Saturday, August 13, 2011

Slow Boat to China (Chapter 2, Part 1)

Warning: Violent situations.

Recap: In Chapter 1, Part 2, Petty Officer Kimble’s impromptu liaison with a transiter is interrupted by alarm bells from an impending pirate attack.

Slow Boat to China

By Gregory Marshall Smith

Chapter 2: Tedesco

Part I

“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we will be braking from near light-speed to normal cruising in ten minutes,” Lt. Mannix reported over the engineering public address system. “Then, we will slow to orbital speed when we get to Tedesco, which will actually be the first stop, even though it’s the last planet in the system.”

Mannix watched the monitoring board as lights blinked from yellow to green. The speed figures fell rapidly and the ship shuddered a little, then a lot more as it slowed from traveling speed to cruising speed. Technology still hadn’t figured out how to make the transition smoother, but the engineers were so used to it, they never noticed the vibrations reverberating through the hull.

“Shut down traveling engines one and two,” Mannix ordered and the engineman at the operating helm acknowledged the order.

“Traveling engines one and two shutting down, sir,” the helm operator reported. “Energy output decreasing, inertial stabilizers correcting, safety margins well within limits, sir.”

“Thank you, Mr. Owens,” Mannix acknowledged.

The monitoring board showed green lights changing to red near entries for traveling engines one and two. Below them, entries marked “cruising engines” one and two turned green. That meant they were working normally, having come online upon sensing a huge drawdown of power in the traveling engines used for near light-speed travel.

The traveling engines had done their work and then some. A few days earlier, when unidentified raiders had come toward the ship in an attack profile, the engines had shown the pirates that the targets were not unarmed civilian freighters. Only Navy ships used traveling engines and no raider wanted to tangle with a combatant, especially a heavily-armed dreadnought.

“Sensors all in the green, Mr. Mannix,” the voice of Commander Nels von Cholitz, the chief engineer, said over the P.A. system. “Good job. When we get to Tedesco, what say we let the new junior grades handle getting into orbit?”

“Sounds good to me, sir,” Mannix replied, before keying the switch to address the other engineering spaces. “Cheng compliments us on a job well done, people. I’ll need to see all junior grades in the EOD thirty minutes before we hit Tedesco. That is all. Resume normal watch activities.”

In the landing bays, Kimble directed the more junior storekeepers in loading two of the pinnaces. He looked to his right and saw Farrier handling two other pinnaces on the other side of the loading bay. SK1 Johann Mitscher supervised the entire detail from his post near the landing bay control room because Master Chief Branaugh and the department’s three division officers were in the larger bays aft.

Air transport technicians worked on three rather large pinnaces and Kimble hoped they would be very thorough. These ships would take himself and the other transiters down to the processing centers in Mica, the main city on Tedesco. He didn’t want to make a long, boring trip only to die in a pinnace crash at the end.

“Now, that’s dedication.”

He turned around at the sound of the voice and snapped to attention. Master Chief Branaugh laughed and put him at ease. He hadn’t even heard her approach.

“You’re supposed to be waiting in the pinnace area with the transiters,” the master chief noted. “Yet, I find you helping us load our stuff. I like that in a sailor, especially one who’s been around a few years. You know how old hands tend to slack off a bit when they get comfortable.”

He nodded. He looked at her and was forced to admit that Farrier had been right. She might have been a master chief but she had kept herself in shape. Amorous thoughts raced through his mind, but he pushed them aside. She had to be 25 years his senior. Then again, he thought with some embarrassment, that’s almost as many years as he had on Elizabeth.

“I guess you can put your stuff on one of the pinnaces heading directly to the base,” Branaugh commented. “Those ships are in the auxiliary bay. The base on Tedesco is so desperate for personnel, they won’t care if you skip the processing fiasco in Mica. By the way, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for us during this transit run. I’m sorry I couldn’t convince you to stay on with us, but I am glad to say that I’ve recommended you for a commendation for your work with us.”

“Thank you, Master Chief,” Kimble remarked. “I have to admit it was tempting to ask for a transfer, but I didn’t think it would look good on my record to ask for one before I’ve even reported to my assigned station. No offense.”

“None taken,” Branaugh answered. “Actually, that was the answer I expected from you. I hope you enjoy your time on Tedesco. I’d like to chat further but I’ve got to check on the other bays. Good luck.”

Kimble watched the master chief walk away. He then turned and saw Farrier looking at him. He smiled and Farrar flashed a thumbs-up signal.

“Attention all hands,” the P.A. system boomed. “Planet orbit in fifteen minutes. All transiters to their disembarkation points for boarding. All personnel transporting supplies should make their way to the loading bays immediately for checklist warm-ups and final manifests. That is all.”

Farrier walked across the bay and took the clip board from Kimble.

“Looks like this is it, newbie,” Farrier said. “Good luck and don’t forget to write. And lots of cold showers.”

Kimble shook the man’s hand and then left the loading bay. He went to his berth, opening the door gingerly, half expecting Elizabeth to be there. She wasn’t. The room had been cleaned and his belongings neatly left on the table. He hefted his duty bag onto his shoulder and carried the tote bag in his free hand.

The corridors were empty. The transiters had gone through another access way to get to the landing bays. He whistled softly to himself, trying to psyche himself up for the big move to his permanent station. It was always exciting going to a new station, although he did feel some sadness at having to leave the dreadnought. He’d gotten to meet some nice people.

He recognized none of the personnel in the auxiliary landing bay. Still, a second-class technician walked up to him and took his seabag. The man helped Kimble get settled in the bay’s only shuttle.

“Good luck,” the technician said, proffering a hand. “I did a tour on Tedesco and it’s everything they warned you about.”

Before Kimble could shake the man’s hand, a shrill alarm brayed across the landing bay, causing everyone in the bay to stop and look up. The technician became apprehensive. It wasn’t a general quarters klaxon, but Kimble knew something was wrong.

“Attention all officers and bluejackets,” the voice of Evelyn Krakov, the ship’s senior watch officer, boomed out across the P.A. system. “Situation planetside is one-A. Repeart one-A. All military personnel will maintain class A security for the entire operation. Department heads and division officers will prepare accordingly. That is all.”

Kimble didn’t like the sound of that announcement. Krakov had specifically mentioned “bluejackets.”  “Bluejacket” was a term applied to enlisted sailors in the days of the old sailing ships. More specifically, it denoted sailors who took part in armed boarding parties or supported Marines in shore combat. In present times, it meant sailors designated for shipboard security.

“What the hell is one-A?” Kimble asked, confused. “Sounds like trouble.”

“Something’s happening down on the planet,” Mitscher explained. “Maybe a smuggler or pirate raid. They’d love to get their hands on all these supplies. Make a killing on the black market. Come on, let’s get ready.”

“I thought bluejackets referred to shipboard security,” Kimble mentioned.

“Man, you really haven’t been out in the fleet,” the technician laughed. “Any sailor going planetside in condition one-A goes in packing.”

“Same old, same old,” Kimble muttered as he followed the man out of the landing bay.

The alarm certainly had the ship abuzz. Personnel rushed to and fro in a sort of controlled chaos. The sailors manning the ship’s armory had all they could handle to get the shuttle crews, Marines and bluejackets properly set with weapons and battle armor. Technicians also had to requisition additional ammunition for the shuttles and pinnaces, because condition one-A required they have a one-hundred percent capacity load-out.

Kimble couldn’t believe pirates could put a dreadnought on full alert. From what he’d heard, the pirates had lots of ships but not the firepower to do more than prick at the shields of large military vessels. Pinnaces and shuttles were another matter, however, and Kimble could only think that the gunners would have to provide cover fire to get the shuttles to and from the surface safely.

“Ever do one of these armed escort details, Kimble?” Farrier asked when Kimble and the technician arrived at the nearest armory.

“Once, sort of,” Kimble replied.

Farrier took a battle vest from the armory keeper and handed it to Kimble. The technician helped him put it on. It was bulkier than he thought it would be.

“What do you mean sort of?” the technician queried, curiously, while checking the vest for proper fit.

“Ashfield twelve,” Kimble explained, sheepishly. “Pirates took over a large farm planet in the Guarino quadrant. Guarded it with a derelict freighter converted to handle light guns. They said we’d get our heads handed to us if we dared interfere.”

“Sounds dicey,” Farrier remarked. “What happened?”

“The dreadnought Halifax blasted the ship out of the sky with one shot,” Kimble answered while he zipped his vest closed. “The pirates practically crapped their pants. The only injuries were from them tripping over each other to surrender. I didn’t have to do a damned thing other than pick up weapons.”

“I wish the pirates and raiders out here were that compliant,” the technician commented.

Farrier handed a heavy machine gun to Kimble, who looked at it like it was something completely foreign to him. Farrier switched it out for a light machine gun. Kimble found it a better fit, slung it over his shoulder and began stuffing his ammo slots with the magazines the technician handed to him.

Pirates had definitely been a major problem in the outer reaches of the Federation’s jurisdiction. Ever since the Navy had routed the last vestiges of the rogue planets that had attempted to forcefully control lucrative shipping routes, the areas had been plagued with piracy. Everyone figured the corsairs were the survivors from the losing side.

Lately, however, they’d become more organized, more numerous and better equipped, leading the Navy’s intelligence apparatus to suspect secret support from the planetary systems bordering Federation space. Maintaining “peaceful” relations while backing covert action had been a long-used tactic in the history of mankind. It was to be expected, though. After all, even the Federation had utilized the tactic to keep those border systems off-balance.

What hurt the most was the presence of former Federation sailors in the ranks of the raiders. They may only have been in it for the money, but they brought battle-hardened combat experience to an enemy whose best people had either been killed or crippled. That had forced the Federation to try new tactics to combat the scourge. For Pegram Kimble, it was disconcerting but hardly unexpected. Sailors and Marines had expected such hardships going back to the day Man first learned to sail.

“Don’t let it get in your head, Kimble,” Farrier warned. “It’s probably just precautionary. There are pirates about but I don’t think they’d be stupid enough to attack the main areas. Probably out in the sticks.”

“I thought Tedesco was the sticks,” Kimble commented.

“Even in the sticks, there are sticks,” Farren explained while loading his combat shotgun. “Lots of muddy swamps and mires, fed by meandering streams and Earth-like bayous, where a few hardy souls mine for valuable but rare platinum and titanium in the really, really thick mud. Then, you got the old forests completely denuded of leaves. Looks like a warzone that never recovered. Get injured in there, though, and you’re screwed because the trees are strong enough to resist even a shuttle landing.

“Add in the fjords, inlets cut into the land near the Ice Belt in the north. Beautiful snow-capped peaks in the distance, but the fjords just go on for miles and miles, with nothing but sheer cliffs on either side, save for an occasional cave cut into the rock for shelter during storms. The end of the fjords ain’t accessible by air because of the way the winds swirl through ‘em. A lot of water predators, like ankh-sharks go into the fjords to escape the storms. Getting rescued from these places can be a real bear.”

“Stop, stop, please.”

Copyright © 2011 Gregory Marshall Smith

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

To be continued August 20, 2011.

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Gregory Marshall Smith

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