Marjoram 5

Chapter 5 Draft (08-06-11)

“Two, One. Transition In!” The bright yellow star of Philomel dominated the center of view in the G-4 Battle Cruiser Dzarugian’s holo-tank, a warm glow in the surrounding dark. Their transition marked at 22 minutes outside the limit. For a military vessel on an old and established run 45 minutes was acceptable, 30 good, and closer than 15 considered risky. If you timed things wrong and came in on the in side of the hyperlimit—you didn’t. The energies involved could not dissipate in a grav pulse—and you bounced. Sometimes light years away and never in a predictable direction. Not a pleasant experience if one was low on fuel.

The thinking went—that the further inside you tried to jump the further outside you bounced. Once every few years a hypership went missing and never showed up again. The assumption was a nav error and that they came in too deep. Civilian ships played it safer than the military. They aimed for a transition an hour outside and penalized captains who came in too close. Better a few extra hours or even a day spent than risk a one way trip to infinity.

Captain Fansa had given orders to widecast their recognition codes as soon as transition was complete. Usually it was best to locate and lock on to whomever it was you wished to inform of your arrival before sending. In a system as heavily defended as Philomel that was risky because with the war came the order to shoot first and ask questions later. Their drive signature would give them away to a sophisticated enemy and to the fleet defenses here as well. But why take chances?

“Streaming data from the G-3 Baghdad,” Lt. Alajah said, even though he himself had routed the data to the captain’s display.

Not quite thirty-five minutes since transition and a two way trip. Perhaps some luck; they had come in quite close to a system defense ship, but as a fleet base Philomel had a lot of ships on picket duty. This data was showing the placement of stealthed weapons platforms and current minefield locations, data that would let them plot a best course for the remainder of this voyage. Even with good friend and foe codes a prudent officer tended to avoid coming close to semi-autonomous weaponry.

“Acknowledge the signal and set a course. The First Officer has the bridge!”

When Fleet Grand Admiral Suleiman heard of the Dzarugian’s arrival he went directly to his office to wait for then view her report. Suleiman knew the schedule of each ship making up his two fleet section, now up to twenty seven ships with more on the way and one on a standard rotation to Earth. It didn’t take the assumed wisdom of an admiral to know if she was in early; it was not a good sign.

After reading Fansa’s message he wasn’t quite so sure on that point. Fansa had called this one correctly and there were many possibilities to consider. Ones offset by some danger but he thought all in all manageable.

His reputation could use a rebuild after the debacles that were Triocat and especially New Britain. Not that either was even remotely his fault by any sane examination, and in a war of attrition even the loss numbers could be explained, still, his support on Earth was flagging and unless he could turn the last year around it was mandatory retirement at the end of this tour. A tour with only seven months left to run.

It was easier for those back on Earth to remember that it was his fleets that had taken the most losses and his ships and crews that had suffered the most casualties in this war than it was for them to remember who had done the most fighting. Those outside of the military elite, and a few amongst its numbers, considered managing a business, or on a personal level a family with multiple wives to be ever so much more difficult then managing a fleet. They were clearly wrong. In heaven Rear Admiral Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubay the Ninth Fleet Commander at New Britain would surely greet them and disabuse them of their error.

Suleiman spoke into an invisible microphone and said, “Summon Cmdr al-Qiblah and ask him to come to my office.” Naiyer al-Qiblah was a Subfleet Commander of the first squadron of the rebuilding Ninth Fleet. Suleiman had moved him from Shia in the Tenth to the Ninth, and placed him in charge of the G-4 Tell Qaramel. As Suleiman’s former aide he was a known quantity and someone the Admiral could trust, an important thing to consider when choices made put ones life on the line.

They worked well together and Naiyer could follow orders without loosing sight of where he was going. A valuable trait in the man he was going to send back to reinforce Midway with orders placing him in charge of all ships on station. And he was just the man to redeem Ninth Fleet’s honor.

With Commander Qiblah would go all of his first squadron, his own Tell Qaramell, the Umayyad, el Wahibi, Antioch, and Fansa’s Dzrugian; there was a ship that would get no rest. His second squadron would be led by the Sunah, borrowed from Philomel home fleet and the remainder of the Ninth, the Seljuk, Yamkhad, Beorea, and the lone G-3 on this mission, the Bab al-Hadid. She had survived New Britain and earned her place.

With the ships already at Midway the total force at his command would then amount to fifteen capital ships plus a dozen small local craft. They would have three times the force any invader would expect. What ever happened after they were found out Qiblah would be responsible to use them properly and insure that victory for Ninth Fleet was the only result.

Thirty-five hours after Dzrugian transitioned in, all of Ninth Fleet transitioned out. The ships left at twenty second intervals with Sunah first and Bab al-Hadid last. Even on a short trip like this, one of only two weeks for a G-4, the slower G-3 Bab al-Hadid would arrive 3.73 days behind. Slowing the rest of Ninth Fleet so that she could keep up wasn’t an option. They did not know if an attack on Midway was at hand, but if it was then the most likely source was Cardoman.

If that was the case there was time to spare. If an attack came from someone closer the battle could be over when they arrived. Then a decision would be made concerning what to do next. In the worst case the Bab al-Hadid would be in a perfect position to look around and then jump back for Philomel to deliver a report.

* * *
Transition in! and nineteen minutes outside the limit the SnapDragon was back in Cardoman Space. IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) went first then the rest of the data gathered at Midway. Even in burst mode with moderate encryption that took some time. A sweep of the system showed nothing out of the ordinary but Vernor stayed on the bridge, waiting for the first touch of an incoming message.

It came from a sublight picket sowing mines on the limits edge. A hearty welcome home, coded but radio traffic; the mine-layer didn’t have the precision to send optical at this distance. The clear inner message of the decode read, “Get your ass back to Cardoman High on the double.” About what he expected. So after the new system map went into the ships database the Dragon started picking them up and laying ‘em down—making tracks for planetary orbit at max G—10 hours away.

“Is there anything the data doesn’t show? Anything that is keeping you awake at night?”

“A clean mission I think,” Vernor said to Admiral Madry who had taken over from Jack Trebeck after the initial debrief. “We were quite, only one minor breech, and someone would have to have been very close to detect it. And even then would be hard pressed figure out what it meant.”

Jamie looked to the others present, waiting for someone to demure; it didn’t happen.

“We go! I want the Captains of each ship involved to meet in conference room 3 at the start of the second watch tomorrow. Captain McCormack will give the final briefing. Next, Lt. Pots, double check that all stores are loaded and triple check all system software updates are current, and Vern—you are going back—so tell me what, if anything, you need beyond refueling and consumables in order to get the Dragon ready. I won’t burden you with our weaponry upgrade, not enough time, but read the notes so you know what the rest of the group has been working on. I will put enough people on task to make sure that your ship is set to go, you will have to handle your crew, this turnaround will not be popular but it is important!”

Mark (Mac) McCormack was the most senior Captain in Cardoman’s fleet. Recruited by Jamie from commercial service and trained by Lester Raymond. He had fought and lost gallantly against overwhelming odds at the Battle of First Cardoman, the one that put the Calps on the ground and gave them control of the planet. He was the last to leave the Carpathian, her tubes exhausted and under fire by the Calps G-4 Sunah. His ship did not survive but he and most of his crew did. Many of them transferred aboard when he took command of the Essex II, his present command.

With the Essex would go, Aladin, Satatoga, Witch of the Westwind, and the Dragon. That was every one of Cardoman’s

G-4’s with the exception of the newly completed Wasp. Jamie had told him, half joking, that he Better not screw this up and make the Major look bad. She had wanted to lead this strike but Wes Calvert insisted she stay with the depleted home fleet, as her talents would be needed if Cardoman were to be attacked while the rest of the fleet, and almost all of its power were absent. Even a Fleet Admiral had to take orders.

The meeting was short, their approach to Midway was going to be much simpler than the one Vern Matson made. A single stop only lighthours out and a jump ending right on top of the Calp base and fueling station. The fact it sat outside the small suns hyperlimit should result in total surprise if their navigation was up to the challenge. Contrary to doctrine the attacking force would not have strength of numbers but surprise should make up for the lack.

If all went as planned they would shoot anything that moved and then get the workers off the fueling platforms and into their habitats. Then they would destroy the fueling station and all of its supporting structures, especially the ships that dove deep into the gas giant’s atmosphere to return with a load of hydrogen fuel. Those ships would be hard to replace.

It seemed most likely if the raid was a success the system must be abandoned. Replacing the fuel works again outside the limit would be seen as setting up a repeat, and to move them inside the hyperlimit would make a marginal operation untenable.

They were going to use that fact to entice as many of the workers as would agree to return with them and take residence on Cardoman for the duration of the war. The possible addition of several thousand trained orbital mechanics caused everyone who had an inkling about how overwork was leading to problems with production and morale to pray nightly for a win.

The briefing over and all Captains and crew having returned to their ships, an hour into third watch, half the Cardoman Fleet was boosting for the limit and a jump to Midway. Nine hours after that they transitioned out at ten second intervals.

* * *
When Ninth Feet arrived at Midway the situation was unchanged from that of a month before, with the exception of two ships being retrofitted with new tanks and a civilian freighter at the fueling dock.

Captain al Qiblah wasted no time delivering his orders and assuming responsibility for all military forces in the system. His ships quickly taking positions close to the fuel station and powering down but not to sleep and stealth status. They could launch and defend themselves with the power at hand, getting underway would take only a few minutes. No attacking fleet should be able to transition in any closer than that. A single ship might get lucky, but not a fleet or a large enough portion of a fleet, to cause him any immediate harm.

The Captain’s and crew of the ships normally stationed here were not happy at all with al Qiblah’s edicts. They were required to continue operations as before. Pulled slightly closer in but fully visible. This would serve a double purpose. It would make any attackers think nothing had changed and give them a number of easy targets to engage their sensors upon arrival and delay a closer look at the fueling station.

Basheer Fansa on the Dzrugian was not in the least put off, his ship had been unseen by the original scouting vessel and he joined the rest of Ninth Fleet in hiding. With past experience his ship was better at this than most.

The system defense plan was simple at its core; the bedlam of his first strike, overpowering in its intensity, would give al Qiblah time for multiple launches from point blank range into an unsuspecting enemy.

The stage was set and his pieces in place all was ready; now he needed someone to show up and give him a chance to prove the point.

The five Cardoman battle cruisers transitioned in for their navigational fix three light hours out from Midway. This was close enough that their sensors could detect the human presence by the other than natural electronic background and several point sources of neutrinos, fusion generated that provided its support. There was nothing in what they could see to alert them to any major changes happening since the Dragon’s last visit. The grav pulses generated by Ninth Fleet’s arrival were days beyond their nav point by now and the powered down ships did not provide a detectable signal.

Each Cardoman ship performed its own calculation based on its own telemetry then they shared and averaged the results for an accuracy as high as the current shipboard technology and the laws of nature would permit. They had even measured their present ship to ship distance to their error limits making sure each of them had a separation of greater than a second but less than two seconds communication wise and from the next vessel in terms of jump order.

They were going to transition out and then come back in at two second intervals in order to maximize the surprise factor. A signal sent just prior to jump from the first ship would trigger a countdown timer on the ship next in line. That same signal would start the timers on the remaining ships as well and each would pick up the count with the signal lag subtracted out.

Subjective time spent in hyper would barely be noticeable and they would reach Midway as a unit with minimal separation in space or time. Then the difficult part of the plan would begin—the part too difficult to leave to automatic control.

Mac McCormack had more faith in his ship and crew than he had in himself right now. He checked with Fitzgerald on the battle bridge then took one more look around his own. Then he went back to worrying about one of the details that there was nothing much he could do anything about.

When his finished their jump they would have a residual vector, a velocity they carried with them through the jump. By aligning all his ships vector motions now, making them stationary one to another, and trying to mach each exit point, they would come back in roughly at the same relative velocity that the nav point held with Midway; but only roughly. And they would have some velocity measured in tens or more likely, hundreds of kilometers a second, because of their position in the solar gravity well. And that would be taking them away from the station.

Individual adjustment would come before fleet movement. There was more to keep track of than a single mind could encompass. He gave thanks for his crew one last time.

“Ready?” It was not really a question, “Transition, Now!”

The seat display blurred then steadied as a new image snapped into place and started updating; the holo tank in the room’s center was slower to recycle. The transition alarm was silenced, replaced at once by the much more shrill sounding threat alarm before it too was turned off. Mac could already see the icons of two Calp G-4’s; one 40 thousand kilometers away, one in front and between him and the looming station 230 thousand kilometers distant made close by magnification, and the other ship, 125 thousand kilometers off to the side.

He didn’t know their names but he had their numbers, and giving the command to fire, missiles left the tubes. Wanting to insure at least one certain kill, but needing to keep both ships busy, McCormack had taken the half second necessary to read his display and then select tubes one through eight for the near ship and 9 and 10 for the farther one. That was all ten tubes a G-4 possessed and reload began at once.

Essex had transitioned in only two light seconds, or about 600 thousand kilometers from the fueling base. With maximum shipkiller range over 700 light seconds this made a mockery of point blank range. At a Ship Killer’s 2200 G’s the nearest Caliphate G-4 was 61 seconds away, the far one 107 seconds for a contact detonation; contact counted as anything within five kilometers of the target. A shipkiller warhead’s directed blast would punch through any conceivable armor at that short a distance.

His own ship’s residual vector after the jump had it heading in system at a 17 degree angle from a line between the gas giant and the star they called Midway, at 280 KPS.

Standard procedure here was to use something approaching max G to kill the initial vector. SP. was inapplicable here, with four other ships joining him and no certainty of their in points, using his drive at more than a couple of percent would make the area directly behind the ship a killing zone for incoming vessels. The Essex would coast inward for the eight seconds it was going to take until all his ships joined the fray.

That tactical necessity, Mac couldn’t call it a decision, saved the ship and all aboard from near certain death.

On the Essex once silenced alarms, visual and auditory, seemed to spring back to life from all directions. The grav pulse from the Aladin momentarily overpowered everything else. She had come in 80,000 kilometers above and slightly in system from the Essex’s position. The ship holo display was showing beam weapons already firing steams of high energy particles; they were detected by backscatter, through the area the Essex would have occupied had she used standard procedures. ‘How in hell could the Calps have reacted so rapidly?’ The only explanation was that they had been expected and the defense forces on alert.

A complete data dump was already on its way to Aladin—that would save them about a second and a half in ordering the threats. The Essex’s shipkillers were both accelerating and jinking so they were safe from beam weapons even at short range but the two Calp G-4’s, he had them firmly in their cross-hairs now. The Palestine and Bimaristan were already sending out interceptors and Mac was sure that shipkillers aimed his way would not be far behind. He killed his drive completely to change the game again, using the extra power for his own beam weapons just as the Sara cycled in.

Both of the new Card ships could afford to fire all ten tubes in a first salvo but half of the first reload would need to be saved to defend themselves. Six seconds into the battle and the plan had already fallen apart.

The sensor operator thought he had a third Calp a long way off at 500 light seconds but was not sure of name or type. As the Witch of the West Wind showed on his screen things went from bad to worse. Nine more ships showed themselves powering up in the area around the fuel station, stealthed and seemingly out of nowhere. This had become a battle he couldn’t win and it was now time to plan the retreat.

A thousand possibilities went chasing through Macs thoughts in the two seconds it took before Matson’s SnapDragon transitioned in, completing that part of the plan. When the ship painted on his screen he realized that even when a plan was going as bad as possible there was still room for it to slide further off the scale. The Dragon had transitioned in only 60 thousand kilometers away, but it was halfway between the Essex and the ten Calp battle cruisers lighting off and launching full loadouts.

“This is not good,” Captain Matson said as soon as he saw his first display refresh. Automatics were already sending out short range anti-missiles before his hands could reach for the controls to release all his crewed weapons to local control by their gun teams. A hundred shipkiller’s were already headed his way, some of them only thirty seconds from hitting home.

While the weapons people went about their duty Matson took his ship max G in the general direction of the other Cardoman ships. He had to take a course slightly off-line because even at more than 100,000 kilometers distance his exhaust at max would pretty much destroy an unshielded fueling station sitting directly astern.

Matson’s next move was to accept a voice connection sent on the command channel from the Essex.

“Vern, I want you to jump as soon as you can, the squadron’s bugging out, you are authorized the use of Audie’s new wonder weapon, and anything else you can think of short of blowing up the station in making your escape. Do what you can and do it now. Good luck, Essex out.”

Vern had left the command channel unlocked for all on the ship to hear; not many had time to listen. It took all of ten seconds for him rule out using the new drive emulator bombs; with the kind of odds against him even they would not be enough and with the secret out there might never be a chance to use them later. That out of the way his defensive plan became simple—fire everything and anything and keep doing it until the end. The Dragon might survive this, the universe was large and stranger things had happened.

The Dragon was to the inside of the Bimaristan, might as well send a little heat their way.

In Flag Plot on Dzarugian Squadron Leader Basheer Fansa watched with little emotion, someone of a more Martial Stature might well have been beside himself with joy; from the Caliphate’s perspective it was going that well. The holo tank in Flag was twice the size of the one on the main bridge one deck up; it showed more and in much greater detail.

At this moment it showed fifty shipkillers converging on the Bimaristan, and the same being intercepted one by one as they neared, but not quite fast enough to stop the warheads detonating at increasingly closer ranges. It also showed twice that number converging on the Cardoman SnapDragon, it was neck and neck—the race to determine which flight would reach their goal and strike first.

On the main bridge of the Dzarugian sat First Officer Worjeh. When this was done he would most assuredly be due and receive a command of his own, let him feel it now. Fansa took note of the straight line tracks of his own shipkillers and contrasted them with the jagged and ragged trace left by those from the Cardoman ships. No surprise there, what other Navy would attack the Caliphate directly and in such a brazen fashion at this time?

Union had declared war and had the strength but perhaps as yet not the will. Llanfairn, the largest and wealthiest Independent might have sent some ships, but she had not been attacked directly yet, only her shipping harassed, and timid hearts were charting her course. Novi and New Britain were licking their wounds. That left only Cardoman as the logical choice. And Cardoman it was.

Two flares in the holo tank, a photo finish. Scratch one from each side. Fansa did not know anyone on the Bimaristan but he was already composing the letter to their next of kin.

The Cards were running for it, and taking some damage along the way to sensors and other items not hardened that were located on the outside of their ships.

Whoever was leading them on the battle cruiser Essex had judged well—not made a single error except that of attacking in the first place. He had kept his head, issued the order and started to flee within seconds of realizing what he was up against.

In an amazingly short period of time there was a frightening amount of additional ordnance expended, but all to no avail as the four surviving Cardoman ships transitioned out, battered but unbroken. This war would go on for years; Fansa was quite sure they would meet again.