By The Sword 4

By The Sword
Chapter 4 Draft (6/18/08)

“2… 1… Transition In.” The electronic voice on the ‘Sword of the Prophet’ generated the announcement while the circuitry initiated the action. Kalid had is finger poised to execute the command but he saw the stars blink into focus and relaxed. As his crew went about their tasks, gathering navigational data and initiating all band active sensor scans he saw the flicker and fade of three other pulses in a thirty second period a few seconds later another and then a long wait as the rest of the fleet began to show.

“Sir, one of the close in ships is the Reza Gholam with Admiral Kahn and his staff.”

“Captain Cahdesh made a good transition,” Kalid said to Simini Asfaruddin, his Signals Officer.

“As did we Captain,” said Farhan Mutlaq Saleh, the ships Second Officer who had been Signals when last Kalid was the ship’s Captain. “Your touch is a sure as ever Sir.”

“With a ship like the Sword I should hope so. But Admiral Kahn will not be happy with about half of the others in the fleet I predict. I think we will have stragglers enough, and at such a distance, that all will not rejoin within a week. Release everyone from combat stations and get an absolute fix on our distance from Onaway. I want to see just how close we did come to hitting the mark.”

For the next several days only routine messages passed between the Sword and the Flagship. Finally, fifty days later with four ships yet to be accounted for, Kalid was summoned to the Reza Gholam. Rashid took one of the small in-space scooters because both of his shuttles were engaged in training.

Removing his helmet and sliding from the half sized lock of the scooter, Rashid was already in position when the call for prayer sounded. He touched his forehead to the carpet that had been placed in front of the hatch and after a few seconds rose to follow the rating to the ships Flag plot one deck below the bridge. Suleah Kahn was seated at the central table and watched him as he crossed the padded deck indicating a seat upon his right hand side. With nothing else to go by that at least was a good sign.

“Your ship came in right on target Kalid. I wish I could say as much for all of my Captains but I am sure they will improve. The stop her outside of detection range was after all a calibration jump. I had another reason for what we did. Would you care to tell me what it was?”

“It seemed obvious to me Admiral. To gather some intelligence about the Onaway system.”

“Yes, of course, but I did see a few puzzled expressions from my staff when the orders were drawn up. We are at war presently only with Mizar and Cardoman. This is temporary and Onaway is sure to fall on Cardoman’s side as soon as word gets out. Therefore this is likely our last chance for a look at what they have been building there without being fired upon. I want you to take that look.”

“And continue on to Mizar?”

“Yes! That is of the utmost importance. How long would you predict before the fleet is all gathered here?”

Rashid looked at the large display built into the table’s surface, though it really wasn’t necessary, he had been studying the same problem on his own ship. “It will take another two days maybe three. And a week before all can jump as a unit considering the time lag in communicating with the outliers.”

“I am not quite as optimistic as you are Captain. I want no mistakes and so I have budgeted ten days till we jump again. That is the time you will have to spend in the Onaway system and I expect you will use it to the maximum extent possible. Am I clear on this?”

“Very clear Sir, I will jump within the hour.”

With the precise navigational data the Sword had on hand the jump could have been made closer than the two hours out Rashid aimed for. He did not want this to look like he had gathered his data by making a long distance transition and zeroing in. Fuel for the jump drive wasn’t the reason but fuel for the reaction drive was. He came in a bit under two light hours out, good but not spectacular for a warship.

The second and third generation merchant ships, when fully tanked carried enough reaction mass for only four jumps and deep in-system passages at max acceleration. Military vessels bumped this up to six, but at the expense of other payload. It took about as much energy to make a jump as it did to go from outside the hyper limit to a close in planet. So even military ships avoided the extra ranging transits as a standard course when operational concerns did not dictate otherwise.

H3 fuel, the best reaction mass, was available in most developed systems, but the cost was always greater than getting it from the home system. A few extra hours or days in a multi week or month voyage were trivial in comparison.

“Time to turn 15.52 hours Captain,” Farhan Mutlaq Saleh said delivering the good news.

“Send the greeting to Onaway announcing the nature of our trip and peaceful intent. The fact that we are intending to purchase fuel should please them greatly. And it will give us a good chance to see the kind of stocks they have on hand and find out the kind of traffic that has been here lately.”

Four hours later the transmission was acknowledged and the Sword of the Prophet continued inward without changing course.

The Gas-giant the fueling station orbited was closer in to the primary than usual. Onaway’s sun was a bright for an ‘F-type’ but much dimmer than that of most other inhabited systems. The station was close to one of the planers smallish moons when the Sword drew near. The zero-gee conditions made it easy on the ships doing the hydrogen collecting and those taking on hydrogen, but the lack of a grav field inside the station made it tough on personnel.

Onaway was in the ship’s database as a Class 3 system with a population of 77 million. From the look of the activity around the fueling station, that Class 3 was ready to be bumped up a notch. Another set of storage tanks was almost completed and a second under construction as well. Onaway owned one hypership of her own, and two tank farms seemed like more than enough to handle system traffic and the occasional need to handle an outsider.

Credit transfers between the Caliphate and the Indie worlds were common enough, but usually it went in the other direction. With Onaway understandably worried about a war starting and making all credit potentially noncollectable the fact that the Rashid was paying in heavy-metal made the ultimate price much lower but it did raise a few eyebrows. It was worth it to the Caliphate in order to get this look; otherwise Onaway might just have said there was no fuel available. Had that happened, the station would have been off limits to an out system ship.

The chest containing payment was smaller than a steamer trunk, there was and archaic term, though of course it weighed much more. It went on the shuttle with Rashid when he went to pay his respects to the stations commander

There was no ceremony but the stations business agent met the shuttle when it docked, and after seeing that the chest was taken care of led him to the main offices. There was enough spin on the torus shaped structure that the outer rim was at almost at a third G. Over the years Rashid had experienced enough similar gravity fields that he had no trouble adjusting to this one.

The lack of people inside the station in comparison to the numbers seen working outside indicated an efficiency of purpose that the simple but well maintained interior echoed.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Kalid,” the tall gray haired manager said, “Jefferson King at your service.”

It was unusual to see someone of such obviously African descent outside of Terra and the Caliphate. Those few that made it away from Earth during the initial colonization had blended into the general population and the racial characteristics homogenized.

“And a fine service it is. I have been doing some survey work out beyond this sector and with out the reaction mass you are providing, I would have needed to head to one of our own planets at a cost of more than a month’s time before I continued. That would have ended the cruise as I would have insufficient time to check out a promising possibility that we came across. So I think the trade is good for us both. I am sure my superiors will find it such. Must less costly for me to visit the system under consideration while I am in the vicinity than to launch a new survey team.”

“We should have you tanked and ready to depart in about seven or eight hours I would guess. First time I’ve fueled a G-4 and even with you just taking in enough for a couple of trips in system the benefits of a ship with less mass than older classes are evident.”

“If it were just up to me I’d tank full up but I doubt my career would stand for it when I got back home.”

“Even on Onaway we are not quite so backwater that your name is unfamiliar Captain. I am a not the least surprised that you and your ship are charting beyond the Caliphate’s traditional boundaries and I must say that does not make many of us Indies feel good about the future Peaceful trade we are all for. Do you think that’s what we are going to have for the foreseeable future?”

“Only Allah knows the future Mr. King, and we are all at his mercy. I would very much like a tour of your station, as much as you are willing to show. In return perhaps I could invite you onto the Prophet for a visit?”

“I am certain that can be arraigned Captain, in fact I will escort you myself and then later visit your ship with a few of my employees if you do not mind.”

“Very good Sir, shall we begin?”

* * *
On Sylvan, the planet the Caliphate called Mizar, the recovery from the invasion not yet two years ago was still incomplete. Hanna Perkins was still the Parliamentary leader of the somewhat shaky government in the capital city Unity and Ramses Stillwell, now a General, was making progress with the greatly expanded military, but there was still much that needed doing.

The first thing Hanna did after General Gomaa’s defeat was to grant a near universal blanket amnesty for those who had cooperated during the occupation. That was not a popular position in her own party but she made it stick. With a population of 38 million, Sylvan needed everyone on the planet to work towards strengthening her defenses. Most of that help would be from work in the private sector earning off-planet credit. Credit to use for military expenditures and to entice more people to emigrate to the system.

Some of those guilty of the worst kind of behavior while the Caliphates puppet government was in charge, those that could afford it, left taking their families with them but little else. Hanna had gotten laws passed limiting the amount of capital that a person could take off the planet without government permission. She had to waive or modify that rule, and a number of others for emigrants. It was unfair but there was no help for it if they were to bring more people in. Those leaving and those landing about balanced but created a decided swing in votes for the faction Hanna led.

Luxury imports were taxed heavily; imports that could raise productivity went untaxed. Exports of any type that could earn exchange credits were encouraged in every possible fashion.

Stillwell’s job, as Hanna well knew, was even tougher than her own. The Sylvan ground forces had lost much of their equipment to General Gomaa during the occupation. What was recaptured and what they took away from Gomaa’s troops when they were released barely set them even again. Buy it wasn’t the ground force situation that was most desperate. A planet with a population the size of Sylvan’s couldn’t hope to oppose the kind of force the Caliphate could bring to bear. That took ships and men in space. And that was prohibitively expensive for a small class two system like Sylvan.

Novi had leased the orbit and built a small fueling station around the system’s one suitable planet. It had only recently started operation and the lease price could have been considered a giveaway. Without the aid Novi of the Confederation had given Cardoman during the war Sylvan would still be under Caliphate control. That fueling station was even more important for the ships that used it, especially the Novi and other Feddie naval vessels, than for the original lease monies already spent because it brought in trade and merchant ships that would otherwise not have visited.

Primarily an agricultural exporter, Sylvan was rich in a few industrial metals. In particular on the subcontinental island Accord, a mountain sized mass of almost pure copper. With iron being scarce on the planet the metal of choice for most common applications was this copper alloyed as necessary for hardness and strength. With more trade and hence shipping, the copper could be used in trade and as a cargo filler for a much more valuable export—hafnium

Hafnium is the most refractory binary compound known, with a melting point over 3890 C. It also, short of transuranic heavy metals, has the highest neutron-capture cross-section of any known substances. Its nuclear isomer Hf-178-m2 has the ability to store energy in the form of neutrons and is an ideal source for neutron cascades in gamma ray lasers. The last thing Stillwell knew about the metal was that it was devilishly expensive and difficult to separate from the ores it was found in, even before the rush to build new warships. So expensive in fact that the purity of several of the Sylvan deposits now made it profitable to mine and ship the ore in bulk.

Hanna told him that it was Cardoman seed money provided by Wes and Connie Calvert that got the first mine into operation. The ores went to Novi for refining and part of the metal to the Novi and Cardoman shipyards first, the rest to the highest bidder. Stillwell’s military buildup was getting the vast majority of the trade surplus and spending it as fast as it was earned.

So what was he buying with the money? Space based defensive systems and the ships to service them, noting else made sense given their limitations. And those kind of systems were rising in price almost as fast as the value of the planet’s exports. They couldn’t come close to the kind of money it took for even an older military vessel.

Novi took care of defending the fueling station and kept a hyper-capable military ship there on a permanent rotating basis. She also brought in supporting defensive platforms for additional protection. The major part of the Calvert seed money went right back to Cardoman to purchase four of their super-capable shuttlecraft which were used to service the high-orbital infrastructure Sylvan was buying for herself.

State of the art ShipKiller platforms and anti-missile defenses and less capable detection gear. That kind of older equipment was flooding the market as wealthier systems upgraded to newer gear. If the Caliphate came a’callin’ again, and in strength, they wouldn’t stand a chance but might do some real damage.

With ground troops being a lower priority, several hundred of his best were on Cardoman undergoing training and leased to the Cardoman Seventh for a two-year period. The contract bonuses went straight to the Sylvan treasury, the troops pay and bonuses, if any, theirs to keep.

Ramses wasn’t much of naval commander, but no one else on Sylvan was either and it was unthinkable to let the job go to an off-worlder. He was a good manager and a fast learner and that would have to be enough.

Lewellyn Waterford, Stillwell’s Chief of Staff walked into his office, “Time to go Ramses, the transports waiting and Hanna wasn’t able to squash the hearing. We both are going to be grilled by the Parliament’s oversight committee. Time to take our medicine.”

“Yes, and let Hanna deal with the fallout.”

* * *
“Lt. Fargo, the Major tells me you are doing good work,” Colonel Davis said to the transplanted Sylvan officer. “I’d like to offer you a job.”

“I would jump at the chance,” the man said with obvious relish.

“Wait till you hear the rest. Then you might not think it such an opportunity. I am offering you a slot in Recon obviously, but not as an officer, not even as a Sergeant, but as a Corporal with pay as such.” Robbie watched Fargo’s expression turn from joy to dismay. “The loss of pay isn’t as severe as it sounds. The Recon and Shipboard bonuses will make up for more than half of it. But some will think you are losing some status as well. I don’t look on it as a loss of status and if you decide to join you shouldn’t either. What do you think now Lieutenant?”

“I need to know more about what you intend to do with me before I can say,” Fargo said in a level tone.

“A fair enough answer. Recon may as well be called the Space Marines because that’s the function we are filling for the Seventh. We need a squad on each ship in the fleet and are expanding to the level necessary. But I won’t put someone in charge of a squad level unit without previous Recon or at the minimum long time Seventh experience. If the Major says you can make the grade I believe him. But there are no exceptions to that rule I just quoted.”

“Come in now and in six months you could have your present rank again. That’s how fast promotions are going to be what with all the new construction we are adding. “Provided of course you work out and that will be mostly up to you.”

“Where would I serve Colonel?”

“On the SnapDragon under Captain Langston with Lt. Jameson as your superior officer. He tells me you two know each other from Sylvan.”

After a short time spent with a blank look. Fargo unsnapped his bars and threw them on Robbie’s desk and said. “Colonel you’ve found yourself a new corporal.”

“Very well then, see my orderly and sign the forms, your shuttle leaves in three hours, don’t miss it. Dismissed.”

Immediately after passing through the SnapDragon’s boarding routine Brian Fargo was taken the Recon spaces forward of engineering to see his new leader and meet the section he would be in charge of.

“Hi Brian good to see you again. This is Matt Prentiss, he has the other section,” Fader said introducing the other corporal in the room.

“Glad to meet you Matt and to see you again Fader. But look at me–. ‘Lo how the mighty have fallen’,” Brian said with mock solemnity.

“Look at it as a new start,” Prentiss said, “And we like to say, you haven’t started anything till you’ve started in Recon.”

“And that’s the flat out truth,” Fader said. “Just look at Prentiss here as a prime example. He’s a genuine hero, a sergeant in Melbourne’s ‘A’ company before he got wounded on Sylvan. Even with all that going for him he still lost a grade when he came off of medical and signed into Colonel Davis’s little empire within the Seventh. Enough of the congratulations though, let’s go get you settled in, and then you can meet the rest of your section.”

Three hours later, after meeting his men and a tour of the ship, Fargo was back in Jameson’s small office in a corner of the squad bay. “What do you think Brian?” Fader asked.

“It’s not about like I figured it except for one thing. I didn’t expect this much spit and polish and especially an armed guard on the Captains quarters, especially on a working vessel. What’s with that?”

“Chalk it up to a peculiarity of the Captain. That’s what everyone tells me and like they told me; he seems to know his business.”

Yuri Borselov was just back from a test of the new shuttle missiles from Trudelheim. They were everything the reports said they would be. But damn, if they could boost the explosive in the warhead enough they would outclass anything else in production. And just maybe he knew a way to make that happen. He hurried off to see Lt. Madry. This couldn’t wait.

“You’ve got something running around in that twisty little brain of your Yuri,” Audie said as soon as she saw him. Audie could read him like a book but then she wasn’t the only one.

“You betcha’ LT. These new boom sticks I’ve been testing for Lieutenant Debus, except for the warhead they’re as good as anything out there. And I think I know of a way to fix that.”

“You mean the warhead problem?”

“Exactly. Something I came across a long few years ago and forgot about. Hafnium… Get it?”

“Go on Yuri, I’m sure I will.”

“It’s like this Audie; a gram of hafnium when pumped with enough neutrons can hold as much energy as a few hundred kilos of TNT. Course in the real world only about fifty or so. Not on the level of an honest fusion nuke but as close as anything is going to get until you get to that stage. The microgram quantities we had back when I was in school were too small to mess around with. But now because of what we are getting from Sylvan maybe it’s time to take a look.”

“I kinda’ see where this is going Yuri. I seem to remember now that an activation device, something to trigger the energy release is no simple engineering task.”

“Yeah, that’s what we need to figure how to make. Something small enough to fit in a warhead.”

“Have you been reading everything Captain Reeves has been sending our way?”

“Scanning it but these tests and whatever else you have me doing keeps me from reading it all in detail. I’ll get around to it I’m sure, if I live so long.”

“I hear you Yuri, I don’t even think I am keeping up anymore, and that never used to be a problem. Oh, I read it but just don’t always think about what it means and the part of my brain that used to make the connections even when I wasn’t paying attention isn’t paying attention either. However, there is one file we both need to visit. Captain Reeves sent a report on hafnium pumped gamma ray lasers. There’s something there about triggering mechanisms so let’s both read it through and see what we think then.”

“Tomorrow morning good enough?”

“I’ll have to be Yuri, Captain Langston has me revising our safety procedures for an orderly shutdown and powerplant scuttle in case we ever get boarded by surprise with the marines detachment incapacitated. I think I am going to please him this time but sure enough, tomorrow will do fine.”

“It was an interesting idea but it ain’t gonna’ work is it Audie? Unless someone invents some new physical laws governing the universe, there is no way for us to make a trigger small enough to fit into one of those Trudelheim missiles warheads.”

“That’s what I came up with too Yuri, but all is not lost. Think about a non-fusion head for our standard ShipKiller. Using the same trigger Captain Reeves already has for the laser system we could cut the ShipKiller warhead weight in half. It would lack a lot of the fusion punch but I think we would more than make up for that with the increase in speed and controlled range. And with the triggers already in prototype production we could get some test samples made real fast.”

“That’d be great Audie, when are you gonna’ tell him?”

“Already did, sent the message last night and we have samples in a week. Keep this up Yuri and if it works like we know it will, you are going to be off the ship and back in R&D full time to get the production lines going.”

“But not before we test?”

“Nope we test and then we see.”

When the prototypes came on board Audie was summoned to Captain Langston’s day cabin on the bridge. Private Freidikin saluted as he palmed open the hatch. This was new, saluting when off the hanger deck and not under ceremony. Audie returned the gesture and passed inside.

Captain Langston was looking towards the hatch when Audie entered the small cabin/office. “You’ve been even busier than I suspected Lieutenant,” Langston said as she seated herself in the chair in front of his desk. “Admiral Raymond sent out orders for a weapons test that you seem to be in charge of. Care to fill me in on what the hell is going on?” He said that with ill-concealed annoyance.

“You didn’t get my message Sir? I sent it to you as a copy the same time I sent it to Captain Reeves at R&D.”

“I looked at my logs and you are correct Lieutenant. You did send it, and I did receive it. But the header, ‘Possible improvement in shipboard warheads as suggested by Sgt. Borselov’, forgive me if I filed it without reading. I have, or at least I thought I had, more important things to do than read the random musings of a junior enlisted rank.” “I’m sorry Sir; I had been up for a lot of hours when I wrote the header.

I just didn’t think that–”

“Exactly Madry, you didn’t think. But now we have to move on, just as if we had nothing better to do than engage in prototype weapons test with a ship crew that still needs more work.”

“Sir, I beg to disagree; from where I sit this crew is doing great. My own section is far better than I had any right to expect in the short time I’ve been in charge.”

“And you have been a Naval Officer for how long?”

“Yes Sir! Not long enough I am sure, and I defer to your judgment. It will not happen again Sir!”

Seemingly considering her reply as if it was some kind of a compliment on his leadership, rather than as a manifestation of anger held in check, the Captain’s tone changed at once. “Well yes, let us get on to the important thing now. Admiral Raymond expects a lot from us and we shall not disappoint him. How long before you have a test schedule worked out Audie?”

Taking her cue from Langston, Audie replied in her normal voice. “It will take a week at least to get some drones ready and instrumented. I think we should do the testing in the outer system so that we can see how detectable the bangs are with our insystem sensors. We need another ship to stand to the side and do the close range monitoring so there will be a lot to do in a short time to handle all this in a week.”

“Very good Lieutenant. Write up a report stressing the difficulties involved and we should all come out of this with feathers in our caps.”

When Audie left the bridge to go back to her office and start writing the report, she decided not to mention that conversation to anyone else on the ship. But she was going to start paying attention to the undercurrent, all the little things that spoke to unit morale and readiness. No matter what everyone seemed to be saying, something on the SnapDragon was decidedly amiss.