A Call To Arms – Snippet 11

* * *

The diplomatic code from Ulobo’s tablet worked like a charm. Quechua City Space Control let Llyn leave orbit, their instructions and confirmations filled with the sort of stiff formal phrases that must have come straight from the official rule file. By the time of their second, much less serene call, he’d built up a twenty-one-second time delay’s worth of distance.

It made the conversation even more awkward than it otherwise would have been.

“Diplomatic courier ship Score Settler, this is Quechua City Control,” a harsh voice came over the bridge speaker. “Commodore Henderson of the Cascan Defense Force requests that you abort your trip and return immediately to Casca.”

Llyn touched the mike control. “Quechua City Control, this is Score Settler,” he replied. “Captain Ulobo speaking. My apologies, but I’m afraid it will be impossible to accede to your request. General Khetha has received a message requesting him to come at once to Zuckerman, and is determined that that obligation be met.”

He counted out the seconds of the time-delay; and right on target —

“Captain Ulobo, this is not a request,” a new, even harsher voice came on. “You are ordered to return to orbit immediately.”

Or what? Llyn thought back with a tight smile. He’d carefully checked the locations of the CDF’s ships — all four of them — on his way out of orbit, and had confirmed that none of them was in position to come after him.

But there was nothing to be gained by pointing that out. Besides, gloating wasn’t Llyn’s style. “I’m sorry, Quechua City Control, but that simply isn’t possible,” he said. “If all goes well, General Khetha will be back in three months. He’ll be happy to sit down with Commodore Henderson then.”

“Captain Ulobo, I don’t think you fully understand the situation,” the man said. “If you refuse to comply, you will be brought back by force.”

Llyn opened his mouth to reply —

And stopped as one of the displays belatedly caught his eye. It was an ID map of everything in orbit around Casca, all the ships that might be close enough to head off after him. He’d taken all of the CDF warships into account, and dismissed them as any threat.

But he’d forgotten about the Manticore destroyer. And if they started bringing up their impellers right now…

Quickly, he ran the numbers. It would be close — it would be damn close. But if they really, really wanted him, they could indeed have him.

And as if in response to that sudden revelation — “Score Settler, this is Captain Marcello of the Royal Manticoran Naval Ship Damocles,” a new voice came from the speaker. “The Cascan Defense Force has authorized me to pursue and detain or destroy you. Bring your ship around and return to Casca or we will do so.”

Llyn cursed under his breath. He had just one option, and it wasn’t a pretty one. Keying for impeller control, he ran his acceleration and inertial compensator to ninety-five percent.

It wasn’t something he did lightly. It wasn’t something anyone did lightly. Especially not someone whose impeller room was running on full automatic, with no one watching gauges to make sure nothing went wrong. Eighty-five percent was considered the upper limit for safe travel, and virtually no one except warships in combat ever crossed that line.

But Llyn needed more of a lead if he was to stay ahead of Damocles and her missiles. An hour at ninety-five percent should do the trick. Even if Marcello decided to push his own ship to the same limit.

And if he did…well, then it would be a race.

* * *

“CIC confirms, Captain,” Lieutenant Nikkelsen’s voice came from Marcello’s uni-link. “Score Settler is running at ninety-five percent maximum acceleration.”

Lisa shivered. Ninety-five percent. Whoever was aboard really didn’t want anyone catching him.

“Well, that pretty much confirms it’s our boy, doesn’t it?” Commodore Henderson said sourly.

“I would say so, Commodore,” Marcello said, just as sourly, as they all watched the departing icon on the CDF Command Center display. “I was wishing mightily that we hadn’t taken those two beta nodes off-line for inspection last night, but I see now that it wouldn’t really have mattered whether we had or not.”

“Not unless you were willing to red-line your systems, too,” Henderson agreed. “Which I assume you weren’t?”

“I wouldn’t have been, no,” Marcello said. “But seeing that he was willing might have changed my mind.” He gave a little snort. “One more big fat zero for our collection.”

At the rear of the group, Townsend cleared his throat. “If I may, Sir?” he said tentatively. “We also know now that the murderer hasn’t got a tap into high-level CDF files.”

“How do you figure that?” Shiflett asked, frowning.

“Because if he did, he’d have known Damocles’s forward ring was down and she couldn’t give chase,” Townsend said. “I assume that maintenance plan was logged into the Cascans’ system?”

“It was,” Marcello confirmed, nodding. “It also means he hasn’t got an ally tucked in among CDF personnel who could have found that out for him.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I suppose that’s worth something,” Henderson said.

“It’s worth a lot,” Marcello said. “A traitor in your midst could have made for serious future trouble.”

“Agreed,” Henderson said. “On the other hand, a traitor would have been a lead we might have been able to ferret out. This way, we’ve again got zero.”

“Yes,” Marcello murmured. “Whoever this guy is, he’s damn smooth.” He gazed at the display another moment, then turned to Townsend. “And now, I think it’s time we headed back to the ship,” he continued, a slight edge to his voice. “There’s apparently some new reading I have to do.”

Lisa looked at Townsend, too. The big Sphinxian’s face was a little pale, but there was no hint of panic in his expression. Whatever these supposed secret orders were, she had no doubt they really did exist.

What Marcello would choose to do with them, of course, was another matter. Orders were orders, but long-distance ones like this usually included a degree of latitude that ship’s commanders could invoke in case of unforeseen circumstances.

“Of course,” Henderson said. “We’ll continue monitoring him from down here, and Chachani will continue bringing up her impellers, just in case he has a malfunction before he hits the hyper limit. Unless that happens, though, I’m afraid he’s clear and gone.”

“Yes,” Marcello murmured. “I wonder what a megalomaniac like Khetha had — or knew — that could possibly make this whole thing worth this much effort.”

Lisa swallowed. This much effort, and this many lives.

It was a big galaxy, but she couldn’t quite rid herself of the suspicion that the Haven Sector might someday find that out.

It was unlikely to be an enjoyable experience.

* * *

The timer Llyn had set ran to zero…and with that, there was no longer any even theoretical possibility that the Cascans, Manticorans, or Manticoran missiles could catch him.

With a huff of relief, he quickly ran the impellers back to the standard eighty-five percent. He’d half expected Damocles to try anyway, running her own impellers as high as she had to in order to burn off Llyn’s lead.

But Captain Marcello hadn’t been that crazy. And really, who could blame him? He shouldn’t be expected to risk his ship and crew that way, certainly not when all they could even suspect Llyn of was an assault on those two nosy Manticorans he’d caught following him.

And so, for want of a little courage, the captain of Damocles had forfeited his chance to save his worlds.

And the real pity was that he would never know it.