Marjoram 26

Marjoram
Chapter 26 Draft (04-28-12)

Stan Voinovich thought about how he had described to Jamie and Wes the degree of difficulty of the task at hand, making certain it was safe for the landing to proceed, and realized he had severely underestimated the scope of the problem.

It wasn’t two week’s worth of work but more like two months using every ship in the fleet if he was to locate and visually inspect all the orbital junk and space based assets in the rest of the Marjoram system. And that didn’t take in account the armed pickets that still were a threat to unarmed merchantmen which were what half of the transport ships really were.

Nor did it cover salvage and finding prize crews; nine merchants instead of running when the Allied fleet came in had stayed in orbit at Marjoram, not believing the defenders would fail. The four with crews aboard had been told in no uncertain terms to shut down their power plants completely. At close range a ships exhaust was as deadly as any beam weapon in existence.

The others five needed a marine boarding party with a technical crew to check for possible sabotage. And just in case something was missed he had to get them moved to a safer location, farther out, where if they did happen to go boom any damage would be confined to themselves. The Fleet Captain in charge of the force from Ryman volunteered to take care of the situation and Stan agreed at once.

‘Deal with it later.’ his inner voice said to so many problems, and so he would, now he had another facing him. The Widow would be in high orbit in another thirty minutes. Her landers loaded and ready but pretty much defenseless big fat targets once in the atmosphere.

The Cardoman battle fleet was taking shots at the surface. Anything clearly military was fair game. Working from the same out of date travel guides used to plan the landing and starting at the planetary capital Za’atar, they worked outwards, adding intel as fast as photo and signals interpretation allowed. The capital and the town selected for the initial landing were still in darkness but for the atmospheric streaks and explosive detonations of KE weapons when they hit the surface.

A pound of mass from orbit had a destructive power equal to ten times its weight in high explosives by the time it reached the ground. None of the slim aerodynamic rod-shaped projectiles massed more than five hundred pounds, guidance packages included, most far less. But he had several thousand in stock as did all of his ships, and each one took a toll on the Caliphate defenders below.

How large the Marjoram army was and its capability an equally large unknown, but there had to be more of them then had been spotted visually. Like an iceberg they were nine tenths below the surface.

Realizing the futility they’d given up early on attempts to reach orbit with ground fire, turning turtle, it was called by the gunners. The electronic war went on unabated from large antenna farms acres, square miles even in size, where the loss of a part barely inconvenienced the whole, and hundreds of individual transmitters, many of them mobile.

The politics behind the landing, the rules of engagement, was none of his concern; leave that to Calvert and General Davis. But like wars from time immemorial, there could be no winning without boots on the ground. And under Pavel Tsarinstyn that phase was finally underway while his continued.

Twelve shuttles loaded with drop pods, a launch rack and eight pods holding a single recon troop each. Ninety-six men in total, that’s what they had to secure the landing site at Babiyar, a resort town on a large lake three hundred miles from Za’atar.

“Love the fountain and central square,” Rafael Zavala had said after seeing a photo in the four color travel brochure they had used in planning.

“You can have a month off to vacation there,” Robbie told him, “after you take it and the rest of my troops are down! Hell, I might even join you.”

“Any word from Fader or Ben Judah?”

“Not a peep. Borselov is handling the signals search but he says our comm suppression is hurting the effort as much as the Calp’s jamming and he doesn’t even know where to look. Best they stay silent unless they need us because we’re firing down on anything that looks or sounds military.”

“Petrocelli and the crew of the Bastard?

“Same story except we don’t even know if they made it to the ground. It’s a big planet Rafe, but you do your job and we are going to own a small part of it real soon.”

From a hundred and fifty-thousand feet the ground was inky dark below. First Sgt Klaus VerHorst felt a mild thumping repeated twice as his drop pod and another near by went subsonic and their ablative shells were jettisoned. It was cold enough at altitude and his pod was slow enough, that IR wouldn’t give them away if anyone was looking. And that was a question that needed an answer.

Through his helmet’s display the lake below him, it’s surface at fifty degrees, showed hotter than the surrounding pre-morning air, a dull orange color speckled with a dozen dots of hotter yellow, fishing boats leaving from the cities pier before first light even with a war on.

The lake was irregularly shaped with arms extending in two directions from just past the midpoint. Known as Walled Lake to the natives, and for obvious reasons, it was in large part natural, filling a hollow in the near mountainous terrain where a dam had been constructed several centuries before at the western end and a power plant built at the head of a river taking the runoff from a winter’s melt to the sea.

The lake was almost thirty miles long and very narrow for its length averaging two and a half miles wide. It their records were accurate the center of the main section was over eleven hundred feet deep, the dam responsible for two hundred fifty feet of that impressive number, the steep sided natural terrain the rest.

At the lake’s western end were two white blobs showing very hot; one the still operational power plant, as much a tourist attraction as anything these days, and the other the town of Babiyar itself.

Deeded a recreational wilderness area the miles of lake shoreline were mostly dark, a half dozen small hot spots showed in his helmet’s display. It was likely they were vacation homes of the well connected, but they could be something else, like air defense stations.

None showed on their records, and when seen from above there was just no way to tell. Also from above as many similar shaped and situated structures had been detected, but they did not glow in the dark, indicating they were empty or unused, they would need a look at as well but they could wait a few days. Best guess was that everything was as innocent and innocuous as it seemed, but one did not take chances with irreplaceable large landers carrying 400 or more troops.

It took five minutes for the pod to drop from one hundred fifty thousand to ten thousand feet above ground, or in this case above lake level. The pod blew apart in sections and VerHorst’s chute opened at once and a gust of wind started him swinging. He got the motion under control and turned towards the shore from his position two miles above and a half mile out from shore.

It was still dark. The heavy forest blended with shoreline on a steep slope, Earth type pines for the most part. The forest cover was complete, even a narrow creek still flowing with winter runoff was covered over. The hot spot he was investigating was seventy feet up and two hundred feet in from the water’s edge. The landing was going to be wet. To his left and below him was Cpl Pearson.

VerHorst, gave two clicks on his short range, then with a hand pointer sent a beam of invisible light toward the spot he had selected for touch down, and with his night gear, even in the darkness, he could see Pearson angle down while he followed, careful to maintain the distance between.

Rafael Zavala was still in his pod some fifteen hundred feet above the center of Babiyar when the first of the two squads dropping under his command landed in the plaza in front of the police station. He had wanted to be amongst the first down but the descent routine of a drop pod had a mind of its own when it came to exact timing. He spilled a little air, concentrating on the landing point and the men below still in flight and not those already rushing towards the station doors. A broken leg would be an inconvenience at this late date.

Now only a hundred feet up and he saw the flare of a rocket grenade and could hear the sound of gunfire coming from inside the station. Someone was up early. Thirty feet up and his gear bag brushed the top of a chute directly below. A second later he lost sight of the ground sinking into the billowing fabric. The chutes owner was now on the ground and unaware of Zavala above but his chute was wrapping the Colonel up like a long lost lover.

Zavala hit and sprawled, had the wind knocked out and five seconds later with teeth clenched was checking himself for damage. Nothing broken but his entire left side felt like a large bruise about to happen. He overrode the medkit saving it for later; he needed to be fully alert for now. And he felt the pain when the trooper he had landed on rolled out from under the tangled chute; so intent on the station the almost forgot to curse the man who had landed on top of him.

Raquel picked himself up and went teetering towards the single story building, the sound of gunshots coming from within now tapering off. The rapid fire of automatic weapons completely ended by the time he reached the opening that was once a doorway. Sgt Higgins was on his way out with a first hand report.

“Eight inside, all dead now. We saved the radios and land line comm links, need a tech to check them out, not our brand.”

“Good enough, start clearing the block, no one is to remain in any building within fifty yards. Get them into the plaza then on their way to one of the resort hotels. If there is any armed resistance, any at all, shoot to kill. And get our own radio station on the air and speakers set up as soon as possible. Everyone else stays inside till we say otherwise, just like we gamed it.

The landing at the power plant was the easiest of all. The packed earthen damn was over a hundred yards wide at the top and flat to boot. In the still morning air an easy touchdown for the six man team sent to secure it. They blew the iron lock on the door and found no one inside, only automatics going about their business as usual, as if nothing at all had changed.

The pack holding his gear touched water and VerHorst released his chute straps falling abruptly. When he was wet to his waist, feet still not touching bottom he started sinking rapidly and felt the cold water slap him. In less time than it took to blink his head went under. This was expected but was still unnerving. His goggles sealed tight and breathing tube in place he released more line; his pack hit the bottom and he began to rise as strategically place bladders built into the drop suit inflated.

Back on the surface and thirty feet from shore he started a slow breast stroke that soon had him scrambling onto a rocky ledge no wider than the seat on a cross town bus. Pearson was a few strokes behind, choking on swallowed water; he must have lost his tube and took some down the wrong pipe.

Sgt. VerHorst gave him a hand pulling him from the water and said, “Keep it down, there could be someone hearing this.” Not likely but why take chances?

The way up was steep but holding on to roots and low branches they reached a flatter area twenty feet up and in from the shore. The cabin, if that’s what it was, was close now. There was a light shining through the trees and a path with steps hacked into the rocky ground visible and only a few feet away leading downward that they had missed in the dark.

VerHorst decided to throw caution to the wind and use the path for the rest of the ascent when a dog started barking. Staying off the path with the dog barking louder and louder, still fifty feet away from the building, they saw an interior light come on and a door open then slam shut, a figure briefly silhouetted by the light, then a voice.

“Whoever is out there, I got a gun! And I called the police. Better git cause I’m gonna’ let the dog out in about ten seconds.”

It was a woman’s voice, followed by the snick and clack of a round chambered in a large gauge shotgun.

Getting behind a fallen trunk, just in case, and motioning Pearson to sweep right VerHorst said, “Ma’am, hold the dog, we mean you no particular harm but that dog dies if you let him loose! And forget about the police, they have other problems about now. Put down the gun and stand by the window. We’re soldiers, not criminals or thugs. But we are going to inspect you and your house and make no mistake about it!”

He’d barely finished the speech when the gun went off and the log he was hidden behind was peppered with bird-shot. “Damn!” he was supposed to be fighting soldiers, not scared middle-aged civilian lady vacationers. Pearson was in position and threw a grenade, knockout gas, colorless and odorless, they were both immune. It worked almost at once.

They hauled her inside and put her on the couch, searched, found nothing and called in. Then started marching towards town, eight miles and no likelihood of pickup. The sun was just clearing the hills at the east end of the lake.

All of his units had radioed in with similar reports, no military and especially no air defense on the hills above the lake. It was time for the second act.

Four attack shuttles guarded the small landers all the way from orbit. They made a steep decent over the center of the continent and came in hot. One air defense group outside of Za’atar that had been kept silent and missed put up interceptors. But the range was great and they were all stopped well short of the landing craft. Six minutes later kinetic thunderbolts from above destroyed the launchers, guidance radars, and comm links.

The choice of touchdown spots was limited. The town’s plaza was large enough to accommodate one small lander at a time with some small risk of blast damage. The other, and most open spot was on top the wide packed earth the damn feeding the power plant. It could handle two ships at once, one at either end. There was room for a third in the middle but moving off the damn while landings continued at either end was not a viable proposition.

The center was a fine spot for an air defense battery however. One with a perfect view down the length of Walled Lake. The third ship down placed one there then went screaming back to orbit.

Piloting a large lander was one of the rarest specialty skills space. So rare in fact that Eric Shearing, Captain of the Ranger, who had at one time been first officer of the Widow, and Cmdr Karla Ieito from the Pilchard, but again having trained under Kathryn Marquette on the G-1, were borrowed from the fleet and in the control seats of two of the four that the Widow’s Walk had carried with her from Cardoman.

McCormack’s Second Officer, Lt. Murray Greenbaum had the control seat in the third, and the Widow’s former Boss’n, Jenny Joyce from the Castleton had the fourth. It wasn’t that the ships were so much different in size from a picket, they were about the same size, it was the fact they spent time half their work time on the ground. Compared to a small lander that their flight plan, speed and how they set down, was so different that skill with one did not translate to the other.

Eric waited for the grapple at the end of the launch arm extending from the base of the Widow’s U shaped interior bulkhead which clamped to his lander to let loose. Above the mechanical holding device the boarding tube had been disconnected at his end sealed. Under zero G with the bay open to space the low powered thrusters seemed to take forever to move the lander out of the dock and away from the transport. It took all of two minutes and ten seconds before the operational indicators registering the status of the more powerful thrusters used to fly the craft lit up and became and they became operational.

His lander held almost five-hundred soldiers, forty of them the remainder of company that made the first drop with Zavala in the pods and a second company, lightly armed from the same battalion. Then there was an engineering unit and finally the fifty men and four woman group that Zavala had been asking about for the last half hour, the MP’s.

It was a specialty that got little respect most of the time but after herding civilians in the dark, knocking on doors and hearing a voice inside saying “Nobody’s home,” and wondering how to proceed, and especially dealing with children of all ages, the MP’s couldn’t land soon enough. They might even make some sense of the records at the police station.

Well clear of the Widow now Eric started breaking. The proper course for a Very Large Lander was to kill all of its orbital velocity while still outside the atmosphere, sixty to eighty miles up was common. From that point on until atmospheric resistance slowed her she used enough breaking thrust to keep from going supersonic and risk overheating. A VLL carried cargo, not ablative tiles or vent-able liquid based heat sinks.

She was a lifting body with a 3 to 1 descent rate at standard sea level and wanted to fly, if you could call it that, at just over one hundred sixty knots. Eric kept her steep and over two hundred, making it a little easier for the assault shuttles to keep pace without burning through their fuel load.

A VLL might fly like a brick with wings but an attack shuttle at low speed was like that same brick without the wings, and was no longer able to heat enough air to keep itself at speed and aloft. The same plasma thrusters and liquid propellant they used in a vacuum were good enough for landing and takeoff but when dialed down in atmosphere they became the proverbial fuel hog.

One thing the big boys did have going for them was the view. Instead of a cramped two man cockpit they had a command deck that could seat six, even room to stand up and take a few steps. Instead of a single armorplast view screen they had wraparound windows that extended well to the sides with a portion reaching under the nose that let the pilot and copilot view the touchdown area directly.

“Locked to the dot,” Serge Tamiroff an Ensign on the Widow and Eric’s copilot said. The thin blue line of the Walled Lake stretched in front of them; the laser designators point of aim was fixed on a spot 600 yards from shore at the far end. They were in the valley now, lower than the surrounding hills from the time they reached the half way point and a near shore. A slight bend and gliding turn and they were back in the middle again. Eric focused on touch down and Tamiroff backed him up and handled communications with those below.

“First time anyone’s landed here?” Paul Olivera, seated behind the Ensign asked.

“So far as we know. But don’t worry, one of the Marines borrowed a fishing boat and used the sonar to check the bottom. It’s deep, no rocks and no ridges, smooth as a. . .well real smooth Sir.”

“I was thinking more in terms of mines, underwater explosives, that kind of thing Ensign.”

“You got a good imagination Sir; I don’t think anyone else would have thought about something like that.”

They were too low and slow for the assault shuttles that had peeled off toward the damn to drop their own loads. The wind was more intense than they had expected, funneling between the hills guarding the lake. It caused the ride to be a little bumpy but posed no other danger. A flair a hundred yards out and with barely a splash they were down, two skips and slowing rapidly. Once in the water the lander’s highly sophisticated on-board sonar started mapping the bottom.

To one side sticking out from shore were docks with pleasure boats tied alongside, they were far too narrow and flimsy to carry a load and the wrong height to match the landers ramp in any event.

“Nothing suitable. Hard to port.” Using thrusters they turned in the direction of the Damn, and as expected the bottom shallowed where its roadway met the shore, rock left over from the construction process.

Eric soon had them backing in and grounding the ramp splashed down into two feet of water. They unloading in a rush, troops first then the engineers and their construction equipment, two small bulldozers, two back hoes, a dump and an end loader. Improving the landing site was high on the to-do list.

With the last man out and clear they pulled into deep water, loaded their reaction mass tanks and hit the throttle. After a thousand yard run were in the air climbing steeply, making room for the next lander in line, already out of orbit and dropping, fifteen minutes from touchdown.

Eight hours into the landing and they had only 4300 troops on the ground. The hold up was with the large landers, there was still just the one suitable spot to land and offload. Creating another in a second part of the lake would take more construction work then it merited given all the other tasks at hand.

So far the only Marjoram response was from drone flights. Three of the stealthed vehicles had been detected and knocked down. Others must have reported back what they could see. Evan Bledsoe had six 155’s on the ground and was using a dozer to clear an artillery park five miles out. Twenty-five miles up the road leading to Za’atar one of Olivera’s companies was digging in just on the off chance it might be used for an attack. Or the more real possibility of civilians heading for Babiyar to see what was happening.

Jamie was on the Widow and Admiral Ordman still in his room. “Is he under arrest or anything like that?” Jamie asked Wes the first time they were alone enough for a private conversation. Wes had borrowed Kathryn Marquette’s day cabin off the Widow’s bridge for the kitchen and coffee it provided and was using it as an office.

“No, he’s indisposed—is how I put it to Germond. But given the nature of the offense I’ve relieved him, taken him out of the chain of command. We both know it—but there is nothing in the records saying so, never will be if he remains silent. He’ll be a passenger on the first ship back to Union.”

“Don’t you mean an Admiral?”

“I suppose, but it amounts to the same thing. He lost a son after all; I am not going to press things.”

“What about Claude, he was there and is going to write the history.”

“It’s a small point in a much larger story. It will depend on Admiral Ordman. So long as he remains silent there’s no story to tell.”

“They lost another one you know.” Jamie said out of context.

“Union you mean? Another ship? And no I hadn’t heard. Until just before you came on board I was fighting with Robbie and General Ramseyer about where and when to land New Britain’s troops.”

“The Calps got lucky, had to happen; one of our shipkillers lost lock and blew itself up without waiting to coast out of the battle area, took out two more of ours and covered by the noise one of the Calps got through. Most of those left have either jumped or are about to. We have some cleanup to do with the systems pickets but they’re not a threat to us here around Marjoram. Unless the Caliphate has a fleet on the way and until it gets here, the system is ours.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from Audie about Ben Judah or Fader? Or Rick Petrocelli and the crew of the Bastard for that matter?”

“Nothing close to certain. Audie says we may have captured a part of a burst transmission. It was in our code, or at least something similar, but we can’t read it. That came from analyzing data from before we even reached orbit, and there has been nothing since. It’s a big planet and the Marjoram military is doing its part to make sure message traffic gets interfered with. From what I see that’s about all they’re doing.”

“A bit more than that. Thanks to you we have the high ground so they can’t move large units around; they learned that lesson early. Until we can tell the civilian population they are under quarantine and to keep off the roads we can’t just kill anything that moves. If we do that we’ll never get them on our side. And without some civilian support we don’t have the numbers to do more than hold a little ground and try to defend it.”

“And if we can’t win the hearts and minds?”
“Then we have a whole lot of explaining to do and another story to tell.”

To be continued in the Cardoman Saga Volume 7