A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 04

* * *

“…and so he got away,” Lisa finished her story. “With our nodes down, there was nothing we could do about it.”

“Mm,” Travis said, taking a bite of his ravioli.

A fairly tasteless bite, actually. Not the ravioli’s fault, but his. There was just too much uncomfortable camaraderie going on around the rest of the table for him to concentrate on his lunch.

The clever maneuver Lisa and Chomps had cooked up during the Battle of Manticore was bad enough. It gave them a connection and a personal history together that Travis would never be a part of.

But this Casca thing was even worse. Lisa had given him a summary of the murders and the following events years ago, right after she and Damocles returned. But until now he hadn’t realized just how closely she and Chomps had worked together to bring it to its conclusion.

And it bothered him. He was embarrassed to admit it even in the secret depths of his own mind, but it bothered him.

He was glad Lisa was alive, of course. He was equally glad that her cleverness had kept Chomps from getting killed, too, both on Casca and in the recent battle.

But why did they have to be so happy and cheerful and friendly about it?

It was a childish reaction. He knew that. But that knowledge just made it worse.

He’d worked so hard to try to make himself someone who was unique in Lisa’s life. Yet here she was, laughing over mutual private jokes with someone else.


With an effort, he blinked away his silent brooding. Lisa and Chomps were both staring at him, puzzled expressions on their faces.

The same puzzled expression, probably.

“What?” he demanded.

“You’re a million light years away,” Lisa said. “Everything okay?”

“Of course,” he said. “Ma’am.”

Lisa’s frown deepened a couple of degrees. Chomps’s actually lessened, by the same amount. Was he amused at Travis’s sudden awkwardness? Probably.

“Because if we’re boring you — ” Lisa began, then broke off abruptly, raising her wrist and keying her uni-link. “Donnelly,” she said, her frown deepening.

Travis watched her face closely. The stiffness, the slightly narrowed eyes…

“Understood, Sir,” she said, her voice taut and formal. “I’m on my way.” She keyed off and pushed back her chair. “I have to go, Travis.”

“What is it?” Travis asked as he and Chomps also stood.

“Hyper footprint,” Chomps said, lowering his own arm to his side. Travis blinked with mild surprise; with his full attention on Lisa, he hadn’t even noticed that Chomps had also received a screening. “Aegis Force picked it up, right on the hyper-limit. I expect Excellent’s got them by now, too.”

“We’re being recalled to our ships,” Lisa said, already heading toward the restaurant door. “Cazenestro wants everything that can move out of orbit thirty minutes ago.”

Travis cursed under his breath. Casey was in space dock with her starboard sidewall generators disassembled and a third of her nodes undergoing maintenance. Whatever was about to happen, he and his ship were out of it.

“Oh, wait — the check,” Chomps said, stopping abruptly. “I need to — ”

“I’ve got it,” Travis cut them off. “Go.”

“Thanks, Sir,” Chomps said, already halfway to the door, Lisa right behind him. “I’ll pay you back.”

If you live through whatever’s about to happen. Travis winced, even more ashamed of his uncharitable thoughts a few minutes ago. He’d seen the reports on the Navy’s combat status, and it wasn’t good. Nearly every ship that had been in the battle had taken damage, either from enemy weapons or self-inflicted by aging or improperly maintained systems that had been strained beyond anyone’s shortsighted expectations.

The waiter was already on his way with his tablet. Travis pulled out his fob, squeezing his thumb against the reader as he tapped the tablet to transfer the funds. He and the waiter exchanged nods, and Travis hurried for the door —

And nearly collided with Lisa as she came charging back in.

“Come on,” she said, beckoning sharply. “Townsend’s getting his air car.”

“Me?” Travis shuffled to a confused halt. “I haven’t been — ”

“Haven’t been called up,” Lisa said, grabbing his arm and pulling him toward the door. “I know. But I just remembered that our ATO was reassigned to Vanguard and we don’t have a replacement yet. Maybe you can take his place.”

Three seconds later, they were outside.

“But I’d need orders,” Travis protested as she steered him toward an aircar just settling to the street in front of them. “I can’t go aboard without orders.”

“She can screen on the way, Sir,” Chomps called to the open side window. “If it doesn’t work, you can at least enjoy the ride.”

“Okay,” Travis said.

This was happening way too fast and way too far outside normal procedures. But too many people had died in the battle three weeks ago. If this was going to be a replay of that invasion, the Navy would need every man and woman it had. Including Travis Uriah Long.

A week ago, Travis had been reminded of his stated willingness to die for the Star Kingdom and warned that he might well get the chance to do so.

This might just be that chance.

* * *

The translation nausea faded away, and Jeremiah Llyn keyed on the repeater displays in Pacemaker’s private command center. If everyone had made the translation according to his orders…

They had. Mostly. The six ships of the Royal Starforce of the Free Duchy of Barca — an absurdly pretentious title for such a tiny navy, but Barca was like that — were a little out of position, but not too badly, given the vagaries of hyper astrogation. At least the two troop carriers were positioned behind the cruisers and corsair as Llyn had ordered, and all of them were a few thousand kilometers in front of Llyn’s compact courier ship.

And behind Pacemaker, lurking far to the rear, were the two modest-sized freighters.

They were puny things, as freighters went: just under five hundred thousand tons each. They weren’t nearly as efficient as the usual one- to two-million-ton ships, and they were often a source of amusement for the crews of bigger freighters when they arrived at a port. Many people considered them a sort of “starter” ship for people whose ambitions were way larger than their credit ratings.

Still, smaller ships could make a decent living if they focused on exotic — and pricy — luxury goods. Those who considered them a joke usually had a quiet laugh and then forgot them and turned their attention to more important matters.

Which was the main reason Llyn liked the ships so much. Warships in port were never ignored. Small freighters — even small freighters secretly packing the firepower of a top-of-the-line destroyer or cruiser — were.

“Signals from Shrike and Banshee,” Captain Lionel Katura’s voice came from Pacemaker’s intercom. “They report half a dozen civilian transponders within range, but nothing military.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Llyn said as the transponders’ positions popped up on his repeater display. Pacemaker’s own sensors hadn’t yet picked them up, but that was no surprise — the freighters’ sensor suites were as sophisticated as their weapons, smart-skins, and ECM equipment.

There were members of the Axelrod Corporation board, he’d once heard, who had objected strenuously to spending the huge stacks of money required to design and build ships like Shrike and Banshee. Personally, Llyn couldn’t think of a better use of money than the corporation’s Black Ops division.

Diplomacy, bribery, cajolery, leverage, manipulation, and sheer purchasing power had their place in business negotiations. But sometimes, it just came down to force. And when it did, the wise negotiator made sure he had plenty of it in reserve.

Besides, there were even times when a freighter out here in the back-of-beyond had a legitimate need for defensive armament. Which made a nice cover if any pointed questions about armed ships happened to float to the surface of the Axelrod pond.

Not that there should be all that much force needed today. Three weeks ago, the Volsung Mercenaries had hit the system with more than enough ships, missiles, and proficiency to make quick work of the obsolescent Royal Manticoran Navy. A few of the Manties’ smaller ships might have escaped destruction, and there were probably one or two still cowering over at Gryphon and Manticore-B, but they weren’t likely to make trouble. As long as Landing City and the Star Kingdom’s precious king were under the Volsungs’ guns, Llyn should have no trouble delivering Barca’s formal demand for the surrender of Manticore to the Free Duchy.

After that, he would withdraw and let Major General Sigismund Haus and his Axelrod advisory team take over. Once the Barcan occupation troops had been landed and Haus was settled into the Royal Palace, Llyn and the two Black Ops ships would take a leisurely tour of the system and make sure there was no significant danger. Then Llyn would head back to Barca, assemble the permanent occupation force and civilian administrative corps, and escort them back here. The Star Kingdom of Manticore would cease to exist, and Manticore would become a permanent part of the freshly-expanded Free Duchy.

Haven might raise a stink, of course. The Solarian League would probably at least notice, though Llyn didn’t expect anything more than a few raised eyebrows from that quarter. But the disapproval would blow over quickly enough. This kind of conquest wasn’t exactly commonplace, especially this far from the conquering system. But it was hardly unique, either. Eventually Manticore’s neighbors would adjust to the new reality, and life would go on.

Somewhere in there, the Free Duchy would quietly make an official deal with Axelrod for certain exclusive rights and trade privileges, an arrangement that no one was likely to notice. Then, when Barca “discovered” the Manticoran wormhole junction, Axelrod would be in perfect position to “manage” and “administer” the junction for them.

And Axelrod, which was already hugely rich and successful, would become a great deal more so.

He leaned back in his chair, watching the repeater plot as his squadron began accelerating in-system.