FOR THE GOOD OF THE EMPIRE
Part three of ten
"Kzinti frigate on scanners," Krealander reported. "Range one-hundred thousand. He's firing at that freighter."
"Freighter XG49 reports heavy damage and requests urgent help!" said the communications officer.
"Again..." Kaustin noted. "We already told him we're en route at top speed. The captain is panicking."
"Reasonable, under the circumstances," Kross said. "Arm disruptors, spin up the gyros on a drone ... two drones. Combat range in less than a minute. Shields up."
"Tigerman frigate is turning to run!" Krealander reported.
"Speed?" Kross asked.
"Warp three," Krealander reported. "He's keeping out of range, but he's not warping out."
"Pursuit course," Kross ordered. "Range?"
"Three hundred thousand," Krealander ordered."
"Tap him with one of the phasers," Kross ordered.
"Firing!" said the weapons officer. "Hit, no damage."
"Kzinti frigate is still at warp three, still at three hundred thousand," Krealander reported. "We can push a little more speed, get closer to him."
"Negative," Kross ordered. "If we use all our power for speed, we will have nothing for weapons."
"Drones!" Krealander announce. "Two of them. Now two more!"
"Forward phasers, target drones, fire at discretion," Kross ordered. "Turn sixty degrees to port. Aft phasers. Take out those drones!"
"Three drones destroyed..." the weapons officer reported. "Anti-drone got the last one."
"Data on Kzinti frigate," Kross asked.
"Speed remains at warp three, course remains steady," Krealander reported. "Range has opened to three hundred sixty thousand. Range continues to open. Shall we turn to pursue?"
"In time," Kross said. "I want to keep him sixty degrees off the bow so we have all five phasers to use against drones."
"Approaching oblique position," the helmsman said a minute later. "Shall I turn to parallel his course?"
"Affirmative," Kross said. "Maintain alert."
"Range is three hundred ninety thousand," Krealander said. "No drones from this point. He'll have to turn left and cut across our bow if he wants to hit us with drones. If he does that, we'll have to turn away to clear the phaser arcs, and he'll be in position to come in behind us with his disruptor. I recommend we increase speed and force him to fight or run."
"The advantage will be his," Kaustin said, having just reached the bridge. "If we use power to catch him, we won't have weapons armed."
"We can use our drones," Krealander responded.
"He has more of those than we do," Kaustin replied. "And we'll have to slow down or turn away to get our drones in front of us."
"Reduce speed by three percent," Kross ordered. "Let's open the range and put the power into keeping the disruptors hot. He knows he can't charge into our frontal arc. We have two disruptors to his one."
"You're letting him slip away," Krealander said. "Or you think you are. What you're really doing is giving him control of the battle. We're not forcing him to do anything, so he can do everything."
"That will be enough, Lieutenant," Kaustin said. "Let the captain fight the battle." The pursuit continued for nearly an hour. The Kzinti twice feinted an attack, and once turned sixty degrees right but Kross deftly turned the Axe Wielder and took up station three hundred and ninety thousand kilometers behind and to the right of the Kzinti.
"Kzinti ship is accelerating!" Krealander reported. "Going to full emergency speed. Breaking contact. Pursue?"
"Negative," Kross replied. "Keep our nose at him and maintain current speed for thirty minutes, then turn back and link up with the damaged freighter."
"Very well," Krealander responded.
"We have been over the reports," Jeppe said, "leaving us only one minor matter. Here is the Emperor's profit, and your own. I presume that the ESS has no objections?"
"None," said the ESS lieutenant sitting in the other chair. "At the request of Major Kehlen, I have certified that the accounting is correct and that the ... profits ... have been deposited in the Imperial account. The major's money is his own affair. So long as he does not go into debt and become vulnerable to coercion, his making or losing a few stars is not my concern." What the ESS lieutenant did not mention was that everything had been recorded. If this deal went wrong, the ESS would say they were letting the situation develop while building a case for treason.
"Very well," Jeppe said. "A pleasure to do business.
"Major, I will be returning to Pisthalon on my next trip. Can I pick up anything for you?"
"Yes," Kehlen said, looking at the cash on his desk. Sorting out twenty stars to put in his desk, he gave the rest back to the pirate. "Buy a few cases for me, would you? And would your tavern keeper be willing to sell the Emperor a similar amount of inventory, in addition to better reports on the export shipments from Pisthalon?" he asked.
"No doubt," Jeppe said, collecting both amounts of cash and carefully putting them in a separate compartment of his briefcase. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"As it happens," the ESS lieutenant interrupted, taking small bag of metal out of his pocket, "I would like to invest in this business venture myself. I have duly reported this to my chain of command, who have raised no questions."
"Very well," Jeppe said, "I shall see you both in three weeks."
Six weeks later, Major Kehlen and the ESS lieutenant had nearly doubled their salaries and Kehlen's discretionary account was showing a thousand stars of extra money. When the pirate mentioned that he had found a local miner on another planet who would steal low-grade dilithium crystals out from under the Kzintis' noses, both officers were only too anxious to provide their own money - and the Emperor's - to buy them at a fraction of what the Kzintis - or the Klingons - paid for them. The pirate explained that while the miner knew he was being robbed of their true valve, he had no other market for stolen crystals, and no real shortage of them, either. Kehlen's intelligence reports continued to note Kzinti complaints that the small low-quality crystals used in drone engines remained in critically short supply. Best of all, the profit on the crystals (sold directly to the local Klingon repair and production facilities), was ten times the profit on imported beverages.
Kehlen's funds went to make him a wealthy man. The colonel, the base commander, the base engineer, the ESS officer and his supervisor, and a dozen other officers were all giving Jeppe money to buy a steadily-expanding array of metals, crystals, gems, gourmet foods - and of course potable beverages - from Kzinti space. Kehlen took personal pride in the fact that drones built with Kzinti crystals and tipped with Kzinti Uranium were being used by his Imperial Majesty's ships, while Kzinti ships were short on reloads.
"I have a ship on scanners," the weapons officer said. "Get the Captain on the bridge."
"What have we got?" Jeppe said.
"Not sure yet," the weapons officer said. "Smells like a priority trader or something else that size."
"Leave it alone," the XO said. "It's probably military or at least government. They'll have a bridge watch and will report us the second they see us."
"Doubt it," the weapons officer said. "Plenty of independent miners and traders around these parts."
"Plenty of government ships, too," the XO said.
"Those odds are about even. Helm, follow him, but don't get any closer," Jeppe said. "Communications, keep a listening watch. If he sends a report to the nearest base in the next few hours, we will know he's government."
"If he's military, we won't see a tight beam signal," the XO said. "If you're going to do this, work your way around to his left and get between him and the nearest base."
"Good idea," Jeppe said. "Do it." Three hours went by.
"I heard a signal," the communications officer said. "Encrypted report. Low priority code. Give me a minute to break it." Humming to himself, the communications officer needed only half of the requested time. "Mining support boat, going from system to system to pick up metal and refine it on board. He's got to be weeks from his next port call."
"Send a message back to him, using the same code," Jeppe said. "Tell him to go to communications silence, change course 45° to port. Advise that ... a clandestine ship will join with him to deliver a special cargo."
"Yes, sir," the communications officer replied. "And by your leave, I will warn him not to reply to our signal."
"The trader has turned left," the weapons officer reported.
"This is too easy," the XO said. His fears that the Diamond Jack was falling into a trap were not borne out.
"Sixteen ships in fourteen months," the Police Commandant said. "That's way above normal losses. We have a pirate raider, maybe more than one of them, operating in the trans-frontier area. I need to implement a convoy system, keep the freighters in groups, have the garrison frigates shepherd the groups through their provinces, and get a ship or two to join the police for a sweep of the priority areas I have defined."
"Let's not be hasty," the Operations Commander replied. "Switching to a convoy system will require more fuel, and will make the whole sector transport network 20% less efficient. Ships will have to go out of their way and then wait to join a convoy. We'll see production from every colony and mining planet drop across the board unless we pull in more ships, which will cause even more fuel costs, and complicate the battle space management system. If we can even get more ships, which I doubt. The extra fuel costs and lost efficiency will cost ten times what those lost freighters have cost."
"The ship losses are accelerating," the Police Commandant pointed out. "Nine of those lost ships are in the last four months. We need to implement a convoy system now before things get completely out of control."
"We aren't going to let things get 'completely out of control,' Commandant," the Commodore said. "There are many ways to handle this, such as you requesting more Q-ships and patrol ships from your own chain of command."
"There are only so many patrol ships and Q-ships," the Police Commandant said, "and they are fully occupied with their current duties."
"There are only so many warships in this sector," the Commodore said firmly, "and those ships are already fully occupied with their assigned duties. For our part, we can solve most of the problem with a directive reinforcing imperial regulations about duty watches on freighters."
"As you know," the Intelligence Officer said, "we have had reports of unknown ships approaching freighters, then leaving in haste when the freighter broadcasts a distress call. Those freighters had someone on duty, who could get a distress call out when the proximity alarm sounded. No doubt, the lost freighters had no one on the bridge and no one could get there in time once the alarm sounded."
"Freighter crews are almost all non-warriors," the Operations Commander said. "It's not like the days before the war, when surplus naval personnel were seconded to freighter duty to keep their space skills current. Those military personnel have long since been moved to duty on warships, and freighter crews now are often half the pre-war size. A directive to keep someone on duty on the bridge at all times will eliminate most of the problem, as these pirates and raiders flee when a distress call is sent. A directive will set this right."
"You believe that a directive will solve the problem?" the Police Commandant said incredulously. "Is the ESS going to put an agent on every freighter to enforce the regulations?"
"Are you?" the ESS commander said. "I have only so many agents, and they are all assigned to duties. I will, however, send word to all ships with ESS personnel for the ESS to confirm that regulations are enforced."
"If we explain the depredations of the raiders," the Operations Commander said, "the freighter crews, civilians and subject race personnel alike, will find it in their interests to keep someone on duty. A directive will, I believe, reduce this problem. We will always lose a few ships to engineering failures or to various extraordinary life forms, and a few will be caught in the way of military operations, but piracy and raiders should be curtailed by simply enforcing the regulations, along with a greater effort by your police forces, of course."
"I shall explain my position in my report to the Police Theater Commander," the Police Commandant said.
"As shall I explain my position to the Military Theater Commander," the Commodore said. "Is there anything else?"
"Just one," the Police Commandant said. "I have compared the dates that ships were lost to the cross-border schedule of your hired pirate, and it is most disturbing. Nine of the last eleven losses have occurred when the whereabouts of the Diamond Jack cannot be accounted for. I want an ESS detail on that ship, and I will provide a police detail if the ESS cannot spare the personnel."
"That's insane," the Intelligence Officer said. "The Diamond Jack is absolutely honest, and has never attacked a Klingon freighter. He makes his money slipping into Kzinti space on our behest, and would not risk that contract for a freighter here or there. Having Klingon agents on board would just get him arrested in Kzinti space."
"It's a statistical fluke," the Operations Commander said. "That pirate is at a Klingon dock only a few days a month, so the mathematics would demand that 'most' lost freighters occur while he's not in our docks."
"Then order him to transmit his coordinates every shift, just like every freighter in the sector does," the Police Commandant said. "It's not going to hurt him to tell us where he is when he's in our space."
"Not practical," the Intelligence Officer said. "The Kzintis can track ships on our side of the frontier, and the pirate makes it a point to keep a low profile as much of the time as possible, so that the Kzintis will not know where he is, or what part of the frontier he is using to slip through."
"Nonsense," the Police Commandant said, "he can tight beam a report, even if it is just once a day, without compromising his ship."
"It's his life," the Commodore said, "and he takes more risks with it than any of us do, or anyone in my command. I will not order him to take risks that are not necessary."
"Very well," the Police Commandant said, rising to leave. "I will send you a copy of my report to Theater Police Command." He left without any pleasantries, but then, no Klingon would have thought any such things were necessary.
"Talk to the master of that pirate ship," the Commodore said. "Warn him that the police suspect him, even if we do not. If he is doing anything we don't know about, he will find it in his own best interest to stop doing it. Dismissed."