A Very Blue Moon 15

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 15 Draft (01-15-11)

The large near planet sized ice covered moon shown bright with detail on his viewscreen as the Admiral Raymond drifted slowly a few dozen kilometers from the surface. Frozen methane, white as snow but much, much, colder, reflected the light from a distant sun, magnifying it beyond all reason.

Highlands and lowlands, all with the same white cover, in the few places neither the stars light nor its reflection could reach, deep blue streaks and pockets of black revealed the nature of the rock and water ice that made up the moon’s core. On the sharply curving horizon a large gas giant anchored the smaller sphere in place. Still further away, showing only as a dot, was Emma Debus and the CNS Wanderlust.

Captain Debus had left Cardoman space three days before the Ray’s own departure. Her ship, Wanderlust, was carrying in her cavernous hold, tanks of liquid helium. Enough to vent off the Raymond completely, and then with enough to spare to vent the ullage into vacuum and reduce the temperature of the remainder to an absolute minimum. The Ray, this far from the primary, a star showing only as a number on their charts, would need to use little of that fuel in making her final transition on the way to Bab al-Maqam.

In a sense this was an extension of the old expression, “Coals to Newcastle.” But there was no fueling station operating at this distant gas giant and there likely never would be. All that gas going to waste. It was a system with a potential only; there wasn’t another large body closer in and nothing to terraform. A clean system without enough of a belt to bring in miners, and digging through the moon below’s icy mantle wasn’t going to happen with more and better choices abounding. Just a number on a chart left to file and forget.

Getting the Raymond’s heat-sink, which was in essence determined by the fuel she carried, as large and cold as possible was the plus side and reason for all of this; heat was the hardest thing to hide from a military detector. Another fine reason, almost sufficient unto itself justifying the stop, was the accurate distance and direction information Debus and her crew had been gathering. That would insure the best entrance for the Ray G-4 into the Calp’s tech worlds system.

And there was yet a third reason. A ship based on Escanaba but under charter to a company on Llanfairn had dropped in with a message saying that the ship Phillips and al-Mahari were supposed to be on did indeed leave on schedule. Whether or not the two operatives were actually on board was still an unknown, but the vessels arrival time to al-Maqam could now be calculated and the mission timing set accordingly, with accuracy if not certainty.

To the fractional second it was, “Two, One, Transition out.”

Even before they were off the screens the Wanderlust was making a course back towards Cardoman where the waiting would continue in earnest.

To the ancients Beta Pictoris, the sun al-Maqam orbited was unusual only in that it held an occupied planet. A few billion years ago, when the system was sorting itself out, there must have been a near collision with a passing neighbor because besides the outer gas giants and dwarfs, comets, and ice balls large and small common to the majority of single star systems only one planet sized object had managed to coalesce in the inner system. That in itself was of only slight interest, many population one stars exhibited a similar structure, there not being enough of the heavier elements in the gas cloud from which they formed.

Population two systems, like the Solar System, and every other with a potentially habitable world usually held asteroid belts as well. But B. Pictoris led the pack when it came to the mass and density, and the physical extent of said belt. Had the original dust cloud formed from the debris of an older smaller first generation star the belt would have been a mining mother load due to the presence and ready availability of elements high up the periodic table. Instead all it had to offer was a barely habitable world barely able to support life of any type before the Calps set up their home for wayward technologists.

The only reason the Calps chose to use it was to avoid wasting a better world on such a project and what amounted to a prison. They already had a prison planet in Marais but were working on long term plans for turning that planet into a more regular colony, adding more slave labor there, from a class with no experience in, nor any of the skills and traditions of working the land seemed a waste of time and potentially talent as well. Praised be his name. Evidently Allah had agreed.

To the crew of the Admiral Raymond the structure of the system presented problems as well as opportunities. The combination was in their more favor it seemed to Captain Speedway and his command team as they studied the holographic display formed from data gathered in their last visit and added to since from what the Feddies had been able to provide.

Three days later, ship’s time, they came into normal space again on the plane of the systems ecliptic, better to hide the grav pulse and the unavoidable heat signature as the ship cut its velocity and shaped a course that would give the shuttles a chance to make their drops unnoticed.

They came out of hyper just as far away as the last time but the plan this time was to skim across the top of the debris field remaining close enough to make detection difficult, and they hoped impossible. This was because any signals leaking from them would be bounced and rebounced and scattered by the systems rocks dust, and ionized gases. The also knew where the Calps out system ships were apt to be located and came in as far from either as the geometry allowed.

They needed in time to come close enough to al-Maqam that when released the shuttles and then drop pods stood a chance of reaching the planet before their life support systems were exhausted. Loaded as those shuttles were .that meant the marines would spend almost two weeks packed tightly as sardines in a can in a space comfortable for a third as many. Half the marines would be confined to the pods on their racks at any given time. There was no other way two shuttles could handle the duty.

A few of the less imaginative marines thought at first this mode of insertion would beat the daylights out of hiking, Zavala didn’t expect that feeling to survive contact with the enemy, in this case boredom. It would have been nice to come in high but unworkable. He kept them busy in the interim.

Ten days remained before release and Borselov could use every minute. Before the shuttles separated from their carrier each member of the drop team needed to be able to assemble a ground launch missile from component pieces with eyes closed and one hand tied behind the back. Yuri was sure they could learn to do that, after all, he would show them how; the rest was simple practice.

“Damn it Yuri, I mean Lt Borselov,” Lotti said as he tried to screw in the stub of a guide vane onto the missile body dangling from a rope in the exercise area of the Raymond while he dangled on the rope along side. The shuttle bay was so full they took what space they could find and were thankful for it.

“If God wanted for missiles to have wings he wouldn’t have made them detachable!”

“He?” Audie inquired from her own position of strength firmly on the deck and with her own missile, used as a test case, already fully assembled; “Just to show Yuri’s performance done twice wasn’t a freak.”

“Jeezeus, not you to—Ma’am.”

Audie formed her hand and fingers into the shape of a gun and shot him dead. “You’ll learn Lotti, yes you will. Pretend your life depends on it.”

“That joke is gettin’ tired Ma’am, real tired.”

Eventually he got it as did everyone else, Lotti being far from last. The screws were cross hatched, Lotti used the point of his knife; he wasn’t the only one. That left rote memory for four hundred square kilometers of mostly rough terrain and an evacuation plan tentative at best.

The shuttle bay was pressurized, there being no room in a drop pod for a pressure suit; loading took place on the deck between the launch tubes, this went smoothly; everything but the men and gear strapped to their bodies was already inside. Getting the troops strap on chutes right and weights of pods with contents determined to four decimal accuracy was critical. All of the pods required small adjustments to set the center of gravity but nothing out of the ordinary. It took only five minutes each for the eight pods on the first lander and then it was returned to its tube and the other brought out for more of the same.

The major change from a usual shuttle launch was that they would not even use the launch tubes and rails. They would leave the ship through the main hanger doors. It had to be this way because on the top of each shuttle, held by a mechanical binder, was a ninth pod for each. That pod was the cargo hauler, the one totally automated with missile parts and the squad’s heavy weapons. A new and untried method put in place once they realized no marine was going to stand much of a chance of saving the ordinance when jumping with an extra 40 kilograms of missile dangling on a line below him.

So first one shuttle would launch then the other after it was pulled from the tube and loaded.

The shuttle pilot would have line up and time the release of the pods ridding on top but it really ought to work. This was another of those stupid ideas that weren’t, at least they all felt that way about it, and there really wasn’t much to go wrong, even if it was Lotti who thought it up in the first place.

These pods, the best Enderlin had to offer, were built to come in slow and totally without powered guidance. They were stealthed and covered with emissions defeating materials and were wrapped with hundreds of long carbon fiber heavymetal impregnated tendrils till they looked like a ball of black yarn. Each tendril had multiple small parachute like aerobrakes now as flat as tissue connected to them. Like the pods and tendrils they were made from the same carbon nano-particles with a heavymetal binder for electro magnetic absorption. They pods would come down trailing their streamers like some kind of a windblown thistle.

Speed was lost so effectively high in the upper atmosphere that the pods never got to a temperature much above ambient. No IR detection and no radar return. And no noise because they were well below sonic speeds by the time they hit a medium dense enough to generate shock waves.

The individual thistle strands were patterned and had enough control from regulating their length to keep the pod from tumbling. There was no other way to steer the things so precise initial aim on insertion was critical. The pod’s size being just over 1.5 meters in diameter limited their carrying capacity and that included the portion dedicated to life support, but it also kept their sensor signatures small, the ultimate life extension technology.

Time to go. The shuttle bay’s meter thick hatch levered outwards and then twin sections slid aside. The hatch was think but much less massive than one would imagine, mostly empty space to dissipate blast damage. With the smallest of pushes a black, sleek form, with a dark bubble atop was on its way. The hatch closed and the hold was repressurized. Another loadout and launch duplicating the last, then there was silence, no communications whatsoever with the drop ship, that would wait until the marines were on the surface and waiting for pickup.

The Ray would not even talk to the pilot and crew remaining on each shuttle for another three weeks. Joe planned on catching up on his sleep.

Drugs that slowed you down were far less dangerous and more predictable than drugs that speed you up. Everyone on a drop team had his medical baseline firmly established and the dosage regulated accordingly. They would sleep twenty out of every twenty four hours and the time still pass slowly.

* * *
There wasn’t any real opposition to the Caliphate from the new colonists and descendants of the original colonists, those now on the planet. That had vanished a generation ago when what they were accomplishing was noticed, given a priority, special attention, and a resource allotment and from as high up as Gumrawi Bey himself. This was years before he attained his leadership but he was one who had supported them and what they were trying to build out here on the edge of the Caliphate even that long ago. On Bab al-Maqam living standards changed drastically and reflected their new importance. And travelers from other worlds were not in the least hesitant to comment about it.

High desert, almost devoid of rainfall. The only plant life, one couldn’t call it vegetation, the colonist found was limited to the lowest terrain where gas pressure was highest, moss and lichens descended from terrestrial strains left inadvertently, or more likely on purpose, by the humans who landed and mapped the world when it was first discovered.

A hundred years had improved the situation only a little. Along the melt channels that carried moisture from the highest peaks in summer there was grass and ferns for a part of the year. Moss and lichens had crept up into the foothills and feedback effects were starting to be felt. Another hundred years without further intervention and small scale farming on the surface might begin. Right now everything they ate was either imported or grown in glass covered greenhouses or more recently opaque plastiglas domes on the surface.

The worlds published population was a million. That made it easier in these enlightened days to entice volunteers. The actual number was far lower. Those who knew what the real number was were encouraged to remain silent. Those on planet reckoned it at just under a two hundred thousand, concentrated in two locations. The majority at the agricultural and life-support center located at low altitude, being between and fed by several convergent melt channels. In a large crater caused by an asteroid strike perhaps fifty thousand year earlier.

The other, the technological area where the development workshops and communications facilities that caused the Caliphate to take notice were located several thousand kilometers away. And naturally placed as high up as the air remained breathable. This was also where the winds remained strong and fog like clouds surprisingly common, though of rain or snow there was none, The moisture transported upwards was frozen out and remained first as frost and then as glacial ice on the highest peaks where some of it melted each summer to repeat the cycle.

Any adult born on the planet could remember the change from subsistence to their affluence that accompanied the elevation of Gumrawi Bey to power, the change from a ship a year stopping to relieve the ever present guards to three and four ships bringing building supplies and even a few luxury items. The completion of the first above ground dome in the lower settlement was a cause for celebration and a sign of better things to come.

The second dome, a year later built at the research facilities turned life there from a chore to a pleasure for the research scientists and construction workers building and testing each new generation of hardware. Even the guards, no longer called such but instead security specialists, had better quarters and infinitely more room, than if confined to a ship or orbital station, or even a ground side barracks.

A hundred years before there might have been an undercurrent of political opposition to Caliphate policies, today there was none. For now at last, birth on Bab al-Maqam was not condemnation to eternal exile. Prominent citizens, their sons and daughters were now able to travel for scientific and educational purposes. Soon it was promised there would be an annual trip back to Earth, a chance to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet. “Praise be to Allah,” God is great!

There it was again, just as indistinct as last time, perhaps more so. But something was out there, casting shadows on the viewscreen. Strange the software could miss it. Should he report it now? And if the question arose, as it surely would, how to explain not reporting the same signature last time?

If the software could miss it so could Signals Officer Hussein al-Nairobi, and there was far less chance for anyone to review his data and try and pin blame. Probably nothing, and like last time again, it was best to say nothing at all. He blessed himself and prayed should something come of this that Allah would understand.

* * *
Nine days from the shuttle launch and grav detectors went off all across the system. A civilian transport was arriving. That would be the ship Phillips and al-Mahari were on, assuming that part of the plan had executed as intended. A fair transition, a little further out then usual perhaps but statistically that must happen if normal is to mean anything.

No one on the Raymond knew how long the ship intended to stay in orbit once she reached al-Maqam, what she intended to load from the surface and take with her when she left, but it was certain she would still be there when the pods hit atmosphere in another ninety-three hours. Whether that was good or bad was open to debate.

“I think we might have a problem here Joe,” Audie had buzzed the Captain as soon as she understood what her readings were telling her. “Our model was off. The pods are going to miss the drop zone by twenty-five to thirty kilometers,”

“Near or far,” Joe said, recognizing the problem at once.

“Far. That’s better than the alternative, it won’t help the Calps to see them, but it is not going to make Raq’s job any easier.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“We read the corrections the guide beams were giving the signal laser they used to talk to the transport. With good location information, something you didn’t have last time through, we see the wind patterns in the upper atmosphere are stronger than predicted.”

“Should we let Zavala know?”

“I don’t think so Joe, the signal might be detected and he’ll find out soon enough. He will either make up the time or we set our pickup back by a day. If that is going to happen he will get in contact with us because there is no way that he can know that we know, if you follow me.”

“Afraid I do Audie, thanks for the heads up.”

“Time to go,” Zavala said on the tightest of tight beams on a relay channel to the second of the shuttles, a direct copy, done intentionally, of his words when they exited the Raymond. With that the first of his drop troopers loaded into the pods on shuttle one and the sequence repeated itself on shuttle two. Yuri was second from last on the second shuttle, Sgt White the final to load. Diagnostics went fast and from both came the rapid fire sound of launches and reloads. Three more days of waiting and wondering till they hit atmosphere. This really was not the place for someone with an active imagination.

On one of the shuttles completely recovered drop-master and gunner Cpl Franklin wished he was going along, on the other Cpl Stringer knew better.

Franklin, time on his hands asked the Petty Officer Third who was copilot of shuttle number two, “What would happen if we had a mechanical failure here? Say we lost one of the engines? Could we still complete the mission?”

Taking a little time, as if in thought the copilot replied, “When one engine fails on a shuttle like this you always have just enough power left to get you to the scene of the crash.”

Zavala was aware of the Calp transport now breaking for orbital insertion. The grav pulse, detected while they were on the shuttle was the last he had heard from her until now. The sensors on a drop pod were not up to the task of tracking even something as large and noisy as a transport until it was close enough to touch.

When the ship achieved final orbit he set his computer to determine how close they would come as their pods neared the surface. The Calp ship was in a geosynchronous orbit over the population centers so they would certainly be in sight. The final answer had the closest approach at more than ten thousand kilometers. Far enough that detection shouldn’t be possible even if someone knew where to look. He then went back to sleep for the last time cooped up inside the pod. But not he hoped, for the last time ever.

* * *
The time spent with Phillips on this part of the journey had Robert very comfortable with his role, the customs procedure on Bab al-Maqam almost nonexistent as Phillips had said it would be. A lander came up with three Calp inspectors and their luggage was examined for the fifth or sixth time, a brief wait while their personal comp units underwent examination, and they were cleared for the surface. Not a question but a knowing grin when the units were returned.

They spent several hours at the shuttle port by the main colony site and then were given passes for the surface ride to the scientific area. That trip took most of another uneventful day.

* * *
On his display everything shown in dull red shading to an equally dull orange. In full daylight, just above the atmosphere, the waiting was over. Luther felt a tiny tug as each tendril deployed from his pod and added its minuscule drag to the total building up at this rarefied height.

The path downwards would have them covering over half of the planets surface to complete. It would take them from the dawn line to almost the point where the sun slipped blow the horizon. With 11 kps still to kill, and unless they spread the descent over distance, there was no other way to keep the heat signature down.

He saw the heat signature of true asteroids striking the atmosphere at a speed twice their own. Anyone watching would see those, and if they were even noticed they would be marked as one of the same. He was feeling good about this. The feeling didn’t last.

Ten minutes into the descent phase and Luther knew something was wrong. They were going to miss the drop point by at least ten kilometers and the number kept climbing. It was gonna’ be hectic once they reached the ground.

Zavala knew the same thing at the same time. With the pods split open they were all under chutes at 2000 meters, without an enemy directly below there was no need to do this at a lower altitude. He would be close to the center of the dispersed troops but both of the pods carrying their equipment and the all important missile parts were at the southern edge of the pattern. That became the new rendezvous point.

With the sun fading from view and all down without medical emergency; they buried what was left of their chutes and what little survived from a few of the pods outer casings and then began marching into the darkness. At midnight local, everyone was accounted for and most sorting out the equipment for the cargo pods in preparation for another march much longer than anticipated.

By the time the sun came out again they had settled into a pattern, point in front, guards on the sides, and a trailer. They had also retraced five miles of their previous course and were digging in, calling it quits for the day.

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16 01 2011
The Old Dog Barks » Sunday Reading

[…] only is it my day to post at the Old Dog but Chapter 15 of A Very Blue Moon is up at the […]