By The Sword 15

By The Sword
Chapter 15 Draft (10/25/08)

Transition Out! A blaze of stars on a velvet background replaced the generated display on the Liner’s bridge. The bright yellow-white sun of Llanfairn was adjusted by optics to show up straight ahead while the ship made a minor spin on its vertical axis, bringing everything into line. Abe breathed a sigh of relief, almost home, almost.

His first priority was downloading the Llanfairn shipping registry. While still a day from Llanfairn’s orbital station, and marking time on his way inward, he sucked in the complete database listing, arrivals, departures, and public manifests covering the next two weeks. His Ibrahim persona might continue to remain useful and he didn’t want to attract attention by seeming overly curious about transport to Cardoman in particular.

There was nothing listed for immediate departure, so after going through standard customs as Ibrahim Mohammad, he booked a room at a mid level hotel, then purchased some civilian style clothing at a store just down the street from his rooming house.

Back to his quarters and a change, leaving once more, he made sure he wasn’t being followed, and made his way past the Cardoman Embassy building, the new one Then he returned to his room again and waited. The recognition software at the Embassy gate would scan him in. Later that day he would walk by again. This time someone would be outside on the street to meet or follow him

When he strolled by the second time he was indeed followed, at a discrete distance by a man whom Abe was certain he had never met before. Though dressed in civilian clothing Abe had no doubt he was military through and through. Something subtle in the bearing, the size and fitness, the purposeful motion when none was called for gave lie to the look of a casual tourist, or someone out for a stroll on routine business. Abe couldn’t be sure, but he thought the man might be limping a bit, favoring his right side. Abe was overly sensitive to things like that, others likely wouldn’t even notice.

He went about two blocks then entered a small upscale restaurant and took a seat where he could see the street entrance. The tail soon walked in and sat at his table. It was early, the place was not crowded. Several couples and a small family group were the only other customers.

The waitress, bringing a card scanner, asked them about drinks, but returned with only coffee and menus at Abe’s request. She had made an evaluation and left the scanner at the checkout counter. When she left this time, giving them time to consider their orders, Abe first looked over the room. Seeing nothing amiss, no one showing any interest, he opened the conversation.

“I’m sure you know who I am. That was my whole point earlier. So who might you be Sergeant?”

“Am I that obvious?”

“No—Not too bad really, but I’ve had some acquaintance with the type.”

“Avram Evans, Sgt in the Seventh Cardoman.”

“My favorite outfit, and one I’m very anxious to return to. The reason we are engaged in this little subterfuge, is that if I can’t get back to Cardoman soon I don’t want to be associated with anyone on the Embassy staff or with anyone who might place me with them. I am looking for a ride home soonest.”

“Guess it hasn’t made the news yet. The Widows Walk just transitioned in two hours ago. She will do some cargo swapping, then head right back out and boost for home.”

“Outstanding! Guess I’ll be coming in from the cold after all.”

“And into the fire I think Captain. The Embassy’s Commercial Secretary Louise Shearings son Eric is the ships first officer. She isn’t all that happy about the shortness of the stay. Let’s eat, and then if you wish, and as I’m ordered, we can smuggle you into the Residence where Ambassador Petoskey can fill you in on all that’s happened here while you were on Earth.”

“You knew I was on Earth?” Then Loomis smiled, “Of course I came in on the Jordan, where else could I have come from. But how did you know that.”

“After we caught you on our own cameras we requested a look at the video Customs takes at the port. Very easy to work with these Llanfairn types are, they know what is coming and are doing everything they can to help us deal with it.”

The room had a few more diners by the time the waitress returned and they placed their orders. Evans made a call then they finished the meal, mostly in silence, speaking only of local topics. An hour later Abe was inside the Residence, speaking with Jules Petoskey and Louise Shearing.

* * *
As upscale as could be found on Llanfairn in a public setting, the bar at the Grand Hotel was just right. Russo Nevier was early on purpose. He had two birds to take care of tonight. One was on the way, the other he would find and feather later. He sat at the long bar till he saw the mercenary walk in then stood and motioned him towards the prearranged table.

As soon as they were seated, even before someone from the wait-staff could request their drink order, Russo took stock of the glum expression facing him and said, “What’s the matter Zavala, hard times jumped up and grabbed you by the ass, left you standing and beggin’ for bus fare?”

“Russo, you’re scum, you fell in, and by some kind of miracle came out clean. I would have predicted, said it to your face if you asked, that you would be in rehab somewhere by now, clawing at the walls—so much as the restraints let you. Guess money can buy enough medical care to keep even your habits from being fatal. Some of us prefer to work for a living. Those bastards on Ryman pulled the plug. I don’t know who was responsible, or even why. But I swear, as God is my witness, when I find out they will pay!”

“Now Now. You, dear boy, chose to work for scum, and not for me I might add, and you get paid in kind. Now Calvert and Cardoman—class—nothing but. You met him once you know. Remember? He was on his way from Witherway to Ophia. I seem to remember you studiously avoiding him. You did spend some time looking at the Lieutenant traveling with him. Constance Melbourne was her name. Now there was class… Still is, but she’s married to Calvert now. You lost out that time too. Still there could be hope don’t you think?”

Zavala, darkly handsome, and used to all types of attention, raised his eyebrows, but no, Nevier wasn’t that kind.

“Look Nevier, you’re here, I’m here, and there’s a Cardoman transport leaving orbit as soon as she’s loaded. Cardoman needs troops and I have some of the best. Cut the crap and start talking.”

Russo called for another drink. “Join me?”

“Deal first, then we’ll see.”

“First we talk commission.—Off of your end.”

PMC, Private Mercenary Company. Well the numbers didn’t add up anymore but he was damn sure going to keep up the pretense. Raquel Zavala and the thirty two others remaining from his once full company of over a hundred, boarded the passenger shuttle powering up on the apron outside the departure terminal of Llanfairn’s port. An hour later they offloaded into the spotless perfection of the CNS Widow’s Walk and her docking bay. Trust any Navy to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, or at least outwardly make the attempt.

More than the two shuttles most warships carried, an impressively large Lander Class ‘C’ as in cargo, took up much of the remaining space, The Widow undoubtedly did business on some planets lacking much in the way of their own off-planet infrastructure. To Raquel’s surprise there was a rating standing ready to meet him, who then took his bag, leading him up to the forward section of the ship. A group of three armed men led the remainder of his party in the other direction.

“We’ll get you settled in Major and after we leave orbit you can visit your men.”

“The crewman took Raquel to a hatch way guarding a stateroom under the control deck, said, “Permission to enter,” into a pickup and stood aside as the hatch slid open and Zavala entered.

“You got the upper, I was here first.”

“No problem, ‘bout time I was on top.”

“Hey, that’s one way to look at it.”

Zavala stowed his grip in the floor compartment at the end of Abe’s open bunk. “What might be your name partner? I can see by your outfit that you are a natural born leader of men, a member of the Cardoman Seventh.” Loomis was wearing ill fitting off duty fatigues that Eric Shearing had loaned him.

“Abe Loomis is the handle, but I have the advantage. I checked with Captain Marquette and requested you for my room.”

“More than the Seventh eh? Part of the natural born aristocracy?”

“In a manner of speaking, been here a while, paid some dues, and now—well, like I said, here I am, and frantic to get back to what most would consider a lost cause. What’s your excuse Major?”

“Money. I’m in it for the cash. Glory? Maybe at one time, I’m beyond that now.”

“And you choose to fight for Cardoman? Looks like a bad bargain from the outside.”

Zavala climbed to the top bunk and stretched out before answering. “That’s what Nevier said. I’m looking to prove him wrong.”

“Let’s talk about that, because that could take some doing. It’s something we are going to have to work at it. From what I learned before we left planet, Cardoman has the need, and you could get slated for ship duty. Any experience in that line of work?”

“Some, we’ve sure knocked around on more troop ships than most.”

“Well then, in my somewhat misbegotten youth I acquired a bit of experience on that score myself.”

Zavala did not reply to that statement directly, but the fact that Loomis was ten to twelve years younger then Zavala himself, and looked to be only in his mid twenties was evident. Instead he said, “And where might that have been?”

“On the Pleasure Dome, where you first met Russo and the Major, I was one of the troops in the hold, the ones that took the Carpathian. Later on I also had a small part when we took the Surprise out from under the Caliphate’s nose. Shame—we had to give her back in the end.”

“My contacts with Mr. Nevier go back a ways in time from when we were all on the Pleasure Dome. I did hear something about the capture of the Surprise though. That was a shuttle action wasn’t it?”

“After a fashion, we made good use of what was left of one. So, the Widow has the space and we have some time ahead of us. Let’s just set up a training schedule and put it to some use. I’m quite sure Cmdr Marquette will be happy to assist us in whatever we desire.”

“You do have some connections,” Zavala said, uttering agreement when the alarm sounded signally departure from orbit in five minutes. Abe slid into the lower bunk and was already asleep when the drive kicked in. He didn’t waken until they were half way to the transition limit. Raquel spent his time looking in on his men and seeing they were being taken care of. For all the haste, this seemed like a well run ship.

When Loomis awoke he signed in and asked the ships comp where Zavala would be found. To his mild surprise he learned the ship’s software was unable to track that kind of thing any closer than deck level. The individual compartments weren’t wired that way. Instead it offered up the deck and an option to page him over the channel allotted when he came on board. That was good enough. Location confirmed, Abe checked the ship map and was on his way.

As soon as the hatch slid open, a package that must have been leaning up against it fell into his room. A hand written note said, ‘Compliments of the Tailor‘. Inside the clear plastic bag was a Cardoman officers uniform, complete to the nametag but without rank insignia. He was expected to supply his own. Unfortunately he had none with him. It wasn’t the type of thing someone in his line of work normally carried.

Kathryn Marquette congratulated him and told him his promotion from Lieutenant to Captain had been made final some time ago as soon as he came on board. That was something overlooked at the Embassy, or maybe missed because the subject never came up. So he wouldn’t have had the proper insignia anyway.

Abe shook the mostly black garment out, and all hints of wrinkles or a misplaced crease vanished. It fit perfectly, as all machine made clothing did. Not the style and perfection of something hand made, but it felt good to be in uniform again for the first time in almost a year.

This time when Abe opened the hatch the ships Boss’n, Jenny Joyce was standing in the corridor. He had met her for the first time when he came onboard the Widow. She was only a couple of years older than he was, much too young for the rank she held. Probably an assistant purser before she joined up. But that was the way things worked in the Cardoman Navy. And of course how could he complain, being a Twenty-four year old Captain with out the benefit of an Academy education?

“The Captain has had me monitoring the link to Major Zavala’s comm unit. So I would be happy to show you the way Sir.”

“Certainly, but why would she have you doing that?” Then a light came on. “Ah! Thirty some mercenaries with a reputation on an under strength transport. I can see the possibilities. Still I think there is little to worry about.”

“I’m sure your right but the Captain says to make sure all of his men stay below ‘E’ deck unless accompanied by ships personal and that’s what we are going to do till further orders.”

“Does Zavala know?”

“Lt. Shearing explained it as a rule to make sure his men did not get lost or distract the rest of us from our duties. Big as this old ship is only a little exaggeration. Zavala just nodded and said ‘A wise precaution, I would do the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot’.”

“Has Zavala met the Captain yet?”

“No Sir.”

“Lead on then, if you would, and after you have delivered me safely, please ask Captain Marquette if she might have time to talk with us in an hour or so? I’d like to bring Zavala with me.”

“It shall be as you say Commander.”

“Commander?”

“Can’t have two Captains on the same ship now can we?” And she smiled.

On the way through Engineering, ‘E’ deck, Joyce introduced Abe to Lt. Cmdr. Eben Franklin, the head of the department. Again, as should be expected for Cardoman service, young for the job. Eben took over for one of the two ratings standing watch and sent the other along to pass them into the aft hold area.

Through a hatch, down a flight of stairs and out another, “Let us know when you are finished her Sir as you can understand, being so close to engineering both these hatches are keep sealed at all times. Major Zavala and his men are one neck down to Starboard, troop compartment on the outer hull.”

“Thank you Controlman, I can find our way from here.”

Abe crossed the shaftway, went through another hatch, down again, and exited into the ships hold area. Twenty meters down the hall he passed the main ships elevator, the passage not going through engineering; it was locked and sealed, apparently out of service. Katie Marquette was taking no chances at all. He entered the troop compartment to the view of concentrated action all around. Zavala’s men were fitting out their own barracks.

The compartment wasn’t setup for personal transport and the Widow’s small crew hadn’t had time before departure. Everything was modular and the directions straight forwards. It looked to Abe like all of the large stuff was finished, sleeping room walls, tables in a dining space, plumbing fixtures already activated and tested. Zavala was holding down one corner of a rubberized mat while the rest was spread and snapped into flush deck toggles. Abe grabbed the last free corner and pulled stretched it into place.

“Lo! The Sleeper Awakes.”

“And much refreshed. Are things down here going to work out for you?”

“First rate, five star. You should have seen the ship that got us to Llanfairn. Two hundred years old if she was a day, cracks in the hull that leaked vacuum. ‘Just little ones,’ the Engineering Officer said—When he was sober. Llanfairn Customs has her quarantined now. Won’t let her power up till repairs are made. They’ll do the absolute minimum, or a little less, some credits change hand and she’ll probably be gone in a week. Sooner if they let her load while the repair work goes on.”

“Glad to hear you’re getting by. Let’s talk about the kind of training we can work on and then go visit the Captain.”

“I’m good for that. Your place or mine?”

“Do you have any data links here?”

“Nothing active.”

“Ok let me look around for a minute and you can introduce me to a few of your men. And then we will go and commandeer a conference room up top.”

“That’s good. When I introduce you, what do I use for rank?”

“Captain will do down here, but make sure your men know that anywhere else on the ship they should just say Sir.”

“That I will do. But how does a Captain get the pull you obviously have on a Navel vessel?”

“Rank structure is a little strange in the Seventh. I’ll try and explain it later.”

“While Abe was still looking over the troop compartment he received a message from Kathryn Marquette saying she would be happy to meet with them as soon as they were ready. Abe asked about a conference room and she readily agreed to that also. “Give us ten minutes and we should be there.”

“The conference room wasn’t up to the standards of a newer ship but was more than adequate. Large screens on two of the walls and data terminals built into the table.”

“Finally someone in this Navy who looks like they might have the experience for the Job description,” Zavala said upon being introduced. His tone was amiable and the attempt at establishing good will was working. Easy to see he was used to leading.

Kathryn did look the part, comfortably middle aged with an unmistakable sense of authority and competence. “I’ve got some experience all right, spent years serving with my husband, Jim Marquette before we both came over to the dark side.”

“The Dark Side?”

“Play on word, it’s the uniform that does it. Not at all like the faux-finery on a large commercial ship. But tell me gentlemen, what is it you wish to propose. This can’t be a purely social call. And would either of you like a drink? I’m off the stuff till we transition out.”

“Nothing for me Ma’am,” Zavala said.

“Glad you asked,” Abe chipped in. After all those months on Earth, I have some catching up to do.”

At the mention of Earth Zavala peered at him but asked no questions.

“I’ll tell you both about it later, as much as I can. Now, as soon as I check out the sidebar we can get back to what this is about.”

Abe returned with a glass of dark liquor and an extra tumbler. He brought the bottle with him. “I really do have some catching up to do. . . What I want to do now Katie, is with Major Zavala’s help. train his men for space combat. Not the week or two of perfunctory work most troops get, even Marines, but a solid month. Twelve and sixteen hours a day. Zero G at all times. Make the skills become ingrained. More like what a pirate would go through over years than a military unit.

“I strongly suspect they will end up doing ship’s duty once we reach Cardoman. It’s either that or a small recon unit. And Davis is handling that end, and doesn’t look for anyone but maybe Calvert to look over his shoulder.”

“I can see how that would be valuable. What will it mean for me and the Widow?”

“Clearing another large compartment and shutting the gravity off in the lower hold. When we make transition I would also like time to practice outside the hull. Can that be done?”

“Shifting Cargo we can do. Provided Major Zavala’s men do most of the work. As to shutting of the grav generators, I need to run that by Cmdr Franklin. I expect we can do that. But I have something else troubling me about now. And Major Zavala I’m sure you realize where I’m going with this.”

Zavala shifted uncomfortably then picked up the gauntlet.

“I guess this will require I tell both of you exactly what happened on Nestor. Ok, I can do that, lack of payment voids the Mercenary Code in this matter. We were hired by commercial interests on Ryman for the purpose of. . .”

“Major if you would leave us for a moment I have some things to discuss with Cmdr. Loomis. Please be my guest at dinner tonight where I am sure we can find lighter things to talk about.”

“At your service Ma’am,” Zavala gave a courtly bow and left the conference room.

“Do you believe all that Abe? It just seems so far-fetched that Ryman could cooperate with the Caliphate in any way, shape, or fashion? I don’t want those men armed and loose in my ship!”

“He’s telling the truth Katie, the Ryman oligarchy is looking after itself. Any pretense of siding with the rest of the Confederation is a sham. For public consumption only. It’s been a while, but after I found out about Zavala when all of the original Seventh were on the Dome. After I was promoted, I decided if I ever got the chance I’d learn what I could about him. The records are quite extensive, if closed to most.”

“Within his code he is as honorable a man as you could hope to meet. There is absolutely no credible evidence to the contrary. The stories are just that. Lies made by those less able.”

“And his men?”

“They chose to follow him. I’ve had to judge a few since I went into P&I, Zavala is a good one. Get Cmdr. Franklin working on the grav generators. I’d like to start moving cargo first shift tomorrow.”

“Ok, we’ll do it your way Abe. I just wish I had the military background you do.”

“Careful what you wish for Captain.”

They did the cargo move under full grav. Marquette wouldn’t trust anyone to shift the kind of large masses involved under Zero G. The central, and largest aft hold, was cleared by the time they made transition. Hardly room to move in the rest of the lower section. And it would all need to be put back and secured before they could power the drive and boost again. That would be in just under six weeks, when they reached Cardoman.

“Turn, turn dammit!” The suited figure slammed into the bulkhead and rebounded into open space. A beam of pale red light and the suit went dead. Haul him off.” Raquel said, “Next!” The suit encumbered figure was directed to the corner where another ten of Raquel’s thirty-two were waiting to come back to life and try again.”

“Only four more to go. You are making progress.” Abe Loomis had just entered the training area, his turn was coming up.

“We’re back to speed drills now. All of them can do the kind of leisurely jump and turns taught in the manuals. This is much tougher. You’ll see.”

It took Abe a half dozen turns in the box before he got the first one right. Another twenty and he could aim and fire in the process. Repetition and more repetition, that was the name of this game. Muscles needed to be taught what their simian ancestors knew by instinct. It was sinking in.

“How are you making out Zav?”

“They call it off and I spend a couple of hours getting ready for the next thing. One of my sergeants, the best young one from the old days, Kenny Lindy, stays with me till we both get it right. That’s him pulling the bodies out of the way.” They had started on a new drill. This one required a corner bounce.

“How many laid up in sick bay?”

“Thank God for quick heal! We’re back to full strength, for now.”

“I’ve got the outside stuff worked out. Let me work on this drill and then I can come back and we can all practice for tomorrow.”

The spent a week outside, it took almost that long for everyone to get over the vertigo, a week inside, then another out. By the time they finished and shifted the cargo back, Abe would have given long odds there wasn’t a better small free space unit in existence. He would have been right on that count, Zavala surely wasn’t going to bet against him.

Captain Marquette had opened up the ship by the second week. What was the point of trying to cordon of armed and trained mercenaries on what was little more than a merchant vessel? They had the CNS logo on the hull, but not much in the way of firepower to back it up. Some of her own crew gave up their normal off duty activities for training with the mercs. It made for a jolly band.

They had a join dinner last day before transition. Kathryn pinned on a new medallion bar to all of Zavala’s soldiers. The first one on their equally new Cardoman uniform patches. The ‘Fleet Protection Medal’. Silver, red then, silver.

“Can you do this, invent your own awards?” Raquel asked in amazement.

“Sure, nothing better,” Abe said. “Calvert and Davis are gonna love this. The whole fleet Marine will want their own. I know those guys!” Now all you need to do is finish up the manual. Make sure it’s done by the time we reach Cardoman Station, throw in the videos and we are both eligible for promotion to a slot in Training Command.”

“That’s all?”

“Piece of cake after the last six weeks. Be your first book. I always look up to authors, raises the standards of the professional military class. And it looks good on a resume too.”

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