Lt. Igadushta and I watched the holo-display silently, leaving Admiral Chang to his thoughts. We could see that the eleven point heat sources were growing brighter when one suddenly flared up then grew dimmer. "What's happened?" queried the Lieutenant. The Admiral answered him.
"That Mr. Igadushta, is one of the pirate ships' power plants exploding as they tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate the skill and training of Imperial Naval personnel in emergency reactor operations. Or of scout personnel also of course" he added with a quick nod to me.
"Admiral, we will be in extreme weapon range in five minutes" Captain DuToit said in a calm voice.
"Thank you Captain" replied the Admiral, "you may fire when ready. Mr. Igadushta, instruct Springer and Anger to remain in our shadow, the pirates may think we're alone. If the pirate fleet remains together after they lift-off Springer and Anger are to watch our stern, firing on targets of opportunity. If the fleet scatters they are to act at discretion, but they are not to tackle the pirate flagship singly."
"Aye, aye Sir" said Lt. Igadushta who bent to his communication panel.
My job was over now and I felt superfluous as I watched the battle on the screens. Despite what most holo-vids show a space battle isn't visually impressive. Most modern weapon systems use directed energy beams which aren't visible in space; missiles are coloured black and you can only see their drive flares from astern. Fleet actions take place at such a range that when an enemy ship takes a hit it's only discernable on instruments.
I occupied myself by estimating when the pirate fleet would try to jump. They had now lifted-off as a group and were keeping together for the moment. For a safe jump the pirates had to have a very small amount of local gravity. Trying to jump inside ten diameters from an object was basically suicide; a catastrophic misjump with only a pile of debris emerging at the finish being almost a certainty. The odds on surviving grew progressively better as the distance from a gravity well increased; 100 diameters being considered a 'safe jump distance' which wouldn't put up your insurance premiums. The planet housing the pirate base was 8,000 km in diameter, getting 80,000 km away wouldn't be too much of a problem. The brown dwarf however was about 140,000 km in diameter and the base planet orbited at 1.1 million km from it. The pirates had at least 300,000 km to go to get out of the brown dwarf's lethal influence. We had a further distance to cover in order to to come up to them than they had to travel to be safe to jump, but we had had a running start which the pirates didn't. It would be close. The Castro had started firing now and the pirates were replying; both sides were hoping for a hit that would slow down their opponents. The pirates would stand a better chance of some escaping by scattering, but they were still keeping together. "Why don't they scatter?" I hadn't meant to vocalise but Admiral Chang had obviously heard me.
"They don't scatter, James" the Admiral said, "because their leader is an utterly callous man. By staying together he reduces the chance of any weapon being targeted on his ship and thus maximises his chances of escape."
"The other pirate leaders aren't stupid, they must realise this" I said, "what's keeping them from scattering?"
"The Flayer – and what a ridiculous title that is" remarked Admiral Chang, "- may have threatened to open fire on his confederates, he may have installed remote controlled explosives on their ships or ensured their compliance by some twisted method I can't even envisage James. I've dealt with pirates many times; they are scum."
We had been hit many times by lasers, but the armour of the old Castro was still thick and little damage was done. Our fire-control was obsolete and not in good condition but we had far more laser turrets than the pirates and they began to take damage. Fire from the pirates slackened for a short time although they must have realised that we had no spinal mount as such would have vaporised their ships long since. Indeed the Castro was so old they may have had no idea what class of ship she was.
As the range between us continued to reduce I saw the displays come alive with incoming traces; the pirates had launched a swarm of missiles at us, hoping to overwhelm our defences and cause sufficient damage for them to escape. My heart sank as I saw from the designations on the display that all the missiles had nuclear warheads. If Castro's elderly damping field failed the ship would be crippled and the casualties enormous.
Some missiles were destroyed by hastily retargeted lasers but most still came on. As they hit there were local explosions but no ship-wracking nuclear detonations. The old damper field had done its job and prevented chain reactions in the warheads. Now we were close enough for the fire-control systems to direct more powerful weapons. Streams of charged particles moving at just under light-speed hit the pirate ships and did terrible damage to their computers and electronic systems. The pirates' formation broke apart as ships veered and slowed at random; Springer and Anger closed in on vulnerable targets and wreaked havoc.
The range was such that instead of symbols the view-screens were showing the pirate ships themselves. My gaze was fixed on the Vargr-made pirate flagship and I saw glowing blue lines suddenly appear on her hull, the pirate leader was making a desperate attempt to jump before he had escaped the brown dwarf's grip. A yellow explosion blossomed just as the glow was at its height, whether caused by the ship's own overloaded systems or a hit by one of our weapons was uncertain. The pirate flagship disappeared into jump-space in the midst of a lurid blue and yellow glow.
And that really is it. The rest of the pirate ships were destroyed or captured; the base surrendered without a struggle; the missing twelfth pirate ship, a Vargr-designed freighter, turned up a few days later and was easily captured. Our casualties were light and I was pleased to meet once again in the wardroom, all of the junior officers I had met before. There was much rejoicing and as I'd taken the precaution of filling my suit's water bottle with scotch, a good time was had by all.
Later, on our return jump to Deneb we got to discussing the whole thing. The pirate fleet's very success worked against them; the more ships they plundered, the more powerful people they annoyed and the more resources utilised against them. Really their defeat was a matter of time. Even if the pirate leader survived, a most unlikely event, his reign of fear was over. Once his secret base was discovered his ace-in-the-hole was gone. Unfortunately none of the prisoners knew if pirate's rutter was merely a combination of several extant rutters or something more. All of the human captains committed suicide so we never found out if them all being Vilani was significant or not.
As I entered my quarters and closed the door, my vid-com screen lit up with Bwephulp's face. "Mr. Beecher" she said, "automatic data correlation led to the capture of the serial-killer the Usani strangler. He had travelled to Maelstrom and his identical modus operandus was picked up by the computers. I have arranged a medical examination at 10:00 tomorrow to determine if you are still in good health after your exertions. It's good to see you back."
"It's good to be back Bwephulp."