A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 11

But without the cruiser, with only Damocles and Eriyne, Reserve Force would barely be worthy of the name.

His eye darted back to the time display, counting down inexorably to impeller activation, his brain feeling like a ground car skittering on ice.

* * *

“Admiral Eigen, this is Count Ernst Bloch of the Free Duchy of Barca.”

The voice boomed from the speaker, and Clegg gave the display a quick look. The man certainly look the part, she decided. The image was a bit dithery — they must be right on the limit of Bloch’s laser range, which might explain why he hadn’t commed them sooner. But fuzziness or not, Bloch looked every inch the aristocrat: silvery hair with a single black streak through it, face lined with age and wisdom and an obvious love of the outdoors, a voice that commanded instant obedience, and piercing eyes that could see right into a person’s soul.

He reminded Clegg a lot of her own father. He reminded her even more of the man her father had pressed very hard for her to marry.

Thank God there’d been the Navy.

“I wish to speak to your superiors,” Bloch continued, his stern voice going a little sterner. “Specifically, I want to know the Star Kingdom of Manticore’s connection with a group of pirates that have been plaguing our region.”

“What the hell?” Eigen murmured under his breath. Then he cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry, Count, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m relaying your message to our System Commander, Admiral Locatelli, but I assure you we have nothing to do with pirates of any sort. On the contrary, we’ve spent the past decade doing our damnedest to find and destroy any and all such marauders. Eigen, clear.”

He gestured and the message began its long journey back.

“Redesignate Bogey One as Barca Force,” he ordered. “Make that Barca Alpha — there may be more of them on the way. Copy everything to System Command, and request that someone find me whatever the hell we’ve got on the Free Duchy of Barca.”

“Yes, Sir,” Communications replied.

“And in the meantime, Captain,” Eigen continued, turning to Clegg, “it would seem that something new’s been added. I think –”

“Excuse me, Admiral,” Com said. “We’ve just received a priority signal from Perseus.”

* * *

Message turnaround time between Vanguard and Barca Alpha was down to fourteen minutes and falling. Between Vanguard and Manticore, it remained less than two seconds. Within two minutes, ONI had pulled up everything in the archives on Barca and its people. Three minutes after that, Clegg had read all of it.

There wasn’t much, and all of it was at least fifteen years old.

The system was about two hundred sixty-eight light-years southeast of Manticore, nearly four hundred from Sol. It had been settled a couple of hundred T-years ago, and at last report was listed as reasonably stable, if not blazingly prosperous.

Why they should think Manticore was involved with pirates Clegg couldn’t guess. But the fact that they’d sent a group of ships on a four-and-a-half-month journey implied they must have some good reason.

She looked forward to hearing it.

Assuming they were who they said they were, of course. The fact that they hadn’t so much as announced their IDs before they were challenged was a clear violation of interstellar law which could certainly be construed as hostile. On the other hand, it could also simply indicate caution on their part, especially if they thought the Star Kingdom was in cahoots with a batch of pirates.

She just hoped it didn’t indicate that they were the type to shoot first and crosscheck their data later. Along with Count Bloch’s courier ship, the IDs the Barcans were now transmitting listed the force as four cruisers and four freighters. Given the state of Vanguard’s defenses, four cruisers could pose a serious threat, even with Gryphon, Bellerophon, and both corvettes in support.

Or rather, she reminded herself tightly, without the support of Perseus.

That fact clearly wasn’t lost on System Command. Eight minutes after receiving Eigen’s message, Admiral Locatelli sent a response to be relayed to Count Bloch, repeating Eigen’s assurances that the Star Kingdom wasn’t involved in piracy. The transmission included a large attachment that purported to contain the complete record of Manticore’s decade of pirate-hunting, which Eigen was ordered to likewise transmit to the Barcan force.

Vanguard sent it on its way immediately.

Six minutes later, Bloch’s response to Eigen’s last transmission came in.

“You’ll forgive me, Admiral, if I can’t simply take your word for that,” the count said. “Eight months ago, our system was attacked by a powerful pirate force, and data we found in the wreckage referenced the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I’m not saying you or your government are necessarily in collusion with these marauders, but the fact remains that the trail leads here. We mean to find out why.”

“I understand your anger and determination, Count Bloch,” Eigen replied. “However, I assure you in turn that there’s no place in this system where any such force could be hiding. Perhaps more to the point, we were ourselves attacked recently by an unknown force. If your pirates had information relevant to Manticore, perhaps it wasn’t as their haven, but as their next target. At any rate, I’ve just sent you the data outlining our campaign against pirates over the past few years and suggest you at least examine those records before you draw any conclusions.”

Once again, the delay began. The Barcans continued to drive towards Manticore, Clegg noted uneasily, ignoring Vanguard and her escorts, Bloch must be very sure of himself.

And likely with even better cause than he knew.

* * *

“Captain Conroy, with all due respect, without a sidewall, Perseus isn’t combat-capable,” Captain Marcello said firmly. “If anything gets past your point defense –”

“I take your point, Captain,” Conroy replied from Marcello’s com display. “But if it comes to it, Vanguard — and the rest of you — are going to need our counter missiles. And let’s face it: the initial exchange is going to be head-on, where sidewalls aren’t going to matter one hell of a lot.”

“Captain — Pierre,” Marcello said, “if these people are who they say they are, it’s not going to come to a fight…probably. And if it does — and if the range closes the way it did last time — the risk to your ship is, no offense, out of all proportion to her potential contribution to the engagement.”

“Your view is noted.” Conroy’s voice was noticeably cooler than it had been. “The matter is not open for debate, however. Even if, as you say, these people are who they say they are, they may or may not be feeling reasonable. If they don’t, Admiral Eigen is right about presenting them with the most forceful argument we can for deciding to feel that way. I think it’s probable a cruiser and two destroyers would be a lot more forceful than two destroyers by themselves.”

Marcello obviously wanted to continue the argument, Travis thought. Unfortunately, although he and Marcello were clearly good friends, Damocles’ CO was junior to Conroy. And equally unfortunately, the cruiser’s captain had made several excellent points. Especially the psychological one.

Travis had scanned the same data Clegg had received, looking specifically for any information about Barca’s military capability. There wasn’t much, but there was the notation that, unlike the Star Kingdom, Barca built its own warships. That didn’t necessarily prove anything, but given that the capability to do so had been developed only about twenty years ago, it probably meant the Barcans’ ships were significantly later designs than anything Manticore had.

And that meant those four cruisers were probably a lot more dangerous, ton-for-ton, than those of the RMN, even if system reliabilities were equal.

Which almost certainly they weren’t.

Bottom line was that Conroy was right. If Count Bloch was feeling belligerent, Eigen needed every single scrap of argument in favor of non-belligerence.

* * *

“Interesting,” Bloch said from the com display. “I see you’ve been busy. Give me a few minutes to look this over, and we’ll talk.”

“Of course,” Eigen replied. “I’ll await your response.”

He keyed off.

“Which isn’t to say we’re going to be just sitting on our hands,” he added to Vanguard’s bridge crew. “CIC? Four of these people are identifying themselves as cruisers. Do we have any additional indications that that’s accurate?”

“Sir, we’re doing our best,” Bertinelli’s voice came back “but the range is still too far for us to tell you much more. All we’ve got to go on are their wedges, and at this point, our best guess from their signatures is that they are what they say they are. I can’t guarantee that, of course.”

The XO managed to sound whiny and faintly defensive, Clegg noticed, even though what he’d said was self-evidently true. On the other hand, it didn’t exactly answer the question Eigen had asked.

And there were things other than emission signatures from which a competent tactical officer might draw inferences.

The operative word there being competent.

“Sir,” Clegg said, gesturing at the master display. “I agree with Commander Bertinelli’s comments on Barca Alpha’s impellers, but I have to wonder why they would have brought four freighters with them. I suppose it’s possible all four of them really are transports to carry a big enough ground force to let them actually occupy us, if they decided the Star Kingdom was involved with these pirates. But take a look at Barca Eight and Niner.”

“What about them?” Eigen asked after a moment.

“It looks to me like Bloch is spreading them wider, rather than pulling them in tight behind his cruisers,” Clegg said. “That’s not something I’d expect someone to do with freighters when missiles might start flying. Especially not with freighters packed with troops and combat equipment.”

“Indeed,” Eigen said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “But that’s the sort of thing a squadron commander might do to clear his units’ sensors.”

“That’s one of the things I was thinking, Sir. It’s also the sort of thing a CO might do to spread his missile platforms. Those things are showing commercial IDs, and they may be built on freighter hulls, but even though they appear to be much smaller than the other two they’re probably still at least a half-million tons, six or seven times the size of one of those cruisers. Commercial transponder codes don’t guarantee they aren’t Q-ships or something even uglier, and God only knows what kind of firepower could be built into a hull that size. Which means –”

“Which means the odds could be even tighter than they look,” Eigen finished her thought grimly. “Yes. Wonderful.”

* * *

“Instruct the Barcans to stop accelerating,” Llyn said.

“Stop accelerating, not reverse acceleration, Sir?” Katura asked in the tone of someone making very certain he hadn’t misunderstood.

Or, perhaps, suggesting some reservations with the order he’d just heard.

“That’s correct,” Llyn said, adding a bit of frost to his voice.

“Yes, Sir.”

Llyn nodded his satisfaction.

Though he suspected he was probably the only person — aside from Vaagen and Rhamas, at any rate — who felt remotely satisfied by his actions. They were only fourteen minutes from the turnover point for a zero-zero intercept with Manticore at their current acceleration. Reducing their acceleration to zero stretched that to twenty-eight, which bought him at least a little more time.

On the other hand, if this Admiral Eigen decided to force the issue, they were already too deep inside the limit and going too fast to prevent the Manticoran warships from entering missile range. And if what he was coming to suspect about the state of the RMN was accurate, this was not a confrontation he wanted.

Sitting back in his chair, he gently ran a finger along his artificially wrinkled cheek and tried to think.

* * *

“They’re still coming,” Lisa murmured.

Travis looked up from the panel in front of him. Barca Alpha was indeed holding course towards Manticore, despite having cut its acceleration.

“You suppose they’re a feint?” he murmured back.

“They’re sure acting like one,” she agreed. “Only –” She waved a hand. “I don’t see any follow-up forces making tracks towards us.”

“Maybe it’s behind them. That could be one reason they’ve cut accel. If what they wanted was to see what we had, they may be slowing their closure rate for something to catch up with them from astern.”