Marjoram 22

Chapter 22 Draft (03-31-12)

“It was work that needed doing but I can’t say it was a pleasure.” Shemuel Ben Judah was wrapping up his stay on Bringham, doing everything in his power to insure that Smith and his Elders, now firmly supportive of the war would remain so after his ‘Mercenary Company’ left on the Tahiti for Marjoram. The report he’d just delivered went into detail about the planet’s future security arrangements, arguing strongly for an army but concluding that even without one unless they took over system defense the planet would remain ripe for picking. And best to handle that situation now while the Moroni was able to enforce the decision.

It was a delicate business, but out of his hands. He couldn’t let on the extent of his knowledge concerning the likely course of the larger war beyond Bringham nor that his mercenary company was in fact a part of the Cardoman Seventh and not the independent freebooters they made out to be. It was time to leave and a way out fortunately at hand.

The Tahiti was a G-2 transport registered on Onaway; it had transitioned in only a few days after the Brigham’s G-1 Moroni made her appearance. The smaller ship, if one could call 120,000 tons empty small, was a regular visitor, servicing the supposedly independent contractors who worked the space side portion Bringham’s custom service and on her outbound legs taking cargoes, mostly rice, to whatever destination Bringham or the ships agents had lined up next.

Even though Onaway had a relationship with Ryman going back to long before the present military government, Smith chose not to believe she now had anything to do with the brigands who had tried to take over his planet. But he could not be sure.

“You can’t be serious!” The Prophet Smith was beside himself, “After what you have seen here, the brutality, the utter disregard for human life, you want to go to Marjoram and work for the Caliphate? If it’s only a matter of money, we’ll pay well to hire you on a permanent basis, as you know our present defensive forces are less than reliable and you’ve earned out trust.”

“I appreciate the offer but it’s not for us. We don’t have the skill set to run a system defense force along with what would amount to garrison duty on a world with a society as rigid as this one. It’s is not my cup of tea. I couldn’t keep my men cooped up in camp and you do not want to see how they would react to total immersion, day-to-day living in your culture. You would be wishing we were half the galaxy away within the first month. No, we won’t accept your offer and we need a ride away from here. The Tahiti meets our needs, a perfect match.”

Smith was used to getting his way but he was a practical man, years of dealing with his Council of Elders had shown him that a grudging surrender was better than a bitter fight to a foregone conclusion. “As much as I disapprove of your choice, we owe you and your men much, and we honor our debts. How do you want to work this?”

“We use whatever part of what you’ve paid us already that’s needed for the lease and use the performance bonus to purchase enough grain to fill her holds and then the Tahiti heads out for Marjoram.”

“Colonel, do you have any idea what it costs to lease a G-2 for even as short a time as it takes to reach Marjoram? Or the cost of enough cargo to fill her holds?”

“The price of a ticket out was part of our deal. Marjoram is getting so much traffic her way that selling a cargo at a reasonable profit— should be easy enough. If we come up short you can supply the difference, we split the profit. Run the numbers, and remember—you owe us.”

* * *
There wasn’t much to see in the cramped passenger spaces but from their bunks they heard the ship’s alarm and then the words ‘Two One, Transition In,’ when the Tahiti came back to normal space. She was almost a full light hour outside of Marjoram’s hyper limit, two hours from the star and human habitable planet nearby. The distance and time till arrival was announced with no excuses offered. It seemed a case of poor navigation even for a civilian transport.

“It’s like I was tellin’ you Dano,” Lotti said to Belladonna as he flipped up a third jack and set it next to the pair smiling face up on the table in front of him. “This ship is a flying death trap and only divine intervention got us through that last one alive.”

“Get off it Lotti, bad navigation has nothing to do with God and Angels and stuff.”

“Wasn’t navigation, even a tub like this on a two-week hop can’t be that far off. Nope, I have it from one of the cargo handlers that the problem was drive instability. Captain wasn’t about to take a chance coming in too close. This ship ain’t goin’ nowhere till she spends some time in the maint yards.”

“So that’s how you did it, won the betting pool on time to orbit. Inside information. Remind me never to get in the same game with you again.” Dano took one last look at his cards, sighed, shook his head, then folded.

For Ben Judah and the men of his company it meant an additional thirty hours before reaching orbit; for the ship’s captain and crew it meant a loss of profit in both opportunity time and reaction mass plus whatever it took to set the ship right again. He hadn’t mentioned his ship was due for some work best done at a major shipyard when he closed the deal on Bringham and how pleased he was to have some one else footing the bill.

For Ben Judah an extra day gave plenty of time for preliminaries, their contract with Caliphate’s military forces on Marjoram was in the final draft stage by the time the ship docked.

“Watch your step and do what you’re told and keep your mouths shut, volunteer nothing, we all know what the stakes are.”

The weeks of drill before leaving Cardoman along with the constant repetition since made certain that each of them had history explaining their presence in Ben Judah’s merc company. It turned out there was no detailed questioning, the best situation even for one prepared.

The Calps on the civilian side were thorough when it came to grilling tourists and businessmen leaving ship in the Marjoram system, and they went even further when it came to vetting civilians allowed on their installations in space or government property of any type. The military was less so and a law unto itself. The customs service did however pass along the data gathered from biometric scans of each of the mercenaries showing a perfect comparison with the Ben Judah’s supplied minimalist record set and no hits in their own.

The records were clean because with two exceptions none of the merc company soldiers had ever made it into the Regulations Compliance Office’s database. The two that had, Ben Judah and Messmer were once captives on the prison planet Marais. At great cost that fact had been cleansed from the current iteration of the Compliance Office’s files, some parts of the older entry changed and other parts hidden behind blocks that could only be removed on Earth, and even there only by those with the highest clearances. As far as was known to anyone here on Marjoram they were as clean as driven snow, as unknown as any of the rest were.

A mercenary company didn’t try to keep records on its own going back to before a person joined; it made recruitment much easier because very few angels ever felt an urge, or a need, to enlist.

Altun Mohammad Bogheda was the officer in charge of the Marjoram Military Personnel Office, a two crescent General he was filling his time sheet before reassignment to a final sinecure, almost certain to be the second in command of a planetary defense force, he did not have the pull for overall command, nor the record for command of an attack unit, but could do nicely off the revenue from something smaller. He paid attention to, and was a stickler for—details. His talents were being wasted on Marjoram; he could tell the high command a thing or two about how to deal with infidels when it came to winning a war.

Ben Judah had gotten what he wanted from their return to Marjoram, the offer and contract right here in front of him, but he needed to play hard to get just a little longer while he was still on the Tahiti with his men intact and a ride out system guaranteed. The Calps had not declared war on neutral shipping yet, and Onaway was officially neutral, so as long as they were aboard ship they held the high ground.

“If we accept your offer General we will be stuck here for the duration of the war I would think. No matter what the policy now when our contract is up we will know so much about your operational doctrine that I do not see you letting us pack up and move taking the chance we might end up working for the Confederation or the Indies.”

Ben Judah was speaking from a compartment set up for him on the Tahiti, using code keys provided by General Bogheda, no one else was going to hear this until Bogheda released his edited version, the one without the bribe, a kickback returned to seal the deal being mentioned.

“I understand your concern, Colonel, but you have nothing to fear on that front. I am offering a two-year contract with automatic extensions, an escalating bonus paid upon termination. Surely any war must be over before you would choose that option. Playing the opp forces in our training program is a much safer job than any other you are likely to find elsewhere and one sure to last. It will also keep you from making any enemies on either side to cause you grief when this is finished, expanding your future opportunities.”

“Don’t take this wrong General, I do believe that the Caliphate will win this, the odds are stacked so heavily on your side in terms of men and equipment, so I am inclined to accept this, but I must make my own arrangements when it comes to where and how our payment is to be held or invested.”

“I totally under stand Colonel Ben Judah; I might even be able to offer you some ideas on that front.”

“Go ahead General, I am always open to suggestion on that front, you’ve seen the record, we came out of our last operation in very good financial shape. We are going to make a bit more on off of the Tahiti’s dealings here, but fund transfers are nothing more than free electrons tied to a promise to pay.”

“We are agreed in principle then.”

“Yes. Let me explain this offer to my men and put it to a vote. There is going to be some debate but I will call you back as soon as we decide, the ship we came in on was due to leave in another day. Now the Captain tells me she is getting a week-long refit. You will not need to wait that long for our answer; I will do my best to speed this up.”

There of course was no fair and independent vote to be taken, the mercenary company being in fact a part of the Cardoman Seventh, but there was still a meeting to be held.

“The money looks good, but how large a kickback did General Bogheda require Sir,” Sargent Major Greenwood asked.

“He wanted twelve percent and I stood firm on eight. That gave him an incentive to keep the offer price high. We settled on nine. I sweetened the deal by accepting some of his suggestions for safekeeping the funds. We will be investing in some Caliphate business concerns and in return the Calps will look aside while we move about half of the money out to a few of the Indies claiming neutral status.”

“Most of that part will eventual make its way to How Ling and from there find its way back to Cardoman to finance our own war effort. I especially like that part of our arrangement. We’ll keep enough locally for regular disbursement as pay.”

“Will there be anything to spend it on?” Lotti asked.

“No worry there Sargent, there is enough traffic and trade from outside the Caliphate passing through Marjoram that a good chunk of the civilian economy is based on trading with and supplying the vices of us non believers.”

“Sounds good Sir,” Captain Messmer said, “I just hope that the rest of this operation turns out as well as the first part and we don’t end up here for the duration.”

“As do I,” Ben Judah agreed. “But if that is what happens, so long as we keep our mouths shut we should at least come out of this alive. The Calps won’t be shooting live rounds at us; we’re costing them too much.”

“One other thing Sir,” Greenwood began, “As is necessary under the laws of war you have a contract to sign and seal, honor bound and swear to uphold in fact. How do you square that knowing we intend to violate every provision as soon as it becomes feasible?”

Ruse de Guerre, little different from raising a false flag in order to close on the enemy. But for the barracks lawyer in us all I have another out. A contract signed under duress can not be enforced. If I had refused to sign do you think we would have been permitted to leave the system alive?”

Five of their number, those slowest in recovering from minor wounds suffered on Bringham, wounds made to look more serious than was the actually the case, stayed with the Tahiti when she left for return to Bringham. Two would handle moving the portion of the payment leaving Marjoram and the Caliphate to its various destination points in the Confederation. The credit transfer was set up so that the Calps sent the cash but its first stop could only be where the original contract specified. The Cards held the keys to move it later but not till a receipt verifying the original transaction made a round trip to Marjoram and back to the holder of the original data cube. When all was complete those two would take ship again and rejoin the company on Marjoram.

The other three would leave the Tahiti at her first stop and after insuring they were not being followed take the first available transport out and make their way to Cardoman with a complete report concerning the unit’s actions to date. Authorities on Marjoram offered to handle the medical needs but the three were said to have turned that offer down, relying on a clause in their contract that let them return home on convalescent leave if the injury was severe enough.

“Sometimes they return, sometimes they don’t. It works out for the best either way,” Dean Messmer said to the Lieutenant on the other end of the comm link who’ job was to verify for one last time all the numbers and clauses in the contract.

* * *
A week spent in the fleshpots of Za’atar after landing, it was tough work but a mercenary needed to uphold his reputation, and they were taken to a military fortress in the continental interior. The map of Marjoram had a name for the place but the troops, foreign and domestic, just called it Camp Boondocks. The newly enlisted Cardomans were not the only foreigners on site. Ben Judah was met by the head of the existing opp force when the first of their two landers touched down.

Lars Worsel led a unit a little larger than Ben Judah’s own. He had at one time claimed allegiance to Valerian and when the war was over expected to do so again. He was not keen on the new competition but had no to say in the matter and there was more than enough work to go around. His ‘Dragons’ had been on planet for eight months and repeating the same combat scenarios over and over every six weeks as new troops cycled through had turned this job into one of boring detail.

General Mar Al-Shbani was in overall command of the camp and Saasallah Faradis, a Colonel of infantry, in charge of training. It was his staff that kept score and set the schedule. Al-Shbani was also on the pad when they landed but Shema had already met the man several days earlier when he delivered a copy of the current course to HQ in Za’atar.

“While your men settle in we will talk about what I wish to do next.”

Shema turned his ‘Lions’ over to Capt Messmer and the three of them took a wheeled vehicle back to the fortress. And fortress it was buried deeply inside a large hill, one of many in this part of the interior. They passed a checkpoint a mile from the pad on a road leading gradually upwards. They passed two more before the blockhouse guarding the entrance to the interior. Driving inside to a parking area large enough to hold a battalion’s mobile equipment they parked and went down. The command center wasn’t just built inside the hill but under it.

“Are all of your installations this well protected?” Ben Judah asked in genuine admiration of the scale of the engineering involved.

“Some even more so, we know the importance of this planet to the Caliphate and are prepared for the worst anyone can throw against us. Prove us wrong gentlemen and none will resent that fact, your fee earned twice over.”

The training development facilities action center was about the same size as the Flag Plot on a warship. Presently there were dozen soldier on duty, several standing but most seated at consoles along the wall. In the center front of the room was a holo tank very similar to those found on such a battle cruiser that held map data for the entire planet and could set the scale at will. Data entered remotely, by automatic sensor or human input showed as either small 3d representations or colored icons and data blocks.

Col. Faradis demonstrated some of what the system was capable of with a particular emphasis on how the various data streams from remotes, be they drones, orbital observation, or ground sensors, even down to those carried by an individual soldier were integrated into the display.

“Very impressive,” Ben Judah said, “How does anyone ever beat this?”

“They don’t,” Faradis replied. “Usually we are training troops for deployment on other planets where something like this is unavailable. We use it to watch and judge, referee the training sessions. Let me show you.”

Faradis had one of the techs to pull up a recording from a week ago and run it again in replay mode. It was almost like being there. First an overhead of a small town at a crossroad then pulling back to show an area with a radius of 5000 yards. Worsel provided the narration describing how one of his squads surprised the local garrison stationed at the police barracks and got out-of-town again before the area commander could send in help.

“How do you surprise a unit that knows it is undergoing training on how to prevent surprise?”

“We just had them go in to get set up and said that we would get back with the training progression. We started the attack four hours later without sending any advanced notice and certainly without training documents. Sent the troops into the compound by using a couple of staff cars. The Captain in charge had given his men some down time, he protested our methods but he learned an important lesson: Get your guards and sentries out and the defense set, even when no threat is expected.”

Faradis was at the controls now and zoomed out until the entire training area was in view, then pulled back again. “We have close to eight thousand square miles of land to operate in and can go outside the reservation if needed. With the exception of our live fire ranges and the mock towns, the spaceport and factory setup, none of it built up. What I want to do is get an anti-guerrilla course working. Your Lions and Worsel’s Dragons playing the fox to my hounds. We will be using company sized formations and larger to hunt you down. Take a day to work on your side of the equation and we will make a start by running some practice pieces. In a month I want to be full up with a two-week course of exercise.”

“I must be leaving now, but Lars, if you would be so kind as to stay with Colonel Ben Judah and go over the base features, terrain and otherwise, I will return in an hour Colonel Ben Judah, to show you out and take you to back to your men.”

“Colonel Worsel?”
“Yes Colonel Ben Judah.”

“Please, call me Shema; we will be working closely together. I sense you do not approve of our being here. Even so we must work together. What is it that’s bothering you?”

“Colonel,” he said, not so subtly turning down the offer of friendship, “when my unit came to work here the Caliphate was at war with Cardoman and perhaps one or two other were on the verge of getting involved, now the situation is different. If I had been able to predict the future, or had listened to my inner doubts, the Lions wouldn’t be on Marjoram today. Now we have no choice. You on the other hand. . .”

“We all make choices, some good, some bad. I can respect yours; perhaps someday you will at the least understand mine. In the meantime we must work together.”

“Yes, on that we agree.”

Ben Judah offered his hand, Worsel hesitated then turning his back walked away.

* * *
“I don’t know Sir; someone would have to be pretty stupid to go back to Marjoram voluntarily considering the situation and after the payout we earned on Bringham.”

Sgt. Oppenheimer was talking and Pvt. Blum was shaking his head in agreement while Cpl. Staggers sat silently, seemingly frozen and unable to say a word in the present company. The three members of Ben Judah’s Lions had made it back to Cardoman in a remarkably short period of time, only a month after leaving their unit on Marjoram.

“There is that,” Davis said gruffly while everyone but Staggers laughed.

They were in the bar at the rear of the Castle wearing their Cardoman uniforms with the purple hearts General Davis had just awarded, pinned on by Connie Calvert while Fader Jameson, General Calvert and a Sgt al-Omari, some kind of an aide stood out of respect. The room was comfortable, a few tables a twenty-foot long bar and paintings on two of the walls and a video screen and dart board on a third. Behind the bar was a counter and above that shelves holding enough bottles to stock a small liquor store.

“Two of you are going back though,” Davis said, “And no need to rush and volunteer because Jameson and Omari will be the two, they’ll be taking over your places. Ben Judah made five changes to his company records before turning the roster over to the Marjoram personnel office, substituting a possible replacement for all five of you that left on the Tahiti. So that means the three of you are mustered out of Ben Judah’s Lions and Fader and Mo are in. The records have Staggers and Blum recruited on Nestor which is suitably close to Marjoram so name wise you are the two going back. Oppenheiner—it seems you have turned down the chance for additional glory.”

“Sounds good to me Sir,” the sergeant said readily.

“Another week of debriefing by plans and intents then you all go back to work again, we’ll put you on one of our new ships where none of the other marines have been in any of the same units we pulled you from when this started. You won’t have to answer questions about where it was you vanished to. You will have to take off your medals before you leave the Castle and not say a word about this until it becomes public. Is that all right with you Staggers?” Robbie asked the Cpl wondering if he could bring himself to say anything in response.

“Yes Sir! Whatever you say Sir!”

“Good. For now though, Drink Up! I want to hear how it went on Bringham in your own words. Staggers, you get to go first.”

A week later:
“Seems we spend a lot of time in bars doesn’t it Mo?” Fader made the observation while the two of them watched Cardoman dwindle down till it was no more than a bright star seen from the Union transport liner heading to Llanfairn where they would change ships for Onaway and then on to Marjoram.