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Chapter Nine

Captain Mark Brentworth surveyed his spacious bridge with intense satisfaction. The heavy cruiser Jason Alvarez, the most powerful ship ever built in the Yeltsin System—at least until the battlecruisers Courvosier and Yanakov were commissioned next month—was the pride of the Fleet. She was also all his, and she'd already won her spurs. The pirates who'd once infested the region were rapidly becoming a thing of the past as local Manticoran units and the rapidly expanding Grayson Navy hunted them down. Alvarez—and Brentworth—had two independent kills and four assists to their credit, but prey had gotten progressively scarcer over the last few months, and, in a way, the captain was almost grateful for the boredom of his present assignment. Picket duty just beyond Yeltsin's Star's hyper limit was unglamorous, but his people needed the rest after the wearing concentration of pirate-hunting. Not that he wanted them to feel too relaxed, he thought with an inner smile.


The latest convoy from Manticore was due within six hours, and it ought to arrive inside Alvarez's sensor envelope, but he and his exec hadn't mentioned that to the rest of his crew. It would be interesting to see how quickly his people detected the convoy's arrival . . . and how quickly they got to battle stations until it was positively IDed.


In the meantime, however, there were—


"Unidentified hyper footprint at three-point-five light-minutes, Sir!"


"Plot it!" Brentworth snapped, and looked at his exec. "Battle stations, Mr. Hardesty!"


"Aye, aye, Sir!"


Alarms began to whoop even as the exec replied, and Brentworth looked down at the displays deploying about his chair with a frown. If this was the convoy, it was much earlier than it ought to be. On the other hand, it seemed improbable anything else would come in this close to its scheduled ETA.


The captain rubbed the tip of his nose, then turned to his tac officer. Lieutenant Bordeaux's eyes were intent as he studied the data. It would be a while yet before his light-speed sensors picked up anything at this range, but CIC's analysis of the FTL gravitic readings coalesced before him while Brentworth watched.


"It's a singleton, Sir," Bordeaux reported, never looking away from his display. "Looks like a freighter. Range six-three-point-one-six million kilometers. Course zero-zero-three by one-five-niner. Acceleration two-point-four KPS squared. Present velocity point-zero-four-eight Cee."


Brentworth started to nod, then snapped upright. The course was right for a least-time vector to Grayson, but that velocity was all wrong. The freighter must have been burning along at a full sixty percent of light-speed to carry that much vee across the alpha wall. That was well outside the safe hyper velocity envelope for a ship with commercial grade anti-rad and particle shielding, and the physiological stress of a crash translation at that speed was brutal. For that matter, she must be riding the ragged edge of compensator burnout to maintain her present acceleration with a freighter's drive!


No merchant skipper would maneuver like that—not if he had a choice—and the captain's stomach tightened. There were supposed to be three freighters, escorted by a pair of destroyers, but Alvarez saw only one impeller source. Coupled with the freighter's crash translation and accel. . . .


"Astrogation, plot me an intercept course! Communications, get off an immediate contact report to Command Central!"


He hardly noticed the taut responses as he waved Hardesty in close beside his chair. The exec's face was as worried as his own, and Brentworth forced his voice to remain very level.


"Who else is out here, Jack? Anyone closer to them than us?"


"No, Sir," Hardesty said quietly, and Brentworth's mouth tightened, for Alvarez was currently at rest relative to Yeltsin's Star. His ship's acceleration was twice that of the unknown freighter, but the freighter was headed almost directly away from her at over 14,000 KPS, and she was far beyond missile range . . . as anyone following her would also be.


"Where's that course, Astrogation?" he snapped.


"Sir, we can't intercept short of Grayson orbit if she maintains her current acceleration," the astrogator replied. "At max accel, we'll take over eighty-eight minutes just to match velocity with her."


Brentworth's hands clenched on the arms of his chair, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled sharply. He'd been afraid of that. The only real hope for an interception now was that someone closer to Grayson had a convergent vector. But the freighter wouldn't be running this hard unless something was chasing her, and it was remotely possible he could get into range of that something.


"Put us on her track anyway," he said coldly.


"Aye, aye, Sir. Helm, come zero-one-three degrees to port."


"Aye, aye, Sir. Coming zero-one-three to port."


"Sir, I have a transmission from the freighter!"


"Put it on the main screen."


"Aye, aye, Sir."


A face appeared on the main view screen. It was a woman's face, damp with sweat and lined with strain, and her voice was harsh and tight.


"—ayday! Mayday! This is the Manticoran merchant ship Queensland! I am under attack by unknown warships! My escort and two other freighters have already been destroyed! Repeat, I am under attack by unknown war—"


"Captain! I've got another footprint!" The tactical officer's report slashed across the unknown woman's frantic message, and Brentworth's eyes snapped back to his repeater. A new impeller source burned within it, hard upon the freighter's heels. No, there were two—three!—of them, and the captain swallowed an agonized groan. These were no merchantmen—not with those power curves—and they were streaking in pursuit of the freighter at over five KPS2.


"—any ship," the Manticoran captain's voice spilled from the com. It had taken over three minutes for her words to reach Alvarez. They'd been transmitted before she could have seen her executioners transit behind her; now they echoed in the back of Brentworth's mind like some curse from the dead as he watched the gray signatures of impeller drive missiles spit towards her ship. "Any ship who can hear us! This is Captain Uborevich of the Queensland! I am under attack! Repeat, I am under attack and require assistance! Any ship who can hear me, please respond!"


Alvarez's com officer stared at his captain almost pleadingly, but Brentworth said nothing. There was no point in responding, and every man on the bridge knew it.


The missile specks drove after the freighter, accelerating at almost 90,000 gravities, and Brentworth watched sickly as they overtook their target. They merged with the freighter's larger impeller signature . . . and Queensland vanished from the face of the universe.


"—respond!" Uborevich's voice still called from the com. "Any ship, please respond! I require assi—"


"Turn it off," Brentworth grated, and the dead woman's voice died in mid-word. He stared at his display, watching Queensland's killers arc away, knowing they would recross the hyper limit and vanish long before he could bring them into range, and frustration—and hate—burned in his eyes.


"Readings, Henri?" he asked in a deathly quiet voice, and his tac officer swallowed.


"Nothing positive, Sir. They're regular warships—they have to be to pull that accel and fire that many missiles. I'd guess a light cruiser and a pair of tin-cans, but that's about all I can tell you."


"Make sure everything you can get goes on the chip. Maybe Intelligence or the Manties can get more from an analysis than we can."


"Yes, Sir."


Brentworth sat silently, glaring at his display until the trio of murderers swept back out across the limit and disappeared, then leaned back with a weary, defeated sigh.


"Keep us on our intercept, Astro," he said tiredly. "Maybe she at least got her lifeboats away before they killed her."


* * *


Lieutenant Commander Mudhafer Ben-Fazal yawned and sipped more coffee. The G4 primary of the Zanzibar System was a brilliant pinprick far behind his light attack craft as it swept slowly along the edge of the outermost asteroid belt, and he treasured the coffee's warmth as an anodyne against the cold loneliness beyond its hull. He would have preferred to be elsewhere—almost anywhere elsewhere—but he hadn't been consulted when his orders were cut.


The leaders of the ZLF had been driven from the soil of their homeworld, yet they still got infrequent weapon shipments into their adherents' hands somehow. They were coming from out-system, and though whoever supplied them was very careful to remove all identifying marks before turning them over, the People's Republic of Haven was the only interstellar power which had recognized the ZLF. Intelligence was virtually certain the PRH was doing more than merely providing sanctuary in ports like Mendoza and Chelsea for the terrorists' decrepit "navy."


But whoever was funding and arming the ZLF, they still had to get the guns and bombs to Zanzibar, and Intelligence's best guess was they were using miners for their conduit. The Zanzibar system was rich in asteroids, and no one could stop and search every battered work boat. Nor could they hope to patrol the belts themselves in any meaningful way, Ben-Fazal thought tiredly. The area was simply too huge for the Navy's limited strength to search, but there was always the chance that someone might happen across something, which explained why al-Nassir was out here, depriving one Lieutenant Commander Ben-Fazal of his hard earned leave time.


He chuckled and tipped his chair back as he took another sip of coffee. Al-Nassir was a child's toy compared to real warships like the division of Manticoran battlecruisers orbiting Zanzibar, but her weapons would more than suffice for any of the ZLF "Navy's" rag-tailed ships. And, his chuckle faded, it would be sweet to catch some of the animals whose bombs and "liberation offensives" had killed and maimed so many civilians.


"Excuse me, Captain, but I'm getting something on my passive arrays."


Ben-Fazal cocked an eyebrow at his tactical officer, and the lieutenant shrugged.


"It's not much, Sir—just a little radio leakage. Could be a regular prospector's beacon, but if it is, it's pretty badly garbled."


"Where's it coming from?"


"That cluster at two-seven-three, I think. As I say, it's very faint."


"Well, let's take a look," Ben-Fazal decided. "Bring us to two-seven-three, Helm."


"Yes, Sir."


The tiny warship altered course, heading for the elusive signal source, and the tac officer frowned.


"It really is garbled, Sir," he reported after a moment. "If it's a beacon, its identifier code's been completely scrambled. I've never heard anything quite like it. It's almost like—"


Lieutenant Commander Ben-Fazal never learned what it was almost like. The lean, lethal shape of a light cruiser swam into sight, drifting from the clustered asteroids like a shark from a bed of kelp, and he had one fleeting instant to realize the signal had been a lure to suck him in and to recognize the cruiser's Havenite emissions signature before it blew his ship apart.


* * *


"They're definitely crossing the line, Commodore."


Commodore Sarah Longtree nodded acknowledgment of her ops officer's report and hoped she looked calmer than she felt. Her heavy cruiser squadron was a powerful formation, but not as powerful as the Peep force coming at her.


"Time to missile range?"


"A good twelve hours yet, Ma'am," the ops officer replied. He scratched his nose and frowned at his display. "What I don't understand is why they're making an n-space approach. They've taken out a dozen sensor platforms, but even with light-speed limits, they have to know we got full downloads before they did—and they're ignoring a dozen others that have them in range right now! That makes taking the others out completely pointless, and if they really want to hit us, the logical move was to get at least to the hyper limit before they translated down. Why let us see them coming from so far out?"


"I don't know," Longtree admitted, "but, frankly, that's the least of my concerns just now. Have we got class IDs on them yet?"


"Perimeter Tracking's still refining the data from our intact platforms, Ma'am, but the ones they've already hit got pretty good reads on their lead element, and there are at least two battlecruisers out there."


"Wonderful." Longtree pushed herself deeper into the cushions of her command chair and made her mind step back a bit.


The ops officer was right about the strangeness of their approach. The Zuckerman System's outer surveillance platforms had picked them up well short of the twelve-light-hour territorial limit, and letting that happen was an outstandingly dumb move on someone's part. If they'd just stayed in h-space to the hyper limit, they'd have been on top of Zuckerman—and Longtree—before she even knew they were coming. As it was, she'd had plenty of time to get a courier away to Fleet HQ; even if they wiped out her entire squadron, Manticore would know who'd done it. As acts of war went, that made this one of the most pointless and stupid on record.


Which wasn't particularly comforting to the people who were going to get killed in the course of it.


"Update from Perimeter Tracking, Ma'am," her com officer announced suddenly. "Enemy strength now estimated at six battlecruisers, eight heavy cruisers, and screening elements."


"Acknowledged." Longtree bit her lip at the new information and watched them close. Her own ships would have stood a better than even chance without the battlecruisers, but they made the odds impossible.


"Still no reports of any other incursions?"


"No, Ma'am," her ops officer replied. "We're receiving continuous updates from all other sectors, and this is the only one."


"Thank you." She leaned back again and chewed delicately on a knuckle. What in Hell's name were these people up to? Both sides had been so careful to avoid overt violations of the other's territory for years—now the Peeps were sailing boldly in in front of God and everyone to attack a Fleet base that wasn't even very important anymore? It made no sense at all!


"Status change!" The commodore's head snapped around, and her ops officer looked up at her with an utterly incredulous expression. "They're reversing course, Commodore!"


"They're what?!" Longtree couldn't keep the surprise out of her own voice, and the ops officer shrugged.


"It doesn't make any more sense than anything else they've done, but they're doing it, Ma'am. Perimeter Tracking reports they've altered course by one-eight-zero degrees and gone to four-zero-zero gees acceleration. They're heading right back where they came from!"


Longtree sagged about her bones in disbelief . . . and relief. She and her ships weren't going to die today after all, and, even more importantly, the war all Manticore dreaded wasn't going to begin in the Zuckerman System.


Yet even through her relief, her confusion only grew.


Why? What in God's name had it all been about? They had to know they'd been seen and identified, and all they'd managed was the destruction of a dozen easily replaced sensor platforms. So why had they committed what could be construed as an act of war—especially such a sloppy one—and then not even bothered to carry through and attack?


Commodore Longtree didn't know the answer to her question, but she knew that answer was of vital importance. For some reason, the People's Republic of Haven had committed a deliberate violation of Alliance territory, and if the destruction of sensor platforms was hardly a life-or-death fight to the finish, it was still a provocation the Star Kingdom of Manticore couldn't possibly ignore. There had to have been a purpose behind it.


But what?


 


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