Marjoram 17

Chapter 17 Draft (02-18-12)

“Two, One, Transition out,” and the Cardoman battle fleet reappeared into normal space at just over three light days from the Caliphate base on Midway. From her position in Flag Plot on the Aladin Jamie watched the others flare into points of light on the large holographic image in the center of the, relatively cavernous compartment under the ship’s command deck.

There had been a suggestion from one of the Intel types—that they might come in at even greater distance to make even smaller the very small chance that a Calp ship, either by plan or accident, would detect them. Jamie Madry had tried to explain the odds against something like that happening by chance but was not sure she had gotten through. The vastness of the Universe was hard enough for people who spent most of their lives moving through it to come to grips with. Well—in truth she couldn’t say any of them ever did—while pretending otherwise.

They would be in normal space for less than two hours. Even if there were ten ships out here looking for someone, the odds of them being detected within that time frame were still on the order of 5000 to 1. Include the fact the hypothetical ship might detect their grav pulses they just made transitioning in after they went out again, making the jump to Midway, and the odds against detection more than doubled. In battle those kinds of odds were more than acceptable, an Admiral’s friend. If a nav fix closer in would have made the thing more accurate, as was possible for a single ship, she would gladly have made the stop closer in. But it wouldn’t so she didn’t.

The gravitational details, those that affected point to point, on the direct track between Cardoman and Midway were at present well known; in no small part Vern Matson had given his life to make it so. Jamie refused to dwell on that. All ten of her ships hit this intermediary point with commendable accuracy. The furthest away from her Flag was the Hornet under Capt Debus, and she was only 22 minutes out.

From Cardoman came also the Saratoga, Essex, Wasp, Witch of the West Wind, and Essex. The Holorith and Justice from Llanfairn transitioned in seconds apart some fifteen minutes distant from the flag. Once the view firmed up Jamie could see that Pavel Tsarinstyn had brought the Aladin in seven minutes from the center of the completed formation. Not to shabby for a died in the wool shuttle jock. When the nav check was complete he was marked as another two minutes closer to the planned insertion point. Only Fullson Lovell’s Sara had done better.

In the final analysis last amongst equals by 18 light seconds was a late addition to the fleet, the Union G-4 Prince Henry under Captain Delmer Hardy.

* * *
Camchatka Rustov took the call for replacement of the liquid H loading valve that fed a manifold connecting a connected pair of the Beorea’s skin tanks. It would get him out of the base repair shop and let him work on a piece of equipment in the field he had only seen in manuals and on the bench.

The Beorea under Admiral’s Flag, with Ship’s Captain Midajh Otapp wearing both hats, was just in from Ninth Fleet. On arrival from Philomel he had assumed overall command of the Midway forces, replacing former System Commander Usef Kabardin as a direct result of the loss of the Bimaristan. Kabardin would have known in advance he would be replaced as did everyone else in Midway system. That was the cost of failure, even when not your fault, and even if the failure was disguised as the victory it may well have been, and especially when the Bimaristan’s. Captain was no longer around to take the fall.

Kabardin left on the very next ship departing Midway Station, so as not to contaminate those left behind. Being sent away was a mixed blessing, because if the Cards attacked, as Admiral Otapp said was imminent, it would save his life, not to mention his reputation from a greater potential disaster.

Camchatka found it easy to dismiss the former commander’s pain and got back thinking about his own task. Absent in commercial vessels these skin tanks just inside a ships outer hull were meant to keep a military G-4 from radiating into the IR spectrum, or at least radically minimize its output signature so long as their radiation transfer balanced against the background. At the same time they were a last ditch temporary defense against beam weapons because if breached, for a few seconds at least, a dense fog of hydrogen gas would vent from the rupture diffusing the beam.

Since the failed attack on Midway two months earlier the base and the systems civilian population had been on a heightened state of alert. The citizens served the state not the other way round and the wear and even anger was starting to show. Not so much as in words and overtly with deeds but with looks and glances. And next the occasional “accident” that slowed things down. A misplaced tool that took time to find or a spool of optical cable sent in place of zero resistance power feed.

What the Calps couldn’t pin on anyone they blamed on everyone, and they were getting closer all the time to believing that the lack of efficiency was organized. They increased the security presence in the workers habitat and the problems just got worse as it harmed morale and fed resentment. Fear of punishment kept the lid on but the pot still boiled.

Technician Rustov seemed to be unaffected, his loyalty rating placed him in the top tier of Caliphate supporters and his work result, the time against task was rated superior, and that was why he was assigned the manifold repair job.

The work area was cramped, reached through an access hatch in the floor of the power room with room for one and no video but what Cam’s helmet feed supplied. He went rung by rung down the ten meters to a position atop the fusion core and then crawled through a tunnel until near to the lower hulls skin where the manifold feeding the tank sections was located. After checking to see the manifold was depressurized he alerted the power room and removed a cover that insulated the loading and manifold controls from the relative warmth of the crawl space.

Plugging a test unit showed nothing different then the remote system monitor which had alerted the problem. Removing the mechanical stop that prevented over travel and a chip with hard coded force limits Camchatka verified an obstruction preventing the valve from sealing. A few minutes and the control module was separated from its power and data feeds and Cam was turned around and heading back to the power room, the book sized component leaking cold from an insulated pouch he cradled against his chest.

As he levered himself onto to power room deck the ships engineering duty officer stood ready with his own diagnostic unit and a small data entry terminal. He looked first at Cams diagnostic display then said, “Fill this out while I verify the problem.”

The terminal screen presented showed a standard form, date, time, device and problem. Those boxes were already filled in. Cam finished the sections under findings and course of action while the duty officer ran his own set of diagnostics, slowly and reading from instructions. Finished he looked at Cam’s entries and said, “I see we agree. How long to replace it?”

“There is only one replacement module in stores but I should be able to fix this one by freeing up a gate valve. The seal isn’t damaged just being held open. I’ve seen a few like it this last six months”

“How does that happen?” the engineer who was a specialist in fusion systems and coolant handling, asked.

“Hydrocarbon residue in what should be pure liquid H. It doesn’t take much of a build up to prevent closure. And this valve has been in service since the ship was built, and you have fueled at some fairly low grad stations over the years. Contamination wouldn’t happen with our systems but some Caliphate fueling depots and most of the Indies aren’t at our level. A couple of hours and I should have it cleaned up, certified, and be back to install.”

“Fine, I’ll rerun the tests when you return.”

“Certainly. And a word to the wise—think about sending a message up your chain of command about having the rest of your ships scheduled for inspection before this happens again.”

With that Cam returned the device to his container and left the ship through security and the tube connecting the ship and the repair station.

“What do you got old man,” Jedir Isrim, the too young supervisor of the repair shop asked. He was the third son of a Caliphate loyalist and been sent all the way to New Mecca for his education.

“Another valve with hydrocarbon buildup.” Cam kept the resentment over the youth’s (still in his twenties) lack of respect for an elder out of his voice. “I told the Beorea’s engineering officer I would have it back to him in a couple of hours.”

“Hmmm—I’ll handle this. They’re shifting stores in armaments. They could use some extra muscle. Give them a hand and be back in an hour.

His expression masking his anger at being dismissed so casually, Camchatka did as he was told. He had no other choice.

With the repair shop to himself Jedir set to work.

The first stage was removing the valve assembly, and that went smoothly, Jedir had performed this same task twice in the last month. He next reassembled the valve and did a systems check which showed everything back to optimum.

The repair code along with the valve control ID was sent to Data Security and a new chip flashed with the repair history and control sequences. This chip was hand delivered twenty minutes later and a bored security guard watched while Jedir installed it. Another diagnostic scan and the security guard waited for Camchatka to return. He would accompany the valve until it was reinstalled. There was little room for mischief.

What the guard didn’t see, nor the diagnostic program detect, was the flaw in the seal itself, one that would cause it to fracture when cycled under extreme conditions, like those experienced in battle when a ship might be brushed by a beam weapon and gas vented, fed to the fusion plant in order to keep the hull temperature down. High Infra Red was a sign saying “Here I am, Hit me,” to aiming devices, especially those of a shipkiller searching for a target.

* * *
“Two, one. Transition in!”

Nine minutes beyond the limit, in Flag Plot, Jamie watched the rest of her fleet show up on the screen. And at the same time took in the system detail as it formed up in front of her. Real world conformation replaced the projections but slowly. It was good to see the star and planetary bodies were all still there. She smiled at the thought. A quick check for Stan and the Sara, and then got back to work.

Her operations plan contained three stages with three priorities. One, destroy any Caliphate or Caliphate friendly ships in system; two, evacuate as many of the civilian fleet and engineering base inhabitants as could be persuaded, or if it became necessary forced, and three; destroy as much as possible of what remained behind. A forth unspecified priority was to do all of this without experiencing any losses of her own.

A first glance showed one surprise, a small one. Only three Calp ships were initially observable because of their active sensor sweeps, she had expected four or five. They were marked with yellow in the holo-tank, her own ships marked with green. That meant whatever other hostiles were present were likely near the manufacturing center and receiving data via relay.

Two cargo vessels were at the station with fusion sources powered to a standby level. One transport was heading out of the system almost opposite their entry point, quite near to the limit but still liable for intercept if she ordered one of her own, before they all crossed the limit inwards, to make the short jump and ending with low delta V in front of it and powering back. The math seemed to work so Jamie sent the Hornet under Emma Debus to do the honors.

Of the three Calps on her display, the Bait Dellal, Ghazalah, and Achiqbash, only the first should be able to reach the system base before her much before she did. From the Aladin’s standpoint a max G course with a low final vector would get them to Midway Station in eleven hours.

“No current records of ship commanders, what we have is more than a year old,” her comm officer supplied. Probably none were senior commanders then. The officer in charge of system defense must be in the supposed ship at the fuel base.

“We will head in. I want the day crew stand down for eight hours and get some rest. Be careful people. We have work to do.”

Two thirds of those on duty left their stations. Half were replaced as the fleet went from battle stations to a lower alert status. Jamie stayed in Flag Plot for another hour and when nothing much changed left for some sleep of her own.

Approximately forty-one minutes after the augmented Cardoman fleet came into normal space every threat alarm on the Beorea broke silence and began to wail. While those off duty ran to battle stations Commodore and brevet Admiral Midajh Otapp stopped reviewing the most recent simulation prepared by his training officer, and left his quarters for his place in front of the large scale three dimensional display in the armored chamber under the ship’s control room.

The most recent additions to the Caliphate fleet, those intended for fleet level control, had a second layer of armor every bit as strong as the ship’s outer surface layer, surrounding the Flag Plot.

It was a mixed blessing. He might survive a hit that took out most of the rest of the ship but he was also divorced from the feel of action. Inside, with hatches sealed, the room felt more like a tomb than was comfortable. And it forced one to consider the reality which analogy only hinted at.

Almost without thinking he made certain all communications from the ship were via light beam transmitters. One of the latest directives from Earth had mentioned a possibility of stealthed units inserted before battle, manned or remote they could be in a position to pickup even well aimed radio traffic. Even though this impeded communications redundancy who ever fronted the suggestion deserved rapid promotion. In retrospect this simple procedural change was obvious, but much of what was retrospectively obvious had proved deadly to fleet operations in the recent past.

What he saw in the display was less than pleasing. With his current force structure he should not be able to hold the system unless, he thought, Allah judged otherwise.

“Send a signal to the Annan.” The Kofi Annan was the transport, often used as a troop ship, about to exit the system for Philomel. “Send her the details and tell here to jump as soon as possible. Under no circumstance must she wait to see how the battle completes itself. I doubt that last warning is necessary but send it even so.”

“Anything along that nature for our unmasked ships?” his signals officer asked, well aware of the battles likely outcome.

“Nothing,” Otapp started to say and then changed his mind. “Send under light beam, ‘Honor’ demands we fight. It shall be as Allah wills.”

When Jamie resumed her place in Flag Plot she was mildly surprised to see that the three Calp ships previously detected were all approaching Midway base.

“They should have run, in their place I would have.”

In the Aladin’s battle bridge, deep in the ships lower hull, Sr. Lieutenant Wilma Dillingham, scanning both the ship and fleet channels, heard the statement and replied, “Maybe this fight isn’t as one sided as it seems Admiral.”

“Good point lieutenant. Let’s all of us keep it in mind while we go over the information assembled while we were all in our bunks resting on our laurels.”

Jamie might have told everyone to read the summary notes complied by the relief crew but as a firm believer that the spoken word sunk in deeper and carried more weight set Boris Karpinski, her new Flag Lt and replacement for Eric Shearing after his promotion to the Ranger, to reading the notes.

Boris was a recent escapee from the Cardoman Navy’s Transport and Cargo Section. His former duty was aboard Kathryn Marquette’s Widow’s Walk. When he reported in she had asked him how Commander Marquette was taking the transfer. He replied, “Rather well actually. She said to make sure her husband comes home breathing and with all the pieces attached.”

Boris didn’t have Eric’s familial ties to the Cardoman political elites so as a liaison to government while on Cardoman he had struggled. While on ship, and performing strictly military duties Jamie could see why she had hired him.”

Jamie looked to her signals officer and got a nod indicating the rest of her command was tied in via comm link and gave the go ahead. “Let’s hear the summary Boris.”

“We are presently two hours and fifty-one minutes out from Midway Station, all sensors on active, and at a state of maximum readiness. . .”

Cam Rustov was called to duty during what would otherwise have been an off shift and directed to one of Midway Station’s shuttle bays. He took as long as possible in getting there, and kept his mouth shut while inwardly seething; as a non-combatant he had no business being sent to serve as an extra element in a warship’s damage control team having already heard of control and power techs summarily called to duty.

The thought he might refuse didn’t enter his mind, such was the conditioning of a life spent in obedience.

Others, older for the most part with less to lose, were more vocal in their protest. Some seemed on the verge defying the order to leave the station and their families. Finally, after one of the loudest was clubbed senseless with a riot baton and slumped to the deck, the sullen resistance lost most of its allure.

“You are next!” shouted another of the guards at one slow to respond, he was the evident leader of the security team at the boarding tube and enjoying the work. He was pointing towards another of the loudest who shut up at once. He then gave instructions to a third guard, all the while kicking at the body on boat bay floor, “If this one comes to send him on the next shuttle or shoot him, your pleasure.” That took care of any further disturbance as half those waiting, Cam being the second from those last included, were shoved forwards. He briefly noted another group of technicians forming at one of the boat bay’s other tubes before with eyes forward he stepped into the docked shuttle’s cargo hold.

This shuttle was one of the station’s own transports, not one of those carried by a Caliphate warship assigned to system defense. Inside there were no seats, just the dimly lit cargo area packed now to standing room with almost forty technicians. The cargo hatch slid in from the side and then shut and sealed against the rim. Atmospheric pressure on the inside would keep it sealed even if the latches failed. Five seconds after the sealed light brightened they would all have been thrown to the floor by getaway acceleration if not packed together like sardines in a tin.

“Sorry people.” It was a voice Cam recognized, one of the station’s pilots, not a guard or member of the military. Without a visual screen and with no comm gear inside the cramped hold, the voice and two way intercom was their only link to the outside world.

“I guess I can tell you what my instructions are. You’re not headed for a ship and damage control. I am ordered to take this boat and take her as far away from the upcoming battle as time and one G permits. Even as overloaded as we are we still have life support for a couple of days, enough air at least. I don’t imagine this thing is going to take that long.

Looking around Cam could see that none of those in the shuttle had skills likely to be used for immediate emergency damage repair. And by virtue of being amongst the last to load he was standing right next to the small ships hull at the loading hatch where the intercom was mounted. “John, this is Cam Rustov. Are you alone up there?” he asked.

The pilot replied, “Corporal Esward is in the second seat and has informed me that the hatch and into the forward compartment is to remain locked, evacuated, and out of service.”

“What about food and water?” Cam was asking this for all of them when what he wanted to ask was if he could send a message to his wife and children.

“None and you’ll be thankful for that—because you also have no sanitation facilities. There are some plastic bags in the stowage locker, it won’t be pleasant but if this lasts long they’ll have to do. And we are allowed no outgoing communication until instructed otherwise. Do your best to keep calm, there is really no other option. I’ll get back with you in a bit but right now I have some piloting to do.”

The speaker when dead and Cam sensed rather than saw a motion in the crowd. Squeezing the two men closest to him he saw his boss at the repair shop, Jedir Isrim, dividing the packed ranks. “Try and make me some space everyone,” he said in a loud voice pitched away from the intercom. “We need some room here, and keep quiet!”

Almost magically a small space formed and Jedir removed his tunic, fluffed and folded it into a square, and placed it against the speaker. “Lean against this Cam and then we can talk.”

Cam did as he was told and then in a very low voice, “This won’t block the speaker, just cut the volume, the guard up front will still hear everything you say above a whisper.”

In a normal tone of voice so that everyone might hear Jedir said, “Don’t worry, the pilot is with us, he will make sure the volume is low enough that we are not heard.”

“What do you mean by the pilot’s with us?” was the immediate response from another man standing near.” In the quiet of the compartment the question was heard by all.

“I was patched into the station command circuit before we were rounded up. Our system, our home, is under attack by enough ships that no matter what the Caliphate defenders attempt they will be defeated. When that happens, and in order to keep trained personnel from falling into enemy hands, the Corporal sitting up in front will do his duty and evacuate this hold. We have to figure a way to stop that from happening.”

“But what can we do?” came from a voice in the crowd.

“I’m not sure—yet,” Jedir replied, “But if we do nothing I can assure you, that we will all die, and friends and family with us! The first thing we need to do is drill into the airlock so that we can open it and get access to the front. Thinking like soldiers that a gun is the only weapon, they didn’t take our tools, and I don’t think we are in a rush. So who’s got something we can make a hole with?”

“I do,” Cam said at once, “Get someone else to hold this pad in place, or better yet a couple of courses of fitters tape.”

“Alright, we’ll do it that way, but not too tight, and someone needs to stand here and listen in case the pilot starts talking again.”

That complete, “Coming Through,” and a pass was cleared to the front wall of the hold. The shuttles airlock did double duty as the entrance to the ship’s control room. It was large enough for two suited people at a time and set against an outside wall. Three doors all opening inward with the one leading outside the ship sealed by pressure in the chamber. The other two doors were designed to remain shut by exterior pressure whenever the airlock was evacuated as it was now.

Cam had a drill in his kit and decided to be the goat. He still didn’t trust his supervisor and wanted to be close to where the action was.

“Are you some kind of a spy or something,” Cam asked, as he removed a pencil sized drill unit from the tool pouch belted to his waist and set up to burn the hole.

“Not at all. Just one of many, more people than you would have thought still loyal to the Midway buy not willing to die for the Caliphate idea of honor.”

Unscrewing the cap from the drills grip end Cam removed a 1.5 mm diamond coated cutter, the largest in the handle, replacing the cap and snapped the bit into the drill’s collet. Working on fuel systems as he did, a hole burner was an invitation to an explosion, the older type drill suited his needs and would be more effective against the refractory nature of the shuttles hull as well. Leaving the drill unpowered Cam placed the tip of the cutter against the airlock hatch and rotated it by hand several times to make a dimple and a secure starting point.

Incredibly sharp the drill was brittle and liable to snap if it wasn’t started properly.

After starting rotation it took but a moment and the drill to pierce the 10 mm thick hatch plate and the whistle like sound of air being pushed into the vacuum of the lock’s interior could be heard. Cam drilled two more holes to speed the process along and then with a small tap threaded the holes for a plug that would seal the breech and let the hatch be evacuated again if need be.

With that out of the way Cam removed the cover from the dog actuator that mechanically held the hatch closed, and by loosening a few bolts made certain it could be defeated in a mater of seconds. Their were still dogs on the door leading to the pilot compartment but they could be attacked easily from inside the lock.

“I hope our pilot has the telltale turned off showing pressure in the lock,” Cam said, followed by, “What now?”

“Open this side up and figure what you can do about the latches on the hatch into the flight cabin, then we empty the storage locker and see about turning it into a privy, and then we wait,” was the reply.