A Call To Arms – Snippet 17


“I assure you, Captain Castillo,” Captain Shresthra said, a layer of sweat sheening his little brown face, “that there is nothing at all irregular about my ship, my crew, my passengers, or my cargo. I had no idea that traffic to the Star Kingdom of Manticore was so rigorously monitored and controlled.”

Floating behind him in the Izbica’s cramped bridge, the man who called himself Grimm watched silently while Shresthra’s engineer, Pickers, ran a diagnostic probe along the circuits of one of the switching boards. There was nothing seriously wrong with the board — or the entire computer, for that matter — but Grimm had made a point of introducing the occasional harmless hiccup into the system over the year that he and his two colleagues, Bettor and Merripen, had been aboard. There was a good chance he would need to engineer a major collapse sometime in the next couple of weeks, and he needed to make sure the problem was adequately set up in the crew’s minds.

Shresthra finished speaking, and the long time delay to the Phoenix’s reply began. “You don’t suppose he’ll want to board us, do you?” Pickers asked nervously. “We’re behind schedule enough as it is.”

“Now, now — he sounds like a reasonable enough man,” Shresthra soothed. “Still, I have no doubt he’ll do whatever he chooses. It’s small-world mentality. They tend to lord it over people from more advanced systems when they have the opportunity.”

Grimm smiled to himself. Like Shresthra had any right to talk. The Solarian League might be the undisputed big dog on the street, but not all of the League’s worlds were up to that exalted standard. As far as Grimm was concerned, Shresthra’s own homeworld of Berstuk was definitely one of those holding the average down.

“But besides possible damage to our schedule, this presents no real difficulty,” Shresthra continued. “It’s Mr. Grimm and his friends who are have the most to lose.”

“Indeed we do,” Grimm agreed, turning to face the captain. Shresthra was right on the money, though he had no idea how right he was. “We can only hope that Captain Castillo will accept and honor our documents, should he choose to send boarders.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Shresthra pressed. “Will the Minorcan government invoke their penalties even if a disclosure isn’t your fault or your doing?”

“I certainly hope not,” Grimm said. “Unfortunately, the nondisclosure agreement makes no specific allowance for such things, so it will be entirely at their discretion.” He nodded toward the gravitic display and the mark that indicated the Phoenix’s position. “Even more unfortunately, Manticoran meddling would be the worst meddling of all.”

“I can imagine,” Shresthra said, nodding.

“Actually, you can’t,” Grimm said, putting some iron into his voice. He doubted Castillo would bother chasing down and boarding a clearly harmless freighter, and with their equipment still packed away in their crates a simple Navy spacer wouldn’t see anything suspicious.

But Grimm’s policy was to avoid even small risks; and if the Manticorans decided to board, he wanted Shresthra to be as solidly on his side as he could make the little man.

“I’ll tell you this much,” he continued. “What we have in the hold is a completely revolutionary system of — well, I can’t really say. But the fact that the Minorcans will be the only ones in the region with it will translate into huge profits over the next few years. If a nation with Manticore’s industrial base and funding was able to get even a hint of what it is and what it can do, they could conceivably undercut Minorca’s monopoly and its future profits. With a world their size, that would be a financial disaster.”

“Understood,” Shresthra said, importing some of Grimm’s iron into his own tone. “Do not fear. Even out here, Solarian-flagged freighters have certain rights. Rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make sure your secret cargo remains secret.”

“Thank you,” Grimm said, bowing his head. “Not just for us, but for the people of Minorca.”

He looked back at the computer. “And speaking of our cargo, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go check on it.”

“Of course,” Shresthra said. “Again, have no fear. I’m sure we’ll be fine, and that this Manticoran won’t cause us any further delays.”

Grimm’s two companions were inside Number Two hold when Grimm arrived. “How’s it look?” he asked as he sealed the door behind him and glided over to join them.

“I did what diagnostics I could,” Bettor reported. “Everything seems intact. Do you want me to start setting up?”

“Not yet,” Grimm said. “There’s an inconveniently positioned RMN ship out there asking questions. My guess is that they came out to escort that Havenite freighter that was still loading at Casca when we left.”

“Let’s hope they stick with that mission and leave us alone,” Bettor said.

“I think they will,” Grimm said. “Their interest is probably just a matter of traffic being so sparse that every newcomer raises eyebrows.”

“Maybe,” Bettor said. “So we leave things packed until we’re clear?”

“Yes,” Grimm said. “Shouldn’t be more than a few hours at the most.”

“Let’s hope it’s less,” Grimm warned. “We’re cutting it close enough as it is, time-wise, especially if you want me packing up again before we hit orbit. A few lost hours out here could be awkward at the other end of the trip.”

“You’ll be all right,” Grimm soothed him. “Unless Shresthra manages to really raise their suspicions, they’ll probably let us go and continue to wait here for the other freighter.” He looked at Merripen, lifting his eyebrows in silent invitation to weigh in.

But Merripen just shrugged. He was a man of few words, Grimm had long noted. On a voyage of this length, that was more of a plus than a minus.

“So what kind of warship is it?” Bettor asked.

“Destroyer,” Grimm said. “HMS Phoenix. I’ll let you know when you can start setting up.”

“Okay,” Bettor said. “But I meant what I said about the timing. It’s going to take all the way in, plus whatever time you can get Shresthra to spend hustling for cargo, plus all the way back out. Even all that might not be enough. Especially with this extra delay.”

Grimm wrinkled his nose. But it couldn’t be helped. The incredibly delicate, double-incredibly expensive equipment they’d brought aboard should theoretically map the gravitational subtleties in the Manticore system well enough to nail down once and for all whether or not there was a wormhole junction here.

But as Bettor had pointed out, such things took time, and distance, and then more time.

“Just make sure you stay on top of it,” he said. “By the time we leave orbit, I need to know how much extra time you’ll need.”

“You’ll know when I do.”

“Good enough.”

And one way or another, Grimm reminded himself, by the time the Izbica left the Star Kingdom they would know whether or not a Manticore junction existed.

One way, or another.

* * *

Three hours later, Phoenix returned to the humdrum boredom of Readiness Five. Apparently, Travis concluded, whatever concerns Captain Castillo had had about the unexpected visitor had been satisfactorily resolved.

Resolved enough, in fact, that Phoenix was apparently also going to return to her patrol duty and let the visitor head in toward Manticore without escort.

Travis was of two minds about that one. On the one hand, their orders were to patrol the hyper limit, and such orders weren’t to be discarded without good cause. On the other hand, he wasn’t sure it was wise to allow an unknown ship free and unfettered access to Star Kingdom space. Especially not when Phoenix had barely gotten close enough for a full sensor scan.

Still, in the year since Travis had come aboard, he’d found that Captain Castillo generally knew what he was doing. Presumably he did here, as well.

It was four days later, as Lieutenant Commander Bajek took advantage of the ship’s idle time to run her weapons crew through combat drills, that Travis received a message to contact Chomps at his earliest convenience.

In this case, Travis’s earliest convenience turned out to be six hours later.

“Thanks for coming, Sir,” Chomps said as Travis floated through the doorway into the Aft Weapons monitor room. His tone, Travis noticed, was back to formal officer/petty officer mode.

And there was something odd displayed on the station where he’d been working when Travis entered.

“I wanted to run something past you,” Chomps said, casually reaching over to blank the display. Maybe a little too casually… “Can you first tell me what you know about the League freighter we let pass four days ago?”

“All I know is what Captain Castillo has released to the rest of the ship,” Travis said. “Her name is Izbica, out of Beowulf, carrying a chartered cargo for Minorca. She’s been tramping a few stops along the way to try to pull some extra business. Why?”