They'd been underway at 7500c absolute for a little over two days. Out this far into the void between the stars, ships naturally spaced themselves unimaginably vast distances apart. Even the most crowded starlanes would never see any two groups of ships closer together than the diameter of old Earth's solar system. At those ranges, tachyon radar was useless for detecting another ship. If you wanted to see a potential enemy before it was upon you, or before it slipped past, you had to either look for its thermal emissions — which propagated at the lethargically slow speed of light — or listen for any tachyons given off as a by-product of something it was doing.
Corrugators unavoidably gave off tachyons. Not a lot of tachyons, but enough.
"Been smooth sailing so far," Samuel said into his console mike. "No tachyon sources other than broadcast stations."
Even though it had been built for 2-meter-tall Outsiders, there was plenty of room on Samuel's flight deck for Strangen to stretch his metal body out. "Good," he transmitted. "That means the blockade's kept to its standard deployment pattern. We should be past the far side rim in about three hours, and there should be no Karthosian ships at all between there and Shanaya Reyansh c. But in the meantime, this is the picket wall. If one of them does stray close enough to detect us, it's going to happen right around here."
Samuel watched the arrows on his listening scope intently. They could tell the direction of a tachyon source, but not its distance; that had to be guessed at by its intensity. Fifteen arrows now filled the display, but each of them crept backward across the scope in the manner of a stationary source. They were all known broadcasters. Samuel's ship was too far from the center of Karthosian-controlled space to detect Strangen's favorite, K1010, but Samuel's old standby N2519 was right there cranking out the obscure oldies.
"Amazing," Samuel said. "I think we might actually make it."
Strangen thought for a moment. "Will your one load be enough? For the whole colony?"
"Maybe," Samuel answered. "It'll give them a fighting chance at least." He looked up. "O fain to ye, who rule over men by driving them to despair. O fain to ye, who underestimate the living spirit."
"What's that all about?"
Samuel shrugged it off. "Just some second-millennium poetry."
The tiniest ping sounded, barely close enough to Samuel's mike for Strangen to hear it. A sixteenth arrow had appeared on the display. And this one was moving.
"We've got something," Samuel said, unable to keep the nervous edge out of his voice. "It's really weak, right at our detection threshold."
Strangen's voice came out of the speaker with an edge to it. "Can you make out the frequency peaks?"
"Like I said, it's really weak," Samuel said, "But . . . so far, it looks like there are peaks at 2.45 and 2.575 terahertz."
Strangen nodded, grimly. "That's consistent."
"A Heliton-class picket cruiser. Staple of every fleet throughout the blockade." He stared right into Samuel's eyes. "It's a ship killer. Its weapons can easily pound through all but the toughest military-grade shields. Its corrugator can cruise at a factor of three hundred thousand, and pull four hundred thousand for short bursts; your ship doesn't have a prayer of outrunning it."
Samuel swallowed hard. "And even if we could outrun them, they've probably signalled the whole Karthosian fleet that we're here."
"Probably not," Strangen transmitted. "There are bragging rights associated with gunning down a blockade runner. If they were lucky enough to spot us, they'll want to make the kill themselves. They won't tell anyone we're here until they're so close that no other blockade ship could steal the kill out from under them. And since they never know exactly where all the other ships on patrol actually are, that announcement range is pretty damn short."
"And we," Strangen went on, "Are going to use that to our advantage. Keep on this heading and speed. Don't flinch. Act like you didn't see them. In the meantime, I'm going to need to use one of your airlocks."
"Airlock?" Samuel looked confused. "You're going outside?"
Strangen clanked over to the flight deck door and opened it. "If you intend to get past that picket cruiser, it's going to need to be neutralized."
Strangen clung to a makeshift hand-hold on the hull of Samuel's ship. The corrugation field extended far enough beyond the ship for Strangen to still fit comfortably within it. Under corrugation, the universe around them looked just the same as it did normally. The light that reached them from every direction hopped over the same microscopic spacefolds that they did, and their local speed of 0.05 c was too slow for relativistic effects to be significant. Of course, the light behind them was slowly getting older and older as they got farther from its sources, while the light in front of them steadily grew younger. If he paid attention, Strangen could see one or two of the nearby stars moving, ever so slowly, as they rushed past at 7500c absolute.
It had been like this for an hour now, and in that time Samuel's regular reports had evolved precisely as Strangen had expected them to. The tachyon source had gotten progressively stronger. Its bearing on the scope didn't change, which was consistent with an intercept course. Its peak frequencies sharpened, and all lined up perfectly with the Heliton class's corrugator emissions, which meant they could now estimate the range from the signal strength.
And, mercifully, no decorrugator missiles had come flying their way. Blockade pickets generally had that option, but such dampener drones were expensive. It was cheaper — and more satisfying for the crew — to close with your target to the magic 207 kilometer range at which your corrugators would shut each other down.
"Okay, Strangen," Samuel's voice sounded in his head. They were communicating over low-power radio — actual radio, not tachyons. Their would-be attacker wouldn't even be able to tell they were transmitting, much less make out what they were saying. "Estimated range is down under a thousand A.U."
"It's time," Strangen replied. "No tachyon transmissions after I've deployed. Don't even ask my status. They need to be kept in the dark as long as possible."
"From their emissions strength, this Heliton class has to be pretty huge. You sure you can take them?"
"Bragging aside, Samuel," the Starlane Destroyer transmitted as he divorced himself from the Outsider's ship, "This will be easy."
The instant he was clear of its corrugation field, the ship flashed to its full, rarefied length and vanished. It was 207 kilometers away in a tenth of a microsecond. Now, freed from the ship's gravitational interference, Strangen put his club into Warp mode and kicked in his own corrugator. He was now hurtling directly toward the Karthosian ship, not at the 7500c of Samuel's cargo carrier, but at 25 000c.
The blockade cruiser should notice him any second now.
Without warning, his corrugator shut off. Something was interfering with it. He saw it almost instantly — a tiny projectile, carrying its own tiny corrugator, had just crossed his 207 kilometer threshold and was headed straight toward him. Even without corrugation, its relative speed was a sizable fraction of the speed of light, and it was upon him before he could react. It wasn't dead on target, though; it sent out a dazzling burst of tachyons and gravity waves as it shot past. This would have fried an ordinary corrugation drive, were it not shielded inside the thick hull of a starship — or part of an alien artifact no one could destroy. In less than the blink of an eye, the interloper was over 207 kilometers behind him and headed for deep space. His corrugator kicked right back in again as though nothing had happened.
Hah! That was a counter-missile. The Karthosians thought he was an ordinary dampener drone. It was a mistake some Outsider military ships had made in the past.
With an astute crew, the failure of a counter-missile might tip them off that he wasn't just a dampener drone. But most crews weren't all that astute. They might try to pull evasive maneuvers in the hope that he'd miss them. He'd better track them, just as Samuel was doubtlessly doing on his own scope. He switched on the club's Sense mode (while leaving Warp mode intact), and sure enough, the tachyon source that was his target ship was shifting its direction slightly. Their maneuvers would be easy enough to compensate for; no starship's thrusters could change its local speed any faster than Strangen's thrusters could.
Speaking of which, it was about time to start bleeding off some of his local speed. Didn't want to come in too hot. He pointed his feet directly toward his target and cranked his thrusters up to max. Maybe that would convince them he wasn't a dampener drone. He tuned the receiver in his head to the standard Karthosian intership frequency, but heard nothing. No matter. A few more seconds and . . .
Bam. 207 klick Threshold. No more corrugation. With a deft, practiced motion, he switched his club from Warp and Sense modes to Deflect and Scan modes, and dove toward the blip. The ship was big enough to see without magnification, even at this distance, and it was getting bigger by the second.
"Starlane Destroyer," a voice sounded in his head. They'd finally guessed what was happening. "Turn off your gravity, turn on your transponder, and state your intentions."
That wasn't going to happen, Strangen thought. Or . . .
Was he really so sure?
He didn't actually have to go through with this. He could talk to them. He hadn't actually attacked them yet. They were giving him an out. He had no special loyalty to Samuel, any more than he did to the Karthosian crew serving aboard this ship. Did he really want to throw everything away, and be hunted by Karthos for the rest of his life?
And Dorsa . . .
He could still back out. He could delete his logs, make up some story about systems failure. He could let them destroy Samuel's ship, and go right back to Karthos as though nothing had happened.
But if he blatantly attacked this blockade picket ship . . .
I had to do this, he heard Samuel's words in his head. I couldn't sit by and let Hali die.
And how many other Halis . . . and how many other Samuels . . .
"I repeat, Turn off your gravity, turn on your transponder, and state your intentions!"
He locked his gaze on his Karthosian target. This had to be done.
At ten kilometers, the voice spoke once more, giving the last order it would ever give to him: "Starlane Destroyer, stand down or we will open fire!"
At three kilometers, the ship's weapons started blazing at him. All of them missed.
At two kilometers, his force field shuddered into life. The weapons fire grew, and Deflect mode came to the fore.
At one kilometer, he batted away or dodged or simply withstood everything the ship could throw at him.
And at zero kilometers, his club became the ram that smashed its way through a weak shield node and into the ship's interior.
This time, the passageway inside was taller, wider, deeper, and just generally roomier than the ones in every Outsider ship he'd breached. It was sized for the Karthosian stature. Its builders also had enough confidence in the ship's artificial gravity to lay its decks out parallel to its thrustline instead of perpendicular to it. For a brief instant, he felt like he was back aboard some flagship, headed for some state or military function, back on those occasions when they'd paraded their metal hero in front of the soldiers or the crowds. It was an illusion; his club's Sense Mode brought him back to the present. This ship's corrugator was six decks down and forty meters aft. He pushed himself sternward under antigrav.
That was when the first three troopers appeared. Karthosian troopers. They stood just as tall as himself, and wore the same uniforms he'd felt so at home with on his old comrades-in-arms. They took up positions and unloaded on him with ineffectual small arms fire. Instinctively, he snapped his club into Burn mode . . . and then switched it back into Deflect mode. He couldn't make himself kill these guys. Instead, he kicked in his thrusters and flew toward them at full accel. Two of them jumped out of the way; the third, much to Strangen's dismay, bounced off his right shoulder and slammed into the bulkhead.
At that moment, Strangen was glad he was deaf. He couldn't hear the bones crack.
Onward, and downward. More troops, a few of them carrying plasma mortars. Such weapons were too massive for Outsiders to fire from the shoulder, but to Karthosian troops they were little more than big rifles. Again, he stuck to Deflect mode only. He batted aside the blasts that came from the front, and let his force field — on low power now — take the brunt of the blasts from behind. The looks on their faces grew increasingly desperate the closer he got to the corrugator room.
At last, before him lay the thick, hardened-steel bulkhead housing the core of the ship's FTL propulsion. A 3-meter-tall hatch was set in the steel, but it was even thicker than the bulkhead itself. His Sense mode told him that the corrugator's gravity bottle was four meters to the right of the door. Normally, he'd aim for this point and smash his way through.
Instead, he searched for the tiniest structural cracks in the bulkhead to the left of the door, and smashed through this weak point. Terrified eyes behind him watched him walk, almost casually, into the corrugator room. They were sure the violent smashes they next heard were unleashing the hell contained within and would doom them all. But . . . that didn't happen. Strangen systematically smashed every panel and power conduit and control bus leading to the gravity bottle, but left the core itself intact. Thus deprived of power, the corrugator simply fizzled out.
Strangen blasted his way back out, the same way he'd come in. They even had the good military sense to open fire on him again as he sped away into deep space, as ineffectual as the gesture was. He crossed the 207 kilometer threshold moments later, and warped off to rejoin Samuel.
He'd done it. He'd neutralized this threat with minimal loss of life. Without their corrugator, they'd be stranded in deep space. It would take days to get it back into working shape. Even if they sent out a call for help, the nearest other Karthosian blockade picket was doubtlessly over half a day away.
He only hoped he'd be as lucky the next time.