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Chapter Twenty-One

"What do we have here?" Captain (JG) Samuel Webster murmured, as much to himself as to Scheherazade's tac officer.

"Don't know, Skip." Commander Hernando shook his head. "They're coming in on a fairly standard intercept vector, but there's two of them. That's outside the profile for freelancers. And see this?" He tapped a command into his console, and the estimated power figures on the Bogey One's impeller wedge blinked. "That's awful high for his observed accel, Skipper. Puts him in at least the heavy cruiser range—and the same holds true for his buddy."


Webster sat back and scratched his craggy chin. It wasn't supposed to be this complicated, he reflected, especially not here. Despite the recent jump in losses in this sector, the real hot spots were still supposed to be at Telmach, Brinkman, and Walther in Breslau, or Schiller and Magyar down in southern Posnan. So what were a pair of heavy cruisers doing flying an obvious pursuit vector on a Manticoran merchantman clear over here at Tyler's Star?

"No possibility they're Silesian?" he asked, and Hernando shook his head.

"Not unless the Confeds' EW systems've gotten an awful lot better than they're supposed to be. If these bozos are holding a constant acceleration, they were inside nine light-minutes before we even saw 'em, and they're harder than hell to hold on passive even now. I doubt your standard merchie would have any idea they were out there."

"Um." Webster scratched his chin again and wished Captain Harrington were here to advise him. He was beginning to have a very unpleasant suspicion about those two bogies, and he suddenly felt entirely too junior for what was about to happen.

He raised a hand and beckoned to his exec. Commander DeWitt crossed the bridge to him, and Webster spoke very quietly.

"What do you say to a pair of Peep heavy cruisers, Gus?"

DeWitt turned to give the plot another look. He rubbed one weathered cheek with the knuckle of his right index finger, then nodded slowly.

"Could be, Sir," he agreed. "But if it is, what the hell do we do about them?"

"It doesn't look like we're going to have a whole lot of choice," Webster said wryly.

Captain Harrington's orders were quite clear. He could take on single Peep heavy cruisers with her blessings; if he ran into a battlecruiser—which, given Hernando's still tentative readings on their impeller strengths, either of these two could yet be—or more than one CA, he was supposed to avoid action if possible. Unfortunately, the bogies, whoever and whatever they truly were, were now only five light-minutes back. Scheherazade was up to eleven thousand KPS and accelerating at a hundred and fifty gravities, but the bogies were hitting over forty-three thousand and pulling five hundred gees. That meant they'd overtake in a tad over forty-one minutes, and Webster was much too far inside the hyper limit to escape by translating into h-space. However he sliced it, these people were going to overtake him, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Despite the numerical odds, he figured he had an excellent chance to take both of them on and win, especially if they thought he was only an unarmed freighter until he proved differently. Of course, if they turned out to be battlecruisers, he was going to get badly hurt, but probably not as badly as they would. But what if they split up? If Bogey Two hung back out of missile range—which he might well do, since it was hard to conceive of a Peep CO thinking he'd need two heavy cruisers to swat a single merchie—then Webster would never be able to engage him at all. And that meant he was about to give away an awful lot about his ship's capabilities to the bad guys, whatever happened to the ship which closed. On the other hand . . .

"Probable enemy intentions?" he asked DeWitt.

The exec frowned as he considered. He was five T-years older than his captain, and where Webster had been a com specialist for years, DeWitt had followed a straight Tactical track. Despite that, there was no question which of them was in command, and it was a sign of Webster's self-confidence that he could ask the question he'd just posed.

"If these are Peeps," DeWitt said slowly, "they must be here to raid our commerce, which would explain a lot about our losses in this sector." Webster nodded, and the exec's frown deepened. "At the same time, we haven't heard a peep—you should pardon the expression—from anyone to confirm their presence. That means they've managed to grab the crews of every ship they've hit so far, right?"

"Exactly," Webster agreed. "Which is probably the best news we've had yet."

"Agreed." DeWitt nodded vigorously. "Even with first-line Peep EW systems, most merchies would see them coming in time to get their crews away by small craft. That means they must've been working in pairs, at least, all along."

"If I were their senior officer," Webster mused, "I'd come burning in with all the overtake I could generate with both ships. Then I'd hit my com the minute my target's maneuvers showed I'd been spotted and order him to maintain com silence and not to take to his shuttles."

"Absolutely," DeWitt said. "With two of them right on top of us and both with plenty of overtake in hand, we'd never be able to get a shuttle away. And no merchant skipper would break com silence when he was looking straight into a pair of heavy cruisers' broadsides. Not in Silesian space, anyway. Maybe in a Manticoran system he'd take the chance, but the odds of anyone here's passing on his message to us range from slim to none, so why risk his ship and crew?"

"All right," Webster said more briskly. "We can't get away, and they probably won't split up. That's the good news. The bad news is that they're at least heavy cruisers, which means they'll have decent point defense, and that they can burn past us at over forty thousand KPS. We won't have long to engage, and they're going to be tough missile targets if they've got time to see our birds coming, so we have to take them both out fast and dirty."

DeWitt nodded once more, and Webster glanced at his tac officer.

"Assume what we have here is a pair of Peep CAs, Oliver. Further assume they'll stay together and maintain present acceleration until we respond to their presence in some way. We won't have any choice but to engage, so cook me up the best way to nail them both on the fly."

"Yes, Sir." Hernando glanced back at his plot, eyes suddenly much more wary. "How close are you willing to let them get before we pop them, Skipper? Clear into energy range?"

"Maybe. Our weapons hatches are hard to spot, but if we let them in close, then they've got a chance to use their energy mounts, too. Give me a long range and a short range option."

"Yes, Sir," the tac officer repeated, and began to talk very earnestly with his assistant.

"Gus," Webster turned back to his exec, "I want you to get on the com with Commander Chi. If we have to drop his LACs, they're going to have a mighty steep velocity disadvantage. Go over the enemy's approach profile with him to determine optimum launch time for his people. We probably won't be able to get them out as soon as he'd prefer, but I want his best estimate to crank into Oliver's thinking."

"Can do, Sir," DeWitt agreed, and headed for his own command station while Webster leaned back in his chair once more.


"Coming down on three light-minutes, Citizen Captain."

"Good." Citizen Captain Jerome Waters nodded acknowledgment of the report. His bridge crew—including People's Commissioner Seifert—were relaxed and confident, as well they should be. Tyler's Star was virgin territory, but this would be the fifth overall capture for Waters' cruiser division, and so far the entire operation had gone as smoothly as Citizen Admiral Giscard had predicted. The trickiest part had been keeping any of their prizes' crews from getting away, and so far none of them had shown any particular urge to try.

Waters rather regretted that. He hated the Star Kingdom of Manticore with a white and burning passion. Hated it for what its navy had done to the People's Navy. Hated it for building better ships with better weapons than his own government could provide him. And most of all, the ex-Dolist hated it for having an economy which ignored all the "level field" and "economic rights" truisms upon which the People's Republic had based its very existence . . . and still providing its people the highest standard of living in the known galaxy. That was the insult Waters could not forgive. There'd been a time when the Republic of Haven's citizens were at least as affluent as those of Manticore, and by all the standards Waters had been taught from the cradle, the People's Republic's citizens should be even better off than Manticore's today. Hadn't the government intervened to force the wealthy to pay their fair share? Hadn't it legislated the Economic Bill of Rights? Hadn't it compelled private industry to subsidize those put out of work by unfair changes in technology or work force requirements? Hadn't it guaranteed even its least advantaged citizens free education, free medical care, free housing, and a basic income?

Of course it had. And with all those rights guaranteed to them, its citizens should have been affluent and secure, with a thriving economy. But they weren't, and their economy wasn't, and though he would never have admitted it, the Star Kingdom's successes made Jerome Waters feel small and somehow petty. It wasn't fair for such economic heretics to have so much while the faithful had so little, and he longed to smash them into dust as their sins demanded.

And if a few stupid merchant spacers were dumb enough to think he didn't mean his order not to bail out, then he would take immense pleasure in blowing them into very, very tiny pieces.

"Any sign they know we're back here?"

"No, Citizen Captain." No one in Jerome Waters' crew would ever dream of neglecting one iota of the new regime's egalitarian forms of address. "They're holding course all fat and happy. If they knew we were back here, they'd already have responded somehow, if only with a com message."

"How long until they have to know we're here?"

"Can't be more than another three or four minutes, Citizen Captain," his tac officer replied. "Even with civilian-grade sensors, our impeller signatures have to burn through pretty quickly now."

"All right." Waters exchanged a glance with People's Commissioner Seifert, then nodded to his com officer. "Stand by to transmit our orders the instant they react, Citizen Lieutenant."


"All right, Skipper," Hernando said. "Even a half-blind merchie would see them by now."

"Agreed." Webster heard the tenseness in his own voice and made himself relax his shoulders as he'd seen Captain Harrington do in Basilisk and Hancock, and his next words came out in calm and easy tones. "All right, people—I do believe it's time. Helm, execute Alpha One."


"Well, they see us now, Citizen Captain," Waters' exec said as the freighter's acceleration suddenly rose to a hundred and eighty gravities and it swerved wildly to starboard. The citizen captain nodded and swivelled his eyes to his com officer, but the message was already going out.


"Manticoran merchant ship, this is the Republican heavy cruiser Falchion! Do not attempt to communicate. Do not attempt to abandon ship. Resume original flight profile and maintain until boarded. Any resistance will be met with deadly force. Falchion, out."

The curt voice rattled from the bridge speakers, and Webster glanced at Hernando and DeWitt.

"Exactly according to script," he observed. "Sound like they mean business, too, don't they?" More than one person on the bridge actually smiled, despite their inner tension, and he nodded to his own com officer. "You know what to tell them, Gina."


"Citizen Captain, they claim they're not Manticoran," Waters' com officer said. "They say they're Andermani."

"The hell they do," Waters said grimly. "That's a Manty transponder code. Tell them they have one more chance to resume course before we open fire."


"Manticoran freighter, you are not, repeat not, an Andermani vessel. I repeat. Resume your original heading and acceleration and maintain further com silence, or we will fire into you. This is your final warning! Falchion, out."

"Goodness, they sound testy, don't they?" Webster murmured. "Are they in range, Oliver?"

"Just about, Sir. Missile range in forty-one seconds."

"Then I suppose we shouldn't try his patience too far. Time for Alpha Two."

* * *

"Jesus, look at that idiot!" Waters' exec muttered, and the citizen captain shook his head in disgust. Having begun by attempting to run—which was manifestly impossible—and then trying his clumsy bluff, the Manty skipper had obviously panicked. He wasn't simply resuming his original heading; he was trying to get back onto his original vector, and his second course change was even wilder than the first. He clawed back to port, rolling madly in the process to present the belly of his wedge to Falchion and her consort, and Waters snorted.

"Helm, reverse acceleration," he said.


"Here they come," Webster murmured. Both Peep cruisers had made turnover, decelerating hard. They'd still burn past Scheherazade at well over thirty thousand KPS, but their deceleration rate was almost three times the best Webster's ship could possibly turn out. There was no way he'd be able to avoid coming right to them once they overflew, and they knew it.

But they didn't know what they were tangling with, he thought grimly. That much was obvious. He'd been careful to present the belly of his wedge to the Peeps while his tactical crews opened the hatches which normally hid their weapons, because opening those hatches had left only the thin plastic patches Captain Harrington had sold Vulcan on and those patches were transparent to radar. A radar hull map would have revealed something very strange about Scheherazade's flanks, and he'd gone to some lengths to be sure the Peeps hadn't gotten one.

But they hadn't even tried to look that closely, and now they were coming in on Webster's ship with sublime confidence. They had their sterns pointed almost directly at her, with only their chase armaments available to them . . . and with the wide open after aspects of their wedges sitting there in front of God and everybody.

Samuel Webster felt his nerves tingle. Captain Harrington would have loved Hernando's plan and his own refinements to it. But now was no time to be thinking of the Captain. This maneuver was time-critical, with every aspect painstakingly pre-programmed. Either it worked perfectly, or things were going to get very messy indeed, and he looked at his tac officer.

"All right, Oliver. Call the shot," he said quietly, and Hernando nodded.

"Aye, aye, Sir. Helm, stand by to execute Baker One on my command." The tac officer cast another glance over his own panel, checking the firing solution already locked into it, then dropped his eyes to the plot as the range readouts flashed downward.

Samuel Webster sat very still. He'd been tempted to go for Hernando's longer ranged option, relying on his missile pods to beat the Peeps to death, but there'd been too much chance at least one of them would successfully evade at extreme ranges. A medium range engagement would have bought Scheherazade the worst of both worlds. The Peeps would have been too close to let them break off, yet too far away for his energy weapons to engage, while his birds' flight time would have given them to get off at least two and probably three broadsides of their own, and despite her vast size, his ship could take far less damage than either of her opponents.

But if he couldn't fight at long range without letting somebody get away and couldn't fight at medium range without getting badly mangled himself, that left only the short range option. He needed to cripple both of them in the minimum amount of time, and that meant getting in the first hits with light-speed weapons at the closest possible range. Of course, if he let them get that close and didn't cripple them with the first broadside, they were going to rip his ship apart, but not before he smashed both of them into wreckage, as well.

"Stand by," Hernando murmured. "Steady . . . steady . . . Now!"


"Citizen Captain! The Manty—!"

Waters jerked up in his chair as the Manticoran freighter swerved suddenly to port. It was insane! If she was trying to evade, she'd picked the worst possible time, for his cruisers would pass on either side of her in less than twelve seconds, and his broadsides would tear her to pieces!

"Stand by to en—" he began, and that was when the universe blew apart.


"Engaging—now!" Hernando snapped, and thin plastic hatch shields vanished as eight massive grasers smashed out from Scheherazade's port broadside. The range was barely four hundred thousand kilometers, there was no sidewall to interdict, and seven of the eight beams scored direct hits.

Both heavy cruisers staggered, bucking as the kinetic energy transferred into them, and huge, splintered fragments of hull spun away from them. Their flared sterns tore apart like paper, shedding wreckage, weapons, men, and women in a storm front of escaping atmosphere. Their armor meant less than nothing against superdreadnought-scale energy fire, and the grasers blew deep into their hulls, shredding bulkheads and smashing weapons. Both ships lost their after impeller rings almost instantly, and Falchion's emissions signature flickered madly as the power surges bled through her systems.

But Scheherazade didn't linger to gloat. Even as Hernando fired, her helm was hard over, completing her hundred-and-eighty-degree turn to port. In the same flashing seconds, she rolled up on her side. The mauled cruisers roared past her, surviving broadside weapons firing frantically in local control over the deep-space equivalent of open sights, but they had no target; only the impenetrable roof and floor of her wedge.

"Baker Two!" Hernando snapped, and the helmsman threw his helm over yet again. The Q-ship circled still further to port, coming perpendicular to the Peeps' vectors, and rolled back upright, firing as she came. Her broadside flashed once more, spewing missiles as well as grasers this time. Her fire ripped straight down the fronts of her enemies' wedges, and even as her port weapons fired, her starboard sidewall dropped and six LACs exploded from their bays to accelerate after the heavy cruisers at six hundred gravities.

The Peeps did their best, but that first, devastating rake had wreaked havoc on their electronics. Central fire control was a shambles, fighting to sort itself out and reestablish a grasp on the situation as secondary systems came on-line. Their surviving weapons were all in emergency local control, dependent on their own on-mount sensors and tracking computers. Most of them didn't even know where Scheherazade was, and frantic queries hammered CIC. But CIC needed time to recover from that terrible blow . . . and the cruisers didn't have time. They had only fifteen seconds, and only a single laser smashed into Scheherazade in reply to her second, devastating broadside.

Webster's ship shuddered as that solitary hit ripped into her unarmored hull, and damage alarms wailed. Missile Three vanished, and the same hit smashed clear to Boat Bay One and tore two cutters and a pinnace—none, fortunately, manned—to splinters. Seventeen men and women were killed, and eleven more wounded, but for all that, Scheherazade got off incredibly lightly.

The Peeps didn't. Hernando's second broadside wasn't as accurate as his first; there were too many variables, changing too rapidly, for him to achieve the same precision. But it was accurate enough against wide open targets, and PNS Falchion vanished in a boil of light as one of Scheherazade's grasers found her forward fusion room. There were no life pods, and Webster's eyes whipped to the second cruiser just as her bow blew open like a shredded stick. Her forward impellers died instantly, stripping away her wedge and her sidewalls, leaving her only reaction thrusters for maneuver, and Webster bared his teeth.

"Launch the second LAC squadron," he said, and then flicked his hand at his com officer. "Put me on, Gina."

"Hot mike, Skipper," Gina Alveretti replied, and Samuel Houston Webster spoke in cold, precise tones.

"Peep cruiser, this is Her Majesty's Armed Merchant Cruiser Scheherazade. Stand by to be boarded. And, as you yourself said—" he smiled ferociously at his pickup "—any resistance to our boarders will be met with deadly force."


"I'm beginning to feel a bit like a father whose children stay out after curfew," Citizen Admiral Javier Giscard observed as he poured fresh wine into People's Commissioner Eloise Pritchart's glass. It was as well for the Committee of Public Safety's peace of mine that neither it nor its minions in StateSec suspected quite how well Giscard and Pritchart got along. Had they known, they would have been quite shocked, for Giscard and his watchdog were in bed together—literally.

"How so?" Pritchart asked now, sipping her wine. She knew as well as Giscard what would happen if StateSec ever realized the true nature of their relationship. But she also had no intention of letting Giscard get away from her. He was not only a brilliant and insightful officer, he was an outstanding man. He'd been trained by one of the People's Navy's most outstanding pre-war captains—Alfredo Yu—and, like his mentor, he'd been far better than the old regime had deserved. Pritchart often wondered what would have happened if Yu hadn't been literally hounded into defecting by his own superiors after that fiasco in Yeltsin. He and Javier together would have made a magnificent combination, but now they were on opposite sides. She hoped the two of them never found themselves directly facing one another, for she knew how deeply Javier respected his old teacher. But Javier had also hated the Legislaturalists with a passion. He might not care for the new regime—for which Pritchart couldn't blame him as much as she wished she could—but he was loyal. Or would be unless StateSec did something to drive him into being disloyal.

But Eloise Pritchart intended to made very certain nothing like that happened. Javier was too valuable an officer . . . and she loved him too much.

"Hm?" he asked now, nibbling her ear while his hand stroked her hip under the sheet.

"I asked why you feel like a harassed parent?"

"Oh. Well, it's just that some of the children are staying out late to play. I'm not too concerned over Vaubon—Caslet's a good officer, and if he's exercised his discretion and gone someplace else, he had a good reason. But I am a little concerned over Waters. I should never have given him the option of cruising as far as Tyler's Star before he returned to the rendezvous."

"You don't like Waters, do you?" Pritchart asked, and he shrugged.

"I'm not picking on him for any excess of revolutionary zeal, Citizen Commissioner," he said wryly, tacitly acknowledging the powerful patrons Waters' ideological fervor had bought him. "It's his judgment that worries me. The man hates the Manties too much."

"How can someone hate the enemy 'too much'?" From any other commissioner, that question would have carried ominous overtones, but Pritchart was genuinely curious.

"Determination is a good thing," Giscard explained very seriously, "and sometimes hate can help generate that. I don't like it, because whatever our differences with the Manties, they're still human beings. If we expect them to act professionally and humanely where our people are concerned, we have to act the same way where their people are concerned." He paused, and Pritchart nodded before he went on. "The problem with someone like Waters, though, is that hate begins to substitute for good sense. He's a well-trained, competent officer, but he's also young for his rank, and he could have used more experience before he made captain. I don't suppose he's all that different from most of our captains—or admirals," he admitted with a wry grin "—in that respect, given what happened to the old officer corps. But he's too eager, too fired up. I'm a little worried by how it may affect his judgment, and I wish I'd kept him on a shorter leash."

"I see." Pritchart leaned back, platinum hair spilling over her lover's shoulder, and nodded slowly. "Do you really think he's gotten himself into some sort of trouble?"

"No, not really. I am a bit concerned over the reports that the Manties've sent Q-ships out here. If they cruise in company, two or three of them could be a nasty handful for someone who dives right in on them, and Waters had headed out before we got the dispatch alerting us to their presence. But he's under orders to hit only singletons, and I don't see one Q-ship beating up on a pair of Sword-class CAs unless the cruisers screw up by the numbers. No, it's more of a feeling that I ought to be looking over his shoulder more closely than anything else, Ellie."

"From what I've seen so far, I'd listen to that 'feeling,' Javier," Pritchart said seriously. "I respect your instincts."

"Among other things, I hope?" he said with a boyish smile as his hand explored under the sheets, and she smacked his bare chest lightly.

"Stop that, you corrupter of civic virtue!"

"I think not, Citizen Commissioner," he replied, and she twitched in pleasure. But then his hand paused. She pushed up on an elbow to demand its return, then stopped with a resigned smile. She did love the man, but Lord he could be exasperating! Inspiration struck him at the damnedest times, and he always had to chase the new idea down before he could set it aside.

"What is it?"

"I was just thinking about the Manty Q-ships," Giscard mused. "I wish we could have confirmed whether or not Harrington is in command of them."

"I thought you just said a Q-ship was no match for a heavy cruiser," Pritchart pointed out. He nodded, and she shrugged. "Well, you've got twelve heavy cruisers, and eight battlecruisers. That seems like a reassuring amount of overkill to me."

"Oh, agreed. Agreed. But if they're all busy looking here, maybe we should go hunting somewhere else. Whatever the theoretical odds, there's always room for something to go wrong in an engagement, you know. And a Q-ship is likely to beat off one of our units—one of our light cruisers, say—and blow the entire operation by discovering our presence here."


"So, Citizen Commissioner," Giscard said, setting his wineglass aside to free both hands and turning to her with the smile she loved, "it's time to adjust our operational patterns. We can leave dispatches for Waters and Caslet at all the approved information drops, but the rest of us are concentrated here right now. Under the circumstances, I think I'll just have a word with my staff about potential new hunting grounds . . . later, of course," he added wickedly, and kissed her.


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