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Chapter Eighteen

The GQ alarm yanked Warner Caslet up from dreamless sleep. He rolled over, sat up, and reached for the com key out of pure spinal reflex even before his eyes were open, and light flared in the darkened cabin as the display came up.

"Captain," he said in a sleep-blurry voice. "Talk to me."

"I think we've got a nibble, Skipper." It was Allison MacMurtree, his executive officer. "I'm not sure it's who we're looking for, but someone's coming after us."

"Just one?" Caslet rubbed his eyes, and MacMurtree nodded.

"All we've got so far is a single impeller signature, Skip." Citizen Commissioner Jourdain moved into range of the exec's pickup, looking over her shoulder at Caslet. MacMurtree glanced back at the newcomer, but her face showed no concern, despite the fact that many a people's commissioner considered "Skipper" or "Skip" almost as "disloyally elitist" as daring to call anyone but another commissioner "Sir."

"How far back?"

"Right on nineteen million klicks, Skip. Call it a tad over one light-minute. We're not getting any active—" She broke off and looked away from her pickup. Caslet heard Shannon Foraker's voice, and then MacMurtree looked back out of the display with a chilling smile. "Tactical just confirmed it, Skipper. Active light-speed emissions are coming in now, and they match our boy's signature across the board."

"And he's definitely coming after us?"

"Absolutely. We're the only other people out here, and he just lit off his drive two minutes ago," the exec confirmed, and Caslet gave her an equally icy smile.

"I'll be up immediately. You and Shannon know what to do till I get there."

"Aye, Skipper. We'll play fat, dumb, and happy."

"Good." Caslet nodded, killed the circuit, and crossed to his suit locker. One of the many privileges the Republic's officer corps had been required to give up under the new regime was its stewards, but that had never bothered Caslet particularly, and it certainly didn't bother him now. He made a quick visual inspection of his skinsuit telltales before he dragged it out, yet his mind wasn't truly on them. For all the assurance he'd projected for Jourdain's benefit, the chance of finding a single, specific raider was always slim. Now he'd pulled it off, and he wondered if he could manage the next step on his agenda. According to the sensor logs they'd pulled from Erewhon's computers, the raider was considerably lighter than Vaubon, and Caslet seriously doubted any batch of pirates could match the efficiency of his well-drilled, veteran crew. He had no doubt that he could destroy these people, but what he really wanted was to capture their ship—and its computers—reasonably intact, and that promised to be considerably more difficult.

He climbed into the suit, suppressing a familiar wince as he made the plumbing connections, and sealed it. He wanted that ship, and he was prepared to run a certain degree of risk to capture it, but he was not prepared to endanger his own people. If it looked problematical, he was perfectly willing to settle for blowing it away. Indeed, a part of him wanted to do just that, and he bared his teeth as he picked up his helmet and headed for the hatch.

 

"Looks like we've got him suckered—for now, at least," MacMurtree greeted Caslet as he stepped onto the command deck. She gestured at the main plot and followed him across to it. "He's coming in from almost directly astern—one-seven-seven—but he's high, so all he can see is our roof. No way he can get any kind of radar return or optical on us."

"Good." Caslet handed his helmet to a yeoman, who racked it on his command chair's arm for him, and stood gazing into the plot. The raider had closed to just over eighteen and a half million kilometers, and it was accelerating at almost five hundred gravities. Vaubon's current velocity was 13,800 KPS, and she was accelerating towards the F6 sun called Sharon's Star at a hundred and two gravities, but the raider was already up to 15,230 KPS, an overtake of over fourteen hundred kilometers per second. Caslet considered the vector projections for a moment, then looked at Citizen Lieutenant Simon Houghton.

"Time to intercept?"

"At present accelerations, call it forty-five minutes," the astrogator replied, "but his overtake would be over twelve thousand KPS."

"Understood." Caslet studied the plot a few seconds longer, then walked to his command chair. Jourdain already sat in the matching chair next to it and raised his eyebrows as the citizen commander seated himself.

"You're confident these are the people you want, Citizen Commander?"

"If Shannon says it's them, then it's them, Sir. And so far, they seem to be doing exactly what we want. The problem is to keep them doing it."

"And just how will you do that?" Jourdain's question could have been ironic, but it was honestly curious, and Caslet smiled briefly.

"None of their sensors can see through our wedge, Sir. At the moment, all they have to go on are its apparent strength and our active emissions, and Shannon and Engineering have gone to some pains to make both of them look like a merchantman's. We couldn't fool a regular warship for very long if it was suspicious, but these people expect to see a merchie. They should go right on assuming that's what we are until and unless we do something to change their minds or they get a look at our hull. Fortunately, they're well above us, which means they're headed directly towards the roof of our wedge right now. We can't count on that lasting all the way to intercept, but they should give us plenty of excuse to react before then. And if we time it right, the geometry when we finally decide to 'see' them and respond to the threat should keep them from seeing up the rear of our wedge."

"So they won't get that look at our hull," Jourdain said, nodding slowly, and Caslet nodded back.

"That's the idea, Citizen Commissioner. If this is their max acceleration, which seems likely, we've got about a ten-gee edge, but that's not enough unless we can get them in closer. At the moment, their overtake is still so low they could easily evade and get back across the hyper limit before we overhauled if we simply turned and went in pursuit. But if we act like a properly terrified freighter, they should keep coming in—and slowing to board or engage us, as well—until we've got them right where we want them."

"And then we blow them out of space," Jourdain said with undisguised satisfaction. The people's commissioner had spent hours reviewing Citizen Captain Branscombe's visual records of the carnage aboard Erewhon, and he'd clearly overcome any lingering reservations about decreasing pressure on the Manties. It was one more indication that he had too much decency to make a proper spy for the Committee of Public Safety, but Caslet had no intention of complaining about that. Still, it was time to give Jourdain's thoughts a slightly different direction.

"And then we can blow them out of space, Sir," he said. "But satisfying as that would be, I'd rather take them more or less intact."

"Intact?" Jourdain's eyebrows rose again. "Surely that would be far more difficult!"

"Oh, it would, Sir. But if we can get our hands on their database, we'll be in a far better position to tell just how numerous this particular nest of vermin may be. With luck, we may even find enough data to ID some of their other ships if we stumble across them—or find out where they're based. Information is the second most deadly weapon known to man, Sir."

"The second? And what, pray tell, is the first, Citizen Commander?"

"Surprise," Caslet said softly, "and we already have that one."

 

The raider continued to close, and Vaubon let it come. The light cruiser forged steadily towards Sharon's Star, plodding along on a routine approach to turnover, and Caslet and Shannon Foraker watched the pirates sweep nearer and nearer. Thirty-four minutes ticked past, and the range fell to just over seven million kilometers.

The raider's overtake velocity was up to almost ten thousand kilometers per second, which seemed excessive to Caslet. Even at the low acceleration Vaubon had so far revealed, a sudden reversal of power on her part would force the raider to overrun her at a relative velocity of over six thousand KPS in fourteen and a half minutes. Assuming the "freighter" survived the overrun, the raider would need another twenty-six minutes just to decelerate to zero relative to its target, by which time the range between them would have opened to nine and a half million kilometers once more, and the pirates would have to chase her down all over again. Of course, that would still be an ultimately losing game for the "freighter," given the higher acceleration the raider could pull, but a gutsy merchant skipper might go for it. Useless as it would probably prove in the long run, he might be able to spin things out long enough for someone else to turn up, and even in the Confederacy, it was possible that someone else might be a warship. The odds against any such happy outcome were literally astronomical, but the fact that the bad guys hadn't allowed for it was one more indication of professional sloppiness.

On the other hand, not even this bunch of yahoos were likely to keep pouring on the accel much longer, particularly since even a merchantman was bound to pick them up in the next million klicks or so. They'd be making their presence known pretty soon, and—

"Missile separation! I've got two birds, Skip, spreading out to port and starboard!"

"All right, Helm," Caslet said calmly. "You know what to do."

"Aye, Sir. Evading now."

Vaubon's nose pitched "down" as the cruiser came perpendicular to the system ecliptic, "diving" frantically, and rolled to starboard. The move snatched her vector away from the missiles and interposed the floor of her impeller wedge against them in the only real evasion maneuver an unarmed ship could execute. Despite the extremely long range, the raider's overtake velocity put Vaubon well within his powered missile envelope, and without any active defenses to intercept incoming fire short of target, all a freighter could realistically hope to do was dodge. Of course, the raider had wanted her to dodge them, and their conventional nuclear warheads detonated at the end of their run without fuss or bother. But their message had been passed.

"We're being hailed, Skipper," the com officer said. "They're ordering us to resume our original heading."

"Are they?" Caslet murmured, and gave his people's commissioner a smile. "That's convenient. Did they say anything about killing the wedge?"

"No, Citizen Commander. They want us to maintain our original accel while they match velocities."

"That's even more convenient," Caslet observed, and checked the plot. Vaubon's "evasion maneuver" had opened the vertical separation a bit further—not a lot, but a little—and he leaned back and rubbed his jaw for a moment. "Ted, hail them—audio only; no visual. Inform them that we're the Andermani merchant ship Ying Kreuger and order them to stand clear."

"Aye, Citizen Commander." Citizen Lieutenant Dutton turned back to his pickup, and Jourdain gave Caslet a mildly puzzled look.

"And just what is this in aid of, Citizen Commander?" he inquired.

"We're inside their missile envelope, Sir," Caslet replied, "but no sane pirate wants to blow his prize up, and even with laser heads, missiles aren't precision weapons. They're mostly for show; he needs to get in close with his energy mounts to be able to threaten us with the sort of damage that could stop us without destroying us outright. Merchant skippers know that, and a gutsy captain—or a stupid one—would at least try to talk his way out of it until they managed to bring him into effective range. It wouldn't do to slip out of our role just yet, and, more to the point, the more vertical separation I can generate before resuming our original course, the sharper the angle will be when our vectors intercept. They'll have to come in from higher 'above' us, and that should keep our wedge between us and their active systems at least a little longer."

"I see." Jourdain shook his head and smiled faintly. "Remind me not to play poker with you, Citizen Commander."

"They're repeating their order to resume course and accel," Dutton announced, and grinned at his captain. "They sound sort of pissed off, Skip."

"What a pity. Repeat the message." Caslet smiled back, then glanced at MacMurtree. "We'll keep protesting till they close to four million, Allison, then obey like a nice little prize."

 

The chase was winding to a close, and the atmosphere on PNS Vaubon's bridge was far tenser than it had been. The raider's demands that "Ying Kreuger" rendezvous with it had become uglier and more threatening, punctuated by increasingly closer near-misses with nuclear warheads, until Caslet gave in and obeyed. Now the pirate was little more than a quarter million kilometers clear, and Caslet shook his head in wonder. He'd never really expected the idiots to come this close without realizing they'd been had, but the raider skipper seemed sublimely confident. The fact that he had yet to get even a single glimpse of his prize's hull meant little to him, since he "knew" from her emissions that she was a merchant ship. No one could see through an active impeller wedge from the outside, anyway, since the effect of a meter-wide band in which local gravity went from zero to almost a hundred thousand MPS² twisted photons into pretzels. Someone on the inside, who knew the precise strength of the wedge, could use computer compensation to turn mangled emissions back into something comprehensible, but no one on the outside could manage the same trick. Caslet's maneuvers had kept his wedge between his ship and the raider's sensors for reasons which the pirate saw no cause to question, but the bad guys were well within effective energy weapons range now, and he glanced at Foraker.

"Ready, Shannon?"

"Yes, Sir." The tac officer was so buried in her console she used the pre-coup formality without even thinking, and Jourdain shook his head with wry resignation.

"All right, people. This is where we nail the bastards. Stand by . . . and . . . execute!"

PNS Vaubon stopped being a freighter. Foraker hadn't been able to use any of her active systems without giving the game away, but her passive systems had run a painstaking track on her opponent for almost two hours. She knew exactly where the enemy was, and she also knew that enemy was decelerating towards her at a sharp enough angle to give her an up the kilt shot. Allison MacMurtree rolled Vaubon up on her starboard side with sudden, flashing speed, and as the ship rolled, her port broadside came to bear on the raider and two powerful laser mounts fired as one. Caslet could have fired a broadside three times as heavy, but he wanted that ship to survive . . . and two clean hits with no sidewall interdiction should be more than enough for his purposes.

Lasers are light-speed weapons, and the raider's first warning was the instant both of Foraker's shots scored direct hits on the stern of his ship. His chase armament vanished in an explosion of shattered plating, and the beams of coherent light blew forward into his after impeller ring like demons. Massive power surges bled through his internal systems, blowing equipment like popcorn as the entire after third of his hull was smashed into rubble, and his fusion plant went into emergency shutdown. His impellers died, and he was suddenly unable to maneuver, stern-on to his would-be victim, with neither wedge nor sidewall to interdict Vaubon's fire.

"This is Citizen Commander Warner Caslet," Caslet said coldly into his com. "You are my prisoners. Any attempt at resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel."

There was no reply, and he watched his plot narrowly. Despite the raider's massive damage, at least some of his broadside weapons must have survived, including his missile tubes, and those could still fire at least a few shots on reserve power. But his emissions made it clear that single, devastating rake had completely crippled his vessel. If he did choose to fight, it would be one of the shortest engagements in history.

"No reply, Skip," Dutton said. "We may have taken out their transmitters."

Caslet nodded. For that matter, they'd quite possibly taken out the raider's receivers, as well. But whether he'd heard the message or not, whoever was in command over there clearly didn't intend to commit suicide, and Caslet glanced at the small com screen tied into the troop bay of Citizen Captain Branscombe's pinnace.

"All right, Ray. Go get them, but watch your ass. Hold the pinnaces clear and stay out of our line of fire."

"Aye, Sir," Branscombe replied, and two pinnaces packed with battle-armored Marines floated clear of Vaubon's boat bay. They circled wide to stay out of the play of the light cruiser's broadside weapons, and took up station two kilometers directly astern of the half-wrecked ship. Hatches opened, and individual, armored Marines drifted across the gap to the raider's hull.

Caslet watched on the visual display as the Marines moved forward towards the nearest undamaged personnel hatch. It was possible the pirates would try one final, suicidal gesture of defiance and blow themselves up just to take his Marines with them, but pirates weren't kamikazes . . . and they didn't know that Caslet already knew about Erewhon. If they had known, and if they'd suspected what he intended to do with them, they might have suicided anyway, but they didn't, and he relaxed as Branscombe's point men entered the hull and started rounding up the raider crew without resistance.

"Nicely done, Citizen Commander," Denis Jourdain said quietly. "Very nicely done. And under the circumstances," he smiled with an edge of sadness, "I think this really is something we can feel proud of."

 

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