The Price of Peace
THE WAR IS OVER. THE TREATY IS SIGNED.
AND ALL IS WELL IN THE GALAXY…
Izzy Umboto is a hero of the conflict between the Society of Humanity and the Unity Party. Instead of retiring and living out her days quietly, she’s wrangled command of her very own warship. Unfortunately, that ship is the less-than-state-of-the-art Patton.
Lieutenant Terrence Tordon, called “Trouble” by both his enemies and his friends, and even himself, is a career marine. The word “quit” isn’t in his vocabulary.
Now Lieutenant Trouble and his troops have signed on with Commander Umboto, trading a higher paycheck for the promise of action.
For all is not well in the galaxy. On the scattering of planets along the rim, remnant thugs of the Unity Party still hold power. In the shipping lanes of rim space, pirates roam freely.
Umboto and Tordon will soon learn that enforcing the peace can be just as expensive as fighting the war—and the cost will be counted in human lives…
Whites crisply starched and gig line perfect, Commander Izzy Umboto, captain of the Society of Humanity cruiser Patton, 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 overspoke 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, wanted her best team well rested for today. She gave the young officer an affirming smile as she again measured the distance between the Patton, 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 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 Izzy's bridge.
"Bos'n, 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 Patton. 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 she'd 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 Patton 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, Comm, 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 chop sticks.
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," Comm 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 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 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 Izzy's 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 the main battery range," Sensors reported.
"Are they armed?" Izzy snapped, staring hard at the main screen, as if her eyeballs might see something Pattons's 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 McVinty 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 of Unity?" the XO shot back. Officially, Unity was as dead as Shakespeare, to quote Izzy's 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."
"Comm, give me audio. No visual output on these transmissions." Izzy could fake the outside of the Patton. 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. What'cha 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 sneer. Then it went to puzzlement. "Your picture ain't 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 gold 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 Patton was crossing this system with fake containers squaring off her cruiser lines. On visual, radar, and laser, the Patton WAS the Pride of P. If the lieutenant in charge of the Patton's 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 the screen as it lost any hint of a smile. Now it was pure cold evil, only slightly softened by greed. "I don't 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 gonna 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 klicks."
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 comm button. "Crew, we got a possible pirate off our stern quarter. In a few seconds, they may range us. If they do, I'm gonna 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 zig. Put spin on the ship when I order the down zig."
"Flip ship, standing by. Down zig, standing by. Spin, standing by," was the curt response from the young JG at the helm.
"Guns, as soon as I order the zig, 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!"
"Flip ship!" Umboto snapped. The Patton quickly started rotating along its central axis. Now, instead of her vulnerable engines, her ice-armored nose faced hostile fire.
"Zig down," she snapped as soon as that maneuver was done.
In a blink, the Patton dropped out from underneath Umboto. As the helmsman 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 Patton took off on her own, cartwheeling through space. The ragged broadside from the self-proven pirate cut through where the Patton had been-almost.
One ray sliced into ice armor. The Patton lurched; pumps whined as they redistributed reaction mass to balance the spinning ship. Umboto 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 Patton 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," Umboto 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 Umboto 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.
The lights dimmed as five 6-inch lasers reached for the threat. In empty space, nothing colored the laser light; it passed invisible to the naked eye. Umboto concentrated on her battle screens. Rays ranged around the target, but there was no sign of a hit. Damn!
The Pattons's spin brought two new guns to bear. Using the misses, Guns modified their salvo pattern. Damn, Umboto missed the two broke guns. But wish in one hand and spit in the other... see which one you get the most out of.
The target turned red as a single gun nipped it just as the salvo ended.
"Got a piece of 'em," Guns shouted with glee.
The Patton lurched. "Sorry, ma'am," the helmswoman answered before her captain said anything.
"Do your best," Umboto said, hoping Gun's fire solution hadn't been hashed again. "XO, tell me something nice."
"Damage control reports they've got attitudinal control back. Helm, go to backup."
"Yes, sir." There was a pause while the Patton did nothing... exactly the way it was supposed to. The XO and Umboto breathed a sigh of relief at the same moment. And Umboto went back to her main problem. One damaged pirate.
"Sensors, talk to me."
"Target is putting on spin. Only a few RPMs, though. Ranging us constantly." That told Umboto the bastard knew how to fight his ship, but probably didn't trust his crew and equipment to a standard battle stations twenty RPM-and was still very much spoiling for a fight.
"Sensors, time since last enemy salvo?"
"Coming up on ten seconds."
"Helm, zig right."
Patton slewed to the right even as the helmswoman repeated the order. No enemy fire came.
"Batteries are charged," Guns reported.
Sending out the next salvo meant committing the Patton to a steady course for five seconds. "Sensors?"
"Bandit is charged, ma'am."
So which one of us fires first? "Hold course steady," Umboto said, while counting in her head one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three. "Zig up."
As the Patton zoomed up, the hostile lasers cut through the empty space where she'd been. Umboto had outguessed the bandit.
"Guns, pattern B."
"On its way," he said as the lights dimmed.
Five rays stabbed out, reaching for the pirate. One of them connected. The last two guns walked right into the target, slicing it.
"Good hits," Guns growled.
"Well done, Guns. Target their engines next salvo."
"Won't get many prisoners," the XO whispered softly.
"Three ships have disappeared and not a crew member to tell the tale, XO. I don't want prisoners. Let the other pirates sweat what happened to this one. Sooner or later, the marines will dump someone in my brig. I'm in no rush." Lights dimmed again. The five lasers slashed through the pirate for a second, then where a ship had been was only an expanding cloud of glowing gas. In only a moment, that too was gone.
"Yes!" Izzy crowed at her first kill... and immediately went back to work. "Comm, any distress signals, pods squawking?"
"Quiet as a tomb, Captain."
Izzy leaned back in her seat. "Helm, belay the spin. Take us back to one gee. Damage Control, report to the XO on anything needs fixing. And do an autopsy on that damn thruster. I want to know who, why, when, where and how it went bad."
"Yes, ma'am" came with a familiar sigh from damage control. Chips had been doing postmortems on too damn much of the Patton's hardware and software. The ship was a jinx. She'd spent the war as a yard queen, tied up waiting for parts. Postwar, the other merchant converts had been refitted back into freighters. Not the Patton. Nobody wanted her.
Still, the Society of Humanity's Navy was now responsible for patrolling one hundred and fifty planets, not the forty-eight they'd had before the war. And what with war losses, there were even less ships to do the job. So cruisers like the Patton, that nobody wanted, were being given to people like Umboto, whom, if she was honest, nobody wanted. Girl, you should have asked for the gripe sheet on the Patton before you said you'd take her.
Then she shrugged. The choice was between early retirement and the Patton. For Izzy, that was no choice, even if the peace-becalmed Navy Department hadn't included the promotion to captain that the skipper of a cruiser deserved.
So the skipper of the good ship Patton... whose every officer was drawing pay for one rank less than his or her job deserved... stood. "Stan, have division heads report to my day cabin in fifteen minutes. Let's critique this while it's still hot."
She headed for her cabin off the bridge, not turning back to acknowledge Stan's "Yes, ma'am." Only after the hatch closed behind her did she let out a yelp. "Hot damn, that was..." What? Scary. Fun. All of the above and a lot more.
She'd outsmarted the bastard! She knew she had to be a better ship-handler than any jerk who didn't bother to shave in the morning.
Her knees began to shake. He could have gotten lucky.
Izzy shook her head. No way! Lord, that was good! She'd have to get these feelings out before the others reported. If Stan even half suspected how much she loved hanging it all out and winning, he'd get out and start walking for the nearest navy base-with most of the crew ambling along right behind him.
Tigers get people killed. How often had Captain Andy warned her during the war that she needed adult supervision? Well, now the Tiger had the conn. She almost pitied poor Stan; providing the mature judgement for this command was going to be a hell of a job for the guy.
A light blinked on her desk. Mail must have come in during the shoot. Personal mail was rare; her navy career left little room for attachments. Izzy's sister Lora rarely wrote, but her kid Franny was writing regularly, grateful to Izzy for paying her college tuition. There had to be a way out of the slums that didn't mean putting on a uniform. Izzy had begged Lora to emigrate; there were planets begging for women, even a woman with a kid. Lora refused to leave Mom, as if the old drunk noticed her kids. Enough of that. Franny was fun, working hard to get out, getting close to husband-high. Izzy wouldn't mind paying for a wedding, or even the penalty for an unlicensed conception. Kids were cute, so long as they were someone else's to take home.
Izzy tapped the mail button; her screen filled with a weeping Lora. "Franny's dead. I should have called. I should have kept closer tabs on her at school. But she was at school!"
Lora's image broke down. Izzy took a step back from the vid as if she'd been slugged in the gut. Navy people died; you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. But college kids?
Lora controlled her wailing. "Franny loved gaming. We joked she was addicted, but I never thought... Izzy, there's this new drug going around. They say it makes VR real, that you forget there's a real world, that it makes every pleasure ten times better. She and her roommates hooked themselves up to a game and plugged themselves into a drug bottle."
Izzy slammed her fist down on her desk. "Not dehydration," the professional in her choked, the anger of foreknowledge almost overriding Lora's final sob.
"They died 'cause they never came out for a drink of water. Oh, God, if I'd only called. Just dropped by. I'd been meaning to. Honest, Sis, I'd been meaning to."
Izzy hit the close button. The pleading in her sister's eyes faded to blank as Izzy collapsed into her work chair. What was wrong? What was missing? How could Franny have done this? How could Lora have missed the signs? Izzy shivered; the world was crazy. She'd just risked her life to burn a pirate, and Franny had thrown her life away on a thrill.
Izzy sat slumped in her chair until the computer reminded her she had a meeting to run. Lora's message could wait for an answer. With a wrenching sigh that could not fill the void in her heart, Izzy went to do what duty demanded.
Reprinted from The Price of Peace by Mike Moscoe by permission of Ace Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright ? 2000 by Mike Moscoe. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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