A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 10


“Mr. Llyn, you’d better look at this.”

Katura’s voice sounded much tighter than normal, and Llyn looked up from the book chip he’d been reading. The book was rather boring, but he’d learned that that kind of casual activity was a good way to demonstrate professional calm, especially in the face of general uncertainty and growing tension. He took one look at the captain’s expression, then dropped his eyes to the navigating display.

He felt his own facial muscles tighten. Five icons, each burning the crimson of an unidentified unit, had left Manticore orbit.

And unlike the handful of obviously civilian impeller signatures Pacemaker and his special ops ships had detected, these were headed directly towards the intruders instead of away from them.

“What do we know about them?” he asked, keeping his voice calm and unhurried.

“Not much, yet,” Katura replied. “At least one of them is probably a battlecruiser, judging from apparent wedge strengths. Hard to say about the others, but a couple of them look a lot smaller than that. Acceleration’s one-twenty gravities, so they’re obviously military, but that seems on the low side for a battlecruiser. That’s all we’ve got so far. Be another seven or eight minutes before we get anything light-speed.”

Llyn frowned. Katura was right about how low that was for a warship. But the real question wasn’t their acceleration profile, but who they were.

It could still be Gensonne. In fact, given the ongoing silence from any Manticoran authorities, it probably was Gensonne, although exactly what he was playing at now was unknown.

Well, Katura was also right about the limitations of light-speed transmissions. Even assuming those icons had activated their transponders at the same moment their impellers came up, it would be another — he checked the time — six and a half minutes before those IDs reached Pacemaker.

He sat back to wait.

* * *

“The Squadron reports all units underway, Sir,” Clegg announced, exactly as SOP required.

And thoroughly unnecessarily, Eigen reflected, since his display had already shown him that. “I assume the yard dogs all got clear in time?”

“Yes, sir.” His dour captain gave a small snort. “They were moving rather more enthusiastically than usual there at the end.”

“I’m sure they were.” Eigen checked the chrono. “All right, they’ve had time to see our IDs. Com: go ahead and transmit.”

“Yes, Sir.” Clearly bracing himself, Lieutenant Messner pressed the send key.

* * *

“We’re getting transponders, Sir,” Katura said.

Llyn watched the icons change. They remained the same bright crimson, but data codes began popping into existence beside them. “According to their IDs, they’re Manticoran warships,” Katura continued. His voice was under control, but there was a hint of concern beneath it. “HMS Vanguard, Gryphon, and Bellerophon — a battlecruiser and a pair of cruisers. The other two are showing as corvettes, HMS Aries and HMS Taurus.”

Llyn’s eyes narrowed. For the last several minutes, despite everything, he’d allowed himself to go on hoping it was Gensonne. The IDs pretty well ended that one.

Or maybe not. It was just barely possible Gensonne had relabeled his ships in order to fool any unexpected visitors before they realized there’d been a change of management.

That would be a bit cleverer than would have anticipated out of the Volsung admiral, but it would also have been one way to entice any of those visitors into a range at which they had no choice but to surrender. It probably wouldn’t matter one way or the other if someone had figured out that Manticore had just changed hands, but it would certainly be more convenient to keep that information under wraps until the troops had landed and made sure the change stood up.

Unfortunately, not only would that have required more brains and imagination than Gensonne had thus far demonstrated, but it didn’t match what Llyn was seeing on his display. Not unless the Volsungs had been hammered one hell of a lot harder than they should have been. Besides, if those smaller units really were corvettes, not destroyers showing false transponder codes, they couldn’t be Gensonne’s, because he hadn’t taken anything that small to Manticore in the first place.

Could the idiot have lost after all? Even as the uncertainty had swirled higher and higher around Llyn, he’d never really let himself believe that could have happened. Even with the unexpectedly de-mothballed ships his last pre-battle intel pass had spotted, the RMN’s state of rust and inexperience had still left Gensonne with a solid seventy/thirty edge. How could the Manticorans have somehow won with that big a disadvantage?

Or, to put it another way, how could Gensonne have screwed up and lost with that big an advantage?

“Sir, should we activate our own transponders?” Katura asked.

Llyn chewed his lip. The Manticorans were transmitting their IDs, but they’d made no attempt to communicate further. Under the circumstances, he was disinclined to give them anything at all.

“Negative,” he said. “Let’s get a little closer first.”

“Yes, Sir.”

* * *

“Impeller initiation sequence begun, Sir,” Damocles’ engineer announced. “Everything looks optimum now.”

“Thank you, Commander Papadakis,” Captain Marcello acknowledged.

“Get ready to spin up the sidewall generators for test, Travis,” Lisa instructed.

“Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Travis replied and began entering commands. Because a sidewall had to interface with a ship’s wedge, it couldn’t really be tested until there was power to the beta nodes. In fact, Engineering would have to be a good ten minutes — five, at the very least — into impeller light-off before the generators could come up.

At least everything else looked good. Or, as Lisa would say, at least it all looked better than God-I-hope-this-works.

* * *

“Mr. Llyn, we have a transmission.”

From Katura’s tone, it was clear who the transmission in question was from. Or, more importantly, who it wasn’t from. “Put it up,” Llyn ordered.

“Yes, Sir.”

An instant passed, and then a compact, square shouldered man with dark hair and disconcertingly sharp gray eyes appeared on the master display. Whoever he was, he wore the uniform of a Manticoran admiral and he didn’t look especially pleased at the moment.

“Unidentified force, this is Admiral Kyle Eigen, Royal Manticoran Navy, commanding His Majesty’s battlecruiser Vanguard.” Eigen’s voice was strong and excruciatingly confident. “You are in violation of Manticoran space. You are instructed to identify yourselves and reverse acceleration immediately. If you do not, you will be considered hostile, and we will react accordingly.”

He stared coldly into his pickup for another two seconds, then gave a brisk nod. “Eigen, clear.”

Llyn stared at the display as Eigen’s challenge began to repeat, cold fury seeping through him like ice water.

He’d been right. Gensonne had screwed up. The damn stupid, arrogant, S.O.B. had completely and totally screwed up.

And now Llyn’s plan — in fact, his entire reason for being here — was equally screwed.

Eigen had barely gone into his second repeat of his message when the frightened yips began.

“Signal from Hamilcar, Sir,” Katura reported, his voice tight. “General Haus has copied over Vanguard’s message and is demanding to know what you plan to do about the situation.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Llyn said, contempt mixing with his anger. Copied over the message, as if Llyn might somehow have missed hearing the Manticorans’ announcement? Making fearful demands, as if Llyn didn’t already have a plan prepared for every eventuality?

The truly irritating part of that was that he didn’t.

He’d planned for Gensonne to have won. He’d also planned for Gensonne to have lost, but in the process turned the Manticoran defense into splinters.

What he hadn’t planned for was for Gensonne to have left even a single damn battlecruiser alive and kicking.

Stupid. Criminally stupid, even. Llyn had been lulled by the fact that everything else in the operation and gone pretty much exactly according to plan, and now the unexpected had turned around to bite him.

It was a mistake he wouldn’t make again.

“Time to missile range?” he asked.

“Seventy-nine minutes, assuming we both maintain constant acceleration,” Katura replied. Obviously, he’d been working the numbers while Llyn had been cursing Gensonne.

“And if we reverse acceleration?”

“If we reverse accel and they maintain one-two-zero gravities, we enter missile range in just over one hundred minutes, Sir. Closing velocity at that point will be thirteen-point-five thousand KPS.”

“If we reverse and they stop accelerating?”

“We still enter missile range in an hour and a half. Closing velocity would be down to two-point-two thousand KPS. But we’d still be twenty minutes from a zero velocity relative to Manticore. If we reverse acceleration this instant, we’d still need six hours and twenty minutes to recross the hyper-limit.”

Llyn scowled. Not only was his plan screwed, so was he. Unless the Manticorans reversed acceleration, they were going to reach missile range whatever he did. If these people were feeling belligerent, Llyn couldn’t avoid action even if he wanted to.

He pursed his lips, his frozen brain starting to function again. Maybe he wasn’t as screwed as it looked. There was only one battlecruiser in that force, and it was accelerating at only three quarters of its book accel. That suggested damage, possibly serious damage. Hamilcar, Hasdrubal, and Mago might be less than cutting-edge by the Solarian Navy’s standards, but they were far more modern and capable than almost anything Manticore had boasted even before Gensonne took out the rest of their fleet. Mylae wasn’t as heavily armed, but she was just as modern. And that didn’t even count Shrike and Banshee.

Unless Vanguard didn’t have a ding on it, Llyn’s force should be able to take it without even the need to sweat. A pair of corvettes wouldn’t change that very much, either.

And if the RMN had anything more to throw at them, they’d surely have trotted it out by now.

“Signal to the Barcans,” he told Katura as he reached for his makeup kit. “Have them activate their transponders but hold their present profile. And only activate their IDs,” he added. “They’re to keep every other com silent. Make sure they understand that.”

“Yes, Sir. And Shrike and Banshee?”

“Activate their Barcan cover transponder codes. And tell Captain Vaagen and Captain Rhamas to begin prepping their weapons.”

“Yes, Sir.”

One of Llyn’s most rigid private rules was that his actual face should never be seen by anyone outside of his own colleagues and trusted Axelrod employees. For coms, CGI overlays were the usual technique for that kind of masquerade: faster and more convenient than wigs, facial hair, and facial plastic strips. Most high-level operatives, Axelrod’s among them, went that route.

But Llyn was more of a perfectionist. More importantly, he knew CGI overlays could be penetrated and identified as such if someone was willing to put in the necessary time and effort. If that someone had a great deal of ingenuity on top of it, the whole thing could even occasionally be dissolved, leaving the original face there in all its naked glory.

That kind of analysis might be able to show that a physically altered face wasn’t the real one. But it could never be electronically unraveled the way a CGI could.

Good-bye, Jeremiah Llyn, he thought to himself as he started the transformation. Hello, Count Ernst Bloch.

* * *

Travis sat back with a sigh of relief as Damocles’ sidewall generators spun up without faltering. He would never have called the destroyer’s systems reliability anything close to good, but at least all of the critical ones were up. And, really, they weren’t any less reliable than the RMN had been unhappily accustomed to dealing with for his entire career. In another thirty minutes, they’d be able to —

“Captain,” Chief Ulvestad spoke up suddenly from Communications. The CPO’s voice was crisp, but it was the sort of crisp, calm professionalism that training painted over something very different. “We’ve just copied a message from Perseus to Vanguard and Orpheus. Captain Conroy reports his entire port sidewall refused to initiate.”

“Acknowledged,” Marcello said calmly. “Ask Captain Conroy for an estimate on time to repair the fault.”

“Aye, aye, Sir. I –” Ulvestad broke off. “Sir, Perseus now says her forward generator’s going to require complete replacement. Her engineer estimates a minimum — repeat, a minimum — of five hours to get the aft generator back online.”

An invisible fist punched Travis in the gut. Without a sidewall, Perseus would be at a deadly disadvantage if Conroy took her into combat.