A Very Blue Moon 22

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 22 Draft (02-21-11)

Kalid Rashid had been here before, last time with his life at risk, when the failure at Altoona was said to be his own and the Sword was taken from his hand. This time around it was only marginally more palatable, because just as last time he had been serving Allah and the Caliphate as best he was able. Shehzad Tanweer, his immediate superior and head of the Regulations Compliance Office was here also, just as he had been the last time, but now without any to speak in Kalid’s defense.

Muhammad Ahmad al-Gumrawi Bey, Son of the Prophet and Most Holy of men, the leader of the Caliphate, looked older than he had when Rashid had last seen him only a few months before. More frail with veins and bones showing, his skin almost translucent. His gaze and his voice, though soft, were as strong and powerful in their righteousness.

After al-Maqam, where those responsible had already paid the ultimate price, it had taken his ship ten weeks to return to Earth, his only stop to alert the fleet base at Philomel. Rashid took the time to think long and hard about what must come next. He did not like where his thoughts took him but be that as it may Tanweer agreed to present the proposal. And so here they were standing on the palace balcony under a clear blue sky with hot desert winds blowing from the south.

“I spend much of my time out here,” Gumrawi Bey said, “The light brings me closer to God and the heat is a comfort. One of the few I can still enjoy. A minor setback at al-Maqam, but you are here to tell me how you wish to respond. Do proceed.”

“There are times when the river of history’s course is determined and turns on the actions of one man. The life of the Prophet Mohammad is the supreme example. In war Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler were visionaries yet still responsible for more than they knew.” There are many lesser examples where one man’s actions led to results that are unimaginable had that one person not existed and lived to succeed.”

“The ‘Great Man’ theory is one I am well aware of Tanweer, you may get to your point.”

“My point, al-Gumrawi, is that there are others who would have shaped history as much or more, had they lived long enough. Their names must be lost to us; how could it be otherwise? I believe there are two such men in opposition to the will of God that should we bring to an early demise will insure our victory. And that they are President Reshevsky on Union and the Cardoman General Wesleyan Calvert.”

“And you propose what? Assassination? You will know that after twenty-five hundred years the martyred Jesus of Nazareth has not been forgotten,”

“He was a prophet as well and a part of Allah’s plan, Most Holy. Those I speak of do not compare. Reshevsky is the only man that can unite the Confederacy against us. If that does not happen our victory is assured should Allah will it so. Calvert, though working behind the scenes, has already hurt us and is building a reputation that inspires other to follow. Unless he is stopped his influence on events will only grow.”

“So you will kill them both—as you must. For all is just when it is God’s will. You have my blessing. Come now—we must pray.”

And al-Gumrawi Bey, expression still calm and serene, willed his tired body continue as he led them back inside.

While Rashid took a week to visit his family Tanweer and the rest of his Compliance Office staff spent time drafting orders, each one singular but with a common message. “Duty to Islam required the death of Arkady Reshevsky and Wesleyan Calvert.” All on the receiving end of the message would be made to understand that the reward for discharge of that duty need not await the afterlife, nor would punishment for failure.

* * *
Wes was flicking his wrist, using his index finger to point at the screen and change its view. He cycled through the Castleton’s exterior shots and said to Connie, who was reading up on the history of Novi from popular sources in the ship’s database, “All those old time writers sure got it wrong when it comes to hyperspace.”

Connie looked up and saw a picture showing the ship as seen from a camera on a drive band and then one showing the band, a part of the upper sphere, and blackness beyond, taken from a camera on the lower sphere. “You mean the part where the have to shut down the view ports because everyone goes crazy when staring into the void?”

“Yep. A nice stylistic touch but a little thought would have shown that it didn’t make any sense to say that you could see anything unless there was light, and since light can’t exceed its own speed everything outside of a ship or in our case outside the drive band field must be black. And if the laws of physics were violated they would all be dead because the chemical reactions keeping them alive wouldn’t work either.”

Wes, I think you are over-analyzing this, from their point of view faster than light travel already violated the laws of physics and anything else was just a bonus. So what are your plans for today?”

“I’m going to visit Lotti and the marines; I feel the need for some exercise.”

“Take Claude with you, he should see how his tax dollars are spent.”

The most noticeable property of transuranium, the heavy metal used in making drive bands was that it was—heavy! It massed almost twice the element from which its name derived but was very stable, not radioactive in any sense. The metal, ore actually, they were taking to Novi was only partially refined and weighed in at twice what the finished product would. The metal from the Ryman Beagle had been mostly pure in ingots sized for a G-4 band machine. That went into the Cardoman Strategic reserve and when word of that got out the value of what passed for the planets hard currency would increase measurably.

Novi, while still a member of the Confederacy, was one of five planets able to build any type of FTL vessel from generation two onwards. She could also refine ore to the ingot size and purity needed for whatever class she wished. Cardoman, by contrast, could only build 4’s and since the Caliphate attack could only shape ingots sized for the same.

Without a deal in advance and the trip’s short notice meant that semi-refined ore from Cardoman’s belt was in the Castleton’s lower hold, which even so remained almost empty, at least by volume. Combine that with the passengers inside and grain in two of the outside bulk tanks, and it added up to a lot of open space in the ships lower sphere above the engineering deck.

To Claude’s surprise the first thing he saw when stepping out of the lift into the lower hull was a military type landing craft. Walking away from the central shaft he saw the hold contained five others parked in what seemed to be a random pattern.

“How did these get in here,” he asked, “They sure didn’t come down the chimney,” he added as an afterthought referring to the column running up the center of the ship.

“The yard crew unbolted a large section of hull-plate, floated the landers in and buttoned her up again,” Wes told him. “Our latest and greatest and something to sweeten the deal with Novi. Right now they’re tied down to bring the ship into balance on her centerline. It took them two shifts and will take about the same on Novi. Captain Ustinov told me we could do it ourselves in a system without a dockyard but even with an experience crew it would take days. There’s room along the hull; let’s run a few laps before the marines get here and make us look silly.”

Four times round the fifty meter diameter hold and Claude was out of breath, Calvert seemed unaffected. Twice more and he threw up his hands begging for mercy, “Enough,” he gasped, slowing down and bending over, hands on his knees.

Wes slowed down at the same time and said, “I’m feeling it myself, lets get off the track till the marines are finished.”

The marine detachment had started running from a position just in front of them three laps ago and had already passed them once.

“How long will they keep it up?”

“Another ten or twelve laps I’d guess, Lotti has some target practice planned so he won’t run them into the ground; at one G that could take an hour.”

After the marines passed them by twice more Wes joined them for the remainder of the run.

“Not too bad for an out of shape old guy,” Lotti commented when they stopped.

“You should have seen us on Witherway with the rebels on our tails, that was some legendary running.”

“As General Davis never lets anyone forget,” Lotti said.

“Show a little respect for you elders Sgt or you’ll never get anywhere in this man’s army.”

“I heard that one before Sir, but it ain’t worked out so far. They still keep promoting me.”

“Call it fate Leo and lets get on with the show, Claude here has an editorial to write and you are holding the man up.”

A crate next to the freight elevators door was opened to reveal a double row of blast rifles. Another held what Cpl. Dormer, who was aligning it, called a target thrower.

“Go ahead and take one Claude,” Wes said, while looking over the adjustments on the one he had selected.

“Never fired one before, I could be dangerous.”

“Don’t worry sir,” Dormer said, “the power supply has been pulled and this blue thing here,” he touched the what Claude had thought was an under barrel hand hold, “is a dummy put in with just enough oomph to get the aiming system working and to operate the control link. It might cause a fly to blink if you could hit one, but nothing worse. Don’t touch the trigger or point at anything this side of the compartment, watch what the others do and wait your turn—you’ll be fine.”

`”What about a safety?”

“That’s you sir, keep the finger off the trigger till you’re ready to fire.”

At this point in the hold, directly over the engineering spaces, and without being partitioned, the longest unobstructed sight line was close to fifty meters, provided the aim point was a little up on the hull wall. High above, some twenty-five meters, was the lower surface of lower sphere deck one. It was supported by trusses and almost lost in the shadows and darkness above.

“Pranger, you’re up,” Lotti said from behind an orange stripe on the deck that was firing line.

Dormer and the target thrower were behind the firing line, a little to their left. “Clear all. Testing one,” Dormer said and Claude saw a dinner plate sized disk fly from the machine at a goodly rate of speed and head towards the far wall where it struck a large padded mat then dropped to another on the deck below.

“We like to reuse these things and it’s much easier on the electronics and sensor cells this way,” Wes said.

“Next on is hot.”

Pranger held his rifle, barrel pointing downwards and kept his eyes forward. Nothing happened for half a minute. Claude was thinking something must have gone wrong when the machine fired and a plate went streaking outwards. Pranger shouldered his weapon, took aim, and fired. The blue glowing disc turned red just before it struck the mat.

“Fifty-three meters. Ricks, you’re up next.”

Ricks took his turn and missed, the rest of the squad cycled through till only Lotti, Wes, and Claude remained. The average wait from stepping to the line and target launch was less than ten seconds.

“There’s a target stuck to the middle of the mat Mr. Germond,” Lotti said. Look through the scope and take some shots till you feel comfortable.”

A dot on the far wall turned blue and in a few minutes after several dozen tries Claude was turning it to red on every attempt.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

The words were no sooner spoken when a disc was launched and Claude shouldered the weapon. He just had time to catch the blue form in a corner of his scope before it slammed into the mat and dropped to the floor.”

“Give him a few more,” Wes said.

Claude hit number six and eleven. Four more misses and at fifteen Wes said to stand down and let Lotti have a go.

“Thirty-six meters!” That was second best of all the hits so far.

“Out of practice,” Lotti said smiling and stepping aside so Wes could finish off the round.

Dormer made him wait, and wait, and wait. When the disk did launch Claude couldn’t even follow the motion of the rifle to shoulder. The light turned red. “Twenty-nine meters!”

“I may not have time for running,” Wes said, “but a range in the basement and Connie and the Castle guard to practice against means I can still shoot. Claude—Lotti needs to finish up here and I need to get back upstairs. Lotti will send you a schedule; you want more practice feel free.”

“Thanks, I will take you up on that. I want to interview the Sgt before we go though, is that alright?”

“Sure, but I better stick around to see he doesn’t pull your leg. Lotti—set the rest to work and we’ll wait for you off the range.”

When Lotti joined them Claude thanked him again then asked his first question after saying it was just for background.

“Sgt Lotti, when you aren’t on duty, what do you do for enjoyment, I mean for instance what kind of hobbies do you have?”

“Uh Oh,” Wes thought, “Now he’s stepped in it,”

“I’m working on something that’s gonna’ revolutionize the art of warfare!”

“My, that seems extreme. And what might that be Sgt?” Claude asked this in his most professional voice. He did want something to make into a story for the next day’s ship-cast and humor was something he needed to work on. Humor didn’t win awards but it did sell copy.

“Can I tell him Major?”

“Go right ahead Lotti, Claude can be trusted to keep it under wraps. And even I hear rumors, but I would like to see the thing for myself.”

“Be right back, got it under my mattress.”

And with that Lotti left the hold in double time to return a couple of minutes later carrying a package about as long as his forearm. It was wrapped in paper and tied with a string. Undoing the covering he took out a rolled cloth bag. Then, after unrolling the cloth, he pulled from inside an ornate, but otherwise, so far as Claude could tell, normal looking combat knife.

There was a blade guard with a couple of small clear jewel like bumps, the handle was roundish rather than oblate, and the hilt ended in a cone shaped bevel. The blade itself was narrow but not excessively so, and sharpened on both edges; it wouldn’t have stood out amongst a hundred others.

“The idea was mine but Cmdr Borselov has been helping me with the details.” Lotti said handing it over to Calvert for inspection.

Checking the balance Wes flipped it once and caught it coming down before handing it back. “Demonstration time Leo, show us what ya’ got.”

Lotti led them back to the firing line and ordered the others away. “This is likely to break something Major,” he said looking at Wes.

“Go ahead Sgt; I’ll make sure it stays off the books.”

“Hot!” Dormer said, and a target launched. A moment later in a blur of motion Lotti threw the knife to follow it. A slow motion camera might have caught it tumbling.

Not seeing the tumble but instinctively gauging the speeds involved, Claude could tell the knife would never catch the fleeing disk. Then–about ten meters from the firing line sensors locked and in a burst of flame the rocket in the knife’s hilt ignited and it accelerated, speeding unerringly to pierce the disk, which then shattered, pieces raining to the deck below.”

Lotti looked back to the Major expectantly.

“Impressive Sergeant, keep up the good work.” And with that he pointed Claude to the lift and they made their exit.

Once inside the elevator and on the way up Claude recovered enough to ask, “Uh General, what was it we just saw down there?”

Wes said in a steely voice, “Son. We just saw—a Marine!”

* * *
The transition into the Novi system was a good one, sixteen minutes outside the limit. Communications with an outer picket establish and clearances issued even before their grav pulse was detected by the deep space net further inward. Twenty-seven hours later the Castleton was in orbit at Novi and a shuttle preparing to launch to the surface below.

Seeing as how the Secretary of State, and the Seventh’s Commanding General and wife were on board, First Officer O’mara was the lander pilot. Excepting Captain Ustinov no one else on the ship had more than a dozen trips from orbit to their name. Simulations were one thing but not the real thing. Second Officer Enrico Arpinia was qualified but the ink was still wet on his license. That was the story of the Cardoman Navy and had been ever since it started.

Years before Connie had had a little shuttle training, she had buffed up her skills on the trip and now was riding shotgun. O’mara would let her do the landing but his hands were never going to be more than fractional millimeters away from the controls.

Everyone was belted in, and except for one of the multiply redundant comm channels, the board was green, the boat deck at vacuum and the exterior hatch open. “Go ahead Ma’am,” O’mara said.

Connie let loose the magnetic grapple and with the briefest puff from a thruster L-22 glided from the boat bay and into space.

“You pass your check ride Connie.” On the way down she had tired of hearing Ma’am time after time from the lander’s Captain.

“No crosswind and I missed the sweet spot by three meters. But yeah—it was good.”

“I’ll take care of the flight report if you wish, just touch your finger to the screen so you get the credit.”

That done Connie said, “Thanks George, I owe you and a guest a fancy dinner and the best bottle of wine you can find on this planet. And if you don’t take me up on that Captain Ustinov will take some grief.”

She handed him an envelope with a window showing a credit draft for a ridiculous amount.

“You knew you were going to pass all the time didn’t you.”

“George—that draft was in case you had to take over because I didn’t pass.”

Many of the details were finalized in the day before they reached orbit and before they set foot on Novi. Claude had always known that was the way that things worked, but to see it from the inside gave him an appreciation for how much work went into getting the PR set and ready to go.

He had helped Ellen write press releases and had written a few things on his own he would sell once he hooked up with the local syndicate but there was something else that even a cynic could see.

These people really did believe that what they were doing was for the right, and not just for fame and personal aggrandizement. Damned if he wasn’t starting to feel the same, he was almost ready to stop fighting it.

He was fourth off the lander, following Vic Shearing, Wes Calvert, and Cpl. Dormer. They had set down at a military base an hour from Novi’s largest city and a small band was playing the Cardoman anthem. Wes was wearing his Cardoman dress uniform and most of his medals. Even the cynic in Claude was impressed. He wasn’t sure of what most of them stood for—but my did they shine.

Ellen nudged him from behind, “Move it tourist, you’re holding up the parade.”

Claude spent the next week fobbing off old work as new and writing behind the scenes commentary, gossip really, concerning the parties he was attending with the Cardoman delegation. His first sale while still on the Castleton had paid for a luxury apartment that Cardoman was going to cover, and Ellen spent most every night there with him. He made contacts, dug dirt, did all the things a newsie was supposed to do, and was very sorry to leave five days later.

As they headed out to make the jump to Llanfairn Claude put together several news reports and a longer article summarizing events on Novi, and a long gossip column under an assumed name. He didn’t want to damage the brand. Most importantly he needed to finish before they jumped, because from Novi the news would reach Cardoman on the next ship going in that direction and could arrive in less than three weeks, If he waited to send until reaching Llanfairn it would take at least twice that long and the news would be old, beyond its expiration date,

He wrote for twenty-two straight hours, fueled first by coffee and towards the end by gin. He hit a final send and collapsed over his keyboard, an archaic device but his speech was too unsteady for voice input at the end,

Reading Claude’s last piece before giving the Okay to send Foreign Minister Shearing asked Ellen, “How much of this gossip stuff is true?”

“All of it I think Sir, It all checks out with our own sources.”

“See that it gets sent then Ellen, but I must say a completely true gossip column seems like a clear violation of journalistic ethics.”

“Journalistic ethics?

When George O’mara reported back to his captain he said, “The whole thing went rather well Vince, it’s a shame you were on the ship the full five days and couldn’t attend the diplomatic reception. It was a feast for the eyes not to mention the food.”

“Perhaps George, but the Navy in this part of space takes a back seat to no one when it comes to pomp and ceremony and I wasn’t on the ship the whole time. I left Lt. Arpinia in charge warning him to do nothing even if the fusion core was melting down and had a nice visit on Novi Station while looking over our newest G-3.”

“The transfer was finalized?”

“We send a crew in time and we can fly her out of the dock.”

“Admiral Madry will scream bloody murder when she needs to come up with another crew. Kinda’ glad we’ll be on Llanfairn when she finds out.”

“That might be far enough from the epicenter but I wouldn’t count on it.”

Waiting for the jump, Connie couldn’t get to sleep with one so imminent, she said to Wes, “I think the whole thing went rather well Dear, Cardoman got what we came here for and I think that New Britain get more of the help she needs to rebuild. Official Cardoman policy or not we owe them. On a more personal level I was glad to see that Cardoman dress finery was viewed as exotic and not provincial, though it did seem to suit Ellen, The way those woman dress would put a bird of paradise to shame, and the fancy one when it comes to the bird of paradise is the male, don’t you know? What do you think Hon?”

“I think you were lovely.”

Connie never heard the alarm.

“Two, One, Transition out.”