By The Sword 8

By The Sword
Chapter 8 Draft (7/26/08)

Captain Kalid was once again on Admiral Kahn’s flagship, this time feeling not the smallest concern for his future wellbeing. His report concerning the situation at Onaway had been sent earlier, as soon as he rejoined the fleet. By now it was already predigested and filed.

While Admiral Kahn watched, glancing up from his com screen from time to time, staff brought Captain Rashid and his First Officer Gondar Metemma up to date, fleshing out the final details, last minute changes, and changes made to the plan to retake Mizar. After the brief, and asked for comments, it seemed to Rashid that there was little he could add, and he said as much.

Khan now fully alert said, “You do not think it might be wiser to sneak in and take a look before we commit the fleet?” Kahn stared but his expression gave nothing away.

“From what we knew when we left Earth, and on this point I am certain our sources are very, very good, unless our plans have leaked, there will likely be one or at most two warships in system. Novi will have something at the planets fuel station. Cardoman or some other planet could have a military transport there, though that isn’t likely. There is only enough off planet shipping for one full cargo a month. I think that boldness does indeed favor us Admiral.”

Khan, using thumb and forefinger, stroked his beard then said, “You and your ship will lead the squadron, go in first, a half an hour before the rest of the fleet. The Reza Gholam goes in second leading the rest. I want you fifteen light minutes outside the hyperlimit, and as soon as you arrive begin broadcasting your scans at once. The rest of us will aim for a half hour outside the limit and have the benefit of any information you send.” Kahn then added for all present, “Only Allah’s intercession will save a ship’s Captain who at this distance, and with the time we have to calculate, bounces, or is more than thirty minutes off target.”

“Captain Rashid, the honor is yours. Praise Allah! And do not disappoint his servants.”

* * *
“Three, two, transition in!” Kalid in his command seat saw the numbers tumble then seconds later firm up. Nineteen minutes eighteen seconds outside the limit, most acceptable. “Signals, active scanning, code and broadcast everything you receive at once.”

Lt. Simini Asfaruddin, knowing this order was going to be issued, had his signals board already set and sequenced, all the boxes checked. He watched as one by one the numbered command strings changed color, showing each sensor read being added to the outgoing data stream. That completed he asked, “Permission to release the ranging shot?”

“Launch the ranging shot,” Rashid responded at once.
His first officer, Cmdr. Gondar Metemma, stationed aft in weapons control unlocked his hold-down. A three-second countdown for a systems check, and a reconnaissance drone, a ShipKiller with electronics replacing the nuclear warhead, went streaking inwards. Its signals and track were used to check calibration of both active and passive sensors while it scanned ahead. When it burned out Gondar sent a standard drone out only slightly faster than the Sword but with hours of powered flight rather than the 720 second of a ShipKiller.

Rashid may have looked relaxed to his crew, but the tension he felt inside only eased off when the initial scan failed to show any hint of a neutron flux from an active ships drive in Mizar’s system.

“Head in, standard military power.” This was not the time and there was no point in revealing the just how good the Sword’s spoofing gear was. She had the ability to mimic, by using the appropriate acceleration and electronic control and masking, the drive signature of anything from a civilian G-2 on up. With the rest of the fleet due in twenty minutes and a calibration drone launched it would have been wasted motion, he wasn’t going to reveal the secret of how good at this the she could be.

Kalid went back to watching his screen while the dot of the recon drone separated from his ship and the location and strength of the systems neutron emitters firmed up.

At the ten-minute mark, after burnout and the launch of the second drone, a yellow block appeared, showing a fault, and almost at once went to red, confirming failure. The brief message inside identified a com system error. Asfaruddin reported a failure of one of the data channel broadcast encoders and reported that a tech was already pulling the covers off to swap the unit out.

Communications security was too important to trust to software control, hence all secure outgoing data channels went through hard coded modules. Four minutes later the light turned green and then disappeared from the screen.

At burnout, twelve minutes from launch, the drone was a half a million kilometers out front and his signals crew with the advantage now of triangulation was working to refine the incoming data. So far, no surprises. It would be at least another hour before anyone on Mizar saw their entry grav pulse and another before the Novi ship at the systems gas giant had the same information, and of course all the data the Sword collected was just as old. But since the insystem energy sources were in constant operation and radiating all the time, he at least had that older data to go by whereas they were still unaware.

Right on the mark the other ships of Kahn’s battle group popped on station. They all transitioned from outside at the same time but quantum randomness and minor navigational differences, they couldn’t truthfully be called errors, (how could any ship know its mass to the kilogram?), from ship to ship spread them out in a sphere some forty light minutes in diameter. The nearest actually emerged slightly inwards of the Sword but with far less velocity, the Flagship came in eight light minutes behind. After a quick look at the data Kalid was already sending, Admiral Kahn issued the order to continue inwards in accordance with the plan.

Some two hours after her transition the Sword was able to detect the flare of two ship drives lighting off and heading in her direction. These were both unknowns with G-2 equivalent drive signatures coming from Mizar. Shortly after they boosted they saw the rest of the fleet emerge. Moments later they killed their drives, evidently awaiting instructions from higher up.

A third ship, from out by the gas giant lit up next. He had it captured in the database as a Novi Battle Cruiser, G-4, FNS Victorious, but with light speed lag she wasn’t detected until two hours later.

* * *
Hugo Burgeron was in his cabin stretched out on his bed, too absorbed in a historical novel for sleep, when the alarms on the Victorious began blaring. He was on his way to the bridge, tucking in his shirt before the echoes faded. There were no ships on the incoming schedule and this was likely just another merchant transport but he still hurried, setting the tone of his command by example, and glad that he had when the ever more ominous call to battle stations sounded, overrode the general and call to quarters.

As soon as he reached the command-deck the ships duty officer, this shift the V’s first officer Cmdr Morin unclamped, giving up the Captain’s seat, pausing only long enough to say, “Caliphate G-4, Sword of the Prophet with a recon drone in front, the two Sylvan pickets on a course to block.” Cmdr Morin continued aft, making haste for his battle station down on the auxiliary bridge level between weapons and engineering. While the seat adjusted to his form and he strapped in, Hugo took in the display, then studied it closely.

The ship was already marked with a two-hour max acceleration sphere showing, that, along with the initial course inwards under full military power and the almost never used under normal conditions, recon drone. This looked like the real thing. When the rest of the Calp fleet came up on his screen there could be no doubt.

“Make an intercept for the lead Caliphate ship, then send Sylvan the word that we are going to investigate. She’s already seen us so as soon as we get any kind of a message put it straight through,” he said to his com officer. His crew had plotted the slower course of the major portion of the Calp forces by the time the first messages from Sylvan Naval Control arrived.

The worst-case scenario had come to pass Captain Burgeron realized. The war was on and Sylvan would fall for a second time, and nothing he could do to stop it. “Stay on a direct course towards them, but make sure we can break off and reach Sylvan without sliding past. Mark a course for the limit, and get timing for before the Calp ship can target us. It hardly seems likely, but she may stand down.” Hugo stayed at his station until he saw the two Sylvan ships cut acceleration then kill their outward vectors.

“Signals, you have the bridge. Release the crew from battle stations, then let Morin and Riggins know I want them in to my office.”

“Yes Sir! I have the bridge.”

“I’ve been granted quite a bit of leeway,” Burgeron began. “But I want you both to give me an evaluation of how you see this and the options you favor. It goes without saying we do not engage the Caliphate forces directly. We are, however, permitted to take a position where we appear to threaten them and react to their response. Cmdr. Morin, if you would go first?”

“We need to hear what the Calps have to say. I would expect Sylvan Naval Command has already sent that message off and the response will be that this system is now Caliphate territory. Much as I would like to get in a few licks, I think it more important we get the word of the attack out. So, I think we keep a safe distance and do nothing resembling shooting or getting shot at, nothing that will force Novi to declare for war at once. We observe and leave as soon as the situation is settled.”

“Lt Cmdr Riggins, you would add?”

“It’s obvious we don’t fight, besides the odds we need to get a warning out, but where do we go first? Home or give the warning to our ships and the people at Cardoman? An attack there seems the logical next move if the Calps intend to press this thing. ”

“That’s what I’m asking you Lucy.”

“Sir, if it comes to war here, and it will, we have to go home and make Novi aware. It is our duty beyond all else. I hope nothing happens at Cardoman, or at least nothing till there is enough help in the system so it can hold, but Novi comes first.”

“Ok, I agree, we will head for home, but instead of closing on the Caliphate fleet, we will immediately make for Sylvan.”

“Why do we do that Cap?” Morin asked.

“We can’t fight but Stillwell and his men will. If the Caliphate pushes they are bound to fail in the short term, but we can help to make the victory a little more costly. We will offload all of our major offensive stores and take onboard whatever strategic cargo we can and have time for. Another fifty ShipKillers and ninety percent of our close in missiles should make the battle a little more costly for the Calps. Lucy, will you take over on the bridge and issues the orders? And send word to Sylvan Command concerning our intentions.”

“Yes, Sir!”

The Gholam’s signals officer sent the message, written on Earth by the Propaganda Ministry, that was how Admiral Kahn thought of it, if not what they called themselves at the officially labeled Department of Information. It demanded immediate, but not quite unconditional, surrender. Worded for consumption outside the Sylvan system it separated the criminal governmental leadership from the rest of the planet’s population. Kahn had tagged on at the end a plea for peace in the greater region with a warning, disguised as a plea, that the Novi ship remain neutral in this matter.

The fact that Victorious was heading for Mizar rather than the hyperlimit was of some concern, but if she insisted on being involved then it was on her head. Eight hours to turnaround, twelve hours to weapons range. Messages passed back and forth changing nothing.

* * *
Sylvan’s President, Hanna Perkins, in her office, was talking to her dearest friend, and onetime lover, Ramses Stillwell. Life had been so much simpler, with far less pain, twenty years ago. She hadn’t thought so at the time. Under other conditions she might have smiled about it. Hanna and Ramses listened for the second time to Kahn’s message.

“You have to leave with the Victorious Hanna, a Government in Exile is better than none at all. And you can bet once the Calps land, tribunals and trials not withstanding; if either one of us are captured we won’t last long enough for a firing squad. It’ll be shoot on sight, and a reward for the man with the fastest trigger.

“And our people here? Will they see it the same way and ever forgive me?”

“Some will, others never. But we need a voice in Indie space and the Confederation. No one else has the visibility and moral authority you have. You can make sure we are not forgotten. It has to be that way Hanna, it has to be!”

She said nothing for a full minute, leaning back in her chair and closing here eyes as if she were sleeping. Ramses waited, he knew what her decision must be, and trusted Hanna to make it.

“Ok, I will abdicate. No— that’s not how to handle it. First I will call in the VP and request he resign. I will demand the same of my Secretary of State then declare the military emergency that is so obvious, and turn over control to the defense forces. But what do we do if the VP can’t take a hint? It’s not as if he is forced by the constitution to accept my request that he resign. And knowing the man, and why I needed him and his block, I would expect he might decline any request I make.”

“Hanna, call him in. There will have an armed squad outside your door, and two men with battle rifles flanking your desk. I will be sitting in the back. We would never do anything rash, but knowing Al-Tamiyyah, he won’t pause lone enough to consider that. He will not waste a moment. He will complain afterwards, but that’s water over the dam.”

“And what does that say about us? Twisting the truth for the outcome we desire?”

“It makes us patriots or devils Hanna. But that’s for the future to decide. For us and for now, we trust in providence.”

“I have never known you to be the least religious Ramses.”

“I would have said the same Hanna, not long ago, but in the past year I have seen too many good men and women die. And without help, and a belief in a better future, I could not ask, as I must, for more of the same.”

The ‘Not Quite’ unconditional surrender terms were not negotiable, and of course the emergency session of the Sylvan government rejected them. The Victorious, offloading her munitions and taking onboard the few tons of outbound cargo made ready to receive President Perkins. It was her first trip ever off planet and she was learning she didn’t travel well. The shuttles petty officer had given her another and more powerful, anti nausea drug, but it didn’t seem to help. Passed out, she was carried in on a stretcher, and missed the ships departure.

When she awoke five hours later there was normal feeling gravity again, and though weak, a junior officer from the medical department eased her to a sitting position, and gave her a glass of something warm and told her to drink it all down. When Hanna was done the medic told her she would be fine now and might feel a bit light headed but her judgment would not be impaired—well not much anyway. Hanna asked to speak with the Captain.

“One moment Ma’am, I’ll see if he is available.”

Shortly Hugo Burgeron’s face and form filled the display on the wall opposite her bed. She thanked the Captain for the medical support then went on to what she considered a more important matter, and found that her recorded message had been broadcast, and better yet with no mention of her condition.

“Thank you for that Captain. Will you fill me in on what’s happened while I was out?”

“You have complete access to our communications log files Madam President, and I will make sure that several channels of video are sent to your display. At this moment I must beg off. Watch your screen please, the ‘Second Battle for Sylvan’ is about to get underway.”

Admiral Kahn, on the Reza Gholam’s Flag Bridge, completed his prayers and returned to the plot. The ship’s Imam led the rest of the crew in their devotions an hour ago. Suleah didn’t believe that prayers were enough to win wars, he had read too much history for that to ring true, but he was sure that they were comforting and could not hurt so long as there was muscle to back them up. Without a reputation for devotion, high command in the Caliphate was unobtainable. Hiding all doubt soon became second nature for every officer, and if the truth be known, in Kahn’s case a comfort.

Kalid and the Sword were sent sweeping wide of the planet, following the Novi ship as she headed out system. The sensors on Kalid’s ship were the best in the fleet. On the way in she marked scattered weapons stations the rest of the fleet would avoid for now and eliminate later. The important thing was that the Victorious, and hence Novi, would not be involved directly with the battle

Twice undetected platforms locked on to one of his own ships and missiles launched. Except for a faulty defensive mount causing minor structural damage to the ‘Sahara’, G-4, and killing the weapons crew manning it, there were no other casualties. Massed defensive fire was highly effective against low rates of fire. Seven and a half minutes from Sylvan and the rate was bound to change. The large colored globes showing engagement range were starting to merge. Admiral Kahn had the numbers on his side. The spheres touched and Khan gave his order saying, “Let The Prophet’s Will be Done! Engage the infidel!”

Christine Zimmerman, gunner second, in charge of the fourth defensive mount on Sylvan’s newly built Outward Station five light seconds off planet, watched the range markers turn positive. The stations low powered thrusters had placed her between the Calp fleet and Sylvan. She coasted very slowly onwards and under orders held her fire.
Christine’s father had warned her it would turn out like this. It was too late to change anything now. She wished she could talk to him, one last time, and let him know how sorry she was, and how much she missed talking to him this last year. Maybe the ship’s last data packet got through. She could only hope it made it in spite of all the jamming, and that somehow her father would see it. The screen blinked red, showing incoming. Forgetting everything else she went to work.

Close in everything was automatic, human reaction time couldn’t hope to keep up. Long range there were still a few people with an innate ability for pattern recognition even the comps couldn’t match. Christine was one of those few. Most twin tube mounts fired one or two missiles at extreme range, Christine kept her finger off the button watching the Calp reaction. She was going to save as many of her ShipKillers, normally used from her position in defense, for a chance at a warship.

Relying on the smaller, shorter-range shots and the beam weapons for Station protection might be risky, even suicidal. But so was just being here with a Caliphate fleet closing in. Three minutes later she still hadn’t fired when the first of the warheads sent from each side started to detonate.

“You still there Zimmerman?” her section leader asked; he hadn’t fired either.

“Soon Gunny, real soon.”

“Use em or lose em,” he replied as his first left its tube. Christine launched her first only two only seconds behind.

At long range there was never any direct control of a missile once launched. Speed of light signal delay meant they lived in the past. A snippet of code here and the tweak of a variable there, before she was sent away, was all a gunner could do. Yet the best of them could work magic with just that much. At this range it typically took two defensive shots to stop one incoming. That’s how it worked out with the stations first salvo. Both of Zimmerman’s second shots made a kill, as did the section chief’s first.

To this point both the attack and defense were staying true to doctrine. The Caliphate’s ships targeted Sylvan’s capital assets, her defensive works and missile platforms. Sylvan’s fire concentrated on knocking down the initial Caliphate launch, and in the process learn what they could about the enemy’s electronic counter measures.

The Caliphate warships themselves had been decelerating since long before launch; else they would have overshot the planet by hours and given any remaining defenders time to get ready for a return engagement.

From the defensive standpoint it would have been better if the Calps were closing at a much higher velocity. They were outgunned at long range—where a ship was a small nimble target. This would end here and now.

The inner station was just now starting to open fire, slow rate, one or two at a time. The two inter-system picket ships that had run in earlier were now vectoring out again on slightly divergent courses, both to the same side of the planet, in what could loosely be described as a flanking maneuver.

Due to a better angle, and the fact they aimed all their shots at the Calp missiles already fired and streaking for the Sylvan orbital stations their success rate was higher than expected, almost seventy percent. Christine saw what looked to be a seam open up a light minute out. She had ten ShipKillers left and sent eight, using both of her tubes at five-second intervals. She held back the last two. At fifteen light seconds she turned her close in stuff to automatic and watched the display.

She saw the last of the first wave taken down but there were still a dozen left from the second wave and three times as many from the third and forth. Use em or lose em!

She keyed the Gunny saying, “I have a solution, six seconds and I fire, slave to me.”

He replied, “Only one left, she’ll track on yours.”

The station damage control covered the general channel and played on the station’s intercom. Somehow Christine had managed to not hear it until her tubes and loaders were empty, but the sound came in loud and clear with the last two away and red lights on all of her launchers. Out of ammo not due to damage. Damage would come shortly.

The smell of ozone from overheated and arcing conductors feeding beam weapons and failing under overload filled the air. The station rocked from a near miss and then another. Lights flickered and came on again.

Christine Zimmerman saw all of its detail, and with a clarity she had never experience, the image on her target screen. It displayed the vector cones from six of the eight SK’s sent earlier blowing through the seam. Two missiles had died keeping it open. The trail of her last shots, and the one the Gunny sent, were masked and tucked in behind. Then came a burst of light, and for Christine and everyone else on the Outer Station, that was the last light they saw before everything went permanently black.

On the Victorious, now nearing the limit, the battles closing scenes were watched and recorded for later analysis. Besides there own sensor data they had the keys to decode the Sylvan telemetry. It made for a much clearer picture than would have otherwise been possible.

The ships weapons officer gave a running commentary, explaining the displayed view for Hanna Perkins and members of the crew unfamiliar with the symbolic representation repeated to displays around the ship.

“That was it for the outwards station,” he said, as the light marking its position stopped blinking red indication extreme battle damage and faded out. The inner station was blinking yellow now while five more Calp ShipKillers closed in. “As more warheads detonate closer in it gets harder and harder for the sensors to see through the plasma fog.” Four were stopped beyond blast radius. The fifty flared inside the damage zone and the marker indicating the inner station pulsed more rapidly.

“That was the end of the second picket ship,” he said as another light went dark.

Hanna almost refused to believe what she was hearing, or at least the way it was presented. How could anyone be so cold and analytical in the face of such death? Then she thought about how Ramses Stillwell sometimes acted and the feeling passed.

“You can see the last spread of four she fired merging with the six from Sylvan’s Outer Station. This could get interesting. They are all going to converge on a single ship. That would be—yes the G-3 Djinn and they are only fifteen light seconds out.”

Hanna had the hang of the timing marks on the display now, and was aware that a ShipKiller needed to detonate less than two tenths of a light second, (60,000 meters) from an armored ship to cause damage, and less than half that to insure destruction. The final five seconds went to fast for her to track what was happening. The Weapons officer slowed it down and did a replay.

“Here we see the clustered SK’s separating. Even with shaped charges they need some separation so one going off doesn’t take out the rest.”

Even slowed down it was fast. There were at least twenty large missiles trying for an intercept and Hanna couldn’t count the number of smaller ones. Three of the attackers detonated 3 LS away from the dot that was the Djinn. Two of four from the destroyed Sylvan picket were caught before they could do any harm but the other two exploded and created a plasma interference shield only a light second from the Djinn, which was at max acceleration and throwing off small charge nuclear countermeasures.

“That one!” And the screen froze. “Hit by a beamer.” The last half second was stepped through a frame at a time. There were three missiles left still focusing on the Caliphate cruiser. One exploded at 70,000 meters, giving cover to the two remaining. The Icon representing the Djinn started to flash. Brighter then dimmer from frame to frame.

The next Sylvan warhead went off at 30,000 meters, very heavy damage. The last was almost touching when she let loose. The light from the Djinn faded then went out.

“Score One.”

While the slowed version of the Sylvan strike on the Djinn was playing out in a corner of the screen the end of the Caliphate’s attack on Sylvan continued. The Djinn blew up at almost the same instant Sylvan’s Inner Station died. As a result on Hanna’s part there were tears instead of cheers, for the ships crew, only silence. It didn’t and couldn’t balance.

They were outside the limit now. Hanna had asked that the ship stay in contact long enough to see the Calp landing. Captain Burgeron had to refuse. “They could take a day or a week. I must get word to Novi Hanna. I am truly sorry.”

Victorious made her jump and left the Sylvan system behind.

Next