TC50

As he began to carry out the command of Asmodeus to staff the Exiler with a new crew Lahatiel requested access to the full personnel records of the Navy of Mastema. Arioch said he would accommodate him only if he could be present during the selection process and retrieve the records personally.

House Gerash ran old school. All of the archives were in the form of microfilms embedded in punch cards. At Sol the equivalent archive would be in the Swarm and accessed by Micros.

First on Lahatiel’s agenda was an operations officer. He asked for the best tactician in the fleet, regardless of rank. Arioch retrieved four microfilms and Lahatiel instinctively went for the one that he seemed to be most reluctant to hand over. Suriel Larund was her name, and she had last served on the cruiser Coercer when Asmodeus had sent that ship in together with a squadron of smaller ships to follow up on rumors the Beaters had constructed their own supercarrier. They found the vessel in question, but during the battle the skipper of Coercer was killed when the hull was breached. Suriel took command using the lander as a secondary bridge, and sent fourteen four-yeng corvettes to their deaths making futile torpedo runs against the carrier. The Beaters were obliged to pull their fighter cover in close, and that opened a window for three bombers to stand off and let their payloads fly. Scratch one Beater supercarrier.

For the benefit of Arioch, Lahatiel read aloud a fragment from a fitness report penned by the Commanding Officer of the Wayfarer where Suriel served as the Tactical Action Officer. “She’s uncanny. With just a few occasional glances at her gear she maintains a complete picture in her head of what’s happening around the ship at all times, even in the heat of battle. This situational awareness has prevented collisions with other ships and even rocks on numerous occasions.”

Arioch didn’t care about any of that. What was important to him was the fact that Suriel was a woman, first of all, and second, that she was a woman who preferred other women in bed.

There was a time when a female officer would have been unthinkable in the Navy of Mastema, because women had been considered little better than property under the Law of Mastema from the very beginning. Even now as a commissioned officer, Suriel could own no land, not even if through some miracle she attained to the highest echelon, which to date no woman had ever done. But all that was before the Beaters started throwing rocks at the cities of Barbelo.

Mastema knew if a man, by some odd fluke, was killed by a woman in the death combat then he didn’t deserve to live and contaminate the gene pool. And if she died she yielded up a sister who would otherwise be unavailable.

“But obviously this Suriel must be very fierce,” Lahatiel told Arioch. “Always on guard against being raped.” As for Arioch’s other objection, about her sexual preferences, Lahatiel didn’t really care, and if the truth be known, neither did Mastema.

Suriel was in the first class of women who entered under the new rules, and at the time everyone thought they were suicidal. But after many trials Suriel and a hard core group of other women survived and they even did well for themselves. Suriel even went on to survive a second Laraji.

Suriel had three booty-wives, Auriel, Chobaliel, and Orifiel, plus one sister-wife named Camael. All of them were totally dependent on her continued financial support as a hashmal, but only her booty-wife Orifiel was her lover. When Suriel accepted Lahatiel’s offer to transfer to Exiler she said, “I ask to keep Orifiel in my stateroom aboard this ship, sir, and to keep my other wives safely on Barbelo.”

“I agree, Suriel,” Lahatiel said. “But please tell me one thing. I’d like to know your honest opinion of our Emperor.”

“Asmodeus I worship not, and why should I do so? All women are denied entry to the Temple of Mastema and from every shrine of Mastema. For me it was never a question of loyalty. Women are second-tier citizens in his Empire, and if it suits Lord Asmodeus to let me serve under you aboard his frigate, sir then it suits me as well, but neither you nor he should construe mutual advantage as fidelity.”

Lahatiel proposed to crew Exiler with just four officers and one ravmalak, when the normal complement of a frigate was eleven. When Arioch objected, Lahatiel reminded him that he had returned the vessel to Asmodeus with just his sister as crew.

The navigation officer took the ship out into the Eggbeater on a “shakedown” cruise that was really an opportunity for Exiler’s new crew to work and gel together as a team. And if some Beaters were flushed out of the woodwork along the way so much the better.

Two weeks into the training deployment Suriel said to Lahatiel, “I think I know what this is, sir, but I need a second set of eyes.”

Lahatiel joined her at the console. “Yes, I recognize those numbers, Suriel. Where did they come from? Why is there’s no corresponding symbol on your scope?”

“Sir, one time on the Coercer I was bored and I discovered that commercial signal analyzers are actually much more sensitive than what the SLIP-64 uses, so if I create a dummy symbol out there and hook it, I can open a beamport on that bearing and my store-boughten gear will trigger on stuff that’s way out there, long before the SLIP-64 shows a symbol. Just now I took a look out at 210 tack 45 and I got a whiff of something. Fusion motor signature. No doubt there are others nearby on different bearings. I can open more beamports out that way and fish around for more, sir.”

“Actually, I have a better idea. Gunner, program a torpedo for Launch On Bearing Only and send it on its way: 210 tack 45 and go.”

“Yes sir,” the weapon’s officer said, immediately complying with his order. Her fingers flew over the console and then a thump shook the ship. “LOBO away.”

There followed about an hour of watching with the Big Eye and waiting. Then Hashmal Suriel announced that one of the unknown contacts had lit off their fire-control radar to take shots at Exiler’s torpedo which they discovered, far too late, was almost upon them and in terminal cruise. A little puff of light appeared on the Big Eye briefly, indicating that either the gunner had scored a hit, or the enemy had somehow detonated her torpedo.

Immediately there was heard frantic shouting back and forth on UHF radio in the clear, indicating the presence of at least two more ships. It also told them the gunner scored a hit.

One of those two remaining ships started slicing and dicing the sky with search radar to find whoever it was that shot it at them, and after a few minutes they had Exiler locked on with what Suriel called “steady rails” which referred to the constant train of radar pulses on one of her scopes. It meant a torpedo was being launched at them.

“Gunner, warm up your laser and get ready for some incoming rounds. And helm, begin taking random evasive maneuvers, I don’t want to make it easy for them to hit us.”

Immediately everyone began to be pitched back and forth in their couches as the navigation officer made wild course changes under high acceleration. Meanwhile the engineer, below-decks, monitored the strain on the engines. Sure enough, within ten minutes a rising whine filled the bridge. Suriel had picked up an inbound torpedo and immediately initiated countermeasures.

As Suriel tried to jam the torpedo with Macksy the weapon’s officer spotted a dot moving against the star background on the Big Eye and started putting short, powerful, Q-squelched laser pulses on it, one after the other. The lights on the flight-decked of Exiler dimmed with each power draw.

Somehow, the gunner never missed and she didn’t need any stinking fire control radar, an uncanny fact that astonished even veterans when they saw her do her magic. Every hit took a toll. Pretty soon the dot became a harmless scattered line of tumbling commas that missed the ship by a good 500 meters, flashed by like a set of lightning bolts, then sailed off to infinity on the other side.

“That was my first real ship-to-ship tussle,” she said.

Lahatiel beamed at her. “You performed like a champ. Everyone did.”