by hand was just starting to poke its way up from rich dark soil. The field contained 1,675 headstones, each and every one surmounted by the triple crossed Lightning Bolts that was the shield of Strike Alpha. The majority of those headstones came from the charnel house that had been Al-Jharamid. The Triocats had buried 11,392 Calp Soldiers, Police and Mullahs. Don Tomas slowly strode up the stairs to where he would take the oath as Planetary President.

Four hours later with the official fluff behind them President de La Torrance was sitting in his new office quietly sharing a brandy with Gunther Jenkins. “So Gunther the Masada should have gotten back ten days ago and the Pride of Mills Valley should have been there yesterday, what do you think the reaction is going to be?”

“I don’t know Tomas; a lot of it is going to be dependent on what you told your Diplomatic staff to put out. The Newsies and the out-world Diplomatic Corps are going to give your people more face time than our people, it’s just human nature.”

“I am not sure if your command will like what I have done or not, here, look, I will show it to you. . .”

At Ryman Planetary Command HQ Arthur Redmond felt sure his head was about to explode. The Holo-V he was watching had shown 45 seconds of the worst carnage a military force could wreck upon another, ending with the screen filling “The Black Djins”. His hand was halfway to the comm unit when the next 45 second long segment began to unfold, nothing but the same, black combat suits treating wounded and feeding children, followed by the screen filling “The Black Angels”. And this followed by a slick voice over. “This Ryman is your Strike Alpha; nothing else could have saved our world!” Redmond merely collapsed into his chair and stared as the mid-day news show resumed and his Public Relations Officer burst into the room.

“Have you seen the news spots the Triocats have given to the Holo-V’s?”

“Just saw one; they were supposed to be on our side, correct?”

“Hell Boss wait until you see the next one. It’s not going to play until this evening and Lord I wish I had written it.” He then put a memory chip into the display console!

The same slick voice began to talk over some ancient footage. “Once there was a force that the Caliphate feared even though they were not the Caliphate at that time, they were called the United States Marines and the Muslims feared them as they feared no other! They and their Brothers in Arms the United States Army shared one creed.

“There are No Better Friends and No Worse Enemies! On Triocat, we were shown that that creed still lives!” The screen faded out with the crossed Guidons of the three Strike Alpha Regiments with a Medal over the juncture that a world would soon learn was the Triocat Planetary Medal of Valor which had been awarded to MG Geoff Henderson. “Damn Boss, you just can’t write better than that!”

* * *
James Philips, newly arrived, disembarked from the Federation military transport along with the rest of the diplomatic staff. The title on his passport read “Second Assistant Undersecretary to the Ambassadorial Liaison Staff.” As a diplomatic ruse —that fooled no one, nor was it intended to, and he was put on the Ryman watch list as a ‘Person of Interest’. But by playing the role to perfection, in the eyes of those watching, the actor would become the character and might still manage an unseen role off stage. He wasted little time between attending to the obligatory initial diplomatic courtesies, introductions, gatherings, minor speeches and the like, and going about his true business, that of reestablishing contact with the remnants of Union’s old pre-revolutionary intelligence unit on Ryman.

When the present militarily dominated government on Ryman removed the Oligarchs from power any of those Oligarchs or their minions linked to Union were rendered useless to Philips main purpose. They might provide some background but Phillips was looking towards the future, not the past. The Federation’s present ruling faction as a whole looked favorably upon the change, but not upon the loss of a window into the thoughts of the Ryman ruling elite. There is something to be said for dealing with the devil you know. Predictability leads to comfort and stability, on all worlds and in all times and places a politician’s goal.

Considering the size of the job the Federation’s Intelligence Service was small, minuscule in fact. Fewer than five hundred employees and a budget so small it was lost in the rounding errors of the Buildings and Monuments Fund. Of those five hundred only thirty-seven were in the operations division that Philips had been the principal in charge of for the last decades. The rest asked questions, operated or programmed the computers that looked for correlations, derived probabilities and gamed the future.

From the time of its founding the Confederation of Free Worlds across all of its political spectrum knew that an operations unit begged to be used, and historically all too often was used internally against whatever factions happened to be out of power at any given time. Because operations was so small it was highly efficient. One couldn’t cast too large a net with so few hands.

Another truism reflected here was that secrecy was structurally impossible for any sufficiently large organization. So what the Service did was gather information. The vast majority of it public—though often hard to find and seemingly of no importance—and then analyze it, see how it affected the Federation, and provide options to maintain that highly desired stability and comfort level. The change in government on Ryman with a war looming was just the kind of thing that made the folks on Union nervous and the kind of problem Operations was set up to investigate; to find the reasons behind the reasons.

Besides those engaged by the displaced Ryman Oligarchs, Phillips was used to receiving reports from a couple of dozen stringers. These people would now be called patriots rather then traitors. But their allegiance was to something they thought a greater truth then a single governmental agency. The ones that interested Phillips were working to achieve a state of universal justice, not one beholding to a single planetary society.

In every almost every case these same individuals made the same reports to the people in the Ryman’s military as they did to Union. As such after the latest changes they were highly rewarded on Ryman but left mostly alone. The new order knew where it was headed and the old order was finished. At least for now and at least on Ryman or at least that was what they thought.

Phillips had names and drop points, and he was sure some of these former agents would keep feeding information to Union about the internal Ryman situation even with the Oligarch, the business monopolies that used to run things, out of the picture. At least so long as the Federation stood above what looked to be a militarized Ryman government and the new leaders claimed continuing allegiance to the Federation and its principals.

Philips was far too public a figure at this point to be a direct contact with anyone outside the Federation Embassy building. The way the political thing worked was that all Federation members now had Missions and Envoys without Ambassadorial status insofar as Union, the Federation Government, and Senate was concerned. As someone from Union though he might help this official delegation exercise power reserved for the Federation as a whole.

Form a practical standpoint some might think it didn’t much matter. Ryman was a trade destination of importance and that had caused most of the Confederation planets to maintain a presence. If only to keep an eye on the competition. But all of the trade missions in lieu of instructions from their home worlds took direction from the Federation Ambassador and only he could make new or override preexisting policy.

For now that meant outwardly a guarded neutrality concerning the planet’s change of status. Most delegations however were maneuvering to corner whatever part of the existing trade they were able and turn as many of the long term trading relationships to their own favor as they could manage without drawing fire from either the Federation Ambassador or their natural rivals. The news from Triocat disrupted everyone’s plans.

“I have an appointment with Ryman’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs Mr. Matthews . . . and James and I want you to come with me.” Federation Ambassador Plenipotentiary Andre Layette seemed quite pleased with himself. His last posting was to Llanfairn and this was a step up, a very large step. “They wasted no time at all in responding to our request. I expect complete cooperation. Though I am not sure why. We are hardly in a position to punish them and put the Oligarchy back into power even if we wanted to, which of course we don’t.”

“From the way some of our members are behaving they might not be so sure of that.”

“What do you mean James?”

“My information says that some of those loosing out of their old deals are making subtle threats about backing those of the ‘Old Guard’ who were away from Ryman when Redmond took over as the rightful Planetary Government.”

“Then I’ll just have to convince the Secretary that that will not happen now won’t I.”

Philips bowed his head giving assent; it really wasn’t a question needing an answer.

The greeting delivered by Secretary Matthews was both hearty and sincere as he introduced his aide’s to the Federation Ambassador and Philips, both of whom he was already acquainted with. “President Meeks sends his highest rewards and regrets being unable to be with us. Later today, when he is back in town, I will give him a complete report and deliver any supplementary material any of us should deem necessary. Please do proceed gentlemen, I am at your complete command.”

“Mr. Secretary it is our privileged and duty to thank you for making time in your own schedule to see us at this time. Through our contacts in some of the Federations other planetary delegations here on Ryman we have become aware of some—shall we call it maneuvering—that could ultimately affect our relations with each other. And may I add to neither of our principal’s betterment. . . Mr. Philips will fill you in on what we have found, though without naming any names. I am sure you can appreciate the need for discretion in this matter. Never the less it should be easy enough for you to check the accuracy of all that we say. Please James, proceed.”

Philips reported on what was being discussed in the various trade negotiations with an especial attention to attempts to involve the old Oligarchy for mutual advantage. How much of this was new to Matthews they were not sure but he was again most appreciative when the left a while later promising to meet with them again in a few days. What would be would be.

* * *
Most days turned into a constant steam of interruptions and this day was no different though this final distraction came unusually late. It was 10 in the evening some two months after the start of the fight for Triocat when a ring on Don Tomas de La Torrance’s personal Comm caught him after he had left his offices and was on his way home, beating his normal departure time by almost an hour. He had not yet left the building and pausing to take the call said only, “de La Torrance here.”

“Mr. President, I’m sorry I didn’t catch you before you left your office but could you please come to the Command Center? Admiral Jenkins is en-route with what he says is a ‘Final Action Briefing.’ The voice on the other end of the line was de La Torrance’s appointment secretary who seemed never to sleep. “When he called earlier I told him you were still in and he said he wanted to get it done as soon as possible.”

“Dear God, what is all this going to be about? Very well. Inform the staff I am on my way.”

The Command Room at Government House had if anything gotten more complex since that first day. One addition had been a separated briefing area off to one side and de La Torrance was respectfully directed there by a member of the military staff which by now contained more Triocat than Ryman personnel. Tomas merely settled into his seat and watched the Ryman staff filter in. To a man or woman they looked physically beaten, not mentally, the eyes still held the fire, but physically, and it showed emotionally as well. They were tired beyond belief!

It was only a matter of minutes after his arrival before the briefing was underway. “Thank you for coming Ladies and Gentlemen and I apologize for the timing,“ started Admiral Gunther Jenkins who then continued, “I have been threatened by our Chief Medical Officer that if I so much as look at one more stim she is going to declare me medically unfit for command! And that I assure you would kick off a battle none of us want to see. And you Mr. President,” he said speaking directly to de La Torrance, “I know it has been if anything tougher for you than the rest of us. Thus we are going to stand down all but essential Forces for the next 12 hours for rest and recovery. I will allow my Intelligence Deputy Chief of Staff to explain.”

The medium-height gangly Vice Admiral who stood and moved to the podium so calmly still managed to exude and all-knowing competence to everyone in the room. Tomas was not surprised by the name-tag which read Davis; little surprised him these days and every family had at least one scion who did not fit the family’s norm, in this case one who was not a huge physical specimen, hell look at his own middle son. It did not take long for the rest of the room to figure out that Richard Davis was not just a figurehead but the classic Techno-Spook!

“Good Evening,” Davis said, “And please Mr. President, accept my apologies as well. Allow me to explain our timing and why this meeting is happening just now. Just hours ago we had a major breakthrough, and as a result have been able to decode most all of the Calp files we captured at Al-Jharamid. Due to this breakthrough we know the scheduled departure date and time for the Calps incoming relief fleet. From this we can estimate when they arrive here with a fair degree of accuracy. The earliest, but not the most likely time starts only 14 hours from now. Of course for them to get here by that time would require navigation up to Ryman or Cardoman standards. We view that as highly unlikely but, can not rule it out and so must guard against it. As our experience here on Triocat shows, some of the Calps are very good indeed. Our best estimate based on normal Calp performance calls for them to transition out-system 17 to 21 hours from now. Thus we are standing down for a rest cycle and will stand up again in phases starting in 12 hours. At that point we will be on normal shifts and will not go on alert until confirmed contact. The attached Triocat forces have been on normal shifts for the last three days.”

He signaled to someone at the rear of the room and the lights dimmed and a display view was projected from a device hidden in the ceiling. “The fixed and mobile emplacements will be show in detail as we proceed. The red dots are counter missile emplacements that are active as we speak and yellow dots are emplacements scheduled to come on line in the next 12 hours.” The group was for the most part shocked at how many there where and where they were scattered, even amongst the higher ranks operational security has been tight. The heavy concentration in orbit and on the ground around the spaceport might have been expected, but the numbers out in the asteroid belt and scattered all over the inner system were staggering.

“We intend to start attriting their ShipKillers from the moment they launch and launch they will as we have no high speed ambush to cut them short this time. Now the green lights are ShipKiller sites currently active and the blues are those sites scheduled to go active in the next 12 hours. Many of you here know a part of this, the part you are directly responsible for. This brief is to get the complete picture out to everyone. To make sure if anyone needs help they know where to find it. The files and data involved are now open to everyone in this room. Make sure any of your subordinates who could possibly have need for any of this get on the access list as well. I would like to keep this short so I ask for any questions or comments now. Mr. President? Would you honor us by going first?”

Don Tomas stood, he seemed to sway, drained of emotion and shaky on his feet, “We,” and he hesitated, “I,” and he paused once more, “knew that work was going at breakneck pace but, this is astounding. And I really have nothing else to add right now.”

“It would not have been possible without you insisting on starting your own production of counter missiles. Once they started coming off the lines all we had to do was move ’em and place ’em.”

“We started that production almost six years ago at the recommendation of General Redmond.”

“Yes, as I am sure you can see he was the driving force behind all of this.”

“Can Triocat finally ask without denying our gratitude, what was your real motivation behind all of this?”

Davis turned and looked at Jenkins, who merely gave a short nod. “When you first started out by paying us to train your troops—well basically we found some kindred spirits. We liked you guys your goals and your attitudes. We knew the Calps would cause bigger problems down the road than even you anticipated, so we started a long range plan to help you out. This wasn’t it.”

“As time went on and the reports came back from our planetologists saying that you might possess transuranic ores out here you started to look like great business partners as well. Then as events developed it turned out that Triocat became the place where we, as an added bonus, could also help some of our other friends and at the same time advance our own goals. We couldn’t solve all your problems, but we could, with your help, take care of some of them and hurt the Calps in such a manner as to take the a bit of the pressure off of Cardoman in particular, and all those ready to war against the Caliphate in general.”

“I take it then Admiral Davis that your Intelligence was already leaning towards the notion that that the staging Battalion here on Triocat was aimed at Cardoman all along. And that your recent discoveries only confirm that fact; and now that we are absolutely certain of your surmise you are also sure about all of the surrounding data?”

“Sir, we have decodes of the actual orders from Calp HQ. Without that mini-Brigade that was destroyed at Al-Jharamid they will not have the ground shock force they are expecting to use if and when Cardoman should become difficult. Sometime in the next 48 hours we will whittle down their fleet reinforcements. But, there will in all likelihood be at least one ship that we are not going to be able to do anything about. The Calps will have a ship dedicated to one purpose only. One whose job is to trip the concealed transmitters the Calps here on Triocat do not even know the existence of, nor of course their locations. We have to let that ship trip those transmitters in order to find them, we really can’t stop it because that ship is never going to get far enough inside the limit to become a target except by pure chance, and I think we have had all the luck due us to this point. So after this next engagement our edge of surprise will be gone. Triocat and Ryman will then have moved way up on the Calp’s own target list! Dealing with that fact will not be easy.”

The room shifted nervously in their seats until Don Tomas turned and faced the room, “Did anyone here think this day would not come? Did anyone think that the price was not going to be high for true freedom?” Their reply was a simple clear and confident NO!

“Then let us adjourn this meeting and we can all get some sleep!”

It was just after 18:00 when the special chime sounded on Don Tomas’s comm unit. Without bothering to answer he went out the door and towards the command center with concern written all over his face. What was coming up would be the first true space battle for Triocat, no one in their right mind would call the cold precision ambush of Operation First Strike a battle. This time around the enemy would “get a vote” as Admiral Jenkins loved to say.

Reaching the command center he was escorted by a Triocat military aide to a console in the short second row and his heart took a jump when he saw the tag above it “CIC Triocat” and for the first time it hit him in the guts. This was the other half of the job with the fancy title ‘President,’ sending people into harms way was now about to become part of that job. All he could do was thank God for the two console front row. There sat Vice-Admiral Davis of Ryman and his own Admiral Santana head of the nascent Triocat Navy. Admiral Jenkins, true to Ryman traditions, was in space on Masada, returned now and leading from the front.

In a way that took some pressure off of the ground command, the man who should be staying back directing this fight was in the fight! Here, as Tomas rapidly saw, they were spending most of their effort to verify intelligence and prepare options for the entire chain of command. Only one thing seemed not to be right, Lady of Spain was still docked at Laringham High; she should have been with the fleet. The display info box explained that she had had yet another conveyor problem while unloading, not unusual for a de-mothballed G-1 by any means; yet it was going to put her into harms way and Tomas knew that the deal that Ryman had made with the Confederation was supposed to preclude that. He had very little doubt about which problem Davis was so adamantly addressing as he barked into his mouthpiece.

Don Tomas donned his own headset, and following the menu on the screen he put himself on the command channel in “listen only” mode. The Gaelic influenced tones of Davis and Jenkins were easy to separate from the rolling, melodic, Spanish inflections of Admiral Santana.

“No-neck, we have a confirmed ident on the two G-2M’s. They are Islamabad and Khartoum, no fix on the G-3 yet.”

“The forth ship my friend is confirmed as a G-2C tanker, which explains the formation moves.”

“Correct Ground, they are topping off. Has the spook ship transmitted yet?”

“No, I don’t think they will until the main body starts in, which may help a bit. Have they sent you anything other than automatic challenges yet?”

“Nothing — as expected, ‘The lordly deep space fleet has but contempt for lowly system pickets as Allah wills!’ They will probably just send orders.”

Changing display views Don Tomas saw three ships he knew to be the G-2M’s Gethsemane and Masada along with the G-4 Spartan were doing a marvelous imitation of three Calp ships he knew for a fact were rubble and dust in system space. The G-4’s Zulu, Gael and Varangian were lying powered down so low, and located somewhere, that not even the incredible sensors the Ryman’s had scattered throughout the system could find them.

As Don Tomas looked at the time-lines and decided that nothing was going to happen until tomorrow morning, he closed down the display, getting ready to say good night. After all he still had a government to run. As he stood to leave the room something else hit him; the Rymans were bound and determined to never ever engage in a FAIR FIGHT . . .they could possibly avoid it.

* * *
The next morning after an abbreviated staff meeting Don Tomas entered the command center at 11:30 AM. He could see his timing was good as the primary team was just finishing taking over from their relief shift. He rapidly deduced why as he scanned his console, the two Calp G-2M’s had flipped and were decelerating. The G-3 (now identified as the Mesopotamia,) was maintaining acceleration and heading out towards the belt as if to check on the Triocat structures out there. The only thing that confused Don Tomas was an arc on the chart in red. He turned to the Triocat Colonel seated next to him, whose job it was to be his military liaison, and inquired about its meaning.

“Mr. President, that’s the point where the combination of distance and orbital position will allow the Calps to visually identify the Spartan. That is when we start shooting, unless the spook ship trips the transmitters first.”

“They have not communicated yet?”

“Only one brief message; they sent orders that required a simple acknowledgment, one of our ex-Calp’s responded and they seem to be happy.”

“So, their ignorance is pulling them into a trap. Correct?”

“Yes Don Tomas, and the Rymans are playing the tightest hand you ever did see!”

As Don Tomas was absorbing this info klaxons went off and all attention shifted to a row labeled ‘Electronic Intelligence’ which suddenly went active. The vocal loop that tied them in to Vice Admiral Davis was at once flooded.

“Damn Boss, someone didn’t trust anyone and wanted data. We are picking up outgoing data streams and they are a mixed bag. Looks like some comm intercepts, street surveillance and command taps. Oh Shit, they have video feeds of the fight queued up right at the front of the feed.”

“Start the clock Steve, and tight beam an update to No-Neck. The show is going to start no later than two hours and thirty-four minutes from now. As soon as Calp signals on one of the G-2’s sees that feed and rolls it back to the Mesopotamia the shit will hit the fan, we are going to have to shoot first! . . . Center to all, suggest you take a meal and rest break. The fun is coming real soon.” As he spoke a countdown timer appeared on all the screens in the room, including the large front screen, two hours and thirty-four minutes to zero.

Don Tomas reentered the room some two hours later expecting to see the clock in front at thirty four minutes. Instead he saw it showing just nineteen minutes remaining. He sat at his desk and asked the duty Colonel next to him why the change.

“Admiral Jenkins has adjusted the start of action so the evidence of the ships in orbit around the planet firing arrives at the Mesopotamia at the same time as the message from the spook ship. He laughed about that saying ‘A little confusion never hurts.’

Don Tomas merely stared at the clock and waited, he knew that there would be no dramatic speeches or orders. Orders had gone out hours ago, the Rymans would simply execute like clockwork. He almost dozed off until the intercom chatter picked up dramatically and the clock started an upward count. The ground and orbital ShipKillers had launched and the Masada and Gethsemane were unloading their first salvos. The Spartan was still thirty seconds from clearing the rim of the planet in its orbit and would not fire until then.

Out in the belt the Captain of the Mesopotamia was stunned when ShipKillers and counter missiles started erupting from some of the nearer asteroids. Counter missiles were generally not though of as offensive weapons and their warheads could not destroy or even gravely damage a modern warship. As Admiral Jenkins had said they were mosquito stings at best, but all damage to a starship was cumulative and it kept the fire control teams overloaded.

On the command deck of the Mesopotamia Capt. Hammad Suleiman Musharack ordered full combat alert and started looking tactically at his system information display as his defense fire control team began picking off ShipKillers. The occasional whang of a counter missile strike or a near miss was annoying, but more annoying still was not being able to tell where they were coming from. The missiles launched from the belt were not yet in range. So evidently the Triocats had some small stealthed counter missile platforms scattered out here but, why? His system scanning sensor team was just beginning to ID the ShipKiller platforms as the feed from the spy ship began to arrive and then the command deck was in full chaos mode.

“Sir, the two initial ships were the Ryman G-2M’s Gethsemane and Masada, they have been joined by an unknown G-4 with supporting fire from orbital and planetary support. Both ships our G-2’s are returning fire but, their ShipKillers are being intercepted far before anything from the Rymans detected or from the planet could reach them.”

“Well that goes along with the counter missile hits we are taking; they must have small launcher platforms scattered everywhere. Is that old G-1 still running for the limit?”

“About as fast as they are able it seems. We could intercept it Sir!”

“No, let’s see what is going on here. We have no data on the Rymans in a fleet operation so we need good intelligence and we need it Now!”

The bridge hummed along as Hammad flicked his smaller view screen to the data stream from the spy ship; it did not take long for his blood to run cold. This was not a probe by the Rymans and Triocats, his force was now the only Caliphate presence in this Allah forsaken system. The signals received earlier had all been faked. Thus this was no raid or holding action, the Ryman (and he had no doubt it was a Ryman) commander in this system intended to destroy his force. Just has he had that thought two more ships appeared on the system scan screen.

Two new G-4’s have shown up from nothing. They had been holding silent in power down and hide. One was behind and one below the Mesopotamia and they were making all effort to close to engagement range.

Hammad kept staring at the screen and all the while his mind raced. Born with no connections of family or money, he had gotten where he was by competence and luck. Now he knew he had made a mistake, taken too much for granted and luck had run away. He had allowed the arrogance of command to creep in and color his judgment and this damn Ryman setup had him mouse trapped.

“Go back and plot the course of that G-1, then set a course to get behind her as quickly as possible. Do not attempt to close on the vessel; just put us in her wake. We shall deal with here in time.”

The nav officer set about his duties, doing as he was told. The Mesopotamia, surging along its new course was soon involved in the deadly work of fending off ShipKillers while still suffering the occasional bite of a too late lock on a counter missile surprise. The gnat stings were piling up as two of their own defensive launchers were down due to damage. With the ship tracking behind lumbering G-1 the nav officer stared at his commander and his displeasure turned to horror was plain on his face. Then a new beep and flashing light and their eyes went to the tactical screen recording the death of the Caliphate transport Islamabad.

Hammad was just getting ready to say something in mitigation when the screen showed the death of the Khartoum in a blaze of thermonuclear fire as well. Changing what he had been about to say he spoke curtly, his look at odds with his tone, “The one place in this system where we can now most certainly minimize exposure to these gnat stings is right where we are in the alley they left open for their own commercial shipping lane. We intend to run up that pipe and take out that G-1 as a bonus. My only regret is there is nothing we can do to stop them from capturing our tanker— that is going to keep this system in play.”

Seven hours later they were firmly on the track of the G-1 and closing rapidly. The constant chipping away of counter missiles had ended but three of their forward defensive launchers had paid the price before they had run clear. All total they were down five of those precious tools but were headed out system with only an old, slow, unarmed G-1 in their path. They ran like this for several more hours until the Captain decided it was time to launch on the G-1, then came their next surprise. Just as they were beginning to fire another G-4 suddenly popped into view, revealed first by energy sensors. Just off the track of the G-1 it was beginning to move across that ship’s back course and opening firing with long range ShipKillers.

Captain Hammad Musharack stared at the screen like it had taken on the aspect of a monster from his worst nightmare. Where were these ships coming from? The Confederation had to be involved in this; there was no way the Rymans could have so many warships. His voice rang out “Fire every thing we have, a full salvos at the G-1 then shift to the G-4. We blow the civilian and escape out through the debris cloud.”

The only somewhat confident Calp commander was plotting his next move when he looked up and realized that there was a hole in his defensive fire screen. One caused by those missing forward defensive missiles. His own missiles were still going out and he had thirty seconds to curse before the two nearest ShipKillers detonated and blotted him and his ship from the universe.

On the command deck of the Lady of Spain all was panic as they watched the spread of Calp launched ShipKillers headed their way. Then the comm channel came alive.

Lady? — Varangian here. We will intercept. Get over the limit and get out of here.”

Thad Griffith the Master of the Lady of Spain watched in horror as the Varangian closed his back course until she was dead astern, counter missiles pouring out in clouds. They even managed to hit one ShipKiller with another ShipKiller. Their energy and electronic signatures changed as the range closed, becoming an exact clone of the Lady only stronger as they kept sending every bit of fire that they could manage. As the counter missiles and ShipKillers flew Thad felt hope that they might pull it off. Right up until the blast from three Calp ShipKillers enveloped the Varangian in a cancerous boil of energy.

Except for debris the Lady of Spain was alone in space now. Thad stared at the screen with a growling sick feeling that was wracking his guts. After a few moments he turned to Dave Eckles and spoke, “Dave remind me to never ever doubt the word of a Ryman again, and you heard the man. Send departure to Triocat then get us out of here!”