Marjoram 4

Chapter 4 Draft (07-30-11)

Camchatka Rustov floated beside the 200 meter long twenty-five meter diameter tank and tried to blink away the drops of moisture attacking his eyes inside the suit protecting him from the lifeless space beyond its tough exterior. His failure to wear a headband per standard procedure was not life threatening but had become very annoying indeed. He knew better, but his lateness to suit-up made reporting it missing after the search of his locker, and then the search of the rest of his tech teams lockers, something to avoid, he did not want to bring any special attention down upon himself. Never that!

The heat causing his problem was all self generated, and sealed in, until the suit controls felt another few degrees internal temperature rise and either sent more of his oxygen though the radiators or he adjusted the control manually. Doing that would create a log incident and was almost the same thing as turning himself in. All types of record inspections were being taken seriously again after years of neglect. The Caliphate military personnel monitoring activity now were very good at what they did compared to the civilian contractors they had replaced.

Give them a bit more time and they would find something else to obsess about, but it would be a monetary fine of a day’s pay if they found him in violation. He would keep squinting and hope nothing showed on the medical displays; so far he seemed safe.”

Floating in vacuum, and shielded from the sun by its shadow, three meters from a tank of almost solid hydrogen, was a very strange place to feel heat. He relaxed and took another look at the readouts on the unit plugged into the tank interface that it had been his job to install, and now to baby sit until the end of the shift.

This was the sixth and final tank getting the upgrades heard about that had already made their way upon Independent and Federation ships. But without access to the details this particular solution had all been engineered here. They started with better designed and more internal capillary tubes, continued with new low temperature pumps and controls. Unlike water and a few other liquids, most matter underwent a decrease in volume when turning from liquid to solid; in this case they gained three percent more volumetric efficiency. That with all the heat absorbed in the phase shift gave this tank an eleven percent boost in storage longevity and one similar when measuring ability to absorb waste heat from a ships reactor.

The cost of the rework for the improvement would never pay off for a commercial operator, but for the military it was going to be the new standard. The bonus Cam expected from his part of the work should be enough to grease the wheels so his daughter would get a slot in a school out system and a life somewhere else, and most like the same for his son as well. That part of the bureaucracy was still firmly under civilian control.

When he told his wife what he was working on, a grave violation in and of itself, she looked sad but didn’t try and talk him out of it. It was easy to think that everyone still working here was a collaborator in one sense or another, and it was probably true; May God have mercy upon their souls.

Some said the military could be tempted just as the civilian staff could, that rot in the Caliphate ran a mile wide and a mile deep. Cam had no experience with on that front and did not wish to gain any. He did regret doing anything to help their Calp Overlords, but with hard choices to make his family came first.

Back in the present he blinked then blinked again and tried to keep his hand from brushing at his helmet visor.

Basheer Fansa, Captain of the Caliphate G-4 Dzarugian set a slow course away from Midway System Command, SysCom, the still growing addition, connected by a single long tube, to the older fueling station that had only recently been put into service. The tube could be severed but the larger base made a handy shield should hostile warships come to call.

Never in much of a hurry, he had seen his share of war when most of a Caliphate fleet out to teach New Britain a lesson were destroyed by numbers, tactics, and surprise. Still as survivor of a ‘tactical victory’ it earned him a choice of duty stations and this little out of the way assignment. One he intended to keep as long as possible. It had been all he could do to avoid being awarded rank and a squadron of his own.

His former First Officer had of course received command of his own ship, a rebuilt G-3, but the man’s replacement was more than adequate, the ships former Second Officer, one used to his Captains likes and dislikes and very eager to please. “Life in the fleet could be far worse—and often was,” he finished the thought in time worn fashion.

Ali Alajah, the ships Navigator had a system map showing in the main display at the center of the bridge. From where Captain Fansa sat the sun was a grapefruit sized ball in the middle with the gas giant on his right about two thirds of the way to the display’s edge and with an out of scale separation between the two of 530 million kilometers. A jump in that direction took one away from the Caliphate dominated regions and towards the outer shell of worlds that were the self described Independents.

To his left near the hologram’s other edge was a small speck of blue. This was the largest distant object circling Midway with enough size and mass to be labeled a planet. It was just another ball of frozen gasses with an icy core. Having a diameter only slightly greater than Earth’s, and a much lower density, at the time of its closest approach to Midway, as was the case when first investigated, it could barely hold on to an atmosphere. When the planet swung away from Midway most of that thin atmosphere condensed until it covered one hundred percent of the planet’s surface. It covered even the highest surface elevations, none of which were more than a few tens of meters above mean surface anyway, and the condensed atmosphere made a totally smooth and shining liquid cover for the entire world.

With the composition of a normal gas giant but so much smaller, it got classed as a gas midget. Heohstra-4c was the logbook name from the planet’s discoverer’s notes after he had teased it out of the background data of a very long range early telescopic scan from Earth; the Midge was what everyone called it today.

With no convenient place to land for most of its three centuries long year it hadn’t been visited in a generation. But Basheer Fansa figured he had finally found a use for it, and so off they went quietly on a week long course, looking and listening all the while to the space around them, both in and outside of the system.

Reaching his destination Fansa ordered the Dzarugian into an eight day orbit and shut down most all ships systems while looking forwards to a restful three weeks and a half weeks before he would return to Midway Base.

* * *
“Two, one. Transition In.” A reddish-orange dot centered on the nav-screen, faster than a mere human could begin to process the background the ship’s comp fixed their position to within a few thousand miles. Faces on the bridge lit up in smiles. The Dragon had hit her mark with a precision vindicating all the work that had gone into the estimation of mass concentrations in an area Cardoman ships had never even visited before. They were seven billion kilometers from Midway with a vector clearly skimming just beyond her outer planet’s orbit while holding onto 10% light-speed.

A few minutes later they had a vector plot displayed with timeline hashes and an exact course projected against what they had planned. The difference took enough magnification to detail that a short low power burn was all they had yet to perform. Then they could bank the ship’s fire for a week until it was time to transition out. It would have been better to shut the fusion plant down completely but they might need power in a hurry if the Calps by chance had stationed a guard ship near their path. It would need to be very near to even detect them.

The first faint indications of activity on the other side of the system, those captured immediately after transition, were due to light speed lag nearly eight hours old. They started filling in information blocks on the display but were days away from the totality of data they were here to gather. Nevertheless this first part of the mission was going well.

At this distance the grav pulse that always followed a jump, should only be detectable with planetary sized sensor arrays. If Midway was home to one that large, which was unlikely, the light speed lag would cause a delay in seeing any response for another sixteen hours, the time it would take their pulse to reach an array and then a return signal being spotted and making it back to the Dragon, something like a fusion torch coming up and putting out the energy for high G’s. The Dragon stood down and buttoned up, most of the crew at ease.

The next three days were uneventful. As they neared the point of closest approach, about a hundred million miles beyond Heohstra-4c, their deflectors were active more often then not. There was more junk, small stuff, out here than their system info predicted, still the deflector output was small enough that detection remained unlikely even if a ship was stationed somewhere between their current position and that frigid world at the edge of space.

And the data they were getting showed clearly how active the system had become. They saw four G-4’s, two close to the gas giant and fueling station, and two others evidently working on practice maneuvers. But for practice what they were doing did not seem quite right. The scans looked ever more like hardware tryouts, a stop and go, as if testing fuel transfer from outboard tanks under load.

One ship came in system the previous day, and hours later another ship left. That looked like normal station replacement. If there were no ships powered down in stealth mode it meant Midway was home to four or maybe five ships, a sub-fleet, and even with the new activity this was more than the system seemed to warrant. Something important was going on here, but they needed more data to figure out what.

“Uh, oh!” the voice was followed by the blip of an alarm. “We just picked up something too big for the deflectors.”

Ships Third Officer Pauline Yanasata had the bridge duty. She said nothing. She silenced the alarm and punched in the single digit code for Captain to the bridge, she then hit trace. As quick as that the screen at lap level right in front of her as she sat in the command seat showed a flashing track heading towards the thicker line marking their own vector. The timeline showed the two tracks intersecting in seven seconds.

“Kill it!” She gave the command two seconds before the automatics would have done the same absent an override. The data block on the incoming track had filled in and showed it as a chunk of near pure water ice massing almost a kilogram. Nothing much for the deflectors to work against without metals or an easily ionized liquid locked to the surface. Had that been the case though, sensors would have picked while it was at least a minute away from impact.

From Pauline’s point of view the block of ice was racing towards the Dragon at 10% lightspeed. An outside observer would have said the SnapDragon was the one doing the racing. The laser cannon controls could care less as they directed a gigajoule beam of photons towards the intruder, meeting it two light seconds out, and breaking it up into component atoms and even smaller particles. Particles too small to even scratch the Dragons armored sides should they reach it. But now, highly charged the deflectors would move them aside so no contact was even made.

A second cannon sent another beam right behind the first; this one continued on into empty space. That’s how the system was supposed to work and it had functioned flawlessly. But for a single simple problem.

The laser fire and burst of released energy, though quite small, might have revealed their presence if anyone had been paying attention to this small plot of vacuum 100 million kilometers out from the backside of the iceworld Heohstra-4c.

In his day cabin and onto the bridge in seconds Captain Matson was too late to influence any of the action. “Captain on the Bridge,” would have been spoken aloud had he entered from the hatchway into the ship’s elevator; instead silence was maintained along with the fiction he had never left.

Vernor motioned for Pauline to keep her seat and leaned over an unused backup display, he called up and reviewed the event, all seven seconds of it from beginning to end, all of it in slow motion. He did this three times while Pauline checked the condition of the fired laser cannons before he said, “Very good, the only thing you could do Lt. Yanasata, and done with commendable speed.”

“We may have been seen Sir,” was all Pauline could bring herself to say.

“Water under the bridge. If we could raise signals and sensors to a higher state of awareness that would be the call but as we are already to that stage we will continue on as before. I’m back to my day cabin, carry on.” And he left the bridge showing so little concern that it was almost comforting.

Lt Yanasata took one last look at the plot, programmed a small change, and saw that if she had cut deflectors as soon as the ice ball was detected instead of being sucked in it would have missed them by more than a kilometer. But deflectors down would have left them open to something smaller until the danger had passed. It didn’t take very much mass to ruin your day when you met it at a tenth the speed of light.

* * *
“Uh, oh!” The voice was followed by the blip of an alarm. “We just picked up an energy reading at extreme range.” At the nav station Ali Alajah started enhancing the data as it streamed in. Reception was excellent on the ship orbiting the Midge at 50,000 kilometers, while remaining powered down and using only passive sensors.

First Officer Siddar Worjeh had bridge duty. He said nothing but silenced the alarm and then punched in the code for Captain Fansa to come forward, those were standing orders, and then he hit trace. As quick as that the screen at lap level right in front of his position in the command seat showed a slowly fading burst. A river of charged particles curving slightly and rapidly cooling. Within seconds the display went from white to red to black. Whatever was out there it didn’t belong.

The guard at the hatch saluted when Fansa arrived. He relieved his First Officer and took the command seat before reviewing the data that had interrupted his meal. He slowed it down looking for something to explain it other than a ship using laser cannons to remove an obstacle to its flight and he came up empty.

“There is a ship out there,” Fansa said stating the obvious. “And we can be sure three quarters of an hour ago it was very close to the position where we saw the energy discharge. I want her course and speed calculated from the energy track. Failing that I want all but one of our long range detectors to focus on her general direction of travel, the other to continue general scan. At this time this ship is not heading inwards but that could change.”

“Officer Worjeh, I want the crew on alert and ready to power us up. But nothing that could reveal our presence until we know where we might wish to go!” Then turning to Alajah he asked, “Are we able to contact SysCom at this time?”

“By radio only Sir, and at this distance there would be some back-scatter and a small chance of detection. From SysCom’s point of view we are between it and the disk of the Midge. An optical signal would be lost in the background. We have just crossed the limb so—,” he sent a diagram to the Captain showing the relative positions, “—I make it a little over six hours before we can be sure they see us.”

“As Allah wills it. In six hours I want to be able to say more than, We saw a ghost!”

The Captain of the Dzarugian remained on his bridge. Waiting patiently as one negative report followed another. Four hours later his patience was rewarded.

“I think we’ve got her sir,” Worjeh relayed the information, “She covered up a background object and we caught her in the act. She seems to be headed cross system at 10% lightspeed and her distance is increasing.”

“How certain are we?”

“Very—90’s plus. With the hardware we had added at our last refit our optical scopes can detect in a small field of view events at the individual photon level. Something occluded that star and a ship makes more sense than anything else.”

“Write this up and have it ready to send—and start thinking about what she will do next. And you can stand the power crew down. We can’t catch her, and if we power up and start moving we will glow like a neon sign. A blind man couldn’t miss us. Let’s keep our secrets until we see how or if we can use them.”

Two and a half hours later the Dzarugian cleared the Midge’s disk and a signal was sent via laser-link to Midway Base and SysCom. Then they waited for a reply. Lightspeed lag again but Fansa was glad of that—no chance for an order to require he do something foolish. All the while he hoped to catch sight of the intruder one more time and prove his theory of what she was about. He had almost not included that part of analysis in with the initial report but duty triumphed over caution. System Commander Kabardin needed to know that his command was under observation by an enemy gathering information for a future attack.

After reading the message from his outermost system defense ship Kabardin called his staff intelligence officer to his cabin. “I wish all of our Captains showed the tactical and common sense that Captain Fansa shows. I wonder how he managed to be left of the promotion list and a staff job after New Britain. The fleet’s loss is our gain.”

“I assume then we follow his wishes and wait to send word of this back to Philomel?”

“We have a ship scheduled for replacement in a week. If we hear nothing else from Fansa between now and then the information goes back on the Palestine, if we know something sooner I would like to give Fansa the chance to take it back himself so we can be his conclusions are given full weight.”

“For the record Sir, why not send word now?”
“For the record you may answer your own question Colonel.”

“A ship left only two days ago, the spy-ship would have seen it. To send another so soon would hint at us having reason, the best reason being we have seen her and are sending that news.”

“Might not that be the wisest course of action?”

“Possibly—It might forestall an attack. But being prepared when an attack comes, having overwhelming strength to defeat it is even more to our advantage.”

“Indeed it is, be sure to include that in your package.”

The first choice was the way that it happened. Due to knowing precisely where to look, sensors on the Dzarugian saw the grav pulse when the SnapDragon jumped on its two step for home. It was too weak for him to positively identify the ship but he certainly had suspicions concerning whose ship it might have been. Fansa, his own ship likewise outside of the hyper limit, powered up and an hour later jumped on a direct course to Philomel. Two weeks later he transitioned in at the fleet base and sent his dispatches ahead.

* * *
“Never, fails! It’s like rats to a piece of cheese, icing on crumb cake, they just can’t help themselves.”

“Icing on crumb cake,” Wesley raised his eyebrows.

“Exactly Sir! I was saying to Chief Ogalby just yesterday . . .” Audie continued on at breakneck speed while Wes tried to make sense of what she was saying.

When she slowed to a halt he said, “Write it up and send it to weapons development. Give it an engineering go-ahead and a priority, give it my blessing. We can talk about this at tomorrow’s staff meeting but I think you have something we can use at a price we can afford. It’s likely a one time deal and simple enough we just might be have time to use it at Midway if that’s where we go next. And figure out what to do if the Calps have thought of this first and have it ready to use against us.”

“Got it Sir! Ogalby’s already working on the software.”

“This is the lowest High Tech weapon I have ever seen, so low that we can probably get enough made to be usable in the time at hand,” Colonel Jubal Reeves rolled a half dozen 2 and a half centimeter spheres across the table until everyone had held one.

“We blended the explosive with standard lab equipment, rolled it into a ball by hand, stuck in the smallest radio detonator we had on hand and in stock, then cast the hard surface covering in a wooden mold. That was the part that took longest. Put the explosive ball in the cover, closed the two halves and let the excess squeeze out, open and clean up the mating surfaces. Then put it back together and bond it. One simulated missile drive ready for testing.”

“We took eight out to the range and blew them up. We had to dial down the sensor software because of the distance but false hits were recorded by all platforms and with each detonation. It didn’t take too long for the tracing devices to decide these were phony and not worth tracking but if there had been thousands of them to sort out instead of a handful just the cycle losses and time wasted rechecking would be significant. It would suck up most all of their processing time for seconds, letting them continue to track only confirmed interceptors.”

“All my people are on overtime building samples. Tomorrow we will try it out in space. I can’t see how it can fail to cause problems. To really saturate a ships sensors we will need thousands of these things. The more the merrier. But this weapons operational lifespan is going to be short I think.”

“Found a cure yet Audie,” Wes asked the diminutive Chief Engineer.

“One that will work for now. We can reprogram all optical initial contacts to check for acceleration, if it’s too low we ignore the contact and check only once a second instead of trying for a continuous track. If we get a lot of these we flash an alarm to the weapons folk so they know something fishy is going on. There’s more but we have a team of sensor geeks and programmers working on it. It’ll come down to more processing power, almost always does.”

“I’ll set up tomorrow’s test,” Jamie Madry said. “If we are going to use this we need a lot of them and we need them fast. No time to put the build out for quotes”

“Clay,” Wes said to his Chief of Staff, “get with Immigration Placement and requisition some of our new citizenry. Secretary Verser will be glad to get them working and off the doll for however how short a time. We can’t build anything new to house this but Germfask just finished a new granary and the crop isn’t in. We also can’t have neophytes working with explosives in a city. No machinery just hand work, and as many bodies as it takes. Get on it now Clay, I don’t think we are going to talk about anything else today that you and I haven’t already discussed.”

Grayson left and they turned to other items.

Quintillion was the name given to the Cardoman systems fifth and smallest minor planet, not much more than a large moon at 1700 kilometers diameter, 480 million kilometers from Cardoman’s sun, and with no atmosphere of volcanic action, it was as dead as a world could be. What minerals and metallic compounds it held in quantity (it was almost 40% nickel and iron) could more easily be mined from the much smaller rocks of the asteroid belt. Tidally locked, the back side made a wonderful spot for a listening post. One that through most of its year, as it was now, was shielded from the electromagnetic output of Cardoman and the emitters circling it. And of course with a name like Quintillion, it was known more popularly as ‘Tilly’.

The Lieutenant in charge of the listening post was going to file a complaint when he learned about the weapons test to be held so close to his base but then he saw who had issued the orders and decided to do what he could to help gather information with the sensors at his disposal. With a few thousand bombs going off in various receivers’ lines of sight and the Perseus jetting around, along with an undisclosed number of shipkiller drives, they wouldn’t be good for anything else until the show ended.

“The Perseus was a G-2M that did double duty as the Navy’s space based mobile engineering and scientific test ship. Julian Kenwood, now in charge of Perseus was more than happy to have his former Captain, Audie Madry, and of course the others from R&D, with him for the trip to Tilly and back. She was close in her orbit now but the round trip and six or eight hours of test time were going to take a full twenty-four hours. The one-way trip time without counting maneuvering at either end was 6.18 hours. There should be plenty of time to talk.

The test itself turned out to be anticlimactic, on short planning everything worked as expected, most better than that. Knowing what they were looking for and results in hand they only minor failure was that 10% of the little bomblettes failed to explode. Hand manufacturing and bottom of the bin fuses the cause, even the 10% failure rate was acceptable; they would do better in full production with a small amount of quality testing. A small amount; volume was the key for Cardoman’s latest Wonder Weapon.

The Perseus had only just gotten back into line of sight with the Bergeron when the message was sent to throw in more resources and being full production ASAP!