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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, January 22, 2018 17:24 EST



    Captain Trina Clegg tapped the release, and the hatch into Vanguard’s bridge slid open in front of her. She grabbed a handhold, noting as always the misaligned pair of plates on the inside of the pocket that had yet to be fixed. A lot of these older ships had been slowly warped and twisted over the years from missile launches, high accelerations, and simple age.

    Also as always, she turned her eyes resolutely away as she pulled herself through the hatchway. Vanguard still needed a lot of work to bring her to full fighting strength. Nonvital internal plate assemblies were way down on the priority list.

    The ensign at the tracking station glanced up, stiffened.

    “Captain on the bridge!” she called.

    At the front of the compartment, Commander Bertinelli swiveled around. His lips compressed, just noticeably, before he smoothed them out.

    “Welcome, Captain,” he greeted her gravely.

    The words were correct, and delivered in the correct tone. But Clegg wasn’t fooled. As far as Bertinelli was concerned, Clegg was an interloper, a Johnny-come-lately who had no business being on this ship.

    And who certainly had no business being flag captain of the newly restructured Aegis Force.

    On one level, Clegg could sympathize. Bertinelli wanted to command a battlecruiser. Wanted it so badly he probably had fever dreams about it. A few years ago he’d been offered the cruiser Gryphon, but he’d turned it down, preferring to stay on as Vanguard’s XO. His theory, as far as Clegg could tell, had been that he’d somehow thought staying where he was would put him first in line once the position of Vanguard’s captain was finally vacated.

    If so, he’d been sorely disappointed. Six months ago, a slightly doddering Captain Davison had announced his retirement. Bertinelli had probably gone out the next day and ordered the champagne to celebrate his imminent promotion to Vanguard’s captain, and he was probably the only person who’d been surprised when it wasn’t offered.

    Personally, Clegg was surprised his career had survived turning down the cruiser command at all. In fact, she suspected that only connections in high places had prevented his relief and reassignment to the kind of slop duties normally given someone who declined to sit the first time they pulled out the captain’s chair for him.

    Not surprisingly, at least for anyone who knew him, Bertinelli didn’t see it that way. Instead, he blamed Clegg.

    “Nothing to report, Captain,” Bertinelli continued, unfastened his straps. Again, his words and tone were correct, but Clegg couldn’t shake the feeling that he believed the universe’s highly unmilitary state of serenity was also somehow her fault. “Very quiet out there.”

    “Quiet is good, XO,” Clegg told him, giving each of the displays a quick but careful look as she floated past them. “I think our recent exercise demonstrates that, don’t you? Speaking of which, what’s happening with Bellerophon’s sidewall snafu?”

    “Last I heard, they were still working on it, Ma’am.”

    “Which was when?”

    She looked at Bertinelli in time to see another quick twitch of his lip.

    “About three hours ago, Ma’am.”

    Three hours. Clegg managed to not roll her eyes, but she pitched her voice quite a bit crisper as she turned to the com section.

    “Com, signal Bellerophon. I want an update on their sidewall situation.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.” Quickly — maybe a little too quickly — the petty officer turned to his board.

    Bertinelli’s face had gone stony.

    “You have a comment, XO?” Clegg asked.

    The commander took a deep breath.

    “No, Ma’am,” he said stiffly. “Except that I already instructed Bellerophon to report if there was any change. I doubt they’ve forgotten.”

    Clegg regarded him thoughtfully, wondering just how stupid he really was. Aegis Force had returned from its most recent underway exercise to its overwatch position in Manticore orbit ten hours ago. There were many arguments in favor of simply staying in orbit and carrying out simulated exercises, but Clegg agreed with Admiral Kyle Eigen that the only way to be confident of a warship’s systems was to actually use them, not just pretend to use them. That was particularly true when the ships in question were as long in the tooth and short of spares as the Royal Manticoran Navy. That consideration had been given an extremely sharp and painful point just three weeks earlier, when too much of the RMN had been reduced to wreckage.

    And that when Bellerophon’s captain was forced to report that his Number Two sidewall generator was down for maintenance, Commander Bertinelli had missed the minor fact that Captain Stillman should have reported that before the exercise, not in the middle of it.

    Nor was that the only system failure the exercise had turned up. The ancient art still known as gundecking reports, the practice of somehow failing to note any embarrassing items which might reflect poorly upon ship or officer, was alive and well.

    In the shrinking, underfunded, peacetime RMN, that had been merely contemptable. Three weeks ago, it had also become criminal dereliction of duty.

    But not everyone seemed to have gotten that particular memo, which was why Clegg had requested end-of-the-watch updates from Bellerophon — and every other ship in the squadron — on the status of any major equipment casualties, including state of repair, estimated time of completion, and actual time of completion. Since the watch had changed over an hour ago, Captain Stillman’s report should have been waiting in her message queue when she entered the bridge. And an XO who could find his rear end with both hands and approach radar should already have asked Stillman — respectfully, of course — where it was.

    And should then have referred the matter to the squadron’s flag captain. Who could be just a bit less respectful when she asked for it.

    “There’s probably been no change,” she acknowledged. “But it never hurts to make sure of that.

    In your long and illustrious naval career? Bertinelli didn’t actually voice the comment, but the sentiment was plastered all over his face.

    “Understood, Ma’am,” he said, again managing to keep his tone sufficiently north of insubordinate. “May I point out — ?”

    “Bridge, CIC,” Lieutenant McKenzie’s terse voice came from the bridge speaker, interrupting Bertinelli. “Commander, we’ve got a hyper footprint at zero-eight-nine by zero-zero-two, relative to the planet. Range is ten-point-six-two LM — call it one-niner-zero million kilometers.”

    “Acknowledged, Lieutenant,” Clegg replied. “Commander Bertinelli, I have the ship,” she added formally, grabbing the handhold on the back of the Missiles station and turning her casual drift into a human missile vector. Bertinelli had just enough time to get himself clear of the command station before she hit the back of it, did a stop-and-corkscrew maneuver that she’d developed back when she was a lieutenant, and shoved herself into place. “Astro, plot me an intercept course. Engineering, bring impellers to immediate readiness, but do not bring up the wedge. Com, alert Bellerophon and Gryphon of the situation. Order them to Readiness Two, but inform both of them that they are not — repeat, not — to bring up their wedges or transponders.”

    “Aye, aye, Captain.”

    Taking a deep breath, Clegg flipped up the protective cover. She touched the Alert key, blasting the earsplitting klaxon onto the ship’s intercom system. She gave it three seconds, then turned it down to a background buzz.

    “General Quarters, General Quarters,” she announced. “Set Condition Two throughout the ship. Repeat: set Condition Two throughout the ship. Admiral Eigen, please report to the bridge.”

    She keyed her mic back to the dedicated Combat Information Center channel.

    “Talk to me, Lieutenant.”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” McKenzie’s voice replied. “We don’t have a firm count, but it’s definitely five-plus. I can’t say how many more there are until they get closer or spread out enough for us to see past the leading wedges to the trailers.”

    “But your minimum number is solid?”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” McKenzie said firmly “Tracking is confident of at least five impeller signatures.”

    Clegg’s earbug pinged. “Bridge, Eigen,” the admiral’s voice came. “What do we have, Captain?”

    “Unknown ships have entered Manticoran space, Sir. They’re approximately thirty thousand kilometers outside the hyper-limit and about two degrees above the ecliptic. That’s all we’ve got right now.”

    “Have you alerted System Command?”

    “No, Sir, not yet.”

    “Well, they probably already have as much information as we do, but go ahead and give them a heads-up anyway. You’ve informed Gryphon and Bellerophon?”

    “Yes, Sir, and moved them to Readiness Two.”

    “Good. Plot us a running intercept and have CIC start squeezing the ether for everything they can get. I’ll be there in five.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    The admiral keyed off, and Clegg looked over at Bertinelli, hovering stiffly in the cramped space between her and the helm.

    “You were about to say something, XO?”

    His eyes flicked to the display above her head as it changed from engineering status data to full-on tactical.

    “No, Captain,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

    Clegg nodded and shifted her attention to the maneuvering plot, a hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach. She’d been aboard Vanguard three weeks ago, supervising the battlecruiser’s recent work, when Admiral Tamerlane blew into the system, demolished Janus Force, and came within an ace of doing the same to Admiral Carlton Locatelli’s big, fancy Aegis Force. Vanguard’s meticulous reconstruction work had instantly shifted to an insane scramble to get the wedge up so that Clegg could take the unarmed, undermanned, paper tiger of a ship out to face the attackers. Pure bluff; but combined with the unexpectedly brilliant defense thrown together on the fly by the Navy and MPARS, it had done the trick.

    At the time, Clegg had been enormously frustrated that she and her ship hadn’t been able to actually do anything to help. Now it looked like the universe was offering her another chance.

    Because there was no reason for this many ships to come into the Manticore System all at once. No reason at all.

    Unless they were Round Two of the invasion.

    “System Command has transmitted Code Zulu to all commands and units, Ma’am,” Com announced.

    “Very good,” Clegg acknowledged.

    “All departments reporting Condition Two,” Tactical reported.

    “Acknowledged,” Clegg said, and felt a cold smile at the corners of her lips. Vanguard was still undermanned, and still very much underarmed.

    But she was no longer just a paper tiger. She could fight.

    And she damn well would.




    “…and so he got away,” Lisa finished her story. “With our nodes down, there was nothing we could do about it.”

    “Mm,” Travis said, taking a bite of his ravioli.

    A fairly tasteless bite, actually. Not the ravioli’s fault, but his. There was just too much uncomfortable camaraderie going on around the rest of the table for him to concentrate on his lunch.

    The clever maneuver Lisa and Chomps had cooked up during the Battle of Manticore was bad enough. It gave them a connection and a personal history together that Travis would never be a part of.

    But this Casca thing was even worse. Lisa had given him a summary of the murders and the following events years ago, right after she and Damocles returned. But until now he hadn’t realized just how closely she and Chomps had worked together to bring it to its conclusion.

    And it bothered him. He was embarrassed to admit it even in the secret depths of his own mind, but it bothered him.

    He was glad Lisa was alive, of course. He was equally glad that her cleverness had kept Chomps from getting killed, too, both on Casca and in the recent battle.

    But why did they have to be so happy and cheerful and friendly about it?

    It was a childish reaction. He knew that. But that knowledge just made it worse.

    He’d worked so hard to try to make himself someone who was unique in Lisa’s life. Yet here she was, laughing over mutual private jokes with someone else.


    With an effort, he blinked away his silent brooding. Lisa and Chomps were both staring at him, puzzled expressions on their faces.

    The same puzzled expression, probably.

    “What?” he demanded.

    “You’re a million light years away,” Lisa said. “Everything okay?”

    “Of course,” he said. “Ma’am.”

    Lisa’s frown deepened a couple of degrees. Chomps’s actually lessened, by the same amount. Was he amused at Travis’s sudden awkwardness? Probably.

    “Because if we’re boring you — ” Lisa began, then broke off abruptly, raising her wrist and keying her uni-link. “Donnelly,” she said, her frown deepening.

    Travis watched her face closely. The stiffness, the slightly narrowed eyes…

    “Understood, Sir,” she said, her voice taut and formal. “I’m on my way.” She keyed off and pushed back her chair. “I have to go, Travis.”

    “What is it?” Travis asked as he and Chomps also stood.

    “Hyper footprint,” Chomps said, lowering his own arm to his side. Travis blinked with mild surprise; with his full attention on Lisa, he hadn’t even noticed that Chomps had also received a screening. “Aegis Force picked it up, right on the hyper-limit. I expect Excellent’s got them by now, too.”

    “We’re being recalled to our ships,” Lisa said, already heading toward the restaurant door. “Cazenestro wants everything that can move out of orbit thirty minutes ago.”

    Travis cursed under his breath. Casey was in space dock with her starboard sidewall generators disassembled and a third of her nodes undergoing maintenance. Whatever was about to happen, he and his ship were out of it.

    “Oh, wait — the check,” Chomps said, stopping abruptly. “I need to — ”

    “I’ve got it,” Travis cut them off. “Go.”

    “Thanks, Sir,” Chomps said, already halfway to the door, Lisa right behind him. “I’ll pay you back.”

    If you live through whatever’s about to happen. Travis winced, even more ashamed of his uncharitable thoughts a few minutes ago. He’d seen the reports on the Navy’s combat status, and it wasn’t good. Nearly every ship that had been in the battle had taken damage, either from enemy weapons or self-inflicted by aging or improperly maintained systems that had been strained beyond anyone’s shortsighted expectations.

    The waiter was already on his way with his tablet. Travis pulled out his fob, squeezing his thumb against the reader as he tapped the tablet to transfer the funds. He and the waiter exchanged nods, and Travis hurried for the door —

    And nearly collided with Lisa as she came charging back in.

    “Come on,” she said, beckoning sharply. “Townsend’s getting his air car.”

    “Me?” Travis shuffled to a confused halt. “I haven’t been — ”

    “Haven’t been called up,” Lisa said, grabbing his arm and pulling him toward the door. “I know. But I just remembered that our ATO was reassigned to Vanguard and we don’t have a replacement yet. Maybe you can take his place.”

    Three seconds later, they were outside.

    “But I’d need orders,” Travis protested as she steered him toward an aircar just settling to the street in front of them. “I can’t go aboard without orders.”

    “She can screen on the way, Sir,” Chomps called to the open side window. “If it doesn’t work, you can at least enjoy the ride.”

    “Okay,” Travis said.

    This was happening way too fast and way too far outside normal procedures. But too many people had died in the battle three weeks ago. If this was going to be a replay of that invasion, the Navy would need every man and woman it had. Including Travis Uriah Long.

    A week ago, Travis had been reminded of his stated willingness to die for the Star Kingdom and warned that he might well get the chance to do so.

    This might just be that chance.



    The translation nausea faded away, and Jeremiah Llyn keyed on the repeater displays in Pacemaker’s private command center. If everyone had made the translation according to his orders…

    They had. Mostly. The six ships of the Royal Starforce of the Free Duchy of Barca — an absurdly pretentious title for such a tiny navy, but Barca was like that — were a little out of position, but not too badly, given the vagaries of hyper astrogation. At least the two troop carriers were positioned behind the cruisers and corsair as Llyn had ordered, and all of them were a few thousand kilometers in front of Llyn’s compact courier ship.

    And behind Pacemaker, lurking far to the rear, were the two modest-sized freighters.

    They were puny things, as freighters went: just under five hundred thousand tons each. They weren’t nearly as efficient as the usual one- to two-million-ton ships, and they were often a source of amusement for the crews of bigger freighters when they arrived at a port. Many people considered them a sort of “starter” ship for people whose ambitions were way larger than their credit ratings.

    Still, smaller ships could make a decent living if they focused on exotic — and pricy — luxury goods. Those who considered them a joke usually had a quiet laugh and then forgot them and turned their attention to more important matters.

    Which was the main reason Llyn liked the ships so much. Warships in port were never ignored. Small freighters — even small freighters secretly packing the firepower of a top-of-the-line destroyer or cruiser — were.

    “Signals from Shrike and Banshee,” Captain Lionel Katura’s voice came from Pacemaker’s intercom. “They report half a dozen civilian transponders within range, but nothing military.”

    “Thank you, Captain,” Llyn said as the transponders’ positions popped up on his repeater display. Pacemaker’s own sensors hadn’t yet picked them up, but that was no surprise — the freighters’ sensor suites were as sophisticated as their weapons, smart-skins, and ECM equipment.

    There were members of the Axelrod Corporation board, he’d once heard, who had objected strenuously to spending the huge stacks of money required to design and build ships like Shrike and Banshee. Personally, Llyn couldn’t think of a better use of money than the corporation’s Black Ops division.

    Diplomacy, bribery, cajolery, leverage, manipulation, and sheer purchasing power had their place in business negotiations. But sometimes, it just came down to force. And when it did, the wise negotiator made sure he had plenty of it in reserve.

    Besides, there were even times when a freighter out here in the back-of-beyond had a legitimate need for defensive armament. Which made a nice cover if any pointed questions about armed ships happened to float to the surface of the Axelrod pond.

    Not that there should be all that much force needed today. Three weeks ago, the Volsung Mercenaries had hit the system with more than enough ships, missiles, and proficiency to make quick work of the obsolescent Royal Manticoran Navy. A few of the Manties’ smaller ships might have escaped destruction, and there were probably one or two still cowering over at Gryphon and Manticore-B, but they weren’t likely to make trouble. As long as Landing City and the Star Kingdom’s precious king were under the Volsungs’ guns, Llyn should have no trouble delivering Barca’s formal demand for the surrender of Manticore to the Free Duchy.

    After that, he would withdraw and let Major General Sigismund Haus and his Axelrod advisory team take over. Once the Barcan occupation troops had been landed and Haus was settled into the Royal Palace, Llyn and the two Black Ops ships would take a leisurely tour of the system and make sure there was no significant danger. Then Llyn would head back to Barca, assemble the permanent occupation force and civilian administrative corps, and escort them back here. The Star Kingdom of Manticore would cease to exist, and Manticore would become a permanent part of the freshly-expanded Free Duchy.

    Haven might raise a stink, of course. The Solarian League would probably at least notice, though Llyn didn’t expect anything more than a few raised eyebrows from that quarter. But the disapproval would blow over quickly enough. This kind of conquest wasn’t exactly commonplace, especially this far from the conquering system. But it was hardly unique, either. Eventually Manticore’s neighbors would adjust to the new reality, and life would go on.

    Somewhere in there, the Free Duchy would quietly make an official deal with Axelrod for certain exclusive rights and trade privileges, an arrangement that no one was likely to notice. Then, when Barca “discovered” the Manticoran wormhole junction, Axelrod would be in perfect position to “manage” and “administer” the junction for them.

    And Axelrod, which was already hugely rich and successful, would become a great deal more so.

    He leaned back in his chair, watching the repeater plot as his squadron began accelerating in-system.

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