A Very Blue Moon 24

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 24 Draft (03-03-11)

Llanfairn, being the final destination of many of those starting out on Cardoman and a large percentage of those who joined the ship at Novi, close to seventy percent of all the passengers on board for the trips next leg were new. That meant Captain Ustinov was back in the meet and greet mode that took so much time away from his other duties. Using lunches and dinners there were going to be quite a few he would not dine with in the two weeks remaining till the Castleton reached Prestwick.

When Wes Calvert suggested breakfast as an option Ustinov put his foot down! “I’m Captain of this damn ship and breakfast is out of the question!” That out of his system he added in a more conciliatory tone, “How about you and Connie taking over some of the load? I am certain that now it’s known you’re on the ship most of the passengers would rather meet you than me.”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. There are maybe ten or fifteen passengers that Ellen identifies as having some political pull, on Union, Prestwick, or their home worlds, a couple of others that might be interesting to talk with for other reasons. We can have them in privately and all you need do is open the hatch and say hello.”

“Sounds good to me,” Vince said. “Why did you decide to continue to Prestwick instead of heading straight to Union after the vote anyway?”

“I gave it some thought but talked to Vic about it and he thinks bringing word of a similar outcome on Prestwick, and with the Llanfairn vote as a guide with a little work that looks certain, well it beats getting to Union a week or ten days early. The Castleton as you know already had cargo on board for Prestwick and was fully booked. That represents money we desperately need. So diverting the ship would have meant a delay unloading the cargo or we would need to book passage on another ship, and that security wise is out of the question. I think we might have caught a ride with the Union packet. It was doable but not the entrance we have planned. So we go along as before but with much better prospects.”

Even before transition, but after a last minute coded message to the Compliance Office, Imhoff spent his time looking at ship’s security, though not in any way that might arouse suspicion. On two occasions, pretending to be turned around, he made a stab at gaining entrance to the section of the ship off limits to passengers and found all the exits had card readers, cameras, or both. Cutting a hole in a bulkhead was beyond his means and in any event he was not on a suicide mission.

to the reality of his situation he began formulating plans that might at least lead to his meeting the Calvert’s, with the idea that such acquaintance might provide a means to get close to them and complete his mission with a chance to make an escape afterwards. Prestwick was a possibility, but there he would have little time and need to operate alone.

On Union, he could hire help, and use misdirection to point to the help and away from his own involvement. But first he needed to meet Calvert. Perhaps the newsie Claude Germond who was traveling with them might provide an in. He was much more accessible than the little seen Calvert and Inhoff’s story of striking it rich and touring the galaxy would make a good read if published.

With the first part of a plan in mind Imhoff began stalking his prey. Noting where Claude tended to sit whenever he went into the bar, most people were creatures of habit on that score, he chose his own spot to be only a few chairs away, and became an affable fixture in comfortable surroundings.

For the first issue of the ship’s paper after leaving Llanfairn Claude included a stock story pulled from the archives that gave some historical background concerning their next stop. Prestwick, with about the same population as Cardoman, had been colonized a hundred years earlier and was much the more prosperous of the two before Cardoman’s recent growth.

Prestwick had but one major export, the only native agricultural commodities in demand on most every planet humans had ever colonized. There were three separate items, all of them derived from the same source; a tree like plant at first call scrub wood but later, after the colonists realized what they had in this tenacious weed the name was changed to the more euphonious Bread Food Tree.

Until the plant’s magical properties were discovered there had never been a food, non Earth derived, that could be ingested in anything more than trace amounts without leading to extreme gastronomic pain or even death. There were a few non native spices and genetically modified Earth plants that took on subtle flavors much appreciated when grown off-world but nothing to rival the impact of Bread Food.

Firstly the wood from the tree when properly prepared was a perfect form of charcoal used as an option in upscale restaurants everywhere prime meat was served from the grill. It imparted a unique flavor that had not been improved upon in the last five hundred years.

Secondly the plant’s sap tasted sweet, and when thinned with other juices and particularly the fluid from the center of the trees thick walled gourd like fruit, had a flavor that if not loved by all had many devotees.

Thirdly, when dried and flaked, the Bread Foods husk became a flour like substitute that could be mixed with Earth flours of all types at up to an 80% ratio. Acted upon by the proper stain of modified yeast the mixture was indistinguishable in use, taste, or appearance, from the same grain as grown back on Earth or where desired a genetically modified variant.

Though the item might taste delicious the Bread Food flour offered no nutrient value, but then neither did it offer any calories. Eat enough of it and you could die of starvation on a full stomach. And with that discovery a commercial empire came into being.

With more money coming in that could more profitably be used elsewhere, the wealthy farming families on Prestwick first built up a commercial shipping sector and then invested throughout the rest of Confederation and Indie space. The system contained no recoverable sources of heavy metals but had no scarcity of iron, nickel and other metallic ores. With the advent of the G-3 class it started building the detachable fuel and cargo pods for it’s own fleet and others and it kept up with the trends when the newer G-4’s were launched.

The wealth of these Farmer/Magnates, who also dominated the Prestwick’s government, invested far from home created a group with more influence in the Confederation’s internal affairs than the leaders of many larger more populous could claim. More than half of the planet’s hard currency income was now generated by shipping and these off planet investments.

The hold that Lotti and the marines had once used for training was now filled with H3, Prestwick didn’t have a suitable gas giant and with only a couple weeks in transit fuel shipped in was cheaper than that lifted from the planets gravity well. And H3 was much preferred over H2O or NH4 by a military ship or anything newer than a G-2.

For lack of a better place they were trying out the latest and final version of the Lotti Special in the landing area of the boat bay. The stationary target was backed by padding on the hull metal main hatch.

“A few minor improvements,” Yuri said, “I reshaped the handle for better balance and a little more velocity. It looks and feels like, because it’s covered with, warped black leather. The optical sensor looks out through the clear band on the upper surface where the blade meets the handle. It’s faster figuring your aim point and based on the speed of the throw will target a moving object that would intersect the flight path. If that object stops or changes direction the knife will adjust accordingly. If nothing matches the search function it goes to where you throw it. Extreme range is tricky but lacking a close in target it tries for chest high on the first human looking object in line with its flight path.”

They each took a throw. At thirty meters Lotti missed dead center by two widths of the blade, Yuri by the width of a human torso.

“Practice, it’s all in the release. What is the end range?”

“She’ll burn out at a hundred and twenty meters and just start tumbling. I did make a couple up that balance the same, when I get the time to practice is another thing.”

“What will they cost once we get them into production?”

“To military or even commercial standards about half the price of a new 155.”

“Ouch!”

“If I didn’t have a portable fab and a bunch of willing labor the prototype would have set us back the cost of a lander. But since we don’t have the space to build landers and I could charge this to training here we are. I will make up a dozen before I tear the setup down, I reserve one for me and one as a present for Audie, and you can have the rest, though if you want to keep them you better set aside one each for the Major, Fader Jameson, and Robbie Davis.”

“Thanks Yuri, I would have done that anyway. Let’s get the Major his first, don’t want to take any chances.”

Wes was slowly working his way through his dinner group list but slowly. When he wasn’t with Connie and often when he was, he spent much of his free time in recreational reading, something that on Cardoman there was never time for.

The Shearings ate most meals with the passengers, giving a human face to the Cardoman Government and making friends and contacts. Claude found himself spending time reviewing old political and economic news items from Prestwick, giving an opinion on how much of a story was likely true and how much made up from the whole cloth. He ate lunch with the Calvert’s and spent all of his afternoons in the lounge where by design he met Imhoff.

Despite an initial feel that something wasn’t quite right with the man’s story the two soon struck it off. Roger had told lies to the best there was and had gotten away with it. Claude was getting his first taste of the big time. Ellen had other duties and though she didn’t see much for or against in this Elmendorf character, he didn’t raise hackles either. Just not her type.

She did try and run a deep scan on his ident but it turned up nothing amiss. Valerian was far away and never shared it’s complete population database with anyone. Something quite common with the Indies and many planes of the Confederation.

After a few afternoons drinking together Claude had commented, “It’s a shame you’re just a well to do tourist these days. There would be a book in here if since the mining strike your life was just a little more exciting.”

“Thank you but no,” Roger said smiling, “But if I ever need a ghost author I will put you at the top of my list. Tell me about Wes Calvert though. Now there is someone with a story!”

For the briefest of moments the alarms tripped again but the honest and open look on Roger’s face turned them off and Claude began talking about how they’d first met.

* * *
The Sword of the Prophet transitioned out at Elburz, a fleet base and home of the newest Caliphate shipyard, their only new FTL capable shipyard in the last two hundred years. Rashid had never visited here before but his name and that of his ship were well known and respected. His writ of authorization from the Compliance Office, countersigned by al-Gumrawi, Bey even more so.

He paused long enough only for fuel and to detach two ships from the ready squadron. Next came transition out and a jump beyond Union. They would creep back inwards and see what pickings might be had.

* * *
“You should meet this guy Wes; he tells a good story and has a good story to tell.”

Using a fork to smear more ketchup on a deep fried potato while his other hand held on to a bun containing grilled ground beef, Wes said, “What makes him special, other than he has you on his side? I mean we all have a story and others have struck it rich.”

“Well part of it is he comes from Valerian, he’s the first one I ever met from that far off.”

“I spent a few days there once, that makes two. And so did every one form the original squad of the Seventh that left Witherway,”

“Did you now? When was that and to what purpose?”

“Take notes now—here it comes. This was between leaving Witherway and our arrival at Ophia. The ship we chartered on Llanfairn, the one that brought most of the troops making up the second part of the original Seventh had Valerian as her next port of call and was a part of the deal.

At the time Valerian seemed a wilder version of Cardoman but not much else. We spent a few days in transit and we did add a few good men— wishing to get out of town. I was on the surface fighting customs for a day and Connie and Audie Madry saw the sights without ever mentioning a desire to do it all over again. Robbie Davis, a sergeant at the time, on principal refused to leave the ship.”

“Well then, do you want to see him or should I drop the subject?”

“When does he leave us?”

“His ticket’s good to Union.”

“No rush then. I don’t see how he can help us win any elections but if no one who can boards at Prestwick I’ll invite him to lunch one day so long as you are here to take him away in a timely fashion. Knowing when to leave is not a popular, nor is it a well practiced, skill.”

Transition into Prestwick was by the numbers, Ustinov had hoped for better but at only nine minutes beyond the minimum safe distance it would go in the log as a plus level jump. It was also an improvement over the last one and he made certain the navigation section was aware that he was aware off the work that went into the result.

Signals performed adequately and he could find nothing to fault with engineering. Borselov would need to handle that. Vince knew when he was over matched.

They came out with the laser mounts that normally took care of sweeping their path of small debris under manual control but that only lasted for an hour till the automatics went back on line with only a single supervisor to check their status. Without the marines on the Castleton there never would have been a manual override.

A few hours due to the light speed lag and they were cleared for orbit. A day later the Castleton docked and disgorged her passengers; and in another day a portion of her cargo. Then she went to the storage yard to empty her holds of fuel and drop off the two fuel filled cargo pods.

The passenger changeover was minimal at Prestwick station; most on the ship had Union as a destination. But with three days before departure most went down to the surface to view first hand and to tour the Bread Tree plantations.

Claude and Ellen left the ship for other more personal reasons; Imhoff went down to maintain cover. Connie, Wes, and the Shearings went for reasons of state but were tourists none the less.

* * *
“I could retire here don’t ya’ know,” Connie said as she leaned against a sandy hummock and watched the waves roll in from off shore. She closed the lid on the cooler and snapped it shut.

“You could do as well on Cardoman; we just never traveled enough to see what was out there.”

“What about sharks?”

“Well we do have a few predators but the problem is not as large as the newsies make it out to be. We keep them around for color and to remind us of how it was before we started terraforming. Having large sea creatures sets Cardoman apart from most other planets. Though I can’t say it got us many more colonists.”

Connie checked the time and said, “Show’s about to start.”

They both looked out to sea scanning the horizon. “There it is,” Connie said softly, pointing to her left where they saw the patch of white that was its wake grow larger as the lander streaked towards the island, barely subsonic and skimming just above the wave tops. By the time they could make out the shape it was shedding velocity ten seconds from touchdown on the islands narrow beach.

“Nice of the Prestwick military to let us get in a little practice. Hope it sells a few more landers,” Wes said in the silence between the engines shutting down and the ramp dropping.

“Only four leaving the lander, Lotti must have dropped some off on the other side, bet he’s got us surrounded,” Connie said.

Lotti marched forward, two marines flanking on either side, from ten meters away he said, “Sir, Ma’am, You are prisoners of the Seventh Cardoman. The government of Prestwick requests that you come with me to the Castleton in order to make preparations for formal discussions of mutual interest!”

“You tell him Colonel,” Wes said to Connie shaking his head slowly back and forth in gesture indicating no.

Without missing a beat Connie said, “Sgt—Lotti is it? Did you do a complete sensor scan before you landed here?”

“Of course we did. If you would turn and look behind you you will see I have also had troops sweep this islands rearward approaches. There is no help for you here, I repeat, you must come with us!”

“And your sensors found nothing? Nothing at all?”

“Ma’am, the only man make objects on this island are those right here, your personal communicators, optical gear and your cooler.”

“Oh—this,” Connie said resting her hand on the temperature controls in the lid, hiding their details and workings. “And you scanned the insides?”

“You wouldn’t,” Lotti said with a hint of anxiety coloring his voice.

“I’m afraid so Sgt. Inside this cargo container witch you so artfully call a cooler, is a small tactical nuclear device. Should you try to remove us from this island or should you attempt leave yourself without permission, I cannot be held responsible for the resultant damage. Contact your superiors and we will open negotiations for your release and that of your lander, along with the subsequent payment of penalties and reparations.”

Lotti turned to Wes pleading, “She can’t do that—can she Sir?”

“I’m afraid so Sgt. But this time we will go with you. Detail two of your men to carry and stow the cooler. But tell them to be very very careful.”

The ten story glass walled Hotel Rapi Nui was the tallest building on Prestwick, From a suite on the top floor the bay and chain of islands leading to the mainland framed by their window made a picture in blues and greens that was picture postcard perfect. Tall Coconut Palms edged the white sand beaches dotted with umbrella covered tables, Small watercraft sped between the islands or those with sails just scudded before the wind.

Bread Food plantations covered the mainland starting a few kilometers inshore, but the plant did not tolerate salt spray well and they were confined to the interior. Without a moon to raise tides the low lying coastal fringe was prime resort land doomed to go unused unless the cost of interstellar travel dropped by an order of magnitude. The mainland coast was almost deserted with only a few private homes widely separated marking the seaward extent of vast inland estates.

All the Castleton’s passengers but for a few business travelers on extremely tight budgets had visited the surface, The crew had gone down in sections most spending more time in the local bars than what rightfully could be termed sightseeing. Most bars had wide verandas and served outside so perhaps sightseeing did fit the experience.

“A right tolerant place,” bosun Joyce had reported, “Only five to bail out of the local jail and the fines and penalties all were quite reasonable.”

“Any marines?” Connie asked.

“A clean sweep, five for five.” Wes answered.

“Well she’s a new ship with a young crew. And there were only two other ships, purely commercial with small crews in the docks, hardly sporting. Give her some time to develop some spirit and I’m sure the Navy’s numbers will improve.” Connie said with a smile.

Cardoman had no permanent presence on this planet, from time to time a trade delegation might visit but more often inter governmental contact was handled on Union or more rarely a meeting when a senior diplomat was passing through. With far less ceremony than on Llanfairn Vic Searing presented the case for war. News of the Caliphate attack on neutral shipping tipped the balance to support but only if the Union fleet would base one of its squadrons here on a permanent basis.

Prestwick maintained a large commercial fleet but was woefully unprepared to protect it from attack. They had a planetary police and a customs service but no military or naval units worthy of the name.

“We can help with your training,” Wes said, “If you can help us man our fleet.” And on that note the formal discussions ended with a day remaining before the Castleton would be ready to leave.

Taking one last look at the view they left the suite, their luggage having been sent ahead and Dormer and Ricks walking in front while Bernshaw trailing behind. “It is a shame Prestwick’s like Llanfairn’s vote is only advisory on the Confederacy as a whole. Still Victor and Louise are justifiably happy with the new arms agreements and getting another vote for our side is a big plus.”

The Cardoman ship had let loose from the station and was heading outwards at a stately one G when their shuttle reached orbit. Connie handled the navigation, which was really just entering numbers and verifying them; and Second Officer Arpinia the final powered maneuver into the shuttle bay after they rejoined the ship an hour off Prestwick.

“Handled like an old timer,” Connie said when the hatch was battened down and the shuttle chained to the deck.

Arpinia nodded and smiled. “I could do it in my sleep, in fact I have.”

Prestwick to Union was only eleven days from transition to transition, the shortest leg of the trip. With a cargo of Bread Food the Castleton was traveling light and handled accordingly. It didn’t speed the trip through hyper but they would retain more delta V on exit cutting a couple of hours off the total time station to station.

The luncheon with Claude and Roger Elmendorf was put off when he won the lottery to sit at Captain Ustinov’s table. When Claude brought it up Ustinov was present and comment on how it was a miracle the man could find his way to the bar each afternoon much less find a rock containing heavy metal.

“From what I could tell his knowledge of ship work was a mile wide and an inch deep. It might have been stage fright but Bosun Joyce said she saw him take two tries to get the life pod drill right and seal the flap when he first came aboard. It’s not practiced much on your normal transport and no telling for luck I guess, but most non spacers get it right in one and odd in someone with ten or more years of mining experience.”

“Put someone else on the list then,” Wes said. “He won’t be the first person I never met. And my memories of Valerian are not high on those I want to revisit.”

The day it took from transition to Union orbit provided a view of one wonder after the next. The capital of the Confederacy had by far the most traffic of any planet in human explored space; it surpassed that of Earth itself. There were never fewer than six FTL ships going to or from orbit and shuttles, pickets, and insystem transports galore.

Union had a shipyard that could build or repair anything in use today and was even in the process of returning an old G-1 band machine to service for new construction. There were four very large orbital stations for commercial use and two further out even larger and as active for use of the Home Fleet and visiting military vessels.

It was only the Confederacies third most populous planet but in terms of space based economic activity it was far and away number one. The ships sensors as enhanced by Cmdr Borselov made out more than a hundred stealthed or semi-stealthed platforms. There were many others invisible even to this gear. Comm traffic was incessant.

“I’d love to see all this on a battle cruiser’s flag plot,” Connie said.

“With luck we’ll get the chance. As soon as we find time I’ll ask Ambassador Lavin to try and set it up,” Vic Shearing told her. “For now though I suggest we all get some sleep. The show when we dock will be just as impressive and I want to get right to work as soon as we arrive.”

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