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Chapter Four

Captain Thomas Bachfisch, owner and master of the armed merchant ship Pirates' Bane, was a lean, spare man with a thin, lined face. He was more than a little stoop-shouldered, and despite his immaculately tailored blue civilian uniform, he did not cut an impressive figure. Nor, for that matter, did Pirates' Bane. At around five million tons, the freighter was of little more than average size for most regions of space, although she did tend towards the upper end of the tonnage range here in Silesia. But although she was obviously well maintained, she was not—despite her defiantly aggressive name—much to look at. To an experienced eye, it was apparent that she was at least half a T-century old, and probably a product of the now-defunct Gopfert Yard in the New Berlin System. Gopfert had once been one of the busiest shipyards in the entire Andermani Empire, supplying not only the Empire's great merchant houses but also building warships and auxiliaries for the Imperial Navy. But that had been a long time ago, and nowadays Pirates' Bane's lines were clearly dated, a bit antique. Indeed, her brand spanking new paint made her look like an over-aged dowager after an unsuccessful make-over, and anything less like her warlike name would have been difficult to imagine. Which was just fine with Captain Bachfisch. There were times, especially for a merchant spacer here in the Silesian Confederacy, when being underestimated was the very best thing that could happen.

As his present occupation demonstrated.

He stood in his freighter's boat bay, hands clasped loosely behind him, and watched with grim satisfaction as the latest group of Silesians to underestimate his vessel shuffled toward the waiting shuttle from the Andermani cruiser Todfeind. They were more than merely subdued as they filed between the row of waiting Andermani Marines and the armed crewmen Bachfisch had detailed to deliver them to their new jailers.

"We'll send your handcuffs back across as soon as we get these . . . people properly brigged, Captain," the Andy oberleutnant der Sterne in charge of the Marine detail promised him.

"I appreciate that, Oberleutnant." Bachfisch's tenor voice was just a bit on the nasal side, and its clipped Manticoran enunciation contrasted sharply with the Andermani officer's harsher accent.

"Believe me, Sir, the pleasure is all ours." The oberleutnant finished his count as the last prisoner marched droopingly past him. "I make that thirty-seven, Kapitän," he announced, and Bachfisch nodded.

The oberleutnant punched an entry into his memo board, then shook his head and gave the blue-coated man beside him a much more admiring look than naval officers were wont to waste on mere merchant captains.

"I hope you'll pardon me for asking, Kapitän," he said with a marked air of diffidence, "but just how did you manage to capture them?" Bachfisch cocked his head at him, and the oberleutnant shook his own head quickly. "That may not have sounded exactly the way I meant it, Sir. It's just that, usually, pirates are more likely to capture merchant crews than the other way around. It's always a pleasant surprise when someone manages to turn the tables on them, instead. And I have to admit that when the Kapitän told me to come across and take them off your hands I did a little research. This isn't the first time you've handed us a batch of pirates."

Bachfisch regarded the youthful officer, the equivalent of an RMN lieutenant (junior grade), thoughtfully for a moment. He'd already transmitted his complete report to Todfeind's captain, and the cruiser's legal officer had taken sworn statements from all of his officers and most of his senior ratings. That was SOP here in the Confederacy, where witnesses to acts of piracy were frequently unable to attend the eventual trials of the pirates in question. But it was obvious from the oberleutnant's earnest expression that his seniors hadn't chosen to share that information with him . . . and that curiosity was eating him alive.

"I prefer handing any batch of pirates over to you rather than to the Sillies," Bachfisch said after a moment. "At least when I hand them over to the Empire, I can be reasonably certain I won't be seeing them again. They know it, too. They were an unhappy lot when I told them who'd be taking them into custody from us.

"As to how we came to turn the tables on them . . ." He shrugged. "The Bane may not look it, Oberleutnant, but she's as heavily armed as a lot of heavy cruisers. Most merchies can't afford the tonnage penalty and structural modifications to mount a worthwhile armament, but the Bane isn't like most merchies." He chuckled dryly. "As a matter of fact, she started life as a Vogel-class armed collier for your own Navy something like seventy T-years ago. I picked her up cheap when she was finally listed for disposal about ten T-years ago because her inertial compensator was pretty much shot. Aside from that, she was in fairly good shape, though, so it wasn't too hard to get her back on-line. I replaced and updated her original armament at the same time, and I put a good bit of thought into how to camouflage the weapon ports while I was at it." Another shrug. "So most pirates don't have a clue that the 'helpless merchant ship' they're about to close with and board is actually several times as heavily armed as they are.

"Not until we open the ports and blow them to Hell, anyway," he said, and his tenor voice was suddenly harsh and very, very cold. Then he shook himself. "As for the clowns we just handed over to you," he went on in a more conversational tone which never warmed his eyes at all, "they were already in their boarding shuttles on the way across to us when their ship and the rest of their crewmates turned into plasma behind them. So they really didn't have much choice but to leave their weapons behind, come through the personnel lock one at a time, and surrender, exactly the way we told them to. They certainly didn't want to piss off our gunners by trying to do anything else."

The oberleutnant looked at the lined face and those icy eyes and decided not to ask any more of the multitude of questions still hovering in his mind. He felt reasonably confident Bachfisch would have answered them courteously enough, but there was something about the merchant skipper which discouraged too much familiarity.

The young Andermani officer looked around the boat bay gallery. Like everything else about Pirates' Bane, the bay was perfectly maintained. It was also spotless, with freshly painted bulkheads and a deck which looked literally clean enough to eat off of. One look at the freighter's captain would have been sufficient to warn anyone that he ran an extraordinarily taut ship, especially for a trader here in Silesia, but this went beyond mere tautness. Pirates' Bane looked far more like a warship, or the naval auxiliary as which she had begun life, than she looked like any "normal" merchantman the lieutenant had ever boarded.

He returned his eyes to Pirates' Bane's captain and came briefly to attention. He wasn't in the habit of expending military courtesy on mere merchant spacers, but this one was different. And despite the oberleutnant's own awareness of the steadily escalating tension between his own navy and that of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, he recognized that difference.

"Well, Kapitän," he said, "let me repeat my Kapitän's expression of admiration. And I'd like to add my own to it."

"Thank you, Oberleutnant," Bachfisch replied gravely.

"And," the Andy assured him with a thin smile, "I believe you can be confident that you won't be seeing this particular batch of pirates again."

* * *

Todfeind accelerated steadily away from Pirates' Bane, and Bachfisch stood on his command deck, watching the visual imagery of the departing heavy cruiser. For just a moment, his eyes filled with a deep, naked longing, but it vanished as quickly as it had come, and he turned to his bridge crew.

"Well, we've wasted enough time doing our civil duty," he remarked dryly, and most of the people on the bridge grinned at him. Bachfisch might never lose his Manticoran accent, but he'd spent the last forty T-years in Silesia, and like most crews in Silesia, the one he'd assembled aboard the Bane was drawn from every imaginable source. It included Silesians, Andies, other Manticorans, Sollies, even one or two men and women who obviously sprang from the People's Republic of Haven. But the one thing every one of them had in common was that, like the crew of the Bane's sister ship Ambuscade, they'd signed on with the express assurance that their ships would never be surrendered to the raiders who plagued Silesia. It might be a bit much to call any of them crusaders, and certainly if they were knights at all, most of them were at best a murky shade of gray, but every one of them took a profound satisfaction in knowing any pirate who went after the Bane or Ambuscade would never make another mistake.

None of them were quite certain precisely what it was which had motivated their skipper to spend the past four decades amassing the financial resources to purchase, arm, and maintain what amounted to a pair of Q-ships of his very own. For that matter, no one—with the possible exceptions of Captain Laurel Malachi, Ambuscade's skipper, and Jinchu Gruber, the Bane's exec—had the least idea how the Captain had gotten his hands on the warrant as a naval auxiliary which let him evade the Confederacy's prohibition against privately owned armed vessels. Not that any of them cared. However curious they might occasionally be, what mattered was that unlike most merchant spacers in the Confederacy, they could be relatively certain when they set out on a run that they would reach the other end safely even if they did happen across a pirate cruiser or two in the process.

The fact that most of them had their own axes to grind where the brutal freebooters who terrorized Silesian merchant shipping were concerned only added to their willingness to follow Bachfisch wherever he led without any carping little questions. His demand that they submit to military-style discipline and weapons training, both shipboard and small arms—and the short shrift he gave anyone who came up short against the high standards he required—was perfectly all right with them. Indeed, they regarded it as a trifling price to pay for the combination of security and the opportunity to pick off the occasional pirate. And every one of them knew it was the fact that Bachfisch's ships always reached their destinations with their cargoes intact which allowed him to charge the premium freight rates which also allowed him to pay them extraordinarily well by Silesian standards.

Thomas Bachfisch was perfectly well aware that most naval officers would have been appalled at the thought of accepting some of the personnel who served aboard his ships. There'd been a time when he would have experienced profound second thoughts about allowing some of them aboard, himself. But that had been a long time ago, and what he felt today was a deep pride in how well his disparate people had come together. Indeed, he would have backed either of his crews against most regular warships of up to battlecruiser tonnage, not just against the typical pirate scum they usually encountered.

He looked back at the visual display for a moment, then glanced at his tac officer's plot and frowned. In keeping with her armed status, Pirates' Bane boasted a sensor outfit and weapons control stations superior to those aboard most official Confederate Navy warships, and his frown deepened as he noted the data sidebar on the plot.

He stepped closer and looked over the tac officer's shoulder. She sensed his presence and turned to look up at him with a questioning expression.

"Can I help you, Skipper?" she asked.

"Um." Bachfisch rested his left hand lightly on her right shoulder and leaned forward to tap a query on her data pad. The computer considered his inquiry for a nanosecond or two, then obediently reported Todfeind's tonnage. Lieutenant Hairston looked down at the fresh numbers blinking on her own display, compared them to the acceleration sidebar, and pursed her lips.

"They'd appear to be in a bit of a hurry, wouldn't they?" she observed.

"I suppose that's one way to put it, Roberta," Bachfisch murmured.

He straightened and rubbed his chin gently while he gazed intently at the plot. Todfeind wasn't the very newest ship in the Andy inventory, but her class had been designed less than ten T-years ago, and she massed right on four hundred thousand tons. At that tonnage, her normal maximum acceleration should have been around five hundred gravities. Since the Andermani Navy, like every other navy in space, normally restricted its skippers to less than the maximum acceleration available to them under full military power, she should have been accelerating at no more than four hundred or so. But according to the tac officer's sensors, she was pulling just over four-seventy-five.

"They're right on the edge of their compensator's max performance," Hairston observed, and Bachfisch glanced at her. He started to say something, then shrugged, smiled at her, patted her shoulder once more, and turned to the exec.

"I know the contract specifically allows for delays in transit occasioned by piratical activity, Jinchu," he said. "But we've lost a bit more time than I'd wanted to, even to swat another pirate. I think we can make it up if we can talk Santerro into letting us jump the transshipment queue in Broadhurst, but I don't want to dawdle on the way there."

"Understood, Skipper," Gruber replied, and nodded sideways at Pirates' Bane's astrogator. "I've had Larry working an updated course ever since we diverted to deliver our 'guests.' "

"That's what I like to see," Bachfisch observed with a smile. "Conscientious subordinates with their noses pressed firmly to the grindstone!" Gruber chuckled, and Bachfisch waved at the main maneuvering plot.

"We've got a long way to go," he observed. "So let's be about it, Jinchu."

"Yes, Sir," the exec said, and turned to the astrogator. "You heard the Captain, Larry. Let's take her out of orbit."

"Aye, aye, Sir," the astrogator replied formally, and Bachfisch listened to the familiar, comforting efficiency of his bridge crew as he walked slowly across the deck and settled into his own command chair. No one could have guessed from his demeanor that he was barely aware of his officers' well-drilled smoothness as he leaned back and crossed his legs, but most of his attention was someplace else entirely as he considered Todfeind's acceleration numbers.

It was always possible Hairston's explanation was the right one. High as that acceleration rate might be, it was still within the safe operating envelope of most navies' inertial compensators. But not by very much, and the Andies were just as insistent about avoiding unnecessary risks or wear on their compensators and impeller nodes as the Royal Manticoran Navy. So if Todfeind's captain had elected to push the envelope that hard, then logically he must be in a very great hurry, indeed.

But what Bachfisch knew that Hairston didn't was that the Andermani captain had invited Bachfisch and his senior officers to supper aboard his ship. The IAN didn't extend that sort of invitation to mere merchant spacers every day of the week, and Bachfisch had been sorely tempted to accept it. Unfortunately, as he'd just finished remarking to Gruber, the detour to deliver the captured pirates had put Pirates' Bane well behind schedule, so he'd been forced to decline the invitation. But if Kapitän der Sterne Schweikert had seen fit to issue one in the first place, then he'd obviously planned on hanging around long enough for the meal to be served.

Which suggested that he wasn't in any particular hurry. Which, in turn, suggested that he wasn't pushing the envelope on his compensator.

Which suggested that the Andermani Navy had cracked the secret of the improved compensator efficiency which had been one of the RMN's major tactical advantages over the Peeps for years.

Thomas Bachfisch had visited his native star nation no more than half a dozen times over the past forty T-years. Most of his old friends and associates in the Star Kingdom had given up on him decades ago, sadly writing him off as someone who had "gone native" in Silesia, of all places. And, he admitted, there was at least some truth to that verdict. But that didn't mean he'd failed to stay abreast of the news from Manticore, and he had a shrewd notion that the Queen's Navy would not be happy to discover that the increasingly resentful Imperial Andermani Navy's ships were now just as fast as its own.

Assuming anyone at the current Admiralty was prepared to believe it, at any rate.

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