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Chapter Thirty-Six

Commander Usher was in a moderately foul mood. He'd been unhappy about his assignment from the beginning, and it had only gotten worse once Hawkwing and Artemis reached New Berlin.

He would have liked to blame Captain Fuchien, but the woman was exactly the sort of consummate professional one might expect to find commanding one of the Star Kingdom's crack liners. Captains for ships like that weren't picked out of a hat, and Fuchien knew all the moves to stroke irritated and irascible naval officers detailed to escort her ship. No one could have been more courteous, and she'd made it clear she intended to defer to his judgment, despite his younger age and junior rank, in the event anything untoward happened. Both of which only made Usher's foul mood fouler, since they prevented him from taking his ire out on her.

The problem, he thought as he walked to his command chair, was that he also couldn't take his ire out on the person who deserved it. The notion that Klaus and Stacey Hauptman were sufficiently important to drag a Queen's ship away from her proper duties had grated on his nerves from the start. Worse, the fiction that Hawkwing had just "happened" to be heading for Silesia when the Admiralty realized Artemis was bound there had worn transparently thin in the Sligo System.

Like every wartime passenger ticket, the tickets of Artemis' current passengers specifically included the proviso that her captain, at her discretion, could make such changes in scheduling en route to their ticketed destinations as she deemed appropriate. That proviso was intended to allow a skipper to protect his vessel by avoiding danger spots without fear of legal action from an irate passenger, but that wasn't what it was being used for this time.

Klaus Hauptman had decided he needed three extra days with his primary Andermani factor in Sligo. It was typical of the man's arrogance that he'd directed Fuchien to hold the ship there while he dealt with his business affairs. Usher doubted he'd even considered the extent to which it might inconvenience others, though he had gone out of his way to provide free shuttle service to and from the planet Erin's renowned ski resorts.

That "generosity" might have defused the frustration of Artemis' passengers, but it hadn't done a thing for Gene Usher's. Nor had it helped him maintain the appearance that his ship was only coincidentally dogging Artemis' coattails. Sligo was the Empire's second most populous system, and there'd been plenty of IAN vessels around to look after the liner while she was there. Which meant Usher could have proceeded on his way with a clear conscience . . . if he'd actually been ordered to a duty station in Silesia. Unfortunately, his real mission was to escort Artemis, which meant he couldn't leave until she did, which, in turn, meant he'd had to spend the same three days in Erin orbit with her.

Wasting his time that way would have been bad enough, but Hauptman was no fool. Watching Hawkwing sit there in parking orbit had confirmed what he'd undoubtedly suspected from the outset, and he'd decided to take advantage of it when they reached New Berlin. He hadn't extended their layover there; instead, he'd found something worse to do.

There were three Hauptman Line freighters in New Berlin when Artemis and Hawkwing arrived, all waiting to join the next scheduled escorted convoy. But ships didn't earn any money sitting still. Despite their huge size, interstellar freighters were cheaper to operate on a ton-for-ton cargo basis than most forms of purely planetary transport. A single freighter could easily stow four or five million tons of cargo, and counter grav and impellers made it easy enough to lift freight out of a gravity well to make even interstellar transport of foodstuffs a paying proposition. But she also cost her owners almost as much to operate sitting in a parking orbit as she did earning revenue between stars, and no shipowner liked to see his vessels waiting around.

Of course, given ship losses in Silesia, only an idiot wanted them to proceed independently when they didn't have to, either. Swinging around a planet while they waited for the next convoy might shrink profit margins, but not as much as losing the entire ship would. Unfortunately, Hauptman had seen no reason not to make use of the destroyer which "just happened" to be going his way, and he'd instructed his freighters to join Artemis for the trip to Sachsen.

Which, Usher reflected, reminding himself not to gnash his teeth audibly, was no more than he should have expected from the old bastard. Left to their own devices, Hawkwing and Artemis could easily have translated clear up to the zeta bands and maintained a steady .7 c, for an apparent velocity of well over twenty-five hundred times light-speed, completing the passage from New Berlin to Sachsen in three T-weeks, or fifteen days subjective. Lumbered by Hauptman's freighters, however, they were limited to the delta bands and a maximum speed of only .5 c . . . which meant the same trip would take almost forty-eight T-days and that dilation would shave only five days subjective off that wearisome total.

That three-fold extension of the passage was bad enough, but what absolutely infuriated Usher was knowing Hauptman had manipulated a Queen's ship—Usher's ship.

The old bastard must just love this, Usher thought moodily, watching his repeater plot. Hawkwing held station on the port quarter of the improvised convoy, where she would be best placed to intercept any threat, as it trekked steadily down its current grav wave. Artemis was the third ship in the column, with the freighter Markham following directly astern of her, and it all looked maddeningly complacent. He's feuded with the Admiralty over one thing or another for decades, the commander told himself, and he's lost more often than he's won. Now he's sitting in his stateroom gloating over the way he's "forced" the Fleet to increase its escort efforts just this once. And the cast iron bitch of it is, he's never even had to say a single word about it. He didn't ask, didn't plead, didn't bluster. He simply abused the discretionary clause of the standard ticket form, and I can't even protest, because I'm not officially escorting him at all!

He glowered at the repeater for a few more moments, and then his expression changed. His glower turned into a wicked grin, and he punched a code into his com.

"Exec," Lieutenant Commander Alicia Marcos' voice responded almost instantly, and Usher tipped his chair back to turn his wicked smile up at the deckhead.

"Sorry to disturb you when you're off watch, Alicia, but I've just had a thought."

"A thought, Skipper?" Marcos had served with him long enough to recognize that tone, and her own was suddenly wary.

"Yes, indeed," Usher said, fairly beaming at the deckhead. "Since we've got all this, ah, unanticipated time on our hands, don't you think we should put it to best use?"

"In what way, Captain?" Marcos inquired even more warily.

"I'm glad you asked that," Usher said expansively. "Why don't you and Ed come on up to my briefing room so we can discuss it?"

 

"Captain to the bridge! Captain to the bridge!"

Margaret Fuchien's head jerked up so suddenly her second cup of coffee sloshed over her second-best uniform trousers. The brown tide was scorching hot, but she hardly noticed as she vaulted out of her chair at the head of the breakfast table and ran for the lift.

"Captain to the bridge!" the urgent voice repeated, and she swore as she skidded into the lift, for her standing orders were crystal clear. Unless it was a true emergency—and a time-critical one, at that—the passengers were not to be panicked by broadcast messages, and there'd been plenty of stewards available to murmur discreetly in her ear.

She hit the emergency override to slam the lift doors shut and whirled to the intercom pad.

"Captain to th—"

"This is the Captain! Shut down that goddamned message!" she snarled, and the recorded voice died in mid-word. "Better! Now what the hell is so damned urgent?"

"We're under attack, Ma'am!" her second officer replied with an edge of panic.

"Under at—?" Fuchien stared at the com panel, then shook herself. "By who and how many?" she demanded.

"We don't know yet." Lieutenant Donevski sounded marginally calmer, and she pictured him inhaling deeply and getting a grip on himself. "All we know is Hawkwing broadcast an attack alert, ordered us onto a new heading, and then peeled off to starboard."

"Damn." Fuchien's mind raced. It would have been nice of Usher to tell her what the problem was! Artemis did have the missile armament of a heavy cruiser, after all, and the trained personnel to use it. Those missiles would have been a hell of a lot more useful if Fuchien had some idea of the parameters of the threat.

But Usher was Navy, and the law was clear. In any case of attack, the decisions of the senior Navy officer present took absolute precedence.

"Come to the heading ordered. I'll be on the bridge in two minutes."

"Aye, Ma'am!"

Fuchien released the "send" button, stood back with a sour expression, and tried to tell herself she wasn't afraid.

The lift slid to a halt almost precisely two minutes later, and Fuchien stormed onto her bridge. The relief on Donevski's face was painfully obvious, and she waved him off as she strode briskly across to the plot.

Artemis' bridge was a peculiar hybrid. Civilian vessels required fewer watch officers, yet civilian bridges were usually larger than those aboard warships, where internal space was always at a premium. That normally made a merchant ship's bridge seem almost ostentatiously spacious to a naval officer, but Artemis' command deck was more crowded than most. A naval-style tactical plot occupied a full quarter of the available space, and a combined EW and missile control station, already manned by Lieutenant Annabelle Ward and her tactical crews, was placed right beside it.

Fuchien came to a halt at Ward's shoulder and glared at the plot. All she could see were the freighters and her own ship, all accelerating at their best speed—close to two thousand gravities, thanks to the grav wave—at right angles to their previous heading. Hawkwing was also visible, on an exactly reciprocal heading at over fifty-two hundred gravities. The range between them was opening at over fifty-one KPS², and the destroyer was already 3.75 light-seconds—over a million kilometers—astern of the merchantmen.

"What the hell is she going after?" Fuchien wondered aloud.

"Damned if I know, Skipper," Ward replied in a strong Sphinx accent. "She just took the hell off like a wet treecat and ordered us to run for it. I can't see a damned thing on that bearing."

Fuchien studied the blandly uninformative plot for another handful of seconds, then spared a single fulminating glance at the visual display. Particle densities were higher than normal, even for h-space, along this particular wave, and the glorious frozen lightning of hyper-space was more beautiful than usual. But that same beauty also cut her sensor range considerably, and Margaret Fuchien didn't like the thought of what might be headed her way from just over her sensor horizon. But, damn it to hell, what could be out there? Her sensors were as good as Hawkwing's, so how could anything she couldn't see have picked them up?

"Anything further from Hawkwing?" she demanded, turning to Donevski.

"No, Ma'am."

"Play back the original message," she directed. Donevski nodded to the com officer, and five seconds later, Commander Usher's voice crackled over the bridge speakers.

"All ships, this is Hawkwing! Condition Red! Come to two-seven-zero immediately, maximum convoy acceleration! Maintain heading until further notice! Hawkwing, out!"

"That's all?" Fuchien demanded incredulously.

"Yes, Ma'am," Donevski said. "We copied his message, but before we could respond he took off like a bat out of hell, and Anna caught his sidewalls and fire control coming up."

Fuchien turned to crook an eyebrow at Lieutenant Ward, who nodded.

"I don't know what Usher's picked up, Skipper, but he's not fooling around with it," the tactical officer said. "His combat systems came on-line in less than twelve seconds from the moment he started transmitting, and he was on his new heading before he finished talking."

Fuchien nodded and turned her attention back to Ward's plot. The destroyer was a full thirty light-seconds astern now, with a relative velocity of over thirty thousand KPS, and she was already deploying missile decoys. That was an ominous sign, and Fuchien swallowed a sudden lump of fear. Why was Usher doing that? Nothing could be in missile range without showing up on Artemis' scanners, whatever local conditions were like!

"Why deploy decoys so soon?" she asked Ward tautly.

"I don't know, Skipper." The tac officer had herself well under control, but an edge of uncertainty burned in her crisp reply.

"Could somebody be out there under stealth?"

"Possible, but if they're already in missile range, we should have a sniff of them on gravitics by now however good their systems are." Ward tapped a sequence of commands into her console, then sat back with an unhappy sound and shook her head. "Nothing, Skipper. I don't see a single damned thing out there for—"

Her voice chopped off abruptly as Usher threw Hawkwing into a violent turn to port. The destroyer screamed around, and even as she turned, she was spinning on her axis. Missiles spat from both broadsides, drives programmed to bring the double salvos in together on whatever she was shooting at, and Ward paled. Hawkwing's launchers were at maximum rate fire, each launcher spitting out a missile every seventeen seconds. What in God's name was out there to draw that kind of fire from the opening broadside?

"Skipper, Mr. Hauptman's on the com," Donevski announced. Fuchien started to snarl a command not to bother her, but then she drew a deep breath and gestured sharply.

"Yes, Mr. Hauptman?" She couldn't quite keep her anger at his timing out of her voice. "I'm just a bit busy up here right now, Sir!"

"What's happening, Captain?" Hauptman demanded.

"We appear to be under attack, Sir," Fuchien said as calmly as she could.

"Under attack? By what?!"

"I don't have an answer to that question just yet, Sir. But whatever it is, Hawkwing's engaging it now, so it must be close."

"My God." The quiet words were squeezed out of the magnate almost against his will, and he closed his eyes at the far end of the com link. "Keep me informed, please," he said, and signed off. Which, Fuchien reflected, showed more common sense than she'd expected from him.

"What the hell is she shooting at?" Ward fumed. "I still can't see a damned thing!" The ready lights of her own batteries glowed a steady red, but without a target, they were useless.

"I don't know," Fuchien said quietly, "but whatever it is, it's—"

Hawkwing's first double salvo detonated, bomb-pumped lasers slashing at something no one on Artemis' bridge could even see. There was absolutely nothing there according to their sensors, yet five full double broadsides tore down on exactly the same spot and detonated with savage fury. And then, suddenly, Hawkwing ceased fire, turned another ninety degrees to port, and came loping after the merchantmen.

Fuchien stared at the plot in total confusion, then turned to meet Ward's gaze. The tac officer looked just as confused as Fuchien was and raised her hands in baffled ignorance.

"Beats the hell out of me, Skipper. Never saw anything like it in my life."

"I—"

"Burst transmission from Hawkwing, Captain," the com officer announced.

"On speaker," Fuchien said tautly.

"All ships resume original heading," Gene Usher's voice said pleasantly. "Thank you for your cooperation and excellent response time, but this concludes our unscheduled exercise."

 

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