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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, February 17, 2018 07:11 EST



    “Mr. Llyn, you’d better look at this.”

    Katura’s voice sounded much tighter than normal, and Llyn looked up from the book chip he’d been reading. The book was rather boring, but he’d learned that that kind of casual activity was a good way to demonstrate professional calm, especially in the face of general uncertainty and growing tension. He took one look at the captain’s expression, then dropped his eyes to the navigating display.

    He felt his own facial muscles tighten. Five icons, each burning the crimson of an unidentified unit, had left Manticore orbit.

    And unlike the handful of obviously civilian impeller signatures Pacemaker and his special ops ships had detected, these were headed directly towards the intruders instead of away from them.

    “What do we know about them?” he asked, keeping his voice calm and unhurried.

    “Not much, yet,” Katura replied. “At least one of them is probably a battlecruiser, judging from apparent wedge strengths. Hard to say about the others, but a couple of them look a lot smaller than that. Acceleration’s one-twenty gravities, so they’re obviously military, but that seems on the low side for a battlecruiser. That’s all we’ve got so far. Be another seven or eight minutes before we get anything light-speed.”

    Llyn frowned. Katura was right about how low that was for a warship. But the real question wasn’t their acceleration profile, but who they were.

    It could still be Gensonne. In fact, given the ongoing silence from any Manticoran authorities, it probably was Gensonne, although exactly what he was playing at now was unknown.

    Well, Katura was also right about the limitations of light-speed transmissions. Even assuming those icons had activated their transponders at the same moment their impellers came up, it would be another — he checked the time — six and a half minutes before those IDs reached Pacemaker.

    He sat back to wait.



    “The Squadron reports all units underway, Sir,” Clegg announced, exactly as SOP required.

    And thoroughly unnecessarily, Eigen reflected, since his display had already shown him that. “I assume the yard dogs all got clear in time?”

    “Yes, sir.” His dour captain gave a small snort. “They were moving rather more enthusiastically than usual there at the end.”

    “I’m sure they were.” Eigen checked the chrono. “All right, they’ve had time to see our IDs. Com: go ahead and transmit.”

    “Yes, Sir.” Clearly bracing himself, Lieutenant Messner pressed the send key.



    “We’re getting transponders, Sir,” Katura said.

    Llyn watched the icons change. They remained the same bright crimson, but data codes began popping into existence beside them. “According to their IDs, they’re Manticoran warships,” Katura continued. His voice was under control, but there was a hint of concern beneath it. “HMS Vanguard, Gryphon, and Bellerophon — a battlecruiser and a pair of cruisers. The other two are showing as corvettes, HMS Aries and HMS Taurus.”

    Llyn’s eyes narrowed. For the last several minutes, despite everything, he’d allowed himself to go on hoping it was Gensonne. The IDs pretty well ended that one.

    Or maybe not. It was just barely possible Gensonne had relabeled his ships in order to fool any unexpected visitors before they realized there’d been a change of management.

    That would be a bit cleverer than would have anticipated out of the Volsung admiral, but it would also have been one way to entice any of those visitors into a range at which they had no choice but to surrender. It probably wouldn’t matter one way or the other if someone had figured out that Manticore had just changed hands, but it would certainly be more convenient to keep that information under wraps until the troops had landed and made sure the change stood up.

    Unfortunately, not only would that have required more brains and imagination than Gensonne had thus far demonstrated, but it didn’t match what Llyn was seeing on his display. Not unless the Volsungs had been hammered one hell of a lot harder than they should have been. Besides, if those smaller units really were corvettes, not destroyers showing false transponder codes, they couldn’t be Gensonne’s, because he hadn’t taken anything that small to Manticore in the first place.

    Could the idiot have lost after all? Even as the uncertainty had swirled higher and higher around Llyn, he’d never really let himself believe that could have happened. Even with the unexpectedly de-mothballed ships his last pre-battle intel pass had spotted, the RMN’s state of rust and inexperience had still left Gensonne with a solid seventy/thirty edge. How could the Manticorans have somehow won with that big a disadvantage?

    Or, to put it another way, how could Gensonne have screwed up and lost with that big an advantage?

    “Sir, should we activate our own transponders?” Katura asked.

    Llyn chewed his lip. The Manticorans were transmitting their IDs, but they’d made no attempt to communicate further. Under the circumstances, he was disinclined to give them anything at all.

    “Negative,” he said. “Let’s get a little closer first.”

    “Yes, Sir.”



    “Impeller initiation sequence begun, Sir,” Damocles’ engineer announced. “Everything looks optimum now.”

    “Thank you, Commander Papadakis,” Captain Marcello acknowledged.

    “Get ready to spin up the sidewall generators for test, Travis,” Lisa instructed.

    “Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Travis replied and began entering commands. Because a sidewall had to interface with a ship’s wedge, it couldn’t really be tested until there was power to the beta nodes. In fact, Engineering would have to be a good ten minutes — five, at the very least — into impeller light-off before the generators could come up.

    At least everything else looked good. Or, as Lisa would say, at least it all looked better than God-I-hope-this-works.



    “Mr. Llyn, we have a transmission.”

    From Katura’s tone, it was clear who the transmission in question was from. Or, more importantly, who it wasn’t from. “Put it up,” Llyn ordered.

    “Yes, Sir.”

    An instant passed, and then a compact, square shouldered man with dark hair and disconcertingly sharp gray eyes appeared on the master display. Whoever he was, he wore the uniform of a Manticoran admiral and he didn’t look especially pleased at the moment.

    “Unidentified force, this is Admiral Kyle Eigen, Royal Manticoran Navy, commanding His Majesty’s battlecruiser Vanguard.” Eigen’s voice was strong and excruciatingly confident. “You are in violation of Manticoran space. You are instructed to identify yourselves and reverse acceleration immediately. If you do not, you will be considered hostile, and we will react accordingly.”

    He stared coldly into his pickup for another two seconds, then gave a brisk nod. “Eigen, clear.”

    Llyn stared at the display as Eigen’s challenge began to repeat, cold fury seeping through him like ice water.

    He’d been right. Gensonne had screwed up. The damn stupid, arrogant, S.O.B. had completely and totally screwed up.

    And now Llyn’s plan — in fact, his entire reason for being here — was equally screwed.

    Eigen had barely gone into his second repeat of his message when the frightened yips began.

    “Signal from Hamilcar, Sir,” Katura reported, his voice tight. “General Haus has copied over Vanguard’s message and is demanding to know what you plan to do about the situation.”

    “Thank you, Captain,” Llyn said, contempt mixing with his anger. Copied over the message, as if Llyn might somehow have missed hearing the Manticorans’ announcement? Making fearful demands, as if Llyn didn’t already have a plan prepared for every eventuality?

    The truly irritating part of that was that he didn’t.

    He’d planned for Gensonne to have won. He’d also planned for Gensonne to have lost, but in the process turned the Manticoran defense into splinters.

    What he hadn’t planned for was for Gensonne to have left even a single damn battlecruiser alive and kicking.

    Stupid. Criminally stupid, even. Llyn had been lulled by the fact that everything else in the operation and gone pretty much exactly according to plan, and now the unexpected had turned around to bite him.

    It was a mistake he wouldn’t make again.

    “Time to missile range?” he asked.

    “Seventy-nine minutes, assuming we both maintain constant acceleration,” Katura replied. Obviously, he’d been working the numbers while Llyn had been cursing Gensonne.

    “And if we reverse acceleration?”

    “If we reverse accel and they maintain one-two-zero gravities, we enter missile range in just over one hundred minutes, Sir. Closing velocity at that point will be thirteen-point-five thousand KPS.”

    “If we reverse and they stop accelerating?”

    “We still enter missile range in an hour and a half. Closing velocity would be down to two-point-two thousand KPS. But we’d still be twenty minutes from a zero velocity relative to Manticore. If we reverse acceleration this instant, we’d still need six hours and twenty minutes to recross the hyper-limit.”

    Llyn scowled. Not only was his plan screwed, so was he. Unless the Manticorans reversed acceleration, they were going to reach missile range whatever he did. If these people were feeling belligerent, Llyn couldn’t avoid action even if he wanted to.

    He pursed his lips, his frozen brain starting to function again. Maybe he wasn’t as screwed as it looked. There was only one battlecruiser in that force, and it was accelerating at only three quarters of its book accel. That suggested damage, possibly serious damage. Hamilcar, Hasdrubal, and Mago might be less than cutting-edge by the Solarian Navy’s standards, but they were far more modern and capable than almost anything Manticore had boasted even before Gensonne took out the rest of their fleet. Mylae wasn’t as heavily armed, but she was just as modern. And that didn’t even count Shrike and Banshee.

    Unless Vanguard didn’t have a ding on it, Llyn’s force should be able to take it without even the need to sweat. A pair of corvettes wouldn’t change that very much, either.

    And if the RMN had anything more to throw at them, they’d surely have trotted it out by now.

    “Signal to the Barcans,” he told Katura as he reached for his makeup kit. “Have them activate their transponders but hold their present profile. And only activate their IDs,” he added. “They’re to keep every other com silent. Make sure they understand that.”

    “Yes, Sir. And Shrike and Banshee?”

    “Activate their Barcan cover transponder codes. And tell Captain Vaagen and Captain Rhamas to begin prepping their weapons.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    One of Llyn’s most rigid private rules was that his actual face should never be seen by anyone outside of his own colleagues and trusted Axelrod employees. For coms, CGI overlays were the usual technique for that kind of masquerade: faster and more convenient than wigs, facial hair, and facial plastic strips. Most high-level operatives, Axelrod’s among them, went that route.

    But Llyn was more of a perfectionist. More importantly, he knew CGI overlays could be penetrated and identified as such if someone was willing to put in the necessary time and effort. If that someone had a great deal of ingenuity on top of it, the whole thing could even occasionally be dissolved, leaving the original face there in all its naked glory.

    That kind of analysis might be able to show that a physically altered face wasn’t the real one. But it could never be electronically unraveled the way a CGI could.

    Good-bye, Jeremiah Llyn, he thought to himself as he started the transformation. Hello, Count Ernst Bloch.



    Travis sat back with a sigh of relief as Damocles’ sidewall generators spun up without faltering. He would never have called the destroyer’s systems reliability anything close to good, but at least all of the critical ones were up. And, really, they weren’t any less reliable than the RMN had been unhappily accustomed to dealing with for his entire career. In another thirty minutes, they’d be able to —

    “Captain,” Chief Ulvestad spoke up suddenly from Communications. The CPO’s voice was crisp, but it was the sort of crisp, calm professionalism that training painted over something very different. “We’ve just copied a message from Perseus to Vanguard and Orpheus. Captain Conroy reports his entire port sidewall refused to initiate.”

    “Acknowledged,” Marcello said calmly. “Ask Captain Conroy for an estimate on time to repair the fault.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. I –” Ulvestad broke off. “Sir, Perseus now says her forward generator’s going to require complete replacement. Her engineer estimates a minimum — repeat, a minimum — of five hours to get the aft generator back online.”

    An invisible fist punched Travis in the gut. Without a sidewall, Perseus would be at a deadly disadvantage if Conroy took her into combat.



    But without the cruiser, with only Damocles and Eriyne, Reserve Force would barely be worthy of the name.

    His eye darted back to the time display, counting down inexorably to impeller activation, his brain feeling like a ground car skittering on ice.



    “Admiral Eigen, this is Count Ernst Bloch of the Free Duchy of Barca.”

    The voice boomed from the speaker, and Clegg gave the display a quick look. The man certainly look the part, she decided. The image was a bit dithery — they must be right on the limit of Bloch’s laser range, which might explain why he hadn’t commed them sooner. But fuzziness or not, Bloch looked every inch the aristocrat: silvery hair with a single black streak through it, face lined with age and wisdom and an obvious love of the outdoors, a voice that commanded instant obedience, and piercing eyes that could see right into a person’s soul.

    He reminded Clegg a lot of her own father. He reminded her even more of the man her father had pressed very hard for her to marry.

    Thank God there’d been the Navy.

    “I wish to speak to your superiors,” Bloch continued, his stern voice going a little sterner. “Specifically, I want to know the Star Kingdom of Manticore’s connection with a group of pirates that have been plaguing our region.”

    “What the hell?” Eigen murmured under his breath. Then he cleared his throat.

    “I’m sorry, Count, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m relaying your message to our System Commander, Admiral Locatelli, but I assure you we have nothing to do with pirates of any sort. On the contrary, we’ve spent the past decade doing our damnedest to find and destroy any and all such marauders. Eigen, clear.”

    He gestured and the message began its long journey back.

    “Redesignate Bogey One as Barca Force,” he ordered. “Make that Barca Alpha — there may be more of them on the way. Copy everything to System Command, and request that someone find me whatever the hell we’ve got on the Free Duchy of Barca.”

    “Yes, Sir,” Communications replied.

    “And in the meantime, Captain,” Eigen continued, turning to Clegg, “it would seem that something new’s been added. I think –”

    “Excuse me, Admiral,” Com said. “We’ve just received a priority signal from Perseus.”



    Message turnaround time between Vanguard and Barca Alpha was down to fourteen minutes and falling. Between Vanguard and Manticore, it remained less than two seconds. Within two minutes, ONI had pulled up everything in the archives on Barca and its people. Three minutes after that, Clegg had read all of it.

    There wasn’t much, and all of it was at least fifteen years old.

    The system was about two hundred sixty-eight light-years southeast of Manticore, nearly four hundred from Sol. It had been settled a couple of hundred T-years ago, and at last report was listed as reasonably stable, if not blazingly prosperous.

    Why they should think Manticore was involved with pirates Clegg couldn’t guess. But the fact that they’d sent a group of ships on a four-and-a-half-month journey implied they must have some good reason.

    She looked forward to hearing it.

    Assuming they were who they said they were, of course. The fact that they hadn’t so much as announced their IDs before they were challenged was a clear violation of interstellar law which could certainly be construed as hostile. On the other hand, it could also simply indicate caution on their part, especially if they thought the Star Kingdom was in cahoots with a batch of pirates.

    She just hoped it didn’t indicate that they were the type to shoot first and crosscheck their data later. Along with Count Bloch’s courier ship, the IDs the Barcans were now transmitting listed the force as four cruisers and four freighters. Given the state of Vanguard’s defenses, four cruisers could pose a serious threat, even with Gryphon, Bellerophon, and both corvettes in support.

    Or rather, she reminded herself tightly, without the support of Perseus.

    That fact clearly wasn’t lost on System Command. Eight minutes after receiving Eigen’s message, Admiral Locatelli sent a response to be relayed to Count Bloch, repeating Eigen’s assurances that the Star Kingdom wasn’t involved in piracy. The transmission included a large attachment that purported to contain the complete record of Manticore’s decade of pirate-hunting, which Eigen was ordered to likewise transmit to the Barcan force.

    Vanguard sent it on its way immediately.

    Six minutes later, Bloch’s response to Eigen’s last transmission came in.

    “You’ll forgive me, Admiral, if I can’t simply take your word for that,” the count said. “Eight months ago, our system was attacked by a powerful pirate force, and data we found in the wreckage referenced the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I’m not saying you or your government are necessarily in collusion with these marauders, but the fact remains that the trail leads here. We mean to find out why.”

    “I understand your anger and determination, Count Bloch,” Eigen replied. “However, I assure you in turn that there’s no place in this system where any such force could be hiding. Perhaps more to the point, we were ourselves attacked recently by an unknown force. If your pirates had information relevant to Manticore, perhaps it wasn’t as their haven, but as their next target. At any rate, I’ve just sent you the data outlining our campaign against pirates over the past few years and suggest you at least examine those records before you draw any conclusions.”

    Once again, the delay began. The Barcans continued to drive towards Manticore, Clegg noted uneasily, ignoring Vanguard and her escorts, Bloch must be very sure of himself.

    And likely with even better cause than he knew.



    “Captain Conroy, with all due respect, without a sidewall, Perseus isn’t combat-capable,” Captain Marcello said firmly. “If anything gets past your point defense –”

    “I take your point, Captain,” Conroy replied from Marcello’s com display. “But if it comes to it, Vanguard — and the rest of you — are going to need our counter missiles. And let’s face it: the initial exchange is going to be head-on, where sidewalls aren’t going to matter one hell of a lot.”

    “Captain — Pierre,” Marcello said, “if these people are who they say they are, it’s not going to come to a fight…probably. And if it does — and if the range closes the way it did last time — the risk to your ship is, no offense, out of all proportion to her potential contribution to the engagement.”

    “Your view is noted.” Conroy’s voice was noticeably cooler than it had been. “The matter is not open for debate, however. Even if, as you say, these people are who they say they are, they may or may not be feeling reasonable. If they don’t, Admiral Eigen is right about presenting them with the most forceful argument we can for deciding to feel that way. I think it’s probable a cruiser and two destroyers would be a lot more forceful than two destroyers by themselves.”

    Marcello obviously wanted to continue the argument, Travis thought. Unfortunately, although he and Marcello were clearly good friends, Damocles’ CO was junior to Conroy. And equally unfortunately, the cruiser’s captain had made several excellent points. Especially the psychological one.

    Travis had scanned the same data Clegg had received, looking specifically for any information about Barca’s military capability. There wasn’t much, but there was the notation that, unlike the Star Kingdom, Barca built its own warships. That didn’t necessarily prove anything, but given that the capability to do so had been developed only about twenty years ago, it probably meant the Barcans’ ships were significantly later designs than anything Manticore had.

    And that meant those four cruisers were probably a lot more dangerous, ton-for-ton, than those of the RMN, even if system reliabilities were equal.

    Which almost certainly they weren’t.

    Bottom line was that Conroy was right. If Count Bloch was feeling belligerent, Eigen needed every single scrap of argument in favor of non-belligerence.



    “Interesting,” Bloch said from the com display. “I see you’ve been busy. Give me a few minutes to look this over, and we’ll talk.”

    “Of course,” Eigen replied. “I’ll await your response.”

    He keyed off.

    “Which isn’t to say we’re going to be just sitting on our hands,” he added to Vanguard’s bridge crew. “CIC? Four of these people are identifying themselves as cruisers. Do we have any additional indications that that’s accurate?”

    “Sir, we’re doing our best,” Bertinelli’s voice came back “but the range is still too far for us to tell you much more. All we’ve got to go on are their wedges, and at this point, our best guess from their signatures is that they are what they say they are. I can’t guarantee that, of course.”

    The XO managed to sound whiny and faintly defensive, Clegg noticed, even though what he’d said was self-evidently true. On the other hand, it didn’t exactly answer the question Eigen had asked.

    And there were things other than emission signatures from which a competent tactical officer might draw inferences.

    The operative word there being competent.

    “Sir,” Clegg said, gesturing at the master display. “I agree with Commander Bertinelli’s comments on Barca Alpha’s impellers, but I have to wonder why they would have brought four freighters with them. I suppose it’s possible all four of them really are transports to carry a big enough ground force to let them actually occupy us, if they decided the Star Kingdom was involved with these pirates. But take a look at Barca Eight and Niner.”

    “What about them?” Eigen asked after a moment.

    “It looks to me like Bloch is spreading them wider, rather than pulling them in tight behind his cruisers,” Clegg said. “That’s not something I’d expect someone to do with freighters when missiles might start flying. Especially not with freighters packed with troops and combat equipment.”

    “Indeed,” Eigen said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “But that’s the sort of thing a squadron commander might do to clear his units’ sensors.”

    “That’s one of the things I was thinking, Sir. It’s also the sort of thing a CO might do to spread his missile platforms. Those things are showing commercial IDs, and they may be built on freighter hulls, but even though they appear to be much smaller than the other two they’re probably still at least a half-million tons, six or seven times the size of one of those cruisers. Commercial transponder codes don’t guarantee they aren’t Q-ships or something even uglier, and God only knows what kind of firepower could be built into a hull that size. Which means –”

    “Which means the odds could be even tighter than they look,” Eigen finished her thought grimly. “Yes. Wonderful.”



    “Instruct the Barcans to stop accelerating,” Llyn said.

    “Stop accelerating, not reverse acceleration, Sir?” Katura asked in the tone of someone making very certain he hadn’t misunderstood.

    Or, perhaps, suggesting some reservations with the order he’d just heard.

    “That’s correct,” Llyn said, adding a bit of frost to his voice.

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Llyn nodded his satisfaction.

    Though he suspected he was probably the only person — aside from Vaagen and Rhamas, at any rate — who felt remotely satisfied by his actions. They were only fourteen minutes from the turnover point for a zero-zero intercept with Manticore at their current acceleration. Reducing their acceleration to zero stretched that to twenty-eight, which bought him at least a little more time.

    On the other hand, if this Admiral Eigen decided to force the issue, they were already too deep inside the limit and going too fast to prevent the Manticoran warships from entering missile range. And if what he was coming to suspect about the state of the RMN was accurate, this was not a confrontation he wanted.

    Sitting back in his chair, he gently ran a finger along his artificially wrinkled cheek and tried to think.



    “They’re still coming,” Lisa murmured.

    Travis looked up from the panel in front of him. Barca Alpha was indeed holding course towards Manticore, despite having cut its acceleration.

    “You suppose they’re a feint?” he murmured back.

    “They’re sure acting like one,” she agreed. “Only –” She waved a hand. “I don’t see any follow-up forces making tracks towards us.”

    “Maybe it’s behind them. That could be one reason they’ve cut accel. If what they wanted was to see what we had, they may be slowing their closure rate for something to catch up with them from astern.”



    “Aegis hasn’t spotted anything. Yet, at least.”

    “I know.” Travis hissed between his teeth. “You know, we really need something out there. A permanent patrol, or some kind of sensor buoy system close to the hyper-limit. Piggyback it off the navsat array, maybe.”

    “Maybe,” Lisa said. “But we can’t do everything at once. Personally, I still vote for getting the battlecruisers and cruisers out of mothballs and up to full fighting strength before we work on setting up a sensor net. If these people are up to something, and we had another battlecruiser or two to back Aegis…”

    “I suppose. Ma’am,” Travis added, remembering the proper honorific this time. Talking to her this way, it was easy to forget they were sitting on a bridge crowded with other Navy personnel. “In fact –”

    He broke off, his breath catching in his throat. Getting the battlecruisers up to fighting strength…

    “Travis?” Lisa asked.

    Travis was vaguely aware that she was asking something, but his attention was on his board, fingers flying as he keyed for the status of Damocles’ impellers. The plasma flow…the alpha nodes…the beta nodes…

    “Lieutenant Long?” The question was quite a bit sharper — and more formal — than Lisa’s had been. Startled, Travis swiveled around to find Captain Marcello and Lisa looking expectantly at him.

    As was the rest of the bridge.

    “You have something, ATO?” Marcello prompted.

    His question broke the spell. Travis shot another look at Lisa, realizing she must have said something to the captain while he was engrossed in his numbers.

    “Yes, Sir,” he said, looking back it Marcello. “Whatever Count Bloch is planning, Perseus really is — or should be — out of the fighting. But as I understand it, we really want to end this without any fighting.”

    His tone turned the final sentence into a question, and Marcello nodded.

    “I believe you can take that as a given, Lieutenant.”

    “In that case, Sir, I think we could make ourselves look like a battlecruiser.”

    Someone in the aft section made a sound like the start of a snicker. Marcello’s expression didn’t change.

    “Explain,” he said.

    “It’s something I came across while I was on Casey, Sir. I was cataloguing a bunch of redundant files, clearing out the archives, and I found an old copy of a book by Vladislav Tremain. He was a Solly admiral a century or so ago — his book was in the files when the Navy took delivery of the Triumphs — and most of it talked about the evolution of tactics. And there was this really, really old trick he mentioned, a deception measure. He only mentioned it in passing, but I started poking around to see what it would take to make it work, and I think we could do it.”

    “Continue,” Marcello said, his tone not giving anything away.

    Travis braced himself. “Basically, if we run the impellers past the usual safe levels, and keep our acceleration down once we’re moving, a gravitics array far enough out will see us as a much larger ship accelerating at its safe maximum. I think we could get a destroyer’s signature all the way up to a battlecruiser’s — for a while, at least, and at several light-minutes’ range.”

    “Sounds risky,” Commander Shiflett warned. “Besides, if it’s so old, wouldn’t everyone know about it?”

    “Maybe not,” Marcello said, his eyes narrowed. “It certainly isn’t anything I’ve ever heard of. And even if Bloch knows about it, he might figure we’re smart enough to realize he’d be smart enough to recognize a bluff when he saw it. Commander Papadakis? Thoughts?”

    “I don’t know, Sir,” a severe voice replied. “Frankly, I’ve never even heard of something like that.”

    “No, Sir, it’s not in the usual manuals,” Travis said. “I only found it in Tremain’s book.”

    “Yes, you said that.” Papadakis didn’t sound especially enthusiastic. “I’ll remind the Captain that the alpha nodes are still being temperamental. If we do what our ATO is suggesting, we might burn them out and be completely helpless. Even if they behave themselves, we’d take months off their lifetimes and we’re talking only a couple of hours before we’d have to scale down again. And let me emphasize that, as far as I know, no one’s ever run nodes at anything like this level — with real impellers — aside from warship builders’ trials, for at least fifty years. For that matter, we haven’t done it since acceptance trials on Nike almost a century ago, and even then it was only for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

    “So you’re recommending against it?”

    “A moment, Sir. I’m running some numbers now.”

    “Run them fast,” Marcello said, looking at Travis.

    Travis waited, his pulse pounding unpleasantly, studiously not looking at Lisa. She was the one who’d brought Marcello’s attention to this, after all, which meant her neck was on the block, too, if it went sideways.

    “Okay, Sir.” Papadakis’ voice came back. “The numbers look…let’s call them fragile.”

    “So you’re recommending against?”

    “That depends on what you want, Sir,” Papadakis said. “If you want to make Barca Alpha think twice about tangling with us, I’d call it a fair risk. It gets a lot more questionable if they decide to keep on coming. Best-case scenario, it works and they break off. Best bad-case scenario, they keep coming and we end up a drifting missile platform when the meatgrinder gets within range. Worst-case scenario, we blow a node and vaporize one of the impeller rings. At least one. If we get a blowback into the plasma conduits –”

    His voice gave the strong impression of a shrug and Travis winced mentally at the image his last few words had conjured up.

    “Understood.” Marcello shifted his attention to the com station. “Chief Ulvestad, record for transmission to Admiral Locatelli.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Ulvestad replied.

    Marcello looked back to Travis, and his lips twitched in a small smile.

    “In for a penny, in for a dollar. Right, Lieutenant?”

    “Yes, Sir,” Travis said, keeping his face firmly under control.

    Because the suggestion was about to be put before Admiral Carlton Locatelli. And Travis and the admiral had not exactly had the most cordial relationship over the years. His only hope was that when Marcello presented the idea, Locatelli would assume it belonged to the captain and Travis’s name would never come up. He opened his mouth to suggest that —

    Closed it again. He’d already stepped far enough out on this branch. He didn’t dare lecture the captain on the hidden politics of the case.

    All he could do was hope. Because deep inside him, he had a strong sense that rejecting the plan would be bad. For the Star Kingdom, as well as for Admiral Eigen’s squadron.

    “Hot mic, Sir,” Ulvestad said.

    Please don’t mention my name, he thought earnestly toward the Captain. Please.

    “Captain Marcello, Admiral,” the captain said into his pickup. “Sir, our ATO, Lieutenant Long, has come up with an idea I think has merit.”



    “I admit it’s risky, Your Majesty,” Locatelli said from the display. “And it’s unlikely they can keep it up for more than a couple of hours.”

    “Yes,” Edward agreed, studying the big tactical display. “But a couple of hours should be enough to persuade Count Bloch to go home. Once he changes vector, Reserve Force can ramp down and pretend they’re going back on standby.”

    “Exactly,” Locatelli said, a slight edge to his voice. Clearly, the man wasn’t happy.

    Edward could hardly blame him. Tactical command was the System Commander’s domain. Officially, the King and First Lord of the Admiralty were merely observers.

    But Edward and Cazenestro had both been Navy command officers: Edward a captain, the First Lord an admiral. They knew something about strategy and tactics. And while the First Lord might be willing to follow protocol and sit quietly, awaiting Locatelli’s staff’s reports, Edward wasn’t. He was the King, it was his realm and his people who were once again under fire, and by God above he was going to at least to sit in on these crucial discussions.

    “Marcello’s a good captain with a good record,” Locatelli added. “He wouldn’t suggest this if he didn’t think he could pull it off.” He pursed his lips. “Besides that, the suggestion itself came from Lieutenant Travis Long, and he has a history of coming up with outside-the-lines ideas that pay off.”

    “Sounds like it’s worth doing. Go ahead and give the order, Admiral,” Edward said.

    Locatelli’s lips twitched in a small smile.

    “Thank you, Your Majesty. I already have.”



    “Last umbilical on Cell Two, PO Townsend,” Spacer 2/c Huvoski announced, and Chomps nodded with satisfaction, despite the hollowness in his stomach.

    The Battle of Manticore had left Aries and Taurus completely dry of missiles, and despite a lingering sense of loyalty to the Navy, Chomps shared the general MPARS opinion that leaving them that way had been particularly stupid of the Navy. Unfortunately, he was only a petty officer, which gave his opinions very little official weight.

    At least they had five birds on board now, though the Orpheus-based ordnance crews were still finishing the plumbing connections on three of them. Well, two, now, thank God. Now if only —

    His uni-link quivered against his wrist as a message came through.

    Huvoski was hovering behind him in the cramped compartment while he monitored the Number Two quad launcher’s progress. Surreptitiously, Chomps keyed the uni-link, wondering what this was about. Normally, official communications were delivered via the ship’s intercom or computer systems. The only way to get anything to him via uni-link was to work through the back door of Aries’ com system, and the only reason for anyone to do that was to keep the message dead secret.

    And there was exactly one person Chomps could think of who could and would do something like that.

    He was right about that.

    Check vid message from Barca Alpha ASAP. GDF-3329-TDR. C.

    “Good, Jacob,” he said aloud. “Initiating diagnostics now. While I do that, get up to Missile One. See if there’s anything you can do to speed them up without joggling their elbows.”

    “Right, Chief.” Huvoski unstrapped and headed out the access way towards Aries’ dorsal quad launcher at a fast float. Chomps waited until he was out of view, then swiveled the status display around so it wouldn’t be visible from the open hatch, linked the larger display to his uni-link, and keyed the attached file.

    It was the com feed from the Barcans, all right, with some silver-haired aristocrat type blathering on about pirates and vengeance and whatnot. Chomps watched the conversation play out — fortunately, the light-speed induced pauses had been edited out — wondering why anyone would want his input. This sort of thing was usually reserved for admirals, diplomats, or the Lords.

    And then, Count Bloch smiled.

    Chomps punched the freeze command and managed to hit it with the smile still in place. Staring at the image, he fumbled with his uni-link, hoping that whatever back door had been activated worked both ways.

    It did.

    “Did you see it?” she asked.

    “Yes,” Chomps confirmed. “It’s him.”

    “No mistake?”

    “I don’t think so,” he said. “Hair and face are different, but he can’t disguise that smile.”

    “I imagine he could, only it never occurred to him to try.” She hissed thoughtfully. “I just wish there was something we could do with this.”

    “Aside from breaking him down to his component atoms?”

    “Not going to happen. You know what kind of shape the Navy’s in, His Majesty knows what kind of shape the Navy’s in, and even the Navy knows what kind of shape the Navy’s in. Unless we have to fight them, no one down here has any interest in doing so.”

    “As one of the people up here, that one has my vote, too,” Chomps agreed reluctantly. “I don’t suppose we’re going to get either of the other squadrons to reinforce us?”

    “Probably not.” He couldn’t see the headshake at the other end of the link, but he knew it was there. “If Bloch doesn’t decide to roll the dice and keep right on coming, the most likely thing for him to do is head back to wherever he came from. We’re unlikely to get enough firepower in place soon enough to keep him from breaking back across the limit.”

    Chomps nodded, glowering at the frozen smile. He owed the man behind that smile, and the thought of its owner getting away clean a second time really, really pissed him off. If only —



    He stopped, an odd thought starting to form in the back of his mind.

    “Okay,” he said slowly. “We can’t kill him or get our hands on him. But maybe we can at least snap his leash a little.”

    “I’m listening.”

    Chomps pulled up the tactical display. Not there. He thought for a moment, then shifted to an astro display.


    “What do you think our friend would do if he thought we had a system-wide sensor net he didn’t know about?”

    “He probably wouldn’t like it,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have one.”

    “No,” Chomps replied, grinning evilly. “But we do have the hyper-limit NAVSAT constellation.”

    “Yes, and everyone knows we do. For that matter, he can see it on his astrogation displays.”

    “No,” Chomps said again. “What he sees is the new constellation.”

    “The –”

    The other voice stopped, and he could almost see the sudden calculation in its owner’s eyes. Each of the Star Kingdom’s planets had its own Lagrange point constellation of astrogation satellites — still known by the archaic acronym, mostly because they were also used for navigation on the planets they orbited. Each stellar component of the binary system had its own hyper-limit constellation, as well: twenty-four individual satellites equidistantly spaced around the entire limit.

    At the moment, however, Manticore-A actually had thirty-six hyper-limit NAVSATs. One of Earl Breakwater’ infrastructure projects was the replacement of the original elderly constellation, but half of the old constellation had been retained as backups if the new system developed any glitches and to temporarily substitute for any of the newer satellites which went down for routine maintenance.

    All twenty-four of the new constellation’s beacons were clearly visible on Bloch’s astrogation displays.


    “Interesting,” she said after a moment, sounding intrigued. “We might make him blink. Even better, we might make him leery of coming back. Not only could we convince him we’d spot him farther out, but it would be a nice piece of disinformation. If he thinks he missed something that significant in his intel on us, who knows what else he could have missed?”

    “Agreed, and agreed,” Chomps said. “I’m not sure how we would pull that off, though.”

    “Leave that to me,” she assured him. “Meantime, better get back to your day job. He’s killed his acceleration, but he hasn’t started decelerating yet. He might still decide to take a run at us.”



    “Sir, they’re reversing acceleration,” Katura announced. “Not only that, they’ve increased accel by forty gravities.”

    “Reversing?” Llyn repeated with a carefully concealed flare of hope. If Admiral Eigen had decided to break off after all, that probably meant the odds were even more in Llyn’s favor than he’d thought. And if that the case —

    “More wedges coming up, Sir,” Katura said suddenly, a moment later. “Manticore orbit. Computer’s plotting positions and strength.”

    “I see them,” Llyn confirmed, watching as Pacemaker’s computers analyzed the distant wedge data and spat its results onto the display.

    And as the numbers came up, he felt his breath catch in his throat. Three orbiting ships had spun up their wedges.

    All of them read as battlecruisers.

    He hissed out a vicious curse. So at least four of Manticore’s five battlecruisers had survived the battle. Eighty percent of them. Gensonne had been even more incompetent than he’d realized.

    Unless one of the warships was a visitor? None of the new units’ light-speed transponder codes had yet reached Pacemaker. Maybe one of them — maybe even two of them — were visitors from elsewhere.

    And the only possible candidate for such generosity was Haven.

    The problem was that three weeks was far too short a time for the Republic to have heard about the battle and sent help. If one of the ships was Havenite, it had to have already been here when the battle began.

    Maybe that was why Gensonne had lost in the first place?

    “Sir, General Haus is signaling,” Katura said into his musings. “He urgently recommends that we withdraw with all haste.”

    “I’m not surprised,” Llyn growled.

    And of course he was right. At this immediate moment, who owned which ships in the Manticore System was irrelevant. What was relevant was that Llyn’s force had just gone from probably superior to outclassed as hell.

    The trick was going to be figuring out how to make a graceful and plausible withdrawal without looking like they were cutting and running. The Manticorans were surely already at least moderately suspicious of his unexpected arrival. A panicky reaction could only hone that suspicion, and if it rose to even fifty percent certainty, Locatelli would probably send everything they had against him.

    And if the Manticoran did that, Llyn’s ships couldn’t possibly kill their velocity and begin building an escape vector before the Manticorans brought them into decisive range. Which meant —

    The display updated again as the new battlecruisers’ transponder codes finally caught up with the appearance of their wedges. HMS Invincible, HMS Nike, and HMS Swiftsure.

    Llyn cursed under his breath. A bunch of hayseeds in a two-for-a-credit excuse for a star nation, and out in the middle of nowhere to boot. There was no way someone like that should have been able to give a professional merc group this kind of drubbing.

    That was what really frosted him, he realized. In fact, it bothered him more than the fact that he was very probably going to die in the next hour or two. It was infuriating to have been so effortlessly played for a fool by a star nation full of provincials who hadn’t even known he was coming.

    Or maybe they had known he and the Barcans were on their way. If they’d not only beat Gensonne but captured him, he’d spill his guts in a skinny minute if it might save his own neck.

    But it didn’t matter what they’d known. What mattered was that they’d played him perfectly. They’d delayed any response while he steadily built his velocity in-system and got farther and farther from any handy escape back across the limit. Then they’d shown him only Eigen’s force to demonstrate how badly they’d been weakened against Gensonne.

    And now he knew why their acceleration had been so low. They’d had no intention of building enough velocity to make it impossible for the battlecruisers hiding in orbit to rendezvous with Eigen before actually opening fire. But now that Eigen had him sucked too far into the trap to escape, the admiral was openly decelerating to kill his own velocity in order to hasten that rendezvous.

    After which, the combined force would go back to the full hundred and sixty gravities the newcomers were showing and run down Llyn’s ships — even the Barcan cruisers — well short of the limit.

    At least they wouldn’t be throwing any modern weaponry at him. But that was cold and thin consolation. Ancient missiles, especially in the numbers a quartet of battlecruisers could throw, would be more than enough to do the job.

    Llyn had faced dicey solutions in his time, but there’d always been a way out. This time…

    “Sir!” Katura said sharply.

    “What?” Llyn snapped.

    “Sir, Banshee’s detected a hyper footprint just outside the limit. Captain Vaagen’s tracking three new impeller wedges.” Pacemaker’s captain cursed quietly. “At least one of them appears to be another battlecruiser.”

    Another battlecruiser? Pure molten fury poured through Llyn’s veins. So all five RMN battlecruisers had survived? Had Gensonne even bothered to show up at this battle?

    And the sudden appearance of yet another Manticoran squadron astern of him was almost more disturbing than the fact that they’d taken so little damage from the Volsungs. He knew — he knew — they couldn’t have prearranged this perfect a mousetrap. No one could have. Yet there the fresh threat was, its icons burning brightly as Pacemaker’s plot updated itself. However these bastards had managed to pull it off, Llyn’s defeat was total, and there was nothing he could do about it.

    And then, still seven minutes from the turnover point where he would have no choice but to continue all the way to Manticore orbit, Locatelli handed him the solution on a silver platter.

    “Count Bloch, this is Admiral Locatelli,” the system commander’s voice said from the com. “It would appear we’ve both been guilty of a certain degree of misunderstanding. As I’m sure our documentation will demonstrate, we have no connection with the pirates who’ve been operating in Barca’s vicinity. On the other hand, and while we don’t wish to offend even our more distant neighbors, we’ve had some unfortunate experiences of late here in the Star Kingdom and we aren’t really interested in hosting a foreign task force right now. I must therefore respectfully request that your battle force leave Manticoran space.

    “I realize that until you’ve examined our evidence, you have no reason to simply take our word for our innocence. I think we can both agree that until and unless both sides can be convinced of the other’s bona fides, it might be wiser to avoid any potential incidents which could arise out of continued misunderstanding. Accordingly, I’ve instructed Admiral Eigen to begin decelerating to remain outside his engagement envelope of your command. I’ve also transmitted orders to Admiral Flannery, commanding the squadron astern of you, to plot a course to Manticore which will keep him outside missile range of your force as you withdraw.” The Manticoran admiral’s expression hardened. “I have, however, been instructed by my Sovereign that if you choose not to withdraw, His Majesty’s decision not to regard you as hostile units will have to be reconsidered.”

    Llyn treated himself to a deep, unobtrusive breath of relief.

    So they hadn’t beaten any information out of Gensonne after all. They were actually prepared to believe Barca truly had come calling on a pirate-hunting expedition.

    “On the other hand, we have no objection to you and a one-ship escort continuing on to Manticore,” Locatelli continued. “It would give us a chance to compare notes on our respective battles. With proper analysis, we might be able to determine whether they were the same force, two parts of the same group, or totally independent.”

    Right, Llyn thought with black humor. When hell freezes over, defrosts, and freezes over again.

    He inclined his head, fighting to conceal his relief. It was harder than usual this time.

    “All units reverse acceleration,” he ordered Katura. He noted the matching relief on his captain’s face, then punched the transmit key on his com panel again.

    “I’m sure you’ll understand that the Grand Duke would consider it a breach of my duty to offer myself as a potential hostage to a star nation we have yet to clear of collaboration with pirates,” he said. “Perhaps after we’ve analyzed the data you’ve provided we’ll be able to allay the Grand Duke’s suspicions and can resume this conversation at a later date.” A sudden thought occurred to him. “If you could also provide your data from battle you mentioned,” he added, “it would surely speed up that process. Regardless, since we’re currently unwelcome, we will of course take our leave.”

    Another six minutes passed, interminable minutes during which Admiral Eigen continued to decelerate towards Manticore and the three battlecruisers still approaching from planetary orbit. Pacemaker and her consorts continued forward as well, covering another four and a third million kilometers. But their velocity dropped by almost 300 KPS in the same interval, their momentum taking them to a point ninety-eight and a half million kilometers from Manticore orbit. Assuming the Manticorans didn’t change their minds about engaging the intruders, in another four hours they would come to a zero-zero point still fourteen million kilometers out from the planet and could be back across the limit in less than six.

    Assuming, again, that the Manticorans didn’t change their minds.

    It was almost a shock when Locatelli’s voice suddenly boomed again from the com.

    “I’m sure the data would be useful to you,” the admiral said. “However, since we ourselves have only barely finished our first-pass analysis, I’m sure you understand in turn that we can’t yet release it to anyone outside the Star Kingdom. Regardless, have a safe voyage home, and we look forward to comparing notes more completely at some future date.”

    “I’ll look forward to it,” Llyn promised. “For His Highness, the Grand Duke of Barca, I bid you farewell.”

    He keyed off the com.

    “Any other instructions, Sir?” Katura asked.

    “I think not, Captain,” Llyn said. “It’s over now.”

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