By The Sword 24

By The Sword
Chapter 24 Draft (02/16/09)

Minton felt different, older, grayer, shabby somehow, the sound of traffic muted, peoples voices subdued, lifeless and beat down. And yet little different on a purely physical level from six months ago. The large scale change was evident but invisible whereas close up, in small groups, heavily armed troops housed in heavily armored vehicle held station at major intersections. Traffic was down, buildings dark and unoccupied. The flag flying over Parliament was the Caliphate’s banded red, white, and green not Cardoman’s black and silver; little things that all combined to make a drab total. And there was deep below everything else a hint, a perception of an undercurrent, one that smelled of uncertainty and fear.

From the Calps perspective the landing and occupation went smoothly, almost unopposed on the ground, very little damage done by either side. The burnt out shell of the municipal city hall and police building were by now half demolished, and a work crew was busy, or acting busy, clearing away the rest, the public gallows in Capital Park stood empty; people passing with eyes averted, thoughts in check.

The city proper was under a cloud of dull leaden grayness but inside the security fence the spaceport was busier than it had ever been; it was a beehive of activity as another cargo terminal and associated landing pads and support buildings rose on vacant land in the city’s northern suburbs.

Abe Loomis was working for the general contractor building the new section of the port, using a cover set up that even Cardoman experts were unable to break when they gave it a try before the landing. They were not told more than that there was a ringer somewhere in a certain alphabetic portion of the database, but that is a lot of help. Abe was bossing a shifts worth of laborers and drivers, non-technical grunt work most days. As such he was in and out daily and dealt with all of the other contractors, the Calps supervising the entirety. A permanent job inside the operational section would have suited him better but those were reserved for people with families that could be held hostage against sabotage to the ports active area.

Gradually, as weeks and then months passed without trouble, and more and more cargo flowed up and down, exceptions in the form of day passes were issued on a spot basis until the exceptions became the rule.

“In my case not a hint of a problem,” Abe said to Audie and Cpl Fargo, both dressed as, looking and most assuredly behaving like civilians. They were seated in an office in the basement of the hiring hall. “I got into the database as soon as I returned to Cardoman, before it was frozen. Now things are much tougher but there is a way we can get Brian in. I don’t know what we can do about you Audie, no females doing day labor; the Calps don’t allow it. In any event Brian will need to hide out until the crew working on the new powerplant down the coast at Waverly gets back in. I can slip him in there but it will take a couple of weeks of hiding but that we can manage.”

“There’s a couple of people on the crew close enough physically we can make a substitution. But even on the tech crew no females Audie.”

“Ok but even for Brian—What about the DNA scan, how can you get passed that?”

“A glitch in the last version of the program. The Calps have cut all remote connections to the data but we have a backdoor with a few names where an inquiry resets the stored data to the comparison input and gives a match. If the Calps find the problem it will look like a bug. They can move the searches to their own machines but it will be too late for anything already entered. Like I said, with no women on the off-planet crew we hired before the Calps came in, the one finishing up at Waverly, it just won’t work for you Audie; too many other ways to cross reference the records.”

“So where do I hide?”

She heard the bell ring then a minute later a knock, she said nothing and heard the door open and close. Audie sat upright and swung her legs over the edge sitting up rigid and straight on the side of the bed. “Don’t even think it soldier! Sit in the corner and keep your eyes to yourself. And next time make sure to look in on someone else before coming to this room and seeing me again.”

“Have no fear Madam; I am a happily married man with no desires upon your person.”

“Where have I heard that before?” She smiled and set her clock, an hour later awake she sent him on his way.

‘A Brothel! A damn Brothel! This is gonna be one hell of a story to tell someday.’

It was a good cover. Located inside the spaceports transient area where a lot went on that in the past the Cardoman government had overlooked. In this instance the so long as it was off Earth the Caliphate behaved the same. Not claiming citizenship, never applying for work outside the zone; her absence from the planetary database was the rule and to be expected.

To make things perfect she only needed a little traffic in and out of her room, lack of any activity was going to be noticed. Loomis had a few people working for him and that with his and Cpl Fargo’s occasional visits took care of that part of the plan. She had her own time free to study the port and its activity from her top floor window.

A few credits and a free pass in the right hand got her inside the fence by way of a delivery van bringing supplies. The fall back position was that she was returning from an extended stay with a wealthy client who had gotten squeezed by the current economic situation. As it was the van’s contents were not even checked. This particular gate detail was well trained and the timing perfect.

Audie, like most everyone in the military, had on more than one occasion visited such places but always wondered what it would be like living inside. For most it was just a job, one paying well for a few years, but just a job to hold before returning home with a stake not available otherwise. There was enough turnover that the owner’s recognition was enough to defuse any interest from the other employees. In such surroundings curiosity was in no way a virtue and talking about their own past wasn’t high on anyone’s list of conversational points.

For the next three months time passed slowly but the pieces kept falling together and Audie met a few customers she found tolerable so that her own position, should a raid and a search happen, was at least defensible though perhaps not unassailable.

* * *
“Transition in!” The big screen on Aladin’s bridge showed the familiar star patterns of Llanfairn. The smaller tactical screens showed only the local surroundings. Five minutes from reentry to normal space they picked up the SwiftStrike, another five and there was the Dragon. Newer and with more drive bands; their speed advantage meant they would beat the Widow and Eagle by several weeks. Max speed in hyper was roughly a function of the square root of the number of drive bands a ship possessed. The ancient Widow with one band could make only half the steerage of a new G-4.

Word of the transition’s grav pulse, would reach Llanfairn in an hour they had made a good jump. Jamie had her first messages on the way even before the ships were picked up on the system wide sensor net. Then more messages flew fast and furious. The three ships joined and their few remaining missiles were transferred to Stan Voinovich’s SwiftStrike. That ship would stay out here waiting for the Widow and her escort.

Next Jamie and Emma Debus went deeper in system, and before word broke in the press, under tight security Jamie Madry left her ship for the surface and a meeting at the embassy residence. A transfer of twenty Mod V ShipKillers from the Llanfairn Navy into the Aladin already arraigned was first on her agenda before political opposition could build against it and the door slam shut. They needed another hundred and fifteen to complete their rearm.

“To sum it up then,” said Llanfairn’s military liaison, “the Cardoman Navy is left with three capital ships and the Eagle. Impressive enough for most Indie worlds. But they are not going to be welcome in very many ports. The Caliphate will declare them outlaw as is obvious enough as soon as word can spread. And as Admiral Madry has made clear; without a complete rearm they won’t stand much of a chance individually against another G-3 or 4.”

Jules Petoskey, Cardoman Ambassador to Llanfairn was already on his way to the Federation Capitol on Union. He left on the Eagle with Captain Ustinov two days ago; not a moment to waste. Now—today— at Llanfairn’s main port, Louise Shearing kissed her husband Victor, Cardoman’s Foreign Minister, and now off planet head of its Government in Exile, goodbye and watched the shuttle climb as he went up to the freighter Widow’s Walk, there to join their son Eric, that ship’s First Officer, for a slow trip to Novi.

The Widow, laden with a cargo slated originally for Cardoman production needs was going to carry it where she would and where it might do them the most good politically and economically—Victor would see to that. .

The majority of the passengers left the over crowded ship, staying behind at Llanfairn. The bulk of the contract workers wanting nothing more, or less, than back pay and a return ticket to their home planets. Some, about ten percent of the technical, and a slightly higher percentage of contract military types, stayed onboard ready to serve on Novi; the one planet certain to stand with Cardoman.

Money was a problem, a huge problem. Cardoman credits were backed by nothing more than hope with assumed good faith as a kicker. At her recommendation and her husbands approval Louise converted what she could to Federation currency though precious little of that. Paying off those contract workers, even providing ticket money, was something that was not affordable just now.

* * *
“How are they finding out transmitters Jubal? That makes three in the last two weeks. All a total loss only minutes after they finish sending and all taken out from orbit.”
Clay Grayson was talking with Jubal Reeves, the Captain once in charge of Cardoman Military R&D and now, with little of that going on, responsible for communications and comm security. “Just now I find that we also lost a deep space relay. How are they tracing an optical link? It strains credulity to think they just happened to be on the fringe of the beam by chance even once. But three times? Three that we know about?”

“Unless I’m your spy their doing it by technical means and not because of any leak from inside.” Reeves looked sharp and edgy, his voice raspy, signs of someone on stim for too long a time. “I was the only person who knew where the last one we lost was going to be set. Even the two men placing it didn’t know where it was going until I sent the location with a one time code after they were 50 kilometers away out in the mountains. They had no transmitting gear, only the optical uplink and a receiver keyed to me. Six minutes after they finished transmission the uplink location was obliterated.”

“A burst transmission?”

“Yes like all of them. This time I had them set up the relay so it would send after a time delay giving them a chance to clear the area. Told them they could go back for the transmitter in a day or two. We lost the transmitter but saved the men. The signal was phony aimed for a nonexistent relay. Somehow the Calps have figured out how to spot an optical beam from orbit. Nothing else explains the data and I think I can tell you how they are doing it. Do you know how adaptive optics used to work with ground based telescopes Clay?”

“Sure, a laser beam gets sent in the direction the scope points and by seeing a return light from ionized molecules high up the scopes electronics compensate for atmospheric distortion. Oh—I see what you’re getting at.”

“Right, we use the same trick to keep our beams tight the return signal is weak and we know where to look. The Calps have must be seeding the Cardoman’s upper atmosphere, at least over this continent, with the kind of molecules that react to our IR frequencies and made improvement in their detector arrays. A couple of tons of the right compound every day or so is all it would take. You’d be surprised at the number of molecules in a ton. They see a few of them ionize and trace back to the sender, trace forwards to the receiver and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

“A redesign of all our gear would be a start but maybe not enough. I suspect any frequencies we can use adaptive optics with they will be able to detect. This looks like a showstopper as far as communication from the ground goes.”

“How many uplink transmitter do we have left?”

“Four and I can build a couple of more from spares.”

“Get a start on it, but get some sleep first Jubal, and no more stim without a physical and a doctors Ok.”

“This whole scheme was crazy enough before we lost most of our communications ability. Are you sure you still want to go ahead with it?”

“It’s all we have Clay,” Wes said at once. “We’re not and can’t win on the fighting front right now so we have to do something on the morale political side. Loomis says the plan can work, Madry’s crazy about it. Even Dennis Horvath has finally bought in though he is still very unhappy about leaving. Let’s get together everything we have and sacrifice a transmitter to get it out to Tsarinstyn.”

“We will be sacrificing a relay too and they are even harder to replace.”

“For now—but at least there we can hope for some to be brought in from out system. Get a message to Robbie so we can finish planning the distraction. We have just under a week remaining for our best chance or we will need to start from scratch.”

Raquel Zavala showed up the next day.

“A surprise but good to see you Raquel, I expected Robbie would come in himself but this is better.”

“A pleasure to see you as well General Calvert, and might I add you are looking well. Colonel Davis is finishing things up with Captain Jameson and momentarily I seem to be the most expendable.”

“You look like you are holding up to the strain as well.” Wes replied. “There is something to be said for maintaining appearances don’t you think?”

“I have always found it so. You say you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, a chain of command thing. You were on your own for so long and frankly have more experience than either Madry or Jameson. Do you have any reservations about taking orders from them?”

“Not in the least, I see the necessity and it gets me back into the fight. And in at least this area, the taking of a ship in space, they both have demonstrated competence beyond anything I posses. No reservations on my part and none by any off my men; I only hope we can pick up the rest.”

“Good then. We are speeding up the transfer into the Capital. I want everyone in place forty-eight hours before Robbie works his magic. That way if any of you are found out while sneaking in I can still call this off. Here is the new schedule and the meeting points.” Wes moved a data cube across his desk. We can go over what Robbie sent in with you first, and touch again on the infiltration after you get a chance to go over them. Timing is everything and what we decide here has to go out to the Belt sometime today.”

She watched her room console and saw Zavala waking down the hall towards her door. He couldn’t know but Audie did. Giving him the freedom to walk the city and meet like this had used the last safe spot in the database. Abe was staying behind and his job just got tougher. There was another man in the hallway, a visitor leaving one of the other rooms. Blind luck; it had to be. Her door opened and she was in Zavala’s arms when the other fellow passed and the door closed.

Audie broke away as soon as the door was shut. Zavala had a big grin on his face even afterwards. He looked like he was enjoying himself. Audie piped up, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

Zavala reached and patted all of his trouser pockets, front and rear, missing out on the reference entirely.

“A line from an old movie, I missed on the intonation. Take a load off Major,” she said pointing to the chair in the corner where a bottle and a glass of ice were sitting on a stand nearby. “Help yourself, Abe will be up directly.” She sat down on the bed. There was no place else and picked up her own glass.

He poured a drink and raised it as if a toast. “You remembered my brand,” he took a sip.

“Getting hold of good booze ain’t a problem in a place like this.”

“No, I suppose not.” He filled Audie in on what she had missed out on, especially how they had gotten from one side of the continent to the other while they waited.

Abe showed up as he said he would and by the time Zavala left her room, he went first, they had as much of everything worked out as was possible.

Two trucks on a labor detail to help unload a large section of the new Cardoman station that had come in from New Mecca on an old G-1. That was the ruse to get them into the port. Getting the cargo from the ship was going to take cutting away part of the hull and putting it back in place later. Specialized work that only old shipyard hands, those that could work in a suit, could manage.

“The Calps are going to be too busy checking out all of the credentials before we go into the high security section of the port to think about checking the trucks for hidden bodies in a false floor.” And so it was. The changeover made from the gate check till the time they stopped on the launch apron. Zavala and Jameson’s men were on the shuttles going up, and the seemingly empty trucks were waved out without further inspection.

Three shuttles in a line, two would go directly to the cargo carrier. The other loiter until one had left and space for docking available. In each shuttle, sitting near the door to the pilot’s station was an armed guard. Audie, Cpl Prentiss and Pvt Lassiter where there from recon and three more of Zavala’s people plus a couple of legitimate yard workers skilled in ship handling and operation. Their shuttle was the odd men out, the last in line. The other two just slightly ahead were slated to lock with the freighter and unload first.

Two Calp warships were in distant orbits watching Cardoman’s surface, another the G-4 Salat was in the same orbit as the transport and watching the action, or lack of it, most of its crew below on shore leave. The Salat was not specifically tasked with guarding the freighter but the Shuttle Audie rode in had been borrowed from that ship so on the G-4’s bridge there was created a measure of interest. Audie was certain that the ship was at one quarter strength with just a standing watch.

Even more than the bars and gambling halls the brothels were the first place most of men in the fleet touched at. They talked a good game in the Caliphate. But evolution and irrepressible drives won out over indoctrination most every time. Nothing new there but she was surprised at how much was revealed in pillow talk, especially by officers, the only ones able to afford the prices at her house. The need to impress provided the fundamental intelligence, without which they wouldn’t have stood a chance.

She recognized the young officer in front but was sure he had never seen her before. Audie watched the house screens but hadn’t been doing any advertising. But she knew the type. Oh yes she did. His job was to watch everyone in the compartment but he was spending most of his time looking at Audie.

She caught his eye and smiled and at once all of his attention was focused. Then his eyes glazed and there was a knife sticking in an eye socket, and another buried to the handle in his neck, dripping red, shedding blood still spurting under pressure. Surface tension held in droplets only until another beat of heart, pumping yet and unaware of the futility of it all. As the asymmetrical forces, the shuddering and spasmodic jitters shook blood away from the blade it formed globules in the zero g and floated around the cabin, only to break on contact, and to wet any surface they touched.

Audie saw all of that but put it aside as she went straight to the pilot compartment hatch and started taking off the control cover. She felt the warmth of bodies behind her bit didn’t hurry. Any mistake and the lock controls would freeze and they hadn’t time for that.

There it was, the hatch opening. Audie moved away and Lassiter went through, his knife in hand, clean now from wiping it on the dead officer’s tunic. Audie followed him in but Lassiter did the deed. She gave him a moment to drag out the bodies then settled into the pilots seat cinching the hold down straps, no alarm ringing no lights flashing; so far so good.

The controls were different from the standard Cardoman model but she hadn’t spent all of the last couple of months flat on her back for nothing. A small input variable and they started drifting toward the Caliphate G-4 Salat. “Watch yourself Aleema your off course!” The response was more rapid than she was prepared for. Audie vented some thruster fuel on one side of the shuttle and before it disbursed fired one of the jets. A small explosion that did no damage sent them closer to the Calp battle cruiser.

Cpl Prentiss now stared playing his part. With a voice augmented to sound like the shuttles copilot using a script he had practiced on he said. “We have a problem here. Our port side thrusters are malfunctioning. Something wrong with the control circuitry. Uday is venting fuel from the inoperable units so no danger to anyone. We can still maneuver with one third of our normal ability. Can you take us aboard and lend a crew to get this fixed. Looks like—Yes a bad connection in the airlock bypass. The Salat will look bad if we delay things. We have workers that are needed on the freighter soonest.”

Madry’s shuttle was a part of the Salat, and inefficiency was a cardinal sin. Without further questions the Duty Officer gave the necessary permissions and had the non suited personnel move into an outer holding room and the dock’s atmosphere vented so the shuttle could enter. Once on board the hatch would close and the dock pressurized again. Everything ready the large port on the ships side opened and Audie sent them coasting toward the entrance.

“Everyone got there helmets on?” Leo took a look through the open crew compartment hatch and gave a thumbs up. He was buckled in again by the time the nose of the shuttle passed the edge of the entry port.

“Here we go!” Audie’s voice on this band was only heard inside the shuttle. She triggered a jet and the 50 ton shuttle connected with the exterior double bulkhead containing the sliding outer hatch cover.

The crash was relatively gentle but the possibility existed that it would be sharp enough to dent the shuttle’s hull. Audie had planed for something like that by having their own hatch open before they struck, taking no chances on being delayed by a jam caused by structural damage to the shuttle. The larger hatch on the Salat was designed for just such an occurrence and at this low speed was not going to suffer any damage.

Their suits tightened with the loss of external pressure and lights started flashing in the dock area. The half dozen suited figures waiting upon their arrival were clearly in a panic and scrambling in the zero-g environment towards the back but unaware of what was really happening. To them it would look like some kind of an accident caused by damage to the steering jets.

Audie triggered the shuttle’s magnetic grapples, and now even without damage the Salat was not going to be able to close the large entryway till the shuttle was moved. The Recon troops launched themselves at the fleeing Calps and surprise and training paid off in equal amounts. Only one reached an airlock and Lassiter shot him with the gun he had taken from the shuttle guard saving his own for later use.

Speed was everything now. They needed to get out of the landing bay before it was locked down and get to the engine room and command deck. Audie spared the time for a quick glance and saw one of the other shuttles had changed directions and was thrusting towards the open hatch. She was only moments behind the others into an airlock and then the ship itself.

In gravity now they were eight against fifty, but armed and with more help just thirty seconds behind. Splitting into two groups of four; it took thirty-seven seconds from the time they boarded till Audie was on the Engineering Deck and had the ships internal gravity shut down. No time for the niceties of taking prisoners, these were all military people aboard, presumed armed and dangerous. Shortly thereafter it became a rout and the Salat was theirs, if they could keep it.

They took care to preserve the hardware; it was going to come in handy real soon now.

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