The Cutting Edge 3

The Cutting Edge
Chapter 3 Draft (1/03/08)

“Ready for transition Captain,” Joe Speedway, the ship’s second officer said, breaking the quiet on the Aladin’s bridge.

“Make it happen,” Stan Voinovich replied. And then there were stars all around and a bright point of light up in front.

“Ten lighthours out,” Pavel Tsarinstyn, third officer manning the nav console announced.

“Good work,” Stan commented, “This was one transition we didn’t want to be to close.”

“No sensing emissions detectable,” was the report from the Tech Sgt. running the ECM gear. “We are picking up very faint signals from the planet. General com and electronics noise from ten hours ago. Nothing yet indicating a Calp ship is in-system.

“Stay alert and keep us on passive. We will wait a few hours before we proceed” inward. Stand down to normal duty stations.” Stan leaned back in the command seat and studied the displays in front.

The plan, made before leaving Cardoman. was to use low power to build up the proper velocity vector then use a free trajectory to pass close enough to Marais for the combat jump. That would take forever from this far out so what they were going to do first, if everything seemed positive, was make another transition taking them right to the hyper limit. At under a light-hour they could coast in over a few weeks, and at a low enough velocity that when the shuttle decelerated it might have a chance to avoid discovery.

The plan then called for dropping the shuttle a hundred million miles from the planetary surface where it would do a gradual slow down from there. One they hoped would have a low enough energy signature that it would be undetectable by whatever sensors were in place. The Aladin would continue to slow though at a much slower pace than the shuttle to minimeze emissions, and if all went as planed after the pods were dropped they would pick the shuttle up again a week later and get out of the system. The whole operation in system was going to take almost another month, all of it spent on full alert with weapon stations manned worrying about whether they remained unnoticed.

In the days leading up to this last meeting, Leah Radom, much to her surprise, adjusted easily to her new situation. Probably because she knew it was only temporary. The work was demanding, especially the physical conditioning, but she found the structure and camaraderie built by four months of training, kept her from dwelling on what was to come. Marais stayed in her mind but for the most part well below the surface.

She had expected some harrasment and at least a few sexual advances by one or more of her team mates and wasn’t disappointed on that score. But when an advance was rebuffed the message got through and she only had to repeat herself once. The harrasment went on a while longer. These men had some kind of group ethos that harrasment was a positive good and the only way to see how a new recruit fit in. She was not immune to the time honored tradition but as her effort and improvement was noticed the harrasment let up as well. Leah, looking back, could see how Sgt. Davis orchestrated everything to insure it came out as he desired.
She could say that now but it surely didn’t seen like that when she first came in.

* * *
“Your new recruit, Sergeant Major,” were the words Loomis used when he took her over to meet the Recon Squad leader. “Leah Radom, meet Sgt. Davis.”

“Pleased to meet you Ma’am, Davis offered.

“This is going to be all new to me Sergeant, and not to put too fine a point on it, wasn’t my idea at all, so bear with me and we will see how it turns out.”

“Don’t sweat it ma’am. I’ve never had a civilian as a member of a recon team before either, but Lt. Loomis here was a pretty fair representation of the same thing when he used to work for me and look how he turned out.”

At the time the comment went right over Leah’s head but she could tell by the way it was made, so offhandedly, that there was a lot of respect behind it.

“Why thank you Sgt Major,” Loomis said, “and you’ll be glad to know that last I heard Major Calvert hasn’t completely given up on you as well. But enough dwelling on our military virtues, sterling as they are, I have to get back to HQ in an hour so lets go over the outline of the plan and I’ll hit the highlights of what we are expecting from Ms. Radom and you can tell me it you think you can make it work.”

After Loomis left Davis took her over to the squad bay so that she might get situated and be introduced to the rest of the squad.

The recon team occupied a company sized barracks on the edge of the residential section of the base. As such, now with only eight members, herself included, Leah got a room of her own with her personal belongings to be sent later in the day.

“Hope you can put up with this ma’am but we train all hours day and night and the only way to make it work is to keep everyone together in one spot. After the introductions I’ll have someone go with you to supply and help you get your standard kit, and then the fun starts. But first we meet the rest of the team.”

The six other members of recon couldn’t help but notice when Davis brought in a woman, and one not wearing a uniform at that, and showed her to a vacant personnel living space at the far end of the building; one close to what would have been the Company office in a normal unit.

“Some babe eh? Mark my words but things are looking up in this man’s army,” or so said Private Leach, the teams designated marksman with a great deal of appreciation as soon as the two were both beyond sight of the squad bay.

“Jesus Christ, you stupid fuck,” replied Cpl. Mullins, the squads point man. “You ain’t gettin’ none no how and things have been more than good enough here the last few months. Any change has got to be for the worse as any fool would tell you. Ain’t that right Short?”

Sgt. Stuart Short looked away from the manual he had been reading and said, “Knock it off, both of you, I’m trying to improve myself here, something you, Leach, should be doing every waking moment, so until Davis tells us what’s up, keep it down.

Jameson, Petty, and Ortega, the other three member of Recon, kept quiet throughout the exchange.

Before Short had a chance to get back to his reading Davis and the woman were walking towards the rest.

The broad was even better looking than Leach’s comment would have indicated.
This looks like trouble, Short thought to himself as Davis made the introductions.

“Gentlemen,” Sgt Davis concluded, “Ms Davis is the civilian expert who will accompany us to Marais. As such she is outside of the normal chain of command so I will make it perfectly clear to all of you. You will treat her as you would a senior officer in all matters except for direct command. She will tell us what she wants done— I will decide how we do it— You,” he said eyeing all the team members, “will do your damnedest to keep us both happy! Are we all clear on that.?”

“Speaking for all of us,” Short said with emphasis, looking at the rest of the squad, “You couldn’t be any clearer Sergeant Major!”

“Good. Cpl Petty,” Davis said, handing him an authorization, “ take Ms. Radom over to supply and help her get her kit. If the clerk gives you any static tell him he can take it up with me first, and then what ever is left of him can talk to Major Calvert.”

“You got it Sarge… Ma’am, If you would please come with me I will show you just how efficiently things can work in the Cardoman 7th.

They left the building through the door that faced the parade ground. Parked outside were two of the open air vehicles that everyone called mules. Electric powered with six wide tires and a single seat for the driver they could carry half a ton; they were the simplest light transport vehicle imaginable.

“You’ll have to sit in back Ms Radom, but I’ll keep it slow and it’s a smooth ride from here to the Quartermaster’s area.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem—Corporal is it? And you can call me Leah.”

“Yes Ma’am, Corporal Uriah Petty. I’m the recon teams medic along with my other duties, but as far as using first names Ma’am. That’s not what the Sergeant Major said and I am not about to fall into bad habits.”

The supply depot was a couple of kilometers away and well outside of the Seventh’s area. It was in a fenced in compound on one side of entrance road, and just inside of the base’s main gate. Petty explained that that was to keep the delivery vehicles from needing to go any further into the base proper. Leah had seen the fence and row of buildings before but hadn’t given any thought to what went on iside. On the other side of the road were the main Cardoman Army offices. A second gate had to be negotiated before access to the rest of the training area. This was the gate Petty stopped at and waited a second for the MP guard to wave him through.

The MP took a little longer than normal, but after noting the Cardoman 7th emblem on the mule’s front and side signaled for them to pass.

The gate into the supply section was opened and unmanned. Petty went half way down a long row of warehouses and parked in the first open spot he saw.

“This place is big,” Leah said as she got off the back of the mule.

“Sure is Ma’am, It takes a lot of stuff to keep a base this size going. I think we have almost 7000 people in here on a daily basis and 5000 living on base at any one time. It’s a small cities worth of provisions we go through daily, not to mention all the military items we use and have in storage.”

As they reached the buildings entrance Petty said, “I think we’re in luck, this time of day we should be in and out in no time. Let me do the talking here Ma’am. You just stand around and look important.”

No time was an optimistic prediction, but in something under two hours they had a metal trunk, two wooden crates, and an overstuffed recliner on the back of the mule, and with Leah wedged between were heading back into the Card’s section of camp again.

The senior supply sergeant had looked like he might be difficult but a call to his superior officer and “Give them what ever they want.” was the order of the day.

Fader Jameson helped unload the mule and carry the crates into Leah’s quarters where two boxes of her things from the room she kept in Minton were already inside. Leah thanked the both of them and said she would take care of the rest of the unpacking and arraigning herself.

“Lunch in an hour Ma’am, then a little run.” Jameson smiled.

“I look forward to it Private. Thank you.”

* * *

The parade deck that the barracks fronted was rectangular, about one hundred by one hundred fifty meters. “Three times round the perimeter Ma’am,” Jameson said. “We’ll keep it slow at first till we see what you can manage.” Jameson and Leah were the only people out here running. The rest of the squad took the two mules and went off somewhere with Davis right after lunch.

“I’ll set the pace so just take it easy and follow.”

I really should be following, Jameson thought. They were both dressed in shorts and tops and wearing light running shoes. But no better not.

He set off with a slow to moderate pace and could hear Ms. Radom’s footsteps behind him. When Fader made the first turn she seemed to be doing ok so he maintained the same rate of speed along the side of the field and glanced back again at that turn. Uh oh, she had fallen back a step and appeared to be struggling. By the time they reached the far turn on the backside Leah was a good fifteen meters behind and obviously working hard.

What now? He ran in place till she had almost caught up and started off again running slightly slower than before. Leah didn’t lose anymore ground on that leg but was working much harder and sweat stains were visible, soaking through the short sleeved top she was wearing. After finishing the first lap and passing the squad barracks Fader slowed to a walk and continued to the corner again. Leah was breathing heavily but was almost back under control when Jamison began to run once more.

By the time the three laps were completed Leah was soaked through and looked ready to drop. Jameson had never even felt it.

“Go on in and take a shower Ma’am, I’ll be with you in a bit and we’ll do some callisthenics’s and such.”

“That wasn’t very impressive, was it Fader.”

“Let’s just say you got a ways to go Ma’am. A long ways.”

“Sorry you got stuck being my personal trainer?”

“There are worse duties Ma’am, much worse.”

The exercise session went about the same way as the run had and Jameson figured he would have to talk to Davis about it when the others returned. Strangely enough when Davis did get back to the squad bay and pulled him aside to ask about it, instead if slamming her performance Fader said, “She’s in over her head but she doesn’t look to be a quitter. She might stick it out.”

Well Pvt. Jameson,” Davis drawled, “It’s your job to make sure she does stick it out and is ready when the rest of us are.” With that Davis went into the office and started sorting through the stack of papers on his desk.

For Leah the next month was a living hell. Running, exercise, drill on military maters and equipment and then more running and exercise and start all over again the next day. Davis had gotten a biometric station delivered somehow and at the beginning and end of each run or exercise period she got a complete scan and the instructions for her next workout got printed up. It wasn’t more almost more than she could take but no one other than herself ever knew how close she came to walking away. If it hadn’t been for Jameson’s help, and the thoughts about Dean Messmer, the memories of her father and uncle she would have walked. But after that first month all of a sudden the demands were no longer almost impossible but merely hard, and in another month, just part of a normal days schedule.

* * *

The alarms had been sounded and the crew readied, those off the bridge either at battle stations or in their bunks. Short minutes later the Aladin came out of hyper, screens lit up and data started flowing in. “Good transition,” was Voinovich’s only comment as the numbers firmed up. On the safe side of the envelope and only missing optimum by twenty light minutes. At their exit speed that ment two hours of flight time but better safe than sorry. Two hours wasn’t going to mean much.

“Speedway has the Com,” Voinovich announced as he left his station. “Call me if for anything out of the ordinary. We’ll run what we get on the next watch.”

A much refreshed Stan Voinovich sat listening to the summary prepared while he slept. Lieutenant Commander Roger Langston, his First Officer and second in command, delivered the briefing with Speedway suppling details. Pavel Tsarinstyn had the bridge but listened to the talk, giving it about half of his attention while using the rest to concentrate on his primary duty. That duty consisted manly of watching the increasingly accurate picture of the systems electronic activity while looking for signs of any other ship.

“To this point Intel fairly nailed it,” Langston said. “Not much radio chatter and three low level nuclear sources. One must be a power plant on the planet and the other two system guards. The are using some old equipment for that job. Anything newer than fifty years and we shouldn’t be able to detect them at this range. They could have a recent design here also and we couldn’t tell. But it does seem like overkill unless they have an idea of what we’re up to.”

“We stick with the plan then, Miles,” Voinovich said to his Engineering Officer, “I want you to see if there is some way to monitor our own emmisions and given what we know about Caliphate sensors develop a maximum observability area. If there are better ship out there I think they would cover areas the ones we already know about can’t. So we’ll direct our course to the known threat and see what develops. That’s it for now so carry on and I’ll get Davis in here and give him the word it’s a go.”

The next three weeks crept by slowly for those running the Aladin but for Davis and his squad they flew. No amount of preparation could be excessive when all of their lives were at stake. The Aladin was large enough that they could keep up with their physical training but more time was spent on the mission details and language lessons. Each member of the team was going to know enough of the Caliphate’s lingo to get by in a pinch. Everyone kept it professional but none minded the time Leah spent teaching the classes. Not even Davis.

On the hundred sixty year old picket ship Dromedary, Lt. Molazim Thani tried to keep up a state of watchful readiness but it was a thankless task. Except for a once a decade engineering update the ship stayed on station orbiting Marais at a distance and the routine became automatic enough that it dulled the mind and ate at the soul. This was garrison duty of the worst sort. Ten men trapped in a small steel tube for months on end.

Two members of the crew were at all times stationed in front of the sensor displays and five times a day came the call to prayer. Meals were plain and over time each and everyone of them found some reason or another, a petty slight or misstated comment, to loath the rest of the crew.

It was an eighteen month tour doing the same things over and over, the only break being a week every three months spent on the planet below. And that planet was fine enough for those stationed there, and even for someone like Molazim with officer status; but for most the men it just gave them another week to mark of the calendar; counting down the days till they would be going home.

Twice a day voice contact with the other picket and the same schedule to the control center of the planet below; Molazim made sure that communications duty was spread around. That brief contact with others outside the ship, and the occasional time spent repairing minor breakdowns, was all they had keeping them sane. One more month and he and half of his crew were going back to Earth; the Dromedary getting a new batch of hapless sailors who would learn to silently curse the deed that lead to the assignment; except for a young officer getting his first command it was never a reward. The time couldn’t pass rapidly enough.

“What do got Lieutenant,” Stan said to Speedwell when he saw the blinking red marker appear at the upper right of his command screen.

“An active pulse sir, first time enough leaked through to the sensors for us to detect it. Still way too low for a return signal.”

“Ok, nothing to worry about then. Let Pavel know he can start loading Davis and his people into the shuttle and get her warmed up. I make drop time in another hour. Let’s keep up the good work folks.”

“Alright people, you know the drill, load up and strap in.” The recon teams gear had been stowed and secured a week ago with two complete unloads and rechecks. All the could do now was try to relax in their couches while up front Tsarinstyn made ready to launch. They didn’t talk amongst themselves but did listen to the com channel between the shuttle and the Aladin’s bridge.

“We’re hot and tight,” Pavel said

“Hatch open…and eject.” The shuttle’s passengers felt a slight nudge as SP 106 exited the Eagle. They couldn’t see the hatch close again as 101 drifted away under the slight impetus, there would be no communications now between the two vessels until the end of the mission or unless something went terribly wrong.

“Slow and steady goes it. Let’s get some distance between us,” Voinovich ordered. “It would be nice to keep close in case of detection but better to make sure if if it’s us that gets seen we don’t give away the destination. We have a good plan that’s working. Maybe Op Plans back home knew what they were doing.”

Mostly due to it’s size the shuttle was inherently less detectable than Aladin, but they were going to pass an awful lot closer to the Calps detectors and all of them avoided mentioning the fact though they couldn’t help thinking about it. Three weeks later, they were loaded into the ejection pods and instead of anxiety felt relief. Even Leah, who was sure she would hate this, changed her mind. Leaving the cooped up confines of the shuttle couldn’t happen fast enough.

Voinovich needed to make one small alteration to course so that they would hit the landing window precisely on time. He made the change far enough out that he was able to use a deceleration rather than the reverse. After ejection that would keep SP 106 in danger an tiny bit longer but it would also make the pods a little harder to pick up by the Caliphate sentries.

Originally they had figured to use eight of the pods for people and one for equipment. Then came a thought that If the equipment pod failed to make it perhaps, they could pull the thing off by spreading the gear across all the others. Would have worked but for the size of a few items so they were running the original plan with every bit free space inside the people carrying pods taken up things that would fit. Pavel had to do the packing on the last one. That was the only way. He was going to have a lonely trip till he joined back up with Aladin.

“One, two,…nine.” All away Pavel noted in his log, he never even saw them against the blackness of space.

Even knowing where to look, at a distance of little more than a hundred kilometers the Aladin could no longer see the shuttle. Something as large as his own ship might be found from up close by the deep space objects it eclipsed; not likely with a dot like the shuttle was. Still Voinovich was watching from the deck of his ship at the time reentry was supposed to happen knowing he would see nothing unless the picket ships reacted some way or another. They didn’t—so all was safe. Now the wait for Pavel and SP 106 to rejoin and his part would be over and time to bug out from the system. Three more weeks but the waiting was getting easier now.

This part was a killer, would have been a killer in fact and not name alone if they weren’t flat on their backs in relation to the gravity forces. Just over six G’s at high point and no G suits, there wasn’t weight allowance for the suits and pressurizing controls without leaving out something else.

Just like in practice, Leah thought, It started out quite mildly. She found it easy to watch the inertial tracking monitor showing progress. As close to one another as the pods had been fired without the steering chutes and the inertial guidance they would land in an uneven line as much as 20 or 30 kilometers long. The equipment pod went out in the middle and all of the others would steer towards its hypothetical touch down point.

They were coming down in early morning on the sunrise side of the prison compound. Two reasons for that: 1. It would help mask their IR signature slight as it was it might still show up against a cold dark sky; and 2. When the ablative covering blew off the wanted to see as clearly as possible where they were landing. The daylight should also make for a faster link up once they arrived on the surface.

The gravity forces built up over a period of minutes until breathing was all she could manage. It was too much effort even to keep here eyelids open to look at the locator. Max G seemed to last an hour but was only a minute or so and the pressured eased off. Twenty minutes from the time they were ejected and Leah’s pod burst open a thousand meters from the ground and her own chute opened at once.

After the darkness of the pod the sudden light seemed at once blinding, but her goggles adjusted automatically when they detected her squint. Dark green below and blue above, she had no time for the sky and concentrated on finding an open landing spot. No such luck! The best she could do was a small stream if she could reach it. The camouflaged canvas bags dangling beneath her, the ones holding the extra gear, brushed against, then snagged for a second in some light branches overhanging the stream. She thought she had bought it when her chute began drooping from overhead and started stringing her out horizontally with one of the packs as an anchor. She got lucky and the bundle broke free and with only time for a silent prayer Leah was in the water.

Warm, wet, and shallow; it was muddy colored with a muddy bottom. Her boots sank in to her ankles and the light breeze proceeded to pull her over. But she was down and apparently safe for the moment. Now to find the rest of the team.