A Very Blue Moon 16

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 16 Draft (01-20-11)

The Calp G-3 bab al-Habib (Iron Gate) one of the ninth fleet survivors at New Britain under Captain Sabah Fakhir was the lead ship of the two on permanent station in the outer reaches of the Beta Pictoris system. The G-3 Aldebaran under Hakimullah Mehsud was the other. It wasn’t the ships that were permanent; they would cycle at irregular intervals, but the station. The senior Captain was always the one who would leave and be replaced next. The assignment itself was a tour for someone very early into his career or very late.

In Captain Fakhir’s case it was the later, this was his last command, or would have been had not war intervened to save him from forced retirement and a slide into oblivion and obscurity amidst the host of also-rans drawing pensions on Earth, if one were lucky, or on other Caliphate fleet base worlds, if one were not. Permission to migrate, or even return to ones home world took years. Until the value of any military knowledge faded to nothingness.

But here he was, due to Allah’s will, and Fakhir would make the most of it, little enough though that might be. His crew had turned over almost completely since New Britain, anyone with influence requesting and receiving transfers, those without removed gradually by Fakhir himself. He wanted no one aboard who remembered the smell of defeat, even though his ship had not been implicated, found at cause for the disaster, to mix the new with older crew members would lead to finger pointing distrust and a situation detrimental to ships discipline and order.

Fakhir’s newly made First Officer, Jamal al den-Husieni, was a lucky catch, and not because of his family’s importance, though that didn’t hurt. The young officers already impressive ability and performance could only increase and blossom with experience, especially if given time to exercise those abilities without his Captain there ready to quash his natural exploratory tendencies.

For that reason, and because he was the most knowledgeable ranking officer in the system with a more than theoretical view of ship’s communications needs, he was quite pleased to leave Cmdr den-Husieni in charge of his ship while he took a shuttle run to al-Maqam after word of a likely technical trial reached him. He already knew where he would stand after that trial, his report, whether good or bad could only reflect favorably upon his present circumstances. Less than a day confined to a shuttle was small enough price for such a chance.

The planetary Governor, Deewah Joppa, a former fleet political officer and a career bureaucrat, was already wealthy. But there was never enough. He had met with Phillips very shortly after the latter’s arrival, the better to establish the delicate arteries of commerce. This Phillips character was very understanding towards such things. Now if Captain Fakhir could be brought to see reason the Governor’s assignment here could be considered complete even as he, like the Captain, awaited replacement six months hence.

Looking across rounded hills towards a towering mountain range the predominant color was brown, surrounded by brown, with more brown mixed in for variety. Set off by a gray-blue sky White hadn’t seen anything so dull since his last trip to . . . to . . . and here words failed him completely.

“Looks like yesterday’s rations don’t it Sarge?” Trust Lotti to come up with something. When Lotti was fifty meters out front White could also say their surroundings looked like Lotti’s poncho or vice versa. As his eyes swept side to side Luther was already having trouble following the departing form.

They were heading towards the nearest melt channel in hopes of finding water, either on the surface or just below. Each of them had 2 five liter water pouches on top of all the rest they carried and they needed to find more to keep them filled. Drinking five liters a day would be almost enough to replace what they lost to the environment.

The water used up most all the eight percent bonus from the planet’s lesser gravity and even had it not they were still carrying far more than a normal combat load because with everything else they each also had atmospheric distillation gear; In the conditions here and now the small man portable units would only provide about half of what was needed to support a soldier’s physical needs in this heat with the exertion of a rapid forced march.

Very soon, and in one respect fortune smiled upon them. By mid morning they had reached the runoff channel and only a short while later they found their first pool of free standing water between its two high rock walls and well below, ten or twelve meters below the level of the local terrain.

A lush tall grass grew along the Southern side where it was shielded from direct sunlight. A more moss like growth extended from one side of the channel to the other in places the sun could reach directly. Everyone drank their fill and they continued onwards knowing that in the worst case by shuttling water back and forth they wouldn’t die of thirst.

They could not afford this early on to march only at night. In fact there were great advantages to moving during daylight hours. Better visibility from their end was one of them but surprisingly it made it harder for any Calp surveillance, either from air or space to locate their IR signature from the heat of the surrounding surface.

At night when temperatures could plunge by twenty degrees or more the cover their IR ponchos gave would hide them but only while the internal heat sink filled and that would limit the speed and distance they could move without stopping for a cool down. With an extra twenty kilometers to make up moving in daylight hours was the only option and getting back on the timeline the top priority after the one calling for them not to be seen.

* * *
The building known to the locals as the “Residencia” blended in so well being built from the same dull brown rock of the hillside that they were almost upon it by the time Robert saw it through the pitted surface of the buses front window. Local sand storms must take a terrible toll on unprotected equipment and structures. They were approaching the four story tall domed building at local noon and there were no angular shadows set it apart, to give it away, and no motion from vehicles of any exterior pedestrian traffic either.

They has been seeing the white parabolic shapes of radar and communications receivers for about an hour spread out on the plain in front of the hill formation that changed so rapidly to one of high mountains. Twice they had seen some kind of ground car moving in the distance with a dense trail of cloud like dust rising in its wake.
To any of this the driver of the bus said nothing until he was at a complete stop at the Residencia’s entrance where upon he just said loudly, “Grab your belongings and hurry. In five minutes my relief comes on and starts loading for the return trip. If either he or I need to handle any of your luggage the company bears no responsibility for its condition afterwards.”

That raised a few chuckles from some of the passengers but got them all moving. The bus carried boxed cargo in compartments unreachable from the vehicles interior and even while the driver was talking two men from a wheeled vehicle pulling a trailer had the bin doors open and were stacking items on the trailer’s low walled bed. And much more gently than the driver had intimated.

Sitting at the front they were amongst the last off, the bus loaded from the middle and rear. Phillips and al-Mahari each carried a gear bag and a larger carryall. They were almost last through the twin double doored entrance that protected the interior in case of a blow outside. Most of the passengers went straight through the lobby to elevators which lined two of the chambers walls. These led down rather than up as most living spaces were underground with the un-domed section of the building devoted to manufacturing and especially large scale repair and fabrication bays.

A third wall was not a wall at all but opened on a large pool, more than just a swimming pool, almost a pond that took up most of the space under the seventy-five meter wide by ten meter high bowl of polished plexiglas. It must have been crystal clear when erected but now was opaque due to the same kind of scratching and pitting they had seen on their buses wind screen.

The passengers who did not head straight for the elevators converged on a four meter section of counter under a sigh which read ‘Information’, where two women in rather plain uniforms armed with computer screens and printed brochures seemed primed to hand out the same.

“You take the one on the left, I’ll take the right,” Phillips said. “Rooms first then keys to tie us into the local net. We’ll get cleaned up and have something to eat before we go looking for wherever our trade goods ended up.”

“Why didn’t someone meet us here Phil?” Robert was genuinely puzzled.
“Part of the process, Robert— show us just how unimportant we are and how little value they place on our tech. Two can play at that, we’ll take our own sweet time looking to make contact and we will all be eating dinner together. You can bet on it.”

“Could you explain to the Imam exactly what your new devices will add to our communications modules and how that will increase their value so much that we should make changes to our current manufacturing processes? I believe I know the answer but from you I expect it to be more persuasive.”

“Why of course, Captain Fakhir,” Phillips said while using an elaborately embroidered napkin to wipe away the last crumbs of desert from the corner of his mouth. He didn’t know how the rest of the people up on this mountain plateau ate but those in charge had nothing to complain about. On any world Phillips was aware of not just the plates and glasses but even the silverware would more likely be considered works of art than eating utensils.

“It is really quite simple. Our company, REO, Ryman Electro-Optics,” he added reflexively, “has been able to leap an entire generation ahead of everyone else in the select field of optical data transfer. More precisely we have cut fiber diameters in half and boosted bit rates to near quantum levels. And without the uncertainty. If you get my joke.” One look at the religious leader showed that it had fallen rather flat.

“It will cut the wiring time here by sixty percent, boost your processing speed, by a third, it will add redundancy, and cost no more than the components you currently employ, and especially so when you factor in the cost of on site assembly.”

“And why would that be so?” asked an older man, Omar Izmiri, production superintendent for the entire manufacturing complex, who wore a robe looking somewhat like a gilded lab coat. The fact that he was present revealed much to even an untrained observer.

“Because the cable it’s virtually immune to damage during assembly, capable of extreme bends, and able to resist surface scratching that would ruin a standard cable. Each individual strand pre-fused into a simple snap in connector that mates with our custom, protocol free, sending or receiving unit. I know this sounds too good too be true but our demonstration tomorrow will show the truth of every word I speak, as God is my witness.” Phillips bowed his head hiding a smile; he was a little proud about tacking on the last statement to what was his normal spiel.

“To tomorrow then Gentlemen,” Sabah Fakhir said, lifting his glass in a toast.

Colonel Kalmunbari was waiting with Captain Fakhir when Phil and Robert entered the visitor security center. The production superintendent was far to busy to nursemaid a a salesman with a lone technician, Kalmunbari had badges for them with their biometric data encoded onto a chip already in hand. One of the first changes he had made to procedure after being sent to this desolate hell hole by Shehzad Tanweer himself, the head of the Regulations Compliance Office, was to get rid of the generic visitors pass for something that was user specific.

That was only the first of many changes. He had been disliked, even feared from the start, but he had always been respected, and if they were not more secure their locations and permissions were much better tracked.

Once the Compliance Office felt this post important its staffing reflected the change. The quality of Kalmunbari’s security force, though small was excellent, the support from the locals not nearly to the same level. Automating the simple things was the key, and tracking all details the lock. That and Kalumbari’s unflagging personal attention.

Kalid Rashid who was Tanweer’s right hand man of the last several years, was due for an inspection at any time, there would be nothing amiss for him to find.

One other person was waiting in the security center, a staff engineer who would prepare a report on the technical aspects of the demonstration. One by one, with the Colonel last, they swiped their cards, had a body scan, and passed through the security lock. No one entering till the far door had closed on the one in front of them. A pair of elevators waited in the room beyond. They entered the first and Robert watched the lights blink on and off as they descended past seven of the twelve marked layers to number eight. This place was even larger than they had imagined.

The elevator door slid open on a long tunnel like corridor, a few windows poking through the mostly rock with a narrow roadway in the center and walkways at the same level on either side. Kalumbari led them to the line of parked one and two person transport cars, the same as used in air and spaceports everywhere, and they followed him to the tunnels other end, a distance Robert estimated of better than five kilometers, far enough that they must now be under the center of the mountain where the main communications center dominated the summit.

Arriving at the end of the tunnel revealed a dimly lit cavern with another elevator they rode upwards for almost two minutes before reaching a large room with a leveled and polished floor whose ceiling was lost in the darkness above. Benches and a small oven used to re-coat mirrors along the walls with racks of test equipment clustered in islands. Phillips quick count revealed nine workers with as many or more based on what he could hear out of his line of sight.

Two of the workers were pushing a cart away from the base of the central optical guide and main beam unit.

“These three down here are our test beds; we can make changes without disrupting the surface production shops.”

“I can see that,” Robert said, “But how do you test them to see if the changes work?”

“When we roll aside the top of the mountain you shall see. But first I think it best we wait so that you may complete your installation.”

The two technicians, finished with the cart, had walked over and were waiting politely; both were youngish men in their mid twenties.

“Muataffa and Kopti will help you in anyway possible. And as you can see your own equipment crate awaits you. If you can deliver all you promise the demonstration tonight will be instructive. Mr. James has requested a tour of our shop areas with an eye to additional business and Captain Fakhir has consented to go along. So we shall all meet again here around seven. Until then I must be on my way. Colonel I leave everything in your capable hands.”

With that Kulumbari left them, exiting through a different passage than the one from which they had entered. That tunnel must lead to the workers entrance where security would be of little concern, after all those people entered the facilities every day and knew the secrets she contained.

Robert at once began cultivating a friendship with the two techs assigned to help him. They would play an unwitting role in the drama to follow. Like their types everywhere, and Robert included himself in that description, they had far less concern for security than for getting the job done.

It wasn’t long before Robert was accompanying them on trips into the workers section in search of parts or conversation and bits of arcane data not available even on the secure net. Much of this dealt with technique and seemed poised to provided job security for those holding it. The Caliphate was being embraced here but not wholly trusted.

By the time Robert with help had everything ready and enjoyed a meal in the employee’s dinning room, the others returned from a more elaborate spread. Robert and the techs aiding him were fast friends though the two from al-Maqam took on a more formal air in the presence of the suits.

“Not quite so easy as we thought but not too difficult, Kopti and Mustaffa’s help made it possible.”

“We will alert those above and begin at once,” Kulumbari said. He made a comm call then they all went into a glassed in booth three flights up from the floor. It was the unit control center; an operator who had helped with data synchronization hit a button then slid a lever. The lights dimmed further and now looking upwards they could see a slit open as their eyes adjusted and panels in the ceiling began to separate and roll apart.

“We don’t have zenith to horizon coverage in this lab,” Kulumbari said, his knowledge of the inner workings of the facility went far beyond mere security concerns.

“Drive mechanisms are well understood and handled elsewhere, but we do take care of the optics and can scan a quarter of the sky. We also have a mirror in geosync that lets us reach anywhere in the system.”

Through the slit above the stars shown in their thousands, the orbital plane showing clearly as a band of milky light cutting the opening diagonally. “It is very clear now but within the hour mist then light fog, this should be a very good evening for a test,” He touched the shoulder of the control center operator and said, “Go Ahead,” Kulumbari said, and the operator reached for a button labeled guide star.

A needle thin, very red, beam of light formed instantly emerging just off the central axis of the comm scope and seemed to terminate in a hazy spot in the extreme distance. On a screen in front of the operator was a flicker of instability and then a picture, but more importantly rows of numbers showing how the atmosphere was bending the light returning from that hazy florescence caused by molecules ionizing in the near vacuum of the planets upper atmosphere.

“It seems to be working. Our update rate has gone from twenty-eight to forty-three per second, any faster and we won’t be able to decode a broadcast signal in real time. What was that flicker before we locked on?”

“Just timing signals chasing one another, Now that the systems have been introduced and know what to expect we won’t see it again,” Robert said with absolute certainty.

“Very well, start the message queue.”

A half hour later the system had proven itself with good seeing and local traffic, a half an hour later with moderate to bad seeing at the same range, “Captain Fakhir? Could you send a message to your ship to boost its sending rate to match theses new standards?”

“With pleasure Sir, before the night is through we will know what it is that we have here.”

While most of the others left Robert hung out with the techs and operator swapping highly improbable stories about misbehaving hardware and impossible fixes. That came easy because on both sides they all were true. Roberts stature continued to rise after he threw in a few Borselov had told him concerning Audie Madry. He naturally didn’t use her name just talking about some girl he knew.

* * *
On the Admiral Raymond a preset alarm sounded at the ships main signals station. The petty officer on duty notified the watch officer who notified the Captain.

“Phillips and al-Mahari made it Sir. We can see their guide spot as well as they can and the Calps just jumped their test frequency by forty five percent. Got the message loud and clear.”

“Thanks, wish there was some way to tell Zavala.”
“With any luck he sees it too and will understand without hearing from us.”
“How’s the mapping of all the orbital junk coming along?”

“Bout complete Sir, we have everything down to the size of a walnut charted and got the goods on three dozen asteroids a kilometer or better in diameter that will come within our theoretical area of engagement and escape, plus a few more on the edges to be safe. Even in a system like this it’s hard to find a good rock when you need one.”

“Well then, I guess it’s time we run a few more sims wouldn’t you say Lt Bailey?”

“Yes Sir, Captain Madry has them ready to go, I’ll alert Cmdr Kellen and we can start at you command.”

“Very Good Bailey. Make it happen.”

* * *
Their third day on planet and they had regained most of the time lost to schedule. With dark adjusted eyes the sky-glow was enough that IR glasses were not needed to see where they were going but were worn by all anyway in case a hot spot should appear. They were worn by all in the normal manner except for Lt, Borselov who had his perched on top of his soft helmet liner pointing upwards.

His were set to pick out clearly the color of ionized sodium atoms and analyze phase shift frequencies. When the new guide beam went into operation a cricket like chirping in his ear set had him pulling his comm unit from a pocket and turning on the screen. Seeing the data he stepped out of line and waited for Zavala so he could fill him in on the good news.

“Okay Yuri. Get back to the front and signal a rest break. Pull Lotti back in from the point. It’s time we left this drainage ditch and started cross country, There is more than enough cover and if I were looking to stop people from sneaking up on my position higher up I would begin placing sensors along this route. We don’t need to run the risk for the sake of speed anymore so we go back to the main refrain. By this time tomorrow we should hit the base point. Let’s keep doing this the same way we sketched it out.”

“When we are out of the ditch get Iverson to help you setup the drone and get her into the air. I’d like to see what’s in front of us, and especially our path, with more lead time, Lotti and Lassiter are doing good but could use some help.”

Night turned to day and day turned to night, and then a repeat. On the morning of the second day they were dug in on the back-slope of a hill overlooking a broad cup shaped plain spotted with twenty-five meter parabolic antennas held together by a spider web of dusty roads. There was to one side a low building with windows all across its front looking out on the dry desert scene. On top of some of the surrounding hills were towers with small domes on top, weather stations and local communications relays.

To the rear on a steep volcanic looking peak rising up a good eight kilometers distant stood three large domed rectangular structures surrounded by lower buildings of mixed shape; some with domes, some without. A road led upwards winding back and forth on its way to the top. At the base of the peak was the brown hued four story tall domed Residencia. Time to rest; they would be busy come nightfall.

* * *
“Dammit!” A hash word for one such as he, but there it was again. Hussein al-Nairobi was reaching for the gain control when acting Captain Jamal al den-Husieni said “Stop! — What is it you see?”
Hussein had not even noticed he was being watched, “Static Sir, ghost glitches, they come and go in this cursed system. Never strong enough for the computer to log and it will fade out by itself soon enough.”

“Did you mark any of these other “ghost glitches” in your manual log file?”

“Why no Sir, that is not procedure.”

“It is now! I can see you have time to fill and even an ‘acting’ Captain abhors a vacuum. Make a note of this on the standing orders sheet. I desire to keep all our signals operators busy.”