Marjoram 16

Chapter 16 Draft (03-04-12)

Going back inside Rick had time to wonder about what was really happening here. It seemed like they were telling him only a part of the story, and making unwarranted assumptions, thinking that somehow he was about to do whatever Calvert asked of him. His orders were for him to drop the G-2 upgrade parts and then check in with the Ryman trade delegation. If they had instructions he was to follow them, if not return to Ryman via Novi carrying whatever passengers that needed space.

The shipping shortage combined with their relationship was such that there was always something to keep a transport busy on the route between Cardoman and Novi, or Cardoman and anywhere for that matter.

Calvert led the them back to the bar in the building’s far corner. While Trebeck started calling up something on a tabletop display Wes took Rick over to show off a painting on one wall.

“It’s the Carpathian, Wes said pointing to a freighter being boarded in deep space from a passenger liner nearby. “She was the first ship in Cardoman’s Navy and responsible for everything that followed. The prize money funded the original Seventh and even paid for the Castle and grounds, and yes, even this painting. We lost her namesake at first Cardoman.”

“Captain Marquette once said to me that the Bastard reminded him of the Carpathian, Rick commented, “but I never got around to asking him what he was talking about.”

“Lester Raymond was the Carpathian’s Captain then—Jim was the ship’s Captain when she was destroyed. He was lucky to live through it. The Calps held him and most of the crew captive. It took three years to work out an exchange. The transport we are about to place into service will bear her name. I am overriding the naming commission on this one. They thought that since the Carp was a pirate at one time it was better let the name die and to pretend she never was.”

Rick was wondering where all this was leading; a history lesson seemed out of place. He was about to ask when the young sergeant he had seen outside entered.

“Afternoon Lotti,” Calvert said, “I’d like to introductory you to your new ship’s commander. Captain Petrocelli, meet Leo Lotti.”

Mo faced him and saluted, Rick wasn’t sure what to do, he was after all the only one not at Naval HQ on Ryman who could recruit someone to his ship. He half waved and said, “At ease Lotti,” then somewhat irritably to Wes, “What makes you so certain I will take him on? With all due respect Sir—I make my own hiring decisions!”

At just that moment, as if the thing was being staged, into the bar came Robbie Davis and David McAlpin, head of the Ryman trade delegation in Minton.

“Connie will be right along,” Davis said, “she has a package for Greg she picked up in town.”

“Dinosaurs,” said Wes, “little plastic replica’s, the kid can’t get enough of them, it’s a stage I think. He’s got little cavemen standing up and holding rocks over their heads placed strategically around his bedroom to bring destruction down from above upon them if they act up. Every now and then he gets me to play the dinosaur while he plays the caveman. I never win.”

“On Ryman it’s the same. The next stage is army men followed by pirates and spaceships,” McAlpin said, “and that carries well into middle age as our little plan here shows.”

“Just what is our plan?” Rick asked, “I seem to be the only one who doesn’t know.”

Robbie smiled broadly then said, “Trade Minister McAlpin has offered the use of your ship to Cardoman for a joint venture in in rock throwing, and the dinosaurs are on Marjoram. Have a drink Captain, we will be here a while. There is one more person I think you should meet; General Waterford from New Britain will be here shortly.”

Rick was on his third with a sandwich in hand when he heard again the sound of a landing shuttle. A few minutes later the door to the room opened and a medium height man looking to be an athletic forty-five, wearing an impeccable uniform of medium desert tan with slightly darker accents entered.

He wore riding boots of brown leather that ended just below the knee, bloused trousers, and a wide belt of the same material with a diagonal leather band looping across one shoulder from front to back, held closed by a square open framed brass buckle worn on the outside of his uniform jacket. He was rather tall with medium length brown hair on the verge of turning gray. A dark pencil thin mustache, an aristocratic nose and pale blue eyes under a receding hairline finished the picture. Icing on the cake was a silver headed swagger stick tucked under one arm and yes—he had a double brimmed pith helmet clasped between his arm and torso.

“Llewellyn, so good to see you,” Connie Calvert said as the first to greet him. “And you too, Sergeant Major Greenwood,” she smiled at the man, ten years younger dressed in similar colors, but with less panache, who has slipped in unobtrusively behind the General.

“You are looking radiant my dear,” he said with a bow made almost without breaking stride, then looking at the table and sizing up the situation in a glance, Waterford said to his subordinate in a pleasant yet commanding tone, “Sar Major, would you do what needs be done?”

“Sir!” was the reply, crisply formed, though due to the confines of the room at less than parade ground volume. Then moving forward the man set a leather case on the table next to which Rick was standing attentively. Then, unbuckling two straps, he opened the top flap and removed two bottles, both containing a clear liquor. And seeing Lotti, whom he obviously knew, asked him if he would be so kind as to locate some tall glasses. “This is a travel kit,” he explained, “two more small emergency bottles but only glasses for four.”

While the Cardoman Sergeant went behind the bar Rick turned one of the bottles towards him and saw on the label in gold lettering, ‘Beefeaters’ and below that in equally large letters, ‘Bombay Sapphire Gin’. Waterford came forward introducing himself then turned to say a few words to Wes Calvert. He broke off as soon as Mo Omari stepped forwards with a tray of tall glasses and a strainer of crushed ice. Waterford took one bottle while the Sergeant Major took the other and they set about the task at hand.

“Watch closely now!” Waterford said, “Field Marshall Ramseyer had this set made as a gift, and to his exacting specifications. Time tested; a copy I might add of the one his mother gave him; the one he takes with him when on bivouac. I promised Lady Ramseyer that the Sergeant Major and I would show you the proper procedure.”

Before the afternoon was over Wes and most everyone else in the room had ample opportunity to learn then display mastery of the subject. Rick was taking an anti-alcohol tab with each drink but did his best to keep with the spirit of the thing.

Once Rick left the Castle much later that afternoon, until transition out of Cardoman space four days later, everything—a hundred details, small and large—became a blur of purposeful motion.

The basic plan was simple enough, Petrocelli and his ship already with a shady reputation, would make an unscheduled stop at Marjoram on her way to Bringham. That planet was one of the lowest population Indies where pretty much everything was legal so long as you didn’t make a mess, cause a scene or bother the locals.

Bringham had been colonized near the end of the first expansion by a sect of religious adherents from Earth known as Mormons. They had to leave Earth because a planet was far too small an arena of action for two religious groups sporting different Prophets.

A close look at the planet they settled on caused many to drop the consonant from the middle of the name and think of them as Morons instead. The group had a history of setting up in the kind of territory that most others would avoid and on this particular planet had hit the jackpot.

Bringham was unusual in that it was one of only half a dozen worlds where terraforming was completely unnecessary before humans could live there, though not many would have wished to. It was extremely hot and humid, so much so that some said it should have been named Swamp or Bog or Mud. Less than three hundred square kilometers of the planets surface were more than a few meter’s above what passed for sea level, what little open water existed was nowhere more than a couple of meters deep.

Centuries of dredging and draining had added perhaps 50% to the high ground, most all of it devoted to raising foodstuffs intolerant of moisture. For a crop like rice however the planet could not be beat. It was a good thing the locals learned to love that grain because even with ideal growing conditions there wasn’t much of an off planet market this far from the Caliphate’s population centers.

Bringham’s native animal population was what one would expect on such a world and then some. From insects the size of small farm tractors to multi-legged snakelike creatures called slizards that mimicked a ground hugging tyrannosaurus in size and ferocity and the creatures higher up the food chain that preyed upon them. It was the kind of place where people went hunting wearing full body armor which just happened to be the planets major tourist operation.

Not much concerned with events off of their planet they licensed their orbital space and the rest of the system to any willing to pay. Until their recent setback the Ryman Oligarchs were the big men in town and maintained order amongst the small fry. Now there was a vacuum that needed filling and a fight amongst those off planet to see who would come out on top. With the Rymans out off the way and a war in progress control of a neutral system unlikely to be attacked by either side would be very useful.

The Lyin’ Bastard’s cargo was made up of non-proscribed technology and weaponry, which included everything up to low yield nukes, and the technicians to install and maintain those same weapons. Then ship had been there before and no one would know she was under new management because no one knew who the old management had been.

With a part of his cargo picked up at Cardoman the Caliphate’s government on Marjoram would pay good money for a look at just what they were shipping, and even more for samples if the Bastard had items not on the official ‘For Export’ list, especially something like a production version of Cardoman’s latest Wonder Weapon.

“Why should we give that up?” Dennis Horvath, Cardoman’s president was asked when presented with the complete plan. “I have enough problems without something like this going public as it likely will.”

“Because its shelf life has just about expired,” Jack Trebeck informed him. “The last Calps attack squadron could already deal with it and the knowledge is spreading; it is technically impossible to keep a secret that everyone knows about. Marjoram will have heard about this by the time the Bastard gets there. But and a sample will still have some value if only to make reverse engineering easier, though that shouldn’t be a problem with as many times as we’ve used the thing. More important than that, and if nothing else comes of it, is the cover it gives for a good look into a major shipbuilding center. The Bastard and Petrocelli will be welcome there in the future.”

“And if they make their own version of this weapon it doesn’t hurt us?” Horvath inquired.

“They will copy it, but better they make a copy something we know all about and how to handle then something we don’t.”

“The people we’re sending out on the Ryman ship?”
“Volunteers Sir, they know the risk.”

It took the better part of a day to get the Bastard ready to carry the second and most dangerous part of her new cargo, another hundred and twenty warm bodies beyond her normal crew and passengers. A hold needed partitioning, life support made functional and adjusted, and ships security set. This was where the simple plan began to get complicated, picking up more and more moving parts, then a hood ornament, and racing stripes.

First off they were going to make a stop at Marjoram, but that fact must at least seem to be kept hidden from the Cardomans; they would not be likely to ship anything, through a Calp planet with the war on. The passengers must be kept in the dark as well if the Bastard was ever to return to Cardoman or maintain it’s pretense as a neutral. As a neutral vessel she could go where ever she chose, but not with a cargo of weapons or mercenaries on board and a planetary government to take exception.

The mercenary company needed to be kept to the lower cargo decks and travel in steerage less by mere presence they annoy the high paying passengers ridding first class. There was a second important reason to keep them more or less confined, and that was to keep them from annoying the crew, to insure they didn’t opt for immediate wealth gained by selling a captured hypership. It would look wrong to those at Marjoram to do otherwise.

All company weapons, even including personal hand guns, were stored in sealed containers outside the pressure hull but inside the ships armor plate. Even weaponless so many potential hijackers could not be permitted access to any important ship spaces and as a condition of passage needed to look like they were in essential lock down while in transit.

This particular company was no danger to the Bastard though that fact needed to be kept hidden; it was made up mostly from former residents of Marais, the Calp prison planet whose population had been freed and resettled on Cardoman in the new built town of New Hope. Half were actual veterans, serving soldiers from the Seventh with enough experience to be convincing in this new roll.

The rest were convincing as trainee recruits new to unit, because that is exactly what they were; a select few were new to any military service, enlisting the day before departure, though the units records would show dates consistent with being engaged prior to the Cardoman training regime and the place of recruitment light years distant.

The cover story was they had come to Cardoman with a core of experienced men six months ago and were now on their way to Bringham for transshipment to who knows where. And where the money to pay for this came from was less certain but it was assumed to be something funded by one of the dispossessed Ryman Conglomerates.

Shemuel Ben Judah from Cardoman Recon was the Company Commander, Dean Messmer, a Marais transportee from Earth and a part of the resistance who had joined the Cardoman ground army the second officer in charge. Leslie Greenwood was ranking noncom. He had been on Bringham years before whilst searching for deserters who had stolen part of the cargo from a transport ship merchants on New Britain had been leasing.

“Never did catch the buggers. Three weeks in the swamp and all we had to show for it was insect bites and the runs. We have medicine in our kits for that now thank God! Shan’t be needing it but I do find it a comfort.”

Every single soldier could pass for a native of some Caliphate world if the situation warranted, at least so long as the ID check was superficial. And one of the few universal rules for mercenary troops was that they carried no home identification other than with the unit and ID checks were loosely made once a soldier was accepted for inclusion. Certainly not by an agent and most usually by someone seeking to hire, because the loss of available manpower would likely be crippling. That being the case, talk of one’s home world or much of one’s past was frowned upon, even and especially within the unit itself, less it result in resurrecting feuds best forgot.

Segregation from the rest of the ship gave everyone below the length of the trip to internalize their part in the deception. Only Ben Judah and Messmer were ever let through the double door of a chamber leading to the rest of the ship where each maintained a passenger cabin, and they availed themselves of that privilege infrequently. Just enough so their presence, but not their purpose, was known.

“Two, One. Transition out.” And in an instant the Bastard was two hours outside the limit at Marjoram. With that a second part of the grand deception kicked in, the keeping the ship’s passengers in the dark concerning their true location.

A transition could not be kept secret, too many people, most all in fact, had some kind of reaction to the change from hyper back to normal space. In the majority it was a short lived, seconds only, minor disorientation that would not wake one from a sound sleep. But if awake it would not be mistaken by a veteran traveler for anything else. The time to travel from one world to another was set by a ships pseudo-velocity, and a G2 making a stop had to take longer to reach its destination than one that didn’t.

To keep the passengers in the dark the stop had to be someplace that was not at a normal tourist or business destination, one where passenger could not expect any station or shore leave. Dropping a few cargo canisters at a neutral research base without accommodation for a shipload of guests fit the bill to a tee. The research base intended was the most famous of them all, HR 8210.

HR 8210 or IK Pegasi had been for a thousand years rated the most dangerous star within a thousand lightyears of Earth. It was in actuality only a hundred and fifty light years out and by chance only twenty-five from Cardoman where it was the brightest star in the sky, brighter than any of Cardoman’s planets in the summer sky.

From further away than the present location it did not look at all out of the ordinary. It was one of many multiple star systems. And except for being a rare close orbital double made of a slightly larger than normal ‘A’ type star with a large white dwarf star circling it. What called attention to the pair was that they were theorized as being on the verge of going nova.

The orbital distance between the two is enough for now that they do not exchange any matter. But this will not last, for when the A-star starts to expand and becomes a red giant that star’s surface will reach nearly to the orbit of the white dwarf which will begin to consume the larger one’s outer layer. The additional mass will cause the mass of the dwarf to exceed Chandrasekhar’s limit.

Once that happens there is going to be a very big bang. Determining when and exactly how big a bang was the reason the research station was set in place. The minimum time estimated is 7,000 years, but it could be seven million. Over the long time frame when the star finally does explode it would be too far away to matter to most of the present worlds in human space. Over the shorter span anyone within a hundred light years should be looking for a new home.

Because she was a freighter and not a purpose built passenger liner the Bastard did not contain any direct viewing portals to what lay outside its hull. What she did have was multiple large wall screens showing projections that as far as the naked eye could discern were indistinguishable from the higher priced option. And what the Bastard had playing on these screens was a combination of stock video with computer enhancements, and they showed a reality that did not exist except in the minds of the beholders. Kind of like all reality in that respect Rick found himself thinking.

It was a good thing for the plan that passengers were not allowed outside of their assigned space on ship because the view from the bridge was far more revealing.

From two hours out the amount of traffic visible was staggering. Greater than the largest normal fleetbase and rivaling Earth itself with more than forty sources identifiable as hyperships and hundreds of lesser signals representing pickets and shuttle traffic. There was no telling how many ships might be in system but powered down and invisible at this distance. Marjoram itself in energy view was a large white ball, orbital factories giving it a dotted halo. Five very bright sources indicated the position of band pre-charge stations, one for each of the FTL construction yards.

Sending a message and receiving a response the Bastard coasted inwards at a tenth lightspeed. She came to a halt while still outside the limit and was and then met several hours later and boarded. Two Calp G-4’s stood guard at a distance while a third sent over the inspection party. Once on the ship Rick supplied uniforms and some were disguised as crew members, others in civilian clothing as personal from the non-existent research station.

A few inspected the passenger decks while the rest explored the cargo-holds, including a very complete scan from outside of the section housing the mercenaries. They found nothing beyond what they were intended to find because the ship’s manifest was complete.

A deal being struck, the officer in charge of the boarders who wore the rank insignia of the Caliphate’s Regulations Compliance Office rather than that of its navy asked, “And how will you explain the loss of a part of your cargo? These new Cardoman missiles are expected to arrive at destinations certain.”

“I’d rather not say,” Rick smiled, “But you can be assured I will manage. You are only taking two of them and we keep the shipping containers. As for the rest I will leave it to your imagination.”

Knowing the amount of money changing hands the officer had no doubt. “We would like to make you another offer,” he said. “The mercenary company you carry has just received training on Cardoman. We would like to make an offer for their employment. One they would be certain to accept. And for your ship and you as her Captain there would of course be a commission.”

Rick paused and seemed to be seriously contemplating the request, then he frowned and said, “Much as that appeals to me I am afraid that hiding the disappearance of an entire mercenary company would be beyond even my abilities. Cardoman will investigate and know that the mercenaries did not leave the ship at a research station and put two and two together. I could never enter the system again. By doing things my way there is always a chance I might learn something of value in the future.”

“Then what about one or two or even more of its members? Surely a small number would not be missed and the group’s leader would at least consider this if the price were right.”

Rick hadn’t been prepared for this offer, his first reply used up his ready excuses and to buy time some time he decided to kick the ball to Major Ben Judah; the Cardoman in charge of the merc unit had been listening in on all discussions up to this point and Rick figured he would know best what suited his needs. Rick gave orders to his newest crew member, Mo Leo Lotti, and had him escort the man back down to the lower hull and mercenary spaces.

“I’m afraid not,” Shemuel said when hearing the offer for the second time, “My contract and instructions are quite specific and I am at the low end of my troop strength as it is.”

“But the money Sir, it is considerable!”
“Indeed it is, but I have a family to consider. Perhaps at some other time.”

The Calp boarding party left the ship soon afterward. Once they were gone, and after building a vector towards Bringham, the Bastard transitioned out, the passengers none the wiser, the hook baited, the plan intact.