A Call To Arms – Snippet 34


1543 PD


There was a soft tone from the repeater display in Llyn’s cabin aboard Score Settler. Starting awake from his light doze, he checked the readout.

Finally — finally — a hyper footprint. McConnovitch and Hosney had arrived.

Llyn rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, feeling a surge of relief. The bulk of the Volsung task force had been orbiting this uninhabited red-dwarf for the past two weeks, with only one of the battlecruisers still absent, and Gensonne was starting to get twitchy. The fresh data McConnovitch was bringing in from Manticore should allay the admiral’s lingering concerns about the particulars of the force he would be facing.

Another ping came from the board, this one marking an incoming transmission.

Llyn rolled his eyes. It wouldn’t be McConnovitch — Hosney was still a good nine light-minutes out. Undoubtedly Gensonne.

And of course, it was. “Is that finally your man?” the Admiral growled.

“Yes, I believe so,” Llyn said.

“About time,” Gensonne said sourly. “He’d better have something good after all this.”

“I’m sure he will,” Llyn said, sitting firmly on his patience. McConnovitch was a good man, and one of the best data scavengers in the business. But he tended to play a little loose with plans and timetables. Given the nature of his work, that wasn’t unreasonable.

Gensonne, unfortunately, was at the opposite end of the spectrum, treating his precious schedules like they’d been handed to him on stone tablets. McConnovitch hadn’t kept to that schedule, and the Admiral hadn’t been shy about stating his view of such sloppiness on a regular basis.

But the waiting was finally over. Once McConnovitch confirmed the RMN’s weakness, Llyn could turn the Volsungs loose and then head off to where his Axelrod superiors waited to hear that the operation was finally underway. By the time Gensonne had Landing and the Manticoran government under control, Axelrod’s people would be on their way to take over.

Or rather, the nation Axelrod had now made a deal with to “invade” and “conquer” the Star Kingdom. The handful of Axelrod “advisors” who would also be aboard those ships would be staying very much in the background, guiding the actions only if and when necessary.

And like any good puppet show, if they did their job properly, the hard-eyed critics in Haven and the League would never see the strings.

The minutes ticked down; and precisely on the nine-light-minute timetable, Llyn’s com pinged. “I’m getting his transmission now,” he told Gensonne. “I’ll send it on after I’ve decrypted it.”

Gensonne gave a little grunt.

“Make it fast.”

“As fast as I can,” Llyn promised. “But he’ll be running a semi-manual encryption, which means I’ll need to work through it partly by hand.”

“You’re joking,” Gensonne said with another grunt. “You never hear of computer encryption algorithms?”

“Sure,” Llyn said. “They’re the ones a good hacker can grab whole and use to open your whole com system to unfriendly eyes and ears. Sometimes the old classics work best.”

“If you say so. Just hurry it up.”

“I will.”

Llyn keyed off and checked the new transmission. It was a data packet, and the origination ID was indeed Hosney.

He frowned, feeling a prickling on the back of his neck. No greeting, no identification, just the data packet? That didn’t sound like McConnovitch.

The transmission ended, and the report came up on his display. Frowning, Lynn began to read.

And the prickling on his neck turned into a shiver.

Green Force One, scout unit, call-signed Janus: four ships.

Green Force Two, main Manticore/Sphinx defense unit, call-signed Aegis: nine ships, including two battlecruisers. Not one, but two.

Red Force, Gryphon defense unit, call-signed Backstop: four ships, including yet another battlecruiser.

Llyn leaned back in his seat, mouthing a curse. The ten-ship, one-battlecruiser enemy that Gensonne was expecting to meet was in fact seventeen ships and no fewer than three battlecruisers. And that didn’t even count the two battlecruisers and six other warships that McConnovitch marked as being currently in refit.

Gensonne wasn’t going to be happy about this. Not at all. In fact, he might be unhappy enough to take his ball and go home.

And given the unanticipated uptick in the RMN’s numbers, the contract Llyn and Gensonne had signed not only allowed the Volsungs to bail, but also required Axelrod to pay them a hefty cancellation fee.

There was no way Llyn was going to let that happen. Not after coming this far.

Taking a cleansing breath, he began combing methodically through the numbers.

Looked at more closely, it wasn’t that bad. Not really. Green Forces One and Two were a formidable array, but the fact that they were split into two groups meant that Gensonne should be able to take them on one at a time. Even if he couldn’t, it was still two RMN battlecruisers against the Volsungs’ three.

Even better, Red Force was way the hell over at Manticore-B. Those ships should be out of the picture until long after the battle was over. And of course, all the ships in dock for refit might as well not even be there.

No, Gensonne wasn’t going up against anything he couldn’t handle. Not with his three battlecruisers, his fourteen other ships, and his massive confidence.

There was certainly no reason to bother the admiral’s little head with silly numbers and needless concerns.

He finished his editing, then keyed for transmission to Gensonne’s flagship.

“I’ve decoded the report, Admiral. Sending it to you now.”

“Thank you,” Gensonne said. “I trust nothing has changed since your last report?”

“Nothing of significance,” Llyn assured him. “Nothing at all.”

* * *

Commodore Rudolph Heissman, commander of the light cruiser HMS Casey and the other three ships of Green Two, was undoubtedly a very busy man. Nevertheless, from Travis’s point of view at the far side of Heissman’s desk, it looked like he was taking an extraordinarily long time to read through Travis’s transfer orders. Seated beside him, Commander Celia Belokas, Heissman’s exec, didn’t look to be in any more of a hurry than her boss.

Finally, after a mid-size eternity, Heissman looked up. “Lieutenant Long,” he said, his flat tone not giving anything away. “According to this, you have great potential.”

He paused, as if expecting some kind of response. “Thank you, Sir,” was all Travis could think to say. The words, which had sounded tolerably reasonable in his head, sounded excruciatingly stupid when he heard them out in the open air.

Heissman apparently thought so, too. “You know what I hear when someone uses the phrase great potential, Mr. Long?” he asked, his expression not changing in the slightest. “I hear someone making excuses. I hear someone who hasn’t worked to reach the level of his or her ability. I hear someone who doesn’t belong in the Royal Manticoran Navy. I hear someone who absolutely doesn’t belong aboard HMS Casey.”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said. That response didn’t sound any better than the previous one had.

“I don’t want to see potential,” Heissman continued. “I want to see results.” He cocked his head. “Do you know what the assistant tactical officer’s job is, Mr. Long?”

“Yes, Sir.” The words sounded marginally better this time. “To assist the Captain and Tactical Officer in combat maneuvers and –”

“That’s the job description,” Heissman interrupted. “What the ATO does is find patterns and weaknesses in the enemy, and avoid them in his own ship.”

He gazed into Travis’s eyes, his expression hardening. “Captain Castillo talks a lot about luck. I don’t ever want to hear you use that word aboard my ship. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said.

“Good,” Heissman said. “As I said, part of your job is to know the weaknesses of your own ship and find ways to minimize them. Step one in that procedure is obviously to know your ship.” He nodded to his side. “In light of that, Commander Belokas has graciously agreed to give you a tour. Pay attention and listen to everything she has to say. Afterward, you’re going to need a lot of hours with the spec manual before you’re anywhere near up to speed.”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said. He shifted his eyes to Belokas. “Ma’am.”

Heissman’s eyebrows rose a fraction of a centimeter. “Unless, of course, you’ve already spent some time in the manual,” he added, as if the thought had only just occurred to him. “Have you?”

“As a matter of fact, Sir, yes, I have,” Travis confirmed, trying not to grimace. He’d only spent eighty percent of his waking hours during his two weeks of groundside time poring through everything he could find on Casey and her equipment. Which, considering all the bureaucratic hoops he’d had to jump through to even get the manuals, Heissman almost certainly already knew. “Just the surface information, of course –”

“In that case, you can give the tour,” Heissman said. “You’ll tell Commander Belokas everything you know, and she’ll start on her list of everything you don’t know. That sound fair to you?”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said.

“Good,” Heissman said. “You have two hours before you’re to report to Lieutenant Commander Woodburn, so you’d better get to it.” He nodded briskly and lowered his eyes to the report. “Dismissed.”

* * *

“I trust you won’t take this wrong, Ensign,” Captain Adrian Hagros said stiffly as he floated at the back of RMN Hercules’s entryway, “but what the hell are you doing aboard my ship?”

Crown Prince Richard Winton — or more accurately, the freshly-minted Ensign Richard Winton — suppressed a smile. Not because of the question or the impudence, but because he knew full well the looks the two King’s Own bodyguards behind him were giving Hercules’s commander right now.

Which merely raised Richard’s opinion of Hagros another couple of notches. Awkward situation or not, the man refused to either shrivel or mince words. Now, more than ever, Richard was glad he’d made this decision.

“I’m an officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy, Sir,” he reminded Hagros politely. “I’m here because this is where my orders sent me.”

“Sure,” Hagros said. “And your orders didn’t send you to Invincible or Swiftsure because…?”

“Because small-ship experience is as important as big-ship duty, Sir,” Richard said. “Because Hercules is where the normal assignment rotation had scheduled me. And because I don’t want any special privileges.”

A familiar set of expressions flicked across Hagros’s face, mirroring the equally familiar thoughts likely going on behind them: first, that a broad range of experience was only necessary for a career officer, which Richard most definitely wasn’t; and second, that special privileges were practically a way of life for the Crown Prince, whether he wanted them or not.

Richard knew that was what Hagros was thinking, because it was what everyone else had thought, every frustrating step of the way.

But Richard had made it this far. He’d avoided cushy duty, he’d avoided abnormally prestigious duty, and he’d forced them to put him on a normal ensign’s track. He wasn’t about to be stopped now just because Hercules’s captain didn’t think a century-old Pegasus-class corvette was worthy of the Crown Prince’s presence.

Maybe Hagros saw that in Richard’s eyes. Or maybe he just realized that the Crown Prince’s presence here meant better people than Hagros had already tried to send him to a more comfortable posting and failed.

“Glad to hear it,” he growled. “Because you’re not going to get any here. The yeoman outside will show you to your quarters.” His eyes flicked over Richard’s shoulders. “And your men to theirs,” he added. “You’re to report to Lieutenant Petrenko in Forward Impellers in one hour. Any questions?”

“No, Sir.”

“In that case, welcome aboard, Ensign,” Hagros said, a little less severely. “A word of warning: corvettes are old ships, and their crews have to work their tails off. Be prepared to have yours worked off, too.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Sir.”

Hagros snorted as he gave Richard a sharp nod. And, perhaps, just the faintest hint of a smile. “Dismissed.”

And as Richard floated down the passageway behind the yeoman, he found himself breathing deeper in anticipation. No more arguments with his father, no more persuasion of nervous bureaucrats in BuPers, no more need to define his position and stand firm on it. Finally, finally, he had a ship.

He would work his tail off, all right. His current orders had him serving aboard Hercules for the next year. He would spend that year becoming the best damn officer Hercules and Hagros had ever seen.

* * *

“Admiral Gensonne?”

His eyes and attention still on Llyn’s report, Gensonne reached over and keyed the com. “What is it, Imbar?”

“Hyper footprint, Sir,” Captain Sweeney Imbar, Odin’s commander, reported. “Looks like Tyr has finally arrived.”

Gensonne grunted. About fraggy time. They’d been waiting on Blakely to get his butt here for four solid weeks, and the rest of the captains were getting antsy. Now, with the last of Gensonne’s three battlecruisers on site, they were finally ready to get this operation underway. “Send Captain Blakely my compliments,” he instructed Imbar, “and tell him to haul his sorry carcass in pronto so he can start loading supplies and armaments. We head for Manticore in five days, and if he’s not ready he’ll be left behind.”

“Aye, Admiral,” Imbar said, and Gensonne could visualize the other’s malicious grin. Imbar loved relaying that kind of order.

Gensonne keyed off the com, and with a scowl returned his attention to Llyn’s report.

Seventeen warships. That was what the Volsung Mercenaries were bringing to the battlefield: three battlecruisers, six cruisers, seven destroyers, and one troop carrier. There were also be the four fuel and support ships that would remain parked outside the hyper limit, but those didn’t really count. The Manticorans, in contrast, had only thirteen warships with which to counter.