Semper Fi–Snippet II

1 Apr

Just a teaser for my fans.  <Grin>

Chapter One

When considering authority, it is important to realise that all authority ultimately stems from force – from the barrel of a gun, as the old saying has it. Those who claim authority and yet are unable to back up their orders with force have no authority, even though it can take time for others to realise it. The teacher forbidden to punish his charges, the policeman forbidden to make arrests and the CO forbidden to discipline his men have no authority.

-Professor Leo Caesius, Authority, Power and the Post-Imperial Era

“Captain,” Lieutenant Andy Reynolds said, “I think we have a bite.”

Captain Layla Delacroix leaned forward in her command chair, studying the display. CSS Harrington had been flitting from system to system, patrolling the edge of Commonwealth space and looking for pirates to kill. Chasing pirates was largely an exercise in futility, she knew, particularly the pirates who had survived the Admiral’s defeat two years ago, but sometimes it was simple enough to lure the bastards in for the kill.

“Good,” she said, as the enemy icon solidified. They weren’t even trying to be stealthy. “Once they enter civilian detection range, send them a standard challenge. Let’s see what they say.”

“Aye, Captain,” Reynolds said.

Layla shook her head as the young man turned back to his console. And he was young, barely seventeen … and far too young for a bridge posting, at least according to the Imperial Navy’s regulations. But the Imperial Navy was gone, leaving the makeshift Commonwealth Navy to hold the line. Competence mattered more than family connections in the Commonwealth Navy and Reynolds had shown himself to be competent in the countless exercises she’d run since assuming command. And yet he had never truly been tested.

She ran through the scenario in her mind as the pirate ship closed in. They were definitely hostile, if only because they were aiming to intercept Harrington well short of the phase limit – and not even trying to communicate. The bureaucratic rules and regulations that had governed interstellar shipping had died along with the Empire, but most spacers were still trying to honour the unwritten protocols for ship-handling, including the very basic rule that one didn’t come close to another starship without permission. It risked accidents – and misunderstandings. The pirates were making their intentions very clear.

And they didn’t know what she was, she told herself, and smirked. Harrington was new-build, the first heavy cruiser to come rolling out of the shipyard orbiting Avalon’s largest moon. She wasn’t that dissimilar to a standard Imperial Navy cruiser to the naked eye, but the pirates wouldn’t realise that she was a military starship until they got too close – and by then it would be too late. If they’d known, they would never have risked engagement. What sort of pirate would risk his ship and crew for nothing?

“Captain,” Reynolds said, “they are entering civilian detection range.”

“Challenge them,” Layla ordered.

The Empire had forbidden civilian crews from purchasing or installing military-grade sensors and weapons systems on their starships, a regulation that had largely been ignored. Military-grade equipment was so much more capable than civilian models that possessing it was a necessity along the Rim, even before the Empire withdrew from the outermost sectors. The pirates must have assumed that they would be detected as soon as they entered military detection range, but would they know for sure? Not, in the end, that it would matter.

“No response,” Reynolds reported, after a long moment.

“Alter course to evade,” Layla ordered. A harmless merchantman could neither fight nor run from a warship, but the crewmen would certainly try. Very few pirate crews would treat their captives decently. The men would be killed, the women would be raped and then killed – unless they had useful skills or could be ransomed back to their friends and families. It was worth doing whatever was in their power to stay alive and free as long as possible. “And scream for help from the inner system.”

She imagined the pirates smirking as they heard the radio message and smiled, coldly. It would take hours for the message to crawl its way to the system’s sole inhabited planet – and there was little that Selig Salaam could do to help a freighter on the edge of the system. Even if there was a warship near the planet, it would take hours before it was in position to intercept the pirates, by which time the helpless freighter would have been gutted and left to drift throughout interstellar space. It could take years to rediscover the ship, particularly if the pirates left her heading out of the system.

“The pirates are altering course themselves,” Reynolds said. “I’m picking up targeting emissions.”

Layla nodded. “Send a second message, more panicky than the first,” she ordered, calmly. The pirates didn’t know it, but they were already well inside her missile envelope. Escape was impossible. “And then …”

“Missile separation,” the tactical officer barked.

The pirates had fired to miss, Layla realised, just to prove to the freighter that they actually carried weapons. Some freighter crews were supposed to know nothing about weapons, or to believe that the only armed starships belonged to the Imperial Navy, although Layla suspected that was just rumours spread by the big interstellar shipping corporations. No freighter crewman could afford to be so ignorant, if only because deep space punished ignorance and incompetence with a thoroughness and indiscrimination a Drill Sergeant would have been hard-pressed to match.

“Detonation,” the tactical officer said, as the pirate missile vanished from the display. “One standard warhead, Captain. No nukes or laser heads.”

“Unsurprising,” Layla said. The tactical officer was experienced, thankfully. He was earmarked for a command of his own once the next generation of cruisers rolled out of the yards. “They wouldn’t want to waste either on a harmless merchantman.”

“Captain, we’re picking up a message,” Reynolds said. “They’re demanding that we cut our drives and prepare to be boarded – or else.”

Layla’s lips twitched with genuine amusement. “Then we’d better do as we are told,” she said, dryly. “Helm; cut drives. Let them come to us.”

The pirate ship closed in as Harrington’s drive field faded away to nothingness, leaving the ship drifting through interstellar space. Layla studied the report from the sensors, noting that the pirate ship was definitely ex-Imperial Navy, although probably not a rogue unit that had decided to turn pirate and go hunting the ships it had formerly protected. The Imperial Navy had been decommissioning ships and laying off crewmen for decades prior to the decision to abandon the Rim, but it had still had thousands of starships in service before losing contact. No one knew what had happened to those ships.

Six months to Earth, she reminded herself. A starship had been dispatched to investigate a rumour, heard fifth-hand, that Earth had been destroyed. So far, the ship and crew had not returned. Anything could be happening over there and we would never know.

“Fat and happy,” the tactical office commented. “Don’t they have any common sense at all?”

“We’re just a harmless merchantman,” Layla reminded him. “Even if we had weapons bolted onto our hull, we wouldn’t be a match for a real warship.”

They shared a predatory smile. “Lock weapons on their drive section,” she added. “Prepare to fire.”

“Weapons targeted, aye,” the tactical officer said.

“They’re ordering us to unlock our airlocks,” Reynolds reported. “And all weapons are to be secured before they dock.”

“Too late,” Layla said. The pirate ship was practically close enough to touch. It wouldn’t be long before they eyeballed Harrington’s hull – and then they’d know that she wasn’t a genuine merchantman. “Tactical … you are cleared to open fire.”

The tactical officer tapped a switch. At such close range, the only warning the pirates would have would be when the weapons struck their hull. It was hardly a fair fight, but Layla had no intention of giving them a fair chance. The pirates certainly never gave any of their victims a chance to escape or to fight back. Besides, if they’d been more careful, they would have had a chance to escape before coming into point-blank range.

“Two direct hits,” the tactical officer reported. “Their drive section has been disabled.”

And if their maintenance is up to the standards we have come to expect from pirate crews, Layla thought, they’re going to lose the rest of their power rapidly.

“Open a channel,” she ordered, tapping her console. “Pirate ship, you are under the guns of a warship. If you surrender, you will be taken into custody and transferred to a penal settlement. Resistance will be met with deadly force.”

“No response, Captain,” Reynolds said. The pirate ship was already drifting. “They might have lost all power.”

“Perhaps,” Layla said. She keyed her console. “Marines, you are cleared to launch.”

***

“What a mess,” Rifleman Blake Coleman muttered.

Lieutenant Jasmine Yamane couldn’t disagree as 1st Platoon’s shuttle led the way towards the pirate ship. She had once been a standard Imperial Navy destroyer – a boxy starship studded with weapons and sensor blisters – but the brief assault had inflicted terrifying damage on her hull. The drive section looked to have been completely destroyed, rather than disabled, while air was streaming out of at least two breaches in the hull. Emergency systems should have sealed off the damaged parts of the hull by now, preventing the entire ship from venting its atmosphere out into space, but it looked as though they had failed. It wouldn’t be the first time a pirate crew’s sloppy maintenance came back to haunt them.

She studied the plans they’d downloaded into their suits from Harrington’s database and came to a quick decision. “1st Platoon will board though this gash in the hull” – she designated a hull breach through the shared communications network – “and advance towards the bridge. 3rd Scouts will board though a different hole and advance towards the engineering compartment. They might not all be dead, so watch your backs as you move.”

There was a brief round of acknowledgements. The Marines sounded confident, as well they might; they’d spent the last two years boarding pirate vessels and bringing their crews to heel. 3rd Scouts sounded much less confident; it would be their first deployment on active service, ever since they had passed the makeshift training program for fighting in space. Jasmine was more worried than she cared to admit about having the Scouts along, but she had to admit that there was no choice. There were only a handful of Marines and they couldn’t all be assigned to pirate-hunting starships.

“Open the airlock,” she ordered. “Marines … go.”

The vastness of space seemed to welcome her as she led the way out of the shuttle, firing her suit’s thrusters so that she would head down towards the tear in the enemy hull. Standard procedure was to board a welcoming vessel through the airlocks, but the pirate crew were far from welcoming. The Commonwealth sent captured pirates to penal settlements rather than simply shoving them out of the nearest airlock, yet Jasmine knew better than to assume that the pirates they were facing believed them. After all, the Imperial Navy had often promised to spare surrendered pirates and then broken its promise.

She winced as she pushed down into the pirate ship, dropping into a corridor that had been mangled by the direct hits. The upper half of a pirate corpse drifted through the corridor, spinning helplessly; Jasmine took one look and knew that there was no point in trying to get the pirate to a stasis tube. There was no sign of his legs anywhere.

“Gravity’s off,” Blake said, softly. “And air’s gone completely.”

“In this section,” Jasmine reminded him, dryly. “Blake, Joe; take point. Advance.”

The pirates had definitely slacked on their maintenance, she told herself as they made their way towards the bridge. Even the worst Imperial Navy CO, appointed through family connections rather than any competence, would have refused to serve on such a vessel. The hatches that should have sealed automatically were wide open, allowing the atmosphere to vent out through the gashes in the hull and out into space, while all of the emergency systems seemed to have failed completely. A number of pirates had died before realising what had hit them … they weren’t even wearing the shipsuits that would have given them basic protection while they struggled to don their masks. Jasmine hated to think about what her superiors would have said if she’d made such a mistake. She would certainly never have graduated from the Slaughterhouse.

She glanced into a side compartment and gritted her teeth. The pirates had kept seven captives there, handcuffed to the bulkheads. Now, they were dead, killed by the people who should have rescued them. There was nothing they could have done differently, Jasmine knew, but it didn’t make it any easier. She could only hope that it had been quick; it had certainly been cleaner than what the pirates had probably had in mind for them. None of the prisoners looked to have been saved for ransom.

“Got an airlock here, still sealed,” Blake reported.

Jasmine checked her HUD, then nodded. They’d reached the outer edge of Officer Country, where the officers had their cabins … somehow, she wasn’t surprised to discover that maintenance was better near the bridge. It was sloppy thinking – it wouldn’t save their lives if Officer Country was the only place to retain power after a direct hit – but typical of pirates.

“Set up the bubble, then break it down,” she ordered.

Her radio buzzed. “Engineering is a total loss,” Lieutenant Aniston reported. “The entire compartment has been shattered.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said. It was a pity – the Commonwealth Navy would have wanted the pirate ship to add to its small fleet – but it couldn’t be helped. “Any survivors?”

“None,” Aniston said. “We’re searching the remains of the compartment now.”

“Keep me informed,” Jasmine ordered. She switched back to the Marine command network as Blake and Joe finished assembling the bubble. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Joe Buckley confirmed. “Demolition charges are in position. Can we jump in?”

Jasmine smiled. “Go.”

The airlock shattered inwards as the two charges detonated, revealing a handful of pirates armed to the teeth. They seemed stunned to see the Marines, as if they hadn’t really expected the Marines to bother coming for them, then lifted their weapons threateningly. Jasmine barked an order and the platoon opened fire with stunners, sending the pirates toppling to the deck. They’d be picked up after the bridge had been secured.

No effective resistance materialised as the Marines advanced towards the bridge, checking each of the compartments as they passed. Several of them held slaves, captives the pirates had pressed into service on their vessel, all of whom looked too battered and broken to realise that they had been liberated. Jasmine knew that it would be years before they recovered, if indeed they recovered at all. Some of them would be scarred for life.

“Poor bitches,” Blake remarked, grimly.

“Have the medics ready to take a look at them,” Jasmine ordered. The pirates had, naturally, refrained from supplying their slaves with any shipsuits, although she wouldn’t have trusted shipsuits the pirates had provided in any case. Once the ship was secured, they could repressurise the hull, allowing the medics to move freely. “Then keep your eyes front.”

The airlock to the bridge was gaping open. Jasmine used hand signals to order Blake and Joe forward, both clutching stun grenades as well as their assault rifles as they moved. If the pirate commander was planning a last desperate defence, they’d jump back and throw in the grenades. She braced herself as the two Marines entered the compartment …

“Brilliant,” Blake sneered. “Just brilliant.”

Jasmine followed them into the compartment and saw what he meant. The pirate commander and his senior officers were conspicuously unarmed, their weapons drifting towards the far side of the compartment. They were holding their hands where the Marines could see them, refusing to give her platoon a single excuse for opening fire. They’d sent their men to slow the Marines, then surrendered …

“Take them into custody,” she ordered. At least the penal settlement wouldn’t be very pleasant, once the pirates had been interrogated to see if they could point the Marines towards any more pirate bases. Most of the pirate crews knew nothing useful, but their commanders could be very informative indeed. “And then secure the rest of the ship.”

“Understood,” Blake said. He seemed to share her sentiments. “Perhaps they will die under interrogation.”

Jasmine shrugged. Most pirates had no illusions about being made to talk by the Imperial Navy, which was quite happy to use everything from truth drugs to old-fashioned torture to get answers out of its captives. The smarter pirates used implants designed to make interrogation impossible, destroying their minds if they sensed that they were being interrogated. Outwitting even the very basic models was almost impossible.

“Perhaps,” she said. She looked for the bright side and found it. “If nothing else, we put this ship out of business and recovered some of their captives. Not a bad day’s work.”

***

“Secure the captives,” Layla ordered, once the brief report had been completed. “We’ll stow them in the stasis tubes until they are ready to be interrogated.”

She allowed herself a smile. The brief survey had confirmed that the pirate ship would require months in the yards before she could serve again – if she ever did – but her crew would be eligible for a share of the prize money. For the moment, the pirate ship could be left to drift along the edge of the system until a tug could be dispatched to recover her. It might be several months before they saw any of the cash, but they would see it. Morale was going to skyrocket.

“Captain,” Reynolds said, suddenly. “Two ships just came over the Phase Limit.”

He hesitated, then continued. “And one of them is broadcasting a Marine distress call.”

Layla didn’t hesitate. “Signal the Marines,” she ordered. “And then take us towards them, full military power.”

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5 Responses to “Semper Fi–Snippet II”

  1. G CHEAL April 1, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    Looking forward very much to reading this next installment of the Empire series 😉

  2. Larry April 1, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    When can we expect the next in the series?

    • chrishanger April 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      In two weeks, I hope. I’m just writing towards the conclusion now. (Then I have to do the editing, etc.) Chris > Date: Mon, 1 Apr 2013 21:29:19 +0000 > To: christopher_g_nuttall@hotmail.com >

    • John Engelman April 7, 2013 at 3:02 am #

      I just finished ‘When the Bough Breaks’ and have enjoyed the Empire Series. I did notice several misspellings and malaprops scattered through the series, including the last.
      Do you want any of these I note to be passed along?

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