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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, February 17, 2018 07:10 EST



    “Status change, Captain,” Travis announced beside Lisa, his voice clearly audible through the disciplined calm of Damocles’ bridge. “Barca Alpha’s reversed acceleration.”

    “CIC?” Marcello called toward the intercom.

    “Vector change confirmed, Captain,” CIC replied. “Barca Alpha reversed on a reciprocal heading at eighty gravities two minutes ago at…mark.”

    Lisa breathed a silent sigh. She’d had every expectation that Travis’s trick would work. But life and war were the province of uncertainty, and it was always a relief when theory and reality lined up.

    “Bridge, Engineering,” Papadakis’s voice came. “Shall we ease back on the impellers, Sir?”

    “Let’s hold them where they are a little longer,” Marcello said.

    “Sir, if Barca Alpha’s leaving, we really shouldn’t strain the nodes any more than we have to,” Papadakis persisted. “Every minute we hold them at this level takes at least ten minutes off their designed lifetime.”

    “I agree — if they’re really leaving,” Marcello said. “I’d like to be sure of that before I reduce the load. I might point out that System Command also hasn’t authorized us to stand down yet. Shouldn’t be more than another couple of hours,” he added reassuringly.

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Papadakis replied after a moment. If he was outraged, nervous, or concerned about the captain’s decision, Lisa couldn’t hear it in his voice.

    “But I think we can at least secure from battle stations,” Marcello added. “XO, set Condition Two throughout the ship.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Shiflett said, and Lisa heard her own quiet relief in the other woman’s voice. Damocles’s officers and crew were as brave and dedicated as anyone in the Navy, but going into combat in a half-crippled ship wasn’t anyone’s idea of a fun time.



    Pacemaker and the other ships had finally killed their velocity towards Manticore and begun accelerating towards the safety of the hyper-limit almost six and a half hours ago. At the moment, the range between Pacemaker and Manticore had climbed back up to over thirty-one million kilometers, her velocity towards the limit was over seven thousand KPS, and the squadron which had arrived behind them — the transponder code of HMS Victory burning brightly in its midst — had indeed shaped a course to keep it outside missile range.

    So far, so good.

    Llyn had continued to keep a close watch on the Manticoran ships, however, wondering if Locatelli might decide at the last minute to insist the unannounced visitors come down for tea and crumpets, or whatever Kings did on little back-world planets like this.

    But Vanguard and its escorts had continued decelerating until their own velocity relative to the planet had fallen to zero, and the other three battlecruisers had reduced their own acceleration to make rendezvous with Eigen at that point. Then they’d simply sat there, reducing their wedge strength to standby levels, waiting while Victory maneuvered to join them and keeping a watchful eye on Llyn’s ships. The rats had been chased off, and the terriers were apparently content with that.

    Llyn hoped the terriers were pleased with their small victory. It was very probably the only one they would ever have.

    They were three hours and nearly a hundred forty-five million kilometers from the limit, and Llyn had just started to relax, when the whole thing again went sideways.

    Bizarrely sideways.

    “What kind of transmissions are we talking about?” he demanded.

    “Standard com laser,” Captain Vaagen’s tense voice came from the speaker. “Semi-burst, centered on Manticore; we’re only catching the edge of it because we’re still so far from the source. It appears to be encrypted, with a system we’ve never seen before. We don’t have it on file, anyway.”

    “Of course we don’t have it on file,” Llyn said with strained patience. “This is Manticore, not the League. Can you decrypt it?”

    “We’re trying. So far, the computer hasn’t even found a base pattern.”

    “Frankly, I don’t know what they could be transmitting, Mr. Llyn,” captain Rhamas put in. “Whatever’s sending, it’s not running any active sensors — we’d have picked those up on the way in. At this distance, I don’t know what it can be reading.”

    “Well, it’s reading something,” Llyn countered, glaring at the icon which had appeared on the main plot. Rhamas was right, of course. In theory, something that far away and using only passive sensors shouldn’t have a hope of seeing much besides his ships’ impeller wedges.

    But if that was all it had, why was it suddenly transmitting encrypted data toward Manticore?

    Better safe than sorry, assuming it wasn’t already too late.

    “Prepare to pitch wedge,” he ordered. “All ships. Pitch just enough to — ”

    “Pitch wedge?” Rhamas put in incredulously. “Sir, that’ll add — ”

    “Just enough to block that satellite’s line of sight down the throats of our wedges,” Llyn cut them off. “Yes, it’ll add some time to our exit. So what? The Manticorans aren’t even trying to follow us. In fact, this thing’s probably the reason Victory’s been so damned obliging about swinging wide of us. It didn’t need to maneuver to look down our throats; it could count on this thing to do it instead.” He scowled at the display. “Whatever they’re learning — or think they’re learning — I want it to stop.”

    “Yes, Sir,” Katura said briskly. “Computing pitch…transmitting order to Barcan ships.”

    “Execute as soon as you have acknowledgments.”

    “Yes sir. Executing…now.”

    Llyn watched the icons on the display shift positions. Pacemaker’s projected vector tilted upward by just under forty degrees. It wasn’t all that much, but whatever the damn satellite had been looking at, it wasn’t looking anymore.

    “And the new course will add…looks like just under two hours and forty-five minutes,” Katura added.

    “Good enough,” Llyn said. He glowered at the icon marking the spot from which the transmission had come. “And make a good sweep of the area in front of us. If there are more of those damn satellites in our way, I want to know about it.”



    “Sir?” Chief Ulvestad called tentatively from the com station. “We’re getting something strange from NAVSAT HL-22B. Or, rather, from something right beside HL-22B.”

    “Strange how? Marcello asked. “And what do you mean ‘something right beside’?”

    “Well, it’s not from the satellite itself, Sir,” Ulvestad replied. “It’s still transmitting its standard beacon.”

    “Confirmed, Sir,” Lisa said, checking the tactical display. “And the Chief’s right — this is definitely coming from something else. And whatever it is, it’s within no more than a couple of thousand kilometers of HL-22B.”

    “Could it be one of the old NAVSATs?” Commander Shiflett suggested. “That’s the only thing I can think of that might be floating around out there. For that matter, it’s the only thing that would be allowed within ten thousand klicks of any platform in the constellation.”

    “So what exactly is this transmission, Chief?”

    “I don’t know, Sir. It’s…well, it’s gibberish.”

    “And we’re sure it’s from something inside the constellation? Not from Barca Alpha?”

    “Definitely not, Sir,” Lisa said firmly, waving one hand at the master tactical display. “It’s a good two degrees off their current heading and coming from a lot farther out.”

    “Could they have commandeered one of the satellites somehow?”

    “Why would they do that?” Lisa asked, frowning as Travis pulled up the feed at her elbow. Both of them studied it, then looked at one another with matching frowns. Ulvestad was right; the computer was having no luck deciphering the data flow.

    “Maybe it’s a message to someone on Manticore,” Travis suggested darkly. “Something they don’t want to be associated directly with.”

    “Get this to System Command right away,” Marcello decided. “Someone in crypto should be able to figure out what it is.”



    “Interesting,” Admiral Locatelli said from the main screen.

    Edward looked up from the update that had just appeared on his own display.

    “Are they coming back?” he asked.

    “No, Your Majesty, they’re still leaving,” Cazenestro said. “They’ve just made an odd vector change, about forty degrees above the ecliptic.”

    Edward frowned at the big tactical display, feeling himself changing mental hats. For a moment, he was a Navy officer again, sifting through drummed-in memories of simulations, immersed in the details of impellers, weapons, and maneuvers, trying to read every nuance of the enemy’s every twitch and grunt…

    “If they’re avoiding something, I’m damned if I can see what it is,” Locatelli said. “There’s nothing out there except the navsats.”

    “No, there isn’t,” Edward agreed. “Well, keep an eye on them, Admiral. And please signal my thanks and commendation to everyone involved. They caught us well and truly on the wrong foot, but our people did a magnificent job. Be sure they know I realize that. I’ll be telling them myself sometime very soon.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty. Of course.” Locatelli bowed his head, the tension in his face momentarily eclipsed by pleasure at his sovereign’s praise. He was still in that posture when Edward cut the com link.

    Edward inhaled a deep breath, exhaled it and turned to Cazenestro. “What do you think?”

    “I think,” the First Lord said with a malicious smile, “that Count Bloch has officially outsmarted himself.”

    “So it would seem,” Edward agreed.

    Because up to now all they’d had were suspicions that something in Bloch’s formation felt odd, along with his violation of the hyper-limit without identifying himself, neither of which had exactly constituted hard evidence that he wasn’t what and who he’d said he was.

    But that was before Edward and Cazenestro had received the private com call advising them of the inspiration someone had had. Frankly, Edward hadn’t really expected Bloch to bite, but he had. Now, with his blatant move to hide from the supposed sensor satellite, he’d effectively confirmed that he had something to hide. Something he hadn’t wanted the Star Kingdom to know.

    Something which would have exposed the fact that his ships weren’t truly who and what he’d claimed.

    Of course, there was still no hint as to exactly what he was concealing, at least not in regards to his task force. That would have been extremely nice to know. Still, in time of war, every bit of information could end up being useful.

    In time of war. Edward felt his throat tighten, and suddenly the mental hats shifted back. He was no longer just an RMN officer, but King Edward, responsible for the safety and well-being of the entire Star Kingdom.

    And from that point of view…

    “We probably should have let them get closer,” he said, half to himself. “At least close enough for some decent readings.”

    Cazenestro looked at him in surprise.

    “With all due respect, Your Majesty, I think Admiral Locatelli did exactly the right thing,” he said. “We’re not in any condition to fight anyone right now. Much better to make them come back when we’re stronger.”

    “I know,” Edward said with a sigh. “But now we’ve got confirmation that these bastards were up to no good, and it strains credulity to the breaking point to assume that two totally separate outlaw groups would just happen to attack the Star Kingdom in less than a month. We’ll definitely need to up our game.”



    “And rethink our deployments,” Cazenestro murmured.

    Edward turned his head, glaring at the main display. In a way, the ship deployment that had just brought the Star Kingdom to the edge of destruction wasn’t his fault.

    In another way, it totally was.

    Cazenestro and Locatelli had both argued — strenuously — against splitting up the Navy that way. Edward had agreed with them, for whatever that was worth. Sphinx’s entire population was no more than five hundred thousand, compared to the over three million of Edward’s subjects living on Manticore.

    A case could be made for assigning ships to the Manticore-B sub-system. While there were only around a quarter million people on the planet of Gryphon, the majority of them descendants of the TRMN’s original, immigrant personnel, the system included an extensive system of asteroid mining and a robust Navy R&D setup. Even so, the system came in a distant second to the overwhelming need to protect the capital. Manticore was, hands down, both the most valuable and the only logical target in the kingdom.

    Edward, the Admiralty, and Carlton Locatelli had all wanted to deploy their available forces accordingly. But however lightly populated Sphinx and Gryphon might be, the two planets were still home to over a third of the current peerage’s holdings.

    The men and women who controlled those holdings naturally wanted them protected. And unfortunately, given the Constitution’s tilt in favor of the aristocracy, they possessed an entirely disproportionate level of political clout.

    Their demand that the Navy provide direct protection would have been a pain in the neck under any circumstances. What had pushed things past that point was the fact that Chancellor Breakwater had supported the insistent peers.

    In Sphinx’s case, he’d leaned on the planet’s steadily growing orbital infrastructure, arguing it was too valuable to abandon to an invader. For Gryphon, he’d had to get a bit more creative. Given their origins, Gryphons tended to be highly loyal to the Crown, which meant the Chancellor was scarcely one of their favorite people. By loudly demanding that they deserved protection, he hoped to soften some of that animosity.

    Personally, Edward suspected that his real motive in both cases was to collect favors and curry support as he shored up his power base in the House of Lords. That, of course, could never be publicly admitted, which made Gryphon’s defense a particularly telling card for him to play. They were innocent civilians who deserved the Navy’s protection, which gave Breakwater perfect cover for his favor-buying. But he also knew that both the Navy and the Crown were naturally inclined to protect those they saw as being uniquely their own. That fondness, he knew, would help undercut the fervency with which the Admiralty and the Crown opposed his arguments.

    Breakwater and the affected Lords had pushed the Navy into splitting up its forces. That part wasn’t Edward’s fault.

    But he was the king, and he should have cut off the debate with the kind of command decision that kings were supposed to make in such situations. The fact that he hadn’t was entirely his damn fault.

    “We will absolutely rethink our deployments,” he promised Cazenestro.

    “Thank you, Your Highness,” Cazenestro said.

    “And yes, we’ll be stronger once we’ve had time to catch our breath,” Edward said. “The problem is, so will they. And I’d really like to have better info on them than we do right now.”

    “I agree,” Cazenestro said. “But I’m convinced we really and truly dodged the bullet here. If we’d backed them into a corner where they had to fight, instead of leaving them a convenient way out, they’d have found out in a hurry that there was only one battlecruiser in front of them. And we might have found out there were a hell of a lot more than four cruisers in front of us.”

    “I know,” Edward said more quietly. “And we’d definitely lost a lot more men and women if we’d done that. But I still wish…” He trailed off.

    Cazenestro was right, of course. Certainly from the tactical perspective. If they’d forced a fight and those two “freighters” had turned out to be Q-ships, it would have been disastrous. Vanguard and her two truly combat-capable consorts might quickly have been destroyed, leaving no effective defense between the invaders and the Star Kingdom’s capital. Flannery and Red Force would have much too far astern of the intruders to prevent that from happening.

    As a military man, Edward knew that. But as a king, he also knew that sometimes pawns had to be sacrificed in return for critical information, and that the pawns in question were men and women, flesh and blood.

    King Edward Winton hated knowing that. But it was his job to know it.

    And so even while he accepted Cazenestro’s analysis, a part of him — the part responsible for discovering who and what had attacked his Star Kingdom, his subjects, his people — bitterly regretted how little concrete data they’d actually gained.

    He would have sacrificed Vanguard and her entire company in cold blood if that had given him the information he so desperately needed. He would have loathed himself for doing it, but he would have done it.

    But not today. Cazenestro was right. Not while the Star Kingdom still reeled from the devastation of the Battle of Manticore. Later, perhaps, but not today.

    “I assume that once Count Bloch’s made translation we’ll get back to making repairs?” he asked, deliberately changing the subject.

    “Yes, Your Majesty,” Cazenestro said, his expression going a little more grim as he gestured to the repeater display from Orpheus’ commanding officer’s control room. “We’re still sorting out how many people we lost,” the First Lord continued heavily. “So far it appears we have only two dead — ”

    Edward suppressed a grimace. Only two dead.

    ” — but there are at least five more critically injured, and God only knows how many minor injuries are scattered around. And that doesn’t even consider how much damage we did to the ships themselves — and to Orpheus’ facilities, for that matter — scrambling to get the Reserve underway the way we did.”

    He shook his head. “We’ve come out of this a lot better than we might have, Your Majesty, but I’ll be very surprised if we haven’t added at least another couple of months to our repair time on Damocles and Perseus. Especially Damocles, if Marcello’s engineer’s estimates about her nodes are accurate. Eryine doesn’t seem to have been as banged up as the other two, but that’s a case of damning with faint praise.”

    “I know,” Edward said bleakly, gazing at the tabulation of injuries on the repeater. It would seem he’d managed to sacrifice a few pawns today, after all.

    He stood abruptly.

    “I’ll be in my office,” he said. “Call me immediately if anything changes.”

    He strode off before Cazenestro could respond, his mind flitting to Locatelli’s HQ on Thorson. He wondered what the system commander was thinking now, watching Bloch and his ships sweep steadily closer to the hyper-limit. Now that he could step back from the immediate threat.

    The admiral was probably mourning his nephew, Edward thought. And it was right that he should. As this second attempted invasion passed without the pitched combat which had cost so many lives it was only proper that he should reflect upon those who died stopping the first one.

    It was right that he should weep for his nephew. Just as it was right that Edward would someday mourn his son.

    But not today. Later perhaps. But not today.



    With no further drama, and no further communication with Manticore, Pacemaker and its task force reached the hyper limit.

    Two minutes later, they were safely in the Alpha band.

    “Course, sir?” Katura asked.

    “We head back to the rendezvous,” Llyn told him. “We’ll deliver our report, pull our people off the Barcan ships, and send everyone home.”

    “The Barcans won’t be happy about that,” Katura warned.

    “Happiness hasn’t been an option since we first entered this damn system,” Llyn countered tartly.

    “I only meant that — ”

    “I know what you meant,” Llyn growled. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure the Grand Duke gets his second payment.”

    “Yes, sir,” Katura said. “Do you want Shrike or Banshee to accompany them? I understand Captain Vaagen in particular has become a pretty good diplomat where the Grand Duke is concerned. He might be able to smooth over any bad feelings at this setback.”

    Llyn scowled at the displays. Yes, it was a setback. But only a temporary one. The Axelrod Corporation wanted Manticore and the wormhole junction the fools down there didn’t even realize they were sitting on. And what Axelrod wanted, Axelrod got.

    But the Grand Duke might not see it that way. And if he got twitchy enough — and decided to look deeper into this mysterious benefactor who was offering him the Star Kingdom of Manticore —

    “No,” he told Katura. “We’ll send a coded message to the liaison at the rendezvous point to release the payment and follow the Barcans back home. He can take whatever heat the Grand Duke feels like unloading on him.”

    “A bonus might be in order,” Katura suggested.

    Llyn snorted. A bonus, for doing nothing but flailing around and crying and getting underfoot? Yes, that was exactly how far too many people these days thought the universe should operate. “The Grand Duke can get a bonus when he earns it,” he growled. “Sorry; if he earns it.”

    “Yes, Sir,” Katura said, a little doubtfully. “Have you thought about Gensonne?”

    “I’ve thought many things about him lately,” Llyn said sourly. “Any one in particular you had in mind?”

    “I was just thinking that if he was hit this hard, he’s going to need help.”

    “If he survived long enough to make it back to Telmach, he’ll be fine,” Llyn assured him. “His ship will need help — possibly a lot of it — but the man himself will be fine.”

    “Yes, sir,” Katura said again. “I should point out that we could still split off Shrike or Banshee to deliver a report to the rendezvous.”

    Llyn grimaced. A report? On what? That Gensonne — and, by extension Llyn himself — had failed?

    Not a chance. There was still a way to salvage the situation. Llyn just had to figure out what it was.

    “No, I want both ships with me,” he said. “After we say goodbye — and good riddance — to General Haus at the rendezvous, we’ll head to Telmach.”

    “Understood.” There was a short pause. “Are you expecting trouble, sir? At either place?”

    “I don’t necessarily expect it, Captain,” Llyn said. “But I fully plan to be ready for it.”

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