Authors: Eric Thomson
She looked around for an intercom unit. Rownes helpfully pointed one out, relieved that the summons had cut the discussion short.
"Bridge, Dunmoore here."
Pushkin's face appeared, a grim smile transforming his tight features.
"We've got contact on long-range scanner, sir, deep in occupied space, heading for Cimmeria at low velocity."
"A convoy?" Siobhan felt her anger melt away, replaced by the excitement of the hunt.
"I'd say so, sir. The Gunner makes it eight ships in close formation."
"Hot-damn," Dunmoore hit the bulkhead with her gloved fist. "Keep it on scanner but don't move any closer. If they're at our outer range, we're beyond their range, so they don't know we're here yet. I want to keep it that way for now. I'll be on the bridge in a few minutes. Dunmoore, out."
She grinned at Rownes. "Looks like you'll get to shoot off your guns for real pretty soon, Spacer."
"Aye, sir. 'Bout what I said earlier..." Banger didn't smile back.
"It'll remain between us," Siobhan nodded, understanding the woman's caution.
"Thanks, sir, but that's not what I meant. Just be careful when you ask questions. Forenza still has a few ass-kissers on board, people who'll rat on you if you start getting too close to the truth. And not all of 'em are simple suck-ups either."
Siobhan remembered Kowalski's warning. "Oh, you mean SSB agents?" She asked nonchalantly.
"Aye, sir," Rownes looked at her with a faint air of wonder. "We got warned that the spooks are keeping a special eye on this ship, and that they're friendly with Admiral Kaleri, like you saw with that smuggler a few days ago. In fact, Cap'n Forenza made sure word got around that the SSB will watch for us to remain real quiet. Especially about 'accidents' in cargo holds. Can't trust all of us, sir."
"Thanks for the fair warning, Rownes."
She shrugged. "Ain't nothing, sir. You're a good Cap'n, and you deserve better'n what we gave so far. Don't worry, that Imperial convoy's as good as destroyed. You just get my guns close enough."
Surprising herself, Siobhan reached out and grasped Rownes' armoured shoulder. "I guess I'd better get to the bridge and bring this ship within range then, eh?"
With a quick wink at the gunners, she turned and slid down the ladder, her mind already pushing away Banger Rownes' revelations to concentrate on the coming chase. She'd get one chance to maul the convoy. After that, every Shrehari in the area would be on her trail. Maybe even Brakal, if he was still around.
Back in the turret, Demianova eyed her friend in silence for a long time. Rownes stared sightlessly at the deck while she thought hard about what she'd done.
"Tell me, Banger," Demmi finally asked, "was this wise of you to speak? Never has Captain Forenza lied when she threatened."
Rownes shrugged. "Dunno, kid. I figure the shit has to come out some day. Maybe I'm crazy but I don't feel like running scared for the rest of my hitch. You know, I actually feel better now that I told some to Cap'n Dunmoore. She's a good skipper, has her heart and her guts all in the right place, and she hates Forenza like we do. If anyone's gonna break the curse, I guess she's the best bet."
"And what about the 'accident', Banger? More like it can happen."
"If I'm right, our Captain is gonna keep going until she finds out everything, and then, the SSB and Forenza and the rest of the scum, watch-out."
"Because that's one hell of a dangerous lady when she's pissed-off, Demmi. You look at her eyes sometimes and you'll see." Rownes chuckled. "Wait 'til the convoy feels our bite. Then you'll see just what kind of Captain we got."
Demmi shivered. "I hope to God you are right, Banger."
Word of contact with an Imperial convoy had spread through the ship like wildfire. It was the first time in a long time that the
was actually preparing to pursue the enemy with the intention of destroying him. For many among the crew, it was a novel feeling, the thrill of the hunt. Older hands knew that stalking a convoy meant more than a sudden bout of excitement and blazing cannons. It meant long periods of tense boredom while the Captain manoeuvred into position, waiting for the best moment to strike. That deep in enemy territory, they would get only one chance, and they had to make it count. But they felt the thrill nonetheless.
"Report," Dunmoore ordered as she strode onto the bridge, her hand forestalling Pushkin's call to attention. With the enemy in sight, she wasn't about to waste time on formalities. Pushkin rose from the command chair and stepped aside. He nodded at the tactical display on the main screen.
"The convoy is travelling FTL again, presumably after calibrating the drives and taking a navigational fix. There's no chance they'll detect us. We made out five transports of various types and two warships, probably light cruisers or heavy corvettes." His face was as sombre as usual, but there was no mistaking the gleam in his eyes. Pushkin wanted this as much as the rest of the crew, a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his Captain, and in his own eyes. Whoever said there were no bad sailors, only bad captains, had it right on the money.
Siobhan sat down, gnawing at her lower lip.
Remember, the Shreharis are predictable, when you understand why
. "Where's the third escort?"
"Sir?" Pushkin seemed surprised at the question.
"The Shreharis work with a fixed set of tactical doctrines. Initiative below the level of assault force commander is discouraged. Imperial doctrine on convoys specify three escorts: one in the lead, and two covering the transports from above and below, aft of the last ship, so they can bear down on any raider. It's an efficient tactic for the level of resources normally assigned to escort duty."
And would be more efficient if their captains were allowed to show anything like our level of initiative.
"With two escorts, the pattern is open."
But not that much more vulnerable to a single raider, remember that.
She stared at the tactical. "Replay the time before they went FTL."
"Sir." Devall nodded. The tactical display changed to show a series of wedge-shaped red outlines in formation, moving slowly against the simulated background. An ever changing set of numbers below told off the distance from the
, the course of the convoy and its speed.
"Huh," Siobhan grunted, her gloved hand absently tracing the scar on her jaw line. "See, Mister Pushkin. One escort ahead, one off-side and slightly aft of the transports. Where's the other one? Mister Devall, can you determine the relative attitude of the Shreharis?"
"One moment, please, sir." Then, "This is speculative only. Our range is too great, but readings seem to indicate we're seeing them from above."
"That explains it then. The other escort is beneath the convoy, just out of range of our sensors."
"Are you sure, sir?" Pushkin sounded dubious.
"Unless the convoy commander is someone like Brakal, that's what it'll be. It's the Shreharis' greatest weakness. Their predictability."
For now at least. If Brakal's way of doing business is spreading within the Deep Space Fleet, we're in trouble.
"You'd think after five years they'd have learned something," Guthren grumbled from his helm seat.
"Some have, Cox'n. But the Imperial Council is wary of anything that weakens its control over the Emperor's Armed Forces. Imaginative ship captains are seen as a threat and threats to the Council usually find themselves victims of the
, the Imperial secret police. Under those circumstances, it's little wonder most Imperial officers stick to orthodoxy."
A syndrome not unknown within the Commonwealth Navy, as I should be intimately acquainted with, having been slapped down a few times for acting like the anti-thesis of set-piece doctrinal thinking. Or was that the anti-Christ to doctrinal thinking? Persiflage, my dear Siobhan, persiflage.
"Thankfully for us. But then there's always the mavericks who live under some kind of social or political protection.
Pushkin stared at her, quizzically. Siobhan smiled and winked.
"Know thine enemy, Mister Pushkin, and use his weaknesses against him. Sailing Master, plot a micro-jump to a position ten light-seconds this side of their jump point. Mister Devall, the moment we emerge, plot the convoy's course and feed it to Navigation. As they teach at the Academy, to start an FTL stern chase, begin by aiming your ship precisely at the enemy's stern."
After weeks of exhaustion and frustration, Siobhan suddenly felt very pleased with the situation, relaxed and confident. She enjoyed the challenge of a successful battle run more than she remembered, and it energized her like a drug.
If I was a hunting dog, I swear I'd be quivering. Then again, I've been cursed for a bitch lately...
She grinned at the thought.
But her quicksilver energy spread over the bridge like a visible aura. The atmosphere changed palpably as the crew carried out her orders efficiently, smiling and enjoying a feeling they hadn't experienced for a long time. Even the normally sardonic Kowalski wore a look of pure anticipation on her youthful face.
"Why ten light-seconds off their jump point, Captain?" Pushkin asked, genuinely curious. "It would be easier if we started the chase
the jump point."
"It would. But if one of the Empire's few lone wolves is shadowing the convoy, he'll be hoping for some foolhardy frigate to appear in his gun sights, and thus he'll be watching the jump point. As we are not a foolhardy frigate," she grinned, "we will emerge far enough from it to have space room in case an enemy cruiser is waiting, and still be able to follow the convoy's course with only one subsequent course correction."
Pushkin nodded, impressed at Siobhan's sharp thinking, and simultaneously disgusted at his own atrophied tactical senses. Two years under a cowardly captain had done much to quash what he'd learned at the Academy and from serving under other commanders. He could do a lot worse than listen, watch and learn from Siobhan Dunmoore. She clearly was in her element and knew exactly what she was doing. It comforted Pushkin, but worried him too, for she also had the wild streak of a gambler and he did not have her confidence in the crew's ability to respond with split-second precision.
"Course laid in and ready, sir," Shara's nasal voice announced.
"Helm, stand-by. Mister Pushkin, the hunt is on. Take the ship to general quarters."
"Aye, aye, sir. Mister Kowalski, sound general quarters."
Almost immediately, the screech of the siren filled the frigate with its grating sound.
"Mister Pushkin," Siobhan sat back in her chair and crossed her legs, the perfect image of nonchalance, "kill the transponder and turn all running and navigation lights off."
Pushkin cocked an eyebrow in question. Whether the
's lights and transponder were on or off would have no bearing on the enemy's ability to detect them. They did not intend to go to silent running, and the frigate's FTL bubble gave off a strong enough trace to act as a space beacon for any decently sensitive detection gear. Then, the First Officer noticed the reaction of the bridge crew to Siobhan's words. He slowly nodded and gave the order, wondering how she managed to gauge the crew's mood so accurately.
Siobhan however, felt slighty cheap for a few heartbeats. It was sheer manipulation, a play on the crew's perceptions. But Adnan had taught her to use everything she could to make her people fight better, by getting them to believe in themselves and their ship. It was irrational, but shutting off the lights made them feel the frigate had become dark and menacing like a deep space shark, or a submarine in ancient wet navy days.
She shrugged off the feeling and grinned at Pushkin. It was meant to be reassuring, but it merely reinforced his ambivalent fear that she could easily take the
to its doom. Or to a victory that would wipe the shame away.
Then, she squared herself in the chair. "Helm, engage."
Nausea gripped Siobhan, as it gripped the others, only to vanish a second or so later.
The FTL jump lasted just long enough to let the crew come to full battle stations. By the time the wrenching emergence nausea dissipated, the temporarily disoriented humans and computers were ready to fight off any lurking Imperial raider. Though the precaution was sound, it turned out to have been wasted. There was no lurking Imperial cruiser.
The one time you get slack and don't take every precaution, whammo!
"Guns, put the convoy on tactical."
The Shreharis were ahead of the
, their signatures already fading as they sped away. The convoy icons merged on the screen, flickering as they moved beyond range. But two other icons stood alone on either side of the transports, still within sensor range.
"There, Mister Pushkin, the third escort. It was indeed too distant for our instrumentation when we first sighted them. That's good. It means we're dealing with a conventional Shrehari commander, as I hoped."
Except that you should always expect the unexpected, Siobhan old dear. It prevents nasty surprises like Brakal. As you found out on the poor Victoria Regina.
"Mister Shara, plot a half light-year jump to intersect their axis of travel. That ought to put us within stalking range by the time we re-emerge. From there, we can close in at FTL and use their drives' wake to mask our approach."
Moments later, "Course plotted and laid in, sir."
Again, they felt the jump sickness hit and vanish. But this time, the wait until emergence would stretch to hours, not minutes. A stern chase was a long chase. The scanners lost all trace of the convoy, their range in the hyper space bubble severely limited. Nor could they detect a vessel moving in normal space unless it was very close. For all practical purposes, the
was blind and deaf, while any enemy travelling in normal space nearby could track her and plan her death. It was an uncomfortable thought, this deep within Shrehari-controlled space, something one didn't dwell on. Solitary ship missions always have a sharper edge of risk and higher levels of paranoia. The only alternative to compulsive nail-biting was keeping busy.
"Mister Devall," she turned to the Gunnery Officer, "how good are your people at torpedo sniping?"
"Fair, sir. I put them through about three hundred simulations over the last week and I estimate they could force a ship into normal space within three shots. But we would have to be extremely lucky to cause any damage."
Which was what one could say about any average ship's torpedo gunners. A few captains pushed torpedo sniping to a fine art, but Siobhan had always believed them to be only a means to bring an enemy ship back into normal space, where she could use her guns and missiles to beat it into submission. But at three torpedoes a ship, she would burn up her stocks in no time. And the tender wasn't due for another two weeks. The thought reminded her of the many unanswered questions still hanging over them. Irritably, she pushed them back into a conveniently dark corner of her mind.
Siobhan suddenly realized she was a lot more nervous than she cared to admit. It would be her first solo fight from start to finish since she lost the
. And back then, she had Ezekiel Holt and a familiar, happy and well-trained crew to back her. Repressing a yawn, one of those sure signs of nervousness, she rose and casually adjusted her battledress tunic, feeling like an actress in a play. A very deadly play.
"I'll be in my ready room, Mister Pushkin." Siobhan kept her tone light, unconcerned, as if this was an everyday cruise. "Unfortunately, paperwork will not outwait the war. If only someone found a practical way to strangle the Empire with all our red tape. Call me when we're ready to start the chase in earnest." She made it sound as if their initial moves were routine, not really part of the hunt. Pushkin shot her another speculative look.
"Aye, aye, sir. Captain off the bridge."
When the door closed behind her, Siobhan exhaled slowly, conscious of the curious glances that had followed here. The kind that wondered how the skipper could be so bloody cool and crack jokes when they were bearing down on a sure fight. She shook her head ruefully. Command was more often in the realm of the actor than anyone cared to admit. That was probably why they called it the
With a sigh, she dropped into the chair and switched on her terminal, calling up a list of the red tape rituals she had to perform to keep the tin gods at HQ happy. And this was before the battle. Siobhan didn't even want to think of the paperwork waiting for her after the battle. If they made it that far.
The sleek, dark shape of the Imperial cruiser
cut through hyper space on a shallow approach to the Cimmeria sector. It would not do to cross the invisible barrier between conquered space and the Commonwealth against orders. At least not yet, not while a
officer watched. It would not do to make Trage's life too easy.