Marjoram 3

Chapter 3 Draft (07-27-11)

“Two, One, Transition out.” Clanging alarms stopped, and what passed for silence on a ship in space, filled the void, for a moment. A live working ship of any size could never be totally still. The ventilators, and pump noises, even the sound of hull plates shifting under temperature changes were ever present. Still — compared to the sound of battle — the silence was total.

Back in normal space the CNS SnapDragon’s icon disappeared from the screens of Cardoman Control, a full two decks on the Burgeron, at the same time the departing ship’s exiting grav pulse was caught before fading away. This changed the direction showing red arrow on the display to orange. Next to the marker, in a bordered box was the ship’s name, class, and time of the jump. This last was in actual time, as if they could have seen it at the time it happened, not after the light speed lag delayed the signal from reaching them for near an hour. At the distance involved the signal was still strong.

Cardoman control could track jumps both in and out at distances approaching a full week when measured by the time it took the signal to span the intervening space. The recording time tic was now counting upwards with initial jump time noted as a base. The box also held a reference code for a quick retrace of the objects history and a replacement icon which was a smaller dot visible to mark the point of exit. Unless told otherwise the system software would remove the ships information from the display in an hour.

Running for the limit at max G with her fusion torch lit and facing towards the IR sensors, from a billion kilometers away on a dark night she would have been visible by the naked eye. On the sensors she had stood out like a flare in the darkness.

Station Commander James Marquette watched her go with a sigh of relief, he and his tac-team had destroyed the Dragon three times in the last two hours using only out-system pickets and stealthed weapon pods deployed at random positions. These pods the Dragon could detect only at close range, so close that she had to change course at once or be killed. At least that’s how it worked in simulation.

In reality, as she appeared on screens outside the simulators of the battle bridge, the Dragon doglegged slightly only once on her way to transition. That was to avoid a piece of rock too big for her deflector shields to move aside without using a laser or a charged beam on it to reduce it’s size to something more manageable.

Marquette complimented the crew—making note of the two times they had failed to stop the Dragon, and with the exercise over they were finally ready for break, but had to wait.

Now, many billions of kilometers distant, in a place beyond any racing communications and reliant on self correction, Vernor Matson was also ready for a break as well. But he elected to keep working on the main control bridge until the end of the shift, the place where except when out of commission due to battle damage he was chained to during a fight. The shift over he would go off duty when the rest of the section did.

LtCmdr. Fitzgerald (Fitz) the First Officer and second in command was still busy on the battle bridge, the backup combat control operated by the backup command team located just above engineering at the other end of the ship in its aft sphere.

He was making sense of, or at least explaining to the small group stationed with him, why the Dragon, their ship, had lost by a margin of 3 to 2 the simulated duel just concluded. He was if anything more out of sorts than his Captain. Fitz hated to lose and didn’t like what he was seeing. Some of it was luck but the Dragon had been far too predictable.

* * *
If what was going on at Marjoram was a mystery then what went on at Midway was an enigma, and as the saying continued, one covered with secrecy and shrouded in darkness. Even Union Intel had paid no attention to the seldom used fueling depot in the last twenty years. The Caliphate takeover of Punt at the end of the last war had excited little attention in its aftermath. With that acquisition accepted as a condition of the armistice Punts claim to Midway became a footnote to history.

A scan of the databases, keying on out of the way non planetary infrastructure and their last visit by non Caliphate shipping, revealed a score of other such locations lost from view for a decade or more, too many locations to visit and check on any time soon.

They all became at once, what an old Earth based politico, with a title of Secretary of Defense called, part of the formal class of known unknowns. The Dragon’s task was to lift at least one corner of the shroud from one such unknown.

Carl Pilchard, Boss’n on the SnapDragon, had been a member of the Seventh even longer than his Captain; he was another of those who had been in on it since the start. It gave him a status that with the rest of the enlisted crew exceeded even his nominal position on board. Most of the time that made life easier for the easy going father type figure he tried to project.

The problem now was that like a father he couldn’t show favorites. And that was especially difficult because it was his favorite who was in the wrong. Christine deVoe, a new addition to the crew working as a tracer in the data section had snapped back at a reprimand from her section leader after the recent disappointing sim series.

“DeVoe, stand at attention!” Pilchard issued the order as soon as he was through the hatch that opened into his office. Like a cat, or an ex-infantryman, he came through silently. The young crew-member’s back was towards the opening so she had neither seen nor heard him enter. As she stood he passed her and moved his hand in a way that indicated to systems specialist first class Taliford that he should remain seated. Squeezing between his desk and the hull section Carl took his own seat. There was no ‘paper work’ on the desk; he hoped none would be needed.

Had he not witnessed the event himself Carl might not have even heard about it. A minor outburst at a small perceived injustice was a rather common event and best dealt with informally. Had Taliford felt the need to come forward with a complaint Carl would have explained his approach to the petty officer and then spoken to Lt Yanasata the ships Third Officer, who would have set deVoe straight. That option was closed, so best this be done quickly.

“Specialist Trainee deVoe, you disappoint, and worse you make me question my own judgment, because I chose you from a list of three equally qualified applicants for inclusion in our ship’s compliment. And instead of flipping the three sided coin issued to all Naval decision makers, I made an attempt to formulate policy. And yes it was because you were one of the few female members of your training section on the Burgeron, but it had nothing to do with You.”

“There was once a widely held belief exemplified by the statement, ‘Diversity is our Strength.’ Thankfully that has never been the official position of the Cardoman military. What we rely on is competence, and loyalty, dedication to the job and mission. That dedication to mission is something that requires we accept criticism, even when we think it unjust, in the same spirit with which it was given.”

“The only way diversity becomes strength is if it brings talent to bear that would otherwise languish. And that talent must exceed that which it replaces without causing problems and creating new issues that take time away from our organizational purpose of winning wars and bringing glory to the Navy. So why did I select you when I claim there were others of equal ability? Because while ability is a self evident need for military strength and an effective organization, it is not the only need; lest we forget, there is also strength in numbers!” The Caliphate has no need for women in combat units and has more than held their own for six hundred years.”

“You could attempt a case that the Caliphate would be better served by adding females to their military. And you would be wrong. Their culture would not stand for it and factions would form opposing, even sabotaging any positive results from such a radical change.”

“To me, deVoe, you were a number. One of the 5% of our enlisted ranks made up of women. If your success attracts higher numbers of qualified applicants, without degrading our abilities in some other fashion, the Seventh and Cardoman become stronger. Selecting you for the crew was my attempt at implementing that policy. At this point I am not at all certain my decision was sound. Do you have anything to say at this time deVoe?”

Loudly she said, “Sir! No Sir!” She hesitated for just a moment and then with less volume added, “Please continue sir.”

“You disappoint me again deVoe, but this time only slightly. Unlike the situation after the simulation this is the time you should air your grievances, real and imagined. It is possible you had reason to react as you did, I could speculate but would rather hear them in your own voice. Enlighten me deVoe.”

“Sir, it sounds petty now, but at the time I thought I was being made a scapegoat for our less than perfect performance in getting away from Cardoman alive. I did not, and still don’t see anything I could have done to make the sim turn out differently. In retrospect making me a scapegoat would show less than zero sense, so something else must have been going on. The one thing I learned in E-School was that there was always more than the raw outcome being evaluated in any training scenario.”

“Very good,” Chief Taliford, “Would you elaborate?”

“I was actually quite pleased with how well we had done, especially considering who and what we were up against. But I couldn’t say that at just that time; a leader must never reinforce failure, not in battle and not in training, that’s a lesson too hard to unlearn. DeVoe happened to be the person I turned to while making that point. Had you not been in the room I would have merely told her to watch her tone and think things through before opening her yap.”

“We were set to review the session tomorrow. At that point deVoe would have had time to talk to some of the other trainee’s, giving them a chance to commiserate with her about the unjustness of it all, building team solidarity, and we hope thinking about how to deal with small measures of unmerited fault finding. On the recap I would compliment deVoe, among others, on the particulars of their performance, and by doing so show that I can—upon reflection—tell my ass from a hole in the ground. And as a secondary objective show that I am not in always the ogre I sometimes seem.”

“There you have it deVoe, the method to our madness. Now it’s your turn. You can spread the word of our meeting here; remain silent and see what happens tomorrow; or take this to a higher level. Should you chose the third option a complete record of everything the Chief and I have said will go on file and into your personal record for you to use as you see fit. Otherwise it will vanish into the cosmic sea of lost electrons in about a month. Or you could get original and do something else. A copy is in your own personal data-store as of—now.” Pilchard tapped an icon on his desk display.

“You are dismissed deVoe.”

After she had left the room Taliford said, “She’ll do fine Carl, she is spirited but she is sharp.”

“Sure Tom, but next time let’s win at the sim game.”

* * *
Midway’s primary was a small K type star with a mass less than 10% of Earth’s sun. The third planet out was a gas giant, rich in hydrogen, helium, and not much else. A couple of rocky worlds devoid of life were closer in but they were rock, silicate and carbon compounds, no metals or high table elements to bring attention. One planet, the next closer in, was however mostly covered with water, all in the form of ice. That was nice when it came to the view, the star light gave it an interesting reddish tint, much more colorful than Earth’s Mars, but water was plentiful and transforming impractical given the intensity of the sunlight, so it was the gas giant that gave reason for the station here.

That and a location near to so many well traveled trade routes. But even with so much in its favor the new G-3’s and 4’s being produced had about ended its usefulness and the station was on its last legs when the Calps took it over and decided to keep it going for military rather than civilian purposes, though Caliphate shipping did use the station from time to time.

The capture had taken place some twenty years earlier, and an entire generation remembered nothing of life with entrepreneurs from Punt running things and trying to keep the station going. There was still resentment at the takeover but most of the hard cases were dead or had learned to remain silent, to go along to get along. The largest percentage didn’t much notice nor care about the difference. And recently, at least from an economic standpoint, things had even improved. But even pleasure in that small change was fading as the Caliphate’s military presence began smothering any freedoms left from an earlier time.

The systems population, falling since before the takeover, had stabilized at 8000 and begun a steady climb with the Calp influx. There was new construction and not just a halfhearted maintenance of old and worn out bits and pieces. On the other hand those of working age were locked in and could not leave. Those young enough, provided they converted to Islam and met some other test criteria, could leave for an education on a major world and with it a chance to do whatever the Calps thought best for them when they finished school. This was a choice seldom made or taken because even as the Calps were in charge they were far from respected, or even accepted.

* * *
Yuri Borselov, the temporary Engineering Officer on the Dragon, found he had little to do. Frank Nitze, working on the, the man whose position Yuri had stepped into, had left the ship in a remarkably ready state of repair. As yet Nitze had no particular name recognition but that was going to change when the Dragon returned home. For the first week of the trip Yuri got to know his subordinates and installed some minor upgrades to the ship’s control software. Other than Audie Madry he was the only person outside of the shipyard with the necessary authority, not to mention the codes, to do something like that. And rightly so as he had written many of the changes and reviewed the rest.

With that out of the way he took to hanging with the Marine detachment, more interesting characters all around.

1st Sgt. Leo Lotti was in charge of that twenty man detail; the availability of fleet ready marines had finally reached the point to where staffing was complete on most ships and on all of them that left the system. The marine quarters and training areas plus squad type weapons store and ‘Specialty Items’, took up most of the first deck in the Dragon’s lower hull, a sphere about a hundred and sixty meters diameter separated by a connecting shaft of similar length to the ships upper hull. On the Dragon they even carried in storage a shuttle’s worth of drop pods, enough for half the squad. This was a piece of equipment they had no plans to use on this tour but it did go to show how much supply had improved in the last two years.

Next on the way down from the marine deck was storage, almost a third of the sphere, and then the battle bridge where First Officer Fitzgerald was stationed when the ship went into action as insurance against the loss of the main bridge. Below that was the Engineering deck and then the reactor section surrounded by interior fuel, the liquid hydrogen used for propellant mass and also as a heat sink. Most of the ships fuel was carried in tanks surrounding the central core but they carried a couple of jumps worth internally for shielding and as safety stock.

The gravity in the aft hull was set most of the time to fifteen percent higher than Earth norm which was what the rest of the ship experienced. This was hard on the engineering crew but most of their time spent on duty was while seated. The marine’s, when not bitching about the extra weight, just shrugged it off and moved along, and it did make re-qualifying back on Cardoman one hell of a lot easier, pretty much guaranteeing a slot back in the fleet for those so inclined.

With only the twenty man detachment aboard there was a lot of room on their deck left empty yet still under life support. Room that could and often was used for passenger transport. The marine detail was a skeleton of what would be on board if a ground action were envisioned. Only a tenth of the number they had live support for which was two full companies at rated strength.

Thwunk! The darkened spinning blade, almost invisible in flight, buried itself into a man sized target positioned just short of half way across the deck. Thwunk, another joined it a hand breadth away. “How do you know how much spin to put on it,” Yuri asked, “Too much of the time I over or under rotate, what’s the secret?”

“The secret is—there is no secret,” Thwunk, — and a third made a triangle of almost perfect shape. “A balanced blade wants to spin, and it wants to spin at the same rate of speed no mater how you throw it. What ya gotta’ do,” Thwunk, “is chose your distance so the spin ends up with the pointy end forward,” Twhunk! And with the last throw the triangle was centered, the knife’s handle barely quivering. “Course it changes with gravity so ya gotta’ take a few practice throws to be sure.”

“Ok then, what do you do if your target is out of position?”

“Get closer or use a gun. That always works for me. Course I am working on something to solve the distance problem.”

“Like your laser seeker rocket in the hilt job?”

“That one has it uses but you use it once and it gives your position away.” Thwunk! “What I got in mind is something with a movable weight built in at the balance point, that’ll change the rotation rate. No electronics at all. Just a slide and click stop.”

“That doesn’t seem too hard. Made a prototype yet?”

“Had the armorer look into it, said I need heavy metal or the weights too big. Maybe you can help?”

“Maybe. But that stuff costs like gold.”
“Nothin’ too good for the Seventh.” Thwunk!
“You’re out to revolutionize the art of knife fighting warfare.”
“Eight hundred years,” Thwunk! “It’s about time.”

Yuri took his turn at the line and put about half his throws somewhere into the target. It was much harder to do when one could not follow the flight of the blade from hand to aim point. Lotti was a natural, beyond belief, but then as a recruit and later a Corporal he used to sleep with the things under his mattress and they seemed to appreciate the affection. Or perhaps the more properly labeled affectation.

“As the walked to retrieve the weapons Yuri asked, “So you and Fader? What do you think?”

“I don’t know Yuri. I keep working at it but I once saw the man . . .”

Captain of the Dragon, Vern Matson sat in the command seat on the bridge; he shook his head and gave up on customizing his display screens any further. It was a time sink and one that gained less with each iteration. The ship was a week away from transition at Midway and he should be giving all his attention to what might happen when they arrived. That was another time sink but one he could justify. One that might even save his life.

Midway was a terrible choice for a military base and fueling station, the worst imaginable. The important system features, gas giant and station were on the wrong side of the small sun’s hyper limit. Any ship able to navigate with sufficient accuracy could jump in right on top of them giving no time to for a defense to react. What had the Calps been thinking?

Jack Trebeck had a theory, and it made a twisted kind of sense.

“If the Midway system is an industrial extension of a usual Caliphate world, one with allegiance to Gamrawi Bey’s theocracy—and the activity in and around it manned by Caliphate citizens and supporters, than anything inside of a military useful nature would be a legitimate target and fair game once war was declared. We lack certain knowledge but it seems highly doubtful that that is the case. If we attack the infrastructure, simply blast it away, we attack our own. We don’t believe the people on Midway were given a chance to vote for an occupying army. We do believe the Calps are willing to bet others lives on their reading of how we would think about such things.”

Matson had studied enough military history to realize that destroying the village to save it took the concept of total war to a place he didn’t want to visit. An enemy village with government supporting civilians working joyously to destroy him was one thing; one filled with captured relatives another.

In simplest terms the Dragon’s mission was see how much military force the Caliphate had put into the system in order to hold it. And get the word back without herself being seen.

“This is how we go about it,” Captain Matson said to Cmdrs Borselov and Fitzgerald. His Second Officer, Lieutenant Louis Fogel had the bridge and Third Officer Pauline Yanasata was off duty. Sleeping it was hoped, she was driving herself harder than Vern thought necessary, but it was her choice, so long as it didn’t get out of hand. “A textbook approach that will take four jumps and come close to exhausting our H by the time we are back at Cardoman.”

“The gas giant and fueling base is on the same side of its orbit as the side we are coming in on, so we will first transition out several light years before reaching her, do some vector adjustment and then jump to a point where we can jump again. But this time we will be on a course that has us tangential to the orbital plane and not one that requires us to show our exhaust directly in order to maneuver. We’ll come towards the system and shoot across it as close as we dare, spend our week gathering whatever intel we can, and jump at the end of the run. Another short hop and we return to normal space, readjust our vector once more, and jump for home. We have three days before we need to make that first jump. This textbook maneuver is in the Calps textbooks too. I want to add some bells and whistles that aren’t”

Vern looked at the others expectantly; neither were shy when it came to expressing unorthodox opinions. Fitzgerald was first to reply.

“We could time our first jump, the one where we set our vector for the system run, to take us past Midway so when we come back in we have the sun between us and the fuel base. That’s probably a tradeoff in who it hurts the most theoretically but it makes detection harder and we know what we are looking for. My concern is what the Calps have at Midway to detect us. If it is as good as a full up planetary screen we lose before we start, but just how good are their ship sensors these days and how many ships do they have and where will the place them?”

“Their sensors aren’t quite as good as we have on the Dragon but they are much better then the textbooks say. We learned that at al-Maqam.” Yuri said, “I think we need to transition in further out than the book would indicate. Midway’s small size does mean that when we do come back in we will hold on to almost all of our jump vector and that means we can come in at a distance and coast till it’s time to leave.”

“Nothing revolutionary by I like it,” Matson said, “Yuri, would you and Fitz get with nav section and figure out our best transition points and vectors? I’d like to simulate this with the crew several times before so we are comfortable with it.”

“How much fuel do you want to have remaining when we get back to Cardoman? We’ll need to vent some to minimize our IR.”

“Say 10%, that’s cutting it fine but provided we make the jump if we are short and need to maneuver then they can always tow us in.”

“We will have something for you in a few hours,” Yuri said.