Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 16 

Because of the nature of Manpower’s genetic slavery, there were very few ex-slaves who had any experience with the complex requirements of operating starships — of any kind, much less warships. There were no more than a handful who had any experience with operating the sort of huge warships — battlecruisers, dreadnaughts and superdreadnaughts — which completely dominated modern warfare. And none of those had any experience in command positions. The few ex-slaves who did have naval experience had mostly been marines. And those who hadn’t been marines had almost all been simple ratings. Volunteers from Beowulf and Manticore, where liberated slaves and the children of liberated slaves had enlisted in the military with ferocious patriotism, had supplied a small core of highly experienced and highly proficient officers, but that supply could be stretched only so far. It could have been exhausted very quickly, indeed, in manning heavy hyper-capable combatants, so what would be the point of equipping Torch’s navy with capital ships? Even if they could have afforded such craft, they didn’t have the personnel to staff and operate them.

Most poor one-planet star nations, faced with the same reality, abandoned any idea of having a navy at all. At least, beyond whatever token force the existing regime decided was necessary for its own self-esteem. That varied quite a bit. The general pattern was that nations with a reasonably democratic political structure only maintained what pre-space travel people would have called a “coast guard.” Nations which labored under autocratic regimes, on the other hand, sometimes devoted a preposterous share of the public wealth to supporting naval forces that were still much too puny to do any good in an actual war, but made the local despots feel good about themselves. These were the sort of despots who invariably paraded around in fancy military uniforms festooned with a chestful of medals and decorations.

As it happened, though, Torch’s immense pharmaceutical potential gave its new government good reason to believe that it wouldn’t take more than a few years before it could afford a real navy. Still a rather small one, granted, but a navy that would be powerful enough to deal with the sort of recent raiding expedition that would have destroyed Torch had not Luiz Roszak and his Mayan forces stood in the way. And, thanks to Roszak, they had a very substantial core around which that sort of navy could be built. But before they could make proper use of those ships, they had to train not simply the officers to command them but the crews to man them, and for that the Nat Turner-class frigates were ideal. Too small and feeble to survive a modern space battle, frigates were still big enough and had the FTL capability to provide Torch’s fledgling navy with the experience it needed to train its officers and ratings.

And, truth be told, there were frigates . . . and then there were frigates, and the Nat Turners were significantly more dangerous than most people might have expected. Effectively, they were hyper-capable versions of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Shrike-class LAC but with about twice the missile capacity and a pair of spinal-mounted grasers, with the second energy weapon bearing aft. Their electronics were a downgraded “export version” of the RMN’s (which was hardly surprising, given the fact that they’d been going to be operating in an area where the Republic of Haven’s intelligence services had ready access and no one in the galaxy had dreamed Haven and Manticore might end up allies), but the Turners were probably at least as dangerous as the vast majority of the galaxy’s destroyers. They were, in fact, considerably more modern and up-to-date fighting ships than the ex-State Security ships which had been handed over to Torch, and they would have eaten most navies’ destroyers for lunch in a stand-up fight. The new ships were earmarked for substantial upgrading courtesy of Haven, but until that process had been completed, the Turners were much better training platforms and combat units in almost every respect.

On the other hand, training could only go so far against simulated enemies. At some point, the frigates and their crews had to be tempered in real combat.

The trick, obviously, was to pick the right enemy — and for that purpose, Manpower’s far-flung slave-trading empire was ideal. There were any number of outposts and depots scattered throughout the human-occupied galaxy that would provide Torch’s adolescent navy with opponents tough enough to test it but weak enough to be defeated if the navy handled itself properly.

Hence, also, the Hali Sowle. The one big problem with using frigates against the slave trade — at least, against outposts and depots if not other spacecraft — was that the ships were hard to disguise. Nothing else really looked much like a frigate. By now only the most ignorant slave traders didn’t know that a slave revolt on the planet once called Verdant Vista had produced a nation of ex-slaves; that the new nation called itself Torch, a name which itself had obvious implications; that Torch had declared war on Mesa; and… had a small navy that mostly consisted of frigates. Granted, it wasn’t the only star nation that used frigates, but the rest were either single-star systems that generally stayed out of everyone’s way or the ramshackle or the now-collapsed Silesian Confederacy.

So here you are, staffing a slave trading depot, and a frigate arrives in your star system. Gosh, who is it most likely to be?

There would be no such suspicion attached to the Hali Sowle, on the other hand. Tramp freighters were an integral part of the slave trade. Some were slave transports themselves; others provided the slave trade with the supplies it needed. No slaver would think twice at the appearance of such a craft in their star system, even if that particular freighter had never come there before.

And a Nat Turner could be handily fitted into many tramp merchantmen’s cargo holds, which had suggested all sorts of devious possibility to the RTN’s operational planners.

The Hali Sowle‘s owner and operator had to agree to the whole project, of course. But Ganny El was nothing if not a haggler, and she had a whole clan of people she was responsible for on whose behalf to haggle.

So, haggle she did. She’d already gotten Beowulf to absorb the cost of providing prolong treatments for all clan members still young enough to benefit from them. She figured it was time to provide those same now-long-lived youngsters with the galaxy’s best education, all expenses paid. By others.

Three others qualified, when it came to the galaxy’s best educational systems. Manticore, Beowulf, and most of the Solarian League’s other Core worlds.

For obvious reasons, the other Core worlds were ruled out. So Ganny started chewing on the flanks of Beowulf and Manticore. Both of whom, as it happened, were patrons of the new star nation of Torch.

****

But now, unfortunately, a hitch had developed. The Hali Sowle, it turned out, did not have an internal topology that leant itself to carrying the frigates inside its hull. Furthermore, being a merchant ship — and an old one, at that — it did not have the capability to operate the long-range drone sensor platforms that were critical to its mission. The compromise that had been decided upon was that the Hali Sowle would carry a support and communications module in its cargo hold that did have that capability. Both of the frigates would be tractored to the hull of the Hali Sowle, riding the racks which had been built to transport external cargo canisters back when the freighter’s designers had thought they were building an honest merchantman.

That wasn’t likely to be a problem, though. Unless Ganny maneuvered the freighter like an idiot once they neared a target — and nobody thought for one moment there was anything wrong with the old lady’s brains — there was no real chance that frigates tractored to the ship’s hull would be spotted by anyone. All she had to do was keep the roof or belly of the Hali Sowle‘s wedgetoward enemy sensors and they wouldn’t be able to see a thing.

The problem lay elsewhere. Trying to integrate the new, state-of-the-art systems of the comm module with the aged and obsolescent systems of the Hali Sowle was proving to be trickier than anyone had foreseen.

****

There came another string of blistering phrases over the intercom. Louder than usual, even.

— ever catch the worthless pedophile who foisted this piece of crap so-called software on innocent babes in the woods I swear to God I’ll cut — “

Donald Ali bin Muhammad couldn’t keep from wincing. Having taken a momentary break from his work at the nearby console, Loren Damewood spotted the grimace.

He laughed. “You think the grousing and griping is bad? Try negotiating with her sometime.”

Donald stared at him, wide-eyed. “Did you have to –“

“Not personally, no. ‘Course not. Way over my pay grade. Thank God.” Damewood shook his head. “But the stories you hear… Scare children to sleep with ’em.”

— be any razor, neither. Screw the quality of mercy. I’m going medieval. Chain saw, that’s what I’ll use. Never heard of a chain saw? Well, gather round, kiddies — “