A Very Blue Moon 17

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 17 Draft (01-25-11)

“We’ve got a pulse!”

Joe’s eyes instantly swung from the bridge’s central display tank and its relief map showing the ground at al-Maqam to his own main display. Then he gave the order to silence the alarm. The Raymond was so far in-system that there could be no immediate danger. He saw a picture firming from the fragments while he listened to details.

“A G-4. No drive so far.” The next thirty seconds would tell whether this was a lone ship or part of a larger unit. No drive could mean she was waiting for others. Joe saw the small dot on the edge of his display start to flare and change colors.

“She is Caliphate!” That was followed seven seconds later by, “Sword of the Prophet, Earth home fleet.”

“The personal chariot of Rashid Kalid. This is not good, but she looks to be alone. “Nail down the course.”

“Not heading inward, her vector is pointing to the bab al-Habib guard ship.”

“That seems odd; she must not know were here.” The thought that somehow the Calps had learned of and busted their mission was the first thing into everyone’s mind when the pulse was announced. “Try to steal us some comm traffic and begin planning for an immediate pickup. We will continue on our present course for now.”

The small observation drone had a radar signature about equal to a blood tick, and could stay in the air at the same low rate of speed. Trouble was, on al-Maqam there were no blood ticks, or any other insect life for that matter. With that in mind a top notch detection team had a better than even chance of locating the device as it wove its way on a programmed course to a position overlooking then circling the volcanic peak where the three main Calp communicators were in operation night and day.

In daylight hours, without the ability to see the guide star they were confined to orbital and near inter-system work that still kept them busy. By piling up hours the in service maintenance and repair baselines were established for all of the other units shipped and operating in the field, important work, but dull.

As far as Yuri or the drone could tell, there were no search radars looking for any nearby objects. Luther White, familiar with security from his years at the Castle came up with the most logical explanation.

“Lack of manpower. It takes some decision making when signal returns are so low they could be imaginary. From what we know there are only about three hundred Calp security officers on this whole planet. It’s not like their facing a rebellion or anything. Separate out the Admins and Customs and put a real guard on the lab here, and nobody is left for anything else. The only reason we had that kind of capability at the Castle was because we used it to train people on their way into field units.”

“And we never found anything either, least if we hadn’t sent it ourself. And on Cardoman it would have been a damn sight easier to get something down to the planet that could do that kind of work. Unless the thing crashes on the mountain top or a comm signal gets detected, she won’t be seen.”

“What about comm signals?” Zavala asked.

“All programed in advance,” Borselov responded, “Until she returns we are as blind as the Calps are.”

“Anything on the message traffic Audi?” Speedway was walking the ship and stepped into the small storage bay where Audi had setup the equipment she’d brought from Cardoman. Audie was reclining in a crash couch reading a book.

“It’s a variant on the Compliance Office standard. Unless they send some duplicates in something we can read, given what I have here, in a month or two I might piece it together.”

“Must be some kind of normal inspection or Kalid heard about this test and wanted to be here himself. So long as his ship continues over to the Habib and stays for even a few hours we can still complete the mission and get everyone out. Then we see if we can make it to the hyper limit all in one piece. Looks pretty good or we would have ordered the pickup already.”

Day had turned again to night and on their hill the sky was still clear. The red comm beams lanced out at irregular intervals, and much brighter streaks of white flashed briefly into view never more than a few minutes apart as one of the smaller bits of rock infesting the system entered atmosphere at a typical speed of 30 kps and burned up on the way down. Several times an hour a larger rock would break into pieces and a dozen trails continue on their way.

It was while watching the show that the drone returned setting down so quietly that unless he had been expecting it Yuri would not have seen its arrival. Checking his poncho first he walked the ten meters of open space to where the plane landed and picking it up. Even with a meter long wingspan it weighed less than two kilograms. He returned to the base of the rock where he had stationed himself.

He removed the data chip and inserted it into his reader, checked for a good feed, then signaled the rest of the squad, those awake, that the show was about to start.

The first scene took place in daylight, the three large domes of the deep space communicators dominating everything and a forth under construction. They looked exactly like large planetary telescopes had looked ever since men had been building them. And why not? Their functions were almost identical, mirror images one might say, one very precisely received light from great distances away and the other sent it. The comm scopes in fact performed both tasks because they also received the return signals from their contacts.

The second part of the show was even more interesting than the first. The views taken after dark showed in false color imagery the domes but more importantly the other hot spots on the mountains peak. Targets for their missile strike.

The back side of the mountain faded from blue to black as it radiated the heat of the day and cooled. No hot spots, no people, nothing at all. The way to the top seemed clear but steep. When the Calps leveled the top of the mountain they sheared of the backside at a fault line till it was almost a vertical drop for 500 meters. What they cleared away went over the edge and ended in a pile of rubble spreading out for another 500 meters on the slope below.

Near the top as the rest of the mountain cooled one bright spot remained, a sensor platform looking out and down on the slope below. It would have both thermal and motion detectors. Anyone going up the backside would need to get under its field of view without being seen.

* * *
Cmdr Jamal al den-Husieni met Compliance Officer Rashid Kalid on the Habib’s boat deck. He ordered full honors suitable for an Admiral which must approximate Kalid’s current rank. Whatever that rank might be it was obviously several steps up from when he was the Captain of Sword of the Prophet, the ship that now traveled at his beck and call.

This inspection, though expected, could have come at a better time — for Captain Fakhir. For den-Husieni this was perfect. A chance to make an impression while commanding a ship in immaculate condition. One he had done much to create and maintain. Even in the Navy there could be justice in the world, Allah willing.

He stepped forwards and saluted when the whistle faded.

“Admiral, it is an honor to welcome you on board!” Kalid was wearing a very plain uniform with the wasp waist shape of a G-3 on one collar tab and two stars on the other locking down the form of address. “Your itinerary has not reached us.” It had not only failed to reach them the request for it had been ignored. “So may I propose a meeting with the ships officers before we begin?”

“I think not Commander,” Kalid, in his 50’s, tall and rather gaunt with dark hooded eyes for a brief moment appeared ready to agree before he stiffened, changing his mind.

“My staff and I had several hours to review your reports and records and found nothing out of order but something of interest. With that in mind I would be pleased to meet the Habib’s crew before I return to my own ship but first I would like to visit your bridge and talk to your signals officer and signals watch standers. If you would have them join us there that is where I wish to begin.

“Of course Admiral, right this way,” and den-Husieni led the way to the elevator in the ship’s central core that would take them upwards, confident the petty officer in charge of the ceremony on the shuttle deck would pass the word to all concerned.

Due to Kalid’s visit all three watches were awake and engaged in some kind of purposeful activity. Because they were closer and extremely well motivated Signals Officer al-Nairobi and the two petty officers who were not on duty at this time were waiting when the Admiral and his party reached the bridge. Kalid took one look around then detouring around the central display went straight for the signals console and the men clustered around it.

“Lt Nairobi, it is good to see you again!” Kalid could be said to have smiled for the first time since coming aboard. “We have served together before, I remember you as a junior watch officer, still enlisted, on the Khartoum some twenty years ago.”

Inwardly Nairobi brightened; this might not be the ordeal he had imagined. “Yes Sir, that was a very long time ago. I am surprised you remembered me.”

Manipulation, it was becoming second nature; Kalid had not remembered the Habib’s signals officer. Even seeing him now it was just barely possible to match the face with a dimly remember figure. For the brief time they served on the same ship their paths would hardly have crossed. But in preparation for the inspection, when the man’s record’s indicated they had indeed served together, Kalid made a note to use that fact. It was just a little more study that bore the responsibility for his being here now.

“Cmdr, could you find a replacement for the man on duty here and then all of us go someplace where I can learn more about these things you call “Ghost Glitches?”

“At once Sir!”

The Raymond’s two attack shuttle’s after dropping Zavala and his team, slowly killed their vector and reversed course until now they were almost where they would be to begin a pickup. When the Sword entered the system the shuttle pilots were expecting an immediate abort and retrieval order. When that didn’t happen they continued as before but with an even greater urgency. Less than a day now and not any too soon. IR wise they were already venting and two more days would find the ships exteriors heating up enough that even a blind man could see them. A man could take only so much of this waiting.

“Ready to fire,” Audie said — then — “Bombs away!” she’d heard that phrase once in an old video and had been waiting years for a chance to use it.

The marine detachment on the Ray’s forward gun mount had removed the shipkiller from the tube and replaced it with a tube of about the same size but containing a compressed gas charge and several hundred rocks ranging from pea to grape size, nothing large enough to be kept in a standard database.

At Audie’s command the gas vented and like pellets from a giant shotgun the rocks were on their way. In five hours al-Maqam would experience a very artificial meteor shower. They pulled out the shell and reloaded another and did it again. Then they put the missile back in place and ran the diagnostics while the ship verified the track.

The sun was below the horizon and Lotti and Grimm and Borselov were two hours away from the peak’s backside; burdened with climbing gear and ropes for five people at least they no longer carried missile parts. The climb ahead was going to seem easy after lugging those missiles. It was darker and harder to find footing and a way ahead but they felt safer and made better progress.

White and a crew of three was setting up the launcher and Lassiter preparing a team for a frontal assault, a reconnoiter in force on one of the nearby weather stations. Zavala was focused on the top of the mountain, looking for any indication of other than routine activity. Thus far he had seen none. But that was going to change. He was studying the first bust of static that had alerted him to Phillips and Mahari being on the mountain; the one including coded details revealing the facilities layout.

Robert al-Mahari was finishing dinner; he shared a table in the workers section with the techs helping him on the data link installation. They talked a while over desert before Robert excused himself, saying he would return to his room and promising to see them in the morning. No one paid him any mind as he took his tray to the disposal chute and left the dinning hall.

Instead of taking the tunnel back to the visitors section of the facility he took the workers route back to the comm lab. Robert had passed that way enough times by now that the software was used to him, and though it showed his presence, name and a number, it sounded no alarm. Still he did not want to be seen. This time of the evening, off shift and getting late, the tunnel was deserted,

Walking softly in the dimly lit passage he heard a noise form a connecting tunnel twenty meters ahead. He ducked behind some furniture being moved between rooms that must have been left at shift’s end. Two hard hat wearing construction workers came out and walked away. Robert waited till they took another cross passage then continued down the corridor after checking the time. Forty-five minutes remaining.

James Phillips called Colonel Kalmunbari and as he expected was connected at once. “Colonel, I am finishing up the numbers for our contract talk tomorrow and I seem to have left my component list in the control room at the comm lab. I wonder if you might assign someone to go with me while I retrieve it?”

“I’ll go with you. I was just about to take a walk before bed and would welcome the company.”

When they met at the security side elevator most of those on duty, those not tied to a screen, were standing outside the glass wall staring upwards at the sky.

Kalmunbari could see the plain being lit by flashes as if from lightning. He knew what must be the reason but asked anyway. “What do we have here?”

“Meteor shower Sir, quite spectacular and unexpected. A nice break until it stops and we can get the ground sensor to look down instead of up every couple of seconds.”

“Mr. James and I are going for a walk, call me if this doesn’t stop in a half an hour or so and we will find something else for those outside to look at.”

They swiped their idents, entered the elevator, and felt it start to drop. Two levels from the bottom Colonel Kalmunbari hit the stop button and said, “I want to take a look at one of the computer rooms, please come with me, this will not take us long.

“Do I kill him now or later,” Phillips was thinking to himself as they left the comp room returning to the elevator. “No time like the present.”

With the Colonel’s back turned to him he swiped the sharpened edge of his ident card against the carotid artery on the right side of Kalmunbari’s neck. It was somewhat messy but instantly from shock and loss of blood pressure and without a sound; the Colonel slumped to the floor.

Phillips hauled him back inside the computer room and after removing the dead man’s uniform jacket left the body behind a bank of rack units. Then he dimmed the light and closed the door. After the briefest of cleanups in the hallway he knocked out a glow tube so the remaining blood spots wouldn’t be so visible. That complete he continued to the elevator and finished his descent.

The comm lab was dark, a few colored reflections shown on the window of the control room, but there was no one inside. Robert went to the base of the center unit, the one he had been modifying, and went to work. Not on his data links but on the gas tubes feeding the laser guide unit. Three minutes later he finished and started on the second machine when he heard a door open and a quit voice saying, “Robert? You here?”

“No point in wasting any more time underground. Let’s go up and see what you can do to sabotage the active units.”

They climbed the scaffolding stairway till they reached the dome and then exited to the mountain top.

Lotti had them a hundred meters up and moving fast, all the time being lit up by flashes of light from the meteor shower above, “Damn good thing they got no one this side of the mountain to see us cause we would shine.”

“Audie must have seeded some of those rocks with astrolite.” Yuri said as they were lit up again. “They’re going of like Feddie fireworks on Union Day.”

Lotti pounded in a piton, checked the line and reached for a new handhold.

Lassiter climbed the tower of the weather station. The two man night detail had never seen them coming and unless something changed would be just as clueless when they left. He clamped a target designator to the dome railing and took his time dialing in the aim points then started back down being careful not to make a sound.

“I make it fifteen minutes till we power up,” Lt Bailey said. Joe thought he could detect some nervousness behind the calm voice. “Still nothing from the Habib and the Sword. Looks like we have our window.

Even after the attack began it would take near an hour at lightspeed for word to reach the Calp ships in the outer system. If everything else went as planed that would give them enough time to get away without ever being inside of ship based missile range and that was a comforting thought. He turned back to his screen and watched the fireworks now playing out on the planet now less than a million kilometers away.

On the Sword of the Prophet the processors were working overtime. Using the data from Habib to tune their own newer and superior sensors, the ‘Ghost Glitches’ were beginning to look slightly less ephemeral and becoming more than just imaginary. Random noise they were not.

Kalid was examining his flag plot, seeing a history of all sightings spread out against the stellar background. And he was getting ready to make a decision. — Yes he would do it. They clustered too closely around the planet these ships were supposed to be protecting.

“Get everyone back on board and set a course for al-Maqam at maximum delta. There is something here that shouldn’t be. Send word to the garrison at once and let the Governor know as soon as we have an arrival time.”

“Watch for the light, watch for the light,” It sounded almost religious but on the stealthed shuttles now ten thousand kilometers from the surface and slowly dropping it was that and pray. And it was a miracle they had not been detected. Franklin had his turret warm and arming switches on. This was almost like being there.

“There they are,” Yuri said. He had them centered on his view screen; the drone was doing its job from less than a thousand meters overhead.

“How can you be sure it’s them?” Lotti asked while peeking out from the v-shaped notch they nestled in at the top and end of their climb.

“The lab coat. We treated it with a fire retardant and reflective coating so distinctive if might as well be a friend or foe beacon. I’m going out to meet them. Don’t leave without us.”

“This looks like the place.” Yuri was lifting the canvas wall of an oddly colored tent-like tarp that was covering a light frame leaning against one side of the largest buildings if one excluded the communications domes. Doing it this way would beat the hell out of walking in through the front door and setting the charge.

The tent was a temporary cover to keep the dust our while the building was being added to. Inside was some kind of an automatic guard dog. Using his comm unit Yuri and the dog were soon fast friends. Next he placed a block of explosive on the floor and started setting triggers. Setting a timer and bidding the dog goodbye they left and headed for the main domes.

Unit one of the surface level communicators was on a schedule that made its signal times predictable as it hit one out system relay then another with a short break between. The laser was on then off with a perhaps a sixty percent duty cycle. They’d just opened a man door and stepped into the building, no one on alert and no alarm. As soon as the unit went dark from its last contact Robert did the switch then they left and walked towards the back of the complex.

Only a few others were about, and with Robert in a lab coat and Phillips a military tunic, they blended into the background. Borselov, who had snagged a lab coat at the last stop was waiting outside then brought up the rear. In eight minutes the laser wouldn’t fire, then it would. Before it exploded the beam would be bright enough to destroy any conceivable receiver. They all raced for the mountains edge and a quick trip down.

Over the edge and into the cut, soon Phillips was fumbling with his harness, adjusting and checking to see that it was buckled and snapped securely in place. al-Mahari rapidly pounded in the Ryman special pitons that would be gone in eight hours and helped Phillips with the feeding of the rope though the Trango Cinch that was his braking device.

Robert had the better of him, even as an Electronic Warfare Specialist who had spent his combat time in an air-conditioned equipment truck; he had still been through Ryman Strike Basic Training. He had done that live rappel down the 1200 meter North face of Drag Ass Mountain.

“You ever do this before Mr. Phillips?” Lotti asked.

“Only in my dreams,” Phillips replied.

“This’ll wake you up. Don’t try to rush it, we hit the bottom soon enough. Slow and easy does it, not to mention trying to pass me is a real bad idea!”

An explosion lit the sky with a violence far beyond anything the meteor shower had delivered. A second later came a rolling thunder.

“Time to get out of Dodge.” Lotti dropped away and was followed in quick succession by the others with Yuri bringing up the rear. Phillips did just fine.

As the light flared atop the mountain White hit the arm and then the fire button, and one by one the missiles they had guarded so carefully streaked into the night.

“Take her down!” Two attack shuttles boosted to max G and burned through the atmosphere to a distant pick up.

“Take out the comsats and then any thing else in orbit.” Speedway gave the order and missiles launched as the Raymond complied. On the planet below the only thing off limits was the Residencia and the civilians inside.