Marjoram 21

Chapter 21 Draft (03-24-12)

“Absolutely not!” Rick Petrocelli had enough of being at the mercy of someone else, someone telling him where, when, and how, to run his ship. “We’ll get your men and equipment down, take another day for tourists, early reports are that there’s not much to see, and then were out of here, back to Ryman!”

Ben Judah didn’t seem surprised at the outburst. “I know how you feel Captain, but perhaps this will change your mind.” Shema handed over a standard data cube. “Got this along with a blessing from the Prophet Smith. It contains photo’s and what not of all his out system hires who have ever set foot on Bringham, with the exception of most of those we are supposed to remove; they didn’t pass through customs. Run it against your database and be ready for a change of heart.”

They were on the Bastard’s bridge so Rick inserted the cube into the reader on his command console then entered the search terms himself. He waited for a few seconds while the data processed. The wait was just long enough that he was able to show no reaction when photo after photo came up as a match with known employees of the former Ryman Oligarchs, more than thirty of the two hundred submitted.

He was still thinking when he said to Ben Judah, “Tell me how you knew what I’d find here, and exactly why and for how long a time you want me to stick around. This intelligence and whatever you do here does not change the fact that I am still going to Ryman next. In fact it makes it imperative.”

“This operation is being very well run, but it is too low key for the Caliphate. The resupply ships are not full up military and contacts times too few and far between. I got that by looking at system scans produce on Bringham with each new transition. They don’t miss much and they don’t advertise. Their technical ability is deceiving.”

“It looks to me like the Oligarchs have decided to make Bringham their new home. The planet has no natural allies, only trading partners, and in fact most Indie worlds would not be much put out if it just went away. Reaction to the truths and lies told about the Mormons are uniformly negative. Still, and from what I’ve seen, it’s their choice. And aiding them now will help us later if it cements us our in on Marjoram. Their G-1, the Moroni, is due in a couple of weeks. Once she is reaches Bringham she can take care of any current threat. She would never stand against a true warship, but then she doesn’t need to. Just make sure that no help reaches any troops on the ground.”

“This does not make me happy but I’m inclined to agree.” Rick took one last look at the list in front of him. “Tell Prophet Smith to have the credit chip ready for transfer, if it passes muster he’s bought two weeks of our time. I’ll find some kind of excuse for the delay and do a song and dance for our passengers.”

* * *
Under canvas, they still called the cloth like covering that even though in wasn’t, in a temporary encampment a mile’s distance from the Temple, Shema, and, Messmer, with Greenwood and Lotti throwing out criticism, planned the operation. Only ten hours had passed since the meeting on the Bastard and they would be in motion the next day.

A landing by shuttle close to the captured city was ruled out from the start; it would give up surprise and the air defense too strong for anything of a non-military nature to get in close. The ground the Temple sat on and land around it, as extensive as it was, could at best be termed a small island on most inhabited worlds. A hundred fifty miles away from the Capital, across a narrow channel on a much larger artificially built up land mass was the city called Promontory Point, the recapture of the local Temple and freeing the hostages held there was the objective.

From the coast across the channel to Promontory Point was a road with a fair amount of traffic, one they might use at the risk of discovery.

“I think it can get us half way there, after that we walk.” Shema looked for objections and finding none continued. “With the Moroni due back so soon barge traffic across the channel is up, rice mostly, her next cargo. Normally they would put their landers down closer to the source. But under the present circumstances the Elders issuing directions won’t take that chance.”

“How do the Oligarchs expect to take over the planet anyway? They have only about 500 men garrisoning a city of ten times that number and over all are out numbered tens of thousands to one?” Messmer couldn’t make sense of the math, and with out numbers in your favor the current tactical situation could only hold for only so long, with or without the Cards involvement.

“The way Smith and his Elders see it, and they’ve figured out a lot without knowing the Ryman Oligarchs are behind this, is that they were wrong when they thought they were hiring separate and distinct forces and each would work against the others interests. Even if each had been an independent and distinct entity at one time, they now operate as part of a larger whole, the charade has ended.

The Elders think the next stage is going to involve large scale transportation of unbelievers. They will offer low cost land on a part of the planet seized by popular revolt. Staring with the land area around Promontory Point and eventually that entire continental island. Eventually, as sure as the sun rises in the east, they will bring in enough ships and more colonists until they have control of the entire planet.”

“The rest of the universe is busy with their own preparations for war to consider helping a world so out of place. These Mormons are an embarrassment to many religious people,” Messmer said. “Still, if I were advising the Oligarchs I’d have to tell then I didn’t like the odds and to find an even less populous world and unpopular people to pick on.”

“With the new government on Ryman sworn to hunt the Oligarchs down they have little choice. They are running out of time and this is the best of a limited number of possibilities; any port in a storm,” was Greenwood’s contribution.

Ben Judah nodded and got them back to the present. “We’ll cross the channel under cover of night. We need to keep the camp here looking like it’s still occupied; I have little doubt we are being watched by friend and foe alike. Smith will provide us with people he can vouch for, Elders all, to walk around pretending they are us. He will keep everyone else at a distance. That will have to be enough because we don’t have enough time to work out something better.”

For the rest of that day a heavy flow of traffic, trucks, carts, and those on foot, supposedly visiting or bringing the mercenary companies equipment and supplies to the camp continued. Along with most every truck came a few extras, people left behind to perpetuate the hoax. The stowaways were dressed in clothing provided by the Cardoman forces, two privates, temporarily assigned to officer status and dressed as such would stay behind to insure the camps new occupants acted in a military manner.

An hour after sunset, by twos and threes, wearing their poncho like anti IR gear the mercenaries left camp, staying on the dry uphill terraces as long as possible while making their way to the short distance to the coast. The unit’s heavy gear was waiting when they arrived, trucked here during the day from the landing field. The vehicles sent to the camp contained empty boxes, those to the dock on the coast had their military supplies— missiles, mortars, anything large and heavy, and a few of the mercenaries to act as guards until the rest arrived.

It took half the dark period to get everyone onto the waiting barges then another hour to cross the channel. Still, as far as they could tell, they were unobserved. Elder Blackburn, in line to lead the Church himself one day and now one of the church’s high council went with them. His job was to insure cooperation from any locals they might meet both on the way and when they reached Promontory Point. At sixty he was the youngest man available who would be universally recognized, and more importantly carried enough weight that his instructions would be taken as law, almost as if from Prophet Smith himself.

Reaching the channels other side there waited four steam propelled slope sided grain lorries. Entering through clean-out hatches the hundred and twenty men from Cardoman Recon made themselves as comfortable as possible. Not so much in truth, but as the saying went, it beat walking.

By morning they were more than half way to their destination, transport unloaded, and everyone under cover in a small farming village evacuated of its rightful owners by order of the local Elders Council. The four lorries by now were a good ten miles away, headed for the closest grain silos and drying barns where they fill up with another load to take back to the coast and Capital port. The drivers having seen next to nothing were ordered to say even less. After making it back to the coast again they would all go into quarantine until Smith or someone under his direction said otherwise.

In the Seventh the next day was spent unpacking gear, checking it out, and then for most asleep. Greenwood seemed to need no sleep but Lotti fit right in. Come nightfall again and they were marching, heavily laden under the now suffocatingly hot IR gear. Far inland the ground, built up a hundred years ago was flat grass land, the terracing given way to sunken land only a few feet above the water table. A mixture of galactic standard, in other words Earth-type, and local vegetation, mostly wild without road or track was the norm. Fields of table grains sometimes bordered the road but think brush, native cane, and tall coarse grasses were a more constant companion.

Wearing night vision gear visibility was not a problem. Warned to expect night life, they saw little, there were too many of them to make an inviting target for native carnivores that had over generations learned to be cautious around humans. This was fortunate because the use of a weapon in defense would be hard to hide from any drone flights. And those holding the hostages in Promontory were known to have at least three of the stealthy aerial vehicles, two in use around the clock. They moved too rapidly for flying insects to be a bother and when resting their IR gear was an adequate defense.

At drone warfare the Cards had no equals. Their own small airborne devices gave warning when another was in the area with plenty of time for them to stop moving and insure they remained invisible. These rare breaks were more a welcomed rest period than any danger of discovery.

The heaviest of the Cardoman mercenary’s supporting gear was a two station air defense system, radars and medium range missiles. It slowed them down for all of that second night and most of a third before they left it behind, close enough that if needed it would serve. Five of their number remained as tech support and the rest pressed on for another hour.

The final four miles to the city was mostly open land, rising abruptly at the cities edge. Impossible to cross without being seen in daylight and equally so by night if the land was protected by any kind of sensor system. Still under leafy cover Shema called his squad leaders together for a mission update. Elder Blackburn was seated on the ground leaning against the first rock any of them had seen in the last two days.

“Burning vegetable matter for transportation and cooking ritual foodstuffs has at least one thing in its favor. It keeps a few dozens of people employed gathering it and taking it back into town. Our plan is a fork with two prongs, but we need to get ourselves into the city for it to work. They way we do that is by taking over the firewood concession. Captain Messmer has that portion of the plan to attend to so he can fill you in on his thoughts.”

“Nothing fancy; we need to get in touch with the locals who cut and cart it back to Promontory.” Messmer said. Elder Blackthorn tells us that most of the gatherers will be women, but they will have armed guards, always men, with them. Even this close to the city the native predators can be dangerous. I think we have to assume these guards know their business, and certainly the surrounding area better than we do. Grabbing one without alerting any of the others could be difficult. If any group see us they know there are soldiers out here, without knowing who we are they would send an alert to the others at once, one heard back in the city by the opp force.”

“I want you, Greenwood, and Lotti each to take whatever support you deem necessary and capture one of the guards.”

“Won’t that give up the game Sir?” Greenwood said, at once what mentioning the very thing Lotti was mulling over. “It shouldn’t take long before one is missed.”

“Elder Blackthorn will be going with you to set things straight with the locals, once you’ve managed to capture one. But time is of the essence, plan accordingly.”

“When do we push off?” Lotti asked.

“I’d say ten five minutes is enough. Choose your men now; figure an approach on the way. The nearest group of cutters is only an hour away even if you take our time about it.

Lotti selected Belladonna and Haversold to go with him. Belladonna was no surprise, Haversold on the other hand was new to the unit and a very large man to boot, hard to conceal and not known for his woodcraft. Greenwood thought it best that he handle his part of any capture by himself. “Too may cooks,” he said. Five minutes later they were moving, Greenwood in front with Haversold and Elder Blackthorn bringing up the rear.

Locating a couple of likely targets was not easy even with their own drones in the air flying low above the trees. So low in fact that they could only download data over optical links when one looped back overhead in its fan shaped pattern, radio being judged too risky.

The local ground temperature was so close to body temp that noise and motion sensors were doing most of the work, and in dense cover they might miss something. To the drone’s advantage, their surface adjusted to blend in with the cloud cover when seen from below and that cloud cover was only slightly above flight altitude. They were invisible to anyone on the ground, and at low speed silent enough they could not be heard more than a few feet away.

If they hadn’t been able to start tracking their targets before the entered the woods, and follow them at such close range afterward, finding any individual human under the present conditions might have proven impossible.

Moving through the undergrowth was not difficult. The vegetation concentrated in two layers, one overhead and the other forming a heavy wet blanket seldom more than ankle high. It was a stumble hazard but not a noisy one. Bringham had a respectable magnetic field, usable for compass work, but with drones in the air and the distance short they used their inertial navigation systems for guidance and relied upon the vision system in their goggles to amplify and correct the light filtering through the overhead.

Reaching a point 500 yards away from the identified contacts, guards roaming at a distance from the gatherers, Greenwood went in one direction and Lotti in the other. Haversold and Belladonna stayed back with Elder Blackthorn.

“Decided to try it my way, Sgt Lotti.” Greenwood stated rather than asked after Leo told the two he’d brought along to stay where they were and not get lost.

“Always looking to learn something new,” Lotti said, inspecting the edge of the knife he had been honing absentmindedly while getting a final fix on the drone provided overhead imagery.

Lost from sight after the first fifty yards Lotti moved rapidly, unworried about noise or discovery. In only three or four minutes he was a hundred yards from the man he intended to get in touch with. A drone had parked itself overhead and Lotti could tell he was armed, and by his motion alert. All for the best, sneaking up on the sentry was not part of Lotti’s plan. He would take the direct approach.

Continuing forward, in a voice more loud than melodious, Lotti started to sing.

Damn their souls and off their heads,
In the merry, merry, Month of May.
Raise the flag for Old King John,
Let none stand in our way.

Richard’s gone away to war,
What the Hell is he fighting for?
Doesn’t matter anymore,
In the very, merry, Month of May.
In the very, merry, Month of May.

Well announced and impossible to be taken for a native carnivore, Lotti continued singing. He remained mostly on key and barely tensed when he passed by the woodsman ten yards to his left.

“Halt the bloody singing or I’ll have your head myself!” was the command that roared out behind him.

His hands held clear and open, well away from his body, Lotti turned and smiled, “It wasn’t that bad now was it?” and he broke into a laugh.

With that kind of an introduction and a short printed note from the Elder, Lotti and companion were soon back with Haversold, Belladonna and Blackthorn.

When Loti explained how he had managed to return so rapidly Belladonna said he’d never heard the couplet that went:

Richard’s in a jail in the South of France,
I’m in chain mail underpants.

“Gotta’ remember that one,” he added.

About an hour later Greenwood returned, sweaty and hot, but not out of breath. He had an unconscious body, the other guard, slung over one shoulder.

Greenwood set him down and Lotti did a quick med scan and found no permanent damage, Greenwood had merely stunned him and the man should be coming out of it soon.

“I brought Pvt. Haversold along for in case we needed any heavy lifting Sar Major. But why don’t we leave him here with Belladonna, and the Elder to set him straight soon as he recovers? You and me can take Mr. Leinster here to meet with Col Ben Judah and figure out what we do next.”

* * *
“You are not going to believe this Dano,” Lotti said to Cpl. Belladonna when he returned with Elder Blackthorn after the woodsman he had been sitting was fully recovered and sent back to his post with instructions to await further word. Belladonna a corporal was a squad leader, rank on Cardoman, and especially in the Seventh, was more a measure of pay scale than anything else. Lotti had a lot of respect for Belladonna, because as was Lotti’s own story until recently, Dano’s rank was highly variable.

“Try me, I’m easy,” came Dano’s standard response.

“Well we got this map. Straight from the Prophet himself. Shows everything about the temple at Promontory Point. And just like in the movie there’s this tunnel, secret you know, leads from the lowest level to a workshop in town. Just like they thought they might need to bug out in a hurry some time. Like a mob with pitchforks was after them.”

“Let me guess. I get to go down the tunnel alone, grab the girl, and save the day?”

“Not exactly, but you do get to go down the tunnel first. For all of your faults, and life is too short to list them, you can find a booby trap. And usually without setting it off. And just in case one gets you, I will be right behind to tell your story, gather the glory, and embellish the name of the Seventh for all time to come. Not only that, it might even earn you a promotion to Sgt”

“So if they got this tunnel why didn’t the big guys running the Church and Temple thing use it to get away?”

“We don’t know; we’ll have to ask when we see them.”
“If this works will you introduce me to Sandy Shultz?”
“But of course. Are you good at carrying luggage?”
“And I have a choice?”
“Then I’m your man.”

Getting into town was accomplished quite simply. Those in the woods sent their cuttings back into Promontory on trailers hauled by steam tractor. Members of the Seventh with gear hidden under the load, replaced those who normally returned to empty them out. Performing that task they remained in town rather than return with the empties. There was no security inspection in either direction. The woodcutters had explained that the only check was a personnel and vehicle count at the beginning and the end of each day.

Blackthorn, proved himself indispensable. He went in amongst the first along with Greenwood, Lotti, and Captain Messmer, to scout ahead and set up the Promontory side of the operation. Those holding the hostages in the temple were either very lax or hadn’t thought the situation through. The Temple itself was a smaller version of the one in the Capital, only two lower levels and one above.

Elder Blackthorn was all for getting as much cooperation from his coreligionists as possible, claiming in words to the effect that none would spill the beans. Messmer insisted on keeping the numbers down to an absolute minimum, one that kept growing.

“I’ve seen this before on Marais; one can never be sure when it comes to another’s loyalty.”

“You’re Jewish?—Observant?”
“Yes, in a modern fashion.”
“Good! We must talk when this is over.”

Messmer could not be sure just how many locals had direct knowledge or even a hint that help was on the way, but he was certain that there were more than could keep a secret for any length of time. And when the real gatherers returned at dusk he wouldn’t give odds that the secret remained hid till the morning.

By now he was sure of one thing though, this occupation was not being run at a distance by the Caliphate, it was far too unprofessionally managed. Only an occasional armed patrol of six or seven, and the commandeering of all local communications gave outward indication anything was out of the ordinary. That and a curfew set for the hours between sundown and sunup.

“I guess this explains why the local Elders are still in the Temple and didn’t escape,” Belladonna said, looking at the display showing on an instrument he had attached to a wiring run that terminated at a sensor set just inside the outward end of the escape tunnel. That opening was located in the basement of a small clothing workshop five hundred yards from the Temple wall.

“No power and three doors with electronic interlocks between here and the Temple sub-basement. The opp force got lucky here, must have cut the power by accident when they stormed the place,” was Belladonna’s assessment.

“Can you power it up from this end and get the doors open?”

“I can do that, it helps having schematics, but as soon as I apply power an alarm at the far end is going to sound. Nothing anyone can do from this end to stop it. Maybe we should ask Greenwood what he thinks; he’s an expert on this kinda stuff.”

“We could do that,” Lotti said, “but I am sure the Sar Major is busy with the main assault, I have another idea; we apply the standard infantry principle of BFI. Brute Force and Ignorance.”

“I thought the standard infantry principal was—When in doubt attack?
“We are the Seventh! We can do that and more.”

“Oh,” said Belladonna, “I get it, no power, no sensors. We blow the doors one by one and there we are.”

“Yes, but we do it quietly, noise and shock travel underground and can still give us away. But I do wonder why no one activated the backup power source. Guess we can find out later.”

It turned out that explosives were not even necessary. A little time spent with hammers and a pry-bar was enough to get them to the final door.

With time to spare Lotti sent a runner to Ben Judah, a local woman along with them for just this purpose. Curfew not withstanding she had no problem in the darkened streets and after arrival informing Ben Judah that Lotti was ready, returned with the final go ahead. Lotti sent her back once more into the workshop basement to wait; there was nothing else she could do here to help.

“I think we should blow this,” Belladonna said, examining the last barrier. “Be faster and I hate to think we brought the stuff without getting a chance to use it.”

“Set the charges Dano, and heaven help anyone on the other side.”

“Down everyone!” They were thirty yards back from the final door. Goggles on, earplugs in. Three seconds later came the blast and the eight man squad was up and running forward. Lotti was thankful Blackthorn was with Ben Judah, one less detail to worry about from out in front of the pack.

Dano might have used a little more explosive than absolutely necessary, the door had blown open, off its hinges in fact, but a section of the roof had fallen as well, forming a slope and filling half of the tunnel. On top the rubble there was still room to pass into the room beyond and Lotti scrambled forward and jumped down to the chamber’s floor, getting out of the way of the next in line.

It was dark inside, the dust hadn’t settled and yet and the acrid smell of burnt explosive seeped through his surgical type breath mask, and there was another smell as well, one Lotti couldn’t quite place.

This room according to records was once part of the Temples living spaces, the kitchen and dining area. It was now a storage space with some racks holding cleaning supplies, rolled up carpeting, spare and broken chairs, and boxes of miscellaneous junk. The door to what had been a walk in cooler was partially ajar. Lotti ran to check it and looking inside found the reason for the smell. A pile of dead bodies crawling with maggots and decomposing in the heat. He slammed the door shut and without going into detail told the rest of his squad, now all in the room, what he had found.

The explosive overpressure had blown open another door, the one leading into the hallway. Lotti had Belladonna toss out a sensor and detecting no live presence they ran, rifles at the ready, through the opening and towards the buildings power feeds and the environmental control area. The power was out for now and it was going to stay that way.

Simultaneously with Lotti’s break in, Ben Judah started the above ground assault. Two men standing outside the Temple’s entrance were gunned down at once by snipers on a roof a hundred yards away. They fell to the ground as the first of three foot long missiles from a shoulder launcher hit and made a gaping hole where the fancy wooden panels once stood. The second took out part of the sidewall support and the third flew into the opening and exploded inside.

A similar attack with similar results took place at the buildings rear facing service entrance. Greenwood and twenty others used that means of entry. By now Lotti had killed the buildings power and only a glow strip here and there remained to cast a dim light on the cleanup. With IR gear, spotlights, and surprise on their side it took but five minutes for the building to be secured. They also took casualties, two dead and nine wounded. Forty-one of the opp force survived to be turned over to the locals for final disposition.

The Lying Bastard was in position to watch the battle at Promontory Point and assist afterward as need be. Rick Petrocelli and his crew took notes, the ships passengers were kept in the dark. An hour after the first shot Rick was on the line to Ben Judah, getting details and talking about what came next. Ben Judah asked the first question.

“Yes, Prophet Smith and his Elders have control of the two defensive satellites again. We burned off their antennae and kept the picket ships away while his people came up, reprogrammed the codes, and installed new signaling gear. They should be okay until their Moroni gets back in system. I could tell they took back all your prisoners on one lander. How bad was it?”

“For the hostages in the Temple as bad as it gets. Rape and random death the norm. Your Oligarchs hire a low class of people to do their bidding. My men showed restraint in letting any of them live. I had to order them to leave a few for the Elders to deal with. Messmer said they made a Calp torture team appear almost Saintly by comparison.”

“You know I’m raring to leave this place and report back to Ryman so what’s next?”

“Give us one more day, I am going to try and get our Ms, Shultz to add a little more to the documentary she is filming. Video and interviews with survivors here will show the Bringhams in a favorable light and I have no doubt we can make it look like the Caliphate was behind all this. It would be good if you could take her and her new material with you when you leave.”

“If she finds out you’re lying to her it might not work out so well as you think.”

“Never fear Captain, we won’t say a word, just make sure the situation is obvious enough, and let her draw her own conclusions. She is not a bit shy on that front.”

Twenty hours later the Moroni transitioned in a few days ahead of schedule. Petrocelli sent the ship’s Captain a detailed report on the actions of the space system defense forces while the Elders issued instructions for an immediate high speed course to orbit.

In another seven hours, passengers all back aboard along with a weary but well satisfied videographer certain of a major story, the Lying Bastard was headed outwards for the limit and a jump to Ryman.