We Sail Off To War No. 6 – The Hunt

It had been two weeks since Warspite left Resolution to a salute from the station’s guns and the haunting strains of the Hymn of the Naval Arm over her annunciator. Hermes had not been far behind, and now she hung a few hundred kilometers aft of Warspite‘s beam.

Winston couldn’t see her in any detail beyond the white-orange speck on the repeater screens over the sensor stations, but she was there, they were prowling around the outskirts of Argo’s system, and Winston could hardly contain his excitement. He was sailing to war in defense of his countrymen. Twenty years ago those very same countrymen turned on their brothers, but the Confederacy had forgiven them, and that was what made it strong. Winston was genuinely proud of it, and proud to be fighting for his flag.

Very soon it would be the literal sort of fight. The Naval Intelligence Bureau put the Exile cruisers in the vicinity of Orpheus, Argo’s outermost moon. The Naval Arm kept a hidden observation post named Sapphire there, sinking all its waste heat deep into the moon. It was proving to be a valuable strategic asset: it had artfully hidden infrared detectors to make a starship captain green with envy, and nearly every ship within ten million kilometers showed on its scopes. Useful though it was, it was less useful than it sounded. Some sixty warships and several hundred merchants circled Argo, and although Sapphire could see two-thirds of them at any given time, it didn’t have the telescopes to identify contacts conclusively, and without an identification it could really only guess about range.

Some hundred hours ago, Weatherby had requested that Sapphire keep an eye out for a contact matching a particular profile, and a few hours ago they’d gotten lucky. A Caledonian-flagged merchant, identified by her communications, had passed within nine hundred thousand kilometers of Sapphire. She was of the right type to carry naval stores, and if she was she’d be in violation of her neutral flag. Though the Confederacy was at war, not all of its member worlds were co-belligerents, and to Winston’s continuing disbelief the Exiles had accepted that rather weak argument at face value. They were fond of exercising their right to search neutral vessels, though, and Katherine Anne was not the sort to escape their notice for very long.

Or at least not if Weatherby had anything to say about it. Warspite and Hermes were running after Katherine Anne at a gravity and a half, and the merchant had shut down her engines on receiving Warspite‘s hail. Some three hours later, Warspite pulled alongside. Katherine Anne was a merchant of the modern type, massing about twenty thousand tons with a listed cargo capacity of eighty thousand more. With a full load she was good for about a third of a gravity, but empty she could pull two full gee. She was modular—a long spine, decorated with attachment points for cargo of various types, connected the engines to the forward habitation ring. Impossibly delicate radiators fanned out from the after section, nothing like Warspite‘s inefficient but durable rig. Katherine Anne was more than twice as long as Warspite, and wider across the beam; she was also lightly armed. Four masers in twin mounts were set dorsally and ventrally on the engine section, and a message laser rather more powerful than necessary hung from the forward end of her spine.

Winston had absorbed all that and many more irrelevant facts from Warspite‘s copy of Wiles’ Merchant Register. It was his responsibility: the captain had selected him to lead the boarding party, and crammed into Warspite‘s launch with him were the pilot and a squad of Marines. The twenty-kilometer jaunt from Warspite to Katherine Anne took hardly any time at all, and as the launch’s airlock latched onto the freighter’s, Winston turned to the Marines. “Sergeant Conolley, if you would,” he said.

 

“Captain Campbell, I understand your concerns, and to some degree I even sympathize,” Winston said. “But Commander Weatherby will have the use of your ship, with or without your permission, and the Marines have orders to that effect.”

Winston, Sergeant Conolley, and Captain Cormac Campbell of Katherine Anne stood on the merchant’s spin bridge. Winston had been surprised at how well-appointed it was; the command pit cantilevered into the center of a half-sphere of screens, which were currently showing a forward view. He’d guessed they could afford to build it that way. After all, they didn’t have to survive battle.

There was a battle on of a different sort: Campbell was not at all happy with Winston. “Look, lad,” he said, face beet red and fists clenched. “Spare me your false pity. You and I both know this is little more than an act of theft on the part of your Naval Arm, theft to use my Katherine Anne as bait in some damnable game of cat and mouse with the Exile fleet. I’ll not willingly be a part of it.”

“My captain was rather afraid you’d say something of the sort,” Winston said. “It comes to this. You have precisely two choices: you fail to cooperate, Sergeant Conolley’s men disable your engines—”

“Comprehensively,” the Marine put it in.

“—and we tow you into place, crew and all, and chances are very good that we’ll reach you well after our target does. Or, you cooperate. We take your ship and evacuate your crew somewhere safe for the duration of the action. Your ship ends up right where we need her, and owing to that we’ll probably save her. The choice is yours.”

Winston watched Campbell sharply, and after a few moments said, “Very well. Sergeant, have your men set the charges.”

Campbell swore viciously, and Winston waited him out. “You’ve won,” Campbell snarled. “Take my men off the ship and do with her what you will. You can be sure I’ll have words with the Caledonian consul about this.”

“He’ll tell you exactly what I’ve said: we’re well within our rights under the War Powers Act,” Winston replied. “Thank you for your cooperation, Captain.”

 

Winston stayed on Katherine Anne for two hours, while engineering and navigation warrants shuttled over to rig the merchant to follow her course unmanned. Hermes‘ cutter ferried the merchant’s crew away, and Hermes herself left a few minutes after her cutter returned. They’d had a spot of luck; NPAS Ironwood was only a few million kilometers off, en route to Resolution in company with four prizes. The velocity differential wasn’t too bad yet, and Hermes could overhaul the squadron, send the civilians over, and get back to Orpheus in twelve or fifteen hours.

Warspite‘s navigation and engineering crews got Katherine Anne underway, and along with Winston took the launch back to Warspite. The captain’s steward was there when Winston came through the airlock. “Captain’s compliments, Ensign, and he requests you join him in CIC.”

 

Most of the ship’s officers had been there. Weatherby told them how the next two days would go. In forty hours, Katherine Anne would be on her inbound run, having passed just under a million kilometers off the stern quarter of a contact Sapphire had tentatively identified as an Exile squadron. Distress calls from merchants had placed the cruisers in the area fifty hours before, and the best guess of the Naval Intelligence Bureau was that they had joined the squadron Sapphire was tracking. Weatherby had admitted it would take some luck for the snare to nab a cruiser. It was more likely they’d get a frigate or destroyer, something the Exile commander would be willing to detach, but he had pointed out that every prize helped. Either way, they would be prepared. Warspite and Hermes would retreat to their blind, and Weatherby intended to run half-watches until Katherine Anne‘s pursuer revealed herself.

That had been thirty-seven hours ago. Now, Warspite and Hermes were in tight formation, hovering sixty kilometers above the surface of Orpheus on pillars of hydrogen exhaust. It was a nearly perfect hiding place—the bulk of the moon hid their heat from any Exile detectors in the area, and with real-time links to Sapphire’s sensor net, Warspite and Hermes could see just fine.

Winston wondered if anything like it had been tried before. He expected he would have heard if it had. Weatherby had found about as good a solution to the problem of hiding a ship in space as anyone. Winston looked up at the waterfall and elevation displays before him. His station, along with the other three, were showing data from Sapphire. That line on the waterfall was Katherine Anne, weak, but—Winston slid the interval switch over to two hours—growing stronger. There was another line, fainter, that Sapphire identified as the Exile squadron. It was at the edge of detection range, and by all appearances moving away. What they were looking for was a contact between the two, a warship leaving the squadron to chase Katherine Anne.

Chevrons flickered on the elevation display as the computer tried to pry order from the incoming signal, and Winston spun knobs to put the right bearing and elevation on his headphones. The computer translated the raw infrared to sound, and Winston strained his ears. There was that ever-present static, the background noise of the universe, but below it something else, a constant thrum at the very edge of hearing.

The warrant officers next to him conferred briefly, and eventually called Senior Petty Officer Preble over. He took a pair of headphones from one of them, held it to his hear for a moment, and turned to the watch officer.

“Contact.”

 

Winston was six hours into his watch. Thirty minutes ago, commissar’s mates had brought tea and sandwiches around, and now Winston passed his empty plate off to a sailor as he fiddled with the controls for his display. The contact was closing with Katherine Anne, and ten minutes ago the merchant had run her engines up to ‘full power’, running at the three-quarters of a gravity or so she could expect with a moderate load. The contact had brightened soon after, as her own engines throttled up to maintain her acceleration advantage. As Winston listened to the hum from its radiators, he thought he could pick out some other frequencies behind it. Those would only grow more pronounced as the contact closed, as radiation from her secondary systems reached Sapphire’s detectors. It was possible to identify ships by their infrared signatures, but rarely done—by the time a ship closed to the range where her sensors could pick out signature frequencies, she could usually bring telescopes to bear and get a pretty good idea of the nature of the contact that way.

Sapphire, Winston recalled, had no telescopes. They were harder to hide than wide-field infrared detectors, especially in the sizes it took to see targets at millions of kilometers. Warspite’s telescope was only useful out to a few hundred thousand kilometers, and was screened by the moon regardless, while the best guess of the tracking party was that the contact was still more than five million kilometers off. Winston glanced up at the other sensormen, and saw them all listening passively. Surely they’d tried already…

Still. He made some adjustments to the audio outputs, putting the contact in his left ear and telling the computer to play sample infrared signatures from previously-encountered Exile ships in his right. Some minutes passed, and he nearly fell out of his chair with surprise. The signatures matched. His screen showed the details of the sample the computer was playing, and for a moment he could do nothing but stare.

“Petty Officer Preble,” he said, holding out his headphones. “Our contact is Reprisal.”

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