Authors: Mike Moscoe
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
THE PRICE OF PEACE
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2000 by Mike Moscoe.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized
editions. For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
Ace mass-market edition / January 2000
Cover art by Scott
Cover design by Diana
To the Men and Women
Who put on the uniform every morning
When the victory parades are over and there's still work to be done
Who pay the Price of Peace with their sweat and pain, loneliness and fear
and to Trudy Moscoe
and all the wives and kids, and now husbands, like her
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
About the Author
WHITES CRISPLY STARCHED and gig line perfect, Commander Izzy
, captain of the Society of Humanity cruiser
, started her day as she stepped from her cabin onto the darkened bridge. The stink of tense sweat washed over her, just about wilting her uniform where she stood.
"Captain on the bridge," the Officer of the Deck's voice cracked.
"As you were," she
the lieutenant. "Any change in our unknown?" she asked as she had every hour through the ship's night. Izzy studied the main screen; it answered her before the OOD could.
"No change, ma'am," the OOD shot back. The young man's Adam's apple bobbed nervously. Recently qualified, this was his first time to sweat out a possible hostile approach with the entire ship his responsibility. Izzy had accepted the risk, wanting her best team well rested for today. She gave the young officer an affirming smile as she again measured the distance between the
, leisurely crossing this system at one gee like any heavily laden freighter, and the unknown galloping down on her at three gees. It was exactly where she expected it to be.
Izzy glanced around at the rest of the bridge crew, tired, worried young faces lit in multi-hued reflections from their stations. "Well done, all of you. Quartermaster of the watch, jack up the blowers." The hum of the air circulation fans went up several notches. For the night, the lights and blowers had been reduced to aid the crew's rest. It was time to get the crew up—and the smell of fear off
. pipe the crew to chow. Announce battle stations in twenty-five minutes." She was cutting it close, but just as Nelson had calculated how fast the wind would drive his liners down upon the French and Spanish fleet, physics decreed how quickly a ship accelerating at three gees could overtake a ship making one gee. When would not be the surprise today. Who did what to whom—now, that would get exciting real soon.
"I'll be in the wardroom. Call me if anything changes."
"Yes, ma'am" and "Captain off the bridge" followed her. She'd only had this crew for two months, but they'd shaken down well. If only the damn boat was as good. All her career, Izzy had dreamed of commanding a ship in space, lusted for it in the worst way. She doubted it could get worse than the
. Izzy shrugged, as she had so many times in the war. No use complaining about what you can't fix. The potential pirate bearing down on her—now that was something shed enjoy fixing.
The whiff and clatter of breakfast greeted her well before she entered the wardroom. As she did, a steward's mate started fixing her usual breakfast plate. Izzy noted he went light on the reconstituted scrambled eggs and bacon, and blessed him. This morning, she'd share a hearty meal with her band of officers. Still, she didn't want to lose it as she hurtled the
through battle maneuvers. And leaving half her breakfast on the plate would not be a good signal to her team.
The exec, Guns, Damage Control, Engineering,
, and the leader of her marine detachment had an empty place at their table; she joined them, removing a white linen napkin from the dark blue tablecloth, and settling it in her lap as the steward deposited her plate in front of her. "Thank you," she smiled.
"Think we got ourselves a real pirate?" Guns grinned through a heap of eggs.
"Don't know many merchants that charge around a system at three gees." Izzy smiled in agreement. "Hell on the bottom line. Right, Vu?"
The bald, round chief engineer, last remaining member of the ship's old merchant marine crew, nodded like a silent Buddha, then went back to chasing his curried rice with chopsticks. Lieutenant Commander Stan Gabon, her exec, wiped his lips with a linen napkin. "Could be hostile. Then again, it could be a courier ship or a fast private yacht."
Izzy nodded, wondering if this guy had been a nervous ninny all his career, or had just adopted the role after reading her career brief. "But three ships have disappeared without a trace, or one squawking life pod. If that ship is a pirate, it's in for a very bad day."
"You got that right," Guns chortled. Surrounding tables joined him. Izzy felt a rush, pure joy at leading these men and women into combat. For twenty-five years she'd dreamed and trained. Today, she'd put it all together.
"If this damn bucket of bolts and chips holds together,"
muttered as the wardroom quieted. It got real quiet as his words sunk home.
The damage control officer looked grim. "We still haven't figured out why the stern sensor suite keeps dropping off line. The cable routing on this ship would drive a spider mad." "That's why warships are full of redundancies," Izzy said. Her overworked maintenance chief didn't look very convinced.
The exec's face was also a cool mask, telling her nothing. He was a troubling unknown. His file said he was solid, but something had gone out of him a month ago. His kid brother disappeared just before he was to testify before a senate committee investigating corporate connection to the enemy during the recent war. Tom had been an up-and-coming corporate man. Now he was long gone, or sleeping with the fish or whatever happened to hard-charging company men who knew too much of the wrong things. Stan had gotten quiet and withdrawn.
The leadership books said everyone had a right to grieve. Today, nobody had a right to mess up
battle plan. She glanced at her wrist unit. "We go to battle stations in three minutes. Let's make it a day to remember."
"Unknown in main battery range," Sensors reported.
"Are they armed?" Izzy snapped, staring hard at the main screen, as if her eyeballs might see something
sensors had missed. The unknown was getting awfully close— and not saying a damn thing.
"Stern sensors are down again, ma'am. I'm doing the best I can with the bow suite." Lieutenant Commander Igor
waved a dark hand at the dozen screens on his board with straight lines across them. And Izzy cursed the spare parts shortage for the forty-eleventh time this cruise. Damn budget-cutters.
Suddenly Igor's lines became dancing squiggles. "Skunk powering up main battery. His passive sensors are humming now." He shook his head. "Commander, that skunk is making music like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She's a warship."
"Society or Unity?" the XO shot back. Officially, Unity was as dead as Shakespeare, to quote
old boss. But what they said back on Earth and what a lone cruiser found far out on the rim of human space weren't always the same.
Igor tapped his board. Red lines appeared right on top of the yellow ones that skittered over his screens. "I make it a Daring-class Unity light cruiser."
Izzy eyed Igor's board. Yep, a damn Daring.
Every mother's son of which was supposed to be scrap! So much for the fine points of peace treaties. "Communications here, Captain. We're being hailed."
, give me audio. No visual output on these transmissions." Izzy could fake the outside of the
. There was no way to fake the bridge of a Navy cruiser with its crew at battle stations. "Yes ma'am," answered communications.
We're ready. It's show time!
"Howdy, stranger," Izzy drawled. "This is Betsy Corbel, skipper of the Pride of Portland.
want?" Betsy Corbel did captain the Pride of Portland... on the other side of human space.
A window opened on the main screen; an unshaven face stared out with a smile just one degree shy of a sneer. Then it went to puzzlement. "Your picture
coming through." "Lost our bridge camera a month back," Izzy assured him. "Haven't had the money to replace it."
"Oh." The man on screen looked none too happy about that. But with a shrug, he went on. "There're pirates around here. We'll escort you. Keep you safe. For a slight fee."
Izzy expanded the picture of the man to fill the entire main screen. That gave her a good look at the bridge activity behind him. His crew was a rough lot in rumpled clothing; some of it had started life as uniforms. None of it had been washed lately. In addition to the watch-standers, there was a clump of extra men and women with rifles, knives, and assault weapons lovingly in hand. Izzy glanced at her XO; he returned a grim nod.
Izzy had heard from several merchant captains who'd paid what these guys asked. She had no idea what the three ships that had failed to make their next port of call had said and done. That was why the
was crossing this system with fake containers squaring off her cruiser lines. On visual, radar, and laser, the
WAS the Pride of P. If the lieutenant in charge of the
electronic countermeasures was half as good as she claimed ... and her gear was working ... this skunk was still in the dark about nine six-inch laser cannons charged and ready.
"Sorry, friend," Izzy answered, "but I'm just barely breaking even these trips. I'll have to pass on the escort." Izzy tried to sound grateful for the offer. Come to Momma.
There was silent laughter among the armed crew behind the face on screen as it lost any hint of a smile. Now it was pure cold evil, only slightly softened by greed. "I
think you understand the situation, sister. You see. it's just you and me, and an awful lot of space. Cough up a charge number and you might live. Keep on the way you're going, and you're
end up in deep shit."
"Helm, go to two gees." Izzy let a tremble shake her voice. What she wanted to do was shout for joy.
"Bad choice, girl." The screen went blank. "Sensors, talk to me," Izzy snapped.
"They just powered up their active range-finding gear. They'll need about half a minute before they can range us."
"Distance to skunk?"
"Coming up on fifteen thousand
Izzy settled herself back in her chair—and tightened her belt. Around the bridge, the crew did the same. The quartermaster of the watch whispered, "Skipper just tightened her seat belt, folks. I'd do the same." Not a regulation announcement, but Izzy wasn't about to squelch the initiative. She was having too much fun. Twenty-five years she'd waited for this. Finally, she was commanding a ship in space in combat. If that ship was a pirate, and if it would just take a swipe at her.
She hit her
button. "Crew, we got a possible pirate off our stern quarter. In a few seconds, they may range us. If they do, I'm
start evasive maneuvers real fast. As soon as they miss us, we'll steady down and shoot back. This is what we trained for. We're good. Let's do it." She switched to gunnery circuit. "Guns, hold main battery fire until I give the word."
"Turrets B and X won't take a charge. We're working on them. The rest are ready, skipper.'" Damn the budget-cutters to hell and the spare-parts crunch right behind them. There was nothing she could do about that at the moment. The skunk was closing; it looked like she was going to get her fight. "Helm, prepare to flip ship and execute a down
. Put spin on the ship when I order the down
"Flip ship, standing by. Down
, standing by. Spin, standing by," was the curt response from the young JG at the helm.
"Guns, as soon as I order the
, you active-range that bastard with everything we got. I want that target dialed in when I order a shoot." "Yes ma'am" came back with a grin in it.
"Ping! We've just been pinged, laser and radar!"
quickly started rotating along its central axis. Now, instead of her vulnerable engines, her ice-armored nose faced hostile fire.
down," she snapped as soon at that maneuver was done.
In a blink, the
dropped out from underneath
. As the helmswoman initiated the defensive spin along the ship's long axis, the captain was slammed into her seat. That was planned. Then the stern plunged and the bow shot up. That wasn't. The
took off on her own, cart wheeling through space. The ragged broadside from the self-proven pirate cut through where the
One ray sliced into ice armor. The
lurched; pumps whined as they redistributed reaction mass to balance the spinning ship.
held her breath. Was the armor thick enough, the spin fast enough to keep the pirate laser from burning through? The pumps cut off as suddenly as they had started. The pirate had done his best. Now it was her turn.
"Hold fire, Guns, hold fire. Helm, steady as she goes."
"Going to manual," the young helmswoman answered. "Damn jets," she muttered as her hands twisted both joysticks at her station. Scores of attitudinal jets, normally balanced by delicate computer modeling, responded to her deft coaxing. After wild seconds, the
held steady, pitch controlled. "I think I can hold her here for a few seconds, Captain."
"Guns, we got them ranged."
"Did before that last jig, skipper."
"Main battery, fire salvo, pattern C,"
ordered. Even with laser and radar range finders, at fifteen thousand kilometers there was plenty of wiggle room for a five-hundred-meter-long ship. Guns and
had worked out an approach to that problem. Each gun aimed for a slightly different section of space, and zigzagged through it for the three seconds of the salvo. With luck, one gun would find the target, and the next salvo would center around that hit. Hopefully, the attitudinal problem hadn't destroyed her carefully laid plans.