32. Militov

Continued from .
The story begins with 1. The Director.

“You want me to do *what?*”

Ced had assigned the brother and sister and Rani their separate quarters. The Militov had gotten under way without incident at ten gravs on the vector that Rani had specified. Ced had been looking forward to a milk run. Now this.

Rani was unaffected by Ced’s sputtering.“We will be rendezvousing with a stolen Hoxhan fighter-bomber, identified by a beacon on this frequency. It is quite likely to be pursued, so we should be prepared to defend ourselves and intercess at our earliest convenience.”

Rani paused, with the slightest smile on his lips. “I’m assuming your fee just went up again?”

Ced’s nostrils flared. “No, because we’re not doing it. If you persist, though, I might fine you for the nuisance.”

“Might I remind you, Captain, that I’m not only a passenger, I’m the lawfully-appointed representative of the owners of the Militov? They have final say as to what she does or does not do.”

“I’m not going to argue spacetime law with you, mister. I’m the Master, and I have final say. That law’s older than dirt.”

“Ships’ owners can appoint and relieve ships’ masters as they see fit.”

So that was it. Barely two hours aboard, and he was playing the trump card.

“If I do what you say, we’ll be outlaws.”

“You’re already as good as an outlaw if you transport Julin and Sari. And if you don’t do what I say, you’ll be either without a ship, or a mutineer. Any way you approach it, Captain, there’s no going back.”

Ced took a deep breath and sucked at his teeth. Hell, he never liked the Imps much anyway. At least the money would be the kind that spends.

He looked Vhen in the eyes. “Alright, fine. Let’s be bad guys. And yes, my fee just went up. Way up.”

Vhen grinned. “Bill me.”

When Ced set his mind to something, he went at it full bore. First thing, he went up and rousted what-were-their-names, Terch and his sister, out of their quarters. They both looked distinctly fresher. The sister had pulled her hair back. She was pretty.

“You’re needed down below. Passengers must serve as landsmen when hands are short,” he said, pulling himself back to business.

Terch grinned a lop-sided grin. “I’m a rated able spaceman, actually, though I’m afraid I don’t have my log handy.”

Ced shrugged. “In an emergency, I don’t stand on formality. And ma’am, I’m sorry, but I’ll need your help too.”

She smiled demurely. “Show me what you need me to do.”

They descended to the bridge which was sandwiched between the quarters and the hold.

Rani he had already installed on the pilot’s couch, though he was nervous to hand the Militov over to an unknown quantity. He said he was a decent pilot.

Ced gave the sister a brief training in how to operate the docking clamps. She listened carefully, asked good questions, then smiled. “Yes, I think I can do this.” Not bad, for gentry, he thought. He liked this woman. Terch looked proud.

Rani spoke up. “I’ve got a lock on their beacon. They’re matching vector now, overtaking in ten minutes, with six more bogeys in pursuit and converging in nine.”

Terch whistled. “That’s going to be a long minute.”

Ced grabbed Terch. “You’re with me on the PDCs.”

The sister frowned. “PDCs?”

Terch grinned. “Point Defense Cannons.” He looked at Ced. “I’m just glad we’ve got something.”

Ced shrugged. “Tramps are always targets. Let’s go.”

They divided the gunnery station between them, port and starboard. The Militov had a larger load-out than most freighters: three flak guns across the equator, twelve laser turrets spread out across the length of the ship and fed by a single emitter. Despite his display of scruples, he’d run plenty of contraband over the years out on the Periphery. Interdictions were pretty common out there as the Empire played whack-a-mole with the growing rebellion, and blockade running had become a bit of a specialty, actually. This wasn’t Ced’s first scrape with the Imps, though he was usually better-prepared.

It took a few minutes to familiarize Terch with the gunnery controls. Terch took port guns, he took starboard. Then they sat to wait and watch as vectors converged. Normally, Ced would spend this time laying down fields of flak for his pursuers to run across, hoping for a lucky strike through the forward shields. With a friendly on the way though, their options were limited. The lasers didn’t have the range—at best, they’d be dazzling their opponents with very powerful flashlights.

Rani called out, “I see five fast movers overtaking!” Those would be missiles. He added, “Not for us, I don’t think.”

“That’s only a matter of time,” Ced muttered.

The Hoxhan also had both lasers and kinetics. Those would be firing now.

Rani continued giving updates. “Looks like… four down, one hit!”

The sister—what was her name—gasped.

“Don’t worry, ma’am, their shields are holding. Those hoxen are tough old birds. The Imps will be trying to wear it down—they don’t know about us.”

Ced muttered to himself, “Who’s the crazy piloting that thing anyway?”

“My brother-in-law,” Terch muttered back.

“Ah.” He cursed his luck. The good ones were always taken.

Rani called out, “Fighter vectors converge in thirty seconds.”

“Steady on,” said Ced. The tension on the bridge grew. Ced found he was sweating, and he groused at himself. He didn’t even know these people; he just hated to see the Imps win.

The gunners on the Hoxhan were laying down flak fields now, and the fighters began twisting their vectors to make themselves harder targets. The Hoxhan began its own slow, graceful dance. Space combat among small ships was like a sword fight, with each party trying to maneuver to get a strike through his opponent’s guard. Only a slow strike would penetrate a shield without significant deflection. Laser light would scatter altogether.

Of course, the shields worked both ways, which is why the guns were mounted on the shield generator plates, taking advantage of geometry. Else the shells would deflect and the lasers decohere. Each emplacement had its own independent shield unit. The smaller shield could flicker on and off at need to allow shots through.

The Militov didn’t have any of those advantages. She was a freighter, designed to throw up a shield and run while her point defenses took care of anything that got through the shields. That was Ced’s plan, once the Hoxhan met up. Battles between freighters and military craft were less like sword fights and more like pig-sticking.

“We’re being hailed,” said Rani.

“Now they notice us,” Ced muttered.

A male voice came over the PA. “Freighter Militov, you are on a converging vector with an ongoing military operation! Please adjust your vector to…”

“Cut it,” snapped Ced. The voice ceased. “Steady on. Your boy over there going to call us soon?”

“No,” said Rani, “we don’t want to tip our hand.”

Ced laughed. “What, you’re just going to feel it out?”

“That’s my plan.”

“I don’t like your plan.”

“See to your guns, Captain. Here they come!”

So they were. “Terch, give us flak fields anywhere you’ve got a clean vector.”

The whole ship rang like a bell as the cannons did their work. Ced started counting in his head. Outside, the whole shield was flickering off and on, a risk they could afford for a few moments.

“Three down!” cried Terch. Three red dots on the scanner dissolved into flak clouds of their own, just part of the local landscape now.

“Cease fire!” yelled Ced and cut his own cannons.

Not a moment too soon. The lights dimmed briefly as a cloud of cannon fire deflected off their tail shield and PDC lasers fired. Defense was hard on the power plant.

“Shield lock in ten!” called Rani.

Ced stared in disbelief. The man was insane. Shield lock between disparate fields in the middle of a running battle? He’d tear both ships apart if he got the harmonics wrong or if the other pilot got nervous and jinked away at the wrong moment.

The Hoxhan was close in now. Ced couldn’t help but glance over at the docking console where the sister was watching the approach on the external camera.

“See to your guns, Captain,” muttered Terch beside him.

Ced shook himself and saw to his guns. The remaining fighters were still focused on the Hoxhan, but the Militov would soon be borrowing the little fighter-bomber’s problems. If this worked, he’d found himself a new pilot. If it didn’t work, he’d found himself a new occupation as a cloud of dust and radiation. Debt-free, at least.

A few seconds later, Rani crowed, “Shield lock! Sari, that’s your cue.”

“Uh, right!” The sister’s voice sounded nervous. Sister, Sari. Sari, sister. He’d have to remember her name.

Now the fighters swarmed about them. They would drop their own shields and try to poke a weapon through the Milemanov’s. Rani couldn’t pivot until the Hoxhan was securely docked.

Ced had a sudden urge to dive over to the docking console, but he mastered himself and poured flak at a fighter’s shield plate that had brushed too closely by. The fighter spun off, clearly damaged, spewing atmosphere. Their opponents would soon realize that the Hoxhan made a big blind spot in the turrets’ lines of sight, and then they’d be in trouble.

“I’m seeing twenty converging vectors now,” reported Rani. “Ten minutes out. Looks like a frigate group.”

Ced cursed. “We’d better not be here when they match. I don’t care how close we are to the planet. I’ll start running intercession solutions in the flight computer.” Who knows where they’d end up. With luck, it would be in free space.

“No need, Captain. I’m a trained intercessor, and I have some spice with me.”

Ced laughed aloud at that. “In a strong grav field. With an unfamiliar ship, no, two ships joined at the hip. Next you’re going to tell me you’re a Geniit.”

“He is,” said Terch.

“You can shoot me later, Captain,” said Rani.

Ced said nothing. Just then the ship rumbled with a familiar vibration.

“Uh, I think we’re docked?” called Sister Sari.

“Ha! So we are!” cried Rani. “Militov to Hoxhan, do you read?”

A man’s voice came over the comm. “Five by five, Vhen.”

“Fire main engines full on my mark. In three. Two. One. Mark.”

The Milemanov’s engines increased their thrust as Rani threw open the throttle to match their own acceleration to the *Hoxhan*’s. For a moment, Ced felt very heavy before the inertial dampers kicked in. He was impressed—that was a difficult maneuver to make without breaking the docking clamp. The two ships surged ahead of the fighters, forcing them to realign on their own main vectors to accelerate.

“All hands, prepare for intercession.”

The lights dimmed. Ced sat helplessly. Usually, when he was piloting on his own, proper intercession required a full hour of flight computer time to set up, and ideally he’d be at least a few light seconds away from a major mass.

Ced glanced back and saw Rani putting something into his mouth. Could he really be? When Ced had been a young spacer, he’d heard plenty of stories from the old-timers. In the old days, when flight computers were unheard of, most ships carried Geniit intercessors. Spacer legend told of the near-magical feats they could perform. These days only Imperial ships carried them. Licensed Geniit were hard to find and by reputation were hardly better than a good flight computer.

The bridge had grown quiet, except for the thrum of the engines. Ced could hear Rani chanting something. Everything had happened so quickly, he still couldn’t believe it. Intercession this close to a planetary mass, and at full thrust? Even if Rani was truly a Geniit, he had to be insane… but Ced kept his mouth shut and his mind focused on the PDCs. If Rani failed at the intercession, they were likely dead. If he didn’t try, they were dead too. No way they could get to a safe intercession range with this pursuit.

And now he had other things to worry about, like keeping them alive long enough for Rani to simply try his crazy scheme. A cloud of missiles were on the scope now, fast approaching, probably from that frigate group. Somebody somewhere wanted these people dead, and wanted it real bad. Enough missiles could overwhelm the freighter’s shields long enough for something to get through—it didn’t really matter what, in the end; it left them just as dead.

“Mark your targets,” muttered Ced.

“Yeah, I see them,” said Terch.

They started laying out flak clouds in the paths of the missile vectors.

“No way we’ll stop them all,” said Ced.

“We’ll find out soon enough.”

And then everything twisted. The missiles and fighters were whisked off the scope, and there was nothing about them but empty space. The lights returned to full strength.

“Intercessed.” Rani’s voice sounded strained.

Ced darted to the nav computer. Where were they?

[Hey folks, David here. Just want to let you, my faithful readers, know that I’m going to take a break from weekly episodes while I finish up the launch of Book 1 and finish writing Book 2. I’ll be changing up the website a bit too, as I switch from Free Serial mode to Book for Sale mode.

To stay up-to-date on the latest, make sure you sign up for the mailing list below! —David]

To be continued…

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