A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 12

“Aegis hasn’t spotted anything. Yet, at least.”

“I know.” Travis hissed between his teeth. “You know, we really need something out there. A permanent patrol, or some kind of sensor buoy system close to the hyper-limit. Piggyback it off the navsat array, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Lisa said. “But we can’t do everything at once. Personally, I still vote for getting the battlecruisers and cruisers out of mothballs and up to full fighting strength before we work on setting up a sensor net. If these people are up to something, and we had another battlecruiser or two to back Aegis…”

“I suppose. Ma’am,” Travis added, remembering the proper honorific this time. Talking to her this way, it was easy to forget they were sitting on a bridge crowded with other Navy personnel. “In fact –”

He broke off, his breath catching in his throat. Getting the battlecruisers up to fighting strength…

“Travis?” Lisa asked.

Travis was vaguely aware that she was asking something, but his attention was on his board, fingers flying as he keyed for the status of Damocles’ impellers. The plasma flow…the alpha nodes…the beta nodes…

“Lieutenant Long?” The question was quite a bit sharper — and more formal — than Lisa’s had been. Startled, Travis swiveled around to find Captain Marcello and Lisa looking expectantly at him.

As was the rest of the bridge.

“You have something, ATO?” Marcello prompted.

His question broke the spell. Travis shot another look at Lisa, realizing she must have said something to the captain while he was engrossed in his numbers.

“Yes, Sir,” he said, looking back it Marcello. “Whatever Count Bloch is planning, Perseus really is — or should be — out of the fighting. But as I understand it, we really want to end this without any fighting.”

His tone turned the final sentence into a question, and Marcello nodded.

“I believe you can take that as a given, Lieutenant.”

“In that case, Sir, I think we could make ourselves look like a battlecruiser.”

Someone in the aft section made a sound like the start of a snicker. Marcello’s expression didn’t change.

“Explain,” he said.

“It’s something I came across while I was on Casey, Sir. I was cataloguing a bunch of redundant files, clearing out the archives, and I found an old copy of a book by Vladislav Tremain. He was a Solly admiral a century or so ago — his book was in the files when the Navy took delivery of the Triumphs — and most of it talked about the evolution of tactics. And there was this really, really old trick he mentioned, a deception measure. He only mentioned it in passing, but I started poking around to see what it would take to make it work, and I think we could do it.”

“Continue,” Marcello said, his tone not giving anything away.

Travis braced himself. “Basically, if we run the impellers past the usual safe levels, and keep our acceleration down once we’re moving, a gravitics array far enough out will see us as a much larger ship accelerating at its safe maximum. I think we could get a destroyer’s signature all the way up to a battlecruiser’s — for a while, at least, and at several light-minutes’ range.”

“Sounds risky,” Commander Shiflett warned. “Besides, if it’s so old, wouldn’t everyone know about it?”

“Maybe not,” Marcello said, his eyes narrowed. “It certainly isn’t anything I’ve ever heard of. And even if Bloch knows about it, he might figure we’re smart enough to realize he’d be smart enough to recognize a bluff when he saw it. Commander Papadakis? Thoughts?”

“I don’t know, Sir,” a severe voice replied. “Frankly, I’ve never even heard of something like that.”

“No, Sir, it’s not in the usual manuals,” Travis said. “I only found it in Tremain’s book.”

“Yes, you said that.” Papadakis didn’t sound especially enthusiastic. “I’ll remind the Captain that the alpha nodes are still being temperamental. If we do what our ATO is suggesting, we might burn them out and be completely helpless. Even if they behave themselves, we’d take months off their lifetimes and we’re talking only a couple of hours before we’d have to scale down again. And let me emphasize that, as far as I know, no one’s ever run nodes at anything like this level — with real impellers — aside from warship builders’ trials, for at least fifty years. For that matter, we haven’t done it since acceptance trials on Nike almost a century ago, and even then it was only for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“So you’re recommending against it?”

“A moment, Sir. I’m running some numbers now.”

“Run them fast,” Marcello said, looking at Travis.

Travis waited, his pulse pounding unpleasantly, studiously not looking at Lisa. She was the one who’d brought Marcello’s attention to this, after all, which meant her neck was on the block, too, if it went sideways.

“Okay, Sir.” Papadakis’ voice came back. “The numbers look…let’s call them fragile.”

“So you’re recommending against?”

“That depends on what you want, Sir,” Papadakis said. “If you want to make Barca Alpha think twice about tangling with us, I’d call it a fair risk. It gets a lot more questionable if they decide to keep on coming. Best-case scenario, it works and they break off. Best bad-case scenario, they keep coming and we end up a drifting missile platform when the meatgrinder gets within range. Worst-case scenario, we blow a node and vaporize one of the impeller rings. At least one. If we get a blowback into the plasma conduits –”

His voice gave the strong impression of a shrug and Travis winced mentally at the image his last few words had conjured up.

“Understood.” Marcello shifted his attention to the com station. “Chief Ulvestad, record for transmission to Admiral Locatelli.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” Ulvestad replied.

Marcello looked back to Travis, and his lips twitched in a small smile.

“In for a penny, in for a dollar. Right, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said, keeping his face firmly under control.

Because the suggestion was about to be put before Admiral Carlton Locatelli. And Travis and the admiral had not exactly had the most cordial relationship over the years. His only hope was that when Marcello presented the idea, Locatelli would assume it belonged to the captain and Travis’s name would never come up. He opened his mouth to suggest that —

Closed it again. He’d already stepped far enough out on this branch. He didn’t dare lecture the captain on the hidden politics of the case.

All he could do was hope. Because deep inside him, he had a strong sense that rejecting the plan would be bad. For the Star Kingdom, as well as for Admiral Eigen’s squadron.

“Hot mic, Sir,” Ulvestad said.

Please don’t mention my name, he thought earnestly toward the Captain. Please.

“Captain Marcello, Admiral,” the captain said into his pickup. “Sir, our ATO, Lieutenant Long, has come up with an idea I think has merit.”

* * *

“I admit it’s risky, Your Majesty,” Locatelli said from the display. “And it’s unlikely they can keep it up for more than a couple of hours.”

“Yes,” Edward agreed, studying the big tactical display. “But a couple of hours should be enough to persuade Count Bloch to go home. Once he changes vector, Reserve Force can ramp down and pretend they’re going back on standby.”

“Exactly,” Locatelli said, a slight edge to his voice. Clearly, the man wasn’t happy.

Edward could hardly blame him. Tactical command was the System Commander’s domain. Officially, the King and First Lord of the Admiralty were merely observers.

But Edward and Cazenestro had both been Navy command officers: Edward a captain, the First Lord an admiral. They knew something about strategy and tactics. And while the First Lord might be willing to follow protocol and sit quietly, awaiting Locatelli’s staff’s reports, Edward wasn’t. He was the King, it was his realm and his people who were once again under fire, and by God above he was going to at least to sit in on these crucial discussions.

“Marcello’s a good captain with a good record,” Locatelli added. “He wouldn’t suggest this if he didn’t think he could pull it off.” He pursed his lips. “Besides that, the suggestion itself came from Lieutenant Travis Long, and he has a history of coming up with outside-the-lines ideas that pay off.”

“Sounds like it’s worth doing. Go ahead and give the order, Admiral,” Edward said.

Locatelli’s lips twitched in a small smile.

“Thank you, Your Majesty. I already have.”

* * *

“Last umbilical on Cell Two, PO Townsend,” Spacer 2/c Huvoski announced, and Chomps nodded with satisfaction, despite the hollowness in his stomach.

The Battle of Manticore had left Aries and Taurus completely dry of missiles, and despite a lingering sense of loyalty to the Navy, Chomps shared the general MPARS opinion that leaving them that way had been particularly stupid of the Navy. Unfortunately, he was only a petty officer, which gave his opinions very little official weight.

At least they had five birds on board now, though the Orpheus-based ordnance crews were still finishing the plumbing connections on three of them. Well, two, now, thank God. Now if only —

His uni-link quivered against his wrist as a message came through.

Huvoski was hovering behind him in the cramped compartment while he monitored the Number Two quad launcher’s progress. Surreptitiously, Chomps keyed the uni-link, wondering what this was about. Normally, official communications were delivered via the ship’s intercom or computer systems. The only way to get anything to him via uni-link was to work through the back door of Aries’ com system, and the only reason for anyone to do that was to keep the message dead secret.

And there was exactly one person Chomps could think of who could and would do something like that.

He was right about that.

Check vid message from Barca Alpha ASAP. GDF-3329-TDR. C.

“Good, Jacob,” he said aloud. “Initiating diagnostics now. While I do that, get up to Missile One. See if there’s anything you can do to speed them up without joggling their elbows.”

“Right, Chief.” Huvoski unstrapped and headed out the access way towards Aries’ dorsal quad launcher at a fast float. Chomps waited until he was out of view, then swiveled the status display around so it wouldn’t be visible from the open hatch, linked the larger display to his uni-link, and keyed the attached file.

It was the com feed from the Barcans, all right, with some silver-haired aristocrat type blathering on about pirates and vengeance and whatnot. Chomps watched the conversation play out — fortunately, the light-speed induced pauses had been edited out — wondering why anyone would want his input. This sort of thing was usually reserved for admirals, diplomats, or the Lords.

And then, Count Bloch smiled.

Chomps punched the freeze command and managed to hit it with the smile still in place. Staring at the image, he fumbled with his uni-link, hoping that whatever back door had been activated worked both ways.

It did.

“Did you see it?” she asked.

“Yes,” Chomps confirmed. “It’s him.”

“No mistake?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Hair and face are different, but he can’t disguise that smile.”

“I imagine he could, only it never occurred to him to try.” She hissed thoughtfully. “I just wish there was something we could do with this.”

“Aside from breaking him down to his component atoms?”

“Not going to happen. You know what kind of shape the Navy’s in, His Majesty knows what kind of shape the Navy’s in, and even the Navy knows what kind of shape the Navy’s in. Unless we have to fight them, no one down here has any interest in doing so.”

“As one of the people up here, that one has my vote, too,” Chomps agreed reluctantly. “I don’t suppose we’re going to get either of the other squadrons to reinforce us?”

“Probably not.” He couldn’t see the headshake at the other end of the link, but he knew it was there. “If Bloch doesn’t decide to roll the dice and keep right on coming, the most likely thing for him to do is head back to wherever he came from. We’re unlikely to get enough firepower in place soon enough to keep him from breaking back across the limit.”

Chomps nodded, glowering at the frozen smile. He owed the man behind that smile, and the thought of its owner getting away clean a second time really, really pissed him off. If only —