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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT



    "Galaxy Caravan, we're not going to tell you again," the harsh voice said over the com. "Cut your drive and open your hatches, or we'll blow your ass out of space!"

    "Are there actually people this stupid in the galaxy?" Lieutenant Betty Gohr demanded under her breath as she watched her display.

    "It would appear so," someone replied, and she looked up quickly. Apparently, she hadn't spoken quite as softly as she'd thought she had, and Commander Joel Blumenthal, Gauntlet's tactical officer, gave her a crooked smile.

    "I'm sorry, Sir," she said. "It just... I don't know, offends my sense of professionalism, I suppose, to see even a pirate do something this stupid. I like to think that it takes at least a modicum of intelligence to be able to figure out what buttons to push on the bridge."

    "He does seem just a tad less than brilliant," Blumenthal acknowledged. "On the other hand, we are doing our best to encourage him to screw up by the numbers."

    "I know," Gohr said. "But still, Sir..."

    Her voice trailed off, but Blumenthal understood exactly what she meant.

    HMS Gauntlet wasn't even coming close to setting a passage record for the voyage from Manticore to Erewhon. Exactly whose idea it had been to assign the cruiser to ride herd on the unofficial convoy was something the captain hadn't discussed with any of his officers. For all Blumenthal knew, Oversteegen might have arranged it himself. After all the casualties they'd taken in Tiberian, not to mention the routine transfers which always afflicted a ship's company when she was put into yard hands for major repairs or a refit, they needed all the exercise and drill time they could get. So it would have made sense for the captain to arrange—or at least to cheerfully accept orders for Gauntlet—to make this long, slow, circuitous trip, trundling along with half a dozen lumbering freighters. It had certainly given them plenty of time to train!

    And he might just have seen the merchies as bait in a trap, Blumenthal thought privately. Especially if he still has as many questions as I do about what happened the last time we were out this way.

    If that was what the captain had been thinking, it seemed to have worked... sort of. At least they appeared to have caught a pirate of sorts, although judging from the emissions signature Blumenthal's tracking section was picking up, whoever this was certainly wasn't whoever sent out heavy cruisers to do his dirty work.

    "We're getting a better read on them, Sir," he said, turning his chair to face the command chair at the center of Gauntlet's bridge. "Judging from the impeller signature, CIC makes her tonnage around eighty to ninety-five thousand tons. Her active emissions seem to fit fairly well with something that size, too. From what we're picking up, her sensor fit is pretty close to completely obsolete, though."

    "How close?" Captain Oversteegen asked.

    "It's almost certainly inferior to prewar Peep hardware," Blumenthal replied.

    "In that case, Sir," Commander Watson put in, "calling it 'obsolete' is entirely too kind."

    "I'm inclined t' agree." Oversteegen studied his own repeater plot for a handful of seconds, then shrugged. "If his sensors are that bad, then I suppose we really shouldn't blame him for fallin' for our little ruse. On the other hand, even the worst sensors in space are goin' t' see through our EW if he gets much closer."

    "Sir," the com officer said, "whoever it is is hailing as again. Basically the same demand as before. Should I keep stringing him along?"

    "Still no identification from his end?" Oversteegen asked in a tone that seemed almost disinterested, but his eyes never left the red icon on his plot.

    "No, Sir."

    "Well, that certainly seems t' establish that he's not anyone with official standin', doesn't it?" the captain murmured.

    Which it did, Lieutenant Gohr conceded. Of course, the fact that GauntletGalaxy Caravan, as far as the other ship knew—had so far refused to obey its orders ought to have suggested to anyone with the brains of a rutabaga that she wasn't exactly what she seemed to be, either. The pirate vessel had been within its missile range of Gauntlet for well over twenty minutes, during which time Oversteegen had steadfastly declined to cooperate. Instead, he'd continued to "run" deeper into the Shadwell System's gravity well, drawing the other ship steadily farther and farther away from the G5 system's twenty-light-minute hyper limit. Any genuine merchant skipper would have been trying to break that out across the hyper limit, since his only possible hope of outrunning the smaller, handier vessel would have been to escape back into hyper. But the legitimate merchantmen under Oversteegen's escort had crossed the hyper limit a half hour after Gauntlet, and the warship's apparently suicidal course was designed to suck the pirate after her, instead of them, while Lieutenant Stiller, her com officer, did an excellent imitation of a frightened merchant skipper doing his very best to talk himself out of trouble.

    If Gohr had been in command of the pirate, she would either have gone ahead and fired into Gauntlet long since, to show she meant business, or else have broken off entirely on the assumption that only a warship trolling for pirates would deliberately court a missile attack by refusing to comply with instructions. Of course, Gauntlet's EW was undoubtedly better than anything the pirate had ever imagined might exist, which undoubtedly helped to explain how he could be so unwary, but even so...

    "All right, Guns," Captain Oversteegen said finally. "I believe it's time we convinced this gentleman of the error of his ways."

    "Aye, aye, Sir!" Blumenthal said with considerably more enthusiasm, and Oversteegen smiled thinly. But then the captain shook his head.

    "Under the circumstances," he said, "I think this might be an appropriate time for our Assistant Tac Officer t' try her hand at pirate swattin'. We've already established your own bona fides in that regard, I believe."

    "As you say, Sir," Blumenthal allowed only a trace of disappointment to color his tone, and Lieutenant Gohr felt herself sitting suddenly straighter in her own chair as she sensed the captain's eyes on her back.

    "All right, Lieutenant," he said calmly, "I want this fellow discouraged from harassin' legitimate merchant ships. I intend t' give him an opportunity t' surrender. If he declines, however, I want him discouraged as permanently as possible. How would you recommend we accomplish that?"

    "Are we interested in capturing or examining his vessel if he declines, Sir?" she heard herself ask in an equally calm voice.

    "I think not," the captain replied. "It's unlikely the Admiralty would be interested in buyin' her into service, and it's even less likely that we'd learn anythin' useful from her records."

    "In that case, Sir, I recommend we make it short and sweet," she said. "With your permission, I'll set up a double broadside. At this range, and given the crappy hardware he seems to have, that ought to do the trick in a single launch. We may waste a few birds on overkill, but it certainly ought to discourage him as permanently as anyone could ask."

    "Very well, Lieutenant," Oversteegen said. "Set it up and prepare t' launch on my command."

    "Aye, aye, Sir." Gohr's fingers flew as she punched commands into her console. The weight of the captain's eyes urged her to hurry, but she took the time to make sure she did it right. She tapped in the final targeting code, then ran her gaze rapidly over the entire set up. It looked good, she decided, and punched the "commit" key.

    "Firing sequence programmed and locked, Sir," she reported.

    Oversteegen didn't say anything for just a second, and she realized that he was reviewing her commands. There was a brief silence, and then she heard a soft grunt of approval from the captain's chair as he reached the end. It was, she decided, a good thing that she had included not only the enablement of Gauntlet's point defense against the possibility that the pirate might actually get a few missiles of his own away, but also had a dozen follow-up salvos programmed to cover the highly improbable chance that the other ship would survive Gauntlet's opening broadsides.

    "Very good, Lieutenant," Oversteegen approved. "Stand by t' engage as programmed."

    "Standing by, aye, Sir," she confirmed, and the captain glanced at Lieutenant Stiller.

    "Live mike, Com," he said.

    "You're live... now, Sir," Stiller replied, and Oversteegen smiled unpleasantly.

    "Pirate vessel," he said flatly, "this is Captain Michael Oversteegen, of Her Majesty's heavy cruiser Gauntlet. Strike your wedge immediately and surrender, or be destroyed!"

    At such a short range, the communications lag was negligible, and every eye on Gauntlet's bridge watched the tactical display while they awaited the pirate's response. Then, abruptly, the red icon altered course, clawing frantically away from Gauntlet even as it rolled in a feeble effort to interpose its wedge between it and the cruiser.

    "Pirate vessel," Oversteegen's voice was harsh and as unyielding as battle steel, "strike your wedge now. This is the only warnin' you will receive."

    The pirate's only response was to push his acceleration still higher. He must be riding the very brink of compensator failure, Gohr thought, watching her display with a sort of icy detachment. Another twenty heart beats sped into infinity.

    "Lieutenant Gohr," Captain Oversteegen said formally, "open fire."



    "Actually, I think she's working out quite well, Sir," Commander Watson said. Michael Oversteegen leaned back in his chair in his day cabin aboard Gauntlet, his expression an invitation for his executive officer to continue, and Watson smiled.

    "All right, I'll admit it," the dark-haired exec said, with a chuckle which few of Oversteegen's officers would have been comfortable emitting in his presence. "When you first came up with the notion of asking for a 'spook' as an ATO, I thought it was... not one of your best ideas. But Lieutenant Gohr doesn't seem to have forgotten which end of the tube the missile comes out of, after all."

    A bit of an understatement, that, she thought. Of course, that poor shmuck was hardly up to our weight, to begin with, but Gohr was certainly right about how many broadsides it would take to blow him out of space.

    "I'm pleased you approve," Oversteegen murmured, and Watson's startlingly light-blue eyes glinted with amusement. The captain was glad to see it. The exec had been critically wounded at Tiberian, and he'd frankly doubted, at first, that Lieutenant Commander Westman, the ship's surgeon, would be able to save her. Even though Westman had managed to pull that off, it had taken even longer for the Manticoran medical establishment to repair Watson than it had for the Navy to repair Gauntlet. They'd managed it in the end, and they'd actually been able to save the exec's left leg, but Oversteegen had nursed carefully concealed concerns over how well she would actually come back. Watson had been trapped in the wreckage of Gauntlet's auxiliary command deck for over forty-five minutes before the medical and rescue parties could reach her. Forty-five minutes with no anesthetic while she slowly bled to death.

    Oversteegen had expected to see at least some ghosts hiding in her eyes when she returned to duty. God knew an experience like hers would have been more than enough to finish off the combat career of many an officer. But if Linda Watson was haunted by any nightmares or inner terrors, she hid them well—well enough that not even someone like Oversteegen, who had known her literally since the Academy, could see them.

    "I'm sure you are—pleased, I mean," she told him now. "Not that it would have fazed you if I hadn't been."

    "Well, of course it wouldn't have," he agreed. "On the other hand, keepin' the XO happy is always high on the list of any captain with his wits about him. There are so many little ways she can make her displeasure felt if he doesn't, aren't there?"

    "I'm sure I wouldn't know about that," Watson assured him.

    "It's been my observation that Sphinxians, for some reason, aren't very good liars," Oversteegen told her. "Not as sophisticated as we native Manticorans, I suppose. Still, it's somethin' you might want t' work on."

    "I'll bear that in mind," she promised.

    "Good." He gave her the smile which she had always thought it was a pity he was willing to show to so few people, then tossed his head in the mannerism which indicated a mental change of gears on his part.

    "Now that we've disposed of the good lieutenant," he said, "and now that you've had time t' digest our mission brief, what do you think?"

    "I think that, with all due respect, your esteemed relative's Government must have worked long and hard to gather so many idiots into one place," she replied, and Oversteegen barely managed to swallow his laughter. None of his other officers would have dared to express themselves quite so frankly about the High Ridge Government's shortcomings, he thought affectionately. Not even Blumenthal.

    "Should I assume that you're referrin' t' the composition of the current Government's ministers, rather than t' the quality of the personnel assigned t' Gauntlet?" he asked after a brief pause to be sure the laughter remained swallowed.

    "Oh, of course! After all, it was the Admiralty who arranged our peerless crew's roster. The Government never got a real chance to screw that bit up."

    "I see." He regarded her severely. "And just which of my esteemed cousin's ministers provoked that comment?"

    "All of them," she said bluntly. "In this case, however, I'll admit that I was thinking particularly of Descroix and Janacek. She obviously doesn't have the least damned clue of how rickety a handbasket our relations with Erewhon are already in, and Janacek is cheerfully helping her push them the rest of the way to Hell." She shook her head. "Frankly, your cousin is completely tone deaf when it comes to diplomacy, and picking someone like Descroix as Foreign Secretary only made it worse."

    "Scarcely the proper way for a servin' officer t' describe her political superiors," Oversteegen observed dryly, and she snorted.

    "Tell me you approve of our current policy—naval or diplomatic," she challenged, and he shrugged.

    "Of course I do. On the other hand, I believe I just mentioned how much better we native Manticorans are at lyin', didn't I?"



    "Yes, I believe you did," she agreed. Then she leaned forward slightly in her chair, and her expression grew more serious.

    "All kidding aside, Michael," she said, allowing herself to use his given name, since no one else was present to hear it, "we ought to be moving Heaven and Earth to get back onto the Erewhonese's good side, and you know it. We've managed to piss off effectively every other member of the Manticoran Alliance over the last couple of T-years, and Erewhon is probably the only one of them who's madder at us than Grayson is! But does anyone in the Government seem even remotely aware of that? If they were, they'd have sent at least an SD(P) division out here to show the flag—and a little respect—instead of a single heavy cruiser. And they'd have replaced Fraser as Ambassador long before this!"

    "I might point out that Countess Fraser is another of my apparently endless supply of cousins," Oversteegen said.

    "Is she?" Watson grimaced. "Well, I stand by my original opinion. I suppose every family has to have its share of idiots."

    "True. It's just my misfortune that at the moment a majority of my family's idiots appear t' have found their ways into positions of power."

    "Maybe. But to be fair to Descroix, I think she may actually have made a fairly accurate estimate of Fraser's abilities. Which only makes the fact that she's assigned her to Erewhon an even worse indictment of the Government's failure to grasp just how bad the situation out here is. Obviously, Descroix figures this is a sufficiently unimportant slot that she can use it to find makework for a well-connected total incompetent."

    "And Cousin High Ridge agrees with her," Oversteegen acknowledged.

    "What bothers me the most about this entire situation from our own selfish perspective," Watson said, "is the fact that we're going to be expected to back Fraser up as the Star Kingdom's official representative and spokesperson. And, frankly, you aren't going to be in as strong a position to... help shape her policy as someone with flag rank would. Which means that we're likely to find ourselves with no choice but to help her make things worse if—or when—something goes wrong. And you know as well as I do, that something always goes wrong. And that the Foreign Office always blames the Navy when it does."

    "Accordin' t' Admiral Draskovic, I'm the senior officer in Erewhon," Oversteegen pointed out. "And accordin' t' regulations, the SO is required t' coordinate with Her Majesty's ambassador. Doesn't say anythin' about whether or not the SO in question is an admiral of the green or an ensign."

    "Oh, that will make things ever so much better!" Watson snorted again, harder. "I know you, Michael Oversteegen. The only thing I haven't figured out is how in the universe Janacek and the Prime Minister have failed to realize just how stupid you think their policies are."

    "I must have forgotten somehow t' send them the memo," Oversteegen said. "Although, t' be totally honest, Linda, I don't have any fundamental quarrel with their basic domestic objective."

    She looked at him with something like incredulity, and he shook his head.

    "I said their basic domestic objective. Which, boiled down t' the bare bones is t' preserve the House of Lords' current constitutional position. In that respect, I am a Conservative, after all." He grinned at her expression, then sobered. "It's the way they're tryin' t' accomplish that objective that I disagree with. Well, that and the outright graft and corruption they're willing t' accept or even encourage along the way. However important preservin' the existin' constitutional balance of power may be, the Government's overridin' responsibility—both morally and pragmatically speakin'—has t' be t' preserve the entire Star Kingdom and its citizens, first. And I'd like t' think that we could do the job with a modicum of integrity, as well."

    Watson regarded him across his desk for a few seconds. She'd always known that, despite all of his sophistication and deliberately affected world-weary cynicism, there was more than a trace of a romantic idealist hiding inside Michael Oversteegen. She knew how intensely irritating his mannerisms could be—they'd irritated her, often enough, and she knew him far better than most ever would—yet behind them was a man who truly believed that the privileges of aristocratic power carried with them responsibility. It was that belief which had sent him into the Queen's uniform so many years before, and somehow it still survived, despite his proximity by birth and blood to powermongers like High Ridge. And someday, she feared, despite that same proximity, his belief that duty overrode self-preservation and responsibility overrode pragmatism would destroy his career.

    Well, if it does, I could be in worse company, she thought.

    "I'm not too sure that 'integrity' is a word I'd associate with Countess Fraser," she said aloud. "Which brings me back to your original question about our mission brief. I think this has the potential to be a very rocky deployment—from a lot of perspectives. To be honest, though, I don't see much we can do to prepare for any potential diplomatic furor. So I suppose we should be concentrating on more pragmatic problems."

    "Agreed. Obviously, our primary mission is goin' t' be t' show the flag, but as part of that, I'll want us t' do all we can t' repair our relationship with the Erewhonese navy. Or t' minimize additional damage, at least. Since Gauntlet seems t' enjoy a certain reputation as a result of our endeavors at Tiberian, let's plan on takin' advantage of that. I want a full round of port visits and mess invitations laid on. And I want all of our people—enlisted, as well as commissioned—t' be well aware that I will... take it amiss if they should happen t' do anythin' t' exacerbate the situation."

    "Oh, I think I can take care of that, Sir," Watson assured him.

    "My confidence in you is boundless. In addition, however, let's not forget that Gauntlet is a Queen's ship. We may be the only Manticoran vessel in Erewhonese space, but that makes it more likely, not less, that when something finally goes wrong, we're goin' t' find ourselves in it, right up t' our necks. So I want t' continue our drill schedule as we'd previously discussed. But I'd also like t' add a bit more emphasis on less conventional operations. In particular, I think we need t' be thinkin' in terms of the police function."

    "Of course, Sir," Watson said when he paused, but she was a bit puzzled. Obviously they needed to concern themselves with the police function—that was the entire reason they were here in what was ostensibly, at least, peacetime.

    "I mean," he clarified, "that I want Major Hill t' be thinkin' in terms of more than routine customs boardin' details. And," his eyes sharpened, "I particularly want us t' develop our own contacts—on every level possible—instead of relyin' solely on the intelligence input of our Embassy. Whatever ONI may think, there's somethin' very peculiar goin' on out here, Linda. It may be that swattin' those 'pirate cruisers' put an end t' it, but somehow, I don't think so. And, like you, I don't have the most lively respect in the universe for Countess Fraser or the sorts of intelligence appreciations someone like her is likely t' be encouragin' her people t' put together."

    "I see," she said, and nodded. "I'll sit down with Hill to discuss that ASAP. And I'll see if I can't involve Lieutenant Gohr in the conversation, as well."

    "Good, Linda. I knew I could rely on you," he murmured.

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