A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 09

“An update on their Code Zulu?” O’Higgins asked, frowning. There was something odd in her com officer’s tone.

“No, Ma’am. It’s a burst transmission from Admiral Locatelli. And it’s specifically addressed to you.”

* * *

“Jasmine! Get out of there, Jazz! The bird’s –”

Lieutenant Brian O’Higgins, HMS Taurus’ tactical officer, felt his jaw tighten as the warning shout came over his link to the missile-loading crews. The pop-up ID on his screen strobed, identifying the source as the master chief supervising the loading of the after quad launcher, and his eyes darted to the screen dedicated to the master chief’s crew.

Oh, Jesus, O’Higgins thought sickly, watching the twenty-meter missile twist as one of the tethers snapped. He’d hated dropping so many safety procedures, though under the circumstances he’d never even considered protesting. So far Taurus had been lucky: only two injuries, and neither of them serious.

But now —

The missile pivoted slowly, but the reloading crews knew how much every second counted. They were cutting margins even closer than they’d been told to, and O’Higgins closed his eyes as the three hundred-ton missile impacted on Taurus’ hull and one of the green icons on his display turned suddenly crimson. Like all too many of her fellows, Petty Officer Jasmine Falcone had been sent out in a standard vac suit instead of the hard suit The Book specified, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered if she hadn’t been.

“Get it off her!” the master chief barked, even though he must know as well as O’Higgins that it was far too late. “Get her out of there!”

Another crimson code flared suddenly on O’Higgins’ panel, and he swore viciously.

“Captain, we’ve lost the ventral mount’s Number Three Cell,” he announced. “The bird they were loading twisted on its way into the tube. Looks like at least half of the actuator hard points are down.”

“Time to repair?” Commander Carpenter demanded.

“Probably at least thirty-five or forty minutes. If it’s a full replacement situation, make that two or three hours.”

An estimate which also tacitly assumed that Orpheus had the parts on hand. Which it probably didn’t.

A second later, a sobering thought slapped him across the face.

Why the hell was he getting so upset over losing a tube when somebody had just been killed trying to load it?

“Status of the missile?” the captain asked.


“Well, find out. If it’s still up, there may be time to transition it to Aries.”

* * *

“Acknowledged,” Admiral Flannery said, studying the face on his day cabin com screen. He’d never met Estelle O’Higgins before, but he couldn’t imagine she looked this strained and tense on a normal day.

Or this sick, for that matter. Even without the sound of someone still retching behind her it would have been obvious that Hyderabad’s skipper hadn’t wasted any time decelerating before making her transition back to n-space. “Good job, Captain. I’m glad you were in position to play courier.”

“I’m glad you weren’t in planetary orbit,” O’Higgins said. “Admiral Locatelli said you might be.”

Flannery cocked an eyebrow. Locatelli’s exact words, he suspected, had been should be. “The stars have been kind,” he said, deflecting the whole question. “You can stand down, Captain, and give your crew some recovery time.”

He shifted his eyes to the second face on his display. “You got all that?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” Adelaide Meyers, his flag captain, replied. “Astrogation estimates approximately one hundred minutes before we can enter hyper.”

Flannery nodded. There weren’t any standing orders to cover a situation like this one — although there damned well ought to be, he thought grimly — but Meyers was the sort to use her own initiative. “Execute,” he ordered. “Time to the Manticore-A hyper-limit?”

“Astrogation makes it two and a half hours — one hundred forty-three minutes, to be precise — from now,” Meyers replied. “Planetary orbital insertion in another six hours plus.”

Flannery scowled. Eight and a half hours until they could do anything.

And it would have been a lot longer if he’d been sitting neatly in Gryphon orbit as his official orders had intended, and as Locatelli had probably assumed.

Ironically, when Flannery had asked First Lord Cazenestro for the authority to interpret those orders a bit liberally, he’d been more concerned about boredom than anything else. Aside from the Manticoran citizens on Gryphon, there was exactly zero in the system to protect, and sitting around all day drinking tea was a good way for a crew to go stale. Fortunately, Cazenestro shared his reasoning, which was why Flannery had felt comfortable asking permission to spend some of their time out here running drills.

And run them he had. He’d put his ships and their crews through the most demanding series of drills and tactical problems he could think of. If Tamerlane ever came back, Flannery was determined that Red Force, at least, would be up to whatever challenge he could throw at them.

He’d also been careful to keep his ships between Gryphon and the hyper-limit at all times, of course. Whether or not Manticore-B was the best place for Red Force to be, the fact remained that the protection of the people on Gryphon was Flannery’s primary responsibility. But it wasn’t coincidence that he’d picked his locations so as to keep him significantly closer to the hyper limit than a Gryphon orbit could offer.

And now, because of that paranoia-tinted foresight, Red Force was just under two light-minutes inside the limit, rather than the nine minutes inside where they might have been. Three and a half hours closer to the limit — and to Manticore-A — than they would have been.

He felt his eyes narrow as he studied the data packet Hyderabad had brought. Assuming the numbers were correct, Victory would make her alpha translation back into n-space just about the time Bogey One reached its turnover point.

And when that happened…

“Red Force is on its way, Admiral,” Captain Meyers reported. “Forming up on us.”

“Good,” Flannery said. “Make sure the other captains get the data packet. I want everyone at their absolute top game.”

“They will be, Sir,” Meyers assured him. “You’ve made sure of that.” She gave him a tight smile. “I guess there’s something to be said for maneuvers, after all.”

“Indeed there is,” Flannery agreed. “Let’s hope Chancellor Breakwater makes note of that at the next budget conference.”

* * *

Among the elite of Axelrod’s operatives, there were some who advocated the occasional use of what was referred to as Rule Thirteen: dealing with someone who’d really, really pissed off the operative by shooting him between the eyes in front of his subordinates.

Llyn would never do such a thing. It was crude, it was messy, and worst of all it left witnesses. Still, if Cutter Gensonne was playing childish games with him, he might actually consider it.

The ominous part was that this had stopped feeling like a game, childish or otherwise.

The problem was that he had two conflicting sets of non-data. The first was Gensonne’s persistent and infuriating absence from the scene. Llyn’s force had been in-system for two hours and forty minutes, and there was still no sign of the Volsungs. If, in fact, Gensonne was somewhere else, deeper inside the hyper-limit, it was entirely plausible for him to be unaware of their arrival. But he knew the schedule, and Llyn’s part of it had allowed sufficient slippage for Barcan inefficiency for them to arrive almost exactly on time.

It was still possible that Gensonne was sitting right there in orbit and simply keeping a low profile. If the Volsungs had taken heavier losses and damage than anticipated, it could be that they hadn’t yet picked up on Llyn’s arrival.

There was, unfortunately, another possibility. It was conceivable, however unlikely, that Gensonne had managed to lose. The odds were so overwhelmingly against that outcome that it was hard for Llyn to even take it seriously.

Even if he did, even if Gensonne had managed to lose against the ragtag Manticoran Navy, why hadn’t the Star Kingdom challenged or so much as even messaged the ships that were headed towards its capital? Their passage across the hyper-limit without identifying themselves constituted a major breach of interstellar law, which reasonably should have sparked irate demands for identification. Especially in the wake of Gensonne’s attack, whether it had been successful or not.

That was the second set of non-data. Either Gensonne was being coy, or the Manticorans were.

Still, even if the Volsungs had somehow been driven off, they’d surely inflicted major losses on the RMN in the process. Given their numerical advantage, it was impossible for Llyn to believe that they hadn’t inflicted at least as much damage as they’d taken. That still didn’t explain the absence of any communication from the Manticorans…unless they’d accepted that all of Llyn’s units were what they appeared to be.

That could be it. They could be looking at their sensor data and thinking all they were facing was three or four cruisers and four freighters. Unless Gensonne had mauled them beyond any resistance at all, maybe they thought they could afford to let Llyn keep coming until his force was too far inside the limit before they showed themselves.

Which could be the last mistake they ever made. They didn’t know about Shrike or Banshee, or the fact that they were actually looking at the equivalent of six cruisers, not just four, or the fact that the two warships they didn’t know about were newer, more modern, and a lot more dangerous than any cruiser in the RMN, especially at missile ranges.

If there were any remnants of the Manticoran Navy to sweep up, Llyn had a damned good broom.

* * *

“Anything more on that launch cell, Tactical?” Captain Vincent Carpenter demanded.

“No, Sir,” Brian O’Higgins said, shaking his head. “Still waiting for a response from Orpheus on the hardware.”

“Then tell them to forget it,” Carpenter growled. “We’re leaving in ten minutes.”

“Sir,” O’Higgins said respectfully, “we still got station personnel completing umbilical connection on two of our birds.”

“I know.” Carpenter said, looking at his displays. “Tell them they might want to expedite. Otherwise, they may be going on an unexpected journey.”

* * *

“The Squadron will proceed as ordered, Captain,” Admiral Kyle Eigen said formally.

“Aye, aye, Sir,” Clegg responded, equally formally, and nodded to Vanguard’s helmsman. “Take us out, Chief. Com, the rest of the Squadron is to conform to our movements.” She pursed her lips. “If anyone’s still working on the corvettes’ missiles, they might want to get a move on.”

“And after you’ve done that, Lieutenant,” Eigen added, “stand by to contact our visitors.”

* * *

“There they go,” Lisa said quietly, and Travis looked up from the diagnostic he was currently running as the tactical display changed.

Aegis Force’s data codes changed abruptly as the open-ended triangle that indicated an active impeller wedge sprang up about its ships. Travis felt his stomach tighten as they began to move, accompanied by the two corvettes who’d been attached to them at the last moment. Their icons looked proud and confident, but he knew too much about their systems’ reliability issues.

And he remembered what had happened to so many of those icons’ fellows only three weeks before.

He gazed at them another moment, then looked at Lisa, nodded once, and returned his attention to his panel’s flowing datacodes.

“Impeller initiation in seven minutes, Captain,” Damocles’ chief engineer reported over the intercom.