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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 31, 2018 07:57 EST



    “– about the size of it, Your Majesty,” Cazenestro said, looking up from the display recessed into the tabletop before him. “We’ve got better data on them, but I still wouldn’t call it good. And our ships…”

    “Yes,” Edward murmured, gazing at the screen. He’d seen plenty of tactical displays when he was Captain His Royal Highness six years ago, but none of them had painted a bleaker picture. There were a lot of numbers involved: positions, accelerations, times until wedges could be raised, times to arrival at Manticore.

    But the bottom line was that too many of the Navy’s ships were off at Sphinx and Gryphon, and none of them could get here ahead of the intruders. “Well, this is what we have to work with. Let’s focus on what this better data tells us.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.” Cazenestro said. “I’ll just mention in passing that Admiral Locatelli’s observations from Excellent track very closely with the ones we’re getting from Eigen and Aegis Force.”

    “I assume Excellent’s launchers are also ready?” Edward asked, turning to the com screen where Admiral Locatelli sat in the Thorson command room.

    “As ready as they can be,” Locatelli said, his image on the com screen tight-lipped. He’d been pushing for years to upgrade the missile launchers on Manticore’s single lunar base, Edward knew, but as always there was never enough money to go around.

    Still, the missiles that were there offered at least a theoretical last-ditch defensive shield.

    “We’ve IDed four warships with a high degree of confidence,” Cazenestro continued. “Vanguard’s CIC calls it at seventy-five percent; Commodore Osgood’s people on Excellent call it eighty-five. We still haven’t been able to get anything I’d call a good look at them, but we’ve picked up active radar emissions from at least two sources that look an awful lot like HighLink Sevens or Eights. Coupled with the formation they’re maintaining, it looks like at least four warships — probably nothing bigger than a cruiser, judging from the wedges — screening four or five ships pulling civilian-grade accelerations.”

    Edward pursed his lips. The Solarian-made HighLink radar systems were ubiquitous among naval vessels, including the RMN’s own, but their cost and maintenance issues meant they were seldom found on merchant vessels. “Four or five transports, you think?”

    “Hard to see what else they could be, Your Majesty,” Cazenestro said grimly. “I’m not sure why they’ve turned up three weeks after the attack, but it has all the hallmarks of an occupation force coming in to tidy up.”

    “Maybe.” Edward planted his forearms on the tabletop. “But as you say, why wait three weeks? Why not come in with the attack force and wait outside the limit until the shooting had stopped? Or at least take up station a few light-hours out and wait for a courier to come get them?”

    “We don’t have an explanation,” Locatelli said. “My best guess is that they simply screwed up their intended coordination. We don’t know where the attack originated, and we don’t know what their own logistic and timing constraints may have been. Maybe there was a delay loading the ground troops, or maybe one of the transports had an engineering issue and they were delayed repairing it.” He gestured somewhere off-screen. “But the fact that they’ve been in-system for over half an hour and still haven’t said a word suggests they aren’t exactly here to make friends. I think we have to operate under the worst-case assumption that this is exactly what it looks like.”

    “Agreed,” Edward said. “The question is how we want to respond. I’m inclined to go with the argument that this is a chance to get some of the intel we desperately need. Drawing them deeper in-system may give us an opportunity to take some prisoners and, if we’re very lucky, perhaps even capture a computer system more or less intact.”

    “But if we let them too far in-system, it makes a battle significantly more likely,” Cazenestro warned. “At their current profile they’ll reach turnover in three and a half hours. At that point, it’s fight or surrender.”

    “Or blow straight through the system and hope we can’t hit them,” Locatelli added. “It seems to me they’re putting in way too much time and effort just to surrender or run. I agree that we need to learn more about them, Your Majesty, but at this point I think keeping them away from Manticore is the more important goal.”

    “As do I,” Cazenestro said.

    “Very well,” Edward said. As King, he could still override them, but much as he wanted to know who the hell this was who was threatening his people, keeping those same people safe had to be his first priority. “I just wish we had a better idea what we’re facing. If the biggest thing they have is a cruiser, then a battlecruiser with a cruiser and destroyer in support ought to be more than they’d care to tangle with. But if this is Tamerlane’s backup, it’s probably got a heavy tech advantage, and that could even things out considerably.”

    “We’ll see what we can do about getting you that information, Your Majesty,” Locatelli promised.

    Edward nodded silently. He just hoped they could get it while they could still use it.



    “Excuse me, Mr. Llyn.”

    Jeremiah Llyn looked up as the Pacemaker’s captain appeared on the intercom display. “Yes, Captain?”

    “Signal from Hamilcar, Sir,” Katura said. “General Haus is asking — again — if he should go ahead and initiate contact.”

    “Getting a little anxious, is he?” Llyn suggested.

    “I’m sure he wouldn’t put it that way, Sir.

    “No, I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Llyn said, frowning at the chrono. The Axelrod/Barcan force had been headed in-system for almost forty minutes, and still nothing from Gensonne.

    Llyn could think of some reasons the Volsung commander would take his sweet time about checking in. Not good ones, perhaps, but Gensonne always enjoyed proving his own cleverness.

    Still, Llyn had always held to the rule to never ascribe to malice that which could be explained by incompetence. Especially when the individual in question had such an abundant store of incompetence to draw upon.

    General Haus had been something of a pain throughout the voyage to Manticore. Still, on this one he had a point. His four ships represented a significant chunk of the Royal Starforce of the Free Duchy of Barca, with an equally significant percentage of Barca’s troops aboard those transports. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t unreasonable for him to be nervous about the ongoing silence.

    “Very well,” he said to Katura. “Put me through.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Katura’s image disappeared, replaced a moment later by the distinguished, square-jawed, silver-haired Haus.

    “General,” Llyn greeted him courteously. “How can I help you?”

    “I’ve been going over Admiral Gensonne’s timetable, Mr. Ichabod,” Haus said. As always, he leaned just a bit on the name, his not-so-subtle way of saying that he didn’t believe for a minute that was the operation organizer’s real name. “It seems to me that he should already have hailed us. Since he hasn’t, I suggest we go ahead and com the planet directly.”

    “I think we should probably wait on that, Sir,” Llyn said “Admiral Gensonne’s firepower was more than sufficient to deal with the Manticoran Navy, but it’s possible that he took some damage, or that he’s still dealing with Manticoran fugitives dodging around the system. If he’s had to go farther in-system for some reason, he might not yet have detected our wedges.”

    “In that case, shouldn’t he have left one of his lighter units orbiting the planet?”

    “I’m sure you’d have done exactly that,” Llyn agreed. “So would I. But again, the Manticorans may have decided to be pesky.”

    “Perhaps,” Haus said with an impatient wave of his hand. “The Admiral had best notice us sometime in the next two or three hours, though. Otherwise, you and I will be having another conversation.”

    “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, Sir,” Llyn soothed him. “Nothing at all.”



    “Ready to proceed, My Lady,” Captain Ermolai Beckett said.

    “Thank you, Ermolai,” Admiral White Haven replied, never taking her eyes from the icons in HMS Nike’s main display. So far, their information on Bogey One’s composition was one hell of a lot vaguer than she could have wished, but she was confident additional information was en route. Twenty-eight light-minutes was a long way for a message transmission to come.

    And even longer for a pair of warships to cross.

    “My Lady,” Beckett said quietly, “I really think –”

    “I know what you think, Captain,” White Haven interrupted. “But micro jumps are too risky. You know how easy it is to be off by as much as four or five million kilometers even on a longer jump. On a micro jump, that margin of error goes up catastrophically.”

    “I realize that, My Lady. But –”

    “The last thing Locatelli and Eigen need is for us to wind up somewhere the hell and gone away from where they expect us. And the last thing we need is to find these people — whoever they are — far enough inside us that they can finish Eigen off in detail before we can join forces with him.”

    Beckett was silent for a long moment. White Haven turned her eyes from the display and met his gaze coldly. For a moment they held that pose, and then Beckett looked away.

    “With all due respect, My Lady, I intend to log my formal disagreement with your decision.”

    “Do whatever you think right,” White Haven said, letting her tone frost over. “In the meantime, you will get the squadron underway.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Beckett replied. He looked at Nike’s helmsman and astrogator, both of whom had been studiously deaf during the conversation. “Proceed as directed,” he ordered.

    “Aye, aye, Captain.”

    A moment later Nike was on the move, accelerating away from Sphinx at 1.57 KPS² — twice Bogey One’s reported acceleration, but of course she had a lot farther to go. The plain, ugly fact was that there was no way in hell they could reach Manticore in time to make any difference at all to the upcoming battle.

    We never should have been stationed here to begin with, the admiral thought bitterly. The fact that she’d said so at the time was of little consolation now that she and the rest of the Star Kingdom were looking the consequences of that disastrous decision squarely in the eye.

    Her mind ran the relentless calculations yet again. Nike was ten hours from Manticore orbit; Bogey One would enter planetary orbit in only three hours and forty minutes.

    She might be there in time to pick up any remaining pieces. But nothing more.



    “I understand, Sir,” Eigen said, studying Locatelli’s expression on the com display. As always, there was no way to tell which side of the prisoners-and-intel versus keep-them-at-arm’s-length argument he’d come down on. Locatelli definitely knew how to play the political game.

    “I’m sure you do, Kyle,” Admiral Locatelli replied. “And let me underscore that no one disagrees that we still need all the intel you can squeeze out of this.”

    “We just have do it from farther away.”

    “Exactly,” Locatelli said. “How soon can you break orbit?”

    “Vanguard, Gryphon, and Bellerophon are ready to go now, Sir. Aries and Taurus are still loading missiles, though, and the rest of the Reserve is still over an hour from bringing its impellers online. I want those corvettes as close to fully rearmed as I can before we head out, and I want the Reserve close enough to be another factor in their thinking.”



    Locatelli frowned. Probably considering the implications of where Vanguard was headed, Eigen guessed, and the negligible contribution a corvette was likely to make in any confrontation.

    At least on paper. Because Eigen also knew that Locatelli couldn’t help but remember how, three weeks ago, the corvette HMS Phoenix had made a contribution to that battle that was far beyond anyone’s expectations.

    Though at a cost. A terrible cost.

    Locatelli stirred, and Eigen could see him pushing back the memories. “Bit of a judgment call about the corvettes,” he observed out loud, his voice remarkably toneless.

    “I know, Sir,” Eigen said. “But if the object is to make a show of force and convince these people to go elsewhere, the more platforms I have with me the better. And if I’m going to be taking them into harm’s way, I’d really like them to actually be able to shoot at the bad guys if they have to.”

    “Can’t argue with that,” Locatelli said, his expression grim. Again, pushing back memories. “When do you want to leave orbit?”

    “As late as I can and still be sure they see me coming well before turnover,” Eigen said. “The longer I can wait, the better prepared our people are going to be. And the better picture I’ll have of the Reserve’s actual readiness, for that matter. I understand that we want a cushion, though. Call it another fifty minutes for the corvettes to load birds, and another thirty or forty, maybe forty-five, if I wait for the Reserve.”

    “That’ll put them less than an hour from turnover,” Locatelli pointed out.

    “I know, Sir.” Eigen looked across his bridge to meet Clegg’s gaze for a moment. “That would be my best-case timing. If Admiral White Haven and Nike were in Sphinx orbit when the alert message got there, they’ll still be at least five and a half hours from Manticore orbit even on a least-time time profile at that point. Unless our visitors really take their time, that means all they’ll likely be able to do is pick up whatever pieces are left.”

    “True,” Locatelli said grimly. “On the other hand, if you can stall them off that long, White Haven might still have a chance to get in on the fight.”

    “Not if Bogey One’s paying attention. Regardless, it would be nice to know going in whether I’ll have the Reserve to work with. And, to be honest, it’s probably even more important to know if I don’t have the Reserve to work with.”

    “A point,” Locatelli conceded. “I’ll give you until the corvettes’ launchers are all loaded or there are no more birds to load, but that’s it. If we wait too long to show our faces, our visitors may figure out that we’re less than totally confident in the state of our shipboard systems. And, as you say, we want them to have as much time as possible to think things over short of their turnover point.”

    “Yes, Sir,” Eigen said. “In that case, though, I intend to make my initial acceleration only a hundred and twenty gravities. That will get us underway as soon as the missile loadout allows, which will tell Bogey One we’re on our way. But our acceleration will be low enough that the Reserve can overtake us before we reach combat range, even if Bogey One keeps on coming. Also, seeing a second echelon coming up behind Victory, Gryphon, Bellerophon and the corvettes may give them additional pause to think.”

    “Seems reasonable,” Locatelli said. “And of course, how you handle your squadron’s up to you. I’ll endorse your decision, and I don’t expect anyone planet-side to overrule you.” He looked at something off-screen, and Eigen saw his lip twitch. “And just when we needed it most, some more bad news. It seems Admiral White Haven has decided that returning with all due speed means running straight through n-space. And to the planet itself.”

    Eigen exchanged startled looks with Clegg. “She’s what?” he demanded.

    “Running to Manticore,” Locatelli confirmed bitterly. “Straight through n-space.”

    Eigen stifled a curse. He’d known for years that Karina Alexander was an idiot who’d essentially achieved her rank via money and political clout. But he hadn’t realized until now just how much of an idiot she truly was. “Any chance of countermanding her orders?” he asked, running a quick calculation. If White Haven headed to the hyper limit and did a microjump, she could come in behind Bogey One. Still way out of position to affect whatever was happening here, but that would at least throw in an extra intimidation factor.

    “I can countermand all I want,” Locatelli said. “But it wouldn’t help. By the time the orders could get to her, and she could decelerate and reverse course, she’d be even more behind the curve. No point, really.”

    Eigen nodded heavily as he ran his eye over at the numbers. Locatelli was right. “So she’s effectively taken Nike completely out of the tactical equation.”

    “Pretty much,” Locatelli said. “And with Flannery and Victory at Sphinx…”

    Eigen nodded again. And sitting in the Manticore-B system, Admiral Thomas Flannery and Red Force were completely unaware that anything was happening. “So this really is all we’ve got to work with.”

    “Looks like it,” Locatelli said. “You still want to hold to your timetable?”

    Eigen looked at Clegg. The flag captain’s face was grim, but she nodded her agreement. “Yes, sir,” he told Locatelli.

    “Right.” Locatelli pursed his lips. “I’d be just as happy if no one else got killed today, Admiral. If anyone has to, though, do your damnedest to make sure it’s their people, not ours.”

    “I’ll do that, Sir. Eigen, clear.”

    The display blanked, and Eigen looked at Clegg.

    “Pass the word to the rest of the Squadron, Trina, and then check in with Captain Timberlake. Tell him I need a running update on Eriyne’s estimated completion time.”



    “I think we’ve got the laser plasma feed issue resolved, Ma’am,” Travis said, looking up at Lisa. “Chief Wrenner gives it an eighty percent probability it’ll hold.”

    Lisa punched a key, dropping a summary of Travis’ work onto her display. He watched tensely as her eyes went back and forth in quick study.

    “Looks good,” she said. “No worse than the skyhooks everyone else is running on right now. And we’ve still got the secondary for at least partial backup.”

    “Sort of,” Travis agreed, looking back at the readout of Wrenner’s jury-rigs. He wasn’t any happier with it than Lisa was, but it was the best anyone was likely to get right now.

    “Going to be a lot of sort-of going around, I’m afraid,” Lisa told him. “Beats the stuffing out of God-I-hope-this-works, though. Okay, go ahead and run a full diagnostic.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.”

    Travis called up the laser readouts on his multifunction display, glancing at the master status board while they loaded. Seventy minutes before Aegis brought its impellers fully online and broke orbit, and Damocles and the rest of the Reserve were still seventy-five minutes from initial impeller activation.

    Forty minutes behind Aegis, which was better than he’d initially dared hope. Not great, but at least they’d be close enough behind Admiral Eigen that he could slow or even reverse his accel long enough for them to join forces before anyone reached weapons range.

    Assuming nothing else went wrong, of course, and he winced as he read the casualty board. Only one dead, thank God, but they had over thirty injured.

    So far.

    His earbug pinged as the laser readouts appeared. Putting his concerns about the status board out of his mind, he got back to work.



    “Captain Timberlake reports Eriyne is almost ready to go, Sir,” Clegg reported, running her eyes down the status reports. “Just chasing down that sidewall glitch.”

    “Acknowledged,” Eigen said. He lowered his voice. “Don’t let it get to you,” he added quietly.

    Clegg frowned at him. “Sir?”

    “White Haven’s bonehead maneuver,” he said. “You’re still seething over it.”

    For a second Clegg wondered if protocol demanded she deny it. Bad-mouthing a superior officer, especially to another superior officer, was generally frowned on.

    The hell with protocol. “Yes, Sir, I am,” she said. “I’ve never been impressed by the Admiral, but I would have expected better of Captain Beckett.”

    “Oh, I have no doubt Beckett tried to dissuade her,” Eigen said. “But she’s the admiral, he’s her captain, and those decisions are hers.”

    “Yes, Sir.” And if there was any justice in the galaxy, Clegg thought bitterly, it would be the last decision White Haven ever made as a flag officer in command.

    She glared at the master display, as much for something to distract her from her fury as anything else. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it. White Haven and her squadron were at least close enough they could have responded in some kind of useful time frame. And if Sphinx had been Thomas Flannery’s station, that’s exactly what would have happened.

    But Flannery was at Gryphon, thirteen light-hours away. Even if it had been possible to transmit a message that far, everything would be over long before he even knew anything was happening.

    Her eyes narrowed. Unless…

    She keyed her mic.

    “CIC, this is the Captain,” she said. “Tell me more about — ” she craned her neck at the plot ” — contact Sierra-Three.”

    “Sierra-Three…Ma’am?” Commander Bertinelli repeated in a tone of obvious surprise.

    “Do you need me to repeat the order, Commander?” Clegg demanded icily.

    “No, Ma’am.” There was a moment of silence. “Sierra-Three is listed as RMS Hyderabad, Ma’am,” he responded rather stiffly. “Eight hundred thousand tons, registered to Samuel Tilliotson, under charter as a Navy transport.”

    “Thank you.” Clegg turned to Eigen. “Sir, I’ve just had a thought.”



    Captain Estelle O’Higgins, CO of RMS Hyderabad watched her plot, a numb feeling in the pit of her stomach. Not again, she thought. God, please not again!

    There was a flicker as the plot updated the projected vector of the glaring icon that indicated the intruders’ position. Eight ships, maybe more, heading toward Manticore.

    Once again, the Star Kingdom was being invaded.

    “Signal from MPARS, Ma’am,” Lieutenant Slocum spoke up. He was trying to hide his own dread, O’Higgins could tell, and not doing a very good job of it. “Basically the same Code Zulu that System Command sent an hour ago.”

    O’Higgins nodded. At the moment, Hyderabad was less than three minutes from the Manticore-A hyper-limit en route to Manticore-B on the freighter route between the companion stars. Usually, traffic between the Manticore System’s two stellar components was handled by the far cheaper sublight freighters, running a sublight trip of three days instead of the half hour it would take in hyper. Given how few hyper-capable freighters Manticore owned, most of the time it was considered wasteful to use one of them merely to shave a week or so off the round-trip voyage.

    But that had changed three weeks ago. In the wake of the attack on Manticore, and with quick transport time now of vital concern, Hyderabad had been commandeered to transport priority Navy spares, personnel, and missiles to the squadron detailed to protect the planet Gryphon in the event of another attack.

    The squadron, O’Higgins reflected, which was in exactly the wrong place to defend the planet Manticore.

    To defend Manticore…and O’Higgins’s son Brian.

    Because while Hyderabad was well out of any danger out here at the hyper limit, Brian and his ship, HMS Taurus, were squarely in the middle of it.

    And there was nothing O’Higgins could to do help him. Nothing.

    “Ma’am?” Lieutenant Slocum’s voice broke into her reflections. “I’ve just receipted a message from System Command.”

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