Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 39

Chapter Eleven

“We’re getting back good data on the forward platforms, Skipper,” Abigail Hearns said, and Naomi Kaplan turned her command chair to face the tac section and cocked her head in response to Abigail’s tone.

“I’m seeing three merchies in parking orbit with the platform, Ma’am,” Abigail said, replying to the unspoken question. “They’re not squawking transponders, but we’re close enough for good visuals, and at least two of them look Manticoran-built to me. That’s not the interesting thing, though.”

“No?” Kaplan smiled thinly. “That sounds interesting enough to be going on with to me, Abigail.”

“Oh, I agree, Ma’am. But what I thought was really interesting were the four battlecruisers lying doggo in the inner system.”

A frisson of tension ran around Tristram’s bridge.

“You’re right, that is interesting,” Kaplan conceded after a moment. “I’m assuming Commodore Zavala has that information, as well?”

“Yes, Ma’am. It’s on the distributed feed.”

“Good.” Kaplan’s hexapuma smile was even thinner — and much colder — than before. “I think this little spider may have underestimated the fly.”

* * *

“It’s confirmed, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Gabrowski said a half-hour later. “All four of the battlecruisers are Indefatigables — older units, from their emissions signatures — and the recon platforms say they have hot nodes. Our platforms’ve gotten a good look at the entire inner system now, though, and aside from the trio of tincans on the far side of Cinnamon’s moon, that seems to be all they’ve got.”

“And still not a peep out of any of them, correct, Abhijat?” Jacob Zavala asked Lieutenant Abhijat Wilson, his com officer.

“Not one, Sir,” Wilson confirmed.

“And they have to know we’re here…and that we sure as hell aren’t merchies,” Lieutenant Commander Auerbach added. “So I have to wonder why they haven’t said a word to us.”

“Well, at least it makes a pleasant change from the usual Solarian bluster, don’t you think?” Jacob Zavala’s tone was whimsical; his expression was not.

“What it suggests to me is that there’s a reason we’re not hearing the usual Solarian bluster, Sir,” Auerbach replied. The chief of staff liked and respected Zavala, and they usually got along well, but George Auerbach had never been noted for his spontaneity or sparkling sense of humor.

“Fair’s fair, George,” Zavala pointed out in a more serious tone. “We haven’t talked to them yet, either.”

Zavala’s truncated squadron had been inbound for eighty-five minutes. His destroyers’ velocity relative to the system primary was up to 29,400 KPS, and they were barely three minutes from their turnover for a zero/zero intercept with the planet of Cinnamon, still over 88,000,000 kilometers ahead of them. They were also well inside the twelve-light-hour limit where they were supposed to have announced their identities. There was a little leeway in that requirement, especially for ships emerging from hyper — as most ships did — well inside it, but they were still supposed to get around to it in a “timely fashion,” and he supposed it could be argued that he hadn’t done that.

Pity about that.

“I know we haven’t talked to them yet, Sir,” Commander Rochelle Goulard said from the com display which tied Zavala and his staff into HMS Kay’s command deck. “On the other hand, I can’t see them trying to hide from our sensors if they didn’t have something nasty in mind.”

“I can think of at least a couple of legitimate — from their perspective, at least — reasons for ‘hiding,’ Roxy,” Zavala told his flag captain. “For one thing, they might’ve come up with a Frontier Fleet officer bright enough to seal his own shoes. They may not have details on Spindle here in Saltash yet, but it’s been five T-months since Byng got himself blown away in New Tuscany. There’s been time enough for them to’ve heard all about that encounter, and if they’ve paid some attention to the reports of our weapons’ range from New Tuscany, they may just want to make sure we’re inside their range basket before they make their presence known. Especially if they buy into the notion that we’re the ones who’re actually picking this fight, which is exactly how the Sollies spun New Tuscany.”

“Agreed, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Gabrowski said. “But there are some other possibilities here, too.” Zavala looked at her, and the ops officer shrugged. “We’ve wondered all along why a system governor might do something as daft as seizing Manticoran merchantmen. What if they were intended from the beginning as bait and these battlecruisers are the trap?”

“I think that’s an entirely plausible scenario,” Zavala acknowledged. “Mind you, I’m not going to rush in assuming it’s what’s happening, but I’m damned well not going to assume it isn’t, either!”

“That’s a relief, Sir,” Gabrowski said earnestly. “Given how gullible and easily taken in you usually are, I mean.”

Unlike Auerbach, Gabrowski did have a sense of humor, and Zavala grinned at her, then rubbed the tip of his nose thoughtfully.

The Sollies had undoubtedly figured out who — and what — his command was by now. Or they’d at least figured out his ships had to be Manticoran, at any rate, even if they didn’t realize something as large as a Roland-class destroyer wasn’t a light cruiser. On the other hand, it was unlikely anyone in Saltash had detected the highly stealthy Ghost Rider recon platforms fanning out in front of his squadron. Which probably meant that — so far, at least — he knew about their battlecruisers and they didn’t know that he knew about them.

The problem was what he did with that information.

I know what I’d like to do with it, he thought grimly. Unfortunately, Admiral Gold Peak made it abundantly clear I’m not supposed to do that if I have a choice. So I guess just blowing them out of space without warning would be just a bit of an overreaction. Of course, if they decide to be unreasonable about this…

“I suppose we’d better go ahead and talk to them, Abhijat,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” Lieutenant Wilson replied, trying hard not to crack a smile at the resignation in his superior’s tone. “I’ll see about getting hold of someone.”

* * *

System Governor Damián Dueñas’ com buzzed discreetly and he tapped the virtual key to accept the connection.

“I have a com request from a Captain Jacob Zavala, Governor,” Maxence Kodou, his executive assistant announced, from the holographic display when it materialized above his desk.

“Really?” Dueñas tipped back his chair and frowned. “Took the bastard long enough to get on the com, didn’t it?”

“Well, he’s coming up on Dubroskaya’s projected turnover point,” Lieutenant Governor Tiilikainen observed from where she stood gazing out over the lights and air car traffic of the city of Kernuish. She turned to face the governor. “If his intention was to let us sweat, we’ve had time to start doing that nicely now, so he probably figures it’s time he got around to talking to us.” She made a face. “From what we’ve seen out of him so far, I don’t imagine he intends to be particularly accommodating about it, either.”

“I almost hope you’re right, Cicely,” Dueñas half-growled. “In fact, I’m looking forward to it. I don’t imagine he’s going to be very happy when he finds out we’re a lot readier for his visit than he expected us to be! I just want to get him farther in-system before he figures out what we’ve got waiting for him.”

Tiilikainen nodded, but Dueñas felt another stir of resentment as she turned back to the window. He couldn’t fault her willingness to dig in and make the plan work, despite her lack of enthusiasm, but she’d been the lieutenant governor here in Saltash for over ten T-years, and she seemed far less…engaged than Dueñas would have preferred. Or as engaged as someone with a proper sense of ambition should have been, for that matter. Not too surprising, really, he supposed. The lieutenant governorship of a single backwater star system like Saltash wasn’t exactly the sort of plum assignment for which a really up and coming OFS bureaucrat would choose to compete. Even a full governorship out here was little more than a stepping stone to something better and more profitable, but Tiilikainen seemed prepared to settle for her current slot. Damián Dueñas, on the other hand, was not. And the system governor who finally managed to bloody the Manties’ nose would be bound for bigger and better things.

Hell, if this works out half as well as I expect it to, I’ll even take her along with me! he thought. Then he looked back at Kodou.

“Go ahead and put him through to my desk, Maxence,” he said.

“Of course, Sir.” Kodou nodded courteously and disappeared from the hologram. A moment later, he was replaced by the image of a small, dark featured officer with incongruously blue eyes in an obviously military skinsuit.

“Captain Zavala, I presume?” Dueñas said with a cool smile, then sat back to wait the ten-plus minutes while the light-speed message zipped to the distant Manticoran’s ship and his response came back again.

“Indeed,” the man in his display said, barely nine seconds later. “And you, I assume, are System Governor Dueñas?”

Dueñas twitched. He couldn’t help that any more than he could help the involuntary widening of his eyes. He turned his head, shooting a sharp glance at Tiilikainen. The lieutenant governor was outside his own com’s pickup’s field of view, but she’d turned quickly back from the window, her expression as astonished as Dueñas felt.

“Under the circumstances,” Zavala went on from the display, “I thought it would probably be a good idea to minimize transmission lags for this conversation, Governor. I am speaking to Governor Dueñas, I trust?”

“Yes. I mean, I’m System Governor Dueñas. What can I do for you, Captain?”

Dueñas’ voice sounded less firm than he might have wished, almost hesitant, in the face of the Manticorans’ demonstration that they did have the faster than light communications capability the human race had sought for the last thousand T-years or so, and he willed his face back into impassivity.

“I’m here to inquire into certain reports we’ve received, Governor,” the Manticoran officer responded with that same disconcerting quickness, but then he paused.

“What sort of reports would that be, Captain?” Dueñas asked, then swore silently at himself for allowing Zavala to suck him into filling the silence the other man had deliberately left.

“According to information which has reached Admiral Gold Peak,” Zavala replied courteously enough, “the Manticoran merchant vessel Carolyn has been unlawfully detained here in Saltash.” He showed his teeth in a brief flash of white. “I’m certain it’s all simply a misunderstanding, but Lady Gold Peak sent me out to get to the bottom of things.”

“I see.” Dueñas folded his hands together on his desk blotter and regarded Zavala’s holographic image levelly. He was starting to come back on balance mentally, although the confirmation of the Manties’ FTL communications ability had been unpleasant. Mostly because it suggested some of the other wild rumors might have some substance in fact, as well.

“Well, Captain Zavala,” he said after a moment, “I’m afraid it’s not all ‘simply a misunderstanding.’ I have, indeed, denied Carolyn departure clearance and placed her crew in medical quarantine. I’m afraid that’s also true of the Manticoran vessel Argonaut, in fact.”