Marjoram 14

Marjoram
Chapter 14 Draft (09-24-11)

The Burgeron seemed deserted when Jim Marquette left the boat deck, making his way to the lift that led to his office on the ships second level, though more than a thousand people remained on board after the bulk of the Cardoman fleet transitioned for Midway. Left behind were the G-2M’s and their Lone G-3 battle cruiser Raymond.

Kellen Durnam her Captain was probably the only other person in the entire system to feel as much left out as he did and for the same reasons. Except for maybe the G-2 captains, and the various crews, and the students on the Burg that were still on the station and not working system defense, and all the picket ship pilots who wanted a job on a hypership . . .

The list was starting to seem endless, but besides regret at being left out he did have his problems. An incipient heart attack wasn’t one of them as proved by events the day before when Parker Current and his prize crew jumped in with the freighter captured by Aladin at Sam’an.

Currant, or the technician in charge, had somehow managed to scramble the ship’s IFF codes when trying to replace the Caliphate ID with something that would show as Cardoman to system defenses. Instead of showing as a friend his icon flashed yellow surrounded by red indicating an enemy ship of unknown provenance. By chance the ship came in close enough to a picket hanging just outside the limit that if Lt. Cmdr. Current had not been expected he might have been fired upon.

In real time conversation when Parker had his ship closer he told Marquette how he sure wished he had gotten back in time to rejoin the Aladin and leave with the others. That list kept getting longer.

“Bring her here to the Burgeron first and we’ll have the marines relieve you of your prisoners. Then, since you have the only crew familiar with her you get to fly her away and park her at the yards. When you get there I’ll have a couple of shuttles ready to take you and your prize crew out to the SwiftStike. Unfortunately no leave for anyone right now. When you get there I’m sure Audie Madry will find something for you. ”

“I saw her on the way in but when we left I didn’t think our newest G-4 would even have a name, much less be fit for service.”

“The name was the easy part; it was the only one that threats of violence could get people to agree upon seeing as how we lost the original. And no one but Audie Madry actually thinks she’s fit for any kind of service. I must say my own opinion is that you hit the mark about her being ready for service. The CNS SwiftStrike is little more than a mobile missile platform, one that superficially looks like a warship.”

“Nothing on this Calp transport can see any difference. She looks to be a hundred percent.”

“Good to hear it, keep trying to spot something and I will let Audie know to expect you. See you when you dock.”

* * *
Two hundred lighthours out, with Cardoman’s sun just a bright star Basheer Fansa and half of Philomel’s Ninth Fleet came out of hyper for a pause and a nav check. This was far enough from Cardoman that if he decided to halt without getting closer and then return to Philomel Base even the planet’s system level detection gear with antennas sized to match would never pick up their grav pulses.

It was however close enough that by aiming all of his detection gear at the microscopically small section of the celestial sphere surrounding and centered on that bright star, and holding on the spot for hours at a time, he should be able to detect even the smallest trace, neutrino radiation mostly, of any mobile fusion plants the Cardomans had operating. Or more precisely he could detect the ones that had been operating a week ago when the particles characteristic of a fusion plant, and especially those typical from a hypership sized one, were emitted.

What emerged from this inspection was a fair match for his expectations. There were five ships in a standard defensive position consisting of three at the points of a triangle. They were laying flat in the systems orbital plane with one ship to the north and another at the systems southern pole. All five were inside the hyperlimit and to a degree mutually supportive.

“What do you think of this display Siddar?” Fansa asked of the Dzarugian’s Captain Siddar Worjeh.

“It looks exactly like the Cardomans would want it to look to someone in our position. It might accurately reflect conditions or they could be trying to lure an attacking force in by hiding ships and keeping them powered down. Or—on the opposite tack—they could be attempting to fool someone into staying away by placing transports where warships should be stationed. And I think we are too far away from the center of the thing to determine where the truth might reside.”

“There is only one thing for us then—is there not?”

“Yes Admiral. I will have Alajah ready a jump taking us closer. I believe a transition at the limit and directly opposite one of the defending ships would answer most of our questions.”

“Very good Captain,” And then he continued even though for himself Fansa hated to add these regulation pieties, but he had little choice as it was a comfort to the most devout he finished, “as Allah wills, make it so.”

The transition went by the numbers and Fansa soon had all the data he could hope for adding color to the displays on the Dzrugian’s flag deck. The closest Cardoman warship was a 2M but one without a name attached to the ships data block. It was evidently new construction. He began reading the others when the near ship’s block began flashing.

With a tap of a finger flashing subsided and the text screen in front of where he sat provided the reason. The nearest Cardoman ship had rather recently worn a different pennant. She was the in fact the Caliphate Otrush the ship captured at Mosul while under the command of Captain Modasah Hamali. Her power-plant’s signature was unmistakable at this distance.

Admiral Fansa had been thinking he might just gather information and wait to see if any other ships unmasked, and if they did he would just jump out. That was now clearly out of the question. The capture of the Otrush must be avenged.

Trace Daniels like most had wanted FTL when he joined the fleet as a freshly minted ensign from the second class out of the Cardoman Academy. Instead he got a stint at the shuttle yard and then assigned to duty on one of the Cardoman picket ships. He spent two years laying and moving mines about while requesting a transfer to the big ships at every performance review.

He was by now the Captain of his own picket, though Lieutenant in rank, when the Calps under Fleet Admiral Kahn occupied the system and avoiding capture he hid in the belt until the system was liberated. That was considered heroic, though he considered it lucky, and it gave him a boost in rank and a three ship squadron, kept him from further mine laying duty, and put him where he was today, supporting Eric Shearing on the captured and renamed G-2M Ranger, his three picket section was designated Shuttle Force 5.

Things could be worse, and with six Caliphate G-4’s converging Trace was certain they soon would be. He was 400 million kilometers inside Cardoman’s hyper limit supporting the Ranger which was another 100 million further in. The two fastest Cardomans were also farthest away; the ones at the poles of the defensive formation, SwiftStrike and Raymond were 707 million K’s distant from the Ranger and 781 from his own position.

The Swift could cover the shorter distance to the Ranger at 67.5 G’s in a little under 13 hours; the Ray at her max of 58.5 would take 45 minutes longer. The time spread was a function of how much velocity each ship wanted to hold when they all came together; a Zero Zero would take longer.

The Wanderlust and Eagle were sitting as he was on the systems planetary orbital plane; together the tree ships hyperships formed a large equilateral triangle with sides 866 million K’s long. At 50 G’s covering that distance would take 16 hours or almost 23 hours to a Z-Z, once more due to retained vector.

The Calps however were only 680 million K’s out from the Ranger, they were all G-4’s and what was worse had retained an 8% lightspeed vector pointing directly at the G-2M when they transitioned in. Calculating their time to target was an almost impossible task because there were so many possibilities.

If they did nothing but refine their aim, that would put them at the Ranger’s present position in seven and three quarters hours, but at a high rate of speed with the accompanying aiming difficulties. They could try for a least time intercept by continued acceleration, but the downside of that was they would be sensor blind, unable to see any mines or stealthed missiles in their path so Trace ruled that one out, as did Eric Shearing doing the same calculations with a lot more help, until evidence should prove him wrong.

Trace went on and was working out the permutations of a slight speed increase then deceleration to only a few thousand KPS remaining vector at firing range when the Captain of the ship he was out here to protect broke into his thoughts.

“All ships, SF-5, set a course at 6 G’s towards SwiftStrike, we will be going on ahead, we won’t make this easy, Ranger out.” Eric to his surprise sounded much more confident than he felt.

Trace entered the course and saw that it moved the intercept point another 12 million K’s in their favor, not enough but every little bit would help. Even cocooned with drug assist on his picket they could not hold 6 G’s for very long, less than an hour before medical problems both short and long term.

They would need to drop down to three G’s at that time, something they could maintain. Those were the numbers he used to come up with the 12 million and there was no way he could better it.

“Beware of getting what you ask for,” That was an old saying, one that Eric Shearing could agree with, especially now. Leaving the three pickets behind to fend for themselves wasn’t what he wanted to do, but it was what he had to do if the Ranger would be saved. First it would cut two hours from the time the SwiftStrike would take to get close enough to help; and second, it would add about the same to the time the Calp squadron would take to get in range. Provided the pickets were dismissed as unimportant they would only just be in range and for a very short period of time.

That still left for his ship a forty minute gap to fill, but the Calps would not react immediately, the would not even see his move for thirty minutes, and they did need to beware of passive defenses. If instead of trying to chase him down they went for Cardoman, well, they all would have time to react to that. The planet was now on the other side of the sun from his ship and with the Burgeron armed as she was, an almost impossible target for a raiding force as large as they were facing.

And of course since he was out of touch with the Swift, over and hour for a round trip message, he had to trust that Audie Madry would see things just as he did and react in the same way. In his case this course of action was almost automatic from a thousand hours spent running simulations. He was certain Audie hadn’t done the same but that there was someone on her ship who had and would speak up.

Audie was down below engineering but made it to the SwiftStrike’s bridge in two minutes from the time the alarm sounded. She was wearing coverall and leaving a trail of a black sticky substance behind her; Lt Cmdr. Current was certain it was grease, and if something else did not want to find out what. It smelled like something that might have come from the plumbing of their waste disposal system.

She paused at the low rail surrounding the holo-tank and making sense of the dozens of lights and multicolored vector cones so rapidly that the display might have tied into a part of her nervous system said, “Make a course towards the Ranger, Max G plus 5, and send a message telling her to run towards us if she isn’t doing that already. I’m going to get cleaned up and will be back in about ten. The bridge deck was spotless as was Audie when she returned ten minutes later.

Audie relieved Parker but asked him to remain on the bridge, “No need for battle stations this early and we have a lot to talk about. What I am going to do first is try and coax another quarter G from the drive, that is going to take us beyond what the gravity compensator can deal with so Lt. Increase,” she spoke to the ship’s second officer who was now at the signals station, “let the ship know and get everyone seated or in a bunk for the next few minutes.”

Kellen Durnam on the Raymond had much the same set of orders issued to his crew. It the Ranger behaved as he thought she would the distance he needed to cover to give support would not change by much. As she went to meet Captain Madry she would also get closer to the systems polar axis. It was up to the Calps now. They could still break off and it was going to be awhile before that decision was made.

Thirty minutes after the ship’s alarm sounded Kellen took note of the Eagle and Wanderlust heading towards Cardoman, there wasn’t much else they could do. He watched with interest as a group of three pickets previously unassigned made tracks for the spot where the Ranger and SwiftStrike would meet.

Admiral Fansa was not surprised in the least when the representation of the Otrush started moving up and inward, looking to make contact with the unnamed Cardoman G-4. Anyone in Flag Plot or on the Dzarugian’s bridge could have predicted this; if they could fail at such a simple task then years of training had gone for naught. His ship and squadron had changed course a dozen minutes earlier in anticipation.

Captain Worjeh sent sensor laden sweepers ahead to check for obstacles in the way, and even before crossing the limit two were detected and destroyed. Best not to speed up, Fansa wanted time to dodge rather than face the need to eliminate any others they encountered; his supply of shipkillers was limited and he had a better use for them.

Jim Marquette called down to the Castle as soon as he finished with his duties to the rest of the Navy were complete and the President informed. Wes had been informed by one of his staff already but one thing you could say about Calvert was he didn’t interrupt when he had nothing to add. Because of that he was taken very seriously when he did have something to say.

“What I don’t understand is why they didn’t go for the out system shuttle yard or the fueling station. Either one hurts us more than the loss of a single G-2 and the risk is ever so much lower.”

“It’s the Ranger Jim, the Calps know she was one of theirs and that is an intolerable insult. I think short of losing their entire squadron they are going to press this attack so you must let everyone know what is coming.”

“Thanks for clearing that up Wes, but what makes you so certain?”

“History repeating itself; almost 600 years ago when the first colonies split away and formed the Confederation a Calp Fleet Commander did something similar at Elburz.”

“How did that turn out?”

“They destroyed the ship they went after and then they occupied the system. It took ten years and the end of the war to get them to leave.”

“Ouch! Well they won’t be taking Cardoman this time and we will just have to see about the ship. I probably shouldn’t be asking this but have you heard from the Shearings?”

“Louise is on Llanfairn, I talked to Vic—he understands. Do your best. My own people will keep me informed but thanks for you for calling.”

The Caliphate ships, were by now all identified, they were the Dzarugian, likely the lead ship being in the center of the formation, though slightly behind, along with the Tell Qaramel, Umayyad, Bab al-Hadid, and el-Wahibi. They continued on a high speed course leading to the Ranger and Jim reconsidered where the Eagle and Wanderlust could best be used.

A conversation with the Cardoman defense coordinator, a fancy title for the Burgeron’s Weapons Officer, and he had them change course and sent them to help protect the shuttle yard. If the Calps were victorious at their first task they might just decide to stay around and do a little more damage. If they did the manufacturing facility would be more costly in terms of life lost and an order of magnitude harder to rebuild than the fueling station.

Jim also had another so far hidden asset; the Perseus was docked to the main Yard supporting work on the construction there. She was tied to the Yards power plant and her own reactor on idle. The plan was to keep her that way unless the Calps attacked Cardoman. She would always be a last case messenger to Llanfairn or Novi.

Lt. Cmdr. Trace Daniels was worried that the anomalously named Shuttle Force 5, wholly comprised of picket ships, was going to be passed by, completely ignored by the Caliphate squadron hunting larger game. When the Tell Qaramel changed course to bring his three pickets into the range of her missiles he could see his fear was groundless and worked to keep a different source from taking its place.

Each of the pickets carried four shipkillers, two inboard and two on pylons outside the hull, they also were armed with a hundred and ten short range G type anti-missiles and a single laser mount good for nothing much more than debris defense.

A picket was larger and had was far better armored than a shuttle; the crew section’s was superior in some ways to a battle cruiser’s, with more ablative protection from beam weapons. The original design was for use against pirates and converted transports.

With their strong point, stealth, already surrendered, against G-4’s and shipkillers there was not much they could do but fire their own and flee at the sign of the first salvo.

They did have one thing going though, the five hours spent running had them now deep inside one of the systems mine fields. They were five million K’s from the edge, not so far they were unreachable by an SK but it would keep the Tell Qaramel at a distance; she was still at 5% lightspeed going too rapidly for a sane Captain to risk his ship against such small gain.

A system level mine with its 100 megaton warhead was very hard to locate in a noisy environment like this one. Upon detonation it generated a particle beam effective out to 18000 K’s. The constant rebroadcast of an approved but changing and encoded IFF signal was all that kept the Cardoman mines from turning on their creators. Even after years spent deploying the mines, arming and arraigning, being inside one of the active fields was a new and unsettling experience.

The Qaramel fired first, one each from all ten tubes, her velocity added to her shipkillers gave the advantage because she was free to change course once the long range missiles left their tubes. The two sensor probes she had sent out earlier located and charted the mine field’s edge giving the Qaramel’s Captain a line to she stay clear of. The Calp ship would skirt that line at 75 thousand K’s, well outside of any mines effective range.

As prearranged SF 5’s held fire; if they used their shipkillers defensively they would forfeit any chance at harming the Calp G-4. The enemy ship’s missiles were half a million K’s out when the three Cardoman ships launched their own. If they were not intercepted they would reach the Qaramel at her time her path made its closest approach to the mine field’s edge.

Naiyer Qablah saw twice as many missiles heading towards him as he had expected. The Cardoman Pickets must have been carrying missiles outside their hull. His first launch was too far off line to use in a defensive capacity still this should not be a problem. He ordered a flight of ten sent at once to intercept early and would wait to see the result before any follow up.

“There it is,” Qaramel’s W.O. said, “and our software changes are working. We stopped eight.”

“Send six to finish the picket ships,” Qablah ordered. “We will deal with the remaining four Calp shipkillers when they clear the mine field and our targeting information is at its best.”

Shuttle Force 5 was going through close in defense missiles like water through an open fire hose, half were expended already and still 5 Calp missiles remained untouched, jogging randomly but drilling unerringly towards the three small ships.

The four SK’s from their own launch were only now reaching the edge of the mine field, passing between two mine’s smart enough not to fire on them. A video feed delayed by light lag showed what happened next.

The Calps fired ten shipkillers just as they cleared edge. More than enough to stop them but the range was close enough they wanted to be sure. The Caliphate SK’s were not off limits, these Cardoman mines had been programed to fire on them and the result against a tight group of small only lightly hardened targets was devastating. Not a single one survived, and it was too late for another round of large missiles from the Qaramel.

Captain Qablah was not ready for this, but his automatic defenses were. His anti-missiles and close in beams finished two of the Cardoman SK’s before they could detonate. The remaining two, in order to at least do some damage, set off warheads outside of their kill radius.

The Qaramel was hit but not hulled. Two of her bands were hit just hard enough to put them out of commission. That would keep the ship from any further battle. She could limp back to Philomel now but with even less speed and agility than freighter might manage. Repairs would take months Naiyer Qablah realized with only a short look at the damage report.

He remained on the bridge long enough to see two of the three Cardoman Pickets destroyed, then wondered briefly who would be the ship’s new Captain when she went back into service. A little closer to the edge of the mine field and his ship would have been lost, a little farther away and the Cardoman missiles would have been stopped without inflicting any damage.

Such a thin thread to destroy a career. There was nothing left for him here anymore but to compose the message to Admiral Fansa before turning over command to his First Officer. That complete he left the bridge.

Fansa did not fault Qablah, though he would relieve him of command when they returned to Philomel. The Fleet’s tactics manuals would be rewritten to warn of another danger to avoid when in and around mine fields and that would be that. It was most unsettling to think of all the minor changes to established rules of warfare the Cardoman Navy was able to discover and use effectively. When the war was over someone would write a book.

As soon as Jim Marquette saw what happened he sent new instructions to the Wanderlust and the Eagle to go for an intercept of the damaged ship. “But don’t risk yourself in the process!”

“Easier said than done,” Thought Carla Bignotti as she executed her course change.

“Admiral, the Cardoman G-2’s have changed course and will be within attack range of the Qaramel before she can reach the limit.”

Of course, they were changing course. And why not?

With half her missiles gone and at a disadvantage in speed and maneuver the Qaramel was unlikely to survive for long in a fight against what was now superior strength. This adventure was rapidly turning from a clear win to an iffy draw.

“Have the el-Wahibi fall back as an escort.” The Qaramel was to important to take chances with and his own odds were now at three to two with the Cardoman Raymond still on her way as the equalizer. Perhaps it was time to reconsider.

“We will each fire two salvo’s at long range, reload our magazines, then go in support of the Qaramel. I had hoped for more but if Allah should will it so we might still have a victory here. If nothing so grand with the loss of two picket ships the monetary cost will still be greater for the Cardomans than for us. For now that will have to be enough.”

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