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Chapter Nineteen

Caslet was waiting in the boat bay gallery when Branscombe's pinnace docked. He folded his hands behind him and stood still, hiding his impatience as the docking tube ran out. The umbilicals engaged, and the tube cycled open. A moment later, Branscombe drifted down it in his battle armor, caught the grab bar, and swung over into Vaubon's internal gravity. It wasn't a simple maneuver in battle armor, and more than one Marine's exoskeletal "muscles" had ripped a grab bar completely off its brackets, but Branscombe made it look easy. He landed on the deck, standing a half-meter taller than usual in his massive armor, and raised his visor.

"We ripped hell out of her aft of about frame eighty, Skipper," he said, "and one of our hits blew clear forward to their bridge. It's a mess in there. Everything's down except emergency lighting, and it looks like at least a third of their computer section went up with the hit. But my tech people say they didn't manage to dump their main memory, and Citizen Sergeant Simonson's working on tickling something out of it now."

"Good. Any resistance?"

"None, Sir." Like Shannon Foraker's, Citizen Captain Branscombe's vocabulary had a tendency to backslide, and he smiled evilly. "I figure we killed about half their crew—would you believe only their boarders were even suited?" He shook his head, and it was Caslet's turn to smile.

"Of course they weren't, Ray. We were just a harmless merchie going to the slaughter."

"That's what they thought, anyway. Some of them seem to feel like we cheated somehow."

"My heart bleeds," Caslet observed, then rubbed his chin. "So Simonson may be able to get something out of their 'puters for us, eh? Well, that's good news."

"She didn't sound real confident, Sir," Branscombe cautioned, "but if anyone can, she can. In the meantime, though, we may have something even better than that."

Caslet looked up sharply, but the citizen captain wasn't looking at him. Battle armor was designed to be nearly indestructible, and the back of Branscombe's helmet was a solid slab of armor. At the moment, he was looking into the small vision display that covered the area directly behind him, and Caslet stepped to the side to see around him. Two more Marines were coming down the tube, with a man and a woman in filthy shipsuits sandwiched between them.

"Is this their senior officers?" Caslet asked coldly.

"No, Sir—I mean, Citizen Commander." The Marine grimaced. "If they're telling the truth, they're not even members of the crew."

"Of course they're not," Caslet said sarcastically.

"As a matter of fact, Skipper, I think they are telling the truth." Caslet looked at the Marine again, eyebrows raised, and Branscombe tossed his head in the gesture someone in armor used instead of a shrug. "You'll see why in a minute," he said in a grimmer voice.

Caslet wrinkled his forehead in skepticism but said nothing while the Marines and their prisoners exited the tube. But then he stiffened as the prisoners' appearance registered fully.

Prolong always made it difficult to judge someone's age, but the man had a few streaks of gray in his hair and unkempt beard. His face was haggard, with huge, dark circles under the eyes, and an ugly, recent scar disfigured his right cheek. In fact, Caslet realized, it stretched clear up around the side of his head and his entire right ear was missing.

The woman was probably younger, but it was hard to tell. Once, she must have been quite attractive, and it showed even past her dirty skin and oily hair, but she was even more haggard than her companion, and her eyes were those of a cornered animal. They darted everywhere, watching every shadow, and Caslet fought a sudden desire to step back from her. She radiated a dangerous, half-mad aura of pure murder, and her mouth was a frozen snarl.

"Citizen Commander Caslet," Branscombe said quietly, "allow me to introduce Captain Harold Sukowski and Commander Christina Hurlman." The man's eyes flickered, but he managed a courteous nod. The woman didn't even move, and Caslet watched her tense as the man—Sukowski—slipped an arm around her.

"Citizen Commander," Sukowski said huskily, and Caslet's eyes sharpened at his accent. "I never thought I'd be happy to see the People's Navy, but I am. I certainly am."

"You're Manties," Caslet said softly.

"Yes, Sir." The woman still said nothing. Only her eyes moved, still darting about like trapped animals, and Sukowski drew her closer against his side. "Master of RMMS Bonaventure. This—" his voice wavered slightly, and he dragged it back under control "—is my exec."

"What in God's name were you doing over there?" Caslet demanded, waving an arm towards the hulk beyond the gallery bulkhead.

"They took my ship in Telmach four months ago." Sukowski looked around the gallery for a moment, then met Caslet's eyes pleadingly. "Please, Citizen Commander. You must have a doctor on board." Caslet nodded, and Sukowski cleared his throat. "Could I ask you to call him, please. Chris has . . . had a bad time."

Caslet's eyes flickered to the woman, and his stomach clenched as he remembered what these same raiders had done aboard Erewhon. A dozen questions chased themselves across his forebrain, but he managed to stop them all before they crossed his lips.

"Of course." He nodded to one of the Marines, who gripped Hurlman's elbow gently to guide her towards the lift. But the instant he touched her, the motionless woman erupted in violence. It was insane—the Marine was in battle armor, with his visor still down—but she went for him with her bare hands and feet, and the total silence of her attack was almost as terrifying as its fury. Had the Marine not been armored, any one of the half-dozen blows she landed before anyone could react would have crippled or killed him, and his companion started forward.

"No! Stay back!" Sukowski shouted, and waded into the fray. The first Marine wasn't even trying to defend himself. He was simply trying to back away from his attacker without hurting her, but she wouldn't relent. She leapt from the deck, wrapped her arms around his helmet, and slammed her kneecap into his armored breastplate again and again and again, and Caslet opened his mouth as Sukowski jumped towards her.

"Watch yourself, she'll—!"

But Sukowski ignored the citizen commander. His attention was entirely on Hurlman, and his voice was very gentle.

"Chris. Chris, it's me. It's the Skipper, Chris. It's all right. He's not going to hurt you or me. Chris, they're friends. Listen to me, Chris. Listen to me."

The words poured out like a soft, soothing litany, and the woman's fury wavered. Her attack slowed, then stopped, and she looked over her shoulder as Sukowski touched her.

"It's all right, Chris. We're safe now." A tear trickled down the Manticoran's cheek, but he kept his voice low and gentle. "It's all right. It's all right, Chris."

She made a sound—the first sound Caslet had heard from her. It wasn't a word. It didn't even sound human, but Sukowski nodded.

"That's right, Chris. Come on, now. Come over here with me."

She shook herself and closed her eyes tightly for an instant, and then she released her death grip on the Marine's helmet. She sagged back, crouching on the deck, and Sukowski knelt beside her. He put both arms around her, holding her tightly, but she twisted in his grip, facing away from him. She looked up at the Marines and Caslet, and her lips skinned back to bare her teeth. She was poised to attack yet again, and Caslet licked his own lips as he recognized her body language. The brutality her captors had shown her was agonizingly evident, but she hadn't attacked the Marine to protect herself. It was her captain she was defending, and she was ready to take them all on, empty hands against battle armor, if they even looked like threatening him.

"It's over, Chris. We're safe now," Sukowski whispered in her ear, over and over, until, at last, she relaxed ever so slightly. The Manticoran captain closed his own eyes for a moment, then looked back up at Caslet.

"I think I'd better take her to sickbay myself," he said, and his voice was hoarse, without the calm he'd forced into it when speaking to Hurlman.

"Of course," Caslet said quietly. He drew a deep breath and went down on his knees, facing the woman. "No one is going to harm you or your captain, Commander Hurlman," he said in that same, quiet voice. "No one is going to hurt either of you ever again. You have my word."

She glared at him, mouth working soundlessly, but he held her eyes, and something seemed to flicker deep within them. Her mouth stilled, and he nodded, then rose once more, holding his hand out to her.

"Come with me, Commander. I'll take you Doctor Jankowski. She'll get you and your captain cleaned up before we talk again, all right?"

She stared at his hand for a long, tense moment, and then her shoulders sagged. Her head hung for just an instant, and then she reached out. She took his hand as skittishly as a wild animal might have, and he squeezed gently and drew her to her feet.

 

Two hours later, Harold Sukowski sat in Caslet's briefing room, facing the citizen commander, Allison MacMurtree, and Denis Jourdain across the table. Christina Hurlman wasn't there. She was sedated in sickbay under Citizen Doctor Jankowski's care, and Caslet prayed Jankowski's prognosis was accurate. Jankowski had been a civilian doctor in DuQuesne Tower before the coup attempt. She'd dealt with rape trauma before, and she seemed almost relieved by Hurlman's homicidal attitude.

"Better someone who's still willing to fight back than someone who's completely beaten, Skipper," the doctor had said. "She's in terrible shape right now, but we've still got something to build on. If she doesn't break up when she realizes she really is safe, I think she's got a good chance to come back. Maybe not all the way, but a lot further than you might believe just now."

Now Caslet shook himself and looked at Sukowski. The Manticoran looked much better now that he'd showered and changed into a clean shipsuit, but the strain in his face hadn't even begun to ease yet, and Caslet wondered if it ever would.

"I think," the citizen commander said, "that we can assume you and Commander Hurlman are who you say you are, Captain Sukowski. I'd still like to know what you were doing aboard that ship, however."

Sukowski gave a small, bitter smile of understanding. Branscombe's Marines had brought all the surviving pirates across to Vaubon by now, and Caslet had never seen a more psychopathic crop in his life. He'd never really believed in Attila the Hun in starships. By and large, spacers required a certain degree of intelligence, but these people were something else. No doubt they were intelligent, in their own way, but they were also brutal, sadistic scum, and Caslet couldn't imagine how Sukowski and Hurlman had survived as their captives.

"As I said, Citizen Commander, they took my ship in Telmach. I got most of my crew off, but Chris—" His eyes flickered. "Chris wouldn't leave me," he said quietly. "She thought I needed looking after." He managed a shaky smile. "She was right, but God I wish she'd gone!"

He looked down at the table top for a moment, then inhaled deeply and raised one hand to where his right ear had been.

"I got this right after they boarded," he said flatly. "They were . . . angry my people got away from them, and three of them held me down while another sawed my ear off. I think they were going to kill me just because they were pissed off, but they wanted to take their time about it, and Chris got loose from the one holding her somehow. I wasn't much use, but she crippled the bastard with the knife and took three more of them down before they all piled onto her."

He looked away, and his jaw worked.

"I think she took them by surprise, but they beat the hell out of her once they had her down, and they—" He broke off and drew another deep breath, and MacMurtree handed him a glass of ice water. He sipped deeply, then cleared his throat. "Sorry." The word came out husky, and he cleared his throat again, then set the glass very carefully on the table. "Sorry. It's just that what they did to her . . . diverted them from me. They took it out on her, instead." He closed his eyes, and his jaw clenched. "The men were bad enough, but, Jesus, the women! They actually gave the sick bastards advice, like it was all some kind of—"

His voice chopped off, and his nostrils flared.

"If you need more time—" Jourdain began softly, but Sukowski shook his head sharply.

"No. No, I'm as close to all right as I'll get for a while. Let me go ahead and tell it."

The people's commissioner nodded, though his face was distressed as he sat back in his chair, and Sukowski opened his eyes once more.

"The only reason we're alive is that we're with the Hauptman Cartel. Mr. Hauptman's agreed to ransom any of his people who fall into pirate hands, and one of their 'officers' came along before they quite killed Chris. God, I never talked so fast in my life! But I managed to convince him we were worth more alive than dead, and he called his animals off. Not that I was sure they'd stay called off. The brother of the bastard who'd sliced my ear off came by the brig the first night and tried to rape Chris again. She was barely even conscious, but that didn't bother him, only I caught him with his back turned and kicked his balls up between his ears. I thought for sure they'd kill us both then, and part of me hoped they would. I must've been out of my head. I was screaming I'd kill anyone who touched her, and the bastard's buddies were screaming that they were going to kill me, and then Chris was on her feet somehow, trying to get at them, and they butt-stroked her with a pulser and I went for the one with the gun, and—"

He broke off, hands shaking violently, and cleared his throat again.

"That's all I remember for a day or two," he said flatly. "When I started tracking again, their 'captain' told me I'd damned well better be right about that ransom, because if I was lying, he was going to give Chris to the crew and make me watch before they spaced us both. But in the meantime, they left us pretty much alone. I think"—he actually managed a ghastly parody of a smile—"they were afraid that if they tried anything else they'd have to kill one or both of their golden geese. At any rate, that's what we were doing in that hell ship, and even a POW camp is going to look like heaven compared to it."

"I think we can avoid that, Captain Sukowski," Jourdain said, and Caslet looked at him in surprise. "You and Commander Hurlman have been through enough. We'll have to hold you for some time, I'm afraid, but I personally assure you that you'll both be handed over to the nearest Manticoran embassy as soon as our own operational posture permits."

"Thank you, Sir," Sukowski said quietly. "Thank you very much."

"In the meantime, however," Caslet said after a moment, "any information you can give us would be extremely useful. We may be at war with your kingdom, Captain Sukowski, but we're not monsters. We want these people—all of them."

"You're going to need more than one ship," Sukowski said grimly. "I never got a chance to look at any of their astrogation data, but they decided I should 'earn my keep' and put me to work in Engineering. They said that since I'd fixed it so they had to man Bonaventure, I could help take up the slack in their ship. They enjoyed the hell out of giving me all the shit jobs, but, frankly, I was glad to have something to do, and they talked in front of me. I kept track of the ship's names they dropped, and as near as I can make out, they've got at least ten of 'em, maybe a few more."

"Ten?" Caslet couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice, and Sukowski smiled bitterly.

"I was surprised, too. I couldn't imagine that anyone would be crazy enough to bankroll maniacs like this, but these aren't 'pirates' at all. What you're dealing with, Citizen Commander, used to be an official squadron of privateers operating out of the Chalice."

"Oh, God," MacMurtree muttered, and Caslet's mouth tightened. Their background brief had covered the Chalice Cluster Uprising and the lunatic who'd launched it. Only a government like the Confederacy's could have let a madman like Andre Warnecke take over a single city, far less an entire cluster with three inhabited planets. Of course, to be fair he'd started out sounding sane enough—until he was in power, anyway. He'd announced his intention to create a republic and hold free and open elections as soon as he'd "provided for the public safety," then put his cronies in charge of internal security and launched a reign of terror which made State Security's purges back home look like a tea party. What had once been NavInt estimated that he'd killed something like three million citizens of the Chalice himself before the inept Confederacy Navy managed to move in and crush his rebellion after over fourteen T-months of trying.

"Exactly," Sukowski said in that same, grim voice. "The Silesians were even more incompetent than usual, and these bastards managed to get out before the roof caved in. Worse, they took Warnecke with them."

"Warnecke's alive?" Caslet gasped, and Sukowski nodded. "But they hanged him," Caslet protested. "We've got copies of the imagery in our database!"

"I know," Sukowski grunted. "His people have copies of it, too, and they laugh their asses off over it. The best I could figure it, the Confeds figured he'd died in the fighting but still wanted to make an 'example' of him, so they faked up the imagery of his hanging. But he's alive, Citizen Commander, and he and his murderers've taken over some outback planet lock, stock, and barrel. I'm not sure where it is, but the locals never had a chance when the squadron came in on them. Now Warnecke's using it as a base of operations until he's ready to mount his 'counter offensive' against the Confederacy."

"These people actually believe he can do that?" Jourdain asked skeptically, and Sukowski shrugged.

"I can't tell you that. At the moment, they're pirates; Warnecke still has connections somewhere in the Confederacy willing to dispose of loot for him, and they're doing all right for themselves, despite the way they operate. At least some of them do seem to think they're building up to take back the Chalice, though others sound more like they're just humoring a lunatic. But for the moment, he's got them in line, and from what one or two of them were saying, his contacts are about ready to start supplying him with additional ships, as well."

"I don't like the sound of that," MacMurtree muttered.

"Neither do I," Caslet agreed, and looked at Jourdain. "Nor, I'm certain, will Citizen Admiral Giscard or Citizen Commissioner Pritchart. We thought Warnecke was dead, so I don't have detailed information on him. But what I do have suggests he's the sort who'd see the chance to capture a regular warship as a way to add to his 'navy.'"

"Surely you're not suggesting he could threaten us," Jourdain protested.

"Don't underestimate these people just because they're animals, Sir. Granted, the Confederacy Navy is incompetent, but Warnecke did hold them off for over a T-year—and got himself out when it finally fell apart. The ship we just took was as heavily armed as one of our Bastogne-class destroyers. He may have others even more powerful, and if he swarms us one at a time, he could take out even a battlecruiser with enough of them."

"The Citizen Commander's right, Sir," MacMurtree put in. Jourdain looked at her, and she shrugged. "I doubt Warnecke could capture one of our units in useable condition, but that doesn't mean he won't try to. And it won't matter to our people whether their ship is destroyed or taken. They'll be just as dead either way."

"And none of that even considers what kind of atrocities these people are going to be committing in the meantime," Caslet added.

"Point taken, Citizen Commander." Jourdain plucked at his lower lip and looked at Sukowski again. "You don't have any idea where this planet they've taken over is, Captain?"

"I'm afraid not, Sir," the Manticoran said heavily. "All I know is that they were working their way back to base."

"That's something," Caslet murmured. "We know where they were a few weeks ago, and we know where they are now. That gives us a general direction, anyway." He scratched his eyebrow. "Were these people operating solo, Captain?"

"They were the whole time we were aboard, but from the scuttlebutt, they expected to meet up with at least two or three other ships fairly soon. I'm not sure where, but there's supposed to be a convoy coming into Posnan sometime in the next month or so, and they figure they've got the muscle to take out the escorts."

"In that case, they probably do have some fairly powerful units, Skipper," MacMurtree pointed out in a worried voice, and Caslet nodded.

"I assume, Captain Sukowski, that we're talking about a Manticoran convoy?" he asked gently. Sukowski said nothing, only looked uncomfortable, and the citizen commander nodded. "Forgive me. I shouldn't have pressed you on that, but I doubt even Warnecke would take on a heavily escorted convoy. The only people running escort out here at all are you and the Andies, and you're stretched a lot thinner than the IAN."

He gnawed on his thumbnail for a moment, then nodded again to Sukowski.

"All right, Captain. Thank you very much. You've been of great assistance, and I think I can speak for my superiors when I say we'll do our best to find and destroy the rest of these vermin. For now, why don't you go on back to sickbay and get some rest? Commander Hurlman's going to need you when she wakes up again."

"You're right." Sukowski pushed himself to his feet and looked at the three Peeps, then held out his hand to Caslet. "Thank you," he said simply, crushing the citizen commander's hand, then turned and left. The Marine outside the briefing room took him in tow as the hatch closed behind him, and Caslet turned to the other two.

"It's a damned good thing Sukowski and Hurlman were aboard," he said grimly. "At least we know something now."

"Perhaps their computers will tell us more," Jourdain said hopefully, but MacMurtree shook her head.

"Sorry, Sir. I got an update from Simonson just before Captain Sukowski joined us. They did manage a data dump on the main system, but that bridge hit blew their astrogation section to hell. We've got a lot of information on their ship and its operations, and their 'captain's' log tells us where they've been, but it refers to their base simply as 'Base,' with no astro references."

"So we ask the crew," Jourdain said, and smiled coldly. "I think if we offer not to shoot the one who tells us where 'Base' is, someone will come forward."

"We can try, Sir," Caslet sighed, "but now that Sukowski's told us who's behind this, something that didn't make much sense to me before is starting to seem a lot more believable." Jourdain looked a question at him, and the citizen commander shrugged. "These people are actually working under operational security. I think that's why the log never refers to their base system by name. It may also explain why the noncommissioned crew doesn't seem to have any idea where it is. Most of their officers had already been detached to handle prize ships, and their astrogator, captain, and exec were all killed when the bridge lost pressure. No one among the survivors seems to know, and what they don't know—"

"—they can't tell us, even to save their miserable lives," Jourdain finished disgustedly.

"Exactly." Caslet rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, then punched a command into his terminal, summoning a holographic star map. He tapped additional commands, highlighting certain systems, then leaned back and whistled tunelessly as he studied his handiwork.

"You have an idea, Citizen Commander?" Jourdain asked after a moment.

"A couple of them, actually, Sir," Caslet admitted. "Look. We first picked up their trail here in Arendscheldt, then followed them straight to Sharon's Star, right?" Jourdain nodded, and Caslet gestured to two more stars. "Well, according to their captain's log, the last two places they tried before Arendscheldt were Sigma and Hera. Before that they took a prize in Creswell—that's why they didn't have the personnel to man Erewhon; they'd used up their surplus crewmen in Creswell—after failing to hit anything in Slocum. You see? They're coming around in an arc, and Sukowski said they meant to rendezvous before hitting a Posnan-bound convoy. I'd guess that means they were heading for either Magyar or Schiller as their next stop. It may also suggest that their base lies down here to the southwest somewhere, but that's a lot more problematical."

"Um." Jourdain studied the chart in turn for several seconds, then nodded. "All right, I follow your logic so far, Citizen Commander, but where is it taking you?"

"Schiller," Caslet replied with a smile. "Magyar's well below Schiller, which puts it a good twenty light-years closer to us than Schiller. If it weren't for Sukowski, that would make Magyar seem more likely as these people's next objective, but Schiller's elevation places it closer to Posnan, and if we head straight there, we may get there soon enough to pick off another singleton who can tell us where their base is."

"And if they get there in strength first?" Jourdain asked just a bit frostily.

"I'm not feeling particularly suicidal, Sir," Caslet said mildly. "If they're present in strength, there's no way I'd tangle with them without a very pressing reason. But the other thing that makes Schiller more attractive to me than Magyar is that we have a trade legation there, and the attaché has a dispatch boat. If we pass our information to her, she can use that boat to alert Citizen Admiral Giscard even more quickly than we could."

"True," Jourdain murmured, then nodded. "A very good point, Citizen Commander."

"Then do I have your permission to proceed to Schiller?"

"Yes, I think you do," Jourdain agreed.

"Thank you, Sir." Caslet looked at MacMurtree. "You heard the Citizen Commissioner, Allison. Tell Simonson to finish up as quickly as she can, then get the demolition charges planted. I want to pull out within the next two hours."

 

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