The Cutting Edge 11

The Cutting Edge
Chapter 11 Draft (03/01/08)

It was dim in the Saratoga’s control room, and quite cool. Five degrees cooler than normal. Jamie Madry liked it that way. It would seem hot enough real soon because the battle was about to get underway.

“Send word to SwiftStrike and Atropos to launch the shuttles.”

Admiral Raymond and his staff, along with Major Calvert, were watching from the Flag Plot. His job, unless something went very wrong, was over. The basic plan in place operational details were up to Madry, the Saratoga’s crew, and the Captains and men on the ships fighting along side of her. Raymond was an extra set of eyes and someone able to try and discern the larger picture without the distractions of command. He was glad Calvert was here with him.

“Our plan has already failed to survive contact with the enemy,” Wes said as he studied the layout of the forces arrayed against them.

“How’s that?” Raymond asked?

“The part where we send Capt. Barns leading the two recon teams in ahead of us to scout things out on the ground.”

“Silly me, I wasn’t thinking about that,” the Admiral replied. “I must be spending too much time watching what Madry is doing and not enough thinking about the rest or the mission.”

“You watch space ops and I’ll watch keep my eyes pointed at the ground. Were part of a team Les, just like everyone that came here with us.”

Captain Jeffery Hemphill, onboard the FNS Atropos launched the first of his two shuttles, then sent the other on its way. He saw that his sister ship, the SwiftStrike, had done the same and right on time. No point in holding back. He was in complete agreement with that part of the plan. In addition, if the truth were known, he was happy enough with the complete order of battle, as he understood it. But to bring up something that Major Calvert mentioned after his review and in paraphrase of what a certain Mr. C. Hoare said long ago in another context:

There are two ways of constructing a Battle Plan: one way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies; the other is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.

Hemphill was confident that his ship’s part in this plan looked to fit with the first part of the statement. Now if the Calps would just continue to cooperate.
The Saratoga was the lead ship with the SwiftStrike and Atropos on either side. Captain Marquette commanded the Eagle and Mark McCormack was in charge of the Carpathian. Both ships transports were slightly above and behind the other three ships. Neither the Eagle, with the Seventh on board, nor the Carpathian with Ramseyer’s Battalion, due to bring converted from standard cargo carriers and set up for use primarily as transports, could match a ship, purpose built and designed for war.

All five ships were close enough together to be mutually self-supporting, with interlocking defensive fields of fire, and enough separation that offensively they would not get in each other’s way. If it became necessary, the Eagle and the Carp could duck down behind the other three for additional protection. That would complicate firing solutions but protect further the troops they carried.

In fact, that was exactly what they would be doing at the sign of the first Calp missile launch. The transports would probably draw much of the Calps original salvo as the weakest members of the incoming fleet. And the troops they carried were too important to take needless chances. With the odds so much in their favor there was no need to risk a lucky hit. They were only unscreened now in the hope that the Calps would count the offensive forces set against them, see a hopeless position, and retire without firing a shot.

“I’m really quite surprised they’re coming out to meet us,” Raymond said watching the Flag Plot’s large display. “It’s a good thing we got here before any of their reinforcements arrived. Effectively outnumbered 3 to1 they ought to know they stand no chance.”

“Two things Les,” Calvert replied, “I would guess that after what happened on Altoona any Captain that fails to fight will be relieved of command and worse. The other thing, and this does make sense in a perverse kind of way, the grievance the Caliphate will hold against us, and its propaganda value, will be ever so much larger and more convincing if any of their people come to harm.”

“I hadn’t considered it from that perspective, but I think you have it nailed Major. Not much longer to wait and we will see just how many deaths and how much damage they are willing to suffer just to make a point.

On the Sara’s bridge the tension was palpably inching into the red. Eric Shearing monitored the operational status of the automatic routers, and with all channels functioning as designed, and no orders to the contrary, he had time to study the positioning of the Calp ships still barring their way to Mizar. The two pickets were extending outwards and were rapidly becoming a non-issue, so far as being a threat to any of the Cardoman task force. He found it odd, the large separation between the two Calp battle cruisers, they were almost out of mutual defense range and much further than would be optimal. ‘Why are they separated so far apart?’ he wondered. ‘And why do they separate even more the closer we get to them?’ Then it came to him.

“Captain,” he spoke softly into the Command Channel.

“Yes Lieutenant,” Jamie Madry answered. Even if she had not recognized his voice a glance at her display would have shown who was speaking, and from where in the ship, or even which ship in the squadron, should it came to that.

“I think I know why the Calps are so far apart.”

“Go ahead Lieutenant.”

“By the time we are close enough to engage we will need to split our forces or choose only one ship as a target. Otherwise the Calp ship furthest from us will be able to make it to the hyper limit before we are within striking distance.”

“Very good Lt. Shearing. Noted,” Jamie had been studying the colored cones of the vector diagram on her tactical display showing just that when Shearing commed her. She was certain Admiral Raymond in Flag Plot was doing much the same.

“Should you see anything else of interest send it over to Cmdr. Matson running tactical, he’ll need to know and will relay the information as needed.” She keyed off and went back to studying her display. The Lt was thinking, and she wasn’t about to slap him down for the interruption. Someday, maybe today, he would be first to figure out some little detail that could make the difference between success and failure, life and death.

“And keep sending out the warning message asking them to talk to us. It doesn’t look good at all, the fact they are ignoring our broadcasts.”

“Aye, Aye Ma’am”

Jamie had already made the decision to keep her ships together and go after the Calp Cruiser that fired first. Splitting into two ship sections would maintain the 3 to 1 advantage over each separate Calp ship and seemed to her to be the correct tactical decision. Not much risk to the Eagle and Carp and a high likelihood of eliminating both enemy ships. Both ships destroyed would mean none delivering information back to the Caliphate concerning what was going on in the Mizar system. She had her order concerning protecting the transports, and even though she felt the risk small, she was going to make sure they were followed. The big picture was for the likes of Major Calvert and Admiral Reye.

* * *

“We will launch first,” said Captain Badr on the Golan Heights. Send word to Captain Libbi that he will wait for us to initiate the action. If the Infidels fire first he is to fire one flight and then flee to the limit and insure word of our situation gets back to Earth.”
On the Sinai, Captain Abu Laith al-Libbi finished his prayers and resumed his place in the Command seat. He had made his peace and had no fear of death. It would be as Allah wills. He read again the message from Badr and even though he would have liked to make the first shot, respected the courage of the man issuing the orders. When the Infidels returned fire on the Golan Heights he would have his best chance, slim as it might be, to get a missile through their screens and even out the odds. He double checked his weapons display and saw all tubes were loaded and the ship killer missiles hot.

On the Sinai’s auxiliary battle bridge, located at the opposite end of the ship from the Command Deck, just in front of the drive bulkhead, AGO (Assistant Gunnery Officer) Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar cursed the fates that had him here instead of in Gunnery Control. It was likely, almost a certainty, that he would play no part in the battle shaping up in front of him on the weapons display.

When he joined the Caliphate Navel Service five years earlier, he had just been looking for a way to get off of his native planet Driessen. He had not been particularly devout at the time but the years had changed him. When not on duty he spent much of his time working for the ship’s Imam; keeping records but with much time spent in study and prayer. Now, when it was time for him to act as the Prophets right Arm, he was relegated to watching others do the work he had trained for.

Disappointed beyond words, he composed himself and prayed – prayed with more concentration and purpose than ever in his life, and waited for a voice to tell him what he needed to know, what he needed to do.

“Extreme range in ten seconds,” Lt, Cmdr. Vernor Matson said.

“Maintain course. We will split them and see what happens,” Madry added. “I will keep control of the ‘Arm Switch’ until or unless they fire on us first. Remember, if there is an ‘Incident,’ the word came naturally, we are not going to be the ones that start it.”
On the Golan Heights Ali Madiman Badr waited, looking confident and at peace. He would wait until the Cardoman task force was well within range before he gave the order to launch. The longer he waited the more likely the chance that one of his birds would make a hit. It would make it somewhat less likely that one of the two cruisers survive to reach hyper, but not enough to offset the possible gain. The battle was lost only theoretically. It still must be fought.

Mursi al-Sayid Umar came out of his self-induced trance when his weapons panel flashed red showing the Infidel within range and thought, “Why does not Badr give the order to fire? Why does al-Libbi fail to do what must be done?”
He looked around the battle bridge and saw the ships Third Officer paying attention but making no move to fight, and then heard a voice speaking just to him. “It is time Mursi, you will do your duty, it is My will.”

Mursi al-Sayid Umar threw the lever activating his panel. This was a physical, mechanical operation. Things had to be set this way in case the Command Deck was destroyed without having time to make the proper electronic authorizations.

The officer in charge reached for his own control while saying, “What are you doing al-Sayid,” but it was too late. The first of fifteen ship-killers was already on its way.

“We have launch, we have incoming!” The alarms sounded then went mute as Lt. Shearing shut them down.

“That was a surprise,” Captain Madry said using her normal, level tone, as all the ships in her squadron changed course for the Sinai. Based on the communications it looked like the Golan Heights was in charge. Perhaps her Captain didn’t feel up to the task.”

Madiman Badr could scarce believe his eyes. “Get me a direct link to Captain al-Libbi.” What did the man think he was doing? Badr had resigned himself to his fate when he gave the order that the Golan Heights fire the first shot. He was going to order the Sinai to flee to the hyper limit and jump taking the report on his demise back to Earth. Now the Cardoman force was heading towards the Sinai and each ship was cycling through its tubes. Each missile aimed for the Sinai as if he didn’t exist.

“Commence firing. Empty the Magazine but do not close on the enemy ships!”

Badr heard the com channel to the Sinai open and spoke into the private pipe. “Explain yourself Captain!”

“It was the Battle Bridge Commander, the AGO fired remotely without instructions.”

“Upon your head then, we will support you while we can but word must get back to Earth. We will not close and we will head for hyper when we our magazines are empty. Do your duty and we shall meet in Paradise.” Badr turned back to watching the lights showing the unfired ship-killers still aboard his ship turn off one by one. He had a dozen left when the Sinai’s defenses finally failed and her drive let loose.

“Relay the action report to General Gomaa while we head for the hyper limit. When Gomaa responds I will be in my cabin.”

“That was pretty intense for a while there,” Wes Calvert said to Admiral Raymond.

“Intense, yes. Dangerous, not so much. We had way too much defensive firepower for the Sinai at close range and the Golan launched everything from so far away that the missiles had nothing left to maneuver with by the time they reached us. It was a halfhearted show at best. Not that I’m complaining mind you, I just find it odd. As a squadron I’m happy to say we fired off less than then percent of our combat load, we’re in good shape from that end.”

“Are you going to call back the shuttles now?”

“I’ll have the message sent, but I expect they are already returning. Yes, I see it, the vector just started shortening. I expect the Calp pickets will keep running out system and we will need to keep tracking them as long as we can but even with three of them loose they aren’t a credible threat unless something with more firepower comes along to back them up. If things work out we’ll go after them later.”

“No point in looking for survivors is there?”

“Nope none at all. We’ll be heading for Mizar in a minute or two, as soon as Madry gets her systems check finished. The next stage is up to you Wes and it’s gonna be a damn sight tougher than this one was.”

“How long before we hit orbit?”

“If the shuttle pickup is smooth, and from what I’ve seen of our allies it will be, figure on six hours before drop.”

“May as well try for some sleep then.”

“I am going to talk to Madry for a few minutes than do the same. I’ll catch you later,” Raymond said, standing and leaving Flag Plot.

The Novi shuttles were back in their bays and the task force was a half a million kilometers from Mizar when Jamie came back on deck. She had barely relieved her watch officer, Fullson Lovell, and settled in when Lt. Shearing, who had come on duty an hour before opened a channel.

“Their talking again Ma’am.”

“Acknowledge the signal and call the Major Mr. Shearing. He will want to be the one to respond.”

“I’ll take it at my desk,” Wesley said when Shearing woke him. Tell the General’s Aide I will be on line in two minutes.”

“What is the meaning of this? Destroying one of our ships and murdering five hundred loyal members of the Caliphate. Have you gone mad? This is an act of war! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” There was no grief showing in the voice of Major General Ali Liwa Gomaa, only self-righteous indignation.

“What I have done General? Your ships opened fire on me. Not the other way round. As such we were well within our rights to do whatever was necessary to save our lives and end the threat. You Sir, are the one with some explaining to do!”

“Outrageous! This system is in alliance with the Caliphate and we are acting on its behalf and giving assistance to, the planetary government. You will leave the system now or place yourself under my arrest and prepare to answer charges.”

“I take that to mean you have already begun a war by firing upon us after replacing the duly constituted government with one of your own. We intend to see the legitimate government back in power.”

“What you and your Cardoman mercenaries are doing is a further act of war, and one you will pay for!”

“If this be war General Gomaa, then make the most of it. Any further opposition to our landing will indicate that war is your intention General. Do not take that action lightly. I am sure we will again but you will excuse me while I attempt to get in touch with whomever might be left representing the people of Mizar and its legitimate government.”

Wes broke the connection and immediately called back to the Sara’s bridge. “Captain Madry, route all further communications with the planet to Ellen Nesberg on the Flag Bridge. Give her whatever bandwidth she requires, she will direct my staff and speak for all of us in my absence. There is also no point in being stealthy about it anymore, so we are going to use whatever means available to contact our support down below. If we can’t locate any support, this undertaking will prove mare difficult than even we imagined.”

“Send General Order Two. Lt. Shearing, it’s time we take out everything in orbit, offensive, defensive, or sensor. Even com and nav sats. If any are manned five minutes is enough for them to surrender. If any do surrender we permit no communications with the planet and any attempt to do so make sure they know it will result in their destruction. When we have the time we will evacuate the personnel. We hold the high ground and I intend to keep it.”

“If there are any shuttle type vessels attached to any of the orbital structures they must be surrendered, intact, and if any attempt to leave orbit and land make sure they know they will be disabled or destroyed.”

“Lt. Lovell, get with the Major’s staff and help them in getting out own sats in position, and make sure that they are given all the data that the ships in the squadron are acquiring while we get our own network is in place. Commander Matson, would you go and supervise things on the hanger deck. We have a number of hours before we send them out so let’s make sure no stone is unturned.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” Vernor Matson said, and then exited the bridge.

On the Eagle Captain Marquette sent his Second officer, Pamela Hines, to oversee operations on his ship’s hanger deck. In her former life, that of a G-2 general transport, the Eagle would have had but two shuttles onboard. In her capacity as a military transport and troop carrier she now had four. The Carpathian had four shuttles as well, and the other three ships carried their normal compliment of two. In total then the fleet had fourteen to use for landing operations, inter-ship transfers, and whatever else might be required.

If run efficiently each lander should load, make a trip downstairs, and return to the docking bay in an hour and a half. The problem right now was that no one was sure where they would be landing. Pamela hoped that got worked out real soon now. The second problem, because most of the troops were on the Carp and Eagle, would be scheduling each transport could handle only four shuttles at a time. Having the proper loads staged at the proper times would be crucial.

In Flag Plot on the Sara Admiral Raymond said to Calvert, “I’m both surprised and pleased you’ve decided to wait for the second wave of landings before you go downsides. Though I would think you might manage things as well from up here with us.”

“You’re probably right about managing things Les, but there is much to be said for leading from the front. The reason I’m going down in the second wave is because by then I hope to know where I can do the most good. So long as we have open communications I can work from there almost as well as if I say aboard. What we really need now though, is to get in touch with Loomis and al-Omari.”

In her corner of Flag Plot Ellen Nesberg had just accomplished that very task. “We’ve got Loomis Sir,” she said, “I’m switching him over to you.”

“Abe, you can’t begin to know how glad I am to hear your voice.”

“Thank you Sir. The feeling is mutual. What’s going on? The news blackout down here is almost total and all of the people I would normally be able to find things out from are busy and unavailable. All that leaked before the clampdown was that there was a military emergency and everyone was to do as told.”

“Are you in a secure location,” Wes asked.

“For now at least. I’m a ways out from Harmony and don’t think my signal can be intercepted. As far as the coding, it’s as good as it is. Unless you know something different the Calps haven’t broken it yet.”

“We’re still good I suspect. The first thing then, I need to know everything you’ve found out about Calp troop deployments.”

“I’m sending up my entire file system Major. It’ll be under Military with a summary and cross referenced by unit”
Wes glanced over at Nesberg.

She gave a thumbs up and said, “Got it Sir.”

“We have it Abe; I am going to start reading right now. Captain Grayson is going to take my place here so fill him in on the things he asks about and anything else that comes to mind with his questioning.”

Wes’s comp unit stripped out the sections matching pre-store queries and presented them first. Calver spent another fifteen minutes browsing through various entries that caught his eye. It would take hours to read everything, Loomis had been busy. He broke away and asked Cpl. Bryce to get hold of Captain Madry and ask her to the Flag Bridge. Then he went on with his reading.

Raymond, for his part, had marked the main troop locations, and started getting the navigation data loaded into the shuttles nav systems. Not the usual work of an Admiral but it needed doing and he could get it done faster than anyone else could.

When Bryce, escorting Madry, returned from his mission, Wes asked the Captain, “Jamie, how soon can you make sure what we say here gets broadcast to the rest of the fleet?”

“Say the word Major, I’ve already instructed Lt. Shearing to make it happen on command, so when ever you are ready, we are.”

“We start in a minute then. How are things going from your end?”

“All the Calp orbital resources have been destroyed or neutralized. There were two landers up but we took one of them out when it made a run for the surface. I sent a crew to take over the other and they should have it checked out and be back in an hour or so.”

“Good, one more now won’t get us down any faster but I am sure we will find a use for it later. Will you have any problem getting your shuttle back aboard and loaded while on the move?”

“We’ve done it enough in practice sir it better work out that way now!”

” Good. Let’s get moving then. I want the first wave leaving as soon as we can manage. The less time the Calps have before we set down the harder it will be for them to strengthen defenses on the ground. It makes things harder for us as well, but at least we’ll start out by creating problems rather than reacting to them. And it looks like all our planning was not in vain. We got lucky and made a lot of the right guesses about Calp troop dispersion so our plan is going to start basically as written.”

“Captain Melbourne sent word that A-Company’s has most of its gear loaded and Ramseyer has his first Company is ready as well. We start closing to the launch point as soon Captain Madry gets back to her bridge and landing operations begin as soon as we get there.”

Connie Melbourne heard the launch order then felt the nudge as her shuttle ejected from its tube. She, along with 24 other members of her A-Company had been waiting in the small boats crowded confines for an hour and a half. The lights inside were kept on at a level that was supposed to match what they would find when they landed. The ships intercom was connected to the general command channel so every one inside was able to hear the ship-to-ship communications being sent and acknowledged. Time slicing and the monitoring comp program made sure none of the voices stepped on each other.

The voice traffic was a minuscule part of one percent of all the data packets exchanging hands, but of course the most interesting, and only way to get a partial feel for how things were shaping up. Connie heard that only as background because she was concentrating on the tactical channel that dealt only with reports from below updating from time to time what they knew about the situation on the ground.

The five ships held station over the large continent Harmony. They were 200 kilometers from the planets surface and in what could only be called a ‘Powered Orbit’ not really an orbit at all. A normal, unpowered orbit at this distance would take them once around the planet in about 100 minutes and they would be in free fall, without grav generators experiencing zero gravity all the while. The ships had the grav generator up and running in case of need but the reaction force of their drives was what A-Company was feeling up until the moment they were ejected from the ship.

Then there was a brief moment of weightlessness before the shuttles drive kicked in and three Gs forced them back into their seats. She listened carefully and heard the announcement as the Eagle’s other three shuttles left the ship. With the two squads leaving from the Saratoga she would have more than half of her company with her on touch down.

The Calps had done nothing to oppose the landing. Any fire now would only reveal the location of their defenses, and with the defensive fire the fleet could summon be a waste of resources. Waiting till the landers were closer gave a much greater chance of success. It wasn’t long before she felt the buffeting as they entered atmosphere. She kept her eyes open but all her concentration was devoted to the tactical channel and the work ahead.

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