A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 08

Locatelli frowned. Probably considering the implications of where Vanguard was headed, Eigen guessed, and the negligible contribution a corvette was likely to make in any confrontation.

At least on paper. Because Eigen also knew that Locatelli couldn’t help but remember how, three weeks ago, the corvette HMS Phoenix had made a contribution to that battle that was far beyond anyone’s expectations.

Though at a cost. A terrible cost.

Locatelli stirred, and Eigen could see him pushing back the memories. “Bit of a judgment call about the corvettes,” he observed out loud, his voice remarkably toneless.

“I know, Sir,” Eigen said. “But if the object is to make a show of force and convince these people to go elsewhere, the more platforms I have with me the better. And if I’m going to be taking them into harm’s way, I’d really like them to actually be able to shoot at the bad guys if they have to.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Locatelli said, his expression grim. Again, pushing back memories. “When do you want to leave orbit?”

“As late as I can and still be sure they see me coming well before turnover,” Eigen said. “The longer I can wait, the better prepared our people are going to be. And the better picture I’ll have of the Reserve’s actual readiness, for that matter. I understand that we want a cushion, though. Call it another fifty minutes for the corvettes to load birds, and another thirty or forty, maybe forty-five, if I wait for the Reserve.”

“That’ll put them less than an hour from turnover,” Locatelli pointed out.

“I know, Sir.” Eigen looked across his bridge to meet Clegg’s gaze for a moment. “That would be my best-case timing. If Admiral White Haven and Nike were in Sphinx orbit when the alert message got there, they’ll still be at least five and a half hours from Manticore orbit even on a least-time time profile at that point. Unless our visitors really take their time, that means all they’ll likely be able to do is pick up whatever pieces are left.”

“True,” Locatelli said grimly. “On the other hand, if you can stall them off that long, White Haven might still have a chance to get in on the fight.”

“Not if Bogey One’s paying attention. Regardless, it would be nice to know going in whether I’ll have the Reserve to work with. And, to be honest, it’s probably even more important to know if I don’t have the Reserve to work with.”

“A point,” Locatelli conceded. “I’ll give you until the corvettes’ launchers are all loaded or there are no more birds to load, but that’s it. If we wait too long to show our faces, our visitors may figure out that we’re less than totally confident in the state of our shipboard systems. And, as you say, we want them to have as much time as possible to think things over short of their turnover point.”

“Yes, Sir,” Eigen said. “In that case, though, I intend to make my initial acceleration only a hundred and twenty gravities. That will get us underway as soon as the missile loadout allows, which will tell Bogey One we’re on our way. But our acceleration will be low enough that the Reserve can overtake us before we reach combat range, even if Bogey One keeps on coming. Also, seeing a second echelon coming up behind Victory, Gryphon, Bellerophon and the corvettes may give them additional pause to think.”

“Seems reasonable,” Locatelli said. “And of course, how you handle your squadron’s up to you. I’ll endorse your decision, and I don’t expect anyone planet-side to overrule you.” He looked at something off-screen, and Eigen saw his lip twitch. “And just when we needed it most, some more bad news. It seems Admiral White Haven has decided that returning with all due speed means running straight through n-space. And to the planet itself.”

Eigen exchanged startled looks with Clegg. “She’s what?” he demanded.

“Running to Manticore,” Locatelli confirmed bitterly. “Straight through n-space.”

Eigen stifled a curse. He’d known for years that Karina Alexander was an idiot who’d essentially achieved her rank via money and political clout. But he hadn’t realized until now just how much of an idiot she truly was. “Any chance of countermanding her orders?” he asked, running a quick calculation. If White Haven headed to the hyper limit and did a microjump, she could come in behind Bogey One. Still way out of position to affect whatever was happening here, but that would at least throw in an extra intimidation factor.

“I can countermand all I want,” Locatelli said. “But it wouldn’t help. By the time the orders could get to her, and she could decelerate and reverse course, she’d be even more behind the curve. No point, really.”

Eigen nodded heavily as he ran his eye over at the numbers. Locatelli was right. “So she’s effectively taken Nike completely out of the tactical equation.”

“Pretty much,” Locatelli said. “And with Flannery and Victory at Sphinx…”

Eigen nodded again. And sitting in the Manticore-B system, Admiral Thomas Flannery and Red Force were completely unaware that anything was happening. “So this really is all we’ve got to work with.”

“Looks like it,” Locatelli said. “You still want to hold to your timetable?”

Eigen looked at Clegg. The flag captain’s face was grim, but she nodded her agreement. “Yes, sir,” he told Locatelli.

“Right.” Locatelli pursed his lips. “I’d be just as happy if no one else got killed today, Admiral. If anyone has to, though, do your damnedest to make sure it’s their people, not ours.”

“I’ll do that, Sir. Eigen, clear.”

The display blanked, and Eigen looked at Clegg.

“Pass the word to the rest of the Squadron, Trina, and then check in with Captain Timberlake. Tell him I need a running update on Eriyne’s estimated completion time.”

* * *

“I think we’ve got the laser plasma feed issue resolved, Ma’am,” Travis said, looking up at Lisa. “Chief Wrenner gives it an eighty percent probability it’ll hold.”

Lisa punched a key, dropping a summary of Travis’ work onto her display. He watched tensely as her eyes went back and forth in quick study.

“Looks good,” she said. “No worse than the skyhooks everyone else is running on right now. And we’ve still got the secondary for at least partial backup.”

“Sort of,” Travis agreed, looking back at the readout of Wrenner’s jury-rigs. He wasn’t any happier with it than Lisa was, but it was the best anyone was likely to get right now.

“Going to be a lot of sort-of going around, I’m afraid,” Lisa told him. “Beats the stuffing out of God-I-hope-this-works, though. Okay, go ahead and run a full diagnostic.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Travis called up the laser readouts on his multifunction display, glancing at the master status board while they loaded. Seventy minutes before Aegis brought its impellers fully online and broke orbit, and Damocles and the rest of the Reserve were still seventy-five minutes from initial impeller activation.

Forty minutes behind Aegis, which was better than he’d initially dared hope. Not great, but at least they’d be close enough behind Admiral Eigen that he could slow or even reverse his accel long enough for them to join forces before anyone reached weapons range.

Assuming nothing else went wrong, of course, and he winced as he read the casualty board. Only one dead, thank God, but they had over thirty injured.

So far.

His earbug pinged as the laser readouts appeared. Putting his concerns about the status board out of his mind, he got back to work.

* * *

“Captain Timberlake reports Eriyne is almost ready to go, Sir,” Clegg reported, running her eyes down the status reports. “Just chasing down that sidewall glitch.”

“Acknowledged,” Eigen said. He lowered his voice. “Don’t let it get to you,” he added quietly.

Clegg frowned at him. “Sir?”

“White Haven’s bonehead maneuver,” he said. “You’re still seething over it.”

For a second Clegg wondered if protocol demanded she deny it. Bad-mouthing a superior officer, especially to another superior officer, was generally frowned on.

The hell with protocol. “Yes, Sir, I am,” she said. “I’ve never been impressed by the Admiral, but I would have expected better of Captain Beckett.”

“Oh, I have no doubt Beckett tried to dissuade her,” Eigen said. “But she’s the admiral, he’s her captain, and those decisions are hers.”

“Yes, Sir.” And if there was any justice in the galaxy, Clegg thought bitterly, it would be the last decision White Haven ever made as a flag officer in command.

She glared at the master display, as much for something to distract her from her fury as anything else. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it. White Haven and her squadron were at least close enough they could have responded in some kind of useful time frame. And if Sphinx had been Thomas Flannery’s station, that’s exactly what would have happened.

But Flannery was at Gryphon, thirteen light-hours away. Even if it had been possible to transmit a message that far, everything would be over long before he even knew anything was happening.

Her eyes narrowed. Unless…

She keyed her mic.

“CIC, this is the Captain,” she said. “Tell me more about — ” she craned her neck at the plot ” — contact Sierra-Three.”

“Sierra-Three…Ma’am?” Commander Bertinelli repeated in a tone of obvious surprise.

“Do you need me to repeat the order, Commander?” Clegg demanded icily.

“No, Ma’am.” There was a moment of silence. “Sierra-Three is listed as RMS Hyderabad, Ma’am,” he responded rather stiffly. “Eight hundred thousand tons, registered to Samuel Tilliotson, under charter as a Navy transport.”

“Thank you.” Clegg turned to Eigen. “Sir, I’ve just had a thought.”

* * *

Captain Estelle O’Higgins, CO of RMS Hyderabad watched her plot, a numb feeling in the pit of her stomach. Not again, she thought. God, please not again!

There was a flicker as the plot updated the projected vector of the glaring icon that indicated the intruders’ position. Eight ships, maybe more, heading toward Manticore.

Once again, the Star Kingdom was being invaded.

“Signal from MPARS, Ma’am,” Lieutenant Slocum spoke up. He was trying to hide his own dread, O’Higgins could tell, and not doing a very good job of it. “Basically the same Code Zulu that System Command sent an hour ago.”

O’Higgins nodded. At the moment, Hyderabad was less than three minutes from the Manticore-A hyper-limit en route to Manticore-B on the freighter route between the companion stars. Usually, traffic between the Manticore System’s two stellar components was handled by the far cheaper sublight freighters, running a sublight trip of three days instead of the half hour it would take in hyper. Given how few hyper-capable freighters Manticore owned, most of the time it was considered wasteful to use one of them merely to shave a week or so off the round-trip voyage.

But that had changed three weeks ago. In the wake of the attack on Manticore, and with quick transport time now of vital concern, Hyderabad had been commandeered to transport priority Navy spares, personnel, and missiles to the squadron detailed to protect the planet Gryphon in the event of another attack.

The squadron, O’Higgins reflected, which was in exactly the wrong place to defend the planet Manticore.

To defend Manticore…and O’Higgins’s son Brian.

Because while Hyderabad was well out of any danger out here at the hyper limit, Brian and his ship, HMS Taurus, were squarely in the middle of it.

And there was nothing O’Higgins could to do help him. Nothing.

“Ma’am?” Lieutenant Slocum’s voice broke into her reflections. “I’ve just receipted a message from System Command.”