A Very Blue Moon 14

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 14 Draft (01-11-11)

It was six or eight years ago when James Phillips lost track of the number of times he had traveled from a planets surface to a station above and then made a long distance trip in the Confederation’s interest. Usually at the request of the Confederation President, often because it was something he felt needed doing, With the fastest travel time between close together habital worlds two weeks and the average closer to two month on the fasted commercial ship—those he most frequently used—it still must be approaching triple digits.

Twenty-one years working for Confederation Intelligence and he had not much to show for it, He had money enough to retire at anytime he chose, enough to live out the rest of his life in relative comfort, but precious few friends, none close.

He even knew of a planet or two that wouldn’t suffer much if at all should the Calps win this thing and take home all the marbles. There were still a few worlds inside the Caliphate where a man could live well without any questions asked so long as the money was there.

So why did he do this? Why go out again with a less than equal chance of coming back life intact?” He wished he knew. But like an automaton wound-up, he had to keep moving and testing his limits. This trip to Bab al-Maqam would surely do that.

Not normally affable, long practice let him take on the role that any situation required. This new one, as a salesman for Ryman Electro-Optics would be a variation on a thyme and was going to test his ability to the limit. He seldom did sales technical types, it had been a dozen years, cutthroat upper management was his bread and butter. He didn’t worry about that, it either worked or it didn’t. He was far more concerned with how Ryman tech spec al-Mahari would handle himself. That was where the real danger lay, and where the opportunity might exist.

First thing was usually changing the name to get someone used to playing the game. In Robert’s case he decided to skip that step. The tech Sgt wasn’t going to make a career out of this after all and the Calps could mix and match records as much as the wanted without finding anything suspicious, Robert and al-Mahari were too common both alone and in combination to put this particular incarnation into Ryman’s military service. And it would be one less thing for a neophyte to keep straight.

It was night and dark inside the departure terminal, the arched overhead leading to the boarding area was lit with a violet almost pink tint. Some held that color reduced anxiety and calmed ones nerves. Phillips just found in garish and annoying, On a Caliphate world you’d never see it’s like. One point in their favor.

With the help of Petrocelli he had all the necessaries to prove he was from Ryman, the right things in his traveling bag, from small pouches of the local dried fruit and breath mints, all the way to novels popular on the planet as recently as two months ago. Cardoman Intel, using a genuine travel document supplied by Petrocelli made copies so exact that they were indistinguishable from an original. The Company Id’s wire trivial in comparison. His name was Philip James this time around, very easy to remember. That kind of detail was absolutely necessary if this was to work.

Phillips was good, very good, with accents, and had done Ryman before, Robert, to his trained ear, sounded a bit off, but the Calps would have records of regional dialects and the non standard pronunciation would add to the disguise rather than take anything away. There had been enough immigration from the Caliphate to Ryman over the years his Arabic origins and the fact he spoke the language, though not in the frozen Caliphate dialect would seem normal, add to the realism. All he needed to do with al-Mahari was keep him from talking too much lest he bring up something only someone in the military would know or speak about, He needed to be a ground based tech support guy, not someone on leave from a job in the navy.

It would have been nice to continue on in the Beagle for a while but she had other things to do. And as good as she was, the risk of discovery at a Caliphate world would be more than he would tolerate with everything else so close to the edge. They would board a G-2 about to leave for Frissia then into the Caliphate. With luck it wouldn’t take long for the invite to Maqam where he could show his wares. From that point timing became critical and the main obstacle to success—so long as success didn’t include getting out at the end. And that was again another story.

Reaching the end of the passage they walked the last two hundred meters across the tarmac with about twenty others to the landing shuttle’s ramp. Their carry on gear was stowed and belted in by officious cabin stewards they felt only a slight lurch and a very slight increase in weight on liftoff for Cardoman High.

The ground to station transfer vehicle was larger than the military shuttles that needed to fit in the smaller docking bays of warships and smaller than the giant winged landers that brought down from orbit ores, refined metals and oversize cargo. She fit easily inside the stations passenger dock. There had been a security check below so no customs up here. That would be required only once before leaving the system.

They had almost five hours to wait before their ship would start boarding and Robert had figured to spend them with some friends from the Beagle. “Not on your life.” Phillips told him, “And it could come to that if anyone is taking notes. No contact with anyone from your ship. If you see someone from Ryman even at a distance you turn and go in the other direction. From this point on your cover is complete.”

Not looking too discomforted Robert said, “Where to then Phil?”
“I hear the Christian Science Reading Room is open 24 hours a day.”

It didn’t come to that because into the passenger lounge came a shortish dark haired woman in her twenties with a lanky youth in tow who looked to be just out of his teens, “Captain Madry,” she almost ran towards them while introducing herself, “and this here is Lt, Borselov, Yuri to his friends who you Robert could become number two. James and I have met.”

“Good morning Captain Madry,” Phillips said, “I see the pills have already settled you down for the day.”

“Only till lunch but you will be on your way by then and I,” she paused then said, “haven’t planned that far ahead.”

All four of them, trailing in line behind Madry, were soon admitted through a side hatchway into a small chamber and then the Cardoman military part of the station. The guard on the final door saluted but required no ID from any of them; Phillips was certain this could not have been standard procedure. Madry must have prepared this in advance.

Moving rapidly down a door and windowless corridor Madry said over her shoulder, “Jack Trebeck has some sales types who will work with you on you pitch James while Yuri takes Robert and explains every thing we know about the system you are selling and how best to sabotage it. It should be an interesting morning for both of you,” She finished her sentence just as they came to a stop at an intersecting passage.

She led Phillips in one direction and Yuri and Robert went in the other.

Yuri paused in front of a hatch on the sidewall and must have been scanned in some way or another because the door slid aside and they both entered. Beyond the hatchway was a room a dozen meters on a side and twice as tall. Filling it almost completely was an optical signal scope very similar to the type used for ground to ship communications.

“This isn’t exactly what you will find on Maqam, but close, very close for such short notice.”

There was a white suited technician twice Yuri’s age fitting a unit with a complicated maze of tube type plumbing onto the bottom of a machine, now horizontal but capable of pointing to the bottom of the scope unit.

“Sgt Fromm is hooking up a pumped gas laser guide to replace the static device ground based communicators normally use. On a station like this, out of an atmosphere, that would be a waste of space. But put it on a planet due to stability and the utter lack of concern for replacement parts or energy use, it gives speed and control that nothing else can match. That’s what Ryman Guide Star has been selling the Caliphate and what they are shipping to al-Maqam.”

“What you are going to do is learn to change the plumbing just enough to cause it to turn upon itself and explode rather than work with the scope, Naturally we have reduced the gas concentration and energy level in this unit so that it only goes beep instead of bang, At least that’s the theory. Captain Madry and I have only had a couple of days to study the plans for one but we are quite confident. So confident in fact, that I will go first. While Fromm finishes up take a look at the specs and diagrams over here,” Yuri took him to a wall display, “and I will be back shortly.”

Yuri left the room and Robert started scanning the color coded documents.

Forty minutes later Yuri was back and Fromm was gone, taking his tools with him.

“The tubes are flexible with snap fittings, they shouldn’t have been designed to be interchangeable but even Ryman Engineering can make a mistake. Let’s see how long it takes. Set a timer Bob.”

Yuri crouched below the laser unit and said, “Go!” His hands seemed to glide effortlessly as he switched one tube for another in a sequence that Robert knew was crucial if they were to get the thing to detonate. A short while later there was a pinging sound and Yuri said, “Done! What’s my time?”

“Three minutes thirty-seven seconds.”
“Too long,” Yuri grimaced, “Let me try it again now that I know what I am doing.”

This time he was under three minutes.

“Ok that’s the benchmark. See how much you can beat it by. But remember, each step in exact order, any mistake and you have blown the mission and killed a couple of dozen marines. Not to mention you, Phillips, and possibly the crew of a ship in space.”

The first time Robert took six minutes and blew everyone up. The second was over seven but they lived to talk about it. An hour after that he was in the low fours and starting to hit his stride, By the time they were finished he was under three and besting Yuri’s time two out of three.

“Good enough,” Yuri said. You can take the diagrams with you and practice the motions on ship till you can do them in the dark, you may have to. But not the color codes and instructions. You’re there to install the thing not to blow it up. Let’s call Fromm back to remove this thing and get it turned back over to the Navy, then we go see Audie and give her the word.”

Robert shook his hands wringing out the strain. “I wish you were coming along with me for this,” Robert said wistfully.

“But I am,” Yuri replied, “The only thing is I’ll be on the ground with the rest of the Seventh clean-up squad.”

Phillips knew the drill but he still found it odd to hear people refer to Calvert as the “General” in public and the “Major” in private. He and Audie were seated in the O-Club bar overlooking one of the outside berthing spaces when Yuri and al-Muhari strolled in.

Phillips, a nominal teetotaler, though not a fanatic on the subject, was drinking soda water with a twist, Audie had a local station beer and one on the way for Yuri, Robert said that would be fine for him as well.

“Still another hour before you board, and I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if Yuri wasn’t satisfied so drink up. Last chance on the Cardoman Navy.”

Robert’s drink was served and he downed a third of it with his first gulp. Luther White, recently arrived on station, smiled in approval. He then reached into his pocket and took out two data cubes, giving one to Phillips and one to al-Mahari. Looking at the printed title Phillips frowned and Robert smiled.

“Not what you think it is,” Luther said. “They’re commercial grade fading memory alright, expire in a week and not even God could get anything off of them afterwards. We put together, General Davis and I, everything we could from the stuff Speedway brought back. And we sketched out how we hope this thing will work on the ground. There are a couple of ways you might be able to get us a message once we are down, nothing certain and not likely. If you can, all the better. If not we have to run this like a machine. Push the button and watch it go. Study and memorize because it all this disappears in a week. Don’t even bother to dispose of the empty cubes. Calp security is used to seeing dated commercial porn, it will only add to your cover.”

“You’re teaching your grandmother to suck eggs,” Phillips said, pulling a handful of cubes from his own jacket pocket. “Some of these will still be live when we arrive, give the customs team something to look at besides us.”

Three hours later Phillips and al-Mahari were underway, thirty-two hours from their scheduled jump, and Luther White was back on the ground at Camp Logan reacquainting, and in some cases introducing himself, to his newly formed combat group.

Luther’s story was peculiar even in an outfit like the Seventh. And there truly was no other outfit like the Seventh. After serving with the Major on Ophia, when military credentialism took a back seat to experience, this was before they were adopted into the Cardoman service — when they did make it to Cardoman, instead of taking his automatic bump to Sgt and a life of ease, he elected to go to infantry school, filling in some of the gaps in his experience with pieces of theory. Nothing wrong with theory when it worked.

Upon graduation the Major had pulled him back from the regulars and put him in charge of the marine detachment and security at Castle Calvert, the Major’s new home and maybe the most important military target on the planet, The wisdom of that move was proven during the Calp occupation of Cardoman so recently ended. All the while Luther had wanted one more taste of the front. It was an acquired taste, but one of such intensity that in White’s case as in many, Robbie Davis came immediately to mind, it never faded.

* * *
“This is the way it’s going to work Luther,” Raquel Zavala said to his command Sgt. “Once we get to the surface I give the orders, Yuri babysits the missiles and you do all the work. You run things while I nod my head. I’m along for two things only. First and foremost to help Yuri and make sure we hit our target times and the second is to take the blame if anything goes wrong. Your job is to see that doesn’t happen.”

They were runnin’ the hills behind Camp Logan again. Tomorrow Yuri and the six volunteers who had never made a drop before would be up at Cardoman High getting ready to rectify that situation. Simulations were cheap, drop pods expensive—and always in short supply. One person in ten froze on his first drop, and there was no way to predict who that one might be.

A major criteria for selection to this team was drop experience but even with the entire army to chose from, those in system at least, there weren’t eighteen suitable candidates. They would drop with sixteen but would train with two extra and wish they had been able to train with more. They were cutting things much too fine for a baptism under fire.

Today they were sweating under twice the normal load. On al-Maqam they would shed a third of that but make up for it by the even higher expected temperatures. Besides the normal load-out each carried a cylinder fifteen centimeters in diameter and almost a meter long filled with sand. They represented the disassembled missile tubes and warheads they would be taking from their drop point to within range of the Caliphate comm center, Try as they might there was no way to harness the load to make it ride like a back pack. At least while they had to carry their backpacks at the same time.

Raquel was getting used to the medical alarms from overheated marines going off one at a time. When they started sounding in twos and threes he had a decision to make. “This isn’t going to work Luther. We are going to need to travel at night to stand a chance. Two or three days like this and not a man will be mobile. It’s another problem but the only way. Well run the drop tomorrow at night and take it from there. Finish up and give everyone the rest of the day off. No point in killing them early.”

“Last hill and we can all run home,” Luther shouted out, hating himself for it.

Seated in a jump seat inside the shuttle’s cargo compartment the jump master heard a whump, whump, whump, repeated seven times as the pod’s loaded and then fired at five second intervals, Inside the pod there was just a high G kick in the back then silence.

Yuri had done this before but someone needed to see if you could manage a chute with the extra encumbrance of half a ground launch missile and still survive landing. Yuri was elected. Spinning wildly, out of control as he neared the ground, he wished he’d declined the nomination. Dangling below him the simulated missile casing was swinging uncontrollably. Yuri cut the strap and as it dropped away regained control.

It was a normal drop in most all aspects, velocity was shed, the pod’s split, and they were on their chutes two thousand meters above the surface. Those troops lucky enough to skip the orbital part of the exercise jumped on command from a pair of shuttles at 10,000 meters. Care was taken to insure the drop area wouldn’t be too crowded. Part of this was to see how well they could form up in the dark.

About half of those jumping from the atmosphere bound shuttles were able to recover somewhat from the spin and land without shedding the missile tube. Franklin broke his leg in the attempt and even quick heal couldn’t get the break mended to 100% strength and muscle tissue restored completely in the time remaining before the drop. He would go along anyway, a reward for his missile body surviving the drop even if he hadn’t. Franklin could recuperate on the way and help in the squad’s maintenance and administrative duties, which even on a mission never ended completely.

That left only one of the original eighteen as a trained replacement for the sixteen actual jumpers, and that was how it would be, no time for anything else.

Gathering up the jettisoned missile bodies took some time as did collecting all the troops in the drop zone to one spot. Real missile drives would have been inoperable and real warheads need the services of an armorer just to determine how much damage was done. With Zavala watching but saying nothing, under White’s command they strapped on the dummy dead weight and the rest of their gear and marched into the night.

“What happens if we get down and this Feddie Spook and the Ryman Tech Guy aren’t there to greet us?” Lassiter asked glumly.

“Why in that case Lester, as the Major once told me, we’ll all make history! They’ll be writing about us and devotion to duty in a lost cause for a thousand years!”

“Yeah, Gives ya something to look forwards to doesn’t it?” Lassiter said brightening up.

Hitting Camp Logan in the morning they were given orders to be ready for a trip upstairs at zero nine hundred.

Speedway was there with the Raymond in a parking orbit that for now had her fifty kilometers astern and above the station. Two hours in the low gravity section and then the quickest of medicals, just enough to see that everyone had was able to adjust normally to rapidly fluctuating weight conditions and they boarded station shuttles for the trip to the Ray. The two the Ray possessed for her own use had already been replaced by pod launchers. The same basic design but with out enough space left over for eight and their supplies unless they were encased in the drop already. The shipyard had somehow packed in another empty pod on each ship and the fit was so tight that they would load one at a time before the modified drop shuttle could launch.

Typical military maneuver, they stowed their gear and were ordered back to the station. The Ray needed another two days of updates to various subsystems and software before they could head out.

Luther gave them the run of the station with the exception of any participation zero grav workout or contact sport, especially those that used pads and the like for protection. An accidental injury at this point would jeopardize the mission.

Jamie Madry, Speedway, Audie, Jack Trebeck of P&I and Jubal Reeves of R&D had time for a final drink before while the Raymond came in close to dock before departure. On a table of organization Trebeck would have been listed as Reeves superior, R&D a subcategory of P&I which encompassed both the Plans and Intentions of Cardoman and the Caliphate.

Above Trebeck, with responsibility for the big picture and some of the same type of planning, there was only Calvert, sometimes Jamie Madry, and a couple of members of Calvert’s personal staff. Those kinds of details were easy to miss when one saw these people interact. One of Wesley’s maxims was that in the perfect organization, the person who needed the information and knew what to do with it headed the food chain. It was never that clean in practice but they did work at it.

“The basic idea for our new software version came from a junior coder working on security modules. He was sick and tired of writing and rewriting to get a little more speed from our time proven system, his idea: Why not get rid of them, or at least all that only communicate between other devices on the same ship? It seems like a stupid idea, but if it’s stupid but it works, it aint’t stupid.” Reeves enjoyed telling stories proving exactly that point and had an earful of them.

“Anyone with the passwords or the smarts to break into the code from onboard and inside has a thousand other ways to ruin a mission or destroy the ship. Keep only the outgoing protocols and we cut the codebase by ten percent and increase the speed by five. And give that coder a more interesting job in his preferred area of research. The Navy is going to love the results. The Perseus has been running the G2 variant for three months with no problems. The Ray gets the first production level version for a G-4. If you need to fight you’ll have the best.”

“When we get back,” Audie said, “I want to meet this guy; I might even try and hire him away from you Jubal, take good care of my baby!”

“Joe,” Jamie Madry said, getting his attention. “Were you glad to learn Audie was going to be going along for the ride giving your Lt Bailey a hand?” Then she added, “But we both know Audie will end up running the department while Bailey takes notes, don’t we?”

“I was at first,” Joe said, “Then I remembered what happened to the Captain of the last ship she was chief engineer on.”

“Never again Joe, Never!” Audie laughed.

Ramping up to max G Joe took in as much from the engineering section of his readouts as time allowed. And that was considerable because Cmdr Durnan had the control seat. Joe watched from the repeater station in his day cabin. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the new software changes, it was just his nature.