A Very Blue Moon 27

A Very Blue Moon
Chapter 27 Draft (04-02-11)

Wes stepped to the screen on the signals console; it showed an empty engineering section. Then he pulled up the crew roster, to see who was listed as being on board. Lotti, Borselov, and Dormer, were shown as still on Union. The update hadn’t yet been made. Wes added Dormer’s name to the on board list as fast as he could enter it.

Ustinov went to his command seat and started reading the names of the crew, and marines, ordering them to stand down, disarm, and go to the mess area as instructed by Sadr’s follow up order. He asked them to acknowledge the order at once. That should be clue enough to the unmentioned two that they were not registered as being on board the ship and to keep it that way.

Connie was at the weapons station but with her display slaved to ships systems. “The elevators are moving again. Button it up Wes, you’re running out of time.” She turned of the screen and left the station to stand besides Dormer who had just finished hiding his handgun behind a wall mount electronics rack when the elevator door opened.

First out was Elmendorf, Connie hadn’t yet stared thinking of him as Sadr. Next was a dark bearded man in his thirties, and last another a few years younger.

Sadr looked around taking everything in. He said, “Ustinov, Calvert, away from the consoles and stand next to Mrs. Calvert and Dormer. You will remain silent unless I speak to you.”

As they both complied, saying nothing and looking attentive but without fear or panic, the men who had entered with Sadr took places at the vacated control stations and began setting the displays to their own preferences. It was obvious from the start they knew what they were about.

The younger one at the signals station said, “Our counts agree, fourteen are in or on their way to the mess room. The eleven that did not answer match those we know to be dead.”

“And the two passengers?”
“Their room is sealed and their outside communications cut.”

“Call up two men to escort our guests to the mess deck then finish undocking. I will then talk to Union Station and System Security to insure they are aware of the consequences of interfering with our plans.”

When the prisoners were taken below Sadr gave orders for the Calvert’s suite to be swept and cleared of weapons and any communication devices. Only a single line to the bridge would be left open, He would isolate them from the rest of the ship’s crew as soon as that was done; isolating the head from the body in a purely metaphysical sense, one that would become real as soon as Calvert had no further use. For now he kept the Union forces at bay.

Sadr made no attempt to keep his conversation with the station private, in fact quite the opposite, it was broadcast system wide. The Sword of the Prophet would hear of the Castleton’s recapture in two hours and deduce that its exit from the system being aimed directly at their position was no accident. Using Rashid Kalid’s son as a spokesman along with various keywords made certain that Kalid would not view this as a trap.

* * *
They were ten kilometers distant from the station now. Through the window to the mess deck they saw it shrink. Part but not all of the talk Sadr was having with Union authorities went out over the ships intercom.

As soon as the guards left the large dining room Ustinov, seeing none of the crew present were injured asked, “Are there any wounded?”

A few looks and shrugs but no one spoke.

“Can we talk without being overheard?” Wes asked.

Bosun Joyce, one of the first to the mess hall said, “I think so sir. There was no time for them to place any fancy listening device and anything that’s small enough we can’t see it should bee too small to broadcast a signal through the ships metal and conductive materials of our internal partitions. They might have put in something that is tapping into another line to get a signal out of here but I doubt it. Our count shows thirteen on the shuttle plus that bastard Sadr, all of them were busy before they brought the first of us in.”

Wes spoke again, “This is how I see it: The Calps claim to be recapturing the ship and the promise of an eventual prisoner exchange will keep Union from trying to stop our departure, especially with us as hostages. Our boarders know what they’re doing here. Up on the bridge we say them compare the tags from the ones they killed to the crew left on ship and those of us alive; the numbers matched.”

“Sir, I—,” Joyce started before being cut off. Wes was sure she was about to say something about not having Lotti and Borselov in the data base. Even if there had been no listening device planted in the last hour, Sadr had been on the ship for months, plenty of time to install one, or at a minimum set a recording device in place. Given how professionally this operation was being run Wes would bet that was the case.

“Not now Bosun!” His voice was harsh and demanding, his look even more so. He wanted to stop her from saying more and make sure she remained silent. “We will mourn the dead and account for our own failures when the time is right. There is also the possibility that even thought we do not think we are being watched at the present time we are in error. Remember that.”

Ustinov now took over. “I will call each of you for a one on one interview in order to set the record straight. Do not talk amongst yourselves and withhold and questions until that time.”

The had only an hour before Sadr pulled the Calvert’s out from the rest and had them locked into their stateroom.

* * *
“Damn it’s dark in here!” Lotti said over the hard optic link between the helmets of their Zero G Combat Suits. “And cramped too.” The space between the inner pressure and radiation hull and the outer particle and blast hull of a G3-T was under a meter at best. It was pierced at intervals by supporting members, hatchways, and fittings from the ship’s interior to the outside world. On a warship the gap was twice as large and most often filled with liquid H to use as fuel and in some cases to act as a heat sink for stealth reasons, to keep the ships exterior as cold as the vacuum surrounding it.

In battle the H could be vented to dissipate heat from a beam weapon or it could be dumped entirely to help out against blast damage. On a transport it was always empty space, the pumps to load and unload and maintenance needed to keep it from leaking not worth the expense.

On the Castleton like some of the later G-3’s there were backup control lines in shallow raceways mounted flush to the pressure hull. Entrance to the ‘tween hull spaces was from locks and access points, several dozen of them, scattered throughout the ship.

Borselov and Lotti entered from an opening into the engineering spaces before the boarders reached the control room. That meant now they needed to pass up through the hull gap to the top of the lower sphere then up the central bar of the ship’s dumbbell in order to reach the upper sphere, and there was only one man sized opening between the two sections.

It took almost an hour to reach the single opening and for Yuri to locate a raceway with the necessary cabling inside and start working to tie in.

This would not normally be a problem, the ships comp system, or a helper at the other end of the run, would identify a line as he tapped it. But with the Calps in control of the comp Yuri couldn’t risk injecting a trace signal and so he was working from the master wiring diagram he’d downloaded into his comm and hoping it was accurate. No optical links showing the inside of the ship were multiplexed to the trunk line but there was a tie in to the intercom and the ship’s communications buffer.

After listening to the comm channel and setting his comp to track the stations in use it took Yuri another ten minutes to tease a signal and fool a backup optical relay into locking onto a camera feed. They were in luck, the connecting tube was empty. Now the choice was to continue in the ‘tween space and make a very hard climb or duck back inside the pressure hull and use a ladder way. The elevators were out of the question.

Letting aching backs and arms assist with the decision making process returning to the ships pressurized interior won hands down. They went back inside, entering through an airlock into a damage control equipment storage locker, a totally manual operation with no automatic circuits to record their presence.

“What do you think Lotti?”
“First we need to defuse the explosives in the shuttle bay.”
“Right, I hadn’t thought about that. How do we do it?”

“Pull the detonators and set them on fire. Without a kick start they’ll burn but not explode. Create a diversion too.”

Checking his comp Yuri said, “They got two on the boat deck.”
“Well then we got em outnumbered,” Lotti replied.

Flames were billowing and black smoke filling the cavernous boat bay. Two bodies, dead before the fire started, were exposed to vacuum when the fire suppression system failed to extinguish the blaze. Even that expedient failed; explosives carry their own oxygen source. Before the deck vented Borselov had just enough time to open and block the doors to both to the small passenger elevator tubes; the central freight elevator was always open at the boat deck. With that completed the only way to move up and down was via the interior stairwells and more limiting laderways.

Through helmet visors they could see the flashing of the red fire lights but of course the sound of the alarm was inaudible. The combat suits gave them a secure comm link so long as they stayed within visible range.

“Guess that blows the element of surprise,” Lotti said.

“Not entirely,” Yuri replied, “I took out the video feed from the deck so all anyone can know is there’s a fire, not how it started.”

“Can you do the rest of the ship?”
“Too much redundancy, not enough time.”

They entered the starboard side stair well through the closet sized airlock adjoining it. From inside they could hear through their suit comms the ship alarm and a call for all of the faithful to suit up. Lotti shot out the lights but that wouldn’t hide their location, and the fact that the fire on the boat deck was no accident.

They raced up the stairway, taking them two at a time, bypassing the six boarders they knew were in the lower crew spaces but taking a moment to weld the door shut. Temporarily at least that left only the starboard side stairwell usable.

The mess deck was their goal, and rescue of the ships crew being held there. The needed to get this done before the Calps decided that elimination was the only option. Something likely so long as they were still holding on to higher value hostages.

It took fifteen seconds to climb upwards five flights, Lotti in front Yuri only a second behind. Five seconds later Yuri had the cover off of the stairwell door control and jumped the lockout and the double panel started to slide open. Holding his rifle high and stepping sidewards, as soon as a crack began to form he fired a blast into the rooms ceiling. The rifles optics showed overturned tables close and the ships crew lined up and facing the room’s far wall.

The door opened wider, the stray EMF surge from the rifle took out the room lights for only a fraction of a second before emergency backups came on. Aimed fire seared into the exposed stairwell landing, which was now empty, the glare darkening for a moment a combat suit’s helmet visor.

In that instant Lotti had the airlock hatch open and was sprinting on a diagonal flanking the overturned tables behind which were two Calp guards turning to cover him.

They were too late! Both went down without a chance to fire again. Lotti even managed to spare one of their weapons. The optics were toast but it still held a charge and would fire.

Captain Ustinov rushed towards the bodies; he knew better than to assert his authority at this moment and said only, “What next?”

“We get the Major!” was Lotti’s reply tossing Ustinov his pistol.

“Wait!” Yuri said. “Our priorities are Engineering, the Bridge, and the Major in that order.” He gave his own pistol and two of his four grenades to the ship’s bosun. “Joyce, delegate, but get control of the starboard stairwell sealed. Captain Ustinov, I would appreciate it if you would see what you can do about the Calps on the crew deck. Take half the crew and put something heavy on top of all the ladderway hatches and see what you can do about the lower ones. If we can bottle them up we can clean out that nest later. Lotti I want you to stick with me.”

On the bridge Sadr saw everything unfold. His plan was falling apart. Once those on the mess deck were armed all might be lost. The young former captain Azrie Kalid had all the ships internal doors locked out from powered control by now, his former experience paying dividends, but that would only slow things down a little. The only hatch armored and secure for more than a few moments was the one leading to where he stood on the bridge.

“Code a message for your father; inform him of all that has happened. Sadr knew that by the time any message could reach Admiral Kalid and his ship who were both at least a light hour away, the situation would have resolved itself.

“Then raise the engineering section and any others who are still active. I want the ships power plant placed in readiness; in a position to go critical, then I want the ship retaken. It shall be as Allah wills but in the meantime there is unfinished business to which I must attend.”

Descending one level by using the hatch in the captain’s day cabin Sadr first checked the video feed on the lower deck wall screen. After seeing Calvert sitting at a desk towards the rear of the large open living spaces he entered the unguarded area where the bosun Joyce usually sat. . He looked again at her desk display and saw him still in place and playing with a rather simple letter opener—a relic from an earlier era. His wife must be in one of the other rooms. No Matter.

As he took the few steps towards the entryway and door controls, for reasons unknown, Sadr flashed back to what he always called the ‘Bond Maneuver’. The way that particular strategy worked was that once you decided it was time to kill someone you must first tie him up so he cannot escape your chosen instrument, whether it be an onrushing train, exploding bomb, killer shark, or something equally certain.

Then you leave him there and go about your business while Bond, suffering mightily, awaits his doom. Whereupon he does escape and then returns to make You the victim of the day.

Wasn’t going to happen, Sadr started to feel a sudden chill but had his gun drawn when he commanded the compartment door to open.

As he brought the weapon to bear he saw Calvert’s arm in motion. Then there was a flash of light causing him to flinch as his finger tightened on the trigger. And then a momentary pain as the still powered weapon buried itself into chest. Then he felt nothing. Wes was crouching over the body prying the weapon from cold dead fingers when Connie joined him.

Yuri, by using his blast rifle to fuse the cabling had all the main control runs from the bridge severed from the rest of the ship; whomever was in charge up there could damage the control stations, destroy them in fact without causing a hull breach or the ship to go boom!

That took but a moment and he and Lotti were on their way back down the connecting bar of the ship and into the lower sphere.

“There’s only two of them down here but what’s gonna’ keeps them from doing the martyr thing to the power core?” Lotti asked as Yuri finished killing all the video on the lower sphere.

“I took care of that when the first alarm went off,” Yuri said. “Any attempt to blow the reactor will shut it down instead. I could maybe do it but not without loading in some new code. We’re here for backup and insurance.”

They were about to bypass the door locks when the Major got hold of them over their suit link. The same message was being broadcast wherever the ship’s intercom system was in working order.

“This is Calvert with a message to Commander Borselov. Moqtada al-Sadr is dead, Connie and I are fine and the cleanup seems to be going well. We still are locked off the bridge but Captain Ustinov says not for long. Offer surrender but get those bastards out of the power room. We are going to need this ship soon enough and repair takes time.”

“You got a plan?” Lotti asked.

“Do I ever,” Yuri replied cheerfully as he clipped a light guide to the engineering spaces internal intercom.

He looked at a timecode, made an update and said to Lotti, “Power out in ten seconds, just after the hatch opens. Then he said over the engineering comm system, “Times up, throw down any weapons and lie face down on the floor. Your plot has failed and your life is next. Eight seconds!”

Both figures showing on their helmet displays kept working at the keys of their respective control station, probably starting to realize that martyrdom came in large and small packages.

“Guess we do this the hard way.”

The hatch opened and the pressure differential between the engineering deck and the outer hallway was like that of a gentle breeze to a hurricane. Reaching for helmets took time. Lotti got them both before Yuri could fire a shot.

“I’ll do the cleanup here Lotti. Go see if you can help out the Major.”

“Sir, I don’t think you should be doing this.” Lotti said as Wes adjusted his suit getting ready to lead the final assault on the six Calps still in the crew spaces. At this time there was no video feed from inside.

“And you can stop me?” Wes said. He was smiling but in a strange and terrible kind of way.

Lotti looked up to the twenty centimeter difference in their height, and he seemed to consider the fifteen kilo difference in their weight as well. “I reckon I could Sir, but then neither of us would be good for much afterwards would we?”

“You can go first Sargent, by your blade I owe you that much.”

Lotti took that as fair and Wes didn’t hesitate before giving the signal to Bosun Joyce who blew the hatch the Calps had welded shut from its wall mount; those still alive had been busy. The panel hadn’t been cleared and was still blocking their entry and a second charge being set in place when an explosion went off in the room beyond.

“Good thing this didn’t work the first time,” was Joyce’s comment as she detonated her second charge and did clear the opening.

The entryway was a shambles. Deeper inside doors were ajar and debris strewn everywhere, and no members of the opposing force showed visually or on sensors.

Wes spoke up, “I just got a message from the Captain saying two of the life pods have jettisoned. We check each room carefully. These people are more than happy to commit suicide for their cause so I wouldn’t bet the farm that they bailed out. If they stayed together they have to be in the rec area, viewing room or the stairwell,” Wes added. “And they may have left more bombs. Take it slow, there’s no need to rush anymore, the Captain just reported members of the Confederation Navy will be joining us in a little over an hour.”

The six remaining Calps made it into the port stairwell but there was no place left for them to run. Choosing not to lay down arms they died one by one. Of the fourteen ‘Holy Warriors ‘who boarded the Castleton, only one was still alive, Azrie Kalid.

“Let’s get this mess cleaned up before our guests arrive,” Joyce said, “picking up some body parts and heading back down the stairwell, the rest of her people following suit.

On the Sword of the Prophet Rashid Kalid read the message his son had sent and in the flag plot saw the three Confederation battle cruisers closing in on the Castleton. It was all so close—so almost. He gave orders to maintain stealth but to head out system and start making the distance for an unobserved jump into hyper. His war was now elsewhere.

Wes, Connie, and Foreign Minister Shearing along with everyone else from the diplomatic mission, including Lotti and Borselov and Claude Germond, were taking passage on an escorted Union based G3 and on their way home to Cardoman. The Castleton with Ustinov still in charge was in the Federation dock undergoing repairs that would take about a month to complete before she and with cargo still on board could return. The Federation would supply engineering help for that voyage but even without Yuri’s training had the present department up to that task.

The failed attack taking place in the Confederation home system pushed enough of those still on the sidelines into the yes column, at least momentarily, and before the tide could recede Reshevsky held his vote. The Confederation was at war.

As they transitioned out Wes Calvert proposed a toast. “We have what we came here for.” Holding out his glass he continued, “Here’s hoping this once,” and he paused, “our reach,” and paused again, “did not exceed our grasp.” And he finished it off in one quick motion before dropping the glass to the deck and crushing it under his foot. Each of the others did the same.

Later on a Federation rating swept up and bagged the shards along with video recordings of the toast. He saved it all for shipment back to Union. It just might be worth something someday.

To be continued in the Cardoman Saga Volume 6.