A Call To Arms – Snippet 15

Which wasn’t to say he was pleased by the delay, of course. The Volsung Mercenaries’ headquarters was right where Ulobo’s data had put it: in the city of Rochelle on the planet Telmach in the Silesian Confederacy. Once Llyn had collected a proper crew from the covert section of Axelrod’s mining operation in Minorca, which had allowed him to use the full capabilities of General Khetha’s modified courier ship, he’d arrived at Rochelle less than six months after his rather hurried escape from Casca.

Only to find that Gensonne and several of his ships had headed off elsewhere in the Confederacy.

The liaison who’d been left to man the office had said they would probably be away for a year, possibly two. Llyn, with no intention of waiting that long, had reboarded his ship and headed off to track them down.

That trip had eaten up much of the time he’d saved by the serendipity of Khetha being on Casca. But that was all right. There was still one more test Axelrod’s people needed to make anyway before Llyn could greenlight the invasion. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything important,” he added.

“Not at all,” Gensonne assured him. “Actually, our business here went faster than I’d expected. Another month or two, and we’ll be ready to look at your job.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Assuming it proves to be worth our while.”

“Let’s find out,” Llyn suggested, handing a tablet across the desk.

Gensonne accepted it with a grunt and settled back to read.

As he did so, Llyn took the opportunity to study the man.

Gensonne was pretty average-looking, as mercenary chiefs went. Light-skinned and blond, with blue eyes, he had the near-focus look of a man who had spent most of his life aboard ships.

His history was far more colorful than his bland looks would suggest. He’d served for several years with Gustav Anderman, and had been on hand when Anderman defeated Ronald Devane and added the Nimbalkar system to his growing empire. For a while, as Anderman settled into his new role of emperor, it had looked like Gensonne might be in line to take up a significant and senior role in Anderman’s navy. There were indications, as well, that Gensonne might be hoping to emulate his boss’s successes, with his sights set on a couple of other small colony worlds in the region that could be added to Anderman’s empire.

But then, without explanation — or at least none that Llyn had found in the files he’d read on the trip to Rochelle — Anderman had abruptly pulled the plug on Gensonne’s ambitions. Gensonne had apparently responded by taking his core crew and a couple of small ships Anderman gifted him and going home. He’d ended up on the fringes of the Solarian League, where he’d started to build an organization of his own, one without Anderman’s inconvenient list of scruples. Eventually, he’d relocated into Silesia, with his growing collection of ships and men, and ever since had been taking on the kind of jobs Anderman would never have touched.

Llyn didn’t know why Anderman and Gensonne had parted company, though he had his suspicions. Still, Gensonne’s record was one of competence, certainly enough to handle the subjugation of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. At the end of the day, that was all that mattered.

And in fact, the Anderman connection made things perfect. An investigation in one direction would dead-end at the late General Khetha and his homecoming ambitions, while an enquiry in the other direction would conclude that Gensonne had been inspired by his former chief’s example to try his own hand at the whole planet-conquering game. Either way, Axelrod’s name would be completely out of it.

Across the desk, Gensonne stirred in his seat. “Interesting,” he said his eyes still on the tablet.

Llyn waited a moment, wondering if there would be more. But Gensonne just flicked to the next page, his black eyebrows pressed together in concentration. “Is that a good interesting, or a bad interesting?” Llyn asked at last.

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t good,” Gensonne growled. “You realize this is a star nation that can conceivably field somewhere in the vicinity of thirty warships? Including six to eight battlecruisers?” He cocked his head. “That’s one hell of a fighting force, Mr. Llyn.”

Llyn smiled. It was a standard gambit among mercenaries, one that had been tried on him at least twice before throughout the years. By inflating the potential risks, the bargainer hoped to similarly inflate the potential payment. “You apparently missed sections fifteen and sixteen,” he said. “The bulk of that fleet is in mothballs awaiting the scrapyard. What’s left is either half armed or half crewed or both. Our estimate is that you’ll be facing no more than eight to ten ships, with maybe one of those ships a battlecruiser.”

“I did read sections fifteen and sixteen, thank you,” Gensonne countered. “I also noted that the most recent data here is over fifteen months old.”

“I see.” Standing up, Llyn reached across the table and plucked the tablet from Gensonne’s hands. “Obviously, you’re not the group we’re looking for, Admiral. Best of luck in your future endeavors.”

“Just a moment,” Gensonne protested, grabbing for the tablet. Llyn was ready for the move and twitched it out of his reach. “I never said we wouldn’t take the job.”

“Really?” Llyn said. Time for a little gamesmanship of his own. “It certainly sounded to me like you thought the job was too big for you.”

“There is no such job,” Gensonne said stiffly, standing up as if prepared to chase Llyn all the way through his office door if necessary to get the tablet back. The fact that Llyn was making no move to leave seemed to throw him off stride. “I was simply making the point that your intel was stone cold, and that any merc commander would want an update before taking action.”

“Was that what you were saying?” Llyn said, feigning a puzzled frown. “But then why did you imply that the odds –?” He broke off, letting his frown warm to a knowing smile. “Oh, I see. You were trying to amp up your price.”

Typically, Llyn knew, people hated to see their stratagems trotted out into the sunlight. But Gensonne didn’t even flinch. A bull-by-the-horns type, with no apologies, no excuses, and no regrets, nicely consistent with Llyn’s analysis of the man. “Of course I was,” he said. “I was also looking for more information.” He gestured to the tablet. “We can handle the job. Trust me. The question is why we should bother.”

“A good question,” Llyn said. As if he was really going to let a mercenary leader into Axelrod’s deepest thoughts and plans. “You’ll forgive me if I respectfully decline to answer.”

Gensonne’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment Llyn thought the other was preparing to delve back into his bag of ploys and tricks. But then the admiral’s face cleared and he shrugged. “Fair enough,” he said. “You’re hiring mercenaries, after all. Not fishing for investors.”

“Exactly,” Llyn said, his estimation of the man rising another notch. Gensonne knew how to play the game, but he also knew when to stop. “So. Are the Volsung Mercenaries the ones for this job? Or would you rather keep on hitting small mining colonies and helpless freighters?”

Again, Gensonne’s eyes narrowed. But this time it was the narrowing of a predator’s eyes as the animal prepared to spring. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, very softly.

“Oh, don’t worry — I’m not planning to tell anyone,” Llyn assured him, rather surprised that his piracy shot in the dark had drawn some blood. The thought had only occurred to him a few days ago as he contemplated all the attention Manticore and Haven were putting into their pirate hunt.