A Rising Thunder – Snippet 30

 

Well, that was fine with him. He wasn’t especially happy himself. To Bourchier’s credit, he’d refused to allow even Victor Cachat to simply steamroller him. Instead, he’d flatly insisted on clearing Simões’ presence with some higher authority before he’d go any further. Wilhelm Trajan, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, hadn’t been available — he was off-planet at the moment — so Bourchier had gone directly to LePic. Who, not unreasonably, had insisted on meeting Simões himself before he’d even consider authorizing his admittance into Pritchart’s presence.

 

Zilwicki had no problem with that. What he did have a problem with was that their interview with the attorney general had been the first any of them had heard about what had happened — or, at least, what Mesa claimed had happened — in Green Pines. Discovering that he’d been branded as the worst mass murderer in recent memory tended to be just a tad upsetting, he’d discovered.

 

And thinking about how the people he loved must have responded to that lie was even more so.

 

“So, our wandering boy returns, I see,” Pritchart murmured. She regarded all of them for a moment, then looked directly at Zilwicki.

 

“I’m afraid the galaxy at large thinks you’re, well, dead, Captain Zilwicki,” she said. “I’m pleased to see the reports were in error. Although I’m sure quite a few people in Manticore are going to be just as curious to know where you’ve been for the last several months as we are about Officer Cachat’s whereabouts.”

 

“I’m sure they are, too, Madam President. Unfortunately, we had a little, um, engine trouble on the way home. It took us several months to make repairs.” Zilwicki grimaced. “We played a lot of cards,” he added.

 

“I imagine so.” The President cocked her head. “And I imagine you’ve also discovered there have been a few developments since whatever happened — and I do trust you’re going to tell us what it was that did happen — in Green Pines?”

 

“I’m sure that will be covered, Ma’am,” Zilwicki said grimly. “It wasn’t much like the ‘official version’ I’ve just heard, but it was bad enough.”

 

Pritchart gazed at him for a moment, then nodded slowly and looked at Simões.

 

“But I don’t believe I know who this gentleman is,” she continued.

 

“No, Madam President, you don’t — yet,” Cachat replied. “This is Dr. Herlander Simões. Of the planet Mesa.”

 

Pritchart’s spectacular topaz eyes narrowed slightly. The first-class brain behind those eyes was obviously running at top speed, but all she did was sit back in her chair.

 

“I see,” she said after a moment, gazing speculatively at the Mesan. “May I assume Dr. Simões is the reason you’ve been…out of touch, let’s say, for the last, oh, six or seven T-months?”

 

“He’s one of the reasons, Ma’am.”

 

“Then, by all means be seated,” she invited, waving a hand at the empty chairs on the other side of the table, “and let’s hear what you — and Dr. Simões, of course — have to tell us.”

 

*   *   *

 

“Readiness reports complete, Sir,” Admiral Daniels reported. “All squadron and task group commanders report ready to proceed as ordered.”

 

“Thank you, Bill,” Fleet Admiral Filareta acknowledged.

 

He stood on the flag bridge of SLNS Philip Oppenheimer, flagship of the Solarian League Navy’s newly designated Eleventh Fleet, gazing at the endless rows of status reports and thinking. The missile ships had taken a few days longer than expected to join him, which had given just enough time for a last set of dispatches from the Sol System to reach Tasmania. Which, in his opinion, was very much a mixed blessing.

 

The news that the Manties were closing wormhole termini to Solarian traffic was not something he’d wanted to hear. Whatever else it might indicate, it hardly sounded like the action of a star nation reeling from a surprise attack and terrified for its very life. One might have expected people in that position to be looking for ways to avoid infuriating something the size of the Solarian League, which didn’t appear to have even crossed the Star Empire’s mind. That was a disconcerting thought, and the fact that neither Rajampet nor his civilian masters seemed to share it was even more unpleasant. Judging from their amendment of his original mission orders, however, the only “thinking” they appeared to have done was to fasten on it as yet another Manty “provocation” to justify their own actions. They certainly hadn’t been dissuaded by it, at any rate!

 

They probably think the Manties are just running a bluff, trying to convince us to back down, he reflected. And maybe they are. But maybe they aren’t, too. Maybe it’s an indication they’re genuinely that confident they can stand up to us, instead, and I sort of wish at least someone in Old Chicago was willing to at least consider the possibility. That’d be asking too much, though, I guess, since it would require a brain bigger than a pea!

 

He shook his head mentally. It was far too late to be worrying about the blindness — or desperation — of the people behind his orders. It was too late to be worrying even about how large a hand Manpower might have had in drafting those orders in the first place, and at least four hundred and twenty-seven of the four hundred and thirty-one ships-of-the-wall which had been ordered to join him had actually arrived. That was a phenomenal accomplishment, by SLN peacetime readiness standards. In fact, he suspected the status reports on a half dozen or so of his SDs had been fudged by captains who had no intention of being caught short at a moment like this, but as long as they weren’t covering up fundamental problems, that was fine with him.

 

The more the merrier, he thought sardonically, yet not even his cynicism was proof against commanding the most powerful armada the Solarian League had ever launched. As he looked at those status reports, at the glittering sea of icons, he was aware of the true size and power of the Solarian League Navy in a new and different way. His concerns about Manticoran weapons hadn’t magically disappeared, by any means, yet despite those concerns, what he felt at this moment was the ponderous, unstoppable power of all those millions upon millions of tons of starships.

 

Four hundred and twenty-seven ships-of-the-wall. Thirty-two battlecruisers, thirty light cruisers, and forty-eight destroyers to screen the battle squadrons and provide the scouts they’d probably need. And fifty fast freighters (and personnel transports), all with military-grade hyper generators and particle screening. All told, his command counted almost six hundred starships, massing over three billion tons. Indeed, his wallers alone massed 2.9 billion tons, and counting the freighter and transport crews, he commanded over 2.7 million naval personnel, which didn’t even count the transports’ 421,000 Marines and support personnel. By any meter stick, it was an enormous force, and fifty percent of the missiles in his SDs’ magazines were the new dual-drive Technodyne Cataphract-Bs. He would have preferred a heavier warhead, but that was what the five thousand pods loaded with Cataphract-Cs were for. At over sixteen million kilometers, their powered envelope was better than twice that of the Trebuchet capital missiles they’d replaced.

 

He was still a long way from truly leveling the playing field, assuming there was any truth in the Manty accounts of Spindle. As it happened, he was convinced there was quite a lot of truth in those accounts, but almost despite himself, he’d been deeply impressed when he saw the Cataphracts’ performance numbers. Whether they’d come from Technodyne or the tooth fairy was far less important than how enormously his fleet’s effective reach had been increased. He was going to be outranged by any surviving Manty system-defense missile pods, but he should at least come close to matching their shipboard missiles. If there was any validity at all to the Office of Strategy and Planning’s assessment of the Star Empire’s morale, that ought to be enough to convince them that no qualitative advantage could ultimately offset the sheer quantitative edge of the Solarian League.

 

Sure it will, he told himself. You go right on thinking that way. But don’t get your ass so wedded to the concept that you end up getting yourself and a couple of million other people killed!

 

“Very well,” he said at last, then drew a deep breath and turned to face Daniels once more.

 

“I believe we have a date with the Manties, Bill. Let’s get this show on the road.”