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Prologue


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"Got a problem here, Skipper."

"What is it, Chris?" Captain Harold Sukowski, master of the Hauptman Lines freighter Bonaventure, looked up quickly at his executive officer's taut announcement, for "problems" had a way of turning deadly with very little warning in the Silesian Confederacy. That had always been true, but the situation had become even more dangerous in the past year, and he felt the rest of Bonaventure's bridge watch freeze about him even as his own heart began to pump hard and fast. To have come so close to their destination without problems only made the sudden, adrenaline-bitter tension worse, for Bonaventure had completed her translation back into n-space barely ten minutes before, and the Telmach System's G0 primary lay just twenty-two light-minutes ahead. But that was also twenty-two minutes's com time, and the Silesian Navy's Telmach detachment was a joke. For that matter, the Confederacy's entire navy was a joke, and even if Sukowski could have contacted the detachment commander in time, it was virtually certain there was nothing in position to intervene.

"We've got somebody coming up fast from astern, Skip." Commander Hurlman never looked up from her display. "Looks fairly small—maybe seventy, eighty k-tons—but whoever it is has a military-grade compensator. He's eighteen-point-three light-seconds back, but he's got an overtake of two thousand KPS and he's pulling about five-ten gees."

The captain nodded, and his expression was grim. Harold Sukowski had earned his master's certificate over thirty T-years before. He was also a commander in the Royal Manticoran Naval Reserve, and he didn't need Chris to paint him any pictures. At six million tons and with commercial-grade impellers and inertial compensator, Bonaventure was a sitting duck for any warship. Her maximum possible acceleration was scarcely 201 g, and her commercial particle screening held her max velocity to only .7 c. If her pursuer had military-grade particle shields to match the rest of his drive, he could not only out-accelerate her but pull a sustained velocity of eighty percent light-speed.

Which meant, of course, that there was no possible way for Sukowski to outrun him.

"How long to overhaul?" he asked.

"I make it roughly twenty-two and a half minutes to a zero-range intercept even if we go to max accel," Hurlman said flatly. "We'll be up to roughly twelve thousand seven hundred KPS, but he'll be hitting almost nineteen thousand. Whoever he is, we aren't going to shake him."

Sukowski gave a choppy nod. Chris Hurlman was less than half his age, but like him, she was one of Bonaventure's keel plate owners. She'd been the freighter's original fourth officer, and while he would never have admitted it, Sukowski and his wife regarded her very much as one of the daughters they'd never had. Deep inside he'd always hoped she and his second oldest son would someday settle down together, but however young she might be for her rank, she was very good at her job, and her appraisal of the situation matched his own perfectly.

Of course, her estimate was for a least-time intercept, and the bogey wouldn't go for that. He was almost certain to decelerate in order to kill his overtake velocity once he was certain he had Bonaventure nailed, but that wouldn't make any difference to the fate of Sukowski's ship. All it would do was delay the inevitable . . . slightly.

He tried desperately to think of a way—any way—to save his ship, but there wasn't one. On the face of things, the possibility of piracy as a paying occupation shouldn't have existed. Even the hugest freighter was less than a dust mote on the scale of interstellar space, but like the ancient ocean borne vessels of Old Earth, the ships which plied the stars followed predictable routes. They had to, for the grav waves which twisted through hyper-space dictated those routes much as Old Terra's prevailing winds had dictated the square-riggers'. No pirate could predict exactly where any given starship would make her alpha translation back into n-space, but he knew the general volume in which all ships would do so. If he lurked long enough, some poor, unlucky son-of-a-bitch would sail right into his clutches, and this time it was Sukowski's turn.

The captain swore with silent venom. If only the Silesian Navy was worth a fart in a vac suit, it wouldn't matter. Two or three cruisers—hell, even a single destroyer!—deployed to cover the same volume would cause any pirate to seek safer pastures. But the Silesian Confederacy was more of a perpetually ongoing meltdown than a star nation. The feeble central government—such as it was—was forever plagued by breakaway secessionist movements. What ships it had were always desperately needed somewhere, and the raiders who infested its space always knew where that somewhere was and took themselves somewhere else. That had always been true; what had changed was that the Royal Manticoran Navy units which had traditionally protected the Star Kingdom's commerce in Silesia had been withdrawn for Manticore's war against the People's Republic of Haven, and there was no one at all to whom Harold Sukowski could turn for help.

"Challenge him, Jack," he said. "Demand his identity and intentions."

"Yes, Sir." His com officer keyed his mike and spoke clearly. "Unknown starship, this is the Manticoran merchant vessel Bonaventure. State your identity and intentions." Forty endless seconds ticked past while the red blip in Hurlman's display closed with ever increasing speed, and the com officer shrugged. "No reply, Skipper."

"I didn't really expect one," Sukowski sighed. He sat staring at the star he'd almost reached for another moment, then shrugged. "All right, people. You know the drill. Genda," he looked at his chief engineer, "slave your department to my console before you clear out. Chris, you're in charge of the bail out. I want a headcount, and I want it confirmed before you undock."

"But, Skip—" Hurlman began, and Sukowski shook his head fiercely.

"I said you know the drill! Now get the hell out of here while we're still beyond effective missile range!"

Hurlman hesitated, face torn with indecision. She'd served with Sukowski for over eight T-years, almost a quarter of her entire life. Bonaventure was the only true home she'd known in all those years, and abandoning her skipper and her ship went hard with her. Sukowski knew that, and because he did, he gave her a cold, savage glare.

"The people are your job now, so get your ass in gear, goddamn it!"

Still Hurlman hesitated, and then she gave a choppy nod and whirled for the bridge lift.

"You heard the Skipper!" Her voice was harsh, harrowed by grief and guilt. "Move, damn it!"

Sukowski watched them go, then turned back to his console. Lieutenant Kuriko had already slaved Engineering to his panel; now Sukowski punched in more commands, taking over the helm, as well. He felt the sick, hollow emptiness in his belly and longed desperately to follow Chris and the others. But Bonaventure was his ship, his responsibility, and so was her cargo. The chance that he could do anything to preserve that cargo was vanishingly small, but it did exist, especially if the raider was a privateer and not an outright pirate. And if there was any chance at all, it was Harold Sukowski's job to do what he could. That was one of the duties which came with his rank, and—

A tone beeped, and he pressed a com key.

"Talk to me," he said shortly.

"Headcount confirmed, Skip," Hurlman's voice replied. "I've got 'em all in Bay Seven."

"Then get them out of here, Chris . . . and good luck." Sukowski's voice was much softer.

"Aye, aye, Skipper." He heard the hesitation in her voice, tasted her need to say something more, but there was nothing she could say, and the circuit clicked as she cut the link.

Sukowski watched his display and let a long sigh of relief ooze from his lungs as a small, green dot appeared upon it. The shuttle was one of Bonaventure's big, primary cargo haulers, with a drive as powerful as most light attack craft's. Unlike a LAC, it was totally unarmed, but it shot away at over four hundred gravities, slower than its pursuer but twice as fast as its mother ship. The pirates must be pissed to see the crew they'd hoped to make man their prize for them escaping, but Bonaventure and her shuttle were still outside their powered missile envelope, and there was no way they'd go chasing after a mere shuttle with a six-million-ton freighter to snap up. Besides, Sukowski thought bitterly, they'd no doubt planned for exactly this contingency. They'd have their own engineers aboard to manage Bonaventure's systems.

He let himself lean back in the comfortable command chair which would be his for another half-hour or so and hoped these people were ready to believe Mr. Hauptman's offer to ransom any of his people who fell into pirates' hands. It wasn't much, and Sukowski knew Hauptman had hated making it, but it was all he could do with the Navy withdrawn from Silesian space. And however arrogant and hard the old bastard was, Sukowski knew better than most that Klaus Hauptman stood by the people in his employ. It was a Hauptman tradition to—

Sukowski's thoughts broke off with a snap as the lift doors hissed open. He whirled his command chair in shock, and then his eyes lit with fury as Chris Hurlman stepped onto the bridge.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he barked. "I gave you an order, Hurlman!"

"Oh, screw your orders!" She matched him glare for glare, then stalked across the bridge to her own station. "This isn't the frigging Navy, and you aren't Edward Saganami!"

"I'm still master of this ship, damn it, and I want you the hell off her right now!"

"Well isn't that just too bad," Hurlman said much more mildly as she sank back into her own bridge chair and adjusted the com set over her black hair. "The only problem with what you want, Skipper, is that I fight lots dirtier than you. You try to throw me off my ship, and it might just happen that you get tossed off instead."

"And what about our people?" Sukowski countered. "You were in charge of them, and you're responsible for them."

"Genda and I flipped a coin, and he lost." Hurlman shrugged. "Don't worry. He'll get them to Telmach in one piece."

"Damn it, Chris, I don't want you here," Sukowski's voice was much softer. "There's no need for you to risk getting yourself killed—or worse."

Hurlman looked down at her console for a moment, then turned to meet his eyes squarely.

"There's just as much need for me to risk it as there is for you, Skip," she said quietly, "and I will be damned to Hell before I let you face these bastards alone. Besides," she smiled with true affection, "an old fart like you needs someone younger and nastier to look out for him. Jane would kick my butt if I went off and left you out here on your own."

Sukowski opened his mouth, then closed it. A fist of anguish seemed to be locked about his heart, but he recognized the total intransigence behind that smile. She wouldn't go, and she was right; she was a dirtier fighter than he was. A part of him was desperately glad to see her, to know he wouldn't face whatever happened alone, but it was a selfish part he loathed. He wanted to argue, plead—beg, if that was what it took—yet he knew she wouldn't go without him, and he couldn't turn his own back on a lifetime of responsibility and obligation.

"All right, goddamn it," he muttered instead. "You're an idiot and a mutineer, and if we get out of this alive I'll see to it you never find a billet again. But if you're determined to defy your lawful superior, I don't see how I can stop you."

"Now you're being reasonable," Hurlman said almost cheerfully. She studied her display a moment longer, then rose and crossed to the coffee dispenser against the after bulkhead. She poured herself a cup and dropped in her normal two sugars, then raised an eyebrow at the man whose orders she'd just ignored.

"Like a cup, Skip?" she asked gently.

 

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Framed