Graham Paul: The Battle of the Hammer Worlds

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Graham Paul The Battle of the Hammer Worlds
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    The Battle of the Hammer Worlds
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Graham Sharp Paul

The Battle of the Hammer Worlds

Saturday, June 19, 2399, Universal Date (UD)

Holterman system Merchant Ship Constancy, outbound from Korovin system

“Cargo’s stowed, Captain. Just doing my final walk around now.”

The flat, uninterested voice of the Constancy’s first officer dragged Captain Curtis Karangi away from a review of the options he’d have if the Feds discovered the containers the Constancy had just loaded. Karangi was not a happy man; it had been a depressing exercise. The plain fact was that if the Feds did intercept his ship, being neurowiped was probably the best offer he was going to get.

Karangi picked up the old-fashioned hand mike. “Captain, roger. We’ll get under way shortly.”

“Righto,” the first officer replied dismissively.

“Righto! Righto! I’ll give you righto, you disrespectful son of a bitch,” Karangi muttered as he smashed the mike back into its cradle.

Karangi sighed despairingly as he patted the stun pistol that never, ever left his hip. If the damn Feds didn’t get him, his crew probably would, every last one of them an insubordinate, money-grubbing ratbag. And if his crew didn’t get him, Constancy would. The bloody ship was clapped out, a death trap, her every transit through pinchspace a roll of life’s dice. But he was trapped. He owed money-mountains of money-to a Hammer-backed finance company, and until it was paid off, he would do exactly what they wanted him to do.

Goddamn the Hammers. A more evil bunch of people he hoped never to meet. If it were up to him, he’d have nuked them all to hell years earlier. After all the grief the Hammers had dished out over the years, why the Feds hadn’t done just that he would never understand. Anyway, it mattered not-they had him by the balls, so if they wanted him to captain a blockade runner, that was exactly what he was going to do. Besides, they might be complete assholes, but they paid their blockade runners handsomely. He would keep slipping contraband past the Feds and into Hammer space-something he fancied he was very good at-until he had repaid every cent he owed.

Well, Karangi consoled himself. Look on the bright side. Two more runs would see his debt paid off in full, with interest. Then, finally, he would be off the hook, and the Hammers could go screw themselves.

Five decks below the bridge, Constancy’s first officer gave the brilliantly lit cargo bay a last look-see. Satisfied that all was as it should be, he slipped behind a wall of contraband containers. Safely out of sight of the ship’s surveillance holocams, he concentrated on the task at hand. He would not get another chance; if he wasn’t on the bridge for Constancy’s departure out of the Korovin system, Captain Karangi would want to know where he had been and what he had been up to.

It was the work of moments to connect a thin cable into the ship’s emergency data network. Impatiently, the first officer waited as the covert access routines loaded into his neuronics burrowed their way through the layers of security that protected Constancy’s master AI. Finally, he was in. Disguised as a diagnostic logging subroutine, he downloaded the ship’s navigation plan buried in a mass of other ship data. Moments after that, the entire plan-now an anonymous collection of heavily encrypted data packets-was on its way via the ship’s communications hub down to Korovin’s planetary net.

Where the data packets had gone, the first officer did not know, nor did he much care. He would be well paid for what amounted to less than a couple of minutes’ work, and that was all he cared about.

With a final check to make sure nobody else was around, he was on his way up to the bridge.

At 17:23 Universal Time, the massive bulk of Constancy began to accelerate slowly away from Korovin planet. According to the flight plan lodged with Korovin nearspace control, its destination was the obscure planet of al-Harrani, 425 light-years distant.

Wednesday, June 23, 2399, UD

Federated Worlds Warship Ishaq, berthed on Space Battle Station SBS-44, in orbit around Jascaria planet, Federated Worlds

Junior Lieutenant Michael Helfort’s posting to the Haiyan class heavy cruiser Ishaq started badly.

Michael’s left leg was on fire. He swore under his breath as a white-hot sliver of pain cut its way through his thigh. It had been months since a razor-sharp piece of titanium blasted off the hull of the light scout DLS-387 by a Hammer rail-gun slug had ripped into him; his leg was still not right. Stubbornly, the pain refused to go away despite the best efforts of a host of Fleet surgeons and their prodigious armory of medical geneering, targeted drugbots, psychotropic pain inhibitors, and neuronics blockers. The pain stayed, a dull ache in the background until provoked into the open to explode in snarling fury.

Like now, and fool that he was, he had not bothered to get his drugbots replenished.

Rigidly at attention, Michael stood in front of a tall, sour-faced man. He had been there for a good five minutes. His weight drove down into a thigh muscle that protested every second it was held immobile. He kept his eyes locked in approved Fleet style on the man in front of him, unmoving because that was the last order he had been given.

Michael’s tormentor was Ishaq’s officer of the day. The man was turned out in immaculate dress blacks; medal ribbons, unit commendations, and combat command hash marks were conspicuously absent. The name tag read LIEUTENANT XING. Michael wondered what the man’s problem was. He sure as hell seemed to be having a bad day, though why Xing seemed so determined to take it out on him was a mystery.

Michael needed every ounce of self-control to stand in silence while he let Xing’s tirade run its vitriolic course. He tried to explain that he was late because the up-shuttle had suffered a main engine defect. Xing had not been interested. He had cut Michael off with a contemptuous order to speak only when instructed to do so. You pompous, stuck-up moron, Michael thought, his face a frozen mask, eyes on his tormentor’s face.

“You haven’t heard the last of this, Helfort. Let me see. . yes. The executive officer is expecting you at 10:00, so try not to be late. The ship’s administration office will comm you the rest of your induction program. Now get out of my sight.” With a dismissive flick of the wrist, Xing turned away.

For a moment Michael stood there, unsure what to do. He might be only a lowly junior lieutenant, but long-standing Fleet tradition dictated that one member of the duty watch be detailed by Xing to carry his gear to his cabin. God knows, there were plenty of duty spacers to call on; they stood ranged against a bulkhead. To a spacer, they avoided Michael’s eye. He suppressed a sudden urge to smile at the sight of the long line of spacers, apparently all engaged in studious examination of the air lock’s overhead wiring. He realized that no order was going to come from Xing, to whom Michael seemingly no longer existed.

Bugger it, Michael thought. The time had come to show Xing and the rest of Ishaq’s crew that he was not going to take any more crap than he absolutely had to.

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