By The Sword 17

By The Sword
Chapter 17 Draft (11/17/08)

The Sun had been up for an hour, the riders an hour longer. Mohammad al-Omari was up and working even earlier yet. He had the horses and tack in the lorry by the time Kendrie Douglas reached the barn.

“Finished already? Good job Mo. You sure you want to go to work for the government someday?”

“Well maybe not, but I wont go to work for the Major at the Castle anyway. My mother is nice, a wonderful person and all, and I am sure the pay would be good—but there comes a time.”

“I see your point. She is good at running things though. But you need to deal with your own life on your own terms until you find out what it’s like. Have you heard from Gaza?”

“Yes I did. Dad will be home later today. Likely when we get back.”

“I am sure you can’t wait. Bring him by tomorrow if he has time. For now you do the driving and I’ll ride in back with the horses.” They pulled away from the barns.

When Kendrie and Mo reached the end of the road, hardly more than a track, leading northwest from the Castle grounds the flier was parked and Wes, Robbie and Clay Grayson were waiting by a small fire drinking coffee. The smell of smoke cut through the pine scent of the surrounding forest. This section of the range was seeded three generations ago and conditions enabled rapid growth.

On the trip in Kendrie had gotten all the animals ready but for saddling. Wes took care of his own mount Mo and Douglas each did two. Neither Clay nor Davis had spent much time around horses. Now if they were ridding camels that would have been a different story. Robbie put out the fire and Clay commed Castle Security letting them know that the party would be out of touch for several hours. This was one part of the planet that the orbital recon satellites could not image without override codes under lock and key.

“You better lead Kendrie,” Davis said, “I’ve never made the trip this way before, always flew direct.”

“Pay attention to the route, there are no trail markers,” Kendrie said needlessly. That type of attention was second nature to the three military men. “Little enough traffic this way that there is not much chance of following a beaten path.” The started through the forest steadily tending upwards.

The trees and high growth were Earth strain, the low ground cover was Cardoman. As a consequence, the animals were a combination of both with Cardoman types predominating. Birds, rodents and of course insects were what they saw. “Any big game up here?” Clay asked.

“Too much time at a desk Clay,” Robbie said, something has been following us on the right for the last two kilometers.” The wind was blowing across from their left.

“What is it and how do you know?” Clayton asked.

“It’s a mountain wolf,” Wes answered for him, “and I know because that’s all it could be. I caught a couple of glimpses, hardly more than a form, but nothing else that large lives in the woods hereabouts. Well there is the occasional bear but one wouldn’t be following us. There are some highland goats up above but they never come down this low except for winter when they go about yarding up. The wolves keep their distance from adults and large groups at that time of year. Later in the winter when meals are scarce it’s another story.”

The trees were thinning out. Another kilometer and they were on what was close to bare rock, pockets of soil held some vegetation but it was a dull gray-green color, blending in with the surrounding terrain. The horses were breathing hard when they crossed a low ridge and entered another spur of the forest. Besides the riders each carried heavily laden saddlebags. Three hundred meters in they came upon the cabin.

“Home sweet home,” Robbie said with satisfaction.
It was small, less than fifty square meters, built on a slight slope and half buried into the hill. “There’s an outhouse in the back and a lean-to for sheltering a couple of horses,” Robbie said, “nothing but the best.”

“How did you get it built?” Clayton asked.

“In secrecy! I flew in a team of locals and a couple of my men with the tools and furnishings. Everyone in back with the view shut off. Took my time getting here too, so even the distance from Castleton can only be guessed at. Came back a week later and ferried them out the same way. Since then I’ve flown in a couple of times and Kendrie came up with Mo to finish things up.”

They went inside and the first thing that stood out was an old style scoped hunting rifle supported by two pegs on the wall.

“What in the world is that?” Wes asked.

Robbie took it down and cycled the bolt, seeing that the chamber was empty before handing it to Wes. “A twentieth century Savage in .308. It’s good to a thousand meters and no seekers to be spoofed. Semi-suppressed; it is a little noisy but that’s fine for game and if I ever need to use it on something else my location probably won’t be much of a surprise.”

Wes handed it back and said. “I’d like to try this thing someday, but go ahead and tell Clay what this place is really for.”

“Push come to shove it’s where we run the resistance from. There is a transmitter a couple of ridges over we connect to with IR gear. The same type of stuff recon uses, on loan from the Seventh and listed under Lost or Damaged. Wes came up with a shuttle-weapons capacitor bank. Got enough power for a few years. Heating this place is gonna take most of it.”

“What we brought with us today is the rest of our remote sensors to finish up the close in detection grid. Again, even if the records are captured what we have here is untraceable. Let’s get with it and when we’re done there’s some large steaks waiting in the fridge.”

* * *
“Multiple grav-pulses, insystem military drives! Summon the Captain. This is out of the ordinary. Standing orders, he will want to know at once.”

When Rashid Kalid reached the Sword of the Prophet’s bridge, First Officer Metemma had the numbers. “Three ships, a sub-fleet transition Sir, Victorious, Cassandra and a G-2 we haven’t identified yet.”

“Last time we saw the Victorious was at Mizar. Keep tracking her and see what she does. I’m betting it will be a course straight to Cardoman.”

“May I ask why they would do that sir?”

“It’s happened with each new ship in system. We’ve seen three instances, why would the pattern break here? I think the Infidel are sharing some new technology. A physical transfer of some sort is taking place between the station and incoming ships. I wish we could decrypt the intra-vessel comm links. But even if we could do that the really deep material must be going by laser, and we wont see any of that traffic out here even if they overshoot.”

“Watch closely. We will be heading outwards soon enough. We will join with Admiral Kahn and the rest of our ships to prepare the strike. Make sure our records are complete and make a start on a capability study.”

“Yes Sir!”

“As soon as you’ve gotten everything, plot a course away from here. Then we will make our jump back and rejoin the fleet. Allah Akbar!”

“Transition Signature!” The alarms sounded and everyone aboard the Gholam, nerves stretched as far as they could go without snapping, looked to the flag plot. A moments silence—then, “Definite Sir, it’s the Sword.” Three lights out of Cardoman, where no one could be expecting any ship to emerge out of hyper; it could hardly be anyone else.

Space is vast beyond imagination. Ali Asani on the Reza Gholam was ready for action. Two weeks spent waiting for Kalid and the Sword was more than enough. It was harder still because the time for his ship’s return was so indeterminate. No action now but it was going to come, and soon.

Rashid Kalid commended his crew on the good rendezvous, only two and a half light-hours from the waiting fleet. Very good navigation for a route taken only once. It took five hours for the signal to reach the Sword announcing that fact, returning, and by its nature giving a vector. Kalid made the order to close the distance. The Sword came alive once more. Rapidly for a ship of their size they had set a course and at standard military power were underway and closing the distance.

“Go over the Sword from stem to stern Metemma, I want everything in perfect order when we rejoin the fleet.”

“It shall be as you wish,”

* * *
“Look Smart!” The docking contingent on James Marquette’s SwiftStrike made ready to take aboard the new Marine detail. The hatch opened. ‘If pigs had wings they’d be—something else—Marquette’s attention snapped forwards as Raquel Zavala exited the shuttle first. No spit and polish, he was wearing a working uniform. Even so he looked every bit the swashbuckling mercenary his reputation had him pegged for. He would have been a video star given the chance. Probably paid better too. A snapped salute and he strode towards the SwiftStrike’s Captain.

Seventh Marine, Provisional Contingent. Reporting aboard as ordered!” Zavala braced up and saluted; no delegating this job. There was nothing to question in his attitude. Marquette returned the honor just as smartly, or at least as smartly as an ex-merchant skipper was able. He felt somewhat at a loss but after all, he was the Captain here!

“And good to be ready and welcome you and your men Major, I am sure we will work well together.” Marquette’s tone hinted at a smile in a way he hopped would break any tension.

The outgoing original marine detail, the one Zavala was replacing on the SwiftStrike, was waiting to board the shuttle for the flight back down. Their Captain accepted Zavala’s relief papers and presented the cubes and codes specific to the current ship. A hearty wish for a pleasant cruise and he wasted no time in following his men onto the returning shuttle. Locks closed and the boat boosted out.

“A Fish out of water,” Marquette said, watching him leave. “Captain Billings never was comfortable off the ground. I hope you do not feel the same Major.”

“Not at all. We will fit right in.”

“My wife sent me a note telling me about your time on the Widow, and what you did there, I’m sure you will fit in. Take care of situating your men and we will talk.”

“I look forward to it Captain.”

“Where are the rest of your men Raquel?” Marquette asked an hour later when they met again.

“On the Carpathian. A partial squad of six, It seems the Cardoman Navy is in as desperate a shape for manpower as rumor suggests.”

“Tell me about it. Or let me tell you.”

* * *
Aldoria Verser, the Cardoman Finance Minister was making an official call at the Admiralty Offices in the Parliament Building. Les Raymond was waiting to receive her as she walked in. She did not look happy.

“A pleasant surprise, I had no idea you would be visiting Dory,” Les said amiably.

“Surprise indeed!” She replied, “That’s why you’re waiting to greet me. The sergeant down the hall must have warned you. So here you are guilty conscience and all, pretending butter wouldn’t melt!”

“Butter wouldn’t melt?”

“A local phrase—you know what I mean. Let’s go to your office and discuss it.”

They had hardly had time to sit when an orderly knocked and entered with a tray holding a teapot and cups. “Didn’t expect me in a pig’s eye!” Dory was steamed alright. Admiral Raymond had never seen her this hot before.

“Take a guess Lester,” she said.

“Well it must have something to do with the budget to get you this worked up.”

“You know damned well it does. I just got your report on expenditures. You spent every credit allotted, blew through the contingency fund and kept on spending. What do I say about all that when I get raked over the coals by the Oversight Committee tomorrow?”

“Dory, tell them it had to be done. Do they have any idea how soon the shooting is likely to start? And for what it’s worth, the Fleet’s Accounting Office is running on auto-pilot. I’ve pulled anyone out who could push a button on command and have them on a ship somewhere.”

“Most of them understand Les—but that is not the point. I need to know what you are doing with enough time so when the bad news does come in it’s already old news. I don’t have time to paper this over. Tell me one thing, I can justify weapons and equipment purchases bur how do I explain paying Zavala’s Mercenaries at a rate more than double our own marines?”

“That’s such a small number in the overall, why would it even matter?”

“Because the loyal opposition will call it out as a gross inequality. They can score points and claim patriotism at the same time.”

“We have an awful lot of contract workers in other areas, why would they pick at this one?”

“I can here it now. If I were to put it that way Les the first thing I would hear is, Contract workers aren’t normally in the line of fire. Our Cardoman lads are! Can you stand in front of this committee and say that their lives any less valuable and deserve reward any less?”

“Hear me out Dory, You can’t say it but I can. If we had Cardoman citizens we could hire to do what we hired Zavala for we would have. The trouble is we don’t. All I can say is to point out that while on duty none of them are getting paid what our boys and girls are. The terms of the contract give each of them each a nominal spending draw, there’s not much to buy on a warship, and the rest goes into Zavala’s company account. Same with the bonus upon contract completion.”

Les continued, “It’s the same kind of contract our own people made and used when Cardoman was hard up for off planet credit. If we lose then Zavala’s people not only lose the bonus but their lives as well. In that worst case, whatever monies we’ve paid, and transferred out of system so far, will go the heirs of those who died for us. And from that point a Cardoman coin will be worth scrap value and electronic credit even less. Les paused then went on, “I hate to ash this, but what about the Calvert’s? Can they cover the mercenary charges?”

“I can’t go to them again Les. You have no idea what they’ve already done. I am going to cover this but you are going to be there with me in that meeting when I do.”

“Ok, if you think I must.”

“You must alright. You are going to explain about your accounting procedures and then fall upon your sword for this one. If we play it right and get lucky, you may still be our Fleet Admiral by the time they let us out of the room!”

“That was brutal!” Les was at the Castle for a short stay before heading back up to Cardoman Station. Connie was seated, the extra weight she was carrying very noticeable. Wes stood by the libraries floor to ceiling window and watched the snow as it continued to fall and add to the half meter already on the ground.

“I told Wes that Dory would bring it off,” Connie said. “It was close. Dennis wanted to attend but he was right to stay away. He is so unpopular in some circles that staying out of it was best. Next meeting of the full Parliament and he’s gonna’ have to call for a vote of confidence. He probably one more if it happens soon. The way things are trending we are on the way down. We won’t even hold all of our own party members.”

“Tell him to make it happen soon,” Wes said. “The latest intel says we are overdue for more bad news. I am going up to the station to be with the fleet at the end of the week, earlier if I can make it.”

“Nice to have you with us Wes, but what can you do from there that you can’t do from here?” Les asked. “Whenever the Calps do get here they will take days closing on Cardoman, plenty of time to get upstairs.”

“What I will do is get away from the rest of the Seventh’s command structure. They need time to operate without me standing over their shoulder. I’ll have Clay make all the usual calls and give Robbie a free reign with recon. I need a little isolation and time to think. I know I won’t get much, but more there than here. I also want to get out to the SnapDragon and talk to Madry and Jameson. Something is not right out there. I need to get out more.”

Through a curtain of snow the bright light of a lander’s grounding beacon was becoming visible. “Drink up Les, your ride is here.”

* * *
Fader Jameson took the call and went double-time to the bridge and the Captain’s day cabin. Langston looked up at once and said “At ease. I am quite busy so this will be short. I am happy enough with the progress of my men’s training program that I wish to restore your marines to their former duties. I am aware that there was some grumbling going on concerning their temporary change of duty station. Cross-training is integral with this command, it will not happen again. Obedience to lawful order must always be with a will and at once. Do I make myself understood Mr. Jameson?”

“Completely Sir, my men will be glad to hear this. I will issues orders that they pay more attention to what comes out of their mouths in the future.”

“See to it Jameson. The watch schedule is posted. Dismissed!”

“I wonder what brought that on?” Fader thought as he threaded his way back to the Marine’s compartment. When he got there, and saw Major Calvert was on the boarding schedule, he was pretty sure he knew.

Wes came on board to full military honors. Captain Langston was of course there to meet him, but neither Jameson nor Madry was present. Somewhat unusual but duties might require both of them elsewhere. Wes had not given a reason for the visit, in fact he had indicated it was nothing other than a ‘Meet the Fleet’ morale call, so this could be coincidental. He was going to find out as soon as the formal report from Langston was delivered.

“So as you see Major, things are going quite well with the Dragon, and that is an extreme cause for pride to all of us.”

It seemed a little thick to Wes but again nothing he could pin down. Maybe his imagination was working overtime. “Give me a departmental run down. I am especially interested in Madry and Jameson. We do go back—but spare nothing on that account.”

“I can say Major Calvert–”

“Wes please.”

“Er ah yes humph,” he cleared his throat and began again, “I can say—Wes— that at first I was unaccustomed to their independent attitudes. Much different from the Llanfairn Navy. But let me show you their latest evaluations.” Langston hit a button and slid a cube across his desk.

“I’ll review everything later. Just a summary for now will do.”

“Excellent, excellent in all ways. I still don’t know how Madry finds time for her duties here and still work on R&D projects but she does. I did have slightly more of a problem with Jameson. I thought he was too protective of his men. But I can see now that was all in the Seventh’s tradition now, and we are working together smoothly. He has my complete confidence.”

“Glad to here it. Continue on with the rest of the ship Roger.”

They spent an hour going over the test of the compliment and it seemed to Wes that Langston did have a good handle on the SnapDragon. When Langston finished Wes said, “This looks good to me Captain, you have my appreciation and support. Now I will get on with my morale boosting tour.”

“I’ll come along with you Wes. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to wander the halls enough myself.”

“Stay here Captain, or attend to your other duties. This is something I want to do by without fanfare.”

“I’ll order up an escort Wes.”

“No, I think my badge gets me anywhere I want to go,” Wes tapped the emblem on his uniform.”

“Yes Sir. I will have an officers meeting set for when you are done.”

“Very good Captain.”

Wes took his time. Starting with the bridge crew, he observed and asked questions as he worked his way down decks towards Engineering and the marine spaces. He saw nothing out of the ordinary; in fact, this looked like a model command. Too bad he hadn’t spent more of his time on ship. When he finally did reach Engineering Audie Madry was there to meet him with a big smile and hello.”

“Looking good Madry, responsibility’s been good for you.”

“I guess it has Sir, but it sure came as a surprise to me!” The hatch opened again and Yuri Borselov came tumbling in then saluted smartly.

“Yuri was sleeping Wes; I almost need drugs him to make him do that.”

“It’s not like that Major; we just always have so much undone.”

“I know how you feel Lieutenant. I really do. Show me around, Introduce me to your watch crew, and then we can talk a bit.”

It was crowded in Audie’s stateroom. Yuri and Fader were both on hand. Carl Pilchard was on his way. It took a request from Wes to the Captain to free him up.

When Carl arrived and the hatch was sealed, Wes began, “Audie, I am going to shut monitoring off for this conversation.” Wes did something to his badge then said, “Can you verify we are secure?”

“Audie checked her display and pushed a button of her own. Two ways Wes, but what will the Captain think?”

“If he even knows that he can’t read this compartment he is snooping where I don’t believe he should be wasting his time. I want the truth here, no holding back. Why do I feel something is not quite right aboard the Dragon?”

All three of the others looked about, each hesitating to go first. “Audie you’re up!” No nonsense in that voice.

“Major, it’s his instincts,” Audie said, “Timid, and rigid. I think the Captain may be so afraid of making a mistake that if a good idea passes in front he will never see it.”

“It’s a billion credit ship and crew here Audie,” Pilchard said. “This isn’t like running a squad or a company. The stakes are so much higher.”

“I know that Carl! I have the same problem with my section. But the Captain doesn’t even seem to consider what I tell him if it goes against his preconceived notions. That can never be good if I am. And I know where I stand!”

Wes just kept watching as the conversation kept playing out. Carl didn’t answer and Fader spoke up.

“Wes, Sir—It goes against all of my training to speak out against a superior officer on the kind of flimsy grounds I have to deal with. But—I think it’s even worse than Audie says. I don’t trust him and I am afraid he is unstable. Liable to do something none of us can be ready for. Let me tell you about him putting my men on kitchen duty.”

“Go ahead.”

Fader finished his piece and Wes said, “Yuri? Anything to add?”

“No Major, I am way to new to all of this. But I do support Audie in everything she says,”

“Ok Carl, you’ve got twenty years in and are supporting your Captain. Anything else to add?”

“Major I am supporting my Captain here. I can’t say I don’t have problems at times, but I Langston is far from the worst. Nothing he has done is over the line of what any other captain might do. Maybe I trust too much, but isn’t that how it has to work and the basis of any chain of command. Top down authority, bottom up loyalty. He has all the Navy crew with him. That’s enough for me.”

“I thank you all for your honesty. I also understand that no one in this room complained to higher authority or made any type of charge. This conversation was my idea and does not leave the room. I will consider everything said but I confess I lean towards Carl’s opinion and position. I will run this by Admiral Raymond but that’s where I stand. If anyone should ask what we talked about, just say it was the Cardoman Seventh’s six-year reunion. Everyone following?”

Nothing but nods and then Wes said. “Audie, call for Petty officer Hicks to send in the package I left with him. Connie sent her greetings. Stick around Yuri, Carl call in someone else from the crew. Better yet let’s move this to the Marine’s spaces. We are building morale here!”

Back at Cardoman Station, the first thing Wes did was look up Admiral Raymond and tell his story.

“So Les, do we keep him or not?”

“I wish we had a choice.”

“We always have a choice. The point is can we use it. I don’t like the feeling on that ship but I have to turn the decision over to you on this one. Do we have anyone else to take over on the Dragon if Langston is relieved?”

“No. Not that I think is—or would be any better, at least not now. Fletcher, his First, is way too junior. And hell, I hardly know him. We have to go with what we got and hope for the best. I am going to take over the Essex when the time comes. You are going to be the newest Fleet Admiral in space Wes. Are you ready for that?”

“With Clay and Robbie down below I imagine I have to be. Anything new from Intel?”

“No, and it worries me. We should be detecting Calp ships probing out system. I feel it in my bones. We have at best weeks, maybe only days. This is no time to change the commander of a major fleet vessel.”

“Ok then, that’s how it will be, Langston stays, the results upon our heads.”

“We have a lot of good people helping Wes, it keeps everything going.”

“Yes, there is always that. I am going to spend the next two days doing nothing but going over fleet disposition and orders. Call if you must, other than that it’s Connie only. When I come up from it we will talk again.”

“By then my bags will be packed for the Essex.”