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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 8, 2004 00:17 EDT



    Helen Zilwicki swallowed hard. She was glad her skinsuit’s helmet at least partially concealed her expression from the pinnace’s other passengers, although she couldn’t help wondering how many of them felt the same way.

    She turned her head, glancing at the midshipman seated to her left. She would have preferred being paired with Leo Stottmeister, since neither Aikawa or Ragnhild were available, but she hadn’t been consulted. Commander FitzGerald had simply looked at the three middies still aboard Hexapuma, then jabbed with a forefinger, assigning Leo to his pinnace and Helen and Paulo d’Arezzo to the one with Commander Lewis and Lieutenant Commander Frank Henshaw, Hexapuma’s second engineer. Then he’d looked at all three midshipmen, and his expression had been grim.

    “It’s going to be bad over there,” he’d told them flatly. “Whatever you can imagine, it’s going to be worse. You three are being assigned primarily to assist me, Commander Lewis, and Commander Henshaw. Despite that, you may find yourselves in positions where you have to make on-the-spot decisions. If so, use your own judgment and keep me or Commander Lewis informed at all times. Major Kaczmarczyk and Lieutenant Kelso will be responsible for securing enemy personnel. You’ll leave that to them and their Marines. Our job is to secure the ship herself, and in doing so, we will be guided by three primary considerations. First, the security and safety of our own people. Second, the need to secure the ship’s systems and deal with damage which might threaten further destruction of the ship. Third, the need to prevent any acts of sabotage or data erasure. Are there any questions?”

    “Yes, Sir.” It had been d’Arezzo, and Helen had glanced at him from the corner of her eye.

    “What is it, Mr. d’Arezzo?”

    “I understand the Marines will be in charge of securing the prisoners, Sir. But what about their wounded? I’m sure we’re going to be running into trapped injured personnel -- and, for that matter, probably unhurt crewmembers -- once we start clearing wreckage and opening damaged compartments.”

    “That’s why you have sidearms, Mr. d’Arezzo. All of you,” the Exec’s eyes had bored into theirs, “remember what you’re dealing with here. Commander Orban’s sickbay attendants will have primary responsibility for stabilizing any wounded personnel and returning them to Hexapuma for treatment. No matter who these people are, or what they’ve done, we’ll see to it that they receive proper medical attention. But don’t make the mistake of lowering your guards simply because this ship has surrendered. At the moment, her people are probably too terrified and shocked -- and grateful to be alive -- to pose any threat, but don’t rely on that. It only takes one lunatic holdout with a grenade or a pulse rifle to kill you or an entire work party. And it won’t make you, or your parents, feel one bit better to know whoever killed you was shot himself five seconds later. Do you read me on this one, people?”

    “Yes, Sir!” they’d replied in unison, and he’d nodded.

    “All right.” He’d jerked his head at the waiting pinnace boarding tubes. “Get aboard, then.”

    Now Helen looked out the port beside her as Commander Lewis’ pinnace held station to port of and just below Anhur’s broken hull. It was the closest Helen had ever come to a Havenite-designed vessel, and her blood ran cold as the damage the ship had suffered truly. There was a difference, she discovered, between floating here beside the wreck, looking at it with her own eyes, and even the best visual image on a display. The shattered cruiser was just to sunward of the pinnace, and drifting wreckage -- some in chunks as large as the pinnace itself -- drifted hard-edged and black across Nuncio-B’s brilliance. Her mind replayed Commander FitzGerald’s warning, and she knew he was right. It was going to be worse than she could possibly imagine inside that murdered ship.

    She listened to the rattle of orders as Lieutenant Angelique Kelso’s First Platoon’s shuttles docked. Only Anhur’s after boat bay would hold atmosphere, and Captain Kaczmarczyk was obviously disinclined to take any avoidable chances. Kelso had her first squad in full battle armor, and he sent them in first to secure the bay galleries before the remainder of the skinsuited Marines boarded.



    Aivars Terekhov stared at the main bridge display. Its imagery was relayed from Angelique Kelso’s helmet pickup as she and her Marines took control of Anhur’s single functional boat bay. There were no signs of damage in the immaculate boat bay. Or, at least, not of physical damage to the ship. The white-faced, shocked officer waiting to greet Kelso as she came aboard was another matter. His left arm hung in a blood-spotted sling, his crimson uniform tunic was torn and covered with dust, where it wasn’t dotted with dried fire-suppressive foam, his left cheek was badly blistered, and the hair on the left side of his head was singed. At least half the personnel with him showed greater or lesser signs of the carnage which had been wreaked upon their ship, but that wasn’t what made Terekhov stare at the display in disbelief. Only two of the crewmen in the boat bay were in skinsuits; the others still wore the uniforms in which they’d been surprised by his crushing attack, and those uniforms didn’t belong to the Republic of Haven.

    Or, rather, they no longer belonged to the Republic of Haven.

    “Well,” he said after a moment, as the first, sharp astonishment eased, “I have to admit this is… an unexpected development.”

    Someone snorted, and he glanced up. Naomi Kaplan stood beside his command chair, watching -- along with the rest of Hexapuma’s skeleton bridge watch -- as Kelso finished securing the boat bay gallery and the rest of her Marines followed First Squad aboard.

    “State Security?” The tac officer shook her head, her expression an odd combination of surprise as deep as Terekhov’s own and profound distaste. “Skipper, ‘unexpected’ is putting it pretty damned mildly, if you’ll pardon my saying so!”


    Terekhov felt himself coming back on balance, although the sight of the uniforms which had filled any citizen of the People’s Republic of Haven with terror had brought something much stronger than distaste back to him. For four months after the Battle of Hyacinth, he and his surviving personnel had been in StateSec custody. Only four months, but it had been more than long enough, and a fresh, hot flicker of hatred pushed the last wisps of surprise out of his mind.

    The State Security thugs who’d run the POW camp which had engulfed his pitiful handful of survivors had treated them with the viciousness of despair as Eighth Fleet smashed unstoppably into the People’s Republic. They’d taken out their fear and hatred on their prisoners with a casual brutality not even the foreknowledge of inevitable defeat had been able to fully deter. Beatings had been common. Several of his people had been raped. Some had been tortured. At least three who other survivors swore had been captured alive and uninjured simply disappeared. And then, in rapid fire, came word of the cease-fire High Ridge was stupid enough to accept… followed eight local days later by news of the Theisman coup against Oscar Saint-Just.

    Those eight days had been bad. For those days, StateSec had believed in miracles again -- had once again believed its personnel would never be called to account -- and some among them had indulged in an even more savage orgy of vengeance upon the hated Manties. Terekhov himself had been protected, at least, by his critical wounds, because the People’s Navy had run the local hospital, and the hospital commandant had been a woman of moral courage who refused to allow even StateSec access to her patients. But his people hadn’t been, and all the evidence suggested that the two men and one woman who’d vanished had been murdered during that interval… probably only after undergoing the sort of vicious torture certain elements of the SS had made their chosen speciality.

    The Peeps had conducted their own investigation afterward, in an effort to determine exactly what had happened, and despite himself, he’d been forced to believe it was a serious attempt. Unfortunately, few StateSec witnesses had been available. Most had been killed when Marines from the local naval picket stormed the SS planetary HQ and POW camps and the howling mobs of local citizens lynched every StateSec trooper, informant, and hanger-on they could catch. The local SS offices had been looted and burned, and most of their records had gone with them. Some of those records had probably been destroyed by StateSec personnel themselves, but the result was the same. Even the most painstaking investigation was unable to establish what had happened. In the end, the military tribunal impaneled on Thomas Theisman’s direct authority for the investigation had concluded that all evidence suggested Terekhov’s people had been murdered in cold blood by unknown StateSec personnel while in Havenite custody. The captain who’d headed the tribunal had personally apologized to Terekhov, acknowledging the People’s Republic’s guilt, and he had no doubt that, had the cease-fire ever been transformed into a formal treaty, the new Havenite government would have echoed that acknowledgment and made whatever restitution it could. But the people actually responsible were almost certainly either already dead or had somehow evaded custody.

    And now this.

    He closed his eyes for a moment, face to face with a dark and ugly side of himself. The hunger which filled him when Kaplan told him Bogey One was a Mars-class heavy cruiser, for all its strength, couldn’t match the hot, personal hatred that uniform kicked to roaring life. And the man wearing it, like everyone else aboard Anhur, was Aivars Terekhov’s prisoner. A prisoner who was almost certainly a pirate, not a prisoner of war whose actions had enjoyed the sanction of any government or the protection of the Deneb Accords.

    And the penalty for piracy was death.

    “‘Maybe’?” Kaplan turned to look at him. “Skipper, are you saying you expected something like this? Or that anyone should have?”

    “No.” Terekhov opened his eyes, and his expression was calm, his tone almost normal, as he turned his chair to face the diminutive tac officer. “I didn’t expect anything of the sort, Guns. Although, if you’ll recall, I did caution at the time that we couldn’t afford to automatically assume we were dealing with Peep naval units.”

    Despite herself, one of Kaplan’s eyebrows tried to creep upward, and he surprised himself with a genuine chuckle.

    “Oh, I admit I was mostly throwing out a sheet anchor just to be on the safe side and protect the Captain’s reputation for infallibility. I expected either regular Navy units, or else that these ships had been disposed of through a black-market operation -- either by the Havenite government or by some Peep admiral looking to build himself a nest egg before disappearing into retirement. But we’ve known for a long time now that some of the worst elements of the People’s Navy and StateSec simply ran for it when Theisman pulled Saint-Just down. At least two of their destroyers and a light cruiser eventually turned up in Silesia, and there have been unconfirmed reports of other ex-Peep units hiring out as mercenaries. I suppose what surprises me most about this is that anyone would take the risk of continuing to wear StateSec uniform.”

    “Pirates are pirates, Skip,” Kaplan said grimly. “What they choose to wear doesn’t make any difference.”

    “No, I don’t suppose it does,” Terekhov said quietly. But it did. He knew it did.




    “Wolverine, this is Hawk-Papa-Two. I have a message for Captain Einarsson.”

    One hundred and two seconds passed. Then --

    “Yes, Lieutenant Hearns? This is Einarsson.”

    “Captain,” Abigail said, watching Bogey Three grow steadily larger ahead of her two pinnaces, “we’ve just received word from Hexapuma. Bogey Two’s been destroyed with all hands. Bogey One, confirmed as a Havenite heavy cruiser, has been heavily damaged and forced to surrender. Captain Terekhov has Marines aboard her, and Navy rescue and salvage parties are boarding now. He says she’s suffered severe personnel casualties, and his present estimate is that damage to the ship itself is to heavy to make repair practical.”

    “That’s wonderful news, Lieutenant!” Einarsson replied, a minute and a half later. “Unless something changes drastically in the next fifteen minutes or so, it looks like a clean sweep.”

    “Yes, Sir,” Abigail agreed. And the fact that they were Peep ships after all justifies the Captain’s decision to attack without challenging them first, she added to herself. She was surprised by how relieved that made her feel… and also to realize that in the Captain’s place, she’d probably have done exactly the same thing, Peeps or no Peeps.

    “I suppose you should go ahead and talk to them, Lieutenant,” the Nuncian officer continued from the far end of the communications line without awaiting for Abigail’s response. “She’s your bird, after all.”

    “Why, thank you, Sir! We’ll see to it. Hawk-Papa-Two, clear.”

    Abigail hoped the surprise she felt hadn’t shown in her reply. Einarsson was the senior officer present, even if he was currently well over thirty million kilometers away. The pinnaces, with their higher acceleration, had overshot Bogey Three by less than twenty-seven million kilometers, 5.2 million less than Wolverine’s overshoot. And that same higher acceleration had brought them back to within 1.3 million kilometers while the Nuncian LACs had begun the return journey only two minutes ago. Assuming Bogey Three stayed as motionless as she’d been ever since Abigail’s fly-by attack, she’d decelerate to a zero/zero intercept in another eleven minutes. There’d never been much question that her pinnaces were going to do the actual intercepting, but she had to admit Einarsson had surprised her by formally -- and spontaneously -- admitting that a mere female lieutenant deserved full credit. It was true, perhaps, but Abigail had enjoyed too much firsthand experience of how difficult it was for an old-school, dyed in the wool patriarch to voluntarily admit any such thing.

    She switched to the merchant guard frequency and spoke into her com again.

    “Unknown freighter,” she said, and her soft Grayson accent was cold as space and ribbed with battle steel, “this is Lieutenant Abigail Hearns, of Her Majesty’s Starship Hexapuma, aboard the pinnace approaching from your zero-zero-five zero-seven-two. Your consorts have been destroyed or captured in the inner system. You will stand by to be boarded by my Marines. Any resistance will be met with lethal force. Is that clear, unknown freighter?”

    Only silence answered, and she frowned.

    “Unknown freighter,” she said again, “respond to my previous message immediately!”

    Still, only silence, and her frown deepened. She thought for a few moments, then switched frequencies again, this time to Lieutenant Mann aboard the second pinnace.

    “Lieutenant Mann, this is Hearns. Have you been monitoring my communications?”

    “Affirmative, Lieutenant,”

    “I suppose the most likely reason for their communications silence is that we did somehow manage take out their com section. That would certainly explain why they apparently never said a word to Bogey One about our attack. I just can’t quite believe we did that kind of damage. Even if we managed to take out their laser array, they ought to be able to respond via omnidirectional radio at this piddling range!”

    “Agreed.” Mann was silent for three or four seconds, obviously thinking hard. Then he came back over the link. “What about the possibility that you did enough damage to take out their receivers? Or enough that the people who’d normally be mounting com watch are off dealing with more pressing damage?”

    “Of the two, the second one makes more sense. But I don’t like the feel of this. Something isn’t right. I can’t explain exactly why I’m so sure, but I am.”

    “Well,” Mann said after a heartbeat or two, “I’m just a Marine. I’m not prepared to question a Navy officer’s judgment in a case like this -- especially not after Captain Terekhov and Major Kaczmarczyk made it abundantly clear the Navy officer in question is in command. How do you want to handle it?”

    He had not, Abigail noted, made any remarks about religion or superstition.

    “I think we have no choice but to go ahead and board,” she said, after a moment. “But until we know more about what’s going on aboard her, I’d prefer to limit our exposure. We’ll take one of your squads, two of my Engineering ratings, and both midshipmen across without docking, and both pinnaces will withdraw to five hundred kilometers before we crack a hatch.”

    “Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Mann agreed. Abigail was more than a little surprised by the total lack of argument, but she only nodded.

    “Very well, Lieutenant. Get your squad saddled up. We should be ready to go EVA in about seven minutes.”



    “Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Lieutenant Mann said again. The tall, black-haired lieutenant rubbed his neatly trimmed goatee and looked over his shoulder in the troop compartment of pinnace Hawk-Papa-Three. “You heard, Sergeant?”

    “Aye, Skipper.” Platoon Sergeant David Crites, Third Platoon’s senior NCO, had blue eyes, salt and pepper hair, despite his prolong, and a no-nonsense manner. Usually. This time he rubbed his own beard, a considerably bushier and generally more majestic proposition than his lieutenant’s, and grinned. “Probably be simplest to just go ahead and take McCollom’s squad, seeing’s how he’s right here, conveniently located next to the hatch, and all.”

    “Well, if he’s the best we have available, I suppose he’ll have to do,” Mann agreed with a sigh, and the skin around his hazel eyes crinkled in a smile as he looked at Sergeant Wendell McCollom.

    McCollum, who ran Second Squad for him, stood a hundred and ninety-three centimeters tall, with dark hair and a prominent nose. He was also just a tad on the plump side for a proper recruiting poster, and he and Crites, who’d known one another for almost twenty T-years, were known for punning contests that could go on literally for hours.

    What mattered most at this moment, however, was that Second Squad and its plump lance corporal happened to have the highest training marks for the assault role in Hexapuma’s entire Marine detachment. Which was why McCollum’s people were the only ones -- aside from Mann and Crites -- in full battle armor.

    “Try not to open any exploding paint lockers this time, Corporal McCollom,” the lieutenant said sternly.

    “One little mistake, and they never let you forget about it,” McCollom said sadly, then regarded his youthful platoon commander with a mournful, accusatory eye. “I still think that was an underhanded trick, even for an officer… Sir.”

    “Underhanded?” Mann returned the corporal’s regard innocently. “I thought it made a nice change from the usual audio alarms. And, as the Sergeant pointed out to me at the time he -- I mean I -- thought of it,” he admonished with a twinkle in his eye, “you really should pay more attention to possible booby-traps in training scenarios.”

    “I do now, Sir.”

    All three smiled, and Aikawa Kagiyama, who sat watching them, wished he felt remotely as calm as they appeared. At least some of it had to be an act, he thought. The way warriors throughout the ages had put on relaxed faces to demonstrate their confidence before facing the unknown. Yet there was a tough, resilient professionalism underneath the act. Mann was the youngest of the three, but there was no question of his authority, however light the hand with which he exercised it, and Aikawa thought that was probably what he envied most.

    The lieutenant scratched his chin for a moment, thoughtfully, then looked at Aikawa, whose anxiety level ratcheted abruptly upward.

    “It seems you’re going on a little excursion with us, Mr. Kagiyama. I don’t know what we’re likely to be walking into over there, but my people will look after you. Just remember two things. One, you’re a midshipman on your first deployment, not Preston of the Spaceways. Stay out of trouble, keep an eye on the people around you who’ve done this sort of thing before, and leave your sidearm holstered unless somebody tells you differently. Second, your skinsuit’s a hell of a lot better at stopping pulser darts and other nasty things than bare skin, but it’s not battle armor. So do all of us a favor and try to keep the battle armor between you and any unpleasantness we run into.”

    It was, Aikawa reflected, like being told to keep his hands in his pockets. Which, under the circumstances, he found almost comforting.

    “Do you think Lieutenant Hearns is right to be concerned, Sir?” he asked after a moment.

    “I don’t know.” If Mann thought Aikawa’s question was out of line, no sign of it showed. “But I do know she’s not the kind to jump at shadows. I suppose we’ll find out in a few minutes.” He looked back at Crites and McCollum. “Let’s get our people helmeted up.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    The battle armored Marines locked their heavily armored helmets into place while Aikawa sealed his own clear, globular helmet. Never a large person, he felt like a midget in his standard Navy skinsuit beside the towering, armored Marines. The soot-black battle armor’s limbs swelled with exoskeletal “muscles,” and the s pulse rifles most of them carried looked little larger than toys in their gauntleted hands. The two plasma gunners had exchanged their energy weapons for tribarrels, and he knew the grenadiers carried only standard HE and frag rounds without any plasma grenades. He still felt dwarfed and insignificant armed with nothing more than the pulser holstered at his right hip.

    As he waited to leave the pinnace, he thought about what Mann had just said. It was interesting. All of Hexapuma’s Marines seemed to accord Lieutenant Hearns’ judgment a degree of respect Aikawa was fairly sure was rare for someone of her rank. Especially a naval officer of her rank. She seemed completely unaware of it, too. He wondered how much of it went back to what had happened in Tiberian and how much of it was the effect of Lieutenant Gutierrez’s presence.

    “Two minutes, Lieutenant Mann,” he heard the pinnace’s pilot announce over his skinsuit com.

    “Understood,” Mann replied, and made a “wind it up” circular gesture with his right hand at Crites and McCollum. Both noncoms nodded, and Aikawa -- obedient to Mann’s admonition -- stayed carefully out of the way while the hulking, armored Marines moved towards the airlock.



    Helen followed and SCPO Wanderman down the passageway towards Environmental Three. Paulo d’Arezzo had been split off to accompany Commander Lewis to Anhur’s single remaining fusion plant, and Lieutenant Commander Henshaw had sent her with Wanderman while he picked his way through the wreckage to what was left of the forward impeller rooms. She was astonished by how much she missed the d’Arezzo. His standoffishness was a pain in the ass, but his apparent calmness had been more comforting then she cared to admit. He was the only person in the entire boarding party who approached her own youthful lack of experience, and she’d taken an unexpected sort of strength from that sense of shared identity.

    “Just a minute, Ma’am,” Wanderman said suddenly, and she came to a halt behind him. The petty officer and the other two ratings with him blocked her view, and she wondered what the problem was.

    “What d’you think, Senior Chief?” one of the ratings asked.

    “I don’t think it was a direct hit. Looks more like a secondary explosion. But whatever it was, it made a hell of a mess.”

    “Wonder how they got pressure back in here?” the rating said.

    “One of the reasons I think it was a secondary,” Wanderman replied. “Anything that got this deep from the outside and did that kind of damage would’ve left a breach all the way in that would’ve been hell to seal. But if something like a superconductor ring blew this deep in, it could have shredded the passage this way and opened a small breach clear to the skin without opening up the entire side of the ship.”

    “Kinda makes you wish they’d lost the grav plates, doesn’t it?” the other rating put in.

    “Freefall would help,” Wanderman agreed. “But I think if we stay to port we’ll be all right. Just watch your footing.”

    Helen’s curiosity was almost more than she could stand -- especially since, technically, she was the senior (as in only) officer present. Under the circumstances, however, she wasn’t about to attempt to assert authority over a noncom with Wanderman’s years of experience. And if she’d been tempted to, the thought of Commander Lewis’ reaction to her temerity would have depressed the temptation immediately. But she still --

    Wanderman and the others moved aside, and Helen abruptly wished they hadn’t.

    The entire right hand side of the passage ahead had been ripped as if by a huge, angry talon. It was splintered and broken, half-melted and re-congealed in places, for a distance of nine or ten meters. The damage crossed one of the ship’s emergency blast doors, and the door’s starboard panel had obviously never had a chance to move before whatever titanic blow had torn the passage apart froze it.

    And neither had the crewmen who’d been in the passage when that blow hit.

    She couldn’t even tell how many of them there’d been. The port bulkhead was pitted where fragments of the starboard bulkhead had ricocheted from it, but the marks were hard to see because of the blood patterns splashed across it. It looked as if some lunatic with a spray gun of gore had been interrupted halfway through repainting the passage, using bits of human tissue and scraps of human bone to provide texture to her work. Severed limbs, blasted torsos, fingers, bits of uniform, an intact boot with its owner’s foot still in it, a human head canted up against the lower edge of the frozen blast door like a discarded basketball… . And, worst of all, the contorted body of a man who’d obviously been badly hit by the explosion but miraculously not killed outright when it shattered both his legs. A man whose rupturing lungs had vomited blood from mouth and nose while his fingers clawed at the deck as the passage depressurized about him.

    Wanderman’s right, a small, still voice said beneath her horror. It couldn’t have been a direct hit. This big a breach would’ve depressurized the passage almost instantly if it went all the way through. And he must have taken several minutes to die, lying here, unable to get away… .

    She felt the senior chief watching her from the corner of one eye, and she made herself stand there for a moment, looking out over that scene of unspeakable carnage. Then she drew a deep breath.

    “I believe you suggested keeping to port, Senior Chief?” she said, gazing at the badly damaged decksole along the starboard side. Her voice sounded strange to her, without the quivers of shock she felt running through her body.

    “Yes, Ma’am.”

    “Well,” she said, “since I’m the lightest person here, I suppose I should go first to check the footing.”

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