Marjoram 9

Marjoram
Chapter 9 Draft (08-23-11)

“Two, One, Transition In.” They came in close to Jabal’s gas giant and fueling station, and as luck would have it there wasn’t a ship in sight, at least nothing large enough to be of any interest, a few small lighters and what looked like at this distance like a tug. The two Cardoman ships had paused momentarily a light hour before this final jump and knew that there was at least one mobile fusion source in front of them; but they were too far away for more than that.

Now that the were here, and still unnoticed, having beaten their grav pulse from the last stop, there was a G-2 icon showing near the airless minor planet far inward where the system’s mining took place.

Pavel Tsarinstyn Captain of the lead ship Aladin was typical of Cardoman officers in that he was young for the job and made up for his youth with experience. Only six years ago he could say that he was the best shuttle and lander pilot in the fleet. He liked to think he still was. But Command of a G-4 had cut his small craft hours down to the point where he just kept his ticket up to date, not that anyone would be so foolish as to try and take it away.

He’d spent a year as superintendent of the Cardoman shuttle production facility and had more test hours under his belt than your usual or even unusual small craft pilot might see in a lifetime outside of the sims.

Kellen Durnam, Captain of the second ship, the G-3 Admiral Raymond’s had been First Officer of the Ray when Joe Speedway was ordered to the new Witch of the Westwind, as a result he moved up the food chain accordingly.

This stop, an hour out, put the Aladin only seven million kilometers from the fueling station, the Admiral Raymond a half a million miles to her galactic north. The indicated G-2 they’d located was 225 million kilometers away and would not even have seen them yet. Already in missile range, Pavel sent one shipkiller towards the fueling depot as a warning; if there was another ship nearby it would flush it into the open. If not the first part of this mission would be quick. They would give the station occupants a chance of get off and then blow the whole thing to particle size or smaller. They would also making sure to get the hydrogen dipping atmosphere skimmers she controlled at the same time, then on to the mining base and perhaps a fight.

The shipkiller took ten minutes and made it to within a hundred thousand kilometers of the fueling station before the first weak hint of a response, a dozen short range interceptors put out that a spectrogram taken of their drives showed matched those in service sixty years earlier. Pavel had his weapons officer, ships third officer, Wilma Dillingham send his own missile off course at the last moment where she made it explode while pointing in a safe direction.

It was only then that the first challenge to his presence in the system came across the planetary net, delivered by a voice that didn’t even name the speaker, with words amounting to little more than, “Halt or Else! It originated at the fuel station.”

Pavel sent a response, “This is Captain Pavel Tsarinstyn of the CNS Aladin.” He sent the message on the same frequency as the challenge but at much higher power. “You have twenty minutes to begin the evacuation of your position. You may start by agreeing to this order, you have one hour to complete it. At the end of that time there will no longer be a fueling station left in the Jabal system.”

By now he had optical close-ups of the station and surrounding area delivered from cameras piggy backed on his now departed shipkiller. They’d been released to sail freely past a few minutes before the missile blew. The station’s meteor defenses had finally seen the optical package and taken it out, but not before it closed to a mere 50 kilometers from the station sending photos all the way. They were lucky to hit it the small sensor pod Pavel guessed, and the optical device would have missed hitting the station in any event.

The Chief Petty Officer heading up his photo analysis team had noted on several of the frames pertinent details. On a side structure Station habitat — room for 50 to 100. And on another — three small inter-system cargo craft, capability 20 tons or 30+ passengers each. They had the wherewithal to leave, they better have the will.

“This is Station Commander Bottomsly; We are a civilian operation here, there are no military personnel and you can’t do this to us!”

“Just watch me Mr. Bottomsly. You are a legitimate target in a declared war. And you now have nineteen minutes. I do not intend to debate this point; you better get it in gear!”

There were no more attempts at communication in his direction but Pavel suspected directional senders were transmitting both to Jabal and the mining base. Well before the twenty minute mark his sensors had reported that all three ships detected earlier were powering up. At the 35 minute mark the first departed, at 55 minutes the last.

“Target Practice,” he announced, “Don’t use anything but low power, low G, long range bombardment types. At 25 million a pop a shipkiller is too rich for this target environment.”

As target practice it was extremely easy because without any countermeasures to cause maneuver or degrade the missiles sensors they could not miss. And there wasn’t much of a bang when the storage tanks were hit. The station techs had shut down the power plant before they left and without oxygen to burn with the stored hydrogen only vaporized into the vacuum. “We’ll get that enhanced for the PR shots, do a little false color, boost the contrast, the Ray’s F.O. Lt Ivory said to Signals Officer Spivey.” Spivey was sure that this was not a joke.

In the hour while this was going on a second Calp G-2M showed on their screens. It had been orbiting Jabal and was now headed for the limit as fast as its fifty G’s allowed. The Vectors involved meant no hope of catching her.

There must have been quite a conference between the two because a quarter hour after the ship at Jabal started to run so did the one at the mining base. Much closer and leaving later the situation was different. She looked to be catchable, and as Captain of the faster ship Pavel went at once in pursuit, while Kellen Durnam finished up the fuel depot before making haste for the minor planet and mining base. Another legitimate target that was not going to serve the Caliphate any more after the Raymond was through with her.

It was a stern chase and a long one but the Calps only hope was to try for the shortest distance to the hyper limit and that let Pavel cut the corner. Physics dictated the outcome. The G-2 needed to cover 1800 lightseconds and the Aladin closer to 2000, but 17.5 G’s in greater acceleration had Pavel in range eleven hours and forty-six minutes later. The G-2 was still 50 minutes inside the limit.

Pavel offered terms and was rejected. He launched a full flight but did not use any of the bomblette type warheads. The ship that left from Jabal was still traveling outward and might see something. The disparity in weaponry between a 2 and a 4 was all he needed he didn’t have to be fancy. The G-2’s crew bailed and Aladin’s missiles struck. Then Pavel went about picking up survivors, none of whom were in very good condition. They were much too close to the warheads when they went off.

Captain Durnam was having problems of his own. The mining base surrendered at once but that made things worse. Again these were not strictly speaking military people even though what they were doing was aiding the Calp war effort, so he was required to treat them as civilians. And this was not a small operation like the fuel station. Twenty-five hundred plus miner and dependents were stationed here, 90% of them on the small asteroid sized planet and a few hundred on two stations in orbit.

The world was airless, if there were more of these rocks circling Jabal it would have been labeled called an asteroid rather than a minor planet. All of the habitats were underground, dug in as protection against the suns harsh glare and thermal shock from the rocks two hour rotational rate.

That wasn’t a problem, because he wasn’t looking to nuke them to nothing—or anything like that. But he did need to destroy the mines and smelters and the casting equipment without harming the people living in close proximity. And some of that stuff was underground. If he wasn’t careful destroying the mines would destroy the habitats and the people had nowhere else to go and no shipping to take them there.

In time they could all be taken back to Jabal by ships used in normal crew rotations, but that wasn’t part of Kellen’s job either. He needed to make the equipment giving the ability to mine this rocky world go away, and seal up the current mineshafts for a long, long, time. Until the Caliphate could bring in a lot of new equipment. And he had to do this rapidly; a Calp squadron might transition in at any time.

While Pavel was picking up prisoners Kellen started by getting the couple of hundred people in orbit to leave for the planets surface. They had enough transport to handle this. Next Kellen sent teams of marines and naval types through the vacant stations looking for anything of value. Odds and ends but little small enough to could take back to Cardoman. The stations were left in place and would be destroyed when they Cards left.

Keeping the orbital spaces clear for his own shuttles to use Kellen then bombed from on high a few outlying facilities and sent shipkillers into two major mine shafts located well away from the habitats, their warheads set to detonate at the lowest adjustable level. Then he decided to wait for the Aladin and more support. Because the only way forward was to put boots on the ground, use the marines to plant charges to blow the buildings one at a time.

Over the course of the next week that is exactly what they did, and it was nail biting time each step of the way. Had those on the ground put up a resistance, fought from cover, they would have needed to resort to extreme measures and violate the orders they were operating under. Either that or fail at the more important of the two tasks assigned when they left on this mission. A large Calp force translating in would have caused the same result.

There were a few minor incidents but a week saw the job done. Then both of the orbitals were destroyed. Another week and the communications and inter-system shipping based at Jabal met the same fate. There were pickets still operational but none with a Captain and crew foolhardy enough to challenge an intact and undamaged Battle Cruiser.

Fifty of the crew from the Caliphate G-2M were still alive, forty might live to tell the story to their grandchildren. They were now split between the sick berths on both ships and lacked for nothing it was possible for the Cards to supply. Those responsible on Jabal had without reservation refused a temporary truce and a medical transfer.

Keeping the incapacitated prisoners on board was going to make the return home unpleasant but there was a general sigh of relief on both ships when outside the limit over their intercoms came the words, “Two, One, Transition Out!”

* * *
Carla Bignotti took over as Captain of the G-2M Wanderlust when Emma Debus got promoted up to the Hornet. Her permanent rank was still Lt. Commander. At the ceremony where she was read in, Jamie Madry pulled her aside and said, “One successful cruise and you go on the permanent list as full Captain. I spent some time looking at how the Union Navy operates and we are making some changes. Personnel problems have been eating up a too much of all of our time and something had to give, especially if I am to spend my time fighting a fleet and not commanding a desk.”

“We are growing so rapidly now that I took what I learned from Union to the Major and we had a talk. I can’t know everyone well enough to anymore to make all promotion decisions alone and none on staff could do any better, so we adopted wholesale much of the Federation Handbook.”

“This hasn’t been sent to the Fleet yet, we’re about a month away from finalization, but by not promoting you now I can’t be said to be delaying to play favorites. You and a couple of others for a few months get to be sacrificial lambs. I hope there are no hard feelings on your part Carla, but I had to start somewhere.”

In fact Carla had been so busy from the moment her former captain left the Wanderlust that she had not given her own lack of an immediate promotion a second thought. In fact she never knew what the rule was anyway, and as far as she could tell the Cardoman Navy had always had ship captains with out ‘Captain’ as their permanent rank, though anyone running a ship always got the title and the pay that went with it, and she of course knew there were others in that same state even now.

“Never crossed my mind Admiral. What did surprise me was that I got the job and not my new First Officer Cass Cummings; he has far more experience than I have.”

“True that Carla, but until six months ago none of it was with the Cardoman Navy. He spent twenty years with the Navaran contribution to the Federation Navy, and all of it good time. But without any first hand performance to judge he goes to the list as seniority in Cardoman service dictates. He understands this and I think he will be a major asset to you on the Wanderlust. Don’t keep him outside the decision loop because you think he might be competition, it’s the worst mistake a Captain can make. Be yourself and you’ll be fine, all of us are counting on you.”

And no matter what reservations Carla had to count on her crew and especially her officers.

It was a strange reversal of ancient pattern, but as lethality and fighting strength, went up in military ship classes, from 2 to 3 to 4, ship size and crew size went down. The Wanderlust, fully manned, had a crew of three hundred fifty, a typical G-3 carried two hundred seventy, and a 4 two hundred and five. The larger size of the older vessels was one determining factor, but the amount of automation in newer classes was as least as important in cutting down the manpower requirements.

The ratio of officers to enlisted was similar across all classes of ship, and very light, especially compared to the Army; or even navies of times past, about one officer for every thirty crewmen. Every ship had a Captain and three watch standing officers, usually by rank the ship’s First, Second, and Third. There was also an Engineering Officer who might be a link in the direct chain of command, but only if he had also served as a watch standing officer during some other point in his career.

Besides engineering each ship had a weapons section and usually a combined navigation and signals section. On 2’s and three’s these departments might be headed by a junior officer, sometimes an ensign direct from the Naval Training Center on the Burg. On a G-4 these departments were under one of the watch standers, with an ensign or senior enlisted, and rarely a lieutenant directing day to day operations and training. There was the ever present logistics and supply section but running it was always a part of the ships Executive Officer’s responsibilities and under the Boss’n.

Any ship might have a few more officers on board, medical or perhaps a senior shuttle pilot, and more often a marine detachment officer, but these people were with very rare exception, one or two in the fleet, outside the direct chain that caused one to move a step closer to the ship’s captaincy if someone above was killed or injured in battle.

Cass Cummings, Carla’s First Officer, due to his previous experience had rapidly jumped to the top of the watch stander list as Second Officer on the Wanderlust prior to Emma Debus leaving the ship for her first tour as the Hornet’s Captain; Carla had come to appreciate the wisdom of that step. And just as she got a bump when Emma left so did he.

‘Salty,’ might be the best way to describe the way Cass came off at a first impression. His manner was something Carla had not seen before in the Federation Officers she had dealt with in the past, occasionally enlisted but never officers. It must be something about the particular traditions in the Navaran Navy, and the way they operated as a unit under Confederation command.

When she finally felt she knew him well enough to ask him a personal question, why he left the big guys for a little upstart like Cardoman he said, “When they told me it was up or out and I had to take command of a transport, I told them I’d rather sweep floors on a transport than Captain one. I think they were going to take me up on the offer.”

“I came from a transport you know.”

“Well then, you understand exactly what I was getting at.”

The Wanderlust’s new Second Officer was Lt Kermit Hirsch, her Third, Junior Lt. Jarret Linse, both with the ship less than a year at rank but at least with the ship from the time that the Navy had acquired her. In Doug Moffit, her Engineering Officer she had everything she could desire. He had worked on the Wanderlust’s conversion to 2M status and been with her ever since. She also had three Ensigns as nominal heads for each of navigation, sensors, and weapons and a Lt jg and another Ensign in materials handling.

The ship’s marine detachment of twenty was under Sgt. Lester Lassiter. Lassiter was a highly decorated and senior marine, respected by all who knew him, one of the Seventh since early on. He reported to Carla while on ship but she did almost nothing when it came to specific instruction concerning his job. He’d been assigned to the ship by Marine Colonel Rafael Zavala, head of the Fleet Marine Force in the absence of General Davis. Carla had the authority to reject such an appointment but the thought never crossed her mind.

A good ship, getting better, but still young; only time could take care of that.

On the Lead ship of this two ship force Mark McCormack also worried about the Wanderlust. Not her captain and crew but how she was going to keep up with his Essex if they needed to fight. Or more precisely how he would manage his own ship so as not to rush ahead leave her vulnerable.

One thing he didn’t worry about was the condition of the Essex; he was certain he had the best set of officers and crew in the fleet. Being away from Cardoman when many of the emergency manning and transfers were made was a part of that, and luck seemed to have played him as a favorite, and he intended for that to continue.

His First Officer was Cmdr. Marigold Last, his Second was Lt Steven Carstairs, and Third was Lamar Finster, another senior Lt. His Engineering Officer was Cmdr. Igor Lerminov. In a fleet gifted with a slew of outstanding engineers he still stood out. Capt. Hans Baumgarden headed up his Marines—and very well thank you. The ship’s crew was every bit as adept as the officer corps. Mac had a lot to be thankful for.

The Cardoman ships wasted no time at their nav point two and a half light hours from Sam’an, couldn’t if they were to jump again and still be in front of their first grav pulse. System sensors might pick them up but too late to learn anything new about their next stop before it happened. When they arrived at this nav point they were close together in time and space but were almost an hour farther out than either had expected. The nav data for Sam’an needed updating.

An exchange of greetings and coordination of navigational fixes for here and now and both ships jumped again.

“Two One, Transition In!” Again close in time and space, and this time only ten minutes farther out than intended. They picked up the fueling station at once. But they were still carrying 350 kps worth of jump energy with them that they needed to dump. Killing their residual off target vectors both ships working at the Wanderlust’s max G, would take 700 seconds.

With that out of the way they were a little over a thousand lightseconds from target as they continued making a course for the fueling station. That trip was going to consume close to fourteen hours and require a seven hour mid-course flip to slow down again so they would end with zero velocity relative to the station when they reached it. There was no doubt they would be expected.

Because of the planet’s breadbasket status this fueling base was labeled a totally military operation. They needed to get close enough to verify that fact before opening fire. While working on their course both ships kept sensors busy cataloging the rest of the system’s assets.

“Look at that,” the ensign on the signals display said to Lt. Jarret Linse, who had the Wanderlust’s watch.

A quick scan and he could tell that Ensign Newkirk had made a good call in bringing this to his attention, the icon on the main display started flashing to buttress his conclusion. What Newkirk had spotted was a Calp ship, likely a G-4 based on the level of stealth employed, and not very far from the station that was their own destination.

“Send this to the Essex,” Linse said at once. The Wanderlust had seen the docks more recently than the lead ship and her sensors reflected that fact. Then he called for Captain Bignotti, she would want to know.

“Well done Newkirk, there might be something more to you than your grades indicated.” Captain Bignotti said upon reaching the bridge.

Newkirk didn’t even blink, he just said, “Ma’am, my grades would have been a lot better if I had shown my work but I couldn’t seem to take the time when so much seemed so obvious.”

“Out in the real world you need to consider the limitations of your superiors Ensign. What did you see that caused you to make the call?”

This time Newkirk did hesitate; his pale complexion even started to turn, “Well Ma’am, I’m not exactly sure. It just didn’t look right, not random enough I think.”

“When you go off duty you will write this up, going into further detail, especially such as would help others duplicate your feat. Meanwhile keep up the good work. — And I have heard tell of another fleet officer who was downgraded for not showing his work—that would be a certain Cmdr. Borselov, and he seems to have done well enough.” She left it at that.

“Lt. Linse, If the Essex responds with anything that changes what we are doing, or supposed to be doing, call me again and at once, meanwhile I am going back to my day cabin.” With that she left the bridge.

Captain McCormack read the communiqué as soon as it came in and asked his own signals chief what he thought about it.

“Looks good to me Sir,” he didn’t apologize for not getting it first, after all the Wanderlust was newer out of the docks. “We are beginning to pick her up, that guy on the Wanderlust is good.”

Mac had already come to the same conclusion, but he did recognize that the other ships sensors were the latest and greatest and his were a hardware upgrade and a software tweak behind.

“Send Wanderlust—Proceed as planned, turnover in two hours, more later, Essex out.” Then he called for Cmdr Last, a quick review of what they intended would not be a waste of time in light of this new information.

“He intends to fight all right,” Marigold said two hours later, just before turnover, “We’ve lost him on our displays but Wanderlust still reads her as moving towards the station but at an even lower acceleration than before. Even so she beats us there handily.

“Interesting how the him turned into a her,” Mac said.

“You noticed that too,” Marigold replied. They worked together well, each picking up where the other left off.

“It’s a he when I talk about the Captain, a she for the ship.”
“Anything else to add?”

“No, I’ll go back to my quarters and stop up here again before I go down stairs to take over the battle bridge.”

“Until then.” Mac said, and looked once more into the holo-tank, willing the Calp G-4 to show once more. He stayed on the bridge till turn around and then left to take a nap. Showered and shaved and looking at ease he was back on deck six hours later.

The Essex did not pick up the Calp again but the Wanderlust never lost her; in fact she was now labeled as the G-4 Batusa. Icons for eight picket ships were glowing blue in the holo-tank clustering closely around the station, more defense but nothing much on offense wise unless they got much closer than Mac intended.

Both Cardoman ships made occasional random course changes to insure nothing extremely stealthy could have moved out at low speed to meet them. The ships were now separated by 70,000 kilometers and moving at under 800 kps in relation to the gas giant. They had already been challenged, rejected the challenge, and for their part demanded the station surrender so all that was left now was to go through with it.

Cutting acceleration after turning end for end they had the best possible picture of their target. Mac fired his warning shot; a Caliphate beam weapon took it out before he it could detonate.

On the secure channel to Hornet Mac said, “One full load out each for the Calp G-4; if the Batusa still stands I’ll finish her off. Don’t save your best for later.”

On the release of their shipkillers the Batusa finally lit her drive and came charging towards them, at the same time she let loose her own first salvo. This was not a direct run out on her part but slightly off angle so as not to attract any incoming, or outgoing from the station to herself. Batusa’s missiles were all aimed for the Essex; if he could get to her early the ship’s Captain thought the G-2M would be a snap.

Expecting this maneuver by the enemy the command string with new targeting information was on its way almost before the displays had time to show the Batusa in motion. The Calps second set of shipkillers all went into defense. Just as they had gamed it two of the Card missiles carried the wonder weapon, and the tiny bombs caused all but one of the Calp shipkillers to fail very early.

The thousands of pinpoint explosions confused the close in defenses but with pickets, and the station’s formidable array of launchers helping out the Batusa managed to survive the first salvo but not escape damage. She was holed and losing atmosphere, one band was glowing red as it dumped energy to the ships other three in a race against time.

The station hadn’t even been that lucky. First one, then a second, and then a third of the Cardoman missile detonated and cut straight through the unarmored platform. It was large enough that after combining the stations own atmosphere with stored oxygen the explosion that resulted was most impressive.

Mac sent eight more shipkillers after the Batusa and she was finished as well, but with far less in the way of bright lights. Her bands discharged but the energy released was harmless to heavily shielded Battle Cruisers at this distance. The picket crews would suffer if from radiation burns if they lived that long. They were trying to flee but one by one giving their lives to Cardoman beam weapons. The final two surrendered shutting down their drives.

“Let them go,” Mac ordered. “Head for Sam’an, there are two G-2’s waiting for us that could reach the limit if we give them time. If the pickets stick here we can come back for them sometime after we finish.” That was not likely and there were at least a dozen other pickets in the system so sweeping her clean was not an option, getting the pair of G-2M’s at Sam’an still was.

If the ships ran at once one of the two would almost certainly get away, because if they separated the Wanderlust wouldn’t have the legs to catch her. The other 2M would also be a long way out and in front of the Essex, both hitting the limit in 16.6 hours 43 minutes for the Wanderlust well beyond shipkiller range. But for one of them to escape they both needed to start moving now. And it was going to take another 23 minutes for telemetry from this battle to reach them at Sam’an.

Once they knew the result of this fight they would also know that running would put one of the ships at risk should the Essex give chase. And weighing their chances by what had happened here the senior Captain would conclude that one of them was not going to make it out alive. His choice was to lose one or risk two. The defenses arrayed at Sam’an were superior to what the fueling station possessed; the senior Captain had some information concerning how the Cards had managed what they had. He also had ideas about how to mitigate the threat and elected they both remain at Sam’an. It was a bad decision.

By the time another hour passed it was too late to for either to escape, and the fact that neither had moved from orbit meant they intended to make a go of it. The Essex slowed and let the Wanderlust catch up her, then they both reduced acceleration a little more to give their sensors time to direct them around any hidden dangers.

A very well run defense and the need for the Cardoman ships to keep from hitting the planet with an over shoot made it a close fight, not that the Cards were ever in danger. Still it took all but a precious few of their shipkillers to eliminate the Calp G-2’s. Several more hours were spent in eliminating the near planet infrastructure. Without hope of doing more the two ships headed outwards, boosting for home.

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