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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 9, 2004 21:26 EDT



    Ragnhild Pavletic and Aikawa Kagiyama floated across the crystal vacuum towards Bogey Three. This far from Nuncio-B, they might as well have been in the depths of interstellar space. The system primary was no help at all when it came to making out details of the freighter’s damage, and Aikawa wished at least one of the pinnaces had remained close enough to lend the assistance of its powerful lights. But Lieutenant Hearns had been adamant about withdrawing both of them to a safe distance.

    Probably another reason I wish they were close enough, he thought wryly. I don’t like the notion of their needing a safety perimeter.

    Lieutenant Hearns hadn’t specified what she was leaving a safe distance against, but it didn’t take a hyper-physicist to figure it out. The Dromedary was unarmed, and it sure as hell couldn’t hope to ram something as small and agile as a pinnace, even if it had possessed a functioning impeller wedge. But it did have a fusion plant, and that plant was still active, according to the ship’s emissions signature. And if someone put his mind to it, he’d had time to get around the safety interlocks if he’d really wanted to.

    Not a comforting thought, he reflected, and looked at Ragnhild.

    Her face was visible in the backwash of her helmet’s heads-up display just as his must be, and she seemed to feel his glance. She turned her head and looked back at him, and her tight smile looked as anxious as he felt. Both of them knew they’d been included in the boarding party solely as part of their training. Lieutenant Hearns had even had to leave Hotel-Papa-Two in the hands of the flight engineer in order to bring Ragnhild along, and she’d never have done that unless she’d wanted the midshipwoman here for a specific purpose. Which could not have anything to do with the lengthy experience in this sort of operation neither of the snotties had.

    Aikawa wanted to say something to Ragnhild -- whether to encourage her or seek encouragement he couldn’t have said. But he kept his mouth shut and only flipped his head in the skinsuited equivalent of a shrug. She nodded back, and they returned their attention to the task at hand, trailing along behind Lieutenant Hearns, Lieutenant Gutierrez, Lieutenant Mann, and the battle armored Marines.

    It took another fifteen minutes to complete the crossing. Most of Bogey Three’s running lights were out, but it was unlikely that was because of battle damage. But far more probably, the prize crew had never bothered to turn them on. Why should they, way out here, hiding? But Aikawa wished they had. The freighter’s enormous, unlit bulk was an ill-defined mass, like a fog-shrouded mountain, “visible” only by extrapolation from the starscape its looming bulk blocked. The lack of lights deprived him of any reference points and left him feeling uncomfortably like an ant cowering under a descending boot heel.

    Judging from the crisp comments and commands flowing back and forth between Lieutenant Mann and his Marines, they, at least, were unaffected by Aikawa’s forebodings. They moved briskly, the brilliant circles of illumination from their battle armor’s powerful lamps carving slices of solidity out of stygian blackness as they danced across hull plating. They didn’t really need lights, given their armor’s powerful built-in imaging systems and sensors, Aikawa knew. Were they using the lamps to help out the hapless Navy types less liberally equipped to see in total blackness? Or were they possibly a bit more oppressed by the darkness than their crisp, matter-of-fact voices suggested?

    He rather hoped it was the latter, he discovered.

    It took another half-hour to locate a maintenance lock. The lock’s outer hatch opened readily enough to the standard emergency code on the keypad, and it was large enough to admit their entire party with only a little crowding. Aikawa was delighted to cram into it, since he had a pretty shrewd notion of which two members’ junior status would have had them bringing up the rear if it had been necessary to lock through in two waves.

    The inner hatch opened into a cavernous equipment bay. The egg-like shapes of four one-man heavy maintenance hardsuits were neatly racked along one bulkhead, and bright overhead lights shone on workbenches, racked tools, and bins of electronic components and repair parts. It wasn’t as spotless as the same machine shop would have been aboard Hexapuma, but the equipment was obviously well maintained and organized.

    The Marines moved out, armor sensors and old-fashioned eyeballs probing carefully. Aikawa had never really appreciated just how many potential human-sized hiding places there were aboard a starship. It wasn’t exactly an environment which encouraged designers to leave lots of wasted space, but there were still plenty of nooks and crannies big enough to conceal a person. Or even two or three of them at once. Not that anyone but an idiot would suddenly fling himself from ambush to attack an entire squad of battle armored Marines.

    Of course, the fact he was an idiot wouldn’t be very much comfort to those of us who aren’t in battle armor. I’m sure Mann would see to it whoever it was came down with a serious case of dead, of course… not that that would be all that much comfort either, now I think about it.

    Lieutenant Hearns had downloaded an inboard schematic of the standard Dromedary design to her memo board, and she consulted it as the point Marines led the way from the machine shop/equipment bay. Gutierrez loomed at her right shoulder, carrying a flechette gun to supplement his usual sidearm, and Mann followed at her left, where he could see the memo pad display. They turned to starboard -- up-ship -- and Lance Corporal McCollom detailed two Marines to bring up the rear and watch their backs. Aikawa thought that was an excellent idea.

    They’d traveled about fifty meters and passed through one open set of blast doors when they found the first bodies.

    “What do you think, Lieutenant?”

    Aikawa was struck by how calm Lieutenant Hearns sounded as she stood looking down at the mangled bodies in the enormous puddle of congealing blood. He was glad he had his helmet on, and he tried to not even imagine the stink of blood and ruptured internal organs which must fill the passageway.

    “More than one weapon, Ma’am.” The Marine went down on one armored knee, his tone almost clinical, and examined one of the bodies closely while McCollum’s squad spread out, pulse rifles and tribarrels ready. “What do you think, Sarge? Flechette guns from up-passage?”

    “From the spray patterns, I’d say so, yeah, Skipper,” Sergeant Crites replied. He turned, looking down a side passage to the right. “Somebody with a pulse rifle down that way, looks like.”

    “And it wasn’t all one-sided, either,” Mann said.

    “No, Sir. Whoever had the flechettes took out these two,” Crites indicated the two worst mangled bodies, wearing what looked like standard coveralls, although it was hard to be certain after the knife-edged flechettes finished. “Looks like they’d probably just come out of the side passage when they got hit. But the boy with the pulse rifle was behind them, and he’s the one who got this fellow.”

    The sergeant prodded the third body with a toe. It wore a gray uniform blouse and black trousers, and Aikawa frowned. There was something about…

    “State Security.” Mann made the two words sound like an obscenity.

    “Are you sure?” Lieutenant Hearns asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of an SS officer without a tunic.”

    “I’m sure,” Mann said. “I recognize the collar insignia. And the belt buckle.” He straightened. “I’d hoped we were at least through with these motherless bastards. Pardon, Ma’am.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” the Lieutenant said dryly. “I’ve been out of the nest for a while now, Lieutenant. And the terminology’s certainly appropriate in this instance.” Then she sighed. “This doesn’t look good.”

    “No, it doesn’t,” Mann agreed.

    Gutierrez looked as if he wanted to say something a bit stronger than that, but he kept his mouth shut. No doubt his armsman’s responsibility to keep the Lieutenant out of harm’s way was clashing with his recognition that running risks was part of a naval officer’s job description. His own Marine background probably helped him keep it in perspective. Well, that and the fact that he knew the Lieutenant would rip his head off if he tried to stop her.

    “Kinda have to wonder whether these two,” Sergeant Crites indicated the coveralled bodies, “were from the original crew, or if there was a falling out amongst the prize crew the Peeps put aboard?”

    “I don’t know,” Lieutenant Hearns said grimly. “But I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”




    It took the better part of three more hours to sweep the ship. Even then, they’d actually examined only a tiny portion of the freighter’s interior. A battalion of Marines could have been hidden in the enormous cargo holds, but it became steadily more apparent as they went along that there couldn’t be very many -- if any -- live enemies left aboard. At least one of the freighter’s cargo shuttles was missing, and it was possible the survivors of the on-board massacre had escaped in it while the pinnaces were too far away to see him. They could have gotten away with that if they’d launched on thrusters rather than bring up their wedge, and even at a low initial acceleration, they could be anywhere in an enormous volume of space by now. But if any survivors had bailed out that way, there couldn’t have been many of them.

    The bodies were scattered about, some singly, some -- like the first ones they’d discovered -- in small clumps and groups. Most of the dead had been killed with flechette guns, but about a quarter had been killed by the higher-powered darts of military-grade pulse rifles. At least one appeared to have been strangled to death, and three had either been stabbed or had their throats cut, and Abigail Hearns found it difficult to imagine what it must have been like. What had possessed these people? What sort of insanity had led them to spend the last two hours of their lives hunting one another down and killing each other? Her orders from Captain Terekhov had prohibited her from identifying herself to them, at least until Bogey One and Bogey Two had been dealt with, as part of the effort to prevent them from warning their armed consorts there was a Manticoran warship in the system. But they had to have had enough sensor capability to realize what had happened and that the pinnaces and LACs which had inflicted the damage would be back to take them into custody. So why hadn’t they simply waited?

    The answer was waiting when they finally got to the ship’s engineering spaces.

    “Hold it up, Sir,” Coporal McCollom said. “Alverson’s outside the power room, and he says the hatch is locked. From the inside, it looks like, but he hasn’t tried to force it yet.”

    “Everybody, hold where you are,” Mann ordered. Then he looked at Abigail. “How do you want to handle this, Lieutenant?”

    “Well,” Abigail said, her thoughts racing ahead of the words, “if whoever is inside was inclined to suicide, she’s already had plenty of time to blow herself up. Unless, of course,” she smiled without humor, “whoever it is is deliberately waiting until she’s positive at least some of our people are on board.”

    “Sounds unlikely,” Mann said. “On the other hand, people do unlikely things. And anyone far enough gone to still be wearing StateSec uniform’s probably a little less stable than most to begin with.”

    “‘Less stable.’” Abigail surprised herself with a harsh chuckle. “Lieutenant, anybody that far gone is so far around the bend she can’t even see it in her rear view mirror!”

    “We Marines are just naturally gifted with a talent for concise summations,” Mann said modestly. “Besides, I’ve been taking law school courses by e-mail. Still, I’d say it’s more likely whoever locked himself inside was trying to keep someone else from blowing the ship.”

    Abigail nodded and glanced at the two midshipmen standing beside her and trying to look as if they weren’t eavesdropping. Not that there was any reason they shouldn’t be. They were both doing their best to look calm, and they were doing a pretty fair job, actually. Aside from a certain tightness in Ragnhild’s shoulders and the fact that the fingers of Aikawa’s right hand were drumming lightly on his holstered pulser, there was very little to give away their tension. She supposed she could have left both of them aboard the pinnaces; it wasn’t exactly as if she’d had a pressing need for junior officers. But leaving future officers wrapped up in tissue paper didn’t do anyone any favors.

    “Recommendations, Ms. Pavletic? Mr. Kagiyama?” Both middies twitched as if she’d poked them, then they looked once -- quickly -- at each other before they turned to face her.

    “I think Lieutenant Mann’s probably right, Ma’am,” Ragnhild said. “Like you say, if somebody wanted to kill herself and blow the ship, she’s had plenty of time. But if somebody else wanted to blow it, and I objected, I’d probably try to keep them out of the main reactor compartment, too.”

    “I agree, Ma’am,” Aikawa said. “And if that’s the case, whoever’s in there’s probably nervous as a ’cat with a hexapuma at the base of his tree. I’d recommend approaching him a little carefully.”

    “That seems like sound advice,” Abigail said gravely, watching Mateo’s face as he towered over the midshipmen from behind and tried not to smile. No doubt, she thought, he was remembering someone else’s snotty cruise.

    She gazed back at him for a second, then squared her shoulders, walked briskly across to the bulkhead communications panel just beside the fusion room hatch, and pressed the call key.

    Nothing happened for several seconds, and she pressed again. Two or three more seconds oozed past. Then --


    The single word was harsh, hard-edged and grating with hostility and yet washed out with exhaustion.

    “I am Lieutenant Abigail Hearns, of Her Majesty’s Starship Hexapuma.” This wasn’t the moment to complicate things by trying to explain what a Grayson was doing so far from home. “We’ve taken possession of the ship. I think it’s probably time you came out of there.”

    The intercom was totally silent for perhaps three heartbeats. Then it rattled back to life.

    “What did you say? Who did you say you were?!”

    “Lieutenant Hearns, of the Hexapuma,” she repeated. “Our ship’s captured the heavy cruiser -- the Anhur, I believe -- and destroyed the destroyer, and so far, my boarding party hasn’t found anyone alive out here. I think it’s time you came out,” she said again, firmly.


    The voice was still harsh, but there was life in it now, incredulity and a desperate need to hope confronted by the fear of yet another trap. Abigail tried -- and failed -- to imagine what that voice’s owner must have been through, and her failure gave her patience.

    “Activate your visual pickup,” the voice said after a moment.

    The bulkhead com was a simple, bare-bones unit. It could be set for voice-only or for voice with two-way visual, but not for visual only one way. Apparently the delay had been to give the man inside the fusion room time to cover his pickup, because Abigail’s end showed only a featureless blur. She stood calmly, facing her own pickup, then stepped back far enough to be sure that it could see her Navy skinsuit.

    “Take off your helmet, please,” the voice said, and she complied. There was silence, and then the voice said, “We’re coming out.”

    Mann made a quick hand gesture, and three of McCollum’s Marines stepped to one side, covering the hatch with pulse rifles. Mateo Gutierrez had followed Abigail to the com. Now he simply brought his flechette gun to a muzzle-down readiness position, ready to snap it up and fire with snake-like quickness if it was needed. Scarcely had he and the Marines settled into position when the hatch moved smoothly aside.

    A dark-haired man, perhaps a hundred and eighty centimeters tall, stood in the opening. His eyes widened, and his empty hands moved further away from his sides, as he saw the three Marines behind the pulse rifles trained upon him.

    “Lieutenant Josh Baranyai,” he said quickly. “Third officer of the Emerald Dawn.”

    “Lieutenant Hearns,” Abigail said, and he turned his eyes away from the pulse rifles almost convulsively. She smiled as reassuringly as she could. “Are you alone, Lieutenant Baranyai?”

    “No.” He paused and cleared his throat. “No, Lieutenant. There are eleven of us.”

    “Can you tell us what happened out here?” she asked, waving one hand to indicate rest of the corpse-littered vessel.

    “Not for certain.” Baranyai looked back at the Marines, then at Abigail again.

    “Step forward out of the hatch, please,” Abigail said. “I don’t wish to appear discourteous, but until we know exactly what happened and sort out exactly who’s who, we’re going to have to proceed cautiously. Which, I’m afraid, means all of you will have to be searched for weapons. I hope you’ll forgive any necessary discourtesy.”



    Baranyai laughed. The sound was just a little on the hysterical side, but it carried a surprising amount of genuine amusement, as well.

    “Lieutenant Hearns, after the last couple of months, I can’t think of anything we wouldn’t be prepared to forgive if we get out of this alive!”

    He stepped fully out into the passageway, still holding his arms well out to either side, and stood patiently as one of McCollum’s skinsuited Marines quickly searched him.

    “Clear, Ma’am,” she said to Abigail when she was finished, and Abigail beckoned for Baranyai to join her (and the silently hovering Gutierrez) as the next person -- this one female -- emerged hesitantly from the fusion room.

    “Now, Lieutenant Baranyai,. What can you tell me?”

    “They took us about two, two and a half months back,” he said, scrubbing his mouth with the back of his hand and blinking rapidly. Then he shook himself and drew a deep breath.

    “They took us two and a half months back,” he repeated more calmly. “Jumped us just short of the hyper limit leaving New Tuscany. We were a half-hour shy of translation when they matched vectors with us. Came out of nowhere, as far as we could tell.” He shrugged. “I figure they probably came in under stealth, but the Company never has spent a credit more on sensors than it had to. They could have come thundering up firing flares, and we wouldn’t’ve seen them!

    “The first thing Captain Bacon knew, they were right there, and they told him that if he tried to use the com, they’d blow us out of space.” Baranyai shrugged again. “With a heavy cruiser’s broadside aimed right at him, he didn’t have much choice. So they came aboard.”

    The Solarian merchant officer crossed his arms in front of him, rubbing his palms up and down his forearms as if he were cold.

    “They were lunatics,” he said flatly. “Most of them, we found out later, were ‘security troops’ for the previous regime out in the People’s Republic of Haven. Apparently they actually crewed entire starships with ‘security’ personnel to keep an eye on their regular navy units!”

    He looked at Abigail as if, even now, he found that difficult to believe, and she nodded.

    “Yes, they did. We’ve had… quite a bit of experience with them ourselves. The previous Havenite regime wasn’t noted for moderation.”

    “I’ll take your word for it,” Baranyai said. “I might not have, once, but I will now, for damned sure. Somehow the ’faxes don’t seem to’ve reported the full story on the People’s Republic. Nothing I ever saw said anything about homicidal maniacs being put in charge of the asylum!”

    “Not all Havenites are maniacs. We aren’t too fond of them, of course, but honesty compels me to admit that the present regime genuinely seems to have done everything it can to expose and eradicate the excesses of its predecessors.” It came out sounding more stilted then Abigail had intended, but it was nothing less than the truth.

    “I can believe that, too, from the way these people carried on,” Baranyai said. “Their commander -- ‘Citizen Commodore Clignet,’ he called himself -- could rant and rave for a half-hour at a time, and at the drop of the hat, about the ‘recidivists’ and ‘class traitors’ and ‘enemies of the Revolution’ and ‘betrayers of the People’ who’d conspired to overthrow the legitimate government of the People’s Republic and murder somebody called Saint-Just.”

    Abigail nodded again, and Baranyai looked at her helplessly.

    “I thought the Havenite head of state was named Pierre,” he protested.

    “He was. Saint-Just replaced him after he died in a coup attempt.”

    “If you say so.”

    Baranyai shook his head, and Abigail found herself smothering a smile at the way the Solly’s confusion put the all-consuming importance of the war against Haven and the reasons for it into brutal perspective from a Solarian viewpoint.

    “Anyway,” the merchant spacer continued, “Clignet apparently sees himself as point man for the counterattack to ‘save the Revolution.’ He isn’t just a common, garden variety, scum of the universe pirate, in his own eyes, at least. And he’s real big on maintaining ‘revolutionary discipline.’” Baranyai shivered again. “As nearly as I can tell, that’s just an excuse to indulge in torture. Anybody -- and I mean anybody -- who steps out of line, discharges his duties inadequately, or just pisses Clignet and his toadies off is lucky if he gets off alive. Most of them’re lucky if they manage to kill themselves before Clignet’s enforcers get their hands on them. And our people caught it just as badly as his did. Apparently, the way he sees it, you’re either entirely on his side or entirely on the other side, in which case you deserve anything he can think up to do to you.

    “Captain Bacon lasted about two weeks,” the lieutenant said bleakly, “and it took him about three days to die. Sophia Abercrombie, our second engineer, went a week later. But we weren’t the only ones. Actually, I think some of his people were delighted to see us because it gave them the chance to divert him to another target. As nearly as I ever managed to figure it out, Clignet and Daumier and a half dozen other senior officers have been holding things together through a combination of loot, the opportunity for their people to amuse themselves with any prisoners, and an organized reign of terror of their own. We were the bottom rung of the ladder, but anybody who even looked like getting out of step was fair game.

    “I’m still not clear on what happened today,” he went on. “They had us scattered out in working parties, as usual, when someone blew the hell out of Engineering. Was that you people?”

    “I’m afraid so,” Abigail admitted soberly. “I’m sorry if we killed any of your people, Lieutenant. But with only one hyper-capable ship and targets over a half light-hour apart --” She shrugged.

    “I understand.” Baranyai closed his eyes for a moment, his face wrung with pain, but when he opened them again, they met Abigail’s levelly. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I understand. And,” he managed a crooked, infinitely bitter smile, “if you hadn’t done it, we’d probably all’ve been dead in a few months, anyway. Or wishing we were.”

    He inhaled deeply.

    “Anyway. You blew the crap out of the ship. Citizen Lieutenant Eisenhower, the prize master Clignet had assigned to Emerald Dawn, was one of his inner circle. He started screaming at us to put the hyper generator and the after impellers back on-line. But there was no point trying -- they’re dockyard jobs, both of them. His own engineering officer told him the same thing. At which point apparently he ordered his people to blow up the ship and themselves with it.

    “After, of course, killing off the rest of our people so we couldn’t interfere.”

    He fell silent again, staring off at something only he could see. Then he gave himself a shake and his eyes refocused on Abigail.

    “I guess at least a few of his people decided they didn’t want to be martyrs to the Revolution, after all. We sure as hell didn’t have any weapons, but somebody started shooting. I think Steve Demosthenes -- he was our second officer -- was in After Impeller when you hit us. I don’t know. But I grabbed every one of my people I could get my hands on and dragged them down here. I figured they’d play hell trying to blow up the ship with anything short of the fusion plant, whoever won the shooting match, and there was at least a fair chance whoever had shot us up would follow up with a boarding party sooner or later. Either way, this was the only place I could think of to go, and, at least, as a bridge officer, I knew the security override codes so they couldn’t just unlock the hatch from the bridge. And… here we are.”

    He waved both hands in a vague, yet all-inclusive gesture at the ship about them, and Abigail nodded.

    “Yes, you are,” she said quietly. “Lieutenant Baranyai, I wish you and your people hadn’t had to endure everything you’ve been through, and I deeply regret the deaths of your fellow officers and crew. I wish we hadn’t been forced to add to them. But, on behalf of Hexapuma and the Star Kingdom of Manticore, I give you my word all of you will be repatriated to the Solarian League at the earliest possible moment.”

    “At the moment, Lieutenant Hearns,” Baranyai said with simple, heartfelt sincerity, “I can’t think of anything we could want more than that.”

    “Then let’s get my pinnaces in here and lift you people off.”

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