Marjoram 19

Chapter 19 Draft (03-03-12)

They time passed ever so slowly for the forty people cooped up in the transport’s cargo hold. The extra space provided by the airlock and some makeshift hammocks let a few at a time stretch out helping somewhat but the overburdened life support system could do nothing about the smell from the totally deficient lavatory facilities.

There was nothing to see in the windowless compartment, no ports to the outside and little to hear over the intercom. Only a word or two every now and then from the front section. Communication with the Station was nonexistent, that was not surprising. And the pilot had nothing to say to his guard except for commenting on frequent explosive bursts of light and speculation on what it all meant. A conversation the guard refused to be drawn into.

A commenting on one last burst from the position the Station occupied that was followed about an hour later by mention of nine fusion drives lighting off and proceeding outward in formation, and the situation seemed clear enough and they would have to act now, or risk being stranded in a ship without the life support to maintain them any longer than another few days. A few mentions of family and that topic was ruled off limits until the immediate situation was addressed.

Jedir Isrim pointed at Cam Rustov and then made a summoning gesture, as certain of a response as if he owned him, and for the time he did. Camchatka was as eager as anyone to get this over with and find out how his family was making out but there was something in the back of his mind—a nagging voice he could not silence—telling him he would not like what he found.

Another unsettled issue; his opinion of his boss was in a state of flux. Jedir was not just the effete privileged dilettante Cam had first thought, there was something deeper. What that might be was still in doubt, but that they stood on the same side of the present situation was not.

With pressure equal now throughout the ship and the hatch locks disabled getting into the small control room was simple but not noiseless. The hatch made a kind of thumping sound when it unsealed and another distinct noise when slid on a track sideways into its open position revealing a short, two meter passage to the very front of the ship where the pilot and copilot stations looked out upon the deep through a large display disguised as an armorplast windscreen. In a fighting ship or lander the screen was real, just in case of a control system fault or power shut down.

As soon as the opening was wide enough two men, ready for the task, sped forward. The ship’s pilot, expecting this break in; he had seen the pressure equalize inside the airlock and made certain his guard hadn’t, commanded an emergency system reset preventing any input to ships controls for the few seconds the checks required.

Everything happened so rapidly the guard scarce had time for a single shot. He was using a stun pistol, no one would use a high powered energy weapon or one firing projectiles in a small ship’s control room, and though he hit his mark the bolt struck a metal shield made from a shelf pulled out of the cargo bay’s storage compartment. It was grounded to the hull and the weapon’s discharge neutralized. A blow by a blunt object, a rather large wrench in fact, another object found in storage, rendered the guard incapable of further action.

Jedir pushed his way forward, gave directions, and backed out again giving room for the Calp security officer could be moved into the hold. Now in the former occupant’s seat he was searching the radio spectrum for signals and finding nothing. While he was engaged in a comm search the pilot was panning an optical sensor back and forth over the area where he new the Station to be and also coming up empty. At extreme magnification some tiny sparkling motes were in the same orbit and others scattered at random all the way to the extreme edges of the instruments field of view.

Cam had followed, wanting to hold back his fear concerning his family by watching what Jedir would do next.

“Can you contact any of the other cargo types that left the Station when we did?” Jedir asked of the pilot.

“I could try. But it would have to be a wide cast and the Cardomans might hear it, I don’t know where any of them went and I would need a lot of signal boost.”

“Go ahead, being overheard is the least of our worries. The Cardomans are pulling away and I doubt the can hear anything coming from behind.”

That’s when it hit him, his deepest fear had become real, and Cam knew he would never see his home, his wife, or family, ever again.

* * *
“We have radio signals astern, Ma’am. Can’t make out any words but it’s definitely a voice channel.” Audie Madry resisted the urge to look around and see who was being addressed as Ma’am or Captain. While skipper of the SwiftStrike she could be called either but it had taken some getting used to.

This was the third ship she commanded, the first taken over in a near mutiny, the second the research vessel Perseus, where informality was the rule of the day, and now, out of necessity and lack of other fully qualified officers, not that she actually believed she was one such, the G-4 CNS SwiftStrike. Running the Perseus was fun, commanding the Swift was hard because the stakes were so high.

“Good work Amos.” Amos Holt was her Lieutenant Junior Grade Third Officer. He’s earned his single bump by virtue of graduation standing at Cardoman’s Naval Academy and not by time in service and looked even younger than his twenty-two standard years.

“Get me Karpinsk–,” she started to say before stopping mid word, “err the Flag Ship,” Audie continued. “The Admiral will want to know.”

“How sure are you Audie?” her cousin asked.

“Hundred percent. We know it’s from a low power transmitter on a moving platform that is less than ship size. Don’t know what their saying but someone is talking.”

“How did you learn all this Audie? My guys can’t hear a thing through the interference.”

“We have a missile out as a relay.”

“You sent a shipkiller EM bird out when the Recon packages we have further out will pick it up later? How do I explain that on the expense report?”

“Geeze Cos’, this Admiral’s thing is turning you into a regular bureaucrat! — Course not! I had signals cobble up something to fit on a short range def weapon. Good enough for finding someone who isn’t trying to hide even if all we learned from it was someone is out there and not what they’re saying. Still too much interference with our exhaust for that.”

“Well thank the Lord for small favors. In fact well done younger relation. So well done that I think we need to investigate. And as the ship on top of the situation you, my dear, are elected.”

“You know that doesn’t break my heart—right?”

“Sure Audie—and good work. Keep us advised via relay through the recon packs. Still eight hour’s before the rest of us transition and it would be good to know what we’ve left behind when we jump.”

“What have we got Amos?” The SwiftStrike’s First Officer, Parker Current, had the duty while the ship’s Captain was somewhere between the hulls helping to repair a leaky plumbing line, one of the few pieces of battle damage from the recent skirmish and one she didn’t want to put on her report or have left for the yard dogs to deal with.

“Four small cargo haulers Sir, all just a little larger than one of our landers. The explosions we saw were two other detonating. Must have blown themselves up—because there was nothing near enough to either to be a threat.”

“Looks like they’re heading back towards where the station used to be.”
“Not answering our hails and they’ll be blaming us for its loss Sir.”

“Send off everything we have and I’ll try and hunt up the Captain to see about permission to release our video feeds and voice record. Could be enough to convince them that they did it to themselves.”

“Go ahead and send it Parker, and add some kind of an explanation of what it looked like happened from our point of view. If nothing else we want to squelch any hint of a rumor that we had anything to do with blowing up a civilian habitat even if it was the living space for enemy combatants.”

“Enemy Combatants Ma’am?”

“Sure they were, at least some of them. You don’t think the fuel that feeds the Calp fleet and support services keeping it operational is delivered by the magical Fuel Feed Fairy do you?”

“Not if you put it that way I don’t, but I can see as how political types on both sides wish it so.”

“Just get them to start talking Cmdr. I’m about finished here and after I get cleaned up I’ll see you on the bridge.”

“Aye, Aye, Captain.”

“And one more thing Parker, I want to find out how we missed these people earlier. Even if as it seems they were of no threat we should have seen them and taken notice. Go back on our records and find out what we thought was there where they were.”

When Audie made it back on deck her last question had an answer. “We picked them up sure enough, just labeled them as not threatening and concentrated elsewhere. No emissions and too small to be a warship, too far away for even a shipkiller to reach us so we kept track but didn’t worry. They looked like nothing more than medium sized rocks.”

“Makes sense. I think we should add a software routine to designate anything of shuttle size or larger as a possible threat though.” Audie reconsidered than said, “No, I guess not, a data link could be a lot smaller and much as we would like we can’t keep constant tabs on everything.”

Checking the time Parker said, “If they’re willing to talk we should be hearing something soon.”

It had taken an hour to kill the outward vector and the same again to build speed back inwards. Hearing a return from one of the cargo craft Audie had authorized the use of a Recon Drone as a comm link, and they were decelerating to meet up with the message sender.

Another six hours in system and the survivors of all four cargo carriers were on board, some being debriefed and others for now under lock and key, guarder by here marine detachment in the lower hull. The cargo craft were too large for the boat bay on the Swift and without suits for those inside the smaller ships cargo hold, getting everyone transferred by twos and threes went faster than most thought it would. A tribute to the experience level of those they were bringing aboard.

Finally the Swift was once more heading for the limit and Admiral Madry had her almost complete report by the time the fleet jumped, vanishing from the remaining Cardoman’s screens.

Ten hours later, for Audie and her crew, and passengers, it was, Two, One, Transition Out!”

Arriving back in Cardoman space, to say the message traffic was burning up the ether, though technically inaccurate, was an apt description of the activity involved. Jamie and the Aladin had already reached Cardoman Station and Jamie was on the Burgeron by the time the SwiftStrike transitioned in—sending her complete report along with the debriefing notes.

“So you can see Wes, we accomplished more and less than we expected.”

“I give it a hundred Jamie. Sure, would have been nice to bring more technical people back, but you didn’t lose a ship, and that counts for a lot.”

“I’ll second that,” Jim Marquette said, the three of them were sitting in his office on the Berg. “A hundred and sixty-three trained spacers. If we can convince even half to work for us, and it looks like we’ll do much better than that, It’s like freeing up enough experience for the command staff of another G-4 after we spread them around the fleet or replace people working the construction end.”

“Jim’s right on that point Jamie, we are turning out Academy graduates faster than we can use them now, it takes time to gain experience and this is going to help.”

“Tell me! And just where do we stand with fleet acquisition after the latest?”

“You were only gone a month so not a lot has changed. The last of the captured freighters is ready, still unnamed I might add, but we will captain and crew her from our transport side, promotions all around of course. We have a 4 ready for export; don’t know who gets her though. Wes?”

“It’s between State and Finance, my guess is Finance wins so you can ask Louise Shearing when you see her.”

“We have another G-4 close to the working up stage,” Marquette took over again, “You should get her in six weeks or so.”

“What have I missed on the operations side?”

“Quite a bit actually,” Wes said, “Most of it on the ground though and the intelligence end of things. Our partners on Ryman have been very busy. Tomorrow after Audie’s back I want you both at the Castle and Jack Trebeck will put on a show and tell. You’re invited to Jim if you can make it.”

The overworked System Commander merely sighed, “I’ll read the report if you send one. A desk jockey’s job is never done.”

Delmer Hardy from the Prince Henry had returned to Cardoman with the fleet, the Holorith and Justice out of Llanfairn had gone directly home from Midway. Del was due to leave as soon as this last meeting was finished. Union was far enough away that a more complete report, including issues not strictly naval, made the wait worth the while. He was not displeased, Del had wanted since first hearing of it to see if the home of the Calvert’s was everything it was cracked up to be.

Invited to come down the morning before an afternoon conference, his visit did not disappoint. A Cardoman lander took him from the Burgeron through secured airspace to a landing pad in the middle of a green and rolling nowhere, settling down an hour after local sunrise. Once on the ground a wheeled utility vehicle driven by a Cpl Ethridge waited to take him to the stone built edifice that dominated the view towards the open land to the southeast. Behind Castle Calvert rose a series of wooded hills with summits hidden by low morning clouds.

A guard change at the gate house protecting the buildings drive and then he was escorted the hundred meters to the main entrance sealed by large windowless wooden doors, opening as they reached the single step to a paving stone covered approach.

A dark haired woman in her forties met them saying, “Good morning Captain Hardy. I’m Wana Omari and I hope you haven’t had breakfast yet.”

“Why no Ma’am, I haven’t, just coffee on the trip down.”

“I’ve got something special for you then, but you’ll have to hurry. The Major and Connie left for the outback at daybreak.”

Wana had led the way down a wide corridor leading from the entrance foyer to the rear of the building. Upon hitting another hallway in the back she turned left and a bit further along they entered the kitchen. “This is the family kitchen; we have a much larger setup for banquets and parties.”

This kitchen was large enough Delmer thought to handle any party he might ever host. Wana had him sit at heavy oak table. He looked out the large window set in a very thick wall and saw an open area of grass with some large shed like buildings a couple of hundred yards distant. He didn’t notice the smooth edge of a blast shield that would rise from the sash to cover the opening should the need arise.

He would have spent longer in examination but now Irwana brought him the first course, a couple of eggs with bacon to get him started. Special indeed, Delmer hadn’t seen this much of a selection at breakfast—well ever.

Twenty minutes after starting he reluctantly finished his last sausage and pushed away from the table when a tall young man entered the room from a doorway leading to the outsides.

“Don’t look him in the eye Sir. If you do he’ll likely spit in your face. And whatever you do don’t feed him, people lose fingers that way.”

“Tell me again why I should ride this beast rather than walk?” Captain Hardy asked of the young man urging the Camel to its feet. He had been introduced to Hardy as Mohammad al-Omari, the son of the Castle’s — was Superintendent the word he was looking for? With a staff of a dozen or so to oversee Irwana al-Omari’s duties went far beyond that of simple housekeeper.

The young, as Delmar understood Marine Sgt, was wearing nondescript fatigues and a billed cap emblazoned with the letters CCC in gold on the front. “Let me guess, Cardoman Camel Corps.

“Got it in one,” Omari answered while still inside the barn they had walked through to reach this staging area, call it a corral, behind the building. There were horses to be seen once outside but at a distance near a second large barn type structure.

“Hold on tight, use your knees, easy to fall off while Najib is standing.”

A rolling pitching motion while the animal struggled to its feet that would have made him seasick had it gone on much longer revealed to Del the reason why Camels were sometimes in literature called Ships of the Desert. By clutching the pommel of the padded saddle he managed to stay on and then informed the Sgt of his newly found explanation for an ancient mystery.

Mo already seated on the second of the two animals tapped her lightly with a riding crop saying, “Up Sheeba,” and without any seeming struggle at all the Camel and rider were upright.

“Not at all Captain, it’s the natural motion of their walk responsible, but you’ll get used to it. If not there’s some motion sickness medicine in your saddle bag.”

“Can’t be any worse than a lander coming down in bad weather now can it?”
“If you say so Sir.”

A man of about fifty, moving stiffly opened the gate then closed it after them.

“Nice day for a ride gents,” he said.

“You’ve been taking good care of them, Mr. Scavilli. I think you must have some desert blood in you.”

“Likely so, if it didn’t come natural it came by transfusion I guess.” He smiled at the joke and continued, “The Major and the Missus are an hour ahead but they will be taking their time. Going to run some diagnostics on the sensor system overlooking the trail. Get a move on and you can catch them before they hit the summit.”

“Thanks, we’ll see you later Rico,” Mo said. And then taking the lead urged his Sheeba into a gait more rapid than a simple walk. It wasn’t long before Delmer was reaching into his saddle bag for the motion sickness pills. Thankfully they worked like magic and he soon began to almost enjoy the ride.

“This doesn’t look much like camel country,” Captain Hardy said as they climbed a winding trail through green forested rolling terrain. He had studied a map of Cardoman to see where the Calvert’s home lay in respect to Minton the planetary capital, but didn’t go a layer down to view it in any climatological detail.

“Not on this side of the Southern Range at least,” Mo replied, “though it does get dry towards the end of summer. Another ten miles and we’ll hit the crest. On the other side and continuing south it gets about as dry as anyone might desire and then some.”

“What do you do when you’re not acting as a tour guide for visiting Captains Sgt? And why miles not kilometers?”

“I work in Marine Recon Sir, other than that I can’t really say. As for using miles—don’t know—the Major uses that archaic form of measurement around here and the locals do too amongst themselves. Seems to fit.”

“Ever been off planet?”
“Born there.”

They rode in silence mostly for the next hour, alternating between a rapid and more normal pace. Finally at a distance of about a half mile, just under a kilometer Delmer translated, the saw two mounted figures higher up on the now mostly treeless grass covered slope. It was hard to identify the two humans but easy to see one rode a camel the other a horse.

“That’s Mrs. Calvert, Connie, on the horse, the Major is riding Alahambra. She was one of the finest racing camels in the Caliphate before my father purchased her and brought her to Cardoman.”

“Is that what your father does? Deal in trade—import and export?”

“Most of the time, but he works mostly under contract to the government rather than commercially.”

“Sounds like a safe way to spend your time these days.”
“That’s what I tell him.”
“Why is General Calvert’s wife riding a horse instead of one of these brutes?”

At the mention of the word brute, Najeb’s steady stride took a violent hitch and Delmer was almost thrown from his seat, but he saved himself the fall by his iron grasp on the saddle.

“The Major said she got the horse because she was pregnant again, but the real reason is because aside from the other two young ones you saw at the stable there just aren’t enough to go around and the both felt the honor should be yours.”

“How late is she? And should a pregnant woman even be riding a horse?”

“Really Captain, all of us Indies aren’t bumpkins, even without the civilizing influence of the Confederation and all. Their kid’s coming to term in an incubation tank at the clinic in Germfask and not due for months.”

Connie and Wes had seen the approach and were reined up and waiting for their guest.

“Enjoying your day in the sun?” Connie asked after introductions all around. The mist had burned off and the weather was perfect, sky deep blue with a few clouds almost at eye level well in the distance. In a clearing now and looking back down the trail the Castle looked like a child’s fairytale toy in the distance.

“You own all this?” Delmer waved from one side of the view to the other.

“Not all, but a fair chunk. On a planet sized object with a population of under a hundred million there is quite a bit of land to go around. I know the Castle looks like it’s been here forever, but the Major had it built that way only six years ago. We’ll talk more when we get to the top but we best get a move on.”

Mounting Najib was somewhat easier this time and they started off this time with Wes in front followed by Delmer, then Connie and Mo. The pace, if not rapid, was steady, the path to the crest steep enough that Delmer found himself holding on with both hands much of the time, caring less for his dignity, and he considered himself somewhat of a ladies man, than his life.

The trees had all vanished, the ground covered by a mixture of terrestrial and native grasses, and the wind was blowing steadily by the time, a little before local noon, they reached trails end—a grass covered depression between peaks on either side.

They dismounted and Mo took charge of the animals getting them settled after drinking from a narrow rivulet fed from the higher elevation to the east.

“You can now say you have conquered Cardoman’s Southern Range on Camel back when you get back home Captain,” Connie said in a humorous vein as Delmer opened and closed his hands to relive the built up tension. “A feat that will put you into some very elite company I can assure you.”

“First I have to survive the descent, and I understand riding downhill is rather more difficult than the reverse. But yes—the view is worth it.”

Looking south to a horizon that must be a hundred miles away, was like a view of a different world. Shades of green replaced by browns and grasses by small spiked shrubs with gray and purple fronds substituting for leaves.

“Dirt and rock up here, but it turns to sand further south. Terraforming hasn’t affected it much in the last hundred years and won’t in the next.” Wes said. “And you don’t need to worry about riding back down. In about five minutes we’ll have some company and a ride back to the Castle. We’ll be hearing it soon.”

Sure enough Delmer heard the unmistakable engine sound of something large overhead. A cargo hauling truck sized aircar landed on a flat area a hundred yards down slope and from the cargo doors a ramp emerged. Next, exiting first, the two camels he had last seen in the Calvert’s barn. They were followed by the man who had shut the gate when they started out that morning and a couple of others wearing Cardoman uniforms and carrying several large hampers.

“Rico is going to take them down to the desert to get re-acclimatized give a couple of our troops some training, and we’ll get back in plenty of time for our meeting.”

The three from the cargo section, and then its driver came up slope and once again introductions all around. Then the hampers were opened to reveal another of Irwana al-Omari’s feasts and like breakfast the meal was all too short.

One final look at the magnificent desolation and those returning to civilization boarded their transportation and seated themselves on benches for the short ride home. Connie’s horse standing in the middle of a knock down stall looked not the least bit out of place.