By The Sword 21

By The Sword
Chapter 21 Draft (01/08/09)

On Cassandra, Captain Marty Vogel said, “Tracking only—keep those drives dead till I say different. Set the launch from tubes one and three. Ok—Ready—Now!” Both ShipKillers left their tubes with just the speed internally generated by the rail gun making up the guide rail. The missiles coasted outwards at such a slow rate that they seemed to hang suspended from a wire and almost motionless. Internally they remained powered down and invisible to anyone not knowing exactly where, and what to look for. Vogel went back to checking his calculations for his next move.

His ship, Cassandra, along with Panoply and Atropos, vectors diverging, were all headed for the hyperlimit. With Talbert Flynn dead, Vogel was in charge of the squadron. He called for a minor course change and saw seconds later the two ships in his wake make their own same corrections. That was what he was looking for. He made sure the ship’s next change was dialed in and went back to his screen.

The G-3 Baghdad and one of the G-4’s, the one that finished of Talbert and Burgeron, were sending alternately, one ShipKiller at a time. The kept a minute between each shot. His defenses could handle that rate of fire, at least till they ran out of antimissiles or the heat-sinks overloaded. And that wouldn’t happen so long as he could dump the excess out the drive, but it wasn’t helping him get away.

It seemed clear the Calps were not going to keep up the present strategy much longer, Marty was surprised he had had even this much time to get things organized. His belief soon proved itself when the ships bearing on Atropos doubled their rate of fire and then doubled it again.

On Atropos, Jeff Hemphill started using up his remaining ShipKillers. Marty could see there was no other way to take out the Calp missiles. There were far too many for him to trust to close in defense. By chance alone Hemphill’s ship was the nearest to the attacking Calps, and hence the first to receive this kind of attention.

Hemphill stopped the first launch, and most of the second, before the Atropos was consumed by the combined fire from seven ShipKillers. Too many, too fast. Rest in Peace Jeffery, dear friend, loyal companion. Vogel turned his attention back to his own ship.

The Calp ships responsible for the Atropos’ destruction had too much of the wrong kind of delta-V to rejoin Baghdad and help out against Cassandra before she could reach the limit so they split up, and each deployed as a backup. One for the force against his own ship and one for the two stalking Panoply. That was going to keep them away from their main fleet and the attack on the other Cardoman forces so long as either of the fleeing G-3’s lasted.

It wasn’t much, but the ship helping those on his tail couldn’t catch him if he kept running, and Marty was praying, and thankful for any small favors. Now all he needed to do was evade the first two. He adjusted his course one more time with a vector that converged on his original track. The Calps moved to counter.

“Cut the corner,” the Captain Wabbim on Sahara said. “We will get this over with before the last two draw us out any farther!” His Tac officer wanted to advise a slight delay and a less direct approach, but deference to authority kept him quiet.

Pavel Tsarinstyn understood why SP-101 and the rest of his shuttles were being ignored, seemingly forgotten, even those that still had their full missile loads. No way with any kind of acceleration that they could handle to get back into the battle till it was over. Even so he ordered the most difficult course. “Go into stealth again. Try to get in front of the fleet. We might intercept a few more before this is over. If not we can be search and rescue for survivors.” Even in stealth mode, a shuttle’s 5 G uncompensated acceleration ended all communications.

There was nothing any of them could do to help the two G-3’s out on the fringe. But the caution of the main Calp force was giving his own command enough time for to put up a thin screen. Pavel ordered his shuttles to take position around the Wasp. His optical links were intermittent but still at 50% and much better than the EM bands. The jamming on that level was continuous and impenetrable.

Audie Madry saw what Pavel was trying to do. Good plan, using the Wasp for cover, but not this time.” She took over the optical link to Tsarinstyn and ordered a course change. No time to take this through Jamie and the proper channels.

“SP-101! Pavel! Stay away from the Wasp. Fall back or work sideward and back, but make for maximum separation.”

Pavel wanted to ask why but obeyed at once, taking his ships away from the place where he felt they could do the most good. His new course added a couple more minutes, almost doubling the time he figured he had left.

“Damn, the bastard fell for it,” Marty Vogel said as he saw the Sahara change course and follow him. He said to his Tac Officer, “This had better work, cause it’s the only chance we get.”

“Ten seconds to optimum,” was the response. “Spinning them em up!”

When in pursuit the Sahara’s threat comp was programmed to sound an alarm if it was within range of a mine or other unpowered weapon dropped behind by a fleeing ship. On the threat display, a warning zone showed as a narrow line trailing the target ship. Possible threats from yet to be powered warheads dropped in flight were visible as well. They showed as a diffuse glow centered on the track. For Captain Wabbim and his ship, now engaged in battle and within range of Cassandra’s tube fed, tube fired, Mod V’s, that visual warning was made insignificant by the far more obvious threat of the missiles on the Cassandra herself.

The explosions caused by counter-missiles EM suites turned the Sahara’s search radars into so much junk. When the two Mod V’s, dropped off minutes earlier by Cassandra powered up their drives they became visible, burning through the EM disturbance in an instance. Too late, too close, the surprise was total. Defensive lasers got one of them, but the other, set to detonate at medium attack range, went off shattering the hull and killing the drive. It sent the ships atmosphere spilling into space.

At the last moment, realizing what was about to happen, Captain Wabbim launched both of his shuttles, half a second before the end. One was destroyed by the blast, the second survived, shielded by the ships bulk and by virtue of her escape velocity outrunning damage from thrown debris. Almost half of the crew, most of those suited up and strapped down lived through the breakup. Wabbim was not one of the lucky ones; he and Sahara were never going to fight again.

Marty saw Baghdad change its vector to one leading farther away from the direct closure route, and now with only one ship able to catch him, and one not willing to take any chances, he had a realistic chance himself of making the limit. If not for the trailing backup he would have gone on the offensive. As it was he continued outwards but was able to spare some attention for Panoply and the rest of the battle.

Jamie Madry saw Vogel’s successful strike on Sahara and had time for a grin and a nod. The main Caliphate force was no longer closing on her retreating ships but were still within missile range and weren’t losing ground either. In front of the Calp spearhead was Wasp followed by her cousin’s Snapdragon. Audie was having the Wasp increase her separation from the rest of the Card ships. Jamie hesitated then sent a signal.

“Fleet to Dragon! Pull the Wasp back. She is getting too far in front of us, out of position for interlocking defensive fire.” It should have seemed strange to call the trailing ship of a retreating squadron the one out front. But in this case the reference point was the Calp fleet and the Wasp was the closest of them all; no one gave it a second thought.

Dragon to Fleet. I’d like to leave her out there because. . .” And Audie went on to explain what she was up to.

“Good thought and I hope you’re right. Leave here there but no more separation than needed.” Jamie turned her attention to the Panoply.

Tata Kimsky had one ShipKillers left. His close in anti missiles were exhausted and the laser banks overheating. Four more missiles left the tubes of the ships closing the distance. They had the count on his ShipKillers and knew he was no longer a direct threat. Tac sent off the last long range shot and Tata ordered everyone but the gun crews to the live pods. He called for their release while the incoming volley was out of attack range. Provided they didn’t fun out of air, or the radiation didn’t kill them, and the Calps decided to pick them up a few would live.

His First Officer had taken over fire-control and they were the only two left on the bridge. She swore as the midship laser mount overheated and failed. The heat from the blast taking the two members of the gun crew before any shrapnel could reach them. She silenced the alarm and saw another of the Calp missiles go and then a second laser mount. The other two mounts kept firing, but so far outside of their thermal envelope, the beams spread wide; they might as well been searchlights for all the damage they caused.

Five seconds before the end she saluted her captain. She now realized that from the moment she first came on board she had been in love with him. How could one be in love and not know? A sad smile—it was too late to say anything now. She lowered her hand. Kimsky returned the salute but didn’t really see her. He saw his mother and father, and himself as a small child, seated several rows back from the Alter. Strange, he hadn’t thought about his family religion, or the church, since his mother died a dozen years ago. There was never a need, there was always time. He crossed himself, then said, “God bless us all.”

The warhead detonated, meters from the portside shuttle lock, the Panoply ceased to exist.

One G-4 for two G-3’s. Not a good trade but not bad either. Suleah Kahn sent word to the Baghdad and Jihad to continue their chase, he doubted they would catch this Cassandra but she might turn and fight. He requested that Suleiman send him the Palestine, it was a polite order in fact, and that he and theGolan Heights for a re-arm, then on to the Cardoman shuttle yard in the systems Belt and demand its surrender. With Palestine, Kalid, the Sword and Kandahar alongside his original unbloodied squadron, he now had more than enough power to finish off the five ships still blocking his way to Cardoman orbit.

Heading high above the ecliptic as a protection against mines or any still stealthed warships, Suleiman and Captain Badr’s Golan Heights made back to the support ships.

Kahn ordered a fire plan set, “Send a full launch, all tubes, straight down the middle. I require the front G-4 and the SnapDragon destroyed.” That was going to put a dent in his missile supply but the destruction of two more ships made it a smart move. Ninety missiles away, courses spaced only far enough apart to avoid fratricide; they were let loose and all tubes reloaded.

“Incoming!” The familiar alarm sounded again. Yuri gave Audie an inquiring look and she nodded and said, “I have the drive, you have the weapons.” A quick scan of the bridge and Audie said, “Lt. Debus, make all speed to the rear.”

Time to stir the pot. Madry from her station reversed the Wasp’s vector and Yuri sent the last of her ShipKillers. On the plotting screen the gap between the Dragon and Wasp was growing visibly, no need to zoom individual displays. A minute and 10 seconds later, after 8 more detonations, there were still 84 Calp missiles bearing on the center of the Cardoman formation. Their next obstacle—the remotely controlled G-4.

This was where timing was crucial. Audie made sure she was aimed for the center of the missile flight then pushed the Wasp’s drive to 120% and started a mental countdown. Three, Two, One. . .Just before the first of the nearing Calp barrage reached their longest effective range, and moments before the reactors on the Wasp overloaded, Audie forced a transition, a hyper jump with the ship still inside the limit. Unimagined by the approaching fleet, the results were, in retrospect predictable.

With a violence and speed beyond anything seen in the battle thus far, all of the Wasp’s mass converted directly to energy. The blast eliminated the entire Calp missile launch. Even knowing what was going to happen, by virtue of being closest, the Dragon suffered mild sensor damage. It was a tactic that could only be used only once and it did as intended. Admiral Kahn stopped his ships from closing on the Cardoman’s and killed his overtake vector, both fleets moving towards the inner system at the same rate of speed.

A brilliant tactical maneuver, provided you were willing to expend the crew, or more likely had an unmanned ship to expend; there was no indication of a crew leaving before the explosion. This time it would only buy a little more time and Kahn was not in a hurry. On the plus side; one more of the Cardoman ships gone and only four remaining to block his way, first to orbit and then the planet’s surface. They couldn’t use that last trick many more times. He had more missiles than they had ships. Yes, he had the time. Kahn called for a supply ship to close with the rest of his fleet for a rearm. The next battle was going to be decisive.

Fifteen minutes after the fight began, with half of Cardoman’s fleet destroyed, the first messages reached Wesley Calvert at Cardoman Station. He reviewed the first part of the battle and saw the Caps had slowed their headlong and read Jamie’s dispatches. He sent a brief note praising the defense despite the losses and confirmed she was to keep up her delaying tactics. Then he commed the planet below and received more bad news. Sandoval Inglase was dead.

“An aneurysm,” Connie told him. “The doctor said the war had nothing to do with it, might have happened any time, but I am not sure I’ll ever believe that. The President intends for Trebeck and Clay Grayson to fill in for him until you get back. You are coming back? Right?”

“Yes, I am going to stay here till the rest of the stations evacuated and come down on the last lander. Now I have to make up a set of orders for Madry and the fleet. I’m going to order them out of the system. We’ve lost enough and there’s no point in losing the rest.

“Oh Wes! Go with them darling. Is there any way? Can you arrange pickup with a shuttle? You can do more good working for Cardoman out-system than hiding in a cave on the planet. I want to know you alive and gathering support for a return, because I know you will come back to me someday.”

“With General Inglase gone my place is on Cardoman leading the resistance. I will see about sending the portion of our technical and engineering staff that didn’t make it in time for the Widow, and Connie, I would put you on one of those ships if it was possible. But it isn’t so we won’t talk about it any more. And as much as this loss hurts, we should both look at the bright side. At least Cardoman doesn’t have a tradition where a Commanding General that looses is required to fall on his sword in atonement.”

“That’s not a tradition Wes; that’s a joke. And a bad one.”

“I’ll be down in a couple of hours Babe and talk to you again when I am. Take care. Now I have to get those instructions for Madry written. Till then remember I love you.”

“Always dear, always.”

With the pace of the battle slowed, it took on a new character. The Calps went after the Cardoman shuttles. When his sensors were momentarily overloaded by the exploding Wasp, Pavel Tsarinstyn knew that the Calps were having the same problem. He had five seconds where he was certain he was unobserved by any of the Calp fleet and he used them well. Five seconds of Max G and then he powered down. When the Calps came back on line he was going to be very hard to find.

Some of the other shuttles must have done the same because he lost lock with six of them. The ones he could still contact with a laser link hadn’t thought to changed course and the Calps reacquired them as soon as their sensors cleared and scanning programs rebooted. Then the Calps started using ShipKillers to pick those ships off one by one.

For almost two hours, since the loss of half of Pavel’s shuttles, nothing much had changed. Jamie Madry and the rest of here ships were out of missile range while the Calps rearmed but still falling back towards Cardoman. Audie had the Dragon tucked in defensively with her other ships, and Cassandra, and much farther off the Widow’s Walk, were still running for the limit. Jamie was going over Major Calvert’s orders and not liking what she read.

Her job was just to keep falling back and delay the Calps as long as she was able. But not to engage under any circumstances! When the Calps resumed their attack and try getting within missile range again she was to first use her own Mod V’s range advantage and fire all she had left, then take all of her ships and flee. As much as she hated it she could see the sense of that order, at least for her G-4’s. But the SwiftStrike was a G-3 and there was no way Jim Marquette could outrun a Calp G-4. What to do? She had to think of something, and soon. She signaled Audie and then Marquette.

“Jim, you’re going to have to evacuate. Get everyone onboard to one of the G-4’s. There is no time to waste. Audie is sending some information over to your Engineering Officer. Make sure she gets it as soon as it comes in.”

“Will do! I’ve got Zavala and his men loaded on my shuttles now. My nonessentials have been sitting in the pods for two hours. I’ll keep them there till our shuttles get back and we can load them. The Dragon is the closest ship, should I send Zavala there?”

“Yes. I’ll have each of our other ships send you one of theirs to speed things up. Let’s hope we have time because if the Calps get within firing range again I am ordered to run no matter what your situation.”

With both of the SwiftStrike’s shuttles heading her way, Audie sent both of her own shuttles across to ferry away more of Marquette’s crew. It was a risk, they might be left behind if the Calps moved fast enough, but one worth taking. Audie sent over the engineering details of the drive overload and then there was nothing left for her to do but wait for Zavala and his men to arrive. She asked Fader to meet him in the docking bay.

“All ships are ready Admiral.” Flag Captain Cahdesh interrupted the Admiral, retired for prayer in his day cabin. The other members of the crew were too busy, their time would come soon. Cahdesh was moderately pleased with how rapidly everything proceeded, the Admiral, as indicated by his response, had no call for complaint. Two of the support ships were slower in closing than he thought best, but not so slow as to merit a public rebuke. It was the mark of a well-drilled command that things went as well as they did, and he was thankful for all of the practice while waiting to make the last jump to Cardoman.

“Issue our orders to the fleet. Then start ramping us up to the 80% military power of our G-3’s. We will start to close on the Cardomans and see how they react. I will be on the bridge momentarily and issue the command to start us in motion.”

Jamie was napping in her acceleration couch. It fell upon Cmdr. Matson to rouse her, “Captain!” he said, louder than necessary. Madry jerked awake and looking at the screen in front of her saw the Calps in motion again. She felt like she just barely nodded off, checked the time in the upper corner, and saw only minutes had elapsed.

Vernor gave her a few seconds settling time before continuing, “There are still forty or fifty on the Dragon. We have a shuttle unloading now. Do we send them out for one last load?”

“No! Our orders are final. What is the status of the other’s engaged in evacuation?”

“Only two load in space right now, one heading towards Aladin, ETA three minutes. The other is the final for the Dragon but the Dragon’s shuttles are both inside and there is no place for the one from the Strike to dock. No time to take the bay to vacuum and bring her in through the cargo hatch.”

“Tell the Dragon to jettison one her own and take the SwiftStrike’s aboard. As soon as that is done we start to run.”

“What about Captain Marquette and those still with him?”

Jamie could scarce believe it was her voice saying this, but it needed saying, “Cmdr, I’m sure they’ll give a good account. Let us make certain that when it is our turn, we are ready to do the same. I see the Calps are moving at less than Max for a G-3, we will do likewise and keep the SwiftStrike with us for as long as possible. Cmdr, please get me Captain Marquette on the line, I will deliver the bad news myself.”

The Dragon ditched one of her empty shuttles and landed one from the Strike. Audie Madry gave the order to boost and turned over the bridge to her First Officer Debus. “I’m going down to the landing bay and talk to Major Zavala. I will return as soon as I finish.”

“I have the Bridge!” Debus announced.

Audie went below.

She noticed the smell of hot metal as soon as she entered the dock. A young crewman gave a start when the hatch opened and he saw his new Captain. She had just placed her pass against the lock control and he had just as routinely opened it.

“Captain on deck!”

All in the room stood to attention. “Stand down,” Audie said. “As you were and proceed about your business.” She walked over to where Fader and Raquel Zavala stood, both of them looking her way but maintaining a respectful silence.”

“It’s me Fader,” she said first to Jameson, then directly to Zavala, “Welcome aboard Major, I think we need to talk.”

“But of course Ma’am.”

“Fader, turn Zavala’s men over to Private Lassiter and let’s go to my day room.”

Lassiter was standing near and heard the conversation. Fader looked at him and said, “See to it Private,” then the three left the docking bay. Audie was small in comparison to the two following, but none watching would ever remember it that way.

Zavala was twelve or fourteen years older than Fader, for that matter he was ten years older than Audie was herself, different chains of Command though, and Audie knew she was sitting here only by chance. For what she wanted, needed to happen next, these too had to work together. Ultimately she was going to support Fader, so it depended on how Zavala was going to react.

“Either of you guys had anything to drink in the last 24 hours?”

Both of them shook their heads in negation and Audie said, “Me too.” She took a bottle that at one time belonged to Captain Langston and poured three shots. “A toast to the dead.”

When all glasses were drained she said, “I am going to quit this Command.”

Fader said nothing, Zavala said, or more properly asked, “And that is your duty?”

“I think it is, though my cousin Jaime might disagree. I will not tell her in advance but I will tell both of you what I intend. First one more drink—then we cap the bottle.” She collected the glasses and placed them on the sideboard.

“We are going to lose here and now. If we had more time; if we had more out-system support; had I done a better job with the remotes,” her voice started to trail off then she came back more conversationally. “In a lot of was and for a lot of days everyone involved will be kicking themselves. But it doesn’t change the here and now.

Cardoman is going to be occupied. Fader, you’ve seen on the Calps damnable prison planet Marais just what that means. I could run with the Dragon and make it out of this system. I think all of our remaining G-4’s will. But I am going back to Cardoman and want both of you to do the same. Here is how I intend it to work.”

Audie explained her plan and then put the question. “Are you with me? I can’t, or I won’t force either of you to follow. You have both earned a place on the Dragon merely by being here. If you want to leave with her when she goes out-system, I won’t call it running, I understand. But I need to know now. I have to get the ship ready for when I—abdicate—for lack of a better word. So, what do you say?”

Fader looked at Zavala and said. “This is easy for me. Let me go first. I am the Seventh and of the Seventh, that may sound like a fanatics chant. Be that as it may, I am with you Audie and all my men as well.”

It was now Zavala’s turn, and he was more circumspect, “Without consulting my troops this is not my decision to make. Were it up me alone I would choose to stay and fight on Cardoman. This war is going to sweep across all of human space, and if I live I will continue to be involved no matter what choices are made today. If I stay on the Dragon while she runs—I only delay my direct involvement for a period of time, because that is my nature and what I am trained for,

At present, before acting upon my own desires, I have a responsibility to those I lead. I intend to keep this unit together. So I must talk to my people. I cannot speak for them, though I suspect most all will agree with my recommendation that we stay and fight with you. I need a few moments with them in private, afterwards I will report our decision.”

“Fair enough Major Zavala, do it now and I will return to the Bridge.”