By The Sword 23

By The Sword
Chapter 23 Draft (02/04/09)

At the first brush of a beam the two pilotless shuttles self destructed, in the process sending tens of thousands of fragments, a hundred tons worth of alloys and composite scrap, pieces large and small, into the planets atmosphere. Audie had multiple charges rigged trying for the maximum number and smallest size. Unlikely anything would survive descent and hit on a populated area but that was only a part of her reasoning. Sending the shuttles ahead and then slowing them down made sure the debris entered atmosphere just before the stealthed drop team. It also made the shuttle maneuver look like an escape run aimed for the planets surface.

The drop pods were designed for and much better at concealing their presence from observers below than those above. Any military type sensor in space, unshielded by a blanket of air, had at least a fair chance of tracing them. With the shuttle fragments making a grand meteor shower the weak signature of their own descent, even if noticed would be classed as part of the same and by sheer number might overload the Calps analytical circuitry.

The distant launch took the pods outside their design limits for reentry speed and life support time. The life support issue was easier on Audie than any of the rest due to her smaller size and lower resting oxygen requirement. Even so she felt it getting harder to breath and stuffy inside the pod’s dark interior as time went on.

Only one of Zavala’s men didn’t make it. Equipment failure might have been the cause. From outside that seemed better than running out of air. They would never know.

Because of the need to launch when they did there the final destination was selected nearly as much by the laws of physics as their own choice. Instead of coming down near a major Cardoman military facility they dropped at night outside of a small farming community several thousand miles from Minton, the seat of the Cardoman government. At least they ended up on the same continent.

The Calp fleet spent little time wiping out the comm sats and blanketing all broadcast channels. They were going to need to use a local landline in order to report in, provided there was one near. On Cardoman fiber optic trunks were run to rural areas when a government sponsored city site was first established. Individual farms started by private parties did not receive that kind of support. Until they became prosperous it was radio only to the nearest trunk line. Cardoman had learned the value of this kind of over land communications ability in the last war, when most of the settlements, large and small, on the principal continent were connected into the net.

Audie’s problem now was that with military bases abandoned she had no number to call that she could report in to. No need to gather first as a unit, and speed being important, each soldier hit the ground and headed directly for the city center of Germfask, population 1600 including nearby homesteads. The city proper had only a dozen buildings and twice as many homes.

Those closest together when landing, or passing within a few hundred meters of each other nearing the town joined together before continuing on to their planed destination. Unlike a drop from orbit they had no chance of linking after the pods split apart and they were scattered over many tens of kilometers by the time they hit the ground.

It was several hours before sunup and clouded overhead. Audie’s drop was pretty good. She hadn’t needed to use any of the oxygen in the tank on her parachute harness so she split her own pod at 12,000 meters and deployed her chute at once for maximum glide range. No lights below but a fork in the river below her and a thin line showing a road running east to west and she knew where Germfask had to be. She landed twenty minutes later about four kilometers north of the town. Buried her chute and jump harness and started hiking.

IR gear made the going passable. She skirted the edge of a few open fields leaving footprints in the snow covered ground. A damn good thing that except for drifts it was barely up to her boot tops. Hard going even so. A little easier in the sparsely covered aspen like wooded portions.

Twice she saw homes in the open spaces but kept her distance. Once a dog barked but she saw no light. Cold but moving gave her enough warmth that she had her uniform temp control dumping heat to the thermocouple generator capturing some of it and putting the power back into the cap bank. What little heat signature she might generate through the cloud cover could never be seen by any kind of sensor overhead. Audie was worried mostly about the rest of the men on the drop.

A kilometer from the village edge she struck onto a track made my some type of vehicle with wide cleatted tires. Staying in the track the going became easier. It was getting light now, just light enough to see the track and make out the widely spaced piles of rock from when the road was built. It must be recently completed or she thought they would already have been used in building projects.

Audie turned off the IR portion of the power to her goggles, keeping the mapview and locater beacon sensor active. No way of knowing how long before she could charge again. She hoped to do that once reaching Germfask but she no longer needed IR for vision and she couldn’t waste power that she didn’t use.

Just out into the open area surrounding the town when from behind her she heard a voice. “Stop! Hands away from your body! Eyes straight ahead!” It was both loud and demanding and she complied at once. “Keep the hands up and don’t move a muscle!”

She heard for the first time heavy breathing and the sound of boots in the snow. With eyes still forward she could make out no footprints leading her way from town so whoever this was had been here for a while of took the long route.

From directly behind her now the voice said. “I’m gonna’ cuff you. I will take hold of each of your wrists and move them behind you. Do not resist and everything is gonna’ be fine.” She felt a gloved hand and relaxed, as first her left, then right hand and arm was brought behind her. The man fumbled with the fastenings connecting her gloves to the rest of the suit and she felt cold steel encircling her wrists.

“That should be safe enough for now,” the voice said. “Turn around and let me get a look atcha.’ ”

Audie turned keeping her motion slow and saw a green suited figure in uniform. Dark blazed emblems seemed to indicate Cardoman service but nothing she was familiar with. The man was tall, his height overpowering her by a third of a meter. He pulled back her hood and said, “Military eh? But whose?” Her face was hidden behind the goggles and her clothing carried no obvious military markings. Audie spoke for the first time, trying to lower the pitch of her voice but not quite succeeding.

Captain Madry, Cardoman Seventh. Glad to make your acquaintance. And who might you be?”

Before responding the man unsnapped her chinstrap, pulled the plug from the sensor-feed, then using both hands removed her helmet. “Well little lady what do we have here?”

Audie was preparing a reply when the man jerked upright and then slumped to the ground. From the woods behind came a dark suited figure she could tell at once in the brightening light was Raquel Zavala.

“Just in time I see,” he said rolling the man over and searching for the cuff key. He seemed to be in his early sixties though that was hard to tell anymore. To Audie most everyone on Cardoman looked older than they would have on Llanfairn but younger than her own world. Different med levels.

Smiling at Zavala she said, “And thank you too! — Though I think this might have played out better if you had waited a bit.” Audie put her gloves back on, it was cold out here. “How long will he be out?”

“A few minutes, I used the lowest setting I could.” Zavala checked his life support readout. “Less than an hour anyway.”

“Drag him back to the rock-pile and we will wait an hour to and see if anymore show up before we go into town.”

One of Zavala’s and one of Fader’s men came down the track before here erstwhile captor awoke. They had taken away his rifle and sidearm but left him alone otherwise. A review of his ident card showed he was the head of the local police. Maybe even the only one. Crime on Cardoman was virtually nonexistent outside of the larger cities and almost unknown even there.

Audie was monitoring his medical readouts and saw he was awake before he let on. “Good morning Sir. Audie Madry you may remember, and what shall I call you?’

His eyes opened and he sat upright. “Arne Ordnson, Chief of Police hereabouts, — And what the hell is going on with you?”

“We came off the fleet Chief. Probably the last ones down. Now we need help. Help to keep out of the Calps who will be looking for us and help to get in touch with Planetary Command.”

“Who’s the other guy? I don’t recognize either of your uniforms so why should I trust you?”

Zavala looked at here and shrugged then Audie continued. “This is Major Zavala one of our planets supporters under contract to the government. And I can vouch for him.”

“That’s well and good Little Lady but I can’t say I recognize your accent either.”

“Cut the Little Lady crap Chief. I am going to give you back your weapons and we can go into town and sort this out. Does that meet with your approval?”

“It would be a step in the right direction.”

“Raquel! Turn them over.” The mercenary did as instructed and the three of them, with the police chief in the middle, slightly ahead and on Zavala’s right walked into town. Audie answering questions all the way, filling in details about the lost battle.

Zavala doesn’t miss a trick, “Audie thought.”

Germfask was isolated during the winter. The only traffic in and out was by air or the rare shuttle flight. The Calps controlled all of that. For the first week, twice a day the noise or contrails from overflights made obvious who was in charge.

* * *
The great fireplace dominated the rest of the room, the Castle’s library, with massive stone blocks cut by dark-curtained ceiling high windows, now drawn back so the lights of the valley were dimly visible in the distance giving a feeling of timeless solidity. The flames leaping and sparking behind tempered glass, a fragrant aroma seeping out. “Too much pine Sir”, a servant holding a tray with a single drink and a decanter along with a small dish of sliced meat and cheeses.

Admiral Kahn’s head shot up at combination of unusually loud popping sounds and seemed to notice him for the first time. The servant said, “We should have something harder but on Cardoman there is not much old growth. It must be nicer on Earth Sir.”

Suleah Kahn resisted his first impulse to demand silence. The lessons learned in years spent working his way up the chain of command to his present position did not seem to apply any longer, at least not here in the former home of the Cardoman Military leader, Strange, but he found it amusing that he could find pleasure in talking to one so low as this servant.

Had his only son lived, if he had something other in old age than his retirement to look forwards to it might well have been different. He might even have stayed in touch with the rest of humanity on some kind of a personal level. Now he chose only to serve Allah and felt a lack, only on nights such as this.

Any of his Captains and most of the others he had commanded over the years would have found his present behavior inexplicable. He made sure this side of him was seen nowhere else. Taking the drink and motioning for the servant to leave the tray on a side table Kahn said, “I will serve myself later. And about Earth—I did not spend time where fires were needed and that was long ago. I left while just a youth and spent almost all of my adult life in space, on a ship or at a naval base. Nothing remotely similar to this edifice. When General Jazirah arrives send him straight in. Should my Political Officer and Spiritual Advisor Cmdr Joopa arrive first inform me but have him wait up front.”

Mahdi Jazirah went hurriedly up the walk from the guard post to the mansions ornate front door. The snow covering his uniform cloak and the cold biting deeply. Must it always snow on this wretched excuse for a planet? He was glad he was not one of the troops in the mountains hunting down what was left of the Cardoman army. The door opened upon his approach and he went inside, the warmth welcome. Two guards, the Admirals major-domo, and another of his servants awaiting him. Salutes and his cloak whisked away Jazirah was ushered into the Admiral’s presence.

Kahn stood and welcomed him while still another servant brought coffee.

“Your choice General,” Kahn said pointing at the tray and bottle of brandy he had not touched in the last hour.

“Coffee will be fine Sir. Perhaps a drink in a bit and I can see which deals best with this wretched cold.”

“As you wish.” The servant poured and was dismissed. Making himself comfortable again Kahn said more familiarly, “I have been reading your dispatches and find little to like. Tell me Mahdi, how much longer before I can send back word that our mission is accomplished?”

Jazirah bowed his head saying, “That I am afraid is up to Allah.” Seeing anger tightening the wrinkles around Kahn’s weathered face the General added at once. “But I do have a few things in mind to speed things up starting with our reprisal policy.”

“Do continue but understand I am limited even more so than are you by my initial instructions. Gamrawi Bey does not wish to use harsh measures that feed general opposition in the Confederation and unaligned worlds.”

“It is far too early for any news to have leaked by now. Only three ships from outside the Caliphate have come in system and received a pass to offload cargo and leave again.”

“This is true but another two came in and transitioned out again in a matter of hours. In one case we intercepted a beamed signal. We do not control all of the news feeds. The story of our victory is getting out in ways we do not control.”

“Our ability to direct news sources will never be absolute, not even close. Even so we can shape what will be heard. I propose we use a ten to one reprisal rate though not one where those that pay are chosen randomly. We can use selective measures and make the cost even more expensive to the former ruling elite by targeting their families and hurt the military by doing the same. If we do not break their will then we will damage their morale. But I think it desirable we make it look like some of these deaths are accidental.”

“How will you do that?”

“By insuring as many civilian casualties as possible when attacking military targets. The collateral damage we blame on the insurgents.”

“Time honored and we will find many willing believers. Go ahead on that front. And increase the reward for information concerning the whereabouts of resistance forces and former political officials. It’s only been a month and you are doing well enough Mahdi. We shall have that drink now and a toast to the future.”

They were speculating on the future course of the war when informed that Cmdr Joopa was present. “Take away the brandy and ready more coffee, and then bring the Cmdr in.”

* * *
“Why didn’t you have us bug the Castle before the Calps landed?” Robbie Davis asked, “I sure would like to know what they’re talking about in there.”

“I thought about it,” Wes replied. “No matter how good a job and even then they might find out. If they do we get fed good and bad information and we can’t tell one from the other. Or they just might blow the thing up. Not that I couldn’t stand the loss. This way we can monitor the traffic in and out at least. And I had a strong suspicion that someone in the Calps high command would find living there irresistible. Now we know part of the time where Kahn is.”

They were watching the data from a passive sensor high in the hills looking towards the Major’s home, the location Robbie’s command post even further away. Calvert, using the weather as cover was seeing the Recon Commander in person for the first time since the Calps landed.

“How do you fight an occupying army that retaliates against civilians for military actions?” Davis shook his head in disgust. “If we do nothing we lose slowly. The Calps build up their strength and we are forced further and further into the wilderness. Even a place shielded as well as this one here is going to be found if we give them enough time. How many civilian casualties is Horvath ready to take?”

“None Robbie, not a single one. And I am not either.”

Davis looked at him with a quizzical expression. “Out with it Wes, I know you’re not saying we just go, turn ourselves in, and give up.”

“No, not that. We need to concentrate on destroying their supply dumps and mobile equipment, target their command staff. Even Horvath knows there are going to be reprisals. We can win the war on the ground if the Calps don’t bring in any more troops. But then what? Without help we can’t hold it. With the Calps in orbit above our heads the cost is too high, and they will bring in more troops. We are too good a spearhead into Indie space not to sharpen.”

“So we’re in it for the long haul.”

“Yes, give them some trouble, gather intelligence, and make sure we’re still around when help does come.”

“Do you know anything I don’t about how likely we are to get outside help and when? And short of a fleet strong enough to kick the Calps from the system what kind of help does us any good?”

“Novi knows by now, the word will be spreading. Any news in or out is going to help in the court of popular opinion. The Federation will have to permit trade. We are nothing but an anchor on their expansion unless they do. This effort has to be paid for some way. The Calps wouldn’t be using force if they could wage a war of economies. I expect to see a lot of traffic in and out, not all of it on Calp tonnage. We have to maintain for the next six months and see how the situation develops.”

“We could have covered all this over a comm link. Why did you risk coming out of the hills Wes?”

“Two reasons, fist we are going to prepare a list of targets, and second it’s on my way into Minton.”

“You can’t be serious. There is nothing you could do there that you couldn’t do from somewhere else. And even if there is send someone else to handle it. Hell if someone has to go in send Grayson, or better yet a local non-mil type you trust. You are the closest thing to the indispensable man on this planet. Don’t give the Calps a chance to kill or capture you. And that’s what you’re doing if you go into Minton. It’s not balls I’m talking about here, it’s stupidity!” Robbie glared and slammed a fist on the table.

“I thought you might feel that way, I guess a third reason why I’m here. Now let me give you my reasons and then we see what you think.”

A short time later. . . “I see what you’re saying—and yeah the idea that you can go where you want when you want is bound to boost morale. And I see why you want to talk to Abe Loomis. And doing this now is much better than waiting for the Calps to plug any security holes. I still don’t like it.”

“Can’t say I like it myself, and Connie would be livid if I told her, so don’t let this slip. If Madry gets here in the next two days though that’s how it is. When is she due to check in again?”

“No schedule, safer that way. We’ll see her when we do. Talked to her yesterday, Audie will be on time if anyone can.”

“Ok let’s get on with the target list then. Bring in everyone else and we will get the briefing over with.”

* * *
“Damn, It was never this cold back home,” Audie said blowing onto her exposed fingertips Splicing into the optical link was too delicate a job to do with gloves on. Corporal Fargo watched her knowing he could never do something like that without specialized equipment. He was there to hold the light and help with the equipment covers. They were inside an unheated relay station sixty-five kilometers from Camp Cardoman, now under Calp control. She slipped her under gloves back on and started tapping on her data pad. “Got it!”

She used text only, voice or visual sent too many data packets to disguise as random noise and she kept the word count down. Message complete she removed the tap and they got back into the gritter’s cab and continued on. The lot at the switching station was a normal rest stop so the pause would not seem unnatural if the snow removal vehicle was tracked or the overhead reviewed later.

An hour later the plows regular driver had all his attention focused on the road, Audie and Corporal Fargo sat looking for the farmhouse light. They saw the glow after the driver was already slowing down. “You get to know these roads driving like this.”

He turned, breaking through a drift and went up a drive to the barn where he stopped, backed up, made a few pushes then turned around and they got out. “Thanks for the lift,” Audie said.

“My pleasure. Good luck on whatever you’re up to.”

“Thanks, again. And remember, not a word.”

He nodded and went back to the road, widening the drive on the way. After he made his turn a door opened in the barn and a voice said, “In here.” Going into the building the smell of burning wood and something pleasantly sweet greeted them as they took in their surroundings.

“Just call me Bear, short for Sugarbear. Everybody does on account of all this,” and he waved at the vats of boiling syrup in the barn’s central area.

His tone was light but his looks gave credence to the name. A head taller than Fargo with the bulk to match, and the Corporal was not small by any means. A mostly dark head of hair shot through with streaks of gray and a thick beard covering his face and neck to match. This left only his eyes to show a twinkle. Compared to Audie he was a giant.

“I bet you folks could use some breakfast. The missis will bring it out; best we don’t take a chance on waking the kids. Big eyes and bigger mouths if you know what I mean.”

“Well Mr. Bear, I could eat a horse, or even a camel,” Audie said with conviction. “I sure don’t want to offend, but if you don’t mind my friend and I will remain nameless and much as we would like to meet your wife—could you bring the food out yourself? It’s best for everyone we do it that way.”

“Of course, no offense taken, and we can do much better than that. Grab a seat by the stove and I’ll be right back.”

He left for the house and Audie started to sit then made a quick survey of the barn eves open for another exit while Fader spied on him and the house through a crack in the partially opened door. They were both seated when the Bear returned, a basket in one hand and a pitcher of batter in the other. “Pancakes,” he said. “What else with all this maple syrup around.” And he proceeded to cook them up, mound of them on the hot metal stoves top.

The ride in the sled behind the snow crawler took almost an hour. It covered more distance then they could have made in two days on skies or snowshoes. “End of the run, everybody out,” the Bear said stopping at a stand of trees high into the foothills. “I’ll just check my taps and plumbing, too early for a run this high up but on the way back I will get a couple of these barrels full.”

“Thanks for the lift, and especially for breakfast Mr. Bear,” Audie said.

“I hope we meet again someday,” Brian Fargo added before the two of them put on their snowshoes and went into the woods at a right angle to their real track. Snow was falling and it would get heavier the further up they went. Good no way to track them except from the heat they emitted and their suits thermal management systems were up to the task of making that almost impossible.

For all of that day and most of another they moved steadily higher. It started snowing again and the temperature dropped. In the trees they were sheltered from most of the wind. Audie found herself unable to break trail for more than a few minutes at a time. Fargo took over all of that hard work and they continued on through the night. Only knowing how close they were to Davis’s headquarters kept Audie moving.

They never knew when they broke the sensor net; but detected they were. Calvert and Davis went out to meet them while they were still a couple of hours away from the command post, a good thing it was as they only kept in motion by dint of stim pills and will. When at last they came together Fargo managed a saluted but Audie just smiled wearily.

“At ease soldier,” the Major said to the Corporal. “Both of you— take off your packs, Colonel Davis and I will carry them in the rest of the way.” As Fargo started to protest Wes said, “And that is an order!”