"Occultation, nine by twenty-five by eighty-eight," the tech at the sensor station sang out. "Vector twelve. Velocity five c."
Which brought the command deck to a coffee-spilling scramble at stations for confirmation.
A bogie. An FTL bogie.
Lieutenant Glenn Hamilton was Officer of the Watch for the middle watch. She instantly ordered, "Go dark."
Dark mode locked down the battleship's gunports, took the forcefield to complete opacity, and adjusted the deflectors round the engines to mask the ship's hot stern from the bogie.
In moments came the report from the systems specialist, "We are dark, sir."
Glenn Hamilton gave a single small nod, to herself more than anyone, and ordered, "Sound general quarters, dark mode." Then she opened her direct com. Before she could speak his name, Captain Farragut's voice sounded from the open com, "Hamster, what are you doing to my boat?"
"Captain, we have company," Glenn answered. "FTL bogie at fifty-nine light seconds. Looks like we saw him first."
"Them!" the tactical specialist loud-whispered a correction at her. "It's a them!"
"Them," Hamster amended her report to the captain. "We have multiple bogies."
"I'm coming up," said Farragut. Sounded pleased.
Glenn clicked off. She turned to the specialist at the tactical station, Marcander Vincent, a man really too old to be there. Most of the specialists and techs on board Merrimack were baby-faced youths paying off their college educations. "Who have we got scheduled out here, Mr. Vincent? Any authorized traffic?"
"None, sir. Target is in the no-fly corridor."
That could not be an accident. No one meets anyone out here by accident. Even when ships were actively hunting, chances of finding were long. Astronomically long.
The battleship Merrimack had been patrolling deep Scorpion space to the galactic west of Fort Ike for weeks now, scouring the vastness between stars for just such a bogie -- a needle of uncertain existence in this most vast of haystacks. Actually tripping over it took the hunters by surprise.
The only thing not unexpected was that it happened during the middle of ship's night. It was a saying on board Merrimack: if something was going to happen, it would happen on the hamster watch.
"Sir, shall I request IFF?" the com tech asked.
"Negative," said Lt. Glenn Hamilton as she passed the log to the XO, just arrived on the command deck with a silent signal for Glenn to carry on. "Maintain dark. Move us into shadow vector."
"Shadow vector, aye," the helm acknowledged.
Captain Farragut arrived on deck like a weather front, all bright crackling bluster, still buttoning his sky blue uniform jacket. Waved down the call to attention. "Thanks, Hamster," he acknowledged little Glenn Hamilton. The captain stood a full foot taller than his lieutenant.
He moved to the tactical station and landed a hand on the shoulder of the man seated there. "Mr. Vincent, what am I looking at?"
"Multiple-body FTL bogie, Captain. Conga line of them. Quick and dark."
John Farragut's blue eyes flickered back and forth across the readings on the tactical display. He could only see what the sensors interpreted for him. At FTL no one saw anything. Farragut glanced to his tall, striking XO, Commander Calli Carmel. "Stalker?"
Calli, who had not been on deck long enough to know, deferred to the Officer of the Watch.
Lt. Glenn Hamilton hesitated on a twinge of doubt. "I like to think we're the stalker, Captain. Commander. We picked them up on the skew. We are shadowing them."
The tac spec had all parts of the bogie plotted now. The plots appeared on the display strung out like beads on a necklace, spaced two light minutes apart.
"Look up here." Calli's long forefinger landed on a plot far ahead of the rest.
"That would be the point man," said the tac spec.
John Farragut nodded. "Has that look."
The look of ships sneaking through space they ought not be in.
Farragut tapped the screen. "Can we get any better picture than this without bouncing something off 'em?"
"Negative," Mr. Vincent reported. "They're buttoned up real tight. Not much in the way of emissions. Unless we get closer, this is as good as it gets."
"Did we get a res scan?"
Mr. Vincent nodded. "Not helping."
Resonance had no location, existing everywhere at once. Even narrowed to a finite target, a resonant sounding came back like a Picasso, and sorting the returns was an art.
Nothing could hide from a res ping. But you could muddy the return. "How bad is the reading?"
"Sir, if this is what we think it is and they peed in the pool, this is what it would look like."
"Okay. Let's tiptoe in." Farragut checked with his officers, "Are we dark?"
"Take us closer," said Farragut.
Calli issued the orders that would edge the battleship into a position at the rear of the dark train. From behind was the only way to get a good passive read on an FTL target. To move in between the plots would put Merrimacks own ass on show to the next plot in line. The command crew had to assume from the way the plots were deployed -- presenting the smallest possible profile to their most vulnerable angle -- that they did not want to be seen.
Merrimack's slow, incremental progress gave the ship's exec moments to read the log summary of the last hours, and to get her very long chestnut hair brushed and tied back out of the way.
Though the XO did look like she had been summoned here in the middle of the night, she still looked spectacular. Calli Carmel was an extraordinary beauty, which she never pretended not to know. Just never seemed to much care.
At last, Merrimack slid into the tail position, where the ship's sensors could pick up the target's infrared print. At FTL the signals came at you in a Lowrentz splat. It took a computer program to pull the readings apart into a recognizable picture.
Recognizable and familiar.
The sensor tech gave a low whistle, and Marcander Vincent at the tactical station sat back with his arms crossed. "Well glory be and surprise surprise, we got ourselves a Roman convoy."
"I'll be damned," Captain Farragut murmured.
Exactly what they were looking for.
Earth still used the old geocentric mapping system by which space was defined in relation to Earth, in named wedges fanning out along boundaries of constellations as seen in the Earth sky.
Palatine maintained the same convention despite the Roman homeworlds off-center location in the constellation of the Southern Crown -- because the Roman Empire still recognized Earth as their true homeworld. Terra, the Romans called it.
A homeworld to be reclaimed.
Both Earth and Palatine used the same names for the galactic spiral arms: Perseus for the outer arm, Sagitarrius for the inner one, with the Orion starbridge connecting the two.
Earth's solar system was located near the inner edge of the Orion starbridge. And though travelling the starbridge would eventually take you to the Sagittarian arm, it did so on a wide sweeping diagonal in relation to the galactic center. A direct route from either Earth or Palatine toward the galactic hub led across two kiloparsecs of thinly starred space popularly called the Abyss.
Two kiloparsecs made for a very long shortcut.
Palatine's solar system lay to the galactic south of Earth, and closer to the hub. The Romans claimed everything beyond Palatine -- including the galactic center -- as property of the Roman Empire.
Both sides knew that was all wind. No one truly recognized anyone's claim to any planet which the claimant had not physically flagged. That set Palatine and all the nations of Earth on a planet-stabbing race to all promising star systems in all directions.
Palatine had the early jump along the Orion starbridge toward the Sagittarian arm of the galaxy. Rome's colonies effectively blocked Earth expansion along that course. And toward Sagittarius was the favored direction.
Being older and denser than Orion space, the Sag arm promised the discovery of older civilizations and the possibility of contact with more advanced technologies. The U.S. was not about to cede that frontier to the Romans simply because a great region of settled and defended Roman Empire barred its path.
For a long time the only alternative to trespassing in Roman space, if one wanted to reach the Sagittarian arm -- and the U.S. very much did -- required U.S. ships to slog across the Abyss between galactic arms -- an unprofitable dark voyage of three months at threshold velocity. So it had seemed the technological prizes of the Sagittarian arm were destined to belong to the Roman Empire.
The balance abruptly shifted fifty years ago when the U.S. pulled off a colossal coup in their successful activation of the Fort Roosevelt/Fort Eisenhower Shotgun.
A ten-year project of staggering concept and undisclosed cost, the Shotgun could displace entire spaceships -- crew, cargo, all -- from Fort Ted in Near Space to Fort Ike in the Sagittarian arm -- thus leap-frogging the two klarc gap between galactic arms and reducing the three-month voyage to an instant.
Fort Ike lay well in the Deep End, on the far side of the Roman frontier. Fort Ike cut off Roman expansion eastward in the Sagittarian arm.
But from that moment fifty years ago when the U.S. proved displacement on a gargantuan scale was possible, the danger became that Palatine would build its own shotgun and box U.S. settlements in the Deep End between Roman zones.
The U.S. had mandated such a thing shall not be. The U.S. unilaterally forbade Palatine to construct its own shotgun -- a demand as absurd as Palatine's claim to the galactic hub and just as likely to be respected.
Of course the Romans would try. They must. Word on the wind spoke of a project named Catapulta, catapult, a term too kin to "shotgun" for comfort -- the concept of hurtling something over a great distance.
Such a project would require two stations: one in Near Space and one somewhere out here in the Deep End -- which two hypothetical Roman installations the U.S. called the Near Cat and the Far Cat.
The Near Cat would be too close to Palatine and its homeguard Legions to make an assault practicable. No one beat Rome in its home field.
As for the Far Cat -- Intelligence said the Far Cat would be under construction out here in Scorpion space where the galactic Via Romana of the Orion starbridge spilled into the Sagittarian arm.
And lo and behold, here was a Roman convoy -- one battleship, two Strigidae, and five Accipitridae riding herd on a long train of heavy cargo cars moving stealthily through a declared no-fly corridor.
Intell got it right.
"What are the odds?"
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