Marjoram 1

Marjoram
Chapter 1 Draft (07-16-11)

The body was half dead, well maybe closer to 80% by the time system security opened up the shipping container. In the crude life support pod the smell of decay was strong, evident almost before the lid was opened and it soon filled the room. Within the hour a report was on its way to Cardoman 7th HQ where it was reviewed then sat while awaiting additional information. Two days later, a priority assigned, it percolated up through the intelligence division and finally to the office of the director.

Col Jack Trebeck was smiling when Ellen Nesberg, a go between for the general staff, walked into his office. Not because things were good, but because things were less bad then usual, better in fact than anytime in the last several months. The most recent report from Union, the one he’d just finished reading, took note of the Confederation’s ramp-up to war status, and it gave convincing evidence, details in the form of reserve units being brought online and procurement budgets increased, and build schedules shortened. It demonstrated that even with the eighty planet member bodies internal dissension President Reshevsky could still make things happen.

The Confederation of Free Worlds (the Feddies) naturally had a way to go to match Cardoman’s three year head start in operational readiness but when it came to hardware the odds against his home world had shrunk to something that could be imagined without a reflexive shudder followed by a stiff drink.

The look on Ellen’s face, more than her brisk walk, removed his smile as he switched back to a more normal and noncommittal posture and waited to hear the worst.

Seeing his change of attitude Ellen smiled herself, “Sorry Jack, I should have let you know I was on my way over. It’s not all doom and gloom. I just ran across something I thought you should see at once; it’s a report from Naval System Defense on something we have been tracking. It seems a couple of days ago they found someone from the Caliphate trying to smuggle himself onto the planet, and he’s not your garden variety refugee or spy.

They found him during a routine cargo inspection in a life pod usually used for shipping large biological samples between research facilities. The kind often used for non terrestrial species samples but sometimes for domestic animals such as cattle or hogs when shipping them live because of the small number involved would be impractical. It was addressed to the University bio-center and labeled New Species Sample – Open on arrival!

Ellen took a seat and passed over a card with an embedded data chip. They really weren’t chips anymore but once people had begun to really spread out, the realization hit that a re-creation of the Tower of Babel story was likely if each planet went its own storage method and different language for out system documents. There were different accents, and even different languages on a single planet’s surface (a form of Arabic being the Official Language of the Caliphate) but old English was standard and they managed quite well given the distances involved.

While Jack flipped through the pages Ellen continued, “The Navy scanned the Pod and found nothing mechanical or explosive inside so they let it through to customs; it didn’t seem worthwhile to send it to a quarantined containment area and open it first. They sent in down below with an inspector to watch while it was opened by the Universities life science people. They do this kind of thing in a sealed environment as you can imagine. After it was opened, while the revival continued, word went to medical and then Plans and Intents where I took over until the body, I guess we should say the refugee, recovered enough to speak.”

Trebeck looked up from the viewscreen built into the top surface of his desk and said, “And I surmise the subject is ready for interrogation and you want me to go over for the first sitting?”

“Exactly Jack, because you see our transportee claims to be the one time head of the Caliphate shipyards out at Marjoram!”

“My, my. We don’t hear much about activity there anymore. Majoram,” he said, dropping the ‘r’ as was common, “hasn’t been much of a priority because what we do see makes it seem their production is down compared to some of the Caliphate’s newer yards. Provided he’s who he says he is I guess we can find out why.”

The man was sitting up, propped against pillows, with wires and tubes snaking in under a light green hospital style cover sheet. Skin wrinkled and complexion pale. Not bad for a recent near corpse. For all that his eyes were closed and he looked asleep. An armed Cardoman Marine was seated just inside the hatch and he stood when the two officers entered.

With the exception of a few high profile areas such as weapons storage facilities, a few major bases, and the Guard at Castle Calvert, the Cardoman Seventh did not have an assigned Military Police Unit. That was they type of duty any marine might be assigned to temporarily should it be required. The insignia on the Private’s uniform showed he was just out of basic school taking infantry training at Camp Logan. Still he knew enough not to salute while inside a small room in a hospital building.

There was no smell to the air but a faint hint of ozone, and a very faint breeze from the ventilation system, sterile, without evidence of antibacterials.

“At ease Private, take a seat; hell, take a nap if you want. I think we are going to be here for a while.”

“Yes Sir! Thank you Sir!” the soldier managed to say with less than parade ground volume, but still remaining upright and attentive.

There were two doctors, at least that was what Jack took them to be, and a nurse, male in this case, hovering over the . . . prisoner, no other word fit as well. Two of the three seemed to resent the entrance and presence of the Cardoman officers.

“Jack Trebeck,” he got the first word in, aiming it at the younger doctor who looked most hostile, “P & I. And I want to thank both of you . . . all three of you in fact,” with a nod towards the nurse, the other with a stiff demeanor, “for taking care of our guest.”

“Guest you say!” returned the man he had addressed, “The patient would be dead if he hadn’t gotten here when he did, and precious little thanks to your vaunted military. You people think that you can do whatever you want and devil take the hindmost. I am sick and tired of cleaning up after your messes!”

“Our messes?” Jack said suppressing a stronger reply.

“I was on the team that dealt with the aftermath of your attack on the Minton train station. I will never forget it.”

“Calm down Jason,” said the second and older doctor, “I was there too, they did what needed to be done. It was war you know.”

“War! While women and children die!”

“Doctor,” Trebeck said, speaking to the elder of the two, “If you would excuse me for a moment.”

He then turned and said to the Marine, while pointing at the younger of the doctors, “Private, you will escort this man from the room, should he ever return without my expressed permission you will shoot him dead. Is this clear?”

“Sir! Yes Sir!” said the private, this time in full parade ground mode as he stepped around the nurse and towards the shocked younger doctor.”

“You can’t do this!” His expression verging on apoplexy.

“Watch me son.”

After the man was frog marched out the hatch, the nurse asked to leave as well, but before the marine returned Jack said, “Solly where do you find them?” Trebeck had known Solomon Leiter for more than twenty years; they had attended classes at some of the same schools, gone out with some of the same women. Cardoman was after all a low population world.

“They find us and we take what we can get Jack. And Jason — Dr. Pinero, isn’t all bad, just never had what you would call a wake up. A good doctor, one of the best. I’ll do what I can to calm him down later. Hope you haven’t ruined him for us.”

“I hope so too Solly, but it’s high time he decided which side of the fence he’s sitting on.”

Through all of this the man in bed under the pale green cover never moved, not even a blink. “He’s not dead is he?” Ellen asked, her voice cool and detached as if the events of the last minute had never happened.

“As a matter of fact he’s much better than he looks,” Solomon replied, “Three months in a shipping container is enough to ruin anyone’s complexion, and several layers of skin were dead when we revived him, but except for that, and being close to starvation he came through quite well. We have been force feeding and making sure his sleep is undisturbed. Without the drugs he has recurring dreams that wake him constantly. I’ll bring him out of it now but try to keep this to under an hour. No sense in taking chances.”

Solomon did something to an entry device under one of the monitoring screens, a drug dosage changed, and a few seconds later the man’s eyes opened.

* * *
“How did he get from Marjoram, almost in the heart of the Caliphate, out to Cardoman without a thousand flags dropping, ships dispatched, traitors dismembered, and as many questions asked?” Clay Grayson was the last to arrive, coming in from Camp Logan to Minton and thence to the Research Divisions HQ for this brief; he knew the lay of the land.

“The only way possible.” Ellen said, “False papers sending him to Ryman. He had somehow gotten a message there first alerting them to the deception. Robbie will have the details when he gets here but that won’t be for another three weeks. It was one of the old Oligarch corporations, one of the operations the new government left running just to see what might turn up. Near as we can tell they took some money and a promise for more and then tried to sneak him in under the radar. It might have worked without the warning. He was gone before he was missed. We can only imagine the uproar afterward.”

“How is Robbie?” Fader Jameson asked. He had traveled with Grayson from the camp, in theory to see how staff work got done but more as a chance to spend a night on the town. The action in Minton, the planet’s Capital and major city, might not amount to much on a Galactic scale but compared to Camp Logan there was no comparison.

“I’m reading between the lines here.” Colonel Reeves said. Jubal Reeves was head of Cardoman’s R&D and one of Robbie Davis’s long time friends. “Married life is suiting him fine; least wise it’s not slowing him down any. I get the distinct impression though that the restraints on Ryman are driving him back faster than his new bride might appreciate.”

“You say,” Ellen shot back, “Wait till they get here and we will see.”

“Back on track,” Clayton said smiling. “How sure are we that everything this man says is true? If the Calps are building a new class of ship, and I see no reason to doubt it, what does it mean to us now? Can we and should we try to match them?”

“I talked to Jim Marquette about that.” Reeves said, “He told me we could someday, or that they could now on Union and Llanfairn; we don’t have the band machine and would struggle to build one and it would set other production back a year, and leave too many holes to fill in any event.”

“This new class of G-2, we are going to call it a G-2L for Large, is just the thing for a landing. Near as much payload as a G-1 but twice as fast and survivable. According to what our guest says it can move a full infantry division and their gear all at one time. Twenty thousand troops and equipment. More than a quarter of a million tons full up.”

“Take a G-2M and make her more than half again as large though not quite as fast. Her boat bay includes a heavy lander and eight shuttles of the more normal type. Not much on the offensive side, just two tubes and reloads, but her defensive strength is equal to a couple of G-4’s and without the time lag. Working on something like that it’s no wonder we thought total ship build numbers were down on Marjoram. The only good thing, and I say this hesitantly, is that the first version took them three years to complete, and each additional unit will take almost a full year. The second by the way is due commissioning any time.”

“How can you know that Colonel?” Fader asked. “Other than what this Yousef Al-Shibi is telling us I thought the system was closed.”

“It is Fader, but Union was tracing the normal shipments in. The standard G-3 and G-4 components; reactors, electronics, missiles, all of them for the period under discussion. They were less than half of the previous ten year’s average from the time Al-Shibli claims he started the new program. Evidently enough for what they were building on the standard end even with the disruption it must have caused to the old shipyard programs. Our guest claims to be the driving force behind this and I believe him.”

“He sounds like some kind of an engineering genius,” Ellen said.

“No reason we should have a monopoly on that particular talent,” Reeves said. “We need to bring some more people into this discussion as soon a possible. Figure out what it means both short and long. When do you think the Major can hear us out Clay?”

“I talked to him before Fader and I left the base. Get everything sorted in the next two days. Then he wants to see us all at the Castle. Bring Al-Shibli if he can be moved. We have some thinking to do and no time to waste. Jamie Madry and her team at the Admiralty have been working with me and Olivera on our next push, and this could take us back to square one.”

Castle Calvert was a large stone structure, (more accurately steel and stone but with the steel under the facade and well hidden from view), part of a landholding of multiple thousands of hectares and situated several hundred kilometers from Minton. Wes Calvert, with the help and advice of his personal business agent had it built from the proceeds, or a small part thereof, from his share in the sale of a couple of captured FTL warships.

This happened almost ten years earlier, five years after Wes Calvert left for the Jorgen Military Academy at age seventeen. Two years after the start of his service on Witherway and then creating the unit out of its broken parts on Altoona, back when the Cardoman Seventh was barely squad size, and was known in mercenary circles at least, as Calvert’s Cards. Everyone involved with the unit in those early years, the ones that lived through it, became very wealthy, and especially so if they stayed in, as most did, and moved to Cardoman when the Cards merged with the Cardoman military service.

In the years before becoming part of the Cardoman service the Card’s operated like your usual mercenary detail, though with much greater success. Those former members, paid out and active, held down 12 spots on the list of Cardoman’s top 100 wealthiest. Wes was in the top five, his wife and former executive officer in the top ten on her own terms, Robbie Davis, the one time top sergeant and now General Davis not far behind. FTL spacecraft were worth that much, even used and slightly damaged. A new one cost as much as 2% of the GNP of a relatively wealthy for her size planet like Cardoman, and only nineteen planets total, eleven in the Caliphate, five in the Confederation, and three, Llanfairn, Cardoman, and Ryman as Indies had the wherewithal to build them. Often, make that usually, at a rate of less than one a year.

No one had an exact count of the current numbers, but best estimates ran to 2600 to 2700 ships in service. That was it in all of human occupied space; thankfully, once built, with care and proper maintenance they lasted almost forever.

Explored space was a roughly spherical region centered on Earth and having a diameter of just over 400 light-years. That number was not a random artifact of chance. The earliest starships, the G-1’s could cover just that distance in a year spent in hyper and the radius of exploration reflected that fact. As the technology advanced and the number of drive bands on the newer class ships increased in steps from one to four, their hyper velocities went up also, at the square root of the number of bands encircling the ship.

A modern vessel built as a G-4, 2’s and 3’s were still in production, was therefore twice as fast as the on band first versions. The newer ships were much smaller as well, massing perhaps 35,000 tons empty but with proportionately more interior space. What it meant was that meant that more of them could be built, as the major limiting factor in drive band technology had always been a lack of trans-uranic elements, (heavy metals), without which a drive band could not function, and without a drive band control of gravity and entry into hyper was impossible, at least in theory and practice.

Within that 400 light-year sphere were more than 400,000 suns, many of them still unvisited. Most has planets; three hundred and thirty had been colonized, and a few dozen others were in the process of being terraformed, something that usually took from decades to centuries. Another hundred saw some other type of human activity such as being used for a fueling station or scientific research base, or sometimes as a home for commerce raiders — pirates in the vernacular.

In this explored region there were two major political entities; the older Caliphate, with eighty two planets and the bulk of the human population; and the Confederation of Free Worlds, with half again as many worlds but only a third of the total population. The remainder of worlds made up the Independents who were on average newer and even less populated and only united in the sense they wished to be left alone and outside of a larger political grouping.

Cardoman, with a population of just over 60 million, up from 45 million ten years ago, would have been a typical Indie but for one thing; it had a shipyard able to produce hyper capable ships. That had come about with the help of Llanfairn, by far the wealthiest and until recently the only class one Independent, a status determined by ship building capability. As a result of Calvert’s successes Llanfairn helped Cardoman get into the hyper business. Another Independent, Ryman, was an off and on proposition, now calling herself an Indie and able to build G-2’s — sometimes — she was always chronically short on band metal. With the removal of the Oligarchy political upheaval was even now playing its way out, but as the Redmond faction gained control, Ryman was well on its way to becoming one of Cardoman’ staunches allies.

Since the Caliphate started its last expansion many of the old truths were no longer relevant, a fact many worlds choose to remain ignorant of or ignore. Cardoman had no choice in the matter, having been invaded by Calp forces, almost casually it seemed, twice in the last forty years, and throwing them off planet for the second time only a year ago.

At first they were almost alone, then with the help of just a dozen other worlds. Now, with the Confederation ready to take action, there was a real chance for victory, one for Cardoman’s side this time. And that was why they were meeting here at the Castle today on such short notice. The original idea was to come to a decision concerning what their next move would be.

After the aircar from Minton landed it was met by Cpl. Ethridge of the Castle Guard. Subconsciously Colonel Reeves had been expecting Sgt. White. But White was back on fleet duty ever since returning from the raid on al-Maqam. One constant remained; it was still Irwana al-Omari who called open the tall wooden double doors that dominated the Castle’s architecture when seen at ground level from the building’s front and ushered them inside.

Off of the two story entrance, to the left, was a very large dining area, one large enough for formal receptions and even dances, to the right was the library. Stairs led to living quarters on the second floor and a hallway continued to the back of the building where the kitchen and other working areas dominated. There was a middling sized bar in the far right corner. A fact not obvious from the hallway’s interior view and that was their destination.

The entryway was secured by a dark paneled door made up of small glass panels stretching from floor to ceiling. Inside the light subdued, against one wall was a long bar with high backed seating for ten. Pictures of ships, weapons, and battles covered the walls, a half dozen tables were scattered about the rest of the room, filling it, but not uncomfortably so. The Major was behind the bar mixing drinks, his wife, Connie Melbourne Calvert, seated at a table in front sampling one of his mixtures, something ginger colored with a slice of lime. At the sound of their entrance she looked up and smiled.

“Welcome aboard Jack, Ellen and of course you too Fader and Jubal,” she added. “Pull up a seat and Wes will set you up.”

“Looks like you got off to an early start Connie,” Reeves said with a twinkle in his eye. Ellen like Fader was saying nothing.

“This,” she said taking a sip. “Perish the thought, not till later at least. I have a speech to give in Castleton about thirty minutes from now, a dedication for the new church being built by the Universal Christian Brotherhood. For a town with only two thousand residents they do have their factions.”

Castleton was a community located on the Calvert lands a couple of miles northeast of the Castle. It was limited in size by design and mostly reserved for veterans of the Seventh and their families. Most of those that weren’t retired worked in some capacity relating to the holding. Farming, ranching, and limited lumbering were all a part of the local economy.

“I need to spend about an hour there but should be back well before dinnertime. Wes and I are going to donate some hymnals and an organ we picked up when we were on Union. We also donated the stained glass for the window, that’s what I get to dedicate today. I actually think I will enjoy myself. It’s a shame you all won’t be coming along. You could you know.” By now everyone was seated.

Wes brought over everyone’s drink, he knew all their flavors by heart, and if he hadn’t the bar’s “Tender” would have looked it up for him. “Connie’s right. You could go with her. This won’t be the meeting we planned. Jamie Madry is still out-system, she should hit orbit sometime tonight. While wringing out our new G-4 Wasp an optical link failed and took out the modulator for one of her bands. Someone made a bend that was a little to sharp and a stress area resulted. The backup wasn’t installed in its raceway yet. No major damage, she wasn’t going to jump until all systems and backups were 100% certified, but that cuts her speed enough that both Madrys will be late.”

“Did you talk to Jim Marquette about it?” Jubal asked.

“He called me with the message. Apologized and all but I told him it wasn’t his fault by any stretch. Even if he wasn’t new at the job so many of the workers at the yard are that it’s a wonder we get anything built, much less set construction records every other month.”

“He can’t watch every sparrow fall and it’s getting to him,” Connie said just before Cpl Ethridge came into the room and told her the ground car was waiting and it was time for them to leave.

She stood and excused herself and the two of them left the bar through a small door behind a sliding panel near the room’s outer corner.

When the panel hiding the exit was back in place Wes said, “May as well fill me in on anything new al-Shibli has revealed, you didn’t bring him with you so I gather he’s too weak to move, but we can save the detail work for tomorrow on the station. And the reason I didn’t warn you in advance about this is because we will be leaving before sunup in the morning and all of you could use a little down time. Wanna will be getting rooms ready and you can call back into town for your traveling bags. Ethridge will have someone detailed to pick them up.”

A short time later, when it was almost time for a second round, Wes called a halt. “Enough for now,” he said, “the weather is too good to waste, and the day still early, let me take you on a tour and show off some of the changes Connie and I have made in the last three months. I’m particularly happy with the . . .”

Connie came back from Castleton with Sugar Bear Packard, his wife and family in tow, and a half a cow to boot. The five men started to toss around the caber, at Sugar Bear’s insistence, while the three ladies watched in amusement and the three Packard children ran off with the youngest Calvert to parts unknown. Gregoric, named after his grandfather was three now, and making up for lost time. Sugar Bear, Wes, and Fader, were fighting it out for the title when the women left them. Three hours later they were back together again and they ate shortly thereafter, only to turn in early to be rested for the flight on the morn.

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