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Chapter Forty

"Damn, I hate this kind of shit," Captain Duan Binyan muttered as the Jessyk Combine's armed freighter Marianne decelerated towards Kornati orbit.

"Why they pay us the big money," Annette De Chabrol, Marianne's first officer said philosophically. The tension around her brown eyes gave the lie to her calm tone, though, and Duan snorted.

He kept his eyes on the maneuvering plot as the freighter's velocity dropped steadily. So far, so good, he thought. And at least they'd been able to grease a few useful palms at this stop. Marianne's false registry and collection of bogus transponder codes could get them in and out of most star systems, especially out here in the Verge. In fact, she spent at least half her career pretending to be another ship entirely, especially when she had "special consignments" on board. But in many ways, Duan would have felt better transporting a cargo of slaves than running this particular load in through Kornatian customs.

Unfortunately, when you commanded one of Jessyk's "special units" and Ms. Isabel Bardasano personally explained that your mission was Priority One, you nodded, saluted, and went off and did whatever it was she'd requested. Quickly and well.

He'd made his rendezvous with the local Jessyk cargo agent a full light-year short of the Split System and precisely on time, despite having been diverted to drop off that load of technicians in Monica. No one had told him what that was all about, but he was used to that. He had his suspicions, anyway, and he'd been rather amused by the technicians' uneasy expressions when they discovered what their accommodations aboard Marianne usually housed.

Still, only Marianne's superior speed had let him make the rendezvous on schedule, and he was glad it had. That far out in interstellar space, he and the agent's dispatch boat could be confident of remaining unobserved while last-minute instructions were passed. The good news was that it meant that this time, at least, he was coming in with a complete local background brief and knew the arrangements to receive his cargo at least appeared to be in place and secure. The bad news was that the agent had also brought them up to date on the local political situation, and Duan didn't much care for what he'd heard about one Agnes Nordbrandt.

No one had told him specifically that he was delivering weapons to the FAK, but it didn't take a hyper-physicist to figure it out. He didn't have a clue why he was, other than the fact that Isabel Bardasano thought it was a Good Idea. Given Bardasano's reputation, that was more than enough for Duan Binyan.

But there was obviously only one group on Kornati who could possibly require the better part of four thousand tons of small arms, unpowered body armor, encrypted communicators, -stealthed counter-grav surveillance sats and drones, and military-grade explosives. And given the local authorities' ugly attitude, Duan Binyan didn't even want to think about what would happen to anyone caught running modern weapons into the hands of the "Freedom Alliance of Kornati."

Of course, he thought glumly, they can't kill us any deader than the frigging Manties would if they caught us with a special consignment. They've made that clear enough.

"Are there any Manty transponders out there?" he asked, prompted by unpleasant thoughts of the Royal Manticoran Navy.

Zeno Egervary, Marianne's communications officer-and also her chief security officer-glanced at his own display for a moment, then shook his head.

"Nothing. Not even a merchie."

"Good," Duan muttered, and slouched a bit more comfortably in his command chair.

Even without a special consignment aboard, Marianne had obviously been designed as a slaver, and she carried all of the necessary equipment. Which meant, under the Manticorans' "equipment clause" interpretation of the Cherwell Convention, she was a slaver, and her crew was guilty of slaving, even if there were no slaves physically present. And since the Manties seemed determined to move into the area, their nasty habit of executing slavers gave Duan Binyan a rather burning desire to be certain there were none about.

Fortunately, Marianne's sensor suite was good enough for Egervary to be sure there weren't. In fact, her sensors were far more capable than any legitimate merchantship-especially one that looked as decrepit as she did-ever carried. Nor was that the only unusual thing about her. The four-million-ton freighter might look like a tramp whose owners routinely skimped on maintenance, but she had a military-grade hyper generator and particle screening. Her acceleration was no greater than that of other merchantmen her size, but she could reach the Epsilon Bands and sustain a velocity of.7 c once she got there, which gave her a maximum apparent velocity of over 1,442 c , thirty-two percent faster than a "typical" merchie. He would have liked to have military-grade impellers and a military-grade compensator, as well, but those would have been almost impossible to disguise and would have cut massively into her cargo capacity. And if he couldn't have those, at least her designers had provided her with eyes and ears as good as most military vessels boasted, which was at least equally important to a ship which had to operate covertly.

She was also armed, although no one in his right mind-and certainly not Duan Binyan-would ever confuse her with a warship. She didn't make any effort to pretend she wasn't armed, although her official papers significantly understated the power of the two lasers she mounted in each broadside and her engineering log always showed that at least one of them was down for lack of spare parts. The Verge could be a dangerous place, and probably ten or fifteen percent of the merchies which plied it were armed, after a fashion, at least. The "inoperable" broadside mount was simply part of Marianne's down-at-the-heels masquerade, and half her point defense clusters and counter-missiles tubes were concealed behind jettisonable plating, again in keeping with her pretense of parsimonious owners.

All in all, Marianne was capable of holding her own against any pirate she was likely to meet. She could even encounter a light warship-a destroyer, say-from one of the podunk navies out here with a more than even chance of success. And on at least two occasions, Marianne herself had turned "pirate" for specific operations. On the other hand, any modern warship would turn her into so much drifting debris in short order. Which was the reason Duan and his crew vastly preferred to depend upon stealth and guile.

"We're coming up on the outer orbital beacon," De Chabrol announced, and Duan nodded in acknowledgment.

"Go ahead and insert us."

"Okay," De Chabrol acknowledged, and Duan chuckled. His ship might be armed, but no one would ever mistake her bridge routine for something a man-of-war would have tolerated for an instant!



* * * | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *







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