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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 00:07 EDT



    “I think we have something here, Sir.”

    Ansten FitzGerald sat up straight, pulling his attention away from the routine departmental reports he’d been scanning, and turned his command chair to face the tactical section.

    It was late at night by Hexapuma’s internal clocks, and the Fourth Watch had the duty, which meant the assistant tactical officer ought by rights to be the officer of the watch. Normally, neither the captain nor the executive officer aboard a Manticoran warship stood a regularly scheduled watch, since, in theory, they were always on call. The communications officer, astrogator, tactical officer, and assistant tactical officer usually took the regularly scheduled watches, with Tactical getting the additional slot because of the Manticoran tradition that made Tactical the fast track to command. The theory was that if tactical officers were going to be promoted to command responsibilities faster than others, they needed the additional early experience.

    But rank had its privileges, and usually the junior officer on the totem pole got the least desirable -- latest (or earliest, depending upon one’s perspective) -- watch assignment. Unfortunately, in this case, the ship’s assistant tactical officer was a mere junior-grade lieutenant, just a bit too junior to be routinely saddled with full responsibility for an entire heavy cruiser and her company. Lieutenant Commander Guthrie might have been able to take the slot, but EW was still the odd man out, and some people being assigned as EWOs didn’t really have that much watch-standing experience of their own. Besides, Guthrie was so overworked -- even with d’Arezzo helping out -- that he was on the same sort of “always on call” status as the captain and the XO. And rather than pull the assistant astrogator or assistant com officer, both of whom were senior-grade lieutenants, into the queue, FitzGerald had opted to take Fourth Watch himself, with Abigail Hearns at Tactical.

    He’d wondered at first if she was likely to take offense, to feel he didn’t trust her competence. He’d also been prepared to live with her unhappiness if she had because, in the final analysis, he didn’t trust her competence. Not because he doubted her ability or motivation, but because her actual experience remained so limited. The most capable officer in the universe still needed to be brought along carefully, needed the seasoning only experience could provide, if he was going to reach his full potential. And so Ansten FitzGerald had made a habit of bringing routine paperwork to the bridge with him and burying himself in it while Abigail quietly stood “his” watch, gaining the requisite seasoning with the reassuring knowledge a far more experienced officer was immediately available if something unexpected came up.

    She seemed to understand what he was doing, although it was hard to be certain. She was such a self-possessed young woman that she probably wouldn’t have allowed any resentment to show, even if she’d felt it. He sometimes wondered how much of that was because of her belief in the Doctrine of the Test which was so central to the Church of Humanity Unchained’s theology, but whatever its origin, he’d quietly marked it down as yet another point in Lieutenant Hearns’ favor.

    Besides, he’d discovered, she was simply an immensely likable young woman.

    “You think we have what, Lieutenant?” he asked now.

    She was leaning forward, studying her plot intently, and he saw her reach out one hand and tap a complex series of commands into her touchpad without even looking at her fingers. His command chair was too far from her display for him to make out any fine details, but he could see data codes shifting as she refined them.

    “I think we may have a reading on Commodore Karlberg’s intruders, Sir,” she said, still never looking away from her display. “I’m shunting the data to your repeater plot, Sir,” she added, and he looked down as the small display deployed itself from the base of his chair.

    Two of the trio of icons on the display strobed with the bright, quick amber-red-amber flash that CIC used to indicate questionable data, but it certainly looked like a pair of stealthily moving impeller wedges, creeping in above the system ecliptic. Much more interesting, however, in some ways, was the third icon -- the one burning the steady red which indicated assurance on CIC’s part. That one obviously belonged to a merchantman, although what a merchantship would be doing that far above the ecliptic -- and that far outside the system hyper limit -- was an interesting question. Especially since it seemed to be following in the strobing icons’ wake.

    He checked the range and bearing data, and his lips pursed in a silent whistle. They were even further out than he’d thought. Nuncio-B’s hyper limit lay 16.72 light-minutes from the star. At the moment, Hexapuma, in her parking orbit around Pontifex, was about ten light-minutes from the star, but the ship or ships Lieutenant Hearns was tracking were at least forty-five light-minutes out. There was absolutely no legitimate reason for any ship to be stooging around that far from any of the system’s inhabited real estate.

    “I wasn’t aware we’d deployed our remote platforms that far out,” he said conversationally.

    “We haven’t, really, Sir,” she replied. He looked up to raise an eyebrow, and she colored slightly but met his gaze levelly. “All the remote arrays are operating inside the zones Captain Terekhov and Commander Kaplan specified,” she said. “I just moved them to the outer edge of their assigned areas.”

    “I see.” He tipped his chair back, resting his left elbow on the arm rest and his chin in his left palm while the fingers of his right hand drummed lightly on the other chair arm. “You’re aware, Lieutenant,” he continued after moment, “that if you push the platforms that far out on a spherical front you virtually eliminate their lateral overlap?”

    “Yes, Sir,” she said crisply. “I thought about that, and if the Exec would look at the main plot?”

    He glanced at the display. At the moment, it was configured in astrogation mode, and a complex pattern of vectors appeared on it. He studied them for a few moments, then snorted in understanding.

    “Very clever, Lieutenant,” he conceded in a neutral tone, watching the pattern evolve. She’d sent the remote platforms dancing through a carefully choreographed waltz that swept them back and forth across their zones. There were moments when they moved apart, widening the gap between them and weakening the coverage, but they always moved back towards one another again.

    “What’s the timing?” he asked.

    “It’s set up so that a ship would have to be traveling at at least point-five cee to cross the zone without being in detection range of at least two platforms for at least fifteen minutes, Sir It seemed unlikely to me that anyone would try to sneak into the inner system at that high a velocity.”

    “I see,” he said again. He frowned at the display for several more moments, then grunted. “It’s obvious you put a lot of thought into designing this maneuver, Lieutenant. And, as I say, it’s very clever. Moreover, I doubt very much that we would have picked these people up this soon if you hadn’t done it. However, may I suggest that in future you also put a little thought into clearing your ideas with the officer of the watch? It’s considered the polite thing to do, since he’s the one officially responsible if anything should happen to go wrong, and he tends to get his feelings hurt if he thinks people are ignoring him.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Self-possessed or not, he saw her blush this time. He considered giving the point one more lick, but it clearly wasn’t necessary. And, perhaps even more to the point, initiative was one of the rarest and most valuable qualities in any officer. If she’d suffered her brainstorm and gotten her calculations for the remote arrays’ courses wrong, she might have left a dangerous hole in Hexapuma’s sensor perimeter, and she’d needed to be whacked for taking it upon herself to assume she’d gotten them right. But the fact was that she had, and if she had requested permission to execute her plan, he would have granted it.

    “Well, in that case,” he said instead, “suppose you tell me what it is you think we’ve found?”

    “Yes, Sir,” she said. Then she paused for just a moment, as if marshaling her thoughts, and continued. “Obviously, Sir, the information we have on the two closer signatures is too vague to extrapolate any meaningful details. I’ve refined and backtracked from the datum the computers first recognized, and we can back plot their vectors for about twenty minutes before recognition, now that we know what to look for. On that basis, I can tell you they’ve been decelerating slowly but steadily. At the moment, all I’m prepared to say, besides that, is that one of them -- the one I’ve designated Bogey One -- is larger than the other one. Neither of them’s larger than a cruiser, that much I’m sure of. But that leaves a lot of wiggle room.

    “Bogey Three, the freighter, is actually more interesting at the moment. I think whoever they are, they figure they’re far too far out-system for anything the Nuncians have to see them. I’ve only got them on passives, so I don’t really have many details, even on the freighter, but I think its presence alone is significant. The one thing these people aren’t is any sort of bobtailed convoy -- not coming in from that far out and above the ecliptic and decelerating at their observed rate -- and the freighter isn’t squawking a transponder code. So I think what we’re looking at here is a pair of pirates accompanied by a prize they’ve already taken. If you’ll notice, Commander, the freighter’s decelerating harder than Bogey One and Two. She’s killing velocity at a steady hundred and twenty gravities, and she’s already down to just over seventy-eight hundred KPS, so she’ll come to rest relative to the system primary in another hour and fifty-six minutes. Which will leave her forty-six-point-three light-minutes from the primary and approximately thirty-six light-minutes from the planet.”

    “And what do you think they’re up to with her?”

    “I think they just want to park her somewhere safe while they go sniffing further in-system, Sir,” she said promptly. “They’re coming in so slowly and cautiously that -- “

    She broke off, and her hand flicked over her keypad again.

    “Status change, Sir!” she announced, and FitzGerald’s eyes went to his repeater plot, then narrowed. The blinking icons had changed abruptly. They continued to blink, but they were fainter now, connected to a single steadily burning red crosshair. A slowly spreading, shaded cone of the same color radiated from the crosshair, its inmost edge moving in-system with the strobing icons.

    “Either they’ve just killed their wedges, or their stealth just got a lot better, Sir. And that far out, I don’t think it’s likely they just brought that much more EW on-line.”

    “Then what do you think they’re doing, Lieutenant?” FitzGerald asked in his best professorial manner.

    “They were still moving at approximately eighty-six hundred KPS when we lost them,” she said after a moment. “I’d guess they’re planning on coming in ballistic from this point, with their impellers at standby. That velocity isn’t very high, but that would make sense if they want to be as unobtrusive as possible -- they wouldn’t want to have to spill any more velocity if they end up needing to maneuver. At that low a speed, they can decelerate using minimum power wedges, so as to hold their signatures down, if they decide that’s what they want to do. But they’re coming in on a shortest-distance flight path towards Pontifex, so they obviously want a look at the traffic in the planet’s vicinity. I’d say they figure that leaving the freighter out there, beyond the hyper limit, will keep anyone from spotting her, on the one hand, and put her in a position to escape into hyper before anyone could possibly intercept her, on the other. In the meantime, they can come in, take a look around the inner system, and find out whether or not there’s anything here worth attacking. Commodore Karlberg was obviously right -- they have to be more modern and powerful than anything he’s got, given how they managed to futz up our sensor arrays -- so they probably figure that even if somebody spots them, they can fight their way clear without too much trouble if they have to.”

    “I believe I agree with you, Ms. Hearns,” Fitzgerald said.

    He tapped a few quick calculations into his own keypad and watched the results display themselves on the plot.

    The shaded cone continued to grow steadily, indicating the volume into which the strobing icons might have moved at their last observed acceleration and velocity since the array had lost its hard lock, and he frowned. It was possible the bogeys’ stealth systems actually had baffled the arrays. In that case, it was also possible they’d begun decelerating unseen, as a preliminary to moving away from the system. But that possibility wasn’t even worth considering. There wasn’t much Hexapuma could do about them if they were, and they weren’t going to pose any immediate threat to Nuncio, but he didn’t believe for a moment that they were doing any such thing -- not with the freighter still decelerating steadily towards rest.

    No, it was far more likely that Abigail’s analysis was right on the money, in which case… .

    The result came up on his plot. At their last observed velocity, the two strobing icons would drift clear to Pontifex in just over twenty hours. And if they continued to coast in, running silent on ballistic courses, nobody with Nuncio’s level of technology would see a thing before they actually crossed the planet’s orbital shell. Hexapuma, on the other hand, armed with a hard datum on where they’d killed their wedges and knowing exactly what volume of space to watch, should be able to find them again with her heavily stealthed remote arrays’ passive systems without their knowing a thing about it. It would be simple enough to steer the remotes into positions from which they could observe Bogey One’s and Bogey Two’s predicted tracks closely enough to defeat the level of stealth they’d so far demonstrated, at any rate. The trick would be to do it using light-speed control links. It was unlikely the bogeys had picked up the arrays’ FTL grav pulses yet, given how far away from the arrays they still were and how weak those pulses were, but Hexapuma’s transmissions to them would be far more easily detected. So the data Hexapuma had was going to get older, but would still be enormously better than anything the bogeys had. Or that they would believe Nuncio could have, which meant… .

    The XO sat back in the command chair, thinking hard. The freighter was the joker in the deck. Captain Terekhov and his senior officers had discussed several contingency plans built around the possibility that one or even two pirate cruisers might come calling, but none of those contingencies had considered the possibility that they would bring a captured prize with them. Taking out the pirates themselves would be a good day’s work, but it was possible some or even all of the merchantship’s original crew was still on board her.

    The thought of leaving merchant spacers in pirate hands was anathema to any Queen’s officer, but FitzGerald was damned if he saw any way to avoid it this time. However good Hexapuma and her crew might be, she could be in only one place at a time, and she was the only friendly vessel in-system which could realistically hope to engage the pirate cruisers and survive. Yet she was also the only hyper-capable friendly warship in Nuncio, which meant she was the only unit which could pursue the merchantship if her prize crew got into hyper-space.

    No matter how he chewed at the unpalatable parameters of the tactical problem, Ansten FitzGerald could see no way to solve both halves of the equation, and just for a moment, he felt guiltily grateful that the responsibility for solving them lay on someone else’s shoulders.

    He reached out and tapped a com combination on his keypad. The screen lit with the image of Hexapuma’s snarling hexapuma-head crest which served as the com system’s wallpaper, and a small data bar indicated that it had been diverted to a secondary terminal for screening. Then the data bar blinked to indicate an open circuit as the recipient accepted the call sound-only.

    “Captain’s steward’s quarters, Chief Steward Agnelli,” a female voice which couldn’t possibly be as wide awake as it sounded said.

    “Chief Agnelli, this is the Exec,” FitzGerald said. “I hate to disturb the Captain this late, but something’s come up. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to wake him.”




    Aivars Terekhov took one more look at the immaculate officer in his cabin’s mirror as Joanna Agnelli brushed a microscopic speck of lint from his shoulder. She looked up, brown eyes meeting his in the mirror, and her mouth twitched in a brief smile.

    “Do I pass muster?” he asked, and her smile reappeared, broader.

    “Oh, I suppose so, Sir.”

    He was still getting used to her Sphinxian accent. Dennis Frampton, his previous personal steward, had been born and raised in the Duchy of Madison on the planet Manticore, and his accent had been smooth, with rounded vowels quite unlike the sharp crispness of Sphinxians like Agnelli. Dennis had been with him for over five T-years, long enough for him and Terekhov to have become thoroughly comfortable with one another. And it had been Dennis who’d convinced him that appearing in proper uniform at all times, and especially when it looked as if something… interesting might be going to happen, was one of a captain’s most valuable techniques for exuding a proper sense of control and confidence. He’d always insisted on inspecting his Captain’s appearance minutely before letting him out in public.

    Just as he had at Hyacinth.

    A shadow of memory and sharp-edged loss flickered in the ice-blue eyes looking back at him from the mirror. But it was only a shadow, he told himself firmly, and smiled back at Agnelli.

    “My wife always said I should never be allowed out without a keeper,” he said.

    “Which, begging the Captain’s pardon, shows she’s a very smart lady,” Agnelli replied tartly. She came from the old school, with an astringent personality and a firm sense of her responsibility to badger and pester her captain into taking proper care of himself. And she was also the only person aboard Hexapuma whose cabin intercom was left keyed open at night in case that same captain needed her.

    Which meant she was the only person aboard the cruiser who knew about the gasping, sweating nightmares which still woke him from time to time.

    “I’ve taken the liberty of putting on a fresh pot of coffee,” she continued. “It should be ready shortly. With the Captain’s permission, I’ll bring it to the bridge in… fifteen minutes.”

    Her tone was rather pointed, and Terekhov nodded meekly.

    “That will be fine, Joanna,” he said.

    “Very good, Sir,” Chief Steward Agnelli said, without even a trace of triumph, and stepped back to let him go out and play.



    “Captain on the bridge!”

    “As you were,” Terekhov said as he strode briskly through the bridge hatch, before any of the seated watchstanders could rise to acknowledge his arrival. He crossed directly to FitzGerald, who stood looking over Abigail Hearns’ shoulder at her display.

    The exec turned to greet him, warned by the quartermaster’s announcement, and felt a brief flicker of surprise. He knew he’d personally awakened the captain less than ten minutes ago, yet Terekhov was perfectly uniformed, bright-eyed and alert, without so much as a single hair out of place.

    “What do we have here, Ansten?”

    “It was Ms. Hearns who actually spotted it, Skipper,” FitzGerald said, and squeezed the young Grayson lieutenant’s shoulder. “Show him, Abigail.”

    “Yes, Sir,” she replied, and indicated the display.

    It took her only a very few sentences to lay out the situation, and Terekhov nodded. He also noticed that the remote arrays must have been right up against the extreme limit of their assigned deployment envelopes to have picked up the two lead bogeys before they closed down their impellers, and he knew he hadn’t authorized the change. He scratched one eyebrow, then shrugged mentally. He felt confident that the XO had already attended to any reaming which had been required. After all, taking care of that sort of thing so his captain didn’t have to was one of an executive officer’s more important functions.

    “Good work, Lieutenant Hearns,” he said instead. “Very good. Now we only have to figure out what to do about them.”

    He smiled, radiating confidence, and folded his hands behind him as he walked slowly towards the chair at the center of the bridge. He seated himself and studied the deployed repeater plots, thinking hard.

    FitzGerald watched the Captain cross his legs comfortably back in the chair and wondered what was going on behind that thoughtful expression. It was impossible to tell, and the exec found that moderately maddening. Terekhov couldn’t really be as calm as he looked, not with that freighter tagging along behind.

    Terekhov sat for perhaps five minutes, stroking his left eyebrow with his left index finger, lips slightly pursed as he swung the command chair from side to side in a gentle arc. Then he nodded once, crisply, and pushed himself back up.

    “Ms. Hearns, you have the watch,” he said.

    “Aye, aye, Sir. I have the watch,” she acknowledged, but she remained where she was, and he gave a mental nod of approval. Technically, she should have moved to the command chair, but she could monitor the entire bridge from where she was, and she recognized that it was more important not to leave Tactical uncovered at the moment.

    “Be so good as to contact Commander Kaplan and Lieutenant Bagwell, if you please,” he continued. “My compliments, and I’d like them to join the Exec and me. We’ll be in Briefing One; inform them that it will be acceptable for them to attend electronically.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    “Very good.” He twitched his head at Fitzgerald, and then flipped his left hand towards the briefing room hatch.

    “XO?” he invited.



    “So that’s about the size of it, Guns.”

    Aivars Terekhov gestured at the plot imagery relayed to the briefing room table’s holo display, and FitzGerald wondered if he was aware he was addressing Naomi Kaplan with the traditional informal title for the first time since coming aboard. For that matter, FitzGerald had been just a bit surprised to hear himself calling Terekhov ‘Skipper’ for the first time. Despite that, it felt surprisingly natural, and the executive officer wondered just when that had happened. He pondered the thought for a few seconds, then shook it off and refocused on the matter at hand.

    Despite the late hour, Lieutenant Bagwell had opted to join his captain and the executive officer in the briefing room. From his appearance, it was obvious he’d been up anyway -- probably working on another simulation for his EW section, FitzGerald suspected.

    Kaplan, on the other hand, wasn’t physically present, but she had the com terminal in her quarters configured for holographic mode. FitzGerald could see her in the corner of the briefing room’s two-dimensional display, gazing intently at the same light sculpture that hovered above the conference table. She hadn’t wasted time climbing into her uniform, since Terekhov had given her permission to attend electronically, and she wore an extremely attractive silk kimono which must have put her back a pretty penny.

    “That freighter’s going to be a stone bitch, Sir,” the tac officer said after a moment. “Right off the top of my head, I don’t see any way to retake her. Even if we let the shooters have free run of the inner system, she’d probably see us coming and slip away across the hyper wall before we ever got close enough to retake her.”

    She didn’t point out that simply destroying the freighter would have been no challenge at all.

    Unless the ship was sitting there with both its impeller nodes and its hyper generator carrying full loads -- not a good idea for civilian-grade components -- it was going to take a minimum of half an hour, by any realistic estimate, for the crew to fire up and make their escape. If Bogey Three’s impeller nodes were hot, she could get underway in normal-space in as little as fifteen minutes, but it would take a good forty-five minutes to bring her nodes up if they weren’t at standby. And bringing her hyper generator on-line in a cold start would require an absolute minimum of thirty minutes. Actually, the time requirement would more probably be forty or fifty minutes, given that they were talking about a merchant crew. And if they weren’t, the understrength engineering crew the pirates had probably put on board would be hard-pressed to get the job done even that rapidly.

    With the sensor suite a typical merchie carried, it was improbable to the point of impossibility that the prize ship -- and Kaplan had no more doubt than the Captain or Fitzgerald of what the lurking freighter was -- could pick up Hexapuma, coming in under stealth, before she got well into the powered envelope of her multi-drive missiles. If she didn’t, she couldn’t possibly escape into hyper in the interval between the time Hexapuma fired and the time the attack birds arrived on target. And no merchie in the galaxy was going to survive a full missile broadside from an Edward Saganami-C-class cruiser.

    Unfortunately, blowing her out of space wasn’t exactly the best way to rescue any merchant spacers who might still be on board her.

    “Letting One and Two operate freely would be unacceptable, even if it let us get all the way into energy range and take out the merchie’s impellers before she could translate clear,” Terekhov began mildly, then paused as the briefing room hatch slid open.

    Joanna Agnelli walked through it, carrying a tray which bore three coffee cups, a plate of bran muffins, liberally stuffed with raisins and still steaming from the oven, and a covered butter dish. She crossed to the conference table, set down the tray, poured a cup of coffee and settled it on a saucer in front of Terekhov, and then poured cups for Fitzgerald and Bagwell. Then she took the cover off the butter dish, handed each bemused officer a snow-white linen napkin, cast one final look around the briefing room, as if searching for something to straighten or dust, and withdrew… all without a single word.

    Terekhov and his subordinates looked at one another for a moment. Then the exec grinned and shrugged, and all three of them picked up their coffee cups.

    “As I say,” Terekhov picked up his previous thought along with his cup, “pulling Hexapuma out of the inner system’s unacceptable. There’s no way we could expect Commodore Karlberg to take on two modern warships. And, frankly, capturing or destroying those two ships has a far higher priority than retaking a single captured merchie.”

    “Agreed, Sir,” Kaplan said, but her tone was sour. It cut across the grain for any naval officer to abandon possible survivors to pirates, and the naturally combative tactical officer found the notion even more repugnant than most.

    “I don’t especially like that either, Guns.” Terekhov’s tone was mild, but his expression wasn’t, and Kaplan sat just a bit straighter in her quarters. “In this case, however, it’s possible that what we’re looking at aren’t your regular, run-of-the-mill pirates.”

    He paused, holding the coffee cup in his left hand as he gazed back and forth between his subordinates with an oddly expectant light in his eyes, as if waiting for something.

    “Sir?” FitzGerald said, and Terekhov made the right-handed throwing away gesture he used to punctuate his thought processes.

    “Think about it, Ansten. We’ve got two warships here. So far, we don’t know much about them, except that their stealth capabilities and EW were good enough to keep our sensor array from getting a hard read. Admittedly, we’re only using passives, they’re coming in under emcon, and the range is very long, but there’s no way a typical pirate has that kind of capability. Especially not the sort who’d normally operate out here in the Verge. And while word of the Lynx Terminus must have spread pretty much through the League by now, along with the news that shipping is going to be picking up in the vicinity, we’re quite a long way from Lynx at the moment. So just what’s sufficiently important about a system as poverty stricken as Nuncio to attract pirates with relatively modern vessels?”



    FitzGerald frowned. He’d been focused on the tactical aspects of the situation, and the Captain’s question hadn’t even occurred to him. It took him a few more seconds to work through the logic chain which Terekhov had obviously already considered, but Bagwell got there first. He looked at Terekhov, tilting his head to the side.

    “Sir,” he said slowly, “are you suggesting they weren’t ‘attracted’ at all? That they were sent?”

    “I think it’s possible.” Terekhov tilted his chair back and sipped coffee, gazing up at the holo display as if it were a seer’s crystal ball. “I can’t assess how probable it is, Guthrie, but I find those ships’ presence here… disturbing. Not the fact that raiders are operating in the area.” The right hand moved again. “Weakness always invites predators, even when the hunting isn’t all that good. But I am disturbed by their evident capability. And if I were an outside power intent on destabilizing the area to hinder or prevent the annexation, I’d certainly consider subsidizing an increased level of pirate activity.”

    “That’s not a happy thought, Skipper,” FitzGerald said.

    “No, it’s not,” Terekhov agreed. “And I’d say the odds are at least even that I’m being overly suspicious. It’s entirely possible we have two genuine pirates here, and that they’re simply taking the long view and scouting the area with an eye to future operations. In either case, taking them out has a higher priority than retaking the merchie. But the need to determine which they really are, if we can, lends weight to the desirability of taking at least one of them more or less intact.”

    “Yes, Sir,” FitzGerald agreed, and Kaplan nodded.

    “But that’s going to mean getting them in a lot closer,” the exec went on. “I think Abigail’s right, and these people aren’t any bigger than a pair of cruisers. In that case, taking them with missiles would be fairly straightforward. Unless they’re Peeps with heavy pods on tow, of course, which is sort of unlikely this far from home.”

    Terekhov’s lips twitched in a smile at FitzGerald’s massive understatement, and the commander continued.

    “Range advantage or no, though, we don’t want to be throwing full broadsides at them unless we intend to go for quick kills and risk destroying them outright. And unlike their merchie, these people will have hot nodes and generators, despite the wear on the components. If they’re outside the hyper limit, they’ll probably have time to duck back across it before we can disable them with smaller salvos. So we need to let them in deep enough to give us some time to work on them before they can make a break over the hyper wall.”

    “At least.” Terekhov nodded. “And, while taking out the actual pirates may have a higher priority than retaking the freighter, I fully intend to attempt both.”

    All three of his subordinates looked at him in surprise. Surprise, he noticed, which held more than a hint of incredulity, and he smiled again, thinly.

    “No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. And I’m not at all sure we can pull off what I have in mind. But there’s at least a chance, I think, if we play our cards properly. And if we can pull the preparations together fast enough.”

    He set down his coffee cup and let his chair come fully upright, and all three of his officers found themselves leaning forward in theirs.

    “First,” he said, “we have to deal with Bogey One and Bogey Two. As you say, Ansten, that’s going to require getting them close enough to Hexapuma for us to work on them. If I were in their place, I wouldn’t come inside the system hyper limit at all. If these ships are as modern and capable as their stealth capabilities seem to suggest, they probably have the sensor reach to get a good read on any active impeller signatures from at least twelve or thirteen light-minutes. So they could stop that far from Pontifex, which would leave them at least two light-minutes outside the limit, and easily spot any of Commodore Karlberg’s LACs which happened to be underway. They probably wouldn’t be able to pick up anything in a parking orbit with its impellers down, but if they’re really modern units and they’re prepared to expend the assets, they could punch recon drones past the planet. And they could feel fairly confident that nothing Nuncio has could intercept their drones even if they managed to detect them in time to try.

    “At the moment, we know where they are with a fair degree of certainty. Moreover, we’re pretty sure what course they intend to follow, and I think Lieutenant Hearns is right that they intend to coast in ballistic all the way. So it wouldn’t be very difficult to accelerate out on an interception heading. We’d be able to localize them with our remote arrays, and they wouldn’t be able to see us with their shipboard sensors until it was too late for them to avoid action. Unfortunately, that would mean we’d encounter them well outside the hyper limit, where they’d have the opportunity to escape after the first salvo, and we’d also have a high relative velocity at the point at which we overflew them if they didn’t run. Our engagement window would be short, and we’d be right back with the options of either destroying them outright or letting them escape.

    “The only other possibility is to entice them into coming to us. Which suggests that it’s time we consider a Trojan Horse approach.”

    “Use our EW systems to convince them we’re a freighter, Sir?” Bagwell asked.

    “Exactly,” Terekhov agreed.

    “Pulling it off would depend on how stupid they are, Sir,” Kaplan pointed out from his com display. Her diffident tone suggested she had her doubts about that, but her dark brown eyes were intent.

    “I’ve had a few thoughts on that already, Guns,” Terekhov said. “The biggest problem I see, actually, is that I want to hold our accel down to something that would be on the low side even for a merchie.”

    “How low were you thinking about, Skipper?” FitzGerald asked.

    “I’d like to hold it to under a hundred and eighty gravities,” Terekhov replied, and the exec frowned.

    “That is on the low side,” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I’m assuming you want them to think we’ve panicked and we’re trying to run away from them?” Terekhov nodded, and FitzGerald shook his head. “For us to be ‘running’ at that low an acceleration, we’d have to be up in the six or seven million-ton range. I don’t see them believing a freighter that big would be here in Nuncio. Merchant traffic may be picking up in the area, but no shipping line I can think of would tie up a hull that size this far out in the sticks.”

    “Actually, Sir,” Bagwell said, “I might have an idea there.”

    “I hoped you might,” Terekhov said, turning to the EWO.

    “There are a couple of ways we could approach it,” Bagwell said. “We’re going to have to get Commander Lewis involved in this, but taking some of the beta nodes out of the wedge and playing a few games with the frequency and power levels on the ones we leave in should let us produce an impeller wedge that’s going to be pretty hard for anyone to tell apart from the wedge of, say, a three or four million-ton merchie. And if Commander Lewis is as good as I think she is, she ought to be able to induce an apparent frequency flutter into the alpha nodes, especially if she lets the betas carry the real load.”

    “You think these people’s shipboard sensors would be able to pick up a flutter from far enough out to make that work, Guthrie?” Kaplan asked. The electronics warfare officer looked at her com image, and she shrugged. “If they can’t see it with their shipboard arrays, then I think they’d be likely to go ahead and pop off one of those recon drones the Skipper was talking about a minute ago. That might pick up the flutter, all right, but it would also probably get close enough for a look at us using plain old fashioned opticals. In which case, they’d recognize what we really are in a heartbeat.”

    “We’d need to discuss it with Commander Lewis,” Bagwell agreed, “but this is something Paulo -- I mean, Midshipman d’Arezzo -- and I have been kicking around for a couple of weeks now. And --“

    ”A couple weeks?” Terekhov interrupted, with a quizzical smile, and Bagwell smiled back with a small shrug.

    “Skipper, you told us one of our jobs out here was anti-piracy work, and Paulo and I figured that sooner or later we’d have to deal with a problem pretty much like the one we’re looking at here. So we started playing around with simulations. If Commander Lewis -- and you, of course, Sir -- are willing to put a little extra wear on the ship’s alpha nodes, I think we can generate a pretty convincing normal-space flare. The sort of flare a failing beta node might produce. Nice and bright, and clearly visible to any modern warship at at least ten or twelve light-minutes. And just to put a cherry on top, we could simulate successive flares. The sort of thing you might see if an entire impeller ring that was in pretty shaky shape was overstressed so badly its nodes began failing in succession.”

    “I like it, Skipper,” FitzGerald said. Terekhov looked at him, and the exec chuckled. “I’m sure Ginger won’t be delighted about abusing her impeller rooms the way Guthrie’s suggesting, but I’m willing to bet she could do it. And it would explain that low an acceleration rate out of a relatively small merchantship.”

    “And if it’s visible from extreme range,” Kaplan agreed with gathering enthusiasm, “the bad guys won’t see any reason to expend a recon drone to check it out. They’ll be too confident they already know what’s going on to waste the assets.”

    “All well and good, Naomi.” FitzGerald’s smile faded a bit around the edges. “But they’re still likely to be suspicious if we ‘just happen’ to leave orbit as they ‘just happen’ to come into sensor range of Pontifex. And if we’re getting underway with what appears to be a seriously faulty impeller ring, that’s even more likely to look suspicious to them.”

    “That’s one of the things I was already thinking about,” Terekhov said before the tac officer could reply. “Since shouldn’t be that difficult for us to track these people with our own arrays, it ought to be possible for us to coach a Nuncian LAC onto a course which will bring it close enough to the bogeys for it to have detected them. At which point, the LAC skipper would quite reasonably broadcast an omnidirectional general warning that stealthed ships were entering the inner system.”

    “It could get a bit rough on the LAC if she gets too close to the bogeys, Skipper,” Kaplan pointed out.

    “I think we could avoid that,” Terekhov replied. “The fact that the LAC is broadcasting a warning at all should be pretty convincing evidence to the bogeys that she managed to detect them, regardless of how likely or unlikely that appears. If we bring the LAC in behind them, where she could get a look at their after aspect, the ‘detection range’ would go up pretty dramatically. And that would also allow us to put the LAC on a course which would make it impossible for her to intercept the bogeys, even if she wanted to. I don’t see any reason for the bogeys to go out of their way and waste the time to bring a single obsolescent light attack craft into their engagement range when the damage has already been done. Especially if decelerating to do so would distract them from the pursuit of a lame-duck merchie.

    “Actually, I’m more concerned about the bogeys’ reaction to our decision to run deeper into the system rather than breaking for the hyper limit on a tangent. I’m hoping they’ll figure we’ve panicked, or that we hope they’re still not close enough to have us on shipboard sensors and that we can get out of sensor range fastest by heading directly away from them.” He shrugged. “I like to think I wouldn’t be stupid enough to assume either of those things myself, but I’m not at all sure I wouldn’t be. God knows we’ve all seen enough merchant skippers do illogical things in the face of sudden, unanticipated threats. I think it’s likely these people will assume we’re doing the same.”

    “You’re probably right, Skipper,” FitzGerald said. “But do you really think Commodore Karlberg will agree to put one of his ships that close to these people?”

    “Yes,” Terekhov said firmly. “I think he wants them swatted badly enough to run a far greater risk than that. Especially after I explain to him how we’re going to take a stab at retaking the merchie, as well.”

    “You mentioned something about that already, Skipper,” FitzGerald said. “But I still don’t see how we’re going to pull it off.”

    “I can’t guarantee we are,” Terekhov conceded. “But I think we’ve got a pretty fair chance. A lot will depend on Boogie Three’s exact design and several other factors beyond our control, but it ought to be possible. Here’s what I have in mind…“

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