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Commerce Raider

 

Commerce Raider

 

Louis Shalako

 

 

Copyright 2016 Louis Shalako and Long Cool One Books

 

Design: J. Thornton

 

ISBN 978-1-927957-93-6

 

 

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person living or deceased, or to any places or events, is purely coincidental. Names, places, settings, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination.

 

Table of Contents

 

Act One

 

Act Two

 

Act Three

 

About Louis Shalako

 

 

 

Commerce Raider

 

Louis Shalako

 

 

Act One

 

The passenger liner Princess was three days out from the fueling station at Iota Horologii, 56.2 light years from Sol and ultimately headed for Canopus.

The Aquila, commerce raider for the Confederation, had the legs on her with the latest generation Emerson Drive.

They were coming up fast from behind when Princess was hailed.

Stand and deliver, or surrender. The choice was theirs. Their third option was to be destroyed.

Captain Luigi Bocanfusca was incensed, but with four thousand passengers and completely defenceless, he had little choice but to heave-to and accept a boarding party. Under the circumstances, that meant ceasing acceleration and holding to a steady course and velocity.

They’d run a few drills on the trip, passengers and crew. It took a few minutes, half an hour at most. Passengers and crew had to be secured, strapping in to their berths unless in hospital or at duty stations. A whisper in his ear by the Third Officer, a look of sheer consternation and his hurried departure from the head table was the first clue anyone had of anything out of the ordinary.

In two and a half years, Aquila had taken nineteen prizes, and destroyed shipping totalling two-point-two million tonnes, with an estimated value of three and a half trillion credits. Captain Bocanfusca was also aware from briefings and prior news coverage that Aquila would shoot if provoked, which by the articles of war, she was entitled to do. With her letters of marque, Aquila was no pirate, no matter how passengers and crew felt about it.

Aquila was in enemy space and time was at a premium.

 

***

 

Midshipman Hughy Terson and fifteen relatively-expendable people were deemed sufficient for the boarding party. They went across suit-less but armed, using an extendable plastic tube clamped by a ring of vacuum nozzles over the forward crew hatch of Princess.

He’d done this before. It was always a nervous moment. One never knew how the enemy crew would react. Civilians were anything but civil, not afraid to shoot their mouths off. A bit of shoving and pushing could quickly get out of hand. At that point, people started getting hurt. The thing was to project confidence.

The thing was to speak firmly and clearly.

Meeting them at the hatch, Bocanfusca was cooperative, ordering his crew to turn over the light weapons that were the basis of authority and security aboard what was a small city. Hughy headed for the bridge, taking three people. Hughy’s people, well-trained by now, secured the weapons, locking up the ship’s security staff in their own cells. Terson took charge of the passenger manifest, ordered everyone into quarters, and set out two-man patrols to keep order. He sent another small contingent to inspect the cargo compartments, which were all urgent, valuable cargoes or they would have gone by bulk carrier. That didn’t leave him too many people, but with Aquila right there and in constant communication, things went smoothly enough.

Passengers had been ordered into quarters, but there were always those pompous asses, used to getting their own way, who had other ideas. Those that didn’t comply were bullied and threatened into submission, with loud voices and a quick rap on the noggin with a Billy-club. Knocking civvies on the head was a bit of a legal grey area, but having taken the ship, they were now responsible for it. It was martial law.

Keeping order was his job, for the safety of all involved.

In terms of his personal feelings, it was the cost of doing business.

Privateers were often used by the weaker side. The practice went back centuries. Wars were fought for economic purposes. No matter what other trappings of ideological or philosophical demonization were used in propaganda, it was a David versus Goliath situation. Hughy was the underdog here and he knew very well that things could quickly go the other way—if he was dumb enough to let it happen. Private warships under contract to governments were at least accepted in principle by most parties. In moral terms, this sort of depended on their relative strength. The stronger side condemned it as criminal, the weaker side claimed it as a right of war. Only winning could justify either point of view—for only the victors would write the history books.

No operation of war is ever moral.

After the decimation of both fleets in the early part of the conflict, nothing much had changed and the Confederation would always be the weaker side. The only thing that had really saved them so far was isolation, distance and the weakness and disorganization of the enemy. That and a few brilliant commanders like Bondo, specializing in deep-penetration into enemy space, hit-and-run tactics, and seemingly random pop-up attacks.

The enemy, calling themselves the Coalition but more properly known as the Oligarchy, having been challenged on one front, was now busily engaged in putting down rebellion after rebellion.

The Confederates had merely been the first to go, in what they saw as an inevitable process of trade liberalization.

Hughy was an outlaw in the eyes of the Oligarchy. With a price on his head, he could be taken, like any outlaw, dead or alive, without penalty or recourse to the law against any citizen fortunate to claim his head. What was really disturbing was the price, about a thousand credits for one of his rank. Three weeks’ pay for a man’s life was about what it worked out to.

That was no excuse for being rude as he saw it, but these people, either tourists on the trip of a lifetime, honeymooners or traveling business class, were seething with indignation.

It wouldn’t take much to set them off.

 

***

 

“Captain, I’m afraid you are confined to quarters when not on the bridge, at meals, or attending to recognized emergencies.”

“But of course.” Luigi was dark in the face, fists clenched.

The humiliation of having his ship taken was profound.

Hughy didn’t intend to make it any worse for him, and there were lies that one could tell.

“Look, Captain, ships have been ransomed before. It’s a matter of price, and certain safeguards for our own ship and crew. And we are at war—”

“Bastards. Pirates—criminals.”

“Ah, yes, sir. I understand your feelings.”

There was a rap at the door. One of the perks of leading a boarding party was that the Captain’s impressive day-office was now his own, although there was only a low skin-covered couch to sleep on. The man’s personal quarters were safe enough. It was better to keep the boarding party close to each other. The doors to people’s quarters could be locked with computer override. Bocanfusca would be as secure as anyone aboard. The captain and probably the second officer would shortly be going aboard Aquila along with a handful of other impressive hostages, Griff Athan and Griffa Kathria Marte among them. With their political connections, and with their wealth, surely they would be ransomed quickly. The Third Officer was certified, trained, and pretty inexperienced, but they would need to keep at least one of them. There were quite a number of nobles, scions of the lesser nobility. Second sons of second sons. Hughy had calmly explained. The more valuable hostages were patiently waiting under guard in their staterooms. It was probably better than summary execution; they all agreed on that.

They had a consensus—one of the great things about democracy, he had told more than one of them with a withering smile.

There was a quick and distinctive rap of knuckles and the door opened. Master-Sergeant Ersa Wardov stuck her head in. Everything was happening very quickly.

“Sir. We’ve secured the strong room.”

Hughy rose and so did Captain Bocanfusca.

“Sir. There are only four people with the code…” Three of them were locked up.

One of them was in this room, and hardly the sort of man who would order a subordinate to perform such an unpleasant job. By definition, the captain of a luxury passenger vessel was a responsible person. It was his duty.

The look that was exchanged was enough to confirm it.

Face hard and bitter, Bocanfusca preceded Hughy and the sergeant as they went along the passageway and down to the lower decks to see to it.

Bullion, coins, specie, notes and instruments, cargo, food, water, spares, the ship’s fuel even, all were legitimate spoils of war. The only things exempt were the bodies and personal articles of civilian passengers and the unarmed, civilian crew. Neutrals got slightly better treatment, but were to be closely supervised. Anyone could be a spy or enemy sympathizer.

Even then, there were going to be exceptions to the rule.

 

***

 

Hughy was extremely shorthanded. It would be even worse when they got properly underway again, and he’d have the prize crew on shifts. They had no choice but to use the civilian crew to operate the ship. They had to eat and sleep sometime. Watching each other’s backs was priority one. Luckily, their next passage would be relatively short.

Aquila sent over four rifle-toting crewmembers, and Hughy accompanied them. He went so far as to help carry the rather bulky luggage that had been permitted to their more noble prisoners in order to get them to cooperate a little more easily. The security people were next, and then neutral citizens, of which there were a few dozen. They would be put down on a friendly or neutral planet at the earliest possible opportunity. Everyone else would be interned. They were not happy when they figured that out. Hughy was tired of talking to delegations from the passenger decks by this point. The next bunch that tried were going to be shot. He had dropped a few hints, not stating it directly. You never put that sort of thing in writing…not if you were smart.

Canned elevator music, of a sort even the computer must get tired of writing, had been playing softly in the background the whole time. It faded away a couple of metres into the tube.

The blackness of space hung all around, and he didn’t have time to look at it anymore. The two-metre tube bobbed and rippled as the mess of humanity crossed from one ship to the other. This was nothing like they had ever experienced, and it was quiet enough. They just wanted to get through it.

After the plush and rather Baroque interiors of Princess, hollow plastic and lightweight natural pith sculpture that it was composed of, the barrenness of Aquila might have come as something of a shock to such illustrious passengers. It was all military efficiency and bad air.

Even the ship’s cats didn’t much like it.

Captain Bondo Rinnif was there at the hatch to greet them, glowering in his blue-jawed and swarthy manner, rolling his eyes, twitching his ferocious mustaches, and looking as fierce as possible.

It was possible to take an act too far, thought Hughy. But what did he know?

Nothing, and he should know. It had been rubbed in more than once since coming aboard…

Still, being in charge of such a valuable prize was a sign of confidence. Either that or his personal expendability. Maybe they were just shorthanded.

 

***

 

“Captain. Can you please spare us some more people?”

Hughy was interrupting, as Bondo made his obsequious greetings, turning from the upper-crust to his fellow captain with a sad, tired grin. He extended a hand in sympathy. Bocanfusca was hardly comforted. Still, the hand came up and he and Luigi shook.

Bondo’s eyes came around and he examined Hughy.

Nineteen years old, his first command. His math was good and he could spell. He was a good kid but terribly green, although he had been shaping up under some tutelage from more senior officers. He’d been doing all right with the men under his command and had made a couple of quick decisions when necessary. More importantly, he’d been right at the time.

“Ah—jeez. I don’t know—”

“There are four thousand passengers, and hundreds of crew members, captain.” The gruff and experienced Sergeant Wardov, with decades of experience more than Hughy, would have to make it work whereas all the middie could do was to give orders and hope to be obeyed.

“Ah, shit. Sure. Take four of the Marines—they’re almost useless when it comes to running a ship anyways…”

Hughy shot the sergeant a grateful look and gave the Captain a quick nod. The sergeant, a Marine and anything but useless, said nothing. She’d seen it all before anyways.

“I’ll take them.” He turned to the sergeant. “I’ll leave that up to you, Sergeant.”

Bocanfusca and a couple of dozen noblemen and their women stood there in the reception lounge, looking all stiff and disapproving, biting their tongues as the sergeant turned and took off for the nether regions of the ship.

“Any further instructions, sir?”

“Nope. Get there and we’ll be along to pick you up. Watch yourself. Pull this off and you will be the man of the day.”

The shook hands quickly, something that hadn’t happened since Hughy first came aboard. Then it was back down the tube, to release the vacuum-clamps, fire up the boilers and get Princess under gee again.

Watching on the big screens, unfamiliar and very large the bridge was after Aquila, the Princess and her captor slowly and then more quickly drifted apart. Aquila disappeared from the scopes under full cloaking and then they were on their own. Wide open and highly-visible.

“This thing handles like a pig.” He engaged the helmsman with a sober and confident look. “All right. Prepare to come up to speed, Mister.”

He grinned. What the hell—they had been lucky so far. They might even make it.

He glanced at his com-pad and read off three strings of numbers. The technician typed it in.

Thoughtfully, humming a series of three bars of indeterminate music, he took his chair and carefully strapped in.

“Okay, hang on everybody. I want maximum acceleration.”

The communications person stabbed a button and gave the alert.

The passengers would just have to like it. The sooner they got out of there, the better.

 

***

 

“What?” He stared at the men, and then at the woman—little more than his own age, willowy and all too innocent looking.

“I said, this is the Griffa Kathria Marte. It does sound nuts, but her biometrics check out. There’s no mistake, ah, sir.”

Brobre Darlue, another middie but his junior by a year or so, stood uncomfortably at attention in front of Captain Bocanfusca’s rather impressive walnut desk, which might even be real wood.

Hughy eyed the lady, clad in a genuine silk (he had no doubts of that) kimono. It was black with curlicue floral patterns. Her toes poked out from under, feet shod in what looking like genuine woodblock sandals. Her long black hair was done up in a tight bun, two sticks impaling it, and the cheeks white and shadowed up very high. Her eyes were really something…

She stared calmly back at him.

“Okay. Hmn. So. Who was it that went aboard Aquila?” The trouble was, at least one trouble with their present velocity, was that there was no way to communicate with Aquila.

They could try sending a burst to a point on their predicted course, and hope that it was received, however it seemed extremely unlikely and would just endanger everyone. Getting a reply was definitely impossible.

“I would hasten to assure you, kind sir, that it’s just my maid Suki. To leave her behind would have caused undue hardship—”

Dalue coughed politely.

Hughy raised his eyebrows.

“Yes?”

“Rumour says they’re having an affair, ah, sir. Ah, the husband and the maid.”

“Ah, so.”

There was a bit of a silence, and Hughy had learned to let such silences go on.

He was the one with a gun on his hip.

She stared at him, anger written all over her—so it was probably true, then. They’d interrupted a private fight of the domestic type. Either that, or very good acting.

It was at this point that her eyes fell and he felt sorry for her—which might have been his first mistake.

Her shoulders were creamy and smoothly rounded, and it wouldn’t do to underestimate her.

“Is that woman, Suki, any threat to Aquila? Griffa? And look at me when you answer.”

 

***

 

He was keeping an eye on her. There were worse jobs a man could have.

The Griffa’s low voice murmured at his side. Somehow the rumours had gone through the ship like wildfire. Gossip was a killer. There weren’t enough staff to feed everyone in their rooms.

So.

Hughy had little choice but to open up the dining rooms again and let port and starboard watches, eat at their regular tables. Passengers had their assigned seats.

In the absence of Captain Bocanfusca, and with the benefit of a little experience, Hughy had taken the number-one seat in the whole room—and Kathria was in the seat of honour next to him.

He turned.

“I really should have brought my dress whites.” He was wearing work uniform, blacks and greys and maybe even a couple of egg stains on the upper part of the tunic, and he didn’t even have a change of socks or underwear along.

Hopefully he’d find something in Bocanfusca’s quarters or in the slops. The ship had a few ritzy retail outlets along the promenade deck. He didn’t have any money, and would probably just have to seize something.

“No one cares what you look like.”

“I do.” The tone was mildly humorous and she laughed harshly, needling him as much as she dared.

He had to admit, he kind of liked her for it. One could hardly blame the people for being pissed-off. He wondered if the nobility knew they were people too—just like everybody else.

Probably not, he decided.

She smelled very nice. If anything, she had seemed to hate him all the more upon seeing him arrive a bit late and take his seat.

For whatever reason, he raised his glass in a kind of slap-in-the-face defiance.

“Ladies and gentlemen. May I propose a toast.”

A door at the end of the room burst open and a kid named Wesley, hardly a day over sixteen, poked his head in and looked around anxiously. He was still fifty metres away.

“To the Oligarchy.” May it die a painful death…

It hadn’t fallen on deaf ears, quiet as they were being, straining to hear this brash newcomer.

They didn’t like that, did they? But to appear cruel might be a kindness, if it kept them in line.

The buzz of talk rose and swelled as the crewman wove his way through the throng of waiters and passengers who were still coming and going. This particular room would seat five hundred, maybe more. There was always someone unaccounted-for, a nightmare for their sparse security detail.

The crewmember arrived behind the head table, leaning in to whisper in Hughy’s ear.

“We’re being hailed, sir. It’s Cromwell.” Scared and a little out of breath, it might have been audible a few feet away.

At that point, Zame, an enterprising business executive who had quickly bribed his way to the head table stood. He raised both his own voice and his glass and cast a beaming smile at Hughy.

“And, having drunk to the Oligarchy, let us also drink to their esteemed foes—the Confederation.” His eyes wouldn’t let go, so Hughy stood and drank, making a point to settle in comfortably again.

People were really pounding back the champagne, understandably so. They’d been cooped up in their quarters for day and half, no doubt suitably aware of their own impending mortality.

He smiled indulgently, eyes on his plate, twirling his wine glass by the stem. Quite frankly, he was tempted to break out the strong stuff and let them go at it.

“Heh-heh-heh.”

Zame coloured slightly and sat down after another ostentatious swig.

Let him have his moment…it’s better than summary execution.

After a pause that was hardly decent, Hughy made his excuses and bolted for the bridge.

 

 

Act Two

 

Watching the 14,000 metric-tonne enemy vessel, a heavy cruiser according to the catalogues, decelerating, matching arcs and taking up a position on their stern quarter was agonizing in the extreme. His gut was one big knot. He knew all about her, or as much as was known. He’d slaved over the books for many an hour, Jane’s prominent among them. Hughy’s belly rumbled, not concerned with the bigger picture. Then there was the taste in his mouth. It only added to his nervous edge.

Finally they were able to communicate by laser, Cromwell alongside less than a hundred thousand kilometres away. Well within range of her own directed-energy weapons, and well out of range of any sort of portable or hand-held defenses. Hughy figured they knew their stuff.

Regular forces all the way.

Cromwell calling Princess, Cromwell calling Princess.”

Princess here. Second Officer Murray speaking. Go ahead, please.” He turned off the microphone master-switch for a second.

“Everyone relax.”

Hughy leaned over and muttered some hurried instructions to the helm. Waving another civilian crewmember over, his crewman bolted for the door.

Princess, you seem to be off course and schedule. Is there anything we can do to assist? Do you have an emergency. Acknowledge.”

Due to the need to get Princess up to speed as quickly as possible, they hadn’t made any major course changes. It was better to get away from the scene of the crime, achieve a significant fraction of light speed and then take advantage of the distortion this caused in detection instruments. The higher the velocity, the higher the distortion.

The harder to detect.

“Put them on screen.”

“Sir?” Even the civilian operator was taken aback.

Their lives were at risk and they knew it, at this exact moment in time—surely cooperation with the enemy would be frowned upon at the very least. Assuming they ever did get home—assuming nothing went wrong and Cromwell didn’t blast them to Kingdom come. What they might have reasonably done otherwise, with a blaster pointed in their faces was a good question. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There was also some sympathy for the Confederates among the lower socio-economic strata of the Oligarchy. It was a well-known fact and understandable considering the huge disparities in wealth and privileges among the population.

“Just do it, please.”

“Coming right up.” Raising an eyebrow and shaking his head slightly, this particular technician was almost starting to like him…he didn’t seem too terrified, either.

Just businesslike. He was entitled to an opinion.

One of the bridge screens flickered and the starscape disappeared, to be replaced by the image of an officer, flanked by crewmembers and specialists at their desks and control-boards aboard Cromwell.

“Ah, hello. Sorry about that.”

A middle-aged officer wearing the insignia of a lieutenant-commander sat there looking at him, mildly curious by the look on his face—and not much more. He had that transatlantic accent so many of them affected.

Body-language was everything.

“Thank you. We were wondering about your deviation from predicted course and speed.”

“Ah, yes. About that.” Hughy was wearing the typical white shirt and black tie, with an officer’s cap perched at a jaunty angle on his head.

His sleeves were rolled up and his forearms ropy with veins and muscles. There was a cup of coffee set in the holder beside him.

“It’s just that we suffered cooling pump failure, and rather than overheat or, ah, risk a meltdown, we decided to let up long enough to make repairs. Engineering had all the proper tools and spares and we had no problem.”

The thought that they might have seen Aquila leaving was not pleasant. If so. That would be the next question.

At that moment the door at the end of the bridge opened and the crewman returned, with the Griffa in tow.

“Well, that’s good to hear. Any injuries?”

“Ah, no, sir.” He glanced around the bridge, as if making sure no one was smoking or shirtless. “No, we had plenty of warning and avoided any serious complications. Thank you for asking, sir.”

The Griffa was completely uninformed as to what was going on, her eyes flicking over Hughy but apparently oblivious to the proximity of Cromwell. The screen was right there, but the significance apparently escaped her of that other ship, hanging there in the void—maybe she thought it was the Aquila out there. None of the passengers had actually seen it. Crewman Sonett Carlucci, cool under the circumstances, took the lady around the bridge stations, explaining in a low voice what things were for, who was who and who did what, and giving her the basics of how the ship was operated.

Aboard Cromwell, someone off to the left hissed and then Hughy saw in some nervous amusement that they were typing away their keypad. This might just work—

“And your name, sir?” Hughy knew it, but presumably a civilian officer, a junior holding watch, would be less likely to do so.

“I’m Captain Koda. And how is Captain Bocanfusca?”

“He’s very well, sir.” The hair on the back of Hughy’s neck prickled, practically standing straight up, but the low murmur from Carlucci and the Griffa was reassuring.

Captain Koda’s eyes fell and he read the note that had appeared on his screen. Eyes widening, his face came up and he was clearly taking a good look over Hughy’s shoulder where Carlucci, a likely lad although barely shaving, was going over the electronics suite with the lady.

They knew who she was, all right—facial recognition, or just someone on deck who read the society pages.

“Would you like me to awaken him? He’s off-watch right now.”

“Ah, no, that’s all right. Please give him our regards. If there’s nothing more we can do for you…?”

“No, sir. We’re just building up to cruising speed and testing systems now, sir. But everything looks good and we’re fully confident. Otherwise—poor old Captain Bocanfusca. He’s been up for hours, days, almost, but he wouldn’t have, ah, sacked out otherwise, really.”

“Very well. Thank you. You are free to proceed.”

“Well, thank you very much, sir. We appreciate your concern. We’ll note this in the log.”

The man nodded.

“Noted and logged.” Still staring at the lady, clad this time in a shimmering white featureless chiffon, hugging every curve and every inch, Captain Koda said goodbye and killed the channel.

As Hughy watched in relief, Cromwell turned away. They might very well have bought it. He couldn’t really be sure. There was no way, if they did have any real suspicion, that they would just starting shooting at one of their own passenger ships. Not without further facts—they’d check it out first. His backside was clutching the seat with both hands. They watched the screens intently as Cromwell began to maneuver.

She had an abundance of power, like all heavy cruisers of her class—Aquila would be no match for her. Not without some serious tactical advantages. His observations would be noted if nothing else. Once at a safe distance, her stern pointed well away behind Princess, the back end lit up with that blinding light and she was quickly gone, only the purely optical sensors able to pick up anything at all.

He sagged a little, feeling wet under the armpits. Her perfume washed over him, and the crewmember on the helm, (all of them really), turned and had a quick look as Hughy straightened up again.

“So. Ensign—that is your rank, is it not? To what do I owe this pleasure? And I thank you for the tour, young man.” Turning, she batted her eyelashes at Carlucci, who blushed beet-red and backed off in confusion at a slight wink from Hughy.

Saluting Hughy, bowing and stammering formal pleasantries to the Griffa, Carlucci straightened and went to take over the helm. The girl went back to her seat on the navigation desk, and Hughy was again confronted by those eyes, surely the deepest blue eyes he’d seen in quite some time.

The bridge crew, his own people and the civilians, were all trying not to stare or eavesdrop too obviously.

Casually reaching over and patting his arm, something small, square and black fell down between his hip and the arm of the chair.

“Thank you again. I think I can find my way back.” There was a mischievous smirk on that lovely face, and then Hughy turned and found the sergeant.

She reached over and squeezed his arm again, just above the elbow. There was an unreadable look on her face—

“Would you please escort the lady back to civilian country?” Hopefully she’d had her dinner—enough time had gone by, waiting for Cromwell to close.

“Ah, yes, sir. Please step this way, my lady.” Wardov curtseyed with no sense of irony at all, and politely indicated the door.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Hughy dropped his hand casually down, finding the object with some difficulty.

It appeared to be a chip—of a sort that would fit into almost any phone or camera, or any one of a hundred other devices.

His heart pounded rather unpleasantly in his chest, and he wondered what might be on it.

 

***

 

Once they had the speed up, Princess began a slow and steady arc that would take her out of human-occupied space. Their destination was Kepler 138, a red dwarf that lay in the constellation of Lyra, a piece of information that had no real significance but was still useful in description to the layman on any of the inner planets.

In modern space travel, the most time was spent in acceleration and deceleration. More in making an approach or exiting crowded and dirty space in search of something clean and hard, more suitable for high-speed travel. A transit between two bodies was further complicated by the fact that all points were moving relative to one another as the universe expanded. The bodies within it followed their own individual vectors, complicated by their tracks within individual systems. For that reason and a few others, it didn’t take a whole lot longer to go four or five hundred light-years as compared to the ten or twelve to the Princess’ next stop. Fuel, food, consumables weren’t a problem. Keeping people locked up for twenty-one and a half hours a day was not a problem.

During a cruise, and for most bulk cargo operations, long straight runs were preferred. They were only slightly-curved, it might be more accurate to say. Ships would accelerate up to speed x, and then coast, weightless, until it was time to decelerate. Course corrections and maneuvers would be gentle. It saved fuel, and many ships were purely robotic—planet a required b amount of a certain commodity per year. Ship c arrived four times a year and supplied the entire market, although cargoes might be broken up into individual lots, and brokers and suppliers changed due to competition. The logic of competitive bidding and contract law, as well as the laws of cost, price, and supply and demand, assured a healthy economic ecosystem. It was either that or do without, as the saying went…

In this case, people would have to bear with the physical effects of a constant acceleration and some heavy turns as Princess avoided enemy space and known hazards.

For Hughy, it was the unknown hazards that preyed on his mind, at this velocity. While the gravimetric distortion field would sweep most dust and smaller objects out, around and away from the ship, there was always the possibility of hitting something very hard and dense, something the field didn’t have the juice to deflect. The occasional impact and whatever damage ensued was just something that had to be lived with.

The ship’s sensors recorded such impacts and then someone on the maintenance team had to go looking for the holes.

Considering that much of the space they traversed was unexplored and unmapped, they had been extremely lucky to get this far. To be only three or four arc-seconds out on one axis, and less than half a degree in the other, a couple of seconds out at the end of such a long trip, was an achievement. Hopefully someone would notice, but in truth he was just doing his job.

There were three radio beacons, low-powered, but there they were. It was the only way to be sure where they were.

They had arrived.

Setting his frequency and turning on the microphone, Hughy spoke a sequence of code words even as the picket ships on duty tracked Princess with all weapons hot and ready.

 

 

Act Three

 

“So.”

“Yes, sir.”

With Princess in stable orbit, and Aquila having picked up her boarding team, Hughy was under debriefing.

Several days had passed and negotiations for the return of passengers were already taking place via intermediaries on neutral ground.

The Intelligence Officer, Commander Fosle Tedi, spoke.

“Rather than plug the chip into just any old machine, we used a civilian portable. The wireless has been disabled. It seemed safe enough. Anyhow, Ensign, there doesn’t appear to be any virus or executable programs that we can determine. Other than that, we don’t quite know what to think.”

“Yes, sir.”

The captain studied him and then pushed the device across the table.

“Have a look.”

“Sir.” Hughy picked it up and studied the list onscreen.

Touching the one at the top, his mouth fell open as the first title was Order of Battle.

It quickly got worse after that…after a few pages he stopped and put it down.

“Sir.”

“What was your impression of the Griffa?”

Hughy tore his eyes away from the screen.

“That, is a very good question, sir.”

Bondo nibbled at his lower lip.

“Yeah.”

“Sir.”

“Yes?”

“If we detain her, there will be a political price to pay. She’s very young and very beautiful—also, she gave no indication of wanting…relief.” It was the best word he could come up with. “I mean, if she really is, ah, a spy, sir—for us, I mean.”

“There’s more.”

“Ah, yes, Commander. It is certainly possible the husband and the maid are also involved—and they’ve already been exchanged or so I hear. I understand the price was very high and the Confederation can certainly make use of the money. It could also be pure disinformation. Think of the way it came to us. Handed to us on a silver platter. But. To hold her is to draw attention to that fact, that possibility, if in fact she is a plant. This one’s got twists and turns all over the place. It’s a question of how dumb do they think we are…sort of.”

“So we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

“Yes, sir. Exactly.”

“What contact did you have with her after she dropped you the chip?”

“None, sir. I wanted to consult with higher authority before proceeding on a hot potato like this.”

Commander Tedi actually grinned at that one.

Captain Rinnif heaved a sigh and shrugged.

“Hmn. Yes. That was probably the best you could do. So. What do you think?” He eyed the Intelligence Officer.

It was Tedi’s turn to shrug. This would inevitably get kicked upstairs but of course they were the people on the scene. They would have to offer some kind of perspective. Tedi’s eyes came around.

“Any ideas, Ensign?”

Hughy picked up the pad again and began flipping through the pages.

“Sir. The thing to do is play it her way—”

“And why is that?”

Hughy chose his words.

“Because…if they really are preparing for a great attack somewhere, surely our own sources will detect and confirm it. Our Intelligence seems good so far—I mean, we’ve been doing pretty well, when you think of it. Now we know exactly what to look for. Also, if this is a plant, it is essential that they think we have fallen for it…”

Bondo Rinnif’s eyebrows rose and so did the commander’s.

The problem was, the kid was pretty much right. There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot they could do, except take note of the information, and check it out as best they could. But it looked like the Oligarchy had something very big and very definite in mind.

“Thank you, Ensign Terson. Oh, and we’re putting you in for promotion. We’ll see what happens, although I doubt if you’ll get your own ship any time soon. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Ensign.” Commander Tedi grinned up at him from the far side of the table.

They all stood, Hughy Terson slightly numbed at this point.

“Thank you very much, sir. Sirs.”

The captain shook his hand again, this would be the third time ever, and then it was the commander’s turn.

The door closed behind him and then he was out of there, feeling slightly sick to the stomach.

The familiar passageways stretched out in surreal fashion.

The odds were, that he would never see her again.

She was so young, and playing such a dangerous game.

But then, so were they.

So were they.

 

 

 

End

 

 

About Louis Shalako

 

Louis Shalako is the founder of Long Cool One Books and the author of eighteen novels, numerous novellas and other short stories. Louis studied Radio, Television and Journalism Arts at Lambton College of Applied Arts and Technology, later going on to study fine art. He began writing for community newspapers and industrial magazines over thirty years ago. His stories appear in publications including Perihelion Science Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Aurora Wolf, Ennea, Wonderwaan, Algernon, Nova Fantasia, and Danse Macabre. He lives in southern Ontario and writes full time. Louis enjoys cycling, swimming and good books.

 

 

 

> Louis Shalako <

 

 

 

 


Commerce Raider

Hughy Terson, midshipman aboard the commerce raider Aquila, has charge of the prize crew aboard the captured passenger liner Princess. He’s an outlaw in the eyes of the Oligarchy, but the Confederation was merely the first to revolt in an inevitable process of trade liberalization. Getting Aquila to a safe haven is challenge enough. The beautiful and enigmatic Griffa Kathria Marte is another problem. Only a fool would trust her, or fall under her spell. A short and gripping space opera of the not-too-distant future.

  • ISBN: 9781927957936
  • Author: Louis Shalako
  • Published: 2016-02-22 17:25:26
  • Words: 6386
Commerce Raider Commerce Raider