Marjoram 12

Marjoram
Chapter 12 Draft (09-10-11)

Fleetbase Philomel

The G-4 Alahambra transitioned in from Mosul twenty minutes beyond the limit, saw the bright white star, and sent her first dispatch. Captain Nour Mhanna was not feeling good about the expected response. When the expected message came his misgivings were fully justified.

He was asked for further explanation in this initial response. But he had already sent all the explanation there was to send. What Fleetbase was really wanted to hear were excuses, something to send back to Earth to soften the news of defeat.

The interview with Admiral Razuli Suleiman would at the very least be more pleasant than the fate enjoyed by Captain Badr. Nour’s justification of following orders would save his skin, and spare his officers and men as well. Returning with the details of the tactics used against them would also make possible a defense against this new Cardoman weapon; the value of that piece of news would be hard to underestimate.

After reading, then setting the document’s security seals, Suleiman sent a copy to the base Weapons Officer for immediate evaluation. To his surprise he found that reprogramming to mitigate the problem would take only a few days, perhaps a week to both write and trouble shoot. But unfortunately and by design it would take far longer to install. Because this had to be done while docked to Philomel station and tied with a secure link to a secure transcoder.

And there must be three fleet officers standing by to enter their own authorization codes at the proper times. Even beyond that a new read-only parity chip must be installed replacing the old one. This was fine protection against their codebase being tampered with but in the present circumstance the delay was one Suleiman could have done without.

It meant three weeks to fix all the ships on station currently at Philomel, and each ship out on patrol would need to return to base. Reprogramming in the field not just against standing orders but was impossible. There was one thing however he could do, and he made arrangements at once.

Suleiman had sent a complete data packet back to Earth including the code changes he had ordered installed. Then he sent a courier to each of the out systems where he had ships and told them of the danger along with what to expect in case of an attack.

They would still be at a disadvantage in any fight with a Cardoman ship—but not nearly so much as Badr had been. He also exonerated Captain Mhanna from any responsibility for this latest setback. One does not shoot the mailman and expect to continue to receive mail.

The next thing Suleiman did was summon Basheer Fansa, his newest Admiral and Commander of Ninth Fleet. It had not taken much time for Razuli had Suleiman to come to the conclusion that with few exceptions the rest of the senior officers were not even fit to hold Fansa’s bath towel.

The fleetbase’s main satellite orbiting over Philomel was immense, a rotating rim with eight double pair of spokes, four above and four below the single drive band surrounding the slightly ovoid sphere of a retired G-1 that once moved freely amongst the stars but was now relegated to being the stations focal point.

Each spoke, six hundred meters in length, connected that hub to what was left of the ancient hypership. Her reaction engines were long since gone, removed for scrap value, but the reactors and gravity control remained, along with enough working thrusters to handle orbital station keeping.

The drive band was partially functional, no longer adjustable but set so even here at the center point of rotation something close to Earth normal gravity was maintained; one could overlook that it was at right angles to the orientation of the rim and did not match its force exactly. One G it was called—and close enough.

In style if not size the station was similar to most other large planetary stations, though only six in the Caliphate and the old Confederation station at Union maintained gravity at the central core and only Earth’s Geo-Prime was larger.

What did it cost to build something like this? There was the old saying if one needed to ask one couldn’t afford it. A starter station of this size cost more than a late model hypership and from there the price went up depending on options.

Fansa was aboard the el-Wahibi, also in Philomel orbit when informed of Suleiman’s summons. Captain Jetarah had a shuttle assigned to take him back to the station without delay. It docked under automatics with the stations outer rim, that delicacy of control was something impossible for a picket or larger ship to manage; larger ships were relegated to either the upper or lower dock of the central hub. This particular docking port was opposite the entrance to one of the spokes pairs so passage to Suleiman’s offices was rapid.

Years spent in space, living on a hypership with its own gravity generation, did not prepare one for the decrease in G force as one went inward and then came a twisting and sudden feeling of rotation before a quick return to apparent normal when in the hub. It did, thankfully, keep one from becoming ill because it was not much different from what one experienced when a ship’s grav control was catching up with her acceleration.

An aide took Basheer not to the Grand Admirals offices but to his private arboretum, taking up most of a full deck with a high domed ceiling disguised to look as if it were clear blue sky overhead, where tea was served while greetings and pleasantries were exchanged before the reason for bringing him here was broached.

“Fansa, you have seen the report from the ship we had at Cardoman saying that almost their entire fleet transitioned out at the same time. Where did the rest go, and why did the Cardomans, with this new spoofing device of theirs, not use it here first? It would have been most effective I think.”

“It would have cost them ships and it would not have worked nearly as well. We would have met them with a force out system and seen what the problem was in time to do something, even if only go to manual control. With the numbers on our side that would have been enough. As to where the rest went and what they did, I will give you my guess but I fear we will find out soon enough.”

Fansa’s predictions soon proved accurate enough as first a single ship came in from Jabal and then several days later one from Elmira. That left two of the Cardoman raiders unaccounted for if they were all traveling in pairs as seemed likely and Sam’an was on Fansa’s list and so were two other possible systems. By the time a week was up it was near certain that at least one planet on that list had lost its entire defensive force with no ship surviving, if not they would have heard something.

At the follow-up meeting, held at the end of that week, Suleiman said, “Basheer, you will split you force and send half of ninth fleet to support other possible targets, I want you to take the other half directly under your command and visit Cardoman. I don’t expect you to attack and defeat their fleet but I want to make sure that even with Llanfairn’s help they need to maintain a large part of their fleet at home.”

“Six of my ships are finished with their software upgrade. I will take five of them and leave for Cardoman at once. To the others I will issue orders instructing them what systems to support and sending them on their way as soon as the upgrade sequence is complete.”

“Your Flagship?”
“I think the Dzarugian again. . . May Allah go with us.”

* * *
Tsarinstyn’s Aladin was in luck at Sam’an, there was a G-2 transport breaking close to the planet, why was anyone’s guess, she couldn’t be loading much that came up from the surface without a station to or large landers to work with. A Check of the monitoring package left by Essex showed seven transitions in and six out, over the intervening time frame. The match but for one meant no warship hiding in stealth.

A shipboard examination of the grav pulse record showed that ship prior to this one had been a G-4 out of Philomel and that she had come in only three days ago, staying three hours before departing, just long enough to learn the details of what happened here.

The freighter they had on screen now was the second ship from the record to continue all the way to Sam’an. The other transports, like the G-4, stayed in normal space, and only long enough to find out about the battle then leave.

Capturing the freighter wasn’t as easy a job as it might have been. The ship was close enough to Sam’an that the crew bailed and using a tactic similar to one first tried in the Cardoman navy, sent the ship out at maximum G without a crew aboard. Luckily G-max for a transport was nowhere near what it was for a battle cruiser. The Aladin caught her well inside the limit but then had problem of boarding, and a shuttle didn’t have any grav compensation so matching velocities and getting a crew on board with one was not going to work.

“We’ll get in front of her and slow down,” Pavel said, “we are too big for her deflectors so she will need to change course in order to miss us. She won’t be able to do that and maintain full acceleration; a freighter doesn’t have that much control. If we can drop our shuttles at the right place they might have a chance to match and board her.”

It took three tries and the unmanned freighter had almost reached the limit when one of their shuttles, this time with Pavel at the controls, finally did manage to lock to her side and force entry; the Aladin had her first prize capture of the war. And a rich one it was, the cargo included components for a large landing craft, engines, leading edges, wheeled landing gear, highly specialized items for a vehicle that could carry to and from orbit twenty times the mass a shuttle could handle.

A G-1 could carry one whole and it took a 2 even to haul around the pieces needed for assembly, and not all of those. A system with a space yard for local craft could in a few months fabricate the rest, for a system like Sam’an it would take another ship and a team of men trained to assemble it in orbit

After putting enough crew on board the transport to handle her, his First Officer Parker Current as Captain and his Engineering Officer Miles Ellsberg included, Pavel dropped another system monitor. Then both ships went beyond the limit and the freighter set a course for Cardoman. Pavel and the Aladin would look in at one more system before doing the same.

* * *
Emma Debus and her Hornet had the task of checking into two Calp systems; Ittihad with a population of 23 million and a developing range land livestock operation; and the larger Za’atar, at 53 million colonized 400 years earlier as a way to get one of the more outspoken and warlike, not to slight disagreeable, Islamic sects of Earth and out of the Caliphs of the mainstream religion and government’s hair.

Za’atar was poor and kept poor through lack of transport and lack of technology transfer, but it did have a large army and no trouble filling the ranks with unsophisticated troops, ready to die for their faith and deadly earnest in a fight.

These soldiers of Mohammad were led at the field level by tribal Pashas, with direction and more importantly armament, mostly from Earth but some weapons supplied by other class one worlds. Za’atar was the major contributor that with smaller numbers from some of the other more religiously orthodox worlds provided most of the troops the Caliphate used at this end of its territorial reach, both on their ships as marines and for infantry duty on the ground.

Emma made a personal note in her log book stating that even with transport and technology transfer Za’atar would remain poor. It was going to take a profound change in outlook to bring them out of the eighth century, two thousand years worth of change.

Neither of the systems she was checking out could harm Cardoman directly, both were class 3 worlds and neither to her dismay, held any shipping activity when she arrived. To put it simply she had came up empty, not even a Calp warship on patrol and no off planet infrastructure to do damage. Railing at the luck and in each case after dropping her monitoring probes, the Hornet jumped. Ten days later she was back at Cardoman.

* * *
Stan Voinovich spent his first week on the Wasp getting used to the interactions of her officers and crew. Before, or if, he made changes he was going to examine in depth what his wife Jamie had set in motion. He’d been on the ship so often when Jamie had her that he new all the officers very well and had her full evaluation of every one of their strengths and weaknesses.

Being in charge of a civilian shipyard for the last two years had made changes to Stan’s attitude towards command. It was nice to never have ones orders questioned but he now thought the Navy might be going a little too far in that direction, at least by the way his crew was reacting to those he issued. Perhaps they were being overly sensitive to his taking over, or perhaps he was.

He also spent each day for that first week examining the ships records concerning Antakeya, the Wasp’s primary target and the updated records that Fleet Intel provided. The name was an Arabian word that in standard was translated as Antioch. The planet didn’t seem at all like its namesake.

Perhaps that wasn’t a fair statement. When the first settlers landed in 2430 they were on the edge of Caliphate controlled space early in the second expansion and they expected to be on the trade route for planets further out. The trouble was the Caliphate stopped expanding further out and the systems that were colonized and terraformed beyond the rim of the Caliphate were mainly Independents, with at first little to trade and later much more apt to deal with the Confederation for technical and cultural reasons.

Over time they did remain true to their original idea. They remained small in scale yet still grew to be the major point of economic contact between the Caliphate and the Indies. When relations were good with the Confederation their trade and economy soared. In times like today and those of the last forty years it suffered greatly.

Since founding it had been immune to the most virulent forms of religious intolerance; in this region of space Antakeya was the closest thing to a neutral that the Caliphate had to offer. And as such held more importance than the sum of trade goods exchanged. It was also even now a gateway for what little passenger traffic remained going from one side of the boarder to the other.

All of this information was publicly available; Stan had the private Cardoman diplomatic intelligence assessment as well. It included a strong minority report stating that if the Independents looked like they might win this war, or even find a way to a lasting stalemate, Antakeya might be a world that could be broken away from the Caliphate entirely.

Stan’s orders required that he do nothing to make that possibility less likely, in effect taking merchant shipping off of his target list and limiting him to intelligence gathering or a possible attack on a Caliphate warship, but then only if he found a 2 or a 3 operating alone. This was not likely as the Calps maintained a watch here and it was increasingly rare to find a single ship on guard duty working without support.

Two days away from their destination Stan had the Chief of the watch take over his command seat on the bridge and went to his day cabin to meet with his three watch standing officers, Lt. Ted Bodine, Lt. Ronald Pots, and the recently promoted Lt. Jg. William McGuffin. It was seeing them together like this that caused Stan to notice for the first time since he had joined the ship just how young they all were.

The Wasp’s orders were well known to the entire crew, navigational details aside, they had been practicing dropping their spy platform using the Antakeya system’s structure as their model. Ted Bodine had even been here once before, when he was a newbie serving out his first cruise on the Eagle. Not only that, he had spent three days on the planet’s surface.

“I can’t add anything new to mission planning,” Stan said, “but I would like to hear from each of you concerning how your watch is doing and then Ted can tell a few more of his stories from the last time he was here.” Bodine was a seemingly inexhaustible store of anecdotes concerning every person he’d ever met and every place he’d ever been. But one needed to get him started, he tried to hide his outgoing nature when on ship, and always when on duty.

They talked for a while before Bodine summed things up by saying, “I guess we all have some call to worry, but after seeing how well the ship performed at Elmira I think we can rest easy enough.”

“Very well then. Tomorrow I want to give everyone a day off, skeleton watches with and short shifts. Make up orders to that effect Ted, we’ll go on full alert six hours before we transition in; when we do I will have the bridge.”

Routine covered everything needed to describe the Wasp’s transition. This was the ship’s sixteenth jump and Stan’s personal number seventy-four in command. Without the two years as yard superintendent he might have hit a hundred by now. A hundred jumps was a mark rated by all ship’s Captains as a milestone, one that of all Cardoman Captains only Mark McCormack in his current capacity and Jim Marquette, due to service as a merchant skipper in a prior life had reached. Jamie was close, over ninety, but she also spent increasing amounts of time on shore since the expansion of the fleet and would be doing that again.

“Battle Stations!” The stellar background and colored planet icons formed into point sources on various display panels and in the bridge holo-tank as quickly as eyes could adjust. Flickering diffuse glows soon began showing power sources and determining which were stationary and which mobile. The Wasp was twenty-seven minutes outside the limit with a small vector taking her further away, and the data was showing four other large ships under power.

Two of these were G-3 Cruisers near the planet, one was a G-2 transport slowing down some two hours from making orbit around Antakeya and the forth another G-2T, this one registered as the Alice Mae out of Frissia in the Confederation. She was headed outward but not yet halfway to the limit and her vector cone overlapped their own.

“That’s odd,” Lt. Pots said, “I could see an undeclared Indie still working out here but why would a Federation ship risk it?”

“That’s something we are going to find out,” Stan said. “Hail her and order her to shut down and coast until we can match velocities, then put us on a course to intercept her if she doesn’t.”

The message was on its way and would arrive shortly after their grav pulse did, and the Alice Mae, being closer, would see them before the Calp warships, that was an advantage gained from transitioning in. The could at once pick up signals sent minutes and hours before they made their return to normal space while invisible until a signal moving at the speed of light could travel from their jump-in point to a distant listening device.

With an hour and a quarter to wait for an answer Stan first had the marines alerted to a possible boarding then dug into the ship’s database for additional information concerning the Frissian Alice Mae. What he found was as almost as odd as finding her here.

Built only twenty year ago she by Novi she was originally sold to a large trading cooperative operating out of Ardmore. Three years ago she changed hands and went to a newly formed company on Frissia, one with a very large credit balance. A quick search of the information available on the owners of this new venture showed no prior involvement in intersystem trade and no other ship bid on or purchased since.

The information dealing with where she went and what she traded in was almost nonexistent, about what one would expect from a ship that spent most of her time inside the Caliphate rather than outside it. Another odd fact because the Caliphate always favored their own ships, even before the war and more so since.

Stan was expecting it when instead of his hail being returned and the Alice Mae obeying and coasting out to be intercepted the ship started decelerating as if to return to Antakeya. He could still course with her before she reached the planet’s defenses but also as he expected, a half hour after seeing the Alice Mae change course, both G-3’s began moving to meet her. They would be along side the merchant well before the Wasp could do the same.

“Nothing for us now but to let her go,” Stan said, “I have faith we could take the Calp cruisers but orders are orders. Get the sensor platform deployed. If the Calps come looking she will have time and distance on her side. Then we see what we find at Yatagan.”

Yatagan was a sub-fleet base in the process of expansion. As such Cardoman had placed three sensor platforms there already. The Wasp transitioned in near enough to one of those to download a month’s worth of system activity on a light beam. When their grav pulse reached Yatagan the base signals officer would know what they were doing but the Wasp was far enough from the platform that her location remained safe.

After repeatedly scanning the area around them, going active to be certain, the entire ships signals team with the exception of the watch officer reviewed them examined in depth the sensor download. Before they finished two Calp G-4’s, the Omar Kyamand Qatar, were at max G racing to meet them. These ships had been noted as part of the Caliphate Home Fleet based around Earth. The sensor platform data showed they had been here for almost two months now, so this was likely a new permanent assignment.

“A long way off Sir,” Pots said, “Six hours if we sit and wait.”

Stan drew a line from his ship to a point at right angles to the Calp ships vector. At the end it made a hitch pointing to Cardoman. “Let’s run this for a few hours while we finish with the platform data. When they’re through if we see nothing to investigate it’s back to Cardoman.”

Stan was considering dropping another sensor platform when his signals Chief gave him a call.

“Captain, the Alice Mae was here three weeks ago; this must have been her last stop before Antakeya.”

“I wonder what that could mean,” Stan said. “The only thing that makes any sense is that she is working for the Calps, and for a long time, but how could she be doing that without Union security knowing. I think we’ve seen enough; drop the platform and let’s go home. Make all the data available in Flag Plot, then try to figure out what kind of cargo she was carrying. We have ten days in hyper so lets make use of it.”

When the Wasp went outward the Kyam and Qatar changed course to follow, but they had no hope of catching her and were still two hours distant when she transitioned out. Safely into hyper, Stan gave the crew a full day of rest, and then went to work on the final part of his mission plan, the part that would begin once they transitioned back out at Cardoman.

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