A Call To Arms – Snippet 19


Manticore had come and gone, and was no more than a faint dot in the Izbica’s aft viewer.

And Captain Shresthra, in the quaint old vernacular, was not a Happy Camper.

“You said there would be bales and bales of cargo to be had at Manticore,” he grumbled yet again to Grimm, punctuating his rant with an accusing finger. “You remember? That was exactly what you said: bales and bales.”

“I know,” Grimm said in as apologetic a voice as he could muster. It wasn’t easy, when what he really wanted to do was take hold of that jabbing finger and break it off. Patience, he reminded himself firmly. “But that really was how things worked eight years ago, when I last passed through this region. There was no way I could have known that freighter traffic had picked up so much since then.”

Shresthra gave a contemptuous sniff. “A dozen or so ships a year hardly qualifies as traffic, Mr. Grimm. At the very least you should have asked the Havenite freighter at Casca whether he and the other freighters had this route sewed up. If I’d known, we could have gone directly to Minorca instead of wasting three weeks with this side trip.”

“I know,” Grimm said again, doing his best verbal grovel in front of the annoying little man. In fact, he had talked to the Havenites, learned that Manticoran trade was indeed well covered, and had been careful to leave them with the impression that he would pass on any relevant information to the Izbica’s captain and crew. The visit to Manticore was the whole reason Grimm and his partners were aboard; the last thing he’d wanted was for Shresthra to bypass the system.

Just as the last thing he wanted right now was for Shresthra to make a stink that would force him to kill the little man and his crew. They were still close enough to the planet — and more than close enough to the ships plying the route between Manticore and Sphinx — that there might still be some need for communication. There was nothing like an abrupt switch to a new and unfamiliar voice to make people curious.

“But there is also the planet Gryphon,” he continued, gesturing outward. “Not to mention all the Manticore-B mining operations. We could make a quick microjump over there, send out a query to the mining factories, and see if they’ve got some product they want to sell.”

“No,” Shresthra said firmly. “The Star Kingdom had their chance. We hit the hyper limit, we’re heading straight to Minorca.”

Damn. “Certainly, if that’s what you want,” Grimm said. “I was just trying to salvage something useful from this trip.”

“You want to salvage something, salvage your breath next time you have a bright idea,” Shresthra growled. Grabbing a handhold, he spun himself around in midair and gave himself a pull toward the bridge.

Grimm waited until he’d floated out of sight. Then, glowering, he headed back to the hold.

Bettor was floating in front of the analyzer, watching as it ran the latest batch of data though its electronic hoops. “Well?” he asked.

“We’re going to Minorca,” Grimm told him. “Do we care?”

“Afraid we do,” Bettor said. “Rough estimate is that we’ll need ten to twelve more hours than we’re going to get if we leave on the Izbica’s current schedule.”

“Twelve?” Grimm echoed, frowning. “I thought it was only six at the most.”

“That was before Shresthra had Pickers goose a few more gravs out of the impellers,” Bettor said. “The man’s serious about trying to get back on schedule.” He raised his eyebrows. “Time to let loose the Merripens of war?”

Grimm pursed his lips, seriously tempted. But his earlier concern about changing personnel in possible future communications was still valid. “Not yet,” he said. “I’ve already gimmicked the interface with the hyperdrive. That should buy us the rest of the time you need. Once you’re finished, I’ll find the magic fix, and Shresthra can make course for wherever he wants.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Bettor agreed. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t figure it out.”

“He won’t,” Grimm said. “We’ve introduced enough glitches on this trip for him to put it down to yet another bit of balky equipment.”

“If you say so,” Bettor said. “Just be ready if he isn’t as naïve as you expect.”

“Don’t worry,” Grimm said. “I’ll be as ready as Merripen is.”

“And Merripen’s always ready?”

Grimm smiled grimly. “Yes. Always.”

* * *

“This is a drill,” Captain Castillo’s voice boomed across Phoenix’s intercom system. “General Quarters, General Quarters. Set Condition Two throughout the ship. Repeat: set Condition Two throughout the ship. This is a drill.”

Travis was the second of his crew to reach their station in Forward Weapons, right after Spacer Second Skorsky. The rest of them were no more than two minutes behind him. Luckily for them.

Two minutes and twelve seconds after that, the missiles, beam weapon, and all of the functional support equipment showed green.

“Nice,” Fornier commented, checking his chrono. “I make that as a hair under an eight percent improvement. Excellent work, Lieutenant Long. At this rate, you’ll be dropping that awkward jay-gee from your rank within a couple of months.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Travis said, scowling a little to himself. That eight percent might look good on paper, but the bottom-line fact was that the improvement was mainly due to Phoenix now being down to a single forward tracking sensor, several major components of the second system having been cannibalized to fix the balky EW assembler.

And it took zero time to bring up, check, and confirm a system that wasn’t working in the first place.

All of which Fornier knew, of course. But like everyone else in the Navy, he’d learned how to put good spin on anything capable of being spun.

“Sounds like the aft autocannon’s still coming up,” Fornier continued, cocking his ear toward the commentary stream coming from the intercom. “Let’s try giving the tracker something to track.”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said. Grabbing a handhold, he gave himself a pull and floated over to the main display.

As usual, there wasn’t much out there. There were three contacts showing in the inner Manticore-A system — a couple of local transports, plus HMS Salamander, out on some kind of training cruise.

And between Salamander and the transports was a single contact: the Solarian freighter Izbica, heading out from her cargo-hunt on Manticore.

She would do nicely.

“Give me a track on bogey bearing one-four-six by two-two-nine,” he called toward his crew.

“A track, Sir?” Skorsky asked, sounding confused. “Sir, she’s way out of range for that.”

“She’s out of range for radar and lidar, yes,” Fornier said with an edge of deliberate patience. “They’re also blocked by the aft quarter of the dorsal wedge. So what else have you got?”

“Gravitics, Sir,” Skorsky said, belatedly catching up. “Yes, Sir. Tracking via gravitics.”

“And don’t think this is just make-work,” Fornier added, raising his voice so the whole compartment could hear. “Yes, tracking is usually CIC’s or the bridge’s job. But there might be a time down the road when communications get cut off, and you’re on your own.”

“Understood, Sir,” Skorsky said briskly. “Track plotted and on the board.”

Travis craned his neck to look at the display. Izbica’s position and a rough estimate of her vector were now displayed, within the limits of the gravitic data for something that far away. He ran his eye down the numbers…

And frowned.

“Confirm position,” he ordered.

“Confirm position, aye.

“Trouble?” Fornier asked quietly from behind him.

“I don’t know,” Travis said. “Look where she is.”

“Outside the hyper limit,” Fornier murmured.

“Considerably outside the hyper limit,” Travis agreed. “A good three hundred thousand kilometers, and she hasn’t made her alpha translation yet. She’s not accelerating, either.”

“She does seem to be just coasting,” Fornier agreed. “You think she’s in trouble?”

“Could be,” Travis said. In the back of his mind, he could hear the echo of Chomps’s voice as he laid out his theory about the Cascan mass-murderer being aboard the freighter. Could he have been right?

No. The theory had been ridiculous. And even if it hadn’t been, that could hardly have anything to do with this current situation. The last thing a killer on the lam would want was to draw attention to himself by fiddling with his ship’s operation. Especially not this close to an inhabited system.

But while Travis might not know much about freighters, he did know that they lived by their schedules. No captain would waste time doodling along past the hyper limit unless he didn’t have a choice.