A Point of Honor 6

A Point of Honor
Chapter 6 Draft (04/29/09)

In a way this was a repeat of the drop on Marais, but on a far lager scale with much more at stake. No—it was more like the Card’s second drop on Sylvan, but the defenders would suspect they were coming this time; they just wouldn’t know where.

Alaraf (Old Earth Arabian for ‘The Heights’) was a Class 2 planet on the other side of the Caliphate’s central hub from Cardoman and Llanfairn. Settled at the tail end of the second expansion, centrally located to a dozen other Caliphate worlds and within easy reach of twice again as many Confederacy and Indie planets; over time it became the main transportation hub for the surrounding volume.

Sparsely populated, only 20 million in total and without a lot of room to grow; very little agriculture outside of vine and fruit crops; volcanic and mountainous to the extreme so arable land was at a premium. Those not involved in agriculture or the shipping trade, and they were the majority, were miners and foundry workers. Another small segment worked to make or service the industrial equipment that was needed to keep the mines running. The last easily identifiable class consisted of vintners, large and small, who converted much of the fruit crop into some of the best wine and spirits produced anywhere in human occupied space.

Along with its K6 star for a primary the Alaraf system contained a single close in gas giant and no planets beyond. It did boast a couple of small stony asteroids and an average number of comets far beyond the hyper limit but nothing more of interest. Smaller star, low total planetary mass; this meant the systems hyperlimit was just forty minutes out instead of the much more common hour or more; a definite advantage for a fueling station and trading base.

The colonized planet, Alaraf Prime, was a bit smaller than Cardoman or Earth with a surface gravity of .91 G. The atmospheric gases and pressure were similar to what one would find at 2400 meters on either of the other two. Land area was about 50% of the total surface with a quarter of that arable, a little less, say 20% high desert, and the rest mountainous some with year round snow covered peaks and the typical ice covered polar areas.

The Caliphate manned system defense force consisted of one older G-2 M and a fleet of four picket ships for customs duty. Far away from the recent ship actions, and in the grand scheme of things, not all that important economically, Alaraf was not outwardly affected by the approaching war. This situation was about to change due to decisions made on Novi and Llanfairn three months earlier.

* * *
Jamie Madry did not know President Horvath well at all. She had met him a few times, said a few words, and returned to her less lofty station in life. She was extremely glad to have Clayton Grayson here with her here and now, presenting the Major’s position and running the operation. Grayson had been smuggled off of Cardoman and arrived at Novi only a week ago.

Jamie still ran the Navy but Grayson was taking over the Cardoman out system land forces and in the Novi System for now at least the responsibility for military liaison with the Confederacy and the other Indies. Jamie would have the second of those jobs again after Clayton left for Alaraf.

Horvath was an amiable man and a skilled negotiator, surviving in Cardoman politics made that inevitable. But he was totally out of his depth when it came to military strategy. Thankfully he was aware of that fact and left the details to others, his presence to confer legitimacy on the decisions that she, Grayson, and Raquel Zavala had already made and those they were finalizing.

“So summing it up,” Colonel Grayson began, “The Widow’s Walk with our landers and a bit of heavy equipment and Captain Gump and the Eagle with 250 drop pods aboard are already on their way. Major Zavala and I will follow in about a month on the SnapDragon. We will rendezvous here,” he pointed to a class M star five light years away from Alaraf, and then as a unit jump to within a few light days of the system. At that point we get all our navigational details in agreement and go for Alaraf’s hyperlimit timing things so we all arrive at the same time. If we find the defenses as we expect we continue inwards and make our landing. If not we jump back with our collective tails between our legs.”

“Assuming we land,” Zavala said, “we finish things as fast as humanly possible and get out of Dodge.”

“Get out of Dodge?” Horvath asked looking puzzled.

“We get off planet and out of the system as fast as possible Sir.”

“An important point,” Jamie added. “There is every reason to suspect the Calps are going to realize they need to station more ships on a permanent basis at all their colony worlds, not just the ones on this side of their sphere where up till now all the fighting has been going on. What I particularly like about this plan is that even if they beat us to the punch and have more ships at Alaraf than we can deal with, our mere presence will cause them to defend systems we haven’t the intention or even the means of attacking right now.”

“I can see that,” Horvath said, “It gives them fewer ships to send at us and it starts costing some real money. Maybe even enough that their general economy starts to feel the pinch. Well of course you have my go ahead and Novi’s as well. Jamie, how about calling your steward and we can toast to success?”

At that very moment her conference room door opened and a man came in carrying a tray with all of the necessaries.

The next month was spent practicing the mission critiquing the results and doing it all over again. Almost every drop pod available had been sent on the Widow. The teams used training pods in their mock attacks. The trainers came in much faster and ablatives streaking from the heat shields lit the skies over Novi, bright enough to stand out even in daylight though most landed at night creating an even more spectacular view.

Shuttle and lander pilots did their own training equally as intense and spectacular visually. A month later the troops were loaded onto the SnapDragon and they transitioned out for their run to the first rendezvous.

“Two, One, Transition In!” A dim M class star was a long way off. It blended in with the starry background and needed to be highlighted on the ship’s display in order to stand out. The Eagle and Widows Walk had made no attempt at hiding their emissions and so a long way off they were both were detected at once.

“Not a good jump at all, fifty-seven lighthours from the limit.” Vernor Matson, the ship’s Captain said to his First Officer Emma Debus.

“I completely agree Captain, but of course that’s why we did it this way. As soon as we are ready we can see about another jump. Better that than take the time for a normal space hookup.”

Fifteen minutes later they had their data and another jump programmed in. This time the came out a few light seconds away from the two transports and signals started flying.

“This is how we are going to do this,” Grayson said; he was on the Widow with the officers most affected. “The Dragon will jump to about three light hours of Alaraf and scan the system, then return with good navigational data. If she detects no problems we will use her data and all three of us immediately jump again right up against the limit then we head towards the planet. Until we get close we stay together with the Dragon taking out any targets of opportunity.”

“Once we are close enough to ensure we can make orbit Captain Matson becomes responsible for dealing with any Caliphate warships, the Eagle stays as our close in guard against a system picket attack. Rafe — why don’t you take it from here?”

“Thank you Colonel.” and Zavala described the next stage of the mission.

“Two, one. Transition in.” The Dragon came in first and Alaraf’s primary was right where she was supposed to be. Forty-one light minutes dead ahead. Scarce thirty seconds later the Widow appeared and eight seconds later the Eagle. The comps were digesting the sensor data but no changes from the scouting run just over an hour ago were detected. The three ship squadron was well in front of the Dragon’s first grav pulse and Alaraf with the one major ship defending it would not know they had arrived and were on their way inwards for another half an hour.

Held to the 15 G maximum acceleration of the Widow they were a shade over thirty-five hours from Alaraf orbit. They made course, accelerating inwards at once. The lone Calp G-3 military ship in the system was out by the gas giant watching a merchant G-2 in the process of refueling. They kept her in sight and seventy minutes later the Dragon’s sensors and readouts showed her vectoring towards the three ship squadron. In orbit around Alaraf was another merchant. It would likely be running soon.

“Run an intercept on the merchant. See if we can get enough delta-v generated to send a couple of shuttles to grab her before she reaches the limit.”

A few minutes later Lt. Fitzgerald, the Dragon’s Second Officer, reported back saying, “We can do that Captain so long as the G-3 does not follow her out as an escort. But if she dose we can modify our own course and grab the one fueling at the gas giant unless she gets underway within a couple of hours. That’s not likely because her reactor is down and dead cold.”

“Alright then, let’s vector towards the gas giant and see what happens.”

On the Caliphate G-3 Battle Cruiser Red Sea, Ship Captain Muntazer al-Zaidi had a problem, one without a solution, but deal with it he must. His ship was in its second of a six month posting at Alaraf. He had no expectation of another military vessel fueling for at least two more weeks. And with only three pickets to help defend the entire system he would only sacrifice his command if he engaged with the ships on his threat board.

The nearest base, his home port Yatagan, was eight days away if he jumped as soon as he could reach the other side of the limit. It would be another eight back even if there were ships ready to sortie. To leave this system and give warning would give the Cardoman ships two entire weeks at a minimum to do whatever they could. Of this at least he was certain; they were Cardoman, their profiles were all in his databank from the last maintenance download.

He couldn’t stand and fight. That would throw away his ship for nothing and leave both of the transports in the system open to capture. All that remained was an intercept at a distance, and to get the best information he could on what their plans were. Yet that was also a waste of time because he could see that they ultimately they were headed for Alaraf and would arrive no mater what he did.

So his choice was — run now or run later, and if he ran now the second guessing would kill his career or worse. At least that had the benefit of saving one of the transports. The Cardoman Dragon couldn’t launch shuttles towards the fueling cargo carrier if the Red Sea was between them and their target. He headed towards the Cardoman ships watching the vector cones on his display. At extreme range a couple of missiles and he was going back to Yatagan cursing the wasted time but at least saving one of the ships he was supposed to be guarding.

Warnings were sent in each direction to no effect. The SnapDragon was an hour ahead of the slower two Cardoman vessels and closing on the Alaraf picket Ghostaffa. She was lying motionless, as far as that could be said for a ship in space, with her crew in life pods and all of her internal power sources shut down.

Just a single hour earlier the Calp Cruiser Red Sea had launched a single salvo of eight ShipKillers and fled for the limit. They had all been intercepted easily and that was that. With the Red Sea running the flight of ten ShipKillers sent from the Dragon were also intercepted. But only just short of burn-out and at a ratio of two to one. Without much offense or defense left the Calp ship modified her vector and left the fray with honor intact, dropping four of her six remaining ShipKillers behind where they would act as mines to insure that should the Dragon try to follow she would have to swing wide or chase slowly and risk being hit by surprise.

“Slap on a beacon, and if we have time we will take her up on the way out.” Captain Matson said.

“And the life pods?” asked the third officer Randy Kreager.

“Drop a shuttle and go pick them up. If you are fast enough you should be able to get them all and still match delta-v with the Widow. We will take you and the shuttle crew back onboard when we make orbit. As soon as you launched leave the launch tube we are going to drop back towards the Widow. Put the gun rooms on alert and on your way aft ask Major Zavala if he might meet me in my day cabin. Then get your men together and be gone.”

Aye, aye, sir!” Kreager said and carried out his orders.

Vernor sent the four shuttles from on the Widow and both of his own to deal with Alaraf’s close in defenses. No sense in risking a capital ship. He lost one shuttle and its crew and another was damaged beyond repair before all orbital resistance ended. There were probably interceptors on the ground but if so the Calps were saving them as a last ditch means for opposing a landing.

Lt. Kreager was piloting SP-170, one of five from a block of shuttles built to launch drop pods that the Widow carried from Novi. He was in low eighty minute orbit a few hundred kilometers outside the atmosphere. Zavala was onboard and sealed in one of the ten pods filling his shuttles cargo bay. The Dragon and the Eagle were a hundred thousand kilometers away from the surface, on opposite sides of the planet giving near complete sensor coverage for this the first drop.

After the Calp G-3 bugged out two shuttles were sent to deal with the fueling station and another two went charging out on an intercept of the Calp transport that had finally left orbit but far too late to evade destruction or capture. A message had already been sent ahead that if the ships crew bailed the shuttles would blow her out of space and turn at once for Alaraf. That was not true, they would pickup any survivors first but the Calp ship’s crew couldn’t know that. To them it would seem like the obvious move. Time would show just how much they were willing to sacrifice in a losing battle.

The Calps operating the planets orbital station had sent both of her large landers down so there might still be taken intact. That was a small part of Zavala’s mission. The first thing was to knock out the home guard command and control net and lay waste to the missile batteries that could interfere with the large landers onboard the Widow.

“You ready Rafe?” Kreager asked of the landing force commander sealed in his two meter cocoon.

“As we’ll ever be. Drop us close Randy, I don’t fancy a jaunt in the dark on a strange planet.”

“I’ll put you in the room; it’s your job to slip under the covers.” Lt. Kreager armed the auto launch sequencer and followed the cross hairs and they swept towards the IP. He felt the thump, thump, thump. One for each of the ten pods as they were ejected with a cross vector and dropped astern and then waited for the other four shuttles to signal that their pods were away as well. He was on the other side of the planet, the sunward side, boosting towards the Eagle and another load of ten by the time Zavala and the first fifty hit atmosphere.

More buffeting then was quite right; the pods tendrils were streaming behind slowing the drop and imparting more cross trajectory than they were designed for. That when combined with the impetus from the launch tube would take the pods outside of the track that might otherwise be expected. And the Calps should not be able to see them in any event. The pods stealthing was that good.

He kept track of the simulation showing his and the rest of the teams path and listened to the encoded broadcast the Dragon was sending. Nothing new to worry about yet, but then he really didn’t need any more. His countdown timer hit zero and the pod split apart ejecting him at 8,000 meters. On Alaraf the air was very thin this high. Zavala checked now, and located forty-six of the other pods while he fell another 3,000 meters before feeling the jerk as his drogue pulled out the rest of the chute.

Nothing to show they had been seen, five kilometers up and five away from the secondary spaceport and mine complex that was his aim point. Their scans from orbit, complimenting the mission planning intelligence, indicated the presence of about five hundred off planet Calp troops and perhaps half again as many lightly armed locals of the planetary reserves who were more like police than soldiers. Fifteen to one against until the second wave. He had his work cut out and muttered under his breath, ‘If I wasn’t a gunner I wouldn’t be here,’ while continuing to concentrate on the IP.

Too close and too slow; the Calp sensors picked them up but the analysis software took them for a flock of migrating birds as they drew ever closer. The operator who should have made an overcall was too tired from forty hours of near constant watch, two shits on and a half shift off, to see what was plain in front of him. Migrating birds don’t appear out of nowhere and then drop straight towards a mining complex and spaceport.

Zavala was still a thousand meters above ground level when the dozen KE penetrators streaked past. They were aimed at the military barracks and the communications blockhouse at one edge of the spaceport, staying away from purely civilian areas, the processing facilities, the spaceport maintenance areas, and the several mineshaft entrances the closest of which was more than a kilometer outside of the city proper. With luck half of the defenders would be history by the time they reached ground.

The final minute of the descent seemed to drag on and on while Zavala checked his men and. his landing spot by light from fires burning caused by the initial penetrator strikes. But sixty seconds later he was on the ground and at the base of the spaceport control tower its security station destroyed by shoulder fired missiles from his still airborne troops. He had another nineteen men with him. And the rest of the landing force, all but the missing three, were touching down at the southernmost mine entrance.

Communication over the Calp military net was disorganized, a sketchy panic had set in for as long as it might last. All of the traffic was asking what was happening and none of it giving any kind of orders concerning what to do in response to the attack.

Zavala hung back as gas grenades were hurled through the towers blasted doorway followed by two assault squads storming inside. He saw the stabilized view of the lead sergeant’s camera as the teams went from room to room and floor to floor until the building was clear. Only five night shift workers were on duty and three were still alive herded out of the building and given a new design one time skin content aerosol regulated to put them to sleep for the next four hours. No worry about over-spray; the Cardoman troops had taken the antidote.

“Gerber, Baumgarden—take your men and secure the maintenance and storage areas. VerHorst, you have the perimeter.” As his three team-leaders went about their business Zavala divided his time between the group in the process of storming the mining complex and finding a doing a visual survey of the spaceports facilities, taking the time till reinforcements could arrive to try and determine what would be worth carting away with them when they pulled out.

The fight at the mine lasted longer and cost the lives of three men killed inside the mountain when they were trapped in a tunnel following the main vein. One that had already been set with explosives to loosen up ore and make it accessible. Five more were wounded at the foundry, one with serious burns. A shuttle set down to evacuate the wounded and one of the Widow’s large landing craft put down at the spaceport where riggers, as fast as possible, began emptying the buildings of equipment and supplies. The small local police force was notable for its absence.

“Close enough,” Vern Matson said to Cmdr. Debus when the Dragon was three diameters out and the Widow in their shadow. “Too close actually, but we have to keep the shuttles and landers transit times down. When the Calps figure out how few of us are down there and get the word out we will need to evacuate or be overrun by civilian mobs. Keep targeting anything that looks dangerous.”

A tactical part of the plan was to make all of the landings where they hoped to capture and remove equipment, ‘might as well call it loot,’ Zavala thought, on the same side of the planet. But have their shuttles work over both hemispheres and make hit and run landings in some of the important areas on the other side to keep the defenders off balance. A second part was to be away by the time what they were up to became obvious.

The Dragon and the Eagle’s marines were on the planet now, fighting alongside of Zavala’s men. The squadrons shuttles were picking up the troops that had dropped by pod in order maintain surprise to the last moment and more easily destroy key components of Alaraf’s productive capability. So far he hadn’t lost one of the assault craft.

As that thought crossed his mind Captain Matson saw one of the green icons on his screen turn to red. “Damn! Fitzgerald!—Take out that launch site! Kreager get down there and handle the pick-up.” In another hour he wanted everyone off the planet and back aboard their ships.

Tun after tun, large barrels of Alaraf’s finest were being stowed on the second of the Widow’s two landers. In her hold and covered with cargo netting was a large part of the planet’s next year export. It would age just as well off planet as on and was much easier to remove than the winery processing equipment which had already been destroyed.

Carl Pilchard was in charge of the Dragon’s marines responsible for guarding the warehouse and those at this end handling the loading of barrels being put onto haulers for the short trip to the spaceport landing and takeoff area.

He was checking to see how long before the lorry would return for a final load when one of the two men he had watching the even shorter road from town commed him saying, “Sarge, that group that was building on the road a couple of hundred meters out is starting towards us now and I can hear them plain; they don’t sound too happy.”

“Drop a flare right over their heads and a couple of gas grenades in front. Let them know we see them.” Technically Pilchard was the SnapDragon’s Boss’n but considering the situation he wasn’t going to take time to correct the two young marines guarding the buildings other end.

Ten seconds later a brilliant blue/white sun appeared over the road followed by a dark stream of smoke low to the ground in front of the nearing mob. The irritant was being blown crosswise to the side as quickly as it was generated. “Wind’s against us that didn’t even slow them down.”

“How are they armed?” Pilchard was running down the warehouses long central corridor towards the city end of the building to look for himself.

“You wont believe this Sarge, except for a few at the back with rifles herding the rest on they got nothing but pitchforks and shovels, axes and other farming tools. The gas ain’t gonna work. HE or an air strike is what we need.”

Carl came through the opening uncovered by the large overhead door at the buildings end and triggered his visor. Not because of a lack of light, plenty of that, but for the additional magnification it provided. He saw several hundred angry townsmen of all ages, about thirty seconds away if they decided to break into a run. “Let’s get outta’ here, I got no stomach for a massacre.”

Once inside the warehouse Pilchard triggered the overhead door back down and the three men went running full speed towards the buildings spaceport end tossing incendiaries over their shoulders as they fled. They left the door at the buildings portside end open for a better draft and kept running for the landing field. Pilchard called ahead and told the crew of the lander to get buttoned up and ready to go. Then he had all he could handle as he tried to keep pace with the younger, better trained, marines.

The three ships were heading out now, with only the Calp picket to retrieve and stow in the Widow’s cavernous cargo bay prior to the run to the limit and their transition back to Novi. They had done pretty much all they intended and the casualty list was smaller than the best pre-mission estimate. Clay Grayson had Zavala’s preliminary action report digested, and though he still hurt for each loss, as did they all, it could have been much, much, worse.

Zavala was a strange one. Clayton expected him to be happy, overjoyed even, but instead he showed almost no emotion, making a point of talking to his wounded daily and interviewing each of his team leaders; building a complete picture of what whet right and what went wrong. Zavala might have a reputation as a pirate and a rake, but he was a very professional soldier as well.

Besides the material spoils of victory, captured weapons and of course that lovely wine, they were bringing back a few dozen prisoners. The prisoners were already being questioned but he didn’t expect interrogation to reveal much. They had captured no one with the kind of rank likely to know anything beyond their own orders and the low level functioning of their particular jobs. That and personal feelings about the war. It was always a good idea to know about enemy morale.

All in all a nice piece of work; not so much for the value of what they were bringing back, but for what it would cost the Caliphate to protect against any similar raids in the future.

Vern Matson could appreciate the strategic success but there was one more thing this raid had accomplished. One very important to his own sense of being. It was certain he had washed clean from his ship any hint of a stain, any reason to doubt her crew, anything that might remain due to questions about the fleet action at Cardoman, when Roger Langston had been the Dragon’s Captain.