By The Sword 22

By The Sword
Chapter 22 Draft (01/23/09)

Jamie Madry took a little time away from her own ships and focused on the Calps making their way to Cardoman’s belt yard, saw no changes, and directed her attention back to the Saratoga. No longer engaged, the bridge lighting was back to normal again, relieving some of the tension, but the temperature was still colder than normal. Under battle conditions the red light on the bridge was there more for psychological reasons than because it was necessary for better vision of the displays, or as rumor had it to hide any blood. But it did serve to focus attention.

She rechecked the vector plot of her own squadron and readjusted, slowing down slightly so the Calps following, if they continued to just follow, would reach Cardoman at the same time as those closing on the manufacturing base in the asteroid belt reached the shuttle yard. That completed she went back to examining what was left of the Cardoman Navy.

Four of Pavel’s SP’s remained undetected. Eleven of his shuttles and their crews would never be coming home, another six were unaccounted for. Each was a price paid and a debt owed. She still had three G-4’s and a G-3 left in her own squadron, and the Widow’s Walk was still defended by both of the Cardoman up-armed G-2 military transports.

Pavel Tsarinstyn, at low power and under stealth; he was trying to make for one of the asteroid listening posts that thus far were drawing no Caliphate attention. He used optical links so their own flagship could track them, but Jamie did not risk more than that tight beam trace and was sending no instructions, just maintaining the contact.

The ‘Big Picture,’ the tactical situation, was simple. If she tried to protect the G-3 SwiftStrike, the rest of the Calps, with there overwhelming firepower would out accelerate her and close the range enough to destroy all of her ships. They might even try to encircle the four Cardomans preventing any from a clear shot at escape. That meant the SwiftStrike was going to die, had to die. And soon. Jamie recorded the order and sent it on its way.

Captain Marquette received it and got ready to abandon ship. He was going to miss her but not the last day and a half. It would take a miracle now for any of his command to both survive and stay out of enemy hands. And take an even greater miracle for him ever to command another ship again. That thought didn’t bother him nearly as much as his concern for his wife out on the Widows Walk.

With the ship evacuated he started the programmed sequencer and was last off. Two minutes later the explosion and another of Cardoman’s fleet died.

The Calps dropped two shuttles to pick up the SwiftStrike’s survivors. The reason they did so was most surely a desire for information and not on humanitarian grounds. The three Cardoman G-4’s continued on a course that was taking them very close to the planet but sweep them past unless the made further corrections. The remaining Calps followed at reduced speed looking to their own survival first. The Cards passive defenses needed to be dealt with and there was no need to rush.

Mines and stealthed missile launchers were much less expensive than ships, but the numbers needed to protect a solar system were astronomical. So except on a few of the wealthier Class-one planets they were used sparingly. But in a case like the current one Cardoman used up all they had, throwing away credits like there was no tomorrow. And no matter how good a stealth system was in theory, no one could make an anti-ship weapon totally invisible. Highly focused active detectors were slow but given time would locate any stationary target if the range was not excessive.

When speed of detection was the primary consideration a specifically designed ECM warhead could send out a strong enough pulse that within range they would burn through any disguise. But to get enough separation from the blast, so no damage was done to the receiving ships, they had either to be dropped off and the signal detected minutes later with the ships out of blast range and vectoring in the wrong direction, or the had to be launched as a ShipKiller warhead. And that was an expensive he could afford to avoid.

Kahn was patient and the mines and missiles fell one by one. In the Belt Admiral Suleiman and his two ships took an equally slow course of action. There was no EM signal coming from the shipyard. It was silent and deserted. Suleiman could not know that an hour ago, the last almost completed shuttle departed, taking with it the last pilot and work crew. No weapons, or even a completed electronics suite on board, but the stealth system was active. The shuttle turned inwards, setting course for Cardoman Station.

“They will never let us take their production facility.” Lt. Deija said to Major Raed, the Golan Height’s Political Officer. “We should stand off and send in one shuttle only. They will blow the base.”

“Of course not,” Raed responded. “They must have all left and they would not have evacuated without preparing to destroy it. I wonder who are the lucky that will get a chance at martyrdom when they attempt to enter the production facility?”

He never got a chance to find out as the Yard and its supporting structures exploded before a shuttle was sent, popped like strings of bursting lights while the Caliphate taskforce was still long outside of the blast radius. Suleiman gave orders to investigate the wreckage, and then search for and pick up survivors. “If any try and resist—destroy them at once!”

Marty Vogel on Cassandra, just over the limit, and decided it was time to jump out of here. If he stayed any longer the closest ship, the Calp G-4, would be in range and he didn’t have the missile load for any kind of a fight. Any damage and both ships would be on him. “Make ready for transition!” He saw the ready light turn green. “Two, One, Now!”

Cassandra came out of hyper seconds later and started charging for another jump, this time to Novi and home. A two-week trip with nothing to do but mourn the dead and wonder how many others were going to join them. He stayed on the Bridge long enough to be sure there was no Caliphate pursuit and went to his cabin, bed, and blessed oblivion.

Eric Shearing, First Officer on the Widow, glanced from time to time at his Captain, Kathryn Marquette, without being obvious. The news of the destruction of her husband’s ship, SwiftStrike, seemed to have sent her momentarily into a state of shock. Lt. Ieito, alarmed, had surreptitiously called him to the bridge from engineering where he had been spelling Lt Franklin and overseeing the ship’s engineering compartment. Eric roused the Section Chief from a deep sleep.

“Call from the bridge, got to go Eben,” he said. “Sorry to break in on your nap.”

Eben Franklin checked the time and saw it was two and a half hours since he left his station for a nap. “Most sleep I’ve had in the last two days. I’ll be right with you.”

True to his word, shortly thereafter, Franklin was back in engineering and Eric was climbing up toward the command deck. A minute later, when he came on the bridge, the Captain acknowledged his presence with a wooden greeting. Giving no other explanation she said, “Lt. Shearing, I will be back shortly, you have the Bridge.”

“I have the Bridge Ma’am!” he replied. As she waited for him to buckle in before leaving Eric asked, “Any word about your husband and the rest of the SwiftStrike’s crew?”

“Nothing more than the original report that some escape pod beacons were detected before the Calps started jamming those frequencies.” Then he watched her walk out, as if in a daze. Eric checked the plot and saw still two hours and four minutes left before they could reach the limit, less than an hour’s time and the Calps would be within shooting range of the Eagle and Carpathian providing her ship’s escort.

“So this is the way we work it,” Audie Madry explained to Yuri and Lt. Debus. “At the proper time during our close approach the Cardoman, we will jettison the shuttles with Zavala’s men on one and me and with Fader and the recon troops on the other. Debus takes over command here and Yuri you stay to help.”

“What does your cousin think about this?” Yuri asked.

“She doesn’t know about it yet,” Audie said with a bit of the old sparkle in her eyes, something that had been missing for the last two days. “I know her too well. She might just order me to stay with the Dragon and my duty is with Major Calvert and the Seventh on Cardoman.”

“Have you tried to talk to Major Calvert about this?” Lt. Debus asked.

“He’s a busy man Emma. No point in giving him any more decisions now.”

“Do you really think you and another couple of squads can make any difference on the planet Audie? And if you’re hell bent on going I should be going with you,” Yuri said.

“Sorry Yuri, you can’t. If I told Jamie about this she would start talking about my duty to the ship and crew. And if I listened long enough she might even convince me to stay onboard, because I do have a duty to perform. More than one—and that is the problem.”

“With me no longer running engineering Lt. Debus will need you to take over. No one else is nearly qualified. I don’t know how long it will take but I trust that someday Jamie, along with whoever else survives, will be coming back and make the Calps pay. I can do more on Cardoman than if I stay with the Dragon. With you still with the fleet Yuri, I trust that the return happens sooner, and those ships to be better prepared, than if you are spending your time carrying a rifle dirtside. Sorry again but you have to stay.”

“What about me? Emma Debus asked. Twenty-four hours ago I was a ship’s Second Officer. And only in that position because Cardoman was scrapping the bottom of the barrel.”

“You’ll do fine Emma, you both will. There is no other option. I’m going to check on the shuttle loading. Lt. Debus, You have the Bridge.”

“I have the Bridge Ma’am!”

Nagibah Khumm, Captain of the Sunah, was close to heaven, but taking no chances. The Cardoman ships would fall before him, of this he had no doubt. He still had 21 of his own ShipKillers and the Cards were down to five each. His speed advantage was going to make the close in work a telling proposition. An hour before the Widow reached the limit. He launched his final attack on Carpathian.

‘Good try while they lasted.’ Mark McCormack was watching the readout after all of his tubes were finally emptied. He gave the order to evacuate and now he commanded a ghost ship. No one else but him on board. The life pods racks were empty but one and the shuttles sent away with a squad of Raquel Zavala’s men on each.

The ship was programmed to give him time to be out of blast the drive radius then reverse course and change course towards the Calp Sunah. This was likely the second from last command he would ever have, the live pod being the final, and he was hesitant to leave it Going down with the ship had such a romantic ring to it. Instead he was going to spend his last hours waiting to see if the pod was retrieved and he would escape death only to become a prisoner. His last thoughts as he left the Carpathian—“Oh Lord, I will live again if it is thy will.”

The ships automatic defensive programs were no match for the task and the Carpathian, rent asunder, was nothing but dust and debris floating on the void.

“Should Allah will it so we still have time to destroy the other defender and capture that fat target of a transport,” Captain Khumm said pleased with the destruction of the first of two obstacles placed in the way of him fulfilling his orders. He gave instructions for resuming the chase and left the wreckage and survivors of the Carpathian behind.

Marigold Last, Pilot of the Carp’s SP-107 was on the link with Lt. Kreager on SP-108 with the Sgt of marines from Zavala’s second platoon acting as her co-pilot. “Let’s try and round up the pods and get them into some kind of defensible position, then we will see what happens next. You go after the ones in the sunward quadrant and I’ll go after the Captain then take the ones on the sides.”

“Commander Last,” Sgt. Adams interrupted from the seat beside hers, “We’re not going to do any good out here. We can retrieve them all but if the Calps come back we can never keep them from taking all of us prisoner.”

“I am quite aware of that Sgt. But what would you suggest? We have to do something, and getting everyone together will make it a bit more likely that should it come to surrender we all are picked up.”

“We still have our stealth capability. We should make course for the inner system and Cardoman. If we proceed as you suggest we will either give our lives for nothing or have to voluntarily become prisoners. And if the Calps don’t come back for us we have the same problem as now except there will be many more eyes looking for us.”

“The trip to Cardoman from here in stealth mode is a two week run. Even if we get there unobserved everything will be decided and we will have no effect on anything whatsoever. We will go after the pods and that is final!”

“Commander Last!” She looked over to the Sgt and saw him with a long bladed knife in one hand and a sharpening stone in the other. “Why not get hold of your Captain? I think he will agree with me. If not. . . No we will not think about that for now,” he said with a shrug. “But I do hope that my suggestion is honored and force will not be necessary.” The Sergeants expression belied his word choice and Last felt the blood drain from her face.

“This is mutiny Sgt. I should have expected no less from one of Zavala’s pirate scum!”

“Not mutiny yet, Commander, for now it is only a request. Call your Captain and we shall see.”

“Of course you should do what Sgt Adams suggests Marigold.” Captain McCormack said, and saying nothing about the knife Last mentioned Adams was sharpening. “He is absolutely correct about what you might accomplish out here. Our beacons are lit. If the Calps come back for us we won’t be hard to find. Go back to Cardoman and look for a chance, and good luck.”

“Yes Sir, Last out.” She looked at Adams and said. “Is it sharp enough for you?”

Running his thumb lightly across the blade Adams smiled and said, “Most definitely yes.”

Commander Last never saw it vanish but the knife disappeared into the man’s pressure suit somewhere. She put the recent distraction from her mind and reestablished contact with Lt. Kreager on SP-108. Staying in light-beam contact, at 5 G’s under full stealth, both shuttles started inwards.

“Our turn now, abandon ship!” Captain Gump pressed the alarm and was last off, as was proper, after all of the other pods were hurled away, their homing beacons turning on automatically. The last hour was a whirlwind of activity for him and the Eagle’s crew. The few extra minutes bought when the Carp died gave him time to close in on the Widow, drop off his remaining ShipKillers, now powered down and hard to detect, and then return to his defensive position.

The Eagle had nothing left to defend with, but the Calps could not know that. They must have counted out all his launches yet there was no way they could know how many of the SK’s he had aboard when the battle began. His last action was to make sure the explosion was going to delay for half an hour or until the Calp ship was in the blast radius. “Who knows?” he thought. “Little as it was it just might accomplish something.”

“Go around her!” Captain Nagibah Khumm barked on the Sunah. “We can come back for her later. “Our first priority is to get the transport.”

“There wasn’t much in the way of instrumentation on a pod but there was enough of a radar set that Gump to see the Calp Commander ignoring the nonexistent threat the Eagle presented and continuing towards the Widow and the trap waiting in that direction. He cursed the first bit of luck then brightened as an idea occurred. He could not locate Lt. Cmdr Ustinov piloting one of the shuttles nor find Pamela Hines on the other. No mater that—secrecy he could do without. He broadcast in the clear and on an open channel, one sure to be monitored.

“Ustinov! Hines! Forget about stealth. Pick up Ed Tubman and one other watch-stander then get back onboard the Eagle and get her out of here. Anyone in one of the ship’s boat that can make it before you light off can go with you. But you wait for no one! The Captain of the Sunah is going to need to make a choice.”

“I can pick you up Sir.” Hines said coming out of stealth, her drive showing clearly but with a tight beam locked on Gump’s escape pod.

“No! There isn’t enough time to grab more than a couple of pods, and the crew’s fate will be my own. I owe them that. But stop the explosion and save my ship!”

“Will do Captain,” she said just before the beam lost lock.

Gump sent back to Cardoman a data stream with his final orders then set to boosting the morale of the rest of his former command still locked in their pods.

Khumm on his Sunah saw at once the two shuttle drives power up and start a vector towards the Eagle. He also could see the danger zone where a powered down missile might be hiding. “Cut a course just inside the inner edge of the damage zone. Unless the Infidel have placed their missiles perfectly we still have time to destroy the Widow’s Walk and return for the Cardoman Eagle. It shall be as Allah decrees.”

Khumm’s prayers went unanswered and the Sunah passed close enough to trigger the drive on one of the Eagle’s dropped off ShipKillers. The missile lit off and just before one of the Sunah’s interceptors came within range she detonated. Good timing and some luck involved, the blast taking out temporarily two of the G-4’s drive bands after the EM pulse hit. It took long enough to get them back on line that the Widow was no longer catchable, and unless the Eagle came back for the life pods neither was she. Khumm had a course set towards the life pods then turned command over to his Second Officer and left his bridge.

“It’s time to tell her Audie. You can’t leave me here to take the heat alone.” Emma Debus couldn’t see it but her expression almost made her look almost as bad as she felt. About to become Captain, unless she could talk Madry out of her plan, and the saddest day of her life all at the same time.

“I’ll comm her after you kick the shuttles out. No reason to give my cousin a chance to say no. It will be on my head Lieutenant. And it is what has to happen. Lt. Debus you have the bridge.”

“I have the bridge Ma’am!”

“You’ve never done one of these insertions before.” Fader said using the shuttles comm and giving Zavala his last instructions, advising him while he strapped in.

“I have made a few drops before Captain.” Zavala said over the channel.

“Yeah I know, but this is gonna be different. The drop pod does all the work, just pay attention to the time-line and if something goes wrong be ready to do it manually. Course it won’t make any difference. When the systems go, you go with them. After we hit the deck get out quick, gather your men, and make for the rendezvous point. It’s just that easy.”

“Thank you indeed Fader, go and lock yourself in and I’ll see you below.”

After leaving Lt. Debus Audie made her way to the boat bay, saluted the launch-crew then turned to board. At the last moment she looked up and saw Yuri in the glassed in control station. She gave him a nod. Once seated in the pilots couch, with a recheck of the control panel, Audie gave the Ok and was kicked outside. It was hard but she waited five minutes after launch before putting in a call to the Saratoga.

“You’re doing what!” Jamie Madry shouted into her mike. On the Sara’s people looked up from their stations as the volume overpowered the damping field around the Captains seat.

Audie had rehearsed the next part so she was ready to come back at once with, “Resigning my command Jamie. It’s not like I ever went through a promotion board or anything! I have to do this Jamie. I’ve got Fader with me and Zavala and his men too. We all belong with the Major and the rest of the Seventh. Fader and I have been with him from the start and will be with him at the end.”

Lt Debus must have played her part well. Jamie was surprised she had been able to carry it off. Debus was not at all convincing when she made a halfhearted attempt to keep a secret of what Audie had in mind. Jamie sensed she wasn’t relating everything happening on the Dragon and soon had it out of her. Next Jamie had a talk with Lt Borselov but to her surprise found Yuri perfectly impenetrable and got nothing from him. Jamie didn’t tell him she was in on the plot, and was certain he was unaware of her prying. Yuri’s loyalties were with Audie and telling him what she knew would gain nothing—just let it slip.

Jamie took time to consider and thought that even though she was going about it wrong Audie was likely doing what was best in the long run. After cautioning Debus to silence on the whole matter, she sent a message to Major Calvert, now off the orbital station and down in Minton, briefly at Cardoman HQ, before he planned to leave the capital.

The Major had said, “Let her go Jamie. Heaven knows if she makes it down, but if she does we can use her. One Audie is worth a couple of companies from past experience. Don’t make it easy on her. She works better under pressure. As soon as she leaves get the Sara and the rest of your ships the hell out of the system. Go straight to Llanfairn. Consult with our people there, but remember; ultimately you represent the Seventh and the fleet to the rest of the Indies and the Confederation. We will do what we can until you find a way to return. Just make sure when you do you come back to bring plenty of help. I’ll have a tight beam locked to the Sara send out anything I can while you’re still in system. Good luck and God speed.”

Jamie said, “And you too Wes. You too.”

That was then and now was now. Jamie brought herself back to the present. No longer thinking of the past, and replying to her cousin’s last statement she said, “There’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”

“Afraid not. I hate to do this but I couldn’t live with myself if I left the Major now.”

“And much as I would like to stay on the fringe of the system and keep the Aladin, Dragon, and Sara together, start playing cat and mouse to keep the Calps off balance I have to obey my order so save my ships and run for safety.”

“And with all your high speed maneuvers you’re not going to have enough Delta V left to stay around very long anyway.”

“Audie! Be quite for once and take a dressing down without interrupting!” And in a milder tone, “Go ahead with the fight Audie. You have my blessings and I’ll do my very best to see we see each other to talk about it later.”

“Yeah, we’ve had a time haven’t we. Two girls from poor backgrounds on an even poorer backwards planet. We didn’t have much to look forwards to and maybe even less now but it’s sure been a hell of a ride. And one more thing Jamie. Look after Lt. Borselov for me.”

Now so close to Cardoman, the Calps began sending ShipKillers with warheads set for their lowest yield, towards the planet’s orbital infrastructure, trying for damage without destruction. Cardoman Station and the Hyper-yard were the highest priority targets. The station went first, defenses overloaded. The explosives left by Cmdr Woodward and his crews in the yard made sure there was nothing left of the advanced manufacturing facility a few minutes later.

Ejecting well above orbital velocity but with the aim true sixteen stealthed pods swept invisibly through the Calps were starting to plunge ever nearer to Cardoman. Most of an hour before Audie, Zavala and the pods hit the Atmosphere, the two unoccupied shuttles, completing the programmed maneuver, made a dash for surface.

But it was no use. The sensor coverage of the Calp fleet insured detection. Seeing them start to take fire by Calp weapons before hitting atmosphere, and with her own ships beyond missile range and retreating, Jamie called off her own three ships group defensive effort.

She would save her few remaining missiles and drop them on the way out hoping to get in a lucky hit. They would slow down the ships following her and improve her odds of getting out. Though by now that looked like a certainty. Still they could do more good here than in her launch tubes. She made certain they were sent from their tubes with as much velocity as the internal rails could generate so they would have the maximum spread and make it harder for the Calps to track them down. The Sara, SnapDragon, and Aladin ran for the limit.

Kahn split his forces now, half to cleanse the space around Cardoman of any stealthed weapon systems, and the other half chasing the three remaining warships. Barring mechanical breakdown they couldn’t be caught by any of his own ships, but he wanted them out of the system and not a distraction in what he planned for next.

While running they continued to gather data and send it back to their leaders on planet and made no attempt to hide the fact. Nothing they could report was going to be news to Admiral Kahn. Try as he might he could detect no return signals from below. It took eleven hours for the Infidel to reach the transition point and go hyper.

Kahn gave orders to pickup as many of the survivors from the earlier actions as his ships could manage. There might be intelligence gathered, there was always the need for hostages, and a few to use in the show trials he planed to break the resistance he knew was going to form if it wasn’t in place already.