A Very Blue Moon 25

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 25 Draft (03-10-11)

Near empty with power coming in from the dock the Castleton was eerily quiet without even the normal underlying donning hum from the ventilation system of a ship underway. That system was down for an hour for filter changes and a pump replacement. It was rare for an electrostatic air mover to fail but it did happen.

Unlike a liner pre-war, with a crew of five hundred or a straight cargo hauler with perhaps thirty to fifty including marines and trainees, the Castleton carried a compliment of eighty-seven about a quarter of them first timers from the Academy getting a little experience.

Union was a transportation hub, the busiest in the Confederation whether measured by passenger traffic or tonnage. It was the final destination or a transfer point for almost all of the passengers remaining from Cardoman and those added at Novi, Llanfairn and Prestwick.

Besides Imhoff/Elmendorf there were only five other parties booked all the way to Cardoman. There would have been a few more extending their passage but the departure from Union was even yet undetermined, the only thing certain was that it would be at least ten days and perhaps as long as a month till she took her leave.

Half the crew went on two day leave within hours of making port and that included half of the marines, seven still on the ship to handle security. With only one tube attached to Union Main it was not a difficult job. For the few passengers remaining ships services were suspended and they needed to take their meals and find entertainment on the station or on Union itself.

A bulk military cargo mostly containerized would be on board when they returned to Cardoman and so the crew on ship was busy disassembling the upper passenger deck and stowing the modular wall sections and fixtures and sealing the ‘tween deck ventilation and plumbing system which was going to require a little work before they left for home.

When the departure date was certain they would sell whatever vacant passenger space remained on the mess deck for the five week final leg of the trip.

Connie and Wes continued to sleep on the ship. With a shuttle always at their beck and call and Lt. Avram Evans who had once in charge of security on Llanfairn but now promoted and transferred to Union able to provide another trained pilot, the strain on Third Officer Arpinia was eased considerably. No one landed at the Union Spaceport without a lander inspection and check ride but that went smoothly with Evans clearing the way.

Customs at Union was both thorough and efficient for those leaving the station for the ground. Those entering from a docked ship only went through a weapons scan when thy left their ships docking arm; that scan was equally effective. Diplomatic courtesy permitted the marines directly involved with guard duty personal weapons but for all others they were banned.

Lotti was happy to learn that knives were exempt from the regulation. No one was going to inflict serious damage on a multi-million ton space station with a bladed weapon, even one that looked normal but wasn’t.

Yasser Allahbad, to judge by his appearance, was a young, fit, Nordic type. His DNA scan would agree showing just a hint of Middle Eastern ancestry, far less than was common in the Confederacy and more typical of an Indie such as Pillson’s Crossing, the name burned into his ident card.

He was actually from Driessen in the Caliphate, a neglected class three planet founded almost as an accident by what could only be termed pirates more than five hundred years earlier during the first expansion.

A ship with women captured from a colony ship boarded at gun point made one last jump and ran out of fuel at partially terraformed Driessen; the small scientific staff remaining there had been abandoned. The expense of sending a G-1 ship out just to pick up a few dozen scientists and their families was ruled out at a low level of the bureaucracy and never reexamined.

The lack of interest was a situation that lasted for centuries while the Caliphate looked inwards and consolidated gains on more prosperous worlds. When Driessen was finally revisited amazingly the descendants of that pirate crew had managed to survive and even thrive. It had a population of six hundred thousand which was continuing to expand.

The strain of Islam maintained by the planet’s elite was extreme beyond anything back on Earth at the time and allowed to continue. Fanaticism became its own reward when directed from afar. The ‘Old Man in the Mountain’ would live, on Driessen he had never died, and a use be found for his skills.

Known to his superiors in the Compliance Office as Yasser the Assassin, Allahbad earned his name and the respect that went with it. His work to this point had been inside the Caliphate against political targets and heretics; even without a DNA mod he was unknown to the Feddie database. Near at hand when Imhoff called for help he was ordered to Union to see what might be done. He took with him an apprentice, Mohammad Zur, and a journeyman, Abbas Cedanio who had worked with him once before, along with a list of reliables that the Caliphate supported on Union in case of need.

For almost a month Yasser had studied the Union security apparatus using information supplied by the Compliance Office looking for holes and weak links around the Presidential Guard. Those few he found were time dependent and fleeting, requiring intimate knowledge of travel plans, something he was ill equipped to acquire. Imhoff was supposed to be the master planer; Yasser put aside any idea of a solo attempt on the Union President Reshevsky to wait upon guidance from a higher level being. Others would attend to Reshevsky as his orders stated, he would work under Moqtada al-Sadr, Imhoff’s true name, and concentrate on Calvert.

Yasser took a flight to Union Main that arrived some hours after the Castleton. This was his fourth trip to the station where each time he worked out at the Zero G, a gym and sports facility matched to its label. His cover was that of trainer and coach to the two men who accompanied him and in fact they were all very good at the demanding intricate play required for low and no gravity competition.

The style set on Union was the standard used in judging across the Confederation and Indies and there was money to be made in one on one competition and demonstrations. So with support from a wealthy benefactor who was his apprentice’s sponsor they were here to study and perhaps earn a credit or two; that was the cover story whenever asked about the reason for their travel.

His workout complete Yasser showered and changed into fresh clothing and purchased a duty free bottle to take with him on his return trip. A non drinker himself they were an easy natural bribe for people who did not even realize they were helping in the early stage of a criminal enterprise; clerks, librarians, anyone with knowledge or access to the people that interested him.

It was in the duty free store that Yasser met Imhoff for the first time in his life.

“Arnie, Arnie Swanson! What a small universe!” That was the overly loud greeting from the man approaching who carried a bottle identical to the one Yasser/Arnie had just purchased. “Roger Elmendorf. We met on Pillson over a year ago. I watched you compete and made a little money in the process.”

“Eh—Mr. Elemendorf, I really can’t say as I remember,”

“Tried to invite you to dinner but you were occupied.”

It was all done so smoothly, so artfully, that even someone watching for a meet would rule this one out. But there was no one watching. The video feed from all public areas of the station was scanned by a computer much less suspicious than a trained intelligence operator, who would have at least have noticed that each man had purchased the same unusual type of brandy.

“I have you cornered now so let me buy you lunch, the least I can do.”

Looking rather dubious, Yasser let himself be convinced and drug away to a nearby food court and a table in a near empty eatery Imhoff that others had already swept for bugs. Out of a public place there should have been no video feed in any case but being careful was why Imhoff was still alive. A main part of being careful was to work alone whenever possible: Watch your enemies, fear your friends.

They ordered, Imhoff rather heartily, Yasser a salad and bread. When the waiter left them the two brought each other up to speed.

“So you see,” Imhoff said, “With my DNA mod wearing off and a one percent chance of a full scan from Union customs, instead of just checking the markers, each trip I make to the surface puts me, you, and our plans at risk.”

“I tell you this Roger; I do not see how to get at Reshevsky down below. And I will watch but I do not believe it will be any easier to reach Calvert. That means it is best we do it here on the station. It will seem strange that you do not visit Union but I am sure someone with your experience will come up with a reason.”

“Not strange at all, my funds are not infinite and I have a place to stay and much to see on the station itself; if asked I will just claim that I intend to spend a few days on Union before we depart but am uncertain as to when, and that I intend to do a little research first in the ship and station database.”

“You agree then that the attempt is made here, on Union Main?”

“I need a few days to study what you have told me and I do have other resources left to contact. Calvert and the rest of the Cardomans will be here a month it would seem. We will have knowledge of the departure date when tickets are sold.”

“What would you suggest I do in the interim?”

“Take out a temporary membership in the sports club up here and visit more often, and see about recruiting some additional help. I am a long way from having a plan but I think whatever chances we have will be improved with more people on our side.”

“How many people would you have in mind?”

“Ten, twelve, enough to fill an assault shuttle—that seems about the right number.”

“Reliability? Does the Caliphate have that many of the type people we would need on Union?”

“I will give you contact information and an introduction to a man we will refer to only as ‘the Wine Merchant’; he will know and we will talk again in three days. Do not try to contact me before hand, When I am ready I will reach you at the Zero G.”

* * *
The party from Cardoman, instead of taking residence at the Embassy, was staying at a dacha provided by President Reshevsky about fifty kilometers from the Capital. One not nearly so elaborate as the Castle back home but more akin to the rustic country house Connie Calvert built before she and Wes were married and that the two of them still used from time to time, usually for some privacy but also when visitors came calling or just for a change of pace.

Connie was down to help them move in and see the house and grounds but would stay with Wes on the Castleton under the don’t put all your peas in one pod theory of Dormer and Lotti and one Wes was in agreement with.

The large estate was fenced in by wire and sensors. Union military guarded the perimeter, Dormer, Lotti, and a few from Evans and the Embassy staff took over care of the house and grounds but both would travel with the Calverts and security hear would revert to the marine force from the embassy.

This was one of many such homes, and not the largest or most elaborate property on a line leading from the northeast to Union City. The line and land to either side was off limits to general traffic, ground and air, and heavily protected even to having a string of full coverage anti-air batteries. So long as the Union military remained loyal this was a secure a setup as humans could devise, and if the military was not loyal—then what was the point?

“Are we going to be locked down out here our entire time on Union?” Louise shearing asked shortly after arrival. “I did so want to visit some of the cultural sites I’ve only read about. In between times working to secure a favorable vote that is.”

“Not at all Ma’am,” Lt Evans replied, “You can go most anywhere you want at most any time, provided it’s on the spur of the moment, or at least with no plans announced publicly.”

“Work first, of course, but I do have plans. The Music Museum here is said to have the greatest collection from the Rock and Roll era anywhere since it was banned on Earth.”

“A jumpsuit worn by the ‘True Elvis’ and a brick from Graceland?” Connie said with a smile.

“Don’t make fun of your elders dear, it’s not nice!”

After landing, and while the rest went on to the dacha, Wes. Ellen and Shemuel Ben Judah were taken to Union Fleet Headquarters and a meeting with Admiral of the Home Fleet Burton.

“So good to see you,” the Admiral began, “We would have met years ago when I visited Cardoman with Andre Layette, and I did speak with General Inglase and regret his passing; but at the time I understand you were on Sylvan.”

“You brought the news about our Vice President and his arrangement with the Caliphate then didn’t you?”

“In a manner of speaking, but it was really James Phillips doing, it was so hush hush I was out of the loop and didn’t even know until he brought it up.”

“Where is James? I expected him to be here.”

“He’ll be along in a bit I’m told. But let us get started; we have much to cover and little time. President Reshevsky will be along in an hour.”

Portisch Lavin was the Cardoman’s Ambassador to Union; he’d held the position for as long as Vic Shearing had been the Foreign Secretary, and for just that reason. The Cardoman civil service was remarkably stable and had been for a generation. When Victor earned the prize they both coveted Portisch took the service’s top diplomatic post on Union and their friendship never suffered, it had in fact strengthened.

That was ten years earlier and it happened at a bad time in Portisch’s life. A grown daughter, his only child committing suicide and his wife filing for divorce, blaming him and the long absences, saying his daughter should have had a father. He was a mess, staying busy and getting far away from Cardoman was the only thing to save him. And for that he had Victor to thank.

Two hours after their arrival Victor and Louise, and Claude—feeling out of place, met Lavin when the Cardoman Embassies black and silver trimmed aircar landed at the dacha’s front door. He was alone but for his driver sitting in the front and the car’s rear section filled almost to overflowing with bags and gaily colored boxes.

A hug for Louise and a couple of handshakes later Portisch said, “Presents for all, even for you Mr. Germond, a weeks worth of all the local news sheets; you see I was warned. There are bottles and baskets from more Embassies and Consulates than I could count, along with invitations to more receptions then you can possibly have time for. Our first order of business is to representatively sample the wares while we plot our next series of moves. Come, let us each grab an armful, there is not a moment to waste!”

* * *
Forty-eight light hours out from the limit the Sword of the Prophet coasted inwards slowly at one percent light speed. At this distance the radio and neutrino emissions from Union were beacon bright to the ships sensor suite. They could even detect the grav pulses as ships arrived and departed but to put a name to the signal at this range was beyond even their ability. But that is why she carried sensor probes, stealthed and passive but for a daily light signal verifying position and conveying what information the probe had been programed to send.

The space around Union was so overloaded with detectors and patrol craft that even their probe was a light hour outside the limit but that was close enough to identify the large system traffic by name and vector track. It was not close enough to relay messages further inward and transmit those from the planet, for that purpose he had a smaller relay only probe the size of a shuttle’s anti missile headed inward. The lack of communications was something Rashid Kalid regretted with all his heart. He had a son Azrie Abed, eldest of three, working at the Kimar’s Consulate on Union whom he had not seen nor spoken to in three years.

Azrie Kalid at one time had looked to follow his father’s footsteps in the Navy; a promising career was cut short due to continuing ill will even though Gumrawi Bey had bestowed his blessing upon Rashid’s actions. With hope for rapid advancement blocked, slowed to a crawl was more like it, the move into the Compliance office was the next best thing. And Azrie had done well for himself in his new position in a short period of time. His father had expected nothing less.

Kimar was a class 2 world, a major exporter of coffee and dates, and anything else her merchants found profitable. The planet acted as a minor shipping hub and for this reason had long maintained a Consulate on Union that functioned as a trading house and mission without any diplomatic ties or responsibilities to the Caliphate as a whole. It was an ideal location for someone who did not want to be tied directly to the Caliphate’s central government.

There were some seventy similar Consulates in the Capital City and Kimar’s was unexceptional in form or function. It was not even the only one employing Compliance Office personal. It was unique in the fact that it was an operations center rather than one tasked with gathering information, and one of the few that that operated bonded warehouses both in high orbit and on Union’s surface. It was here that Yasser Allahbad came in order to speak to the Wine Merchant.

Union surveillance cameras under AI control recorded his entrance and exit in and out the Consulate, and his face was matched to his identity card. He was a first time visitor with no obvious reason to enter the structure but with nothing else marking him as suspicious and a thousand people entering the mission every month there was no reason to do any follow up. The data point remained and a second or third visit might bring human intervention but Yasser and Fava Za’atar, the Wine Merchant, were too well versed in their craft to make such an elemental mistake.

This was not his first nor was it his last stop of the day, he had cards and brochures made up advertising his services as a trainer, and walking briskly stopped at every Mission or Consulate on the street, Independent and Caliphate alike. His story would survive closer scrutiny than it was likely to receive.

He spent only a few moments with Za’atar, long enough to verify his real identity and reason for being here and to transfer Imhoff’s request. Then he listened while Za’atar said that something might be done and to instructions on how they would meet again. After that Yasser/Arnie was out the door with his brochures and on to his next stop.

The next day, when Yasser saw Imhoff at the Zero G the older man already had the nub of a plan. Hearing what Yasser had to say he began adding meat to the bones.

“Go back down and spend another day advertising, then meet with the Wine Merchant’s agent and see if he can supply the shuttle and a crew. If he can do this, and should Allah desire the same, there might just be a way.”

Finding a shuttle and spacers to man it was not difficult in the least. There was a ship from the Caliphate backwater of Latakia in port and still unloading a liquid cargo. Latakia had been at one time a major source of industrial hydrocarbons, but several centuries of over production had severely depleted the source until the old G-2 was one of the few ships the planet still maintained.

Azrie went up to the commercial station in high orbit surrounded by tank farms that specialized in handling liquid cargo. His mission to visit its Captain, a reserve Naval officer as were most captains of Caliphate shipping, and to explain the situation, telling him what he must do but not the why of it.

“You will need to find a reason to delay your departure if it comes to that. I may require you to stay here an extra two or three weeks, perhaps longer, a mechanical problem, or something to do with a critical member of the crew. It must be able to stand inspection but I am sure you can cope.”

“If I go ahead with what I have in mind at some point you will place one of your landers under my command along with any of your ships crew that I select. I will take care of recruiting any other personal. You will say nothing about this now or in the future. And you will be the only person on the ship afterwards who will know anything concerning what we have discussed. Prepare for a delay, and should I call upon you again be ready.”

Imhoff took his own membership out for the Zero G. It was in character and made his contacts with Yasser seem unexceptional. Close attention would have shown him to be ridiculously inept at zero gravity work for an asteroid miner but such scrutiny did not exist and within a matter of days he could move with a measure of confidence if not with grace.

There were details to work on but Imhoff’s plan in summary was complete. At a time when Calvert was on the Castleton and most of the crew on leave a boarding party from a shuttle commanded by Azrie Kalid would gain entrance to the boat deck. The assault team under Allahbad would overcome any resistance and if at all possible take Wesley Calvert live along with any others who seemed valuable as hostages.

The change of the mission parameters from an assassination attempt to a hostage taking might only be temporary but it gave those involved on his side their best or perhaps only chance of getting out of the system alive. Imhoff was certain that the Caliphate wanted Calvert dead and so he would be—but only after he had served another purpose and made possible their escape. If escape became impossible Calvert would be the first to die.

A master of deception and a perfectionist, Imhoff would do his best to cast doubt on who was behind this plot. Participation by citizens of the Caliphate could not be hidden but a money trail, however unlikely, could be created that emphasized the hostage and profit motive, without calling overmuch attention to the political side.

The Ryman Oligarchs could even be brought into the equation as a ready made villain. This obfuscation would not fool a competent observer, but the useful idiots always searching for a reason to do nothing would have their excuse.

Imhoff passed over a good working schematic of the Castleton’s present internal layout to Yasser for use in his own planning; Claude Germond’s handiwork was bearing unexpected fruit. They already knew about her base systems, after all she had not long ago been one of their own, the chance to take her back made this twice as sweet.