A Call To Arms – Snippet 24

If Grimm had killed Shresthra and the rest of the crew, Izbica’s destruction could be viewed as a form of summary and unprocessed justice on a group of murderers. If the pirates had merely confined the crew, Fairburn would be guilty of murder himself.

“Telemetry’s back up,” Ravel snapped abruptly. “Retaking control.”

Fairburn glanced at the timer. Two minutes four seconds had passed since the missile took off. Fifty-six seconds to go before its wedge burned out.

“Can you get it back on track?” he asked.

“Working on it, Sir,” Ravel said. Fairburn counted off ten more seconds — “No, Sir,” Ravel said. “It’s too far along on its kill course. I might be able to get it to detonate between Izbica’s stress bands, but the timing would be tricky.”

Fairburn looked at the tactical display. His eyes followed the missile’s track as it converged on Izbica’s…

“Shall I send the self-destruct code?” Ravel prompted.

“No,” he told her. “Run it into Izbica’s wedge. Try to get it to detonate just before it hits. But if you can’t, just let it hit her wedge.”

“If we detonate between bands, we can still pretend it was a deliberate warning shot,” Todd pointed out.

“Too close, XO,” Fairburn said. “Even if Commander Ravel can pull off the timing, we stand a good chance of killing everyone aboard.”

Todd cleared his throat.

“Understood, Sir,” the XO said, lowering his voice. “May I point out that the whole point of the warning shot was to demonstrate that we had the skill to put a missile exactly where we wanted it? Running it into their wedge hardly sends that message.”

“Sir, Izbica has gone to full-bore acceleration,” CIC reported. “Pushing their compensator to the limit.”

“She’s pulling away,” Todd confirmed. “Shall we increase our own acceleration to compensate?”

“Negative,” Fairburn growled. In theory, Salamander had more than enough gravs waiting in reserve. In practice, the iffy state of her compensator made any such increase far too dangerous to attempt.

Fairburn had already taken one gamble. His ship had failed him. He wasn’t about to tempt fate with another roll of such badly loaded dice. “We could try another warning shot,” Ravel offered quietly. “We might still have time.”

“With our telemetry probably being held together with packing tape?” Fairburn shook his head. “No. At best, we’re one for two — hardly the convincing argument we’d hoped to deliver. At worst, we kill them all.”

“They are pirates, Sir,” Todd reminded him.

“I know,” Fairburn said. “But bodies alone prove nothing. If we can’t take them alive, there’s no point in taking them dead.”

There was a slight pause. “Yes, Sir,” Todd said.

“Everyone stand ready to follow when Izbica jumps into hyperspace,” he ordered, raising his voice again so that the entire bridge could hear. “We may yet be able to run them down.”

There was the usual murmur of acknowledgments.

But Fairburn hardly heard them. It was still history in the making, certainly. But not the glorious historical victory he’d envisioned.

It might even be the beginning of the end of the Royal Manticoran Navy. Breakwater would certainly be all over this once he heard about it. It was conceivable that a fiasco of this magnitude would be the straw that would persuade Parliament to let the Chancellor take the Navy apart and fold it into MPARS.

Even if that didn’t happen, it was certainly the end of the career of one Captain John Ross, Baron Fairburn.

* * *

“Crap, crap, crap,” Merripen’s muttered voice came from the intercom. “They hit us, Grimm. The damn Manticorans fired a missile and hit us.”

“Yes, I know,” Grimm said with all the patience he could manage. He’d seen the result of that impact on the repeater displays down here.

That result being exactly nothing. The Izbica’s wedge had made short work of the weapon, exactly the way stress bands were supposed to. There’d been a bit of a power flutter, but that was all.

“So are we dead?” he asked Merripen.

“What?” Merripen asked. “No, of course we’re not dead.”

“Then shut up about it,” Grimm said. “We still pulling ahead of them?”

“Yeah. For the moment.”

“That’s all we need,” Grimm said. “Relax — we’re almost ready. Did you call up the Number One course package like I told you?”

“Yeah, it’s plugged in,” Merripen growled. “You do realize they’re outside the hyper limit, right? And that there’s no way in hell we can outrun them in this thing?”

“Trust me,” Grimm said with a tight smile. He made the last connection — “Ready,” he said, plugging the board into the interface and keying for a self-test. “Don’t touch anything — I’ll be right up.”

The self-test had finished by the time Grimm reached the bridge, with everything showing a satisfactory green. “I hope you’ve got a really good hole card on this one,” Merripen warned with a grunt as he moved away from the helm station. “Fairburn’s called twice with orders to surrender.”

“Why didn’t you pipe it down to me?” Grimm asked, keying up the board.

“‘Cause you were busy,” Merripen said. “I didn’t think you had time to gloat.”

“There’s always time to gloat,” Grimm admonished him mildly. “Okay. Here goes…”

* * *

“There she goes!” Ravel snapped. “Bearing…we’ve got her vector, Sir.”

“Go!” Fairburn snapped, mentally crossing his fingers. If Salamander’s hyperdrive was in the same sorry shape as her telemetry system, this was going to be a very short trip.

Fortunately, it wasn’t. Without even a flicker of a problem, Salamander translated into the alpha band.

Only to find that Izbica had vanished.

“Where did she go?” Fairburn demanded, running his eyes back and forth over the sensor displays, as if he could will the freighter’s image into existence by sheer willpower. “There’s no way she could have gotten out of range that fast. Could she?”

“No,” Todd said grimly. “Best bet is that she did a microjump and got back to n-space just as we were leaving it.”

Fairburn clenched his teeth. Todd was right. It would take precise timing, but that had to be the answer.

“TO, calculate how far Izbica would have gotten if she’d translated down just as we translated up,” he ordered. “Helm, get us back to n-space as close to that spot as you can. CIC, I want a full-sensor scan as soon as we translate.”

“Got it,” Ravel reported. “Sending coordinates to the helm.”

“Ready to translate,” the helmsman reported.

“Go,” Fairburn ordered.

Izbica wasn’t there. Izbica was nowhere.

Salamander spent the next six hours not finding her.

* * *

Bettor lifted a glass of the wine Merripen had found in the late Captain Shresthra’s private stores.

“That,” he said flatly, “was about as crazy a trick as I’ve ever seen.”

“Not crazy at all,” Grimm said mildly, taking a sip from his own glass. Whatever else Shresthra had been, he’d had excellent taste in alcoholic beverages. “It’s all in the timing. Plus a certain degree of willingness to push the envelope when making one’s translations. Don’t forget, I spent a lot of time studying this ship during the voyage. I knew exactly what it could and couldn’t do.”

“I still think it was crazy,” Merripen said. “But I guess you can’t argue with success.”

“Especially when success pays so well,” Grimm said. “Speaking of which, I hope you were able to get all the data you needed, because we sure as hell aren’t going back.”

“I got enough,” Bettor assured him. “Another couple of hours would have been nice, but I should have enough to confirm the junction’s existence and give us a close approximation as to where it’s lurking.”

“Good enough,” Grimm said.

“And meanwhile,” Merripen rumbled, “the Manticorans now know there are pirates working the area.”

Gently, Grimm swirled the wine in his glass. Yes, that was indeed the downside of all this. In retrospect, he probably should have just ignored Izbica’s hails and let Fairburn come to the pirate/hijacker conclusion on his own. That was surely all the little man’s little brain was capable of. The problem was that, without Grimm’s declaration on record, a more clever brain might have started thinking outside the lines and wondering if there might be another reason behind the Izbica’s passengers’ visit.

The odds that someone was searching for wormholes in their system were extremely low, of course. But low odds were not zero odds; and if the Manticorans even suspected what it was they were sitting on, there would be a mad scramble to get all those mothballed ships back into service to defend themselves and their incredible asset.

But pirates weren’t nearly such a serious threat, certainly not to a system with this many warships already in service. The most likely response to Izbica’s hijacking would be a beefing-up of their customs personnel and procedures, and maybe more escort runs.

Of course, the best-case scenario would have been to continue on to Minorca without causing any ripples whatsoever, leave the Izbica peaceably, and catch the Axelrod freighter that would be arriving on carefully unrelated business. That would have left everyone blissfully unaware of what had happened, and given no one any reason to look at this ship, her passengers, or her cargo ever again.

But what was done was done.

And really, the repercussions were unlikely to be anything serious.

“Not a problem,” he assured Merripen. “They’ll probably tighten up scrutiny on incoming passengers, but that’ll be the end of it.”

“You don’t think they’ll beef up their Navy?”

“Against the vague threat of some pirates?” Grimm shook his head. “Not a chance. I mean, come on — they already have all the hardware they need for that.”

“The Navy will want more anyway,” Merripen said. “Navies always do.”

Grimm snorted. After spending a week in Manticore orbit reading the newsfeeds, skimming the recent history, and generally getting a feel for the Star Kingdom, he could answer that one with complete confidence. “Of course they’ll want more,” he said. “But they won’t get it. Not here.”

“You sure?” Merripen persisted.

Grimm lifted his glass in salute, the transcript of Chancellor of the Exchequer Earl Breakwater’s last speech in Parliament floating before his eyes. “I guarantee it.”