Marjoram 18

Chapter 18 Draft (02-24-12)

It came as no surprise to Admiral Otapp, nor to any of the others on duty in Flag Plot when his staff Tactical Officer informed them by stages as the Cardomans had first detected, and then negotiated, the scattered minefields between their entry point and Midway Base. The evidence was available for all to see, thrown up in three dimension and living colors on the central display.

What did surprise was how easy it seemed, costing the attacking force but five shipkiller type recon drones. One of his own mines, receiving signals from two ships at once, detonated without causing noticeable damage and that was the extent of his out system defenses, such a small reward for a squadron of mine layers and all the effort expended, not to mention the recurring costs going towards tracking and maintaining them.

The slight course changes required hadn’t even slowed them down, not enough to matter. But then there was nothing a few extra hours or even days would have changed, or helped in any noticeable way, the defensive strength in his muster. Now even if help came from outside the system it would be late, unable to reach the battle before the fight was finished.

Only nine enemies showed close in on the screen, the tenth was seen to jump and an hour later reappear, having gone after the freighter still marked by its hour old fusion track. So five to nine was the central problem, not impossible odds but not encouraging either. For all the time and work invested, Midway did not have the defense in depth of a planetary system, much less that of one also containing a fleet base.

Without ships on their flanks, causing threats and steering the Cardoman fleet in the general direction he desired, his first line of defense did nothing of the sort. More positively the flight at max G made it more difficult for their sensors and Otapp was near certain neither the Beorea nor Achiqbash would as of now be showing up on any ships screens not in data link with his own. He had taken care to insure both ships stayed on line between the closely grouped Cardomans and the heat sources of the station and planet.

Eventually active radio wave sensors or laser reflective scans would over power surface stealth and pick them up, but if the Cards came close enough before that happened, his first strike could be a start towards balancing the odds, it might even decide the battle.

“We make the center most ship the Bait Dallal, not enough data in our base to be sure of the other two but the Parthian comes close to the ship at system east and the other is likely the Ghazaleh if we can trust our build schedules.” Jamie’s comm channel was mostly silent but her Flag Lieutenant Karpinski sometimes commented on other communications he followed and found interesting. At other times she would ask him to locate a fact or piece of information that she wanted explored further. Sometimes it was her section leaders entrusted with this task, but they also had assigned duties and regular reports showing up on her text screen or in the cryptic boxes floating besides the lights in the main tank.

“Make the Bait target one then, and the Parthian number two, the most experienced ship make three. And keep looking; there should be at least one more ship here.” Audie watched as her ships shifted position in preparation of their first missile launch.

Otapp had a problem, the Cardomans would be in range of the obvious targets, the three ships ranging in front of him and helping to mask his presence. And they wouldn’t fire on those ships while out of his own ability to assist in their defense. If the first Card launch was a full salvo, then without his supporting fire directed against some of the launch, it would likely overcome the defense of a three ship screen entirely, probably would, even with stationary space based weapons as a part of the mix. At the least extensive damage would result. The too early loss of any of his force and he could surrender at once if saving life was a goal and surrender an option. But it wasn’t.

Only victory, or in worst case revenge, played into his calculations. The Cardomans were making no mistakes, he had given them chances, so revenge it would be.

* * *
The Essex II, under Mark McCormack, captured from the Calps as the Salat and taken into service, had a designated area, as did they all, assigned for active her scans. Lt. Finster, the ships third officer oversaw the sensor station but in truth the watch department worked for Boss’n Teller. Teller was a grizzled veteran of three years service and two trips outside the space immediately around Cardoman and Finster was smart enough to know that he had also earned his position and gave Teller a free hand when it came to people and practice. The lieutenant spent his own time doing analysis and making sure any information developed went to the right place with the proper priority.

Long before reaching strike range his section was bombarding their search area with frequencies high and low. Finster worked with the program subtracting the visible targets from the sensor return, minimizing the noise, and trying to tease data from interference patterns. When it came to that part of his job there was no one on the ship who could do it better, Boss’n Teller included.

“Send the final warning,” Jamie said on a relay to Pavel Tsarinstyn, the only comm link under her direct control was the one tying her to the control rooms of the other ships in the fleet. The others were ignored as I expect this one will, so once more for dramatic effect. We’ll close another couple of hundred thousand K’s then launch.”

“On its way Admiral. The fact that the Kofi Annon blew herself to pieces rather than be captured by Captain Debus tells me the same is about to happen here. If not part of the plan the example means honor will demand it.”

“It’s strange what we humans sometimes do in the name of honor but I suppose you’re right Pavel. I hope all of our gun crews understand our side of the equation.”

“I’m sure they do Ma’am, anything strictly civilian, hands off, anything else open season with no bag limit.”

Unlike on the bridge deck above and those on the ships surrounding, there was only a soft gong like sound when the three Caliphate G-4’s launched as one. As lead ship, the Saratoga sent two shipkillers out to test the water and sample the enemy’s electronic countermeasures while the rest waited for the range to the incoming to close.

“They kept a few back,” Jamie commented on seeing the launch numbers, “That should help with defense when we are closer but I don’t see it changing the outcome.”

Two minutes later twenty interceptors left tubes on the three allied ships, letting them taste first blood. Eighteen clean hits.

“Leave them for the close in crews,” Jamie sent, “Change course as planned and ready our own launch.” The fleet, as if one ship, diverged 5 degrees from the current heading and made ready. If pulse rates tracked acceleration they had just picked up another 10 G’s worth.

The Beorea and her sister ship Achiqbash had both been hit multiple times by Cardoman sensors. The range was now short enough that dealing with the probes took active measures. With those measures came energy expenditure and its constant companion—heat. The steady cooling rate that had sufficed to mask them was now being augmented by modulated venting from the ship’s skin tanks, each cycle stressing the weakened valve seals contained in half dozen manifolds split equally between the two ships.

On the Boerea’s Flag Deck Captain Otapp sat silently watching the lights depicting missiles from the first blink out until only two were left, then they vanished as well, still a quarter light second from away from where they might cause any damage to the nine Cardoman ships proceeding inward. His three active ships were off to one side of the planet.

With the Cardomans so close to a standstill there was a chance this own could turn tail and run. Unable in the end to watch them die for no good purpose he had the signal sent ordering them to flee. He had waited too long by far in issuing that order but if the Cards sent two ships after each, and they took flight at once, the odds at the would dramatically improve to his benefit. Two ships still in stealth mode against three in the open. With the order for run given his plan finally started making sense to those subordinate officers who till this point been preparing to die for no purpose what so ever.

Close enough to the planet the geometry of the situation let three the fleeing ships duck behind the planet, using it to screen for a moment their choice of course. They would stick together for a time running at right angles to the low residual velocity vector the Cardomans maintained.

“I’ll be damned!” Stan Voinovich on the Saratoga said with disbelief. “That’s the last thing I was ready for.” His first launch was on its way but any intercept would happen behind the gas giant and out of direct view. Jamie Madry on Aladin felt much the same, though she refrained from saying so much and as colorfully.

“Wish I would have thought to order along a surveillance bird instead of all war-shots. If there are any defensive positions behind the planet, as there are bound to be, I see 90 shipkillers and a hundred million Cardoman dollars vanishing without a trace.”

Even before the Caliphate G-4’s vanished from the holo-tank Jamie ordered six from the fleet to take up the chase, her cousin Audie on the SwiftStrike and the Essex staying behind with the Flag to complete the mop up at Midway Station.

“Keep searching,” Lt Finster said for about the umpteenth time to his sensor crew, “We don’t know there’s nobody left out their so keep scanning.”

“Where do we stand Tallid?”

“Fifteen minutes Sir, just fifteen minutes more and the lead ship, I make her out to be the SwiftStike Admiral, will be close enough that surprise should give us a better then even chance of destroying her and evening up the odds.”

On the engineering deck down in Boerea’s lower hull above the fusion plant the Second Assistant Engineer Sayf al-Daula was starting to worry. He was getting skin temp data that was trending outside the norm. They were venting more than necessary and unevenly to boot. The Chief Engineer and his First Assistant were busy getting ready full power up and launch tube operations and there was nothing they could do about what he was seeing even had he told them. So he kept it to himself and watched the indicator light flicker between green and amber, while praying the Cards didn’t hit the ship again with their high powered sensor scans.

“We should give this up Lt, and help out with target tracking.” Boss’n Teller said privately to his department leader.

“Not yet William,” he highlighted an area near the gas giants southern pole, “let’s hit this area one more time with everything we’ve got.”

The use of lasers for long range object detection was relatively new, starting about fifty years earlier and the technology advancing rapidly. The theory was quite simple, throw out the beam and have a photo detector track it in parallel. If a spot of light was seen in the distance you were seeing reflection from an object. This was similar to laser range finding but without a definite object to range on. In space there were always spots of light for a photo detector to notice, they most generally were called stars, though at time comet, asteroids, and distant planets provided additional fill in.

At the distance most battles were fought a ship was a very small target indeed. Sweeping a laser beam with one end on a moving ship, in increments precise enough to cover the space between sweeps, was far too difficult for mechanical means. A mirror was used instead with minute electrical actuators adjusting its shape as pass followed pass in an assigned target area.

When a minute or more might elapse between sending the signal and seeing the return, and with the ship and beam both moving in the interim, even relocating a small object once seen was a challenge. Like many intractable problems in the past, increased in computing power had finally begun to tame this one.

When the photo detector for Lt Finster’s Laser Finder 1 picked up a return it stopped the current scan and went back to relocate whatever it was that had reflected the beam 22 seconds before.

“I think we may have something,” Boss’n Teller said.

On the Boerea, Second Engineer al-Daula, saw the green to amber flickering light turn tinge to red, he also saw the ships skin temperature begin to raise as a high powered laser beam flashed over the ships position literally hundreds of times a second. If the ship could continue to mask its IR there was still a chance the laser would not lock on as the hull paint worked to dampen optical reflections.

Sayf’s hope was dashed when the manifold regulating the skin tanks failed catastrophically, stuck open, venting liquid hydrogen to the tanks and then into space not only raising reflectivity but boosting the ship’s apparent size by several orders of magnitude. He started to signal the bridge but the news preceded him.

“Launch, Launch Now!”

It was an order that could not be obeyed ships power was still not fully on line.

“Perhaps in another two minutes,” Tactical Officer Tallid said in shame from the inability to accomplish the impossible.

“Do your best then,” Admiral Otapp said realizing his own error and refusing to take out his anger on one who had served him so well. Should they survive this fight though, whoever was responsible for maintaining the ships stealth systems would pay in full measure.

“It’s definite,” said Boss’n Teller, his voice no longer calm and detached. Lt Finster reached for the selector changing his channel to a direct connection to the Bridge but the warning preceded him and also to Flag Plot where it was sent on at once to the Essex II, the ship closest to the immediate threat.

“Acquire target and launch,” First Officer Marigold Last backed up her Captain’s instruction from her own station where she commanded the Battle Bridge. For now her words were being recorded and went unheard except by those in the room with her. She prayed it would remain such. Her task was to be ready and wait till needed. And if her services were required as more than a backup it would mean the ship was in such a state that the battle was already lost.

Ten shipkillers left the Essex’s tubes, followed in under half a minute by another ten. At this range violent action was called for, getting there first with the most.

“One more launch, that ship, she looks to be the Beorea, is still powering up, but keep a look out for others, she may not be alone.”

With nothing long range to harass them, and from their perspective homing in on a stationary target, the thirty shipkillers, without any assist from Essex, managed their own terminal ballistics. The close in anti-missiles and high power lasers on the Boerea, were unable to deal with thirty missiles at one time. Too far removed from Midway Base itself for any help from that front Admiral Otapp and the rest of the ship’s crew had time enough to see seven of the Cardoman shipkillers stopped and their own first launch barely out of the tubes before their time ran out forever.

The multiple blasts which took the life of the command ship flooded the surrounding space with so much energy that its reflection from the Bait Dalall led to detection in the time it took for the most energetic wavelengths to reach the nearest Cardoman sensor. Slower than her sister ship to power up, her systems were just now up to operational levels and the nearest Cardoman only forty light seconds away.

The Captain of the Achiqbash did the only thing he could, called for the ships Political Officer.

“Give me the self destruct code! If we surrender and stand down at once we might be spared to serve another day!”

“I know of no such code Captain. I swear to God, the sequence is fully automatic so far as I am aware. Even to ask this of me will surely end your career as did your honor which must have departed years ago.”

“Space him!” the ship’s Captain said to a waiting security guard, “Perhaps his memory will return on the trip to the airlock.” Giving the order felt good, a payback for two years of being the figurehead as a Captain in his own ship. But deep down the Captain knew the man had been telling the truth. They must fight on whatever the outcome whatever the odds.

The fight was short. And five minutes later in what amounted to a contact blast it ended for all on board.

Captain Hardy’s Prince Henry sent from Union, the Federation’s Capital, came around the planets edge and was first to reacquire the fleeing Calp squadron. He passed his view to the five ships in his wake and once more adjusted course to one slightly divergent not dead astern. These were new model G-4’s with acceleration every bit as good as his own. Two years and system upgrades had wiped out the 2 G acceleration advance that was state of the art at the time.

Due to their slight head start the Parthian, Ghazaleh, and Dallal were slowly pulling away from the pursuit. But getting beyond missile range would take hours and any avoidance maneuvers would kill their advantage. Being close and in the direct blast of a starship’s fusion plant was uniformly fatal. Pulling to the side made shooting easier for both teams but more so for those doing the chase, because the exact location of a ship under acceleration was brass band obvious while looking rearward through a ships hot exhaust was near impossible.

The six ships under Stan Voinovich split into pairs and took positions roughly circling the Calp’s track towards the hyper-limit. The Calps were running beyond military max at three uncompensated G’s beyond the 67.5 the compensator could deal with. To keep from falling further behind Stan had to do likewise so all hands were strapped in and very uncomfortable. He wanted to end this in a hurry.

The best chance seemed to program his shipkillers to slide up the skirt formed by the fleeing ship’s plasma discharge without getting so close to it that the missiles would be destroyed instead of the other way round. To test it he kept the first launch small, if it failed he wanted enough remaining for a more conventional fight. The maneuver would have failed if the Calps varied their thrust even a bit, or changed track by a single degree.

As it was the Calps who had elected to keep close to one another for defensive support failed to see the small, three tubes per ship, lunch until too late to deal with it. It was by far the largest explosion any of them had ever seen, three fusion plants at max output and eighteen missiles combined to the indescribable. The inclusion of 80,000 tons of hydrogen propellant and what little oxygen was available was less than a footnote to the stupendous blast.

“No need to search for survivors is there Sir?” the marine who would have led that operation asked.

“No, none at all,” was Stan’s deadpan response while he filed the question away for relay to Marine Colonels Zavala and Jameson. One thing was certain; Robbie Davis would get a chuckle out of it.

Jamie and the ships still at Midway Station had work left unfinished. They were slowly taking out the defensive positions still guarding the fueling station and residence area. When the six ships under Stan’s command returned the work went rapidly. The combined beam output of nine warships was more than any defensive position could stand.

“That must have been the last of them,” Boris Karpinski said, in grief over the loss of life but half way wising there was more fighting to left to do. He would spend days writing up the battle already fought.

Five hours from the first shot the last position fell silent and it was time to gather in as many of those in the residence as would chose to leave.

Communication silence was finally lifted but the offer to take evacuate and take with them any wishing to leave the Caliphate for Federation or Indie worlds was met with a flat refusal. Those still in charge of what was left of the station were claiming that there was not a soul wishing to leave.

“Statistically impossible, those still in charge are those used to running things. In a hypothetically perfect society, one with limitless freedom and opportunity there will always a stubborn 10% looking for something better, or different. And as many again were just bored and looking for something new.”

“There is always an underclass, I didn’t realize you subscribed to that school of thought,” Jamie advanced to Claude Germond, the Newsie who had become more than a public relations project but the unofficial historian to the Cardoman military and the Navy in particular. She had learned not to contradict his rapid fire opinion spewing without some evidence to back her position but this time she was in complete agreement.

“Nothing but human nature Jamie— always was always will be.”

“If human nature was so immutable wouldn’t we still be living in caves and rubbing sticks together to start fires? And why then does human genetic modification rank right up there with nuclear bombardment and civilian massacre as a cardinal sin?”

“Do you know what really happened when the Calps on Bab al-Amar tried to create their Genetic Super Soldier?

“They were too politically unreliable keep a leash on?”

“No, before they tried for a Super Soldier they worked on something with traits more easily quantifiable but equally deadly. Instead of a Soldier, and almost by accident it would seem, they created a Genetically Engineered Super Lawyer, a species far more representative of the human condition. Let’s just say the program did not turn out well.”

“After letting lose the vermin, and losing the resultant law suits, the Calps had to shut their entire genetics program down. The costs involved under Islamic law, what with reparations being paid to both the modified and normals as well—it was enough to stop the second expansion and set the Caliphate’s plan for galactic domination back a hundred years. They never have recovered you know.”

“Somehow my history books never got around to relating that part of our common story, and though I do want to learn more, we will have to wait until I finish with the problem in front of me,” Jamie indicated the large scale view of the Midway habitat. “I am going to need to send some of our people over there to take a look.”

“Can I go with them?”

“Maybe later Claude. I have reason to start out small and see what happens.”

Flag Lt Karpinski was glad for the chance to ‘Lead’ the six man strong verification team sent to check on the station commanders claims. A four man detachment of marines in combat suits went along in support, more for show than anything else.

Admiral Madry kept her ships at a distance on the off chance the Calps had hidden some offensive weaponry on the civilian residence. The shuttle flight lasted three hours, enough time for Boris to consider more possibilities and he wasn’t quite as happy in being here as before. The Calp hostility to the inspection had changed to a benign acceptance, the line now was; ‘Get it done with, and then leave us alone,’ something didn’t smell right.

The shuttle bay door was enormous when compared to the one on a G-4 Battle Cruiser. From the copilots seat of the Aladin’s lander Boris could see all the way to the lighted rear of the chamber and people inside wearing suits against the vacuum. Why anyone would use such a large boat bay for such a small ship was a question he could not answer.

The shuttles pilot had no trouble entering and set down near the middle of the otherwise empty space. Where were the ships that should be here? The bay door closed but as instructed the Calps kept a comm link open back to the fleet.

Boris turned his attention to the readout showing pressure returning to the boat bay. It was almost up to normal when he looked again through the shuttles forward view screen and saw the dock hands, still in their suits, kneeling on the floor as if in prayer.

“Check the environmental controls!” came a scream from a speaker connected to the shuttle’s comm link.

The pilot beat him to it. The readout showed oxygen/hydrogen, not the nitrogen mix that indicated something breathable.

“Get us out of here!”

Those were the last word heard over the Aladin’s comm link as a spark set off the explosive mixture with the force of a shipkiller’s warhead, against which the shuttles armor was useless, and spreading to the rest of the structure ruptured every airtight compartment she contained, and causing the residence to fracture at her seams, the pieces drifting apart, with the loss of all on board.

The silence on the Flag Deck was complete, to do so much, run a near perfect mission, and have it come to this. Images of past battles, ships and crews lost, good times and bad swept through her of their own volition while Jamie sat speechless. Everything connected with death, but in random fashion.

Then all at once the thought of a joke she’d run across once in an archive purporting to be from the Earth’s late twentieth century, one concerning the fate of suicide bombers, crossed her mind and came into focus, “Kids these days! They all blow up so young!” that was the punch line—It didn’t seem so funny anymore.

Mission accomplished, but ending on a sour note, the Cardoman fleet got underway and headed for home. The system was devoid of radio traffic and there was no reason to linger. The hyper limit and two weeks of nothingness was ten hours away. It could not come soon enough.

While the Cardoman fleet sped outwards, at some distance removed, a tiny figure, spinning slowly in a spacesuit with radios and locator beacon disabled, went slowly insane. The Borea’s Political Officer, screaming at the universe, blinded from explosions and unfiltered sunlight, all the while cursing his God till his voice gave out, vocal cords raw and bleeding, while the last sounds he ever heard were the choked noisy rasp of his own breathing and the slow beep of an audible alarm warning his oxygen indicator would soon reach zero.