Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 43

There was, however, a minor weakness in that logic: it presupposed a reasonable Solarian commander. There’d been precious few of those in evidence since Josef Byng had come upon the scene. Worse, if the commander on the other side refused to take the hint, Zavala would have wasted one of his salvos for no return, and a Roland’s limited magazine space was its Achilles’ heel. With only twenty rounds for each of his tubes, he couldn’t afford to “waste” ammunition. And, still worse, even a Solly who wasn’t totally unreasonable might decide he could survive whatever DesRon 301 could throw at him for fifteen minutes and still get to grips with the destroyers. Zavala didn’t think Dubroskaya could, but his analysis of the only engagement between a Mark 16-armed force and Solarian-designed battlecruisers suggested that they might. Of course, Aivars Terekhov had been equipped with the first-generation Mark 16 at the Battle of Monica, whereas DesRon 301’s birds mounted the latest Mod G laser heads. That probably changed the equation considerably, but there was no way for Zavala to know that.

Either way, given their closing velocity, the Sollies were going to overfly his own ships before they could decelerate, and any of the battlecruisers which survived the crossing might well escape into hyper after all. Zavala doubted any of them would survive, and even if they did get into their own missile range of DesRon 301 before they were knocked out, a Roland-class destroyer’s missile defenses were actually considerably tougher than an Indefatigable’s, given the superiority of Manticore’s counter missiles, decoys, and ECM.

But his destroyers were no better armored than any other destroyer or light cruiser. If Zavala was wrong about his defenses’ ability to fend off incoming missiles, and if the Sollies got lucky, it wouldn’t take very many Javelin hits to ruin a Roland’s entire day.

Besides, he thought grimly, we don’t owe these bastards a frigging thing, and I’m damned if I’m going to put my people at risk trying to keep the arrogant pricks from getting themselves killed!

It was possible, he conceded, that he wasn’t cut from the right material for a successful diplomat. On the other hand, Countess Gold Peak had known that when she sent him out.

“I’ve thought about it, George,” he said. “I really have. But no, we’re not going with Zephyr.”

“Yes, Sir.” Commander Auerbach gazed into the display or a second or two, then shrugged.

“Actually, Sir, I’m fine with that,” he said.

* * *

“Com request from the Manties, Ma’am,” Commander Gervasio Urbanowicz said. Vice Admiral Dubroskaya glanced at him, and the communications officer shrugged. “It’s that Captain Zavala, Ma’am, and I think his signal’s being relayed by whatever he used to speak to the Governor FTL. It’s a standard com laser coming from some kind of platform just ahead of us, at any rate.”

Dubroskaya glanced at Captain Kiernan.

“Interesting timing, Ma’am,” Kiernan said. “Maybe McGillicuddy was onto something after all.”

“I suppose we’re about to find out,” Dubroskaya said, and nodded to Urbanowicz. “Put it on the main display, Gervasio.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The same officer whose image Governor Dueñas had relayed to Dubroskaya appeared on the master communications display. He looked out of it for a moment, then his eyes narrowed as he saw her image. It had taken less than two seconds for him to react, even though they were still better than two light minutes apart, but at least she’d had enough forewarning to keep her unhappiness at that proof of his FTL capabilities from reaching her eyes or her expression.

“I am Vice Admiral Oxana Dubroskaya, Solarian League Navy,” she said coldly. “What can I do for you, Captain Zavala?”

“You might consider standing down and abandoning ship in the next two minutes or so, Admiral Dubroskaya,” he replied, and an icy centipede seemed to sidle along her spine as his unflinching eyes and level tone registered. If this was a man who’d just discovered his bluff had failed, he was one hell of a poker player.

“And what makes you think I might be interested in doing that, Captain?” she asked. “I believe Governor Dueñas has made the Solarian League’s position abundantly clear. If, however, you’d care to surrender your vessels before I turn them into a drifting debris field, feel free.”

“You know,” Zavala said coldly, “I’m perpetually astonished by Solarian arrogance. My recon platforms picked up your battlecruisers less than forty-five minutes after my alpha translation, Admiral. That’s how long they’ve been all over you. And I knew not just where you were but what you were better than a half hour before I made turnover, and I’ve got over two hundred gravities of accel in reserve. Think about that. If I’d been worried about what you might do to me, I could’ve been all the way back across the hyper limit and headed home before I even spoke to Governor Dueñas.”

The centipede seemed to have invited its entire family to keep it company, Dubroskaya reflected.

“That’s a bold statement, Captain,” she heard her own voice say. “You’ll forgive me if I point out that I have only your word for your remarkable acceleration rate and the amazing capabilities and supernatural stealthiness of those recon drones of yours. Personally, I find things like the Tooth Fairy a bit difficult to believe in.”

“So should I assume from your skepticism that you think you’ve managed to track my actual recon platforms? You know exactly where each of them is?”

“Probably not all of them,” Dubroskaya admitted. In fact, they’d managed to localize no more than a dozen of them, and all of those had remained beyond effective engagement range from her battlecruisers. She’d used up twenty or thirty missiles before she’d accepted that, but they were devilishly elusive targets and they kept disappearing back into stealth and zipping away from their plotted positions before her missiles could get there. She felt confident the Manties would have deployed more than that, and her sensor sections had been picking up backscatter from grav pulses which might represent additional platforms or have something to do with the Manties’ obvious ability to transmit broadband data at faster-than-light speeds. Still, there couldn’t be a lot more of them without her people having picked them up.

“Your stealth systems obviously are better than we’d expected, but I imagine we’ve located the majority of them at least approximately,” she continued, her tone only slightly more confident than she actually felt.

“Then watch your plot, Admiral,” Zavala invited in that same, cold voice, and Dubroskaya heard Diadoro inhale sharply. Her eyes darted to the main plot as CIC updated it…and an entire globe of icons — thirty of them, at least — appeared around her battlecruisers, keeping pace with them effortlessly at ranges as low as a light-second and a half, as they dropped their stealth. They glittered there, taunting her with their proximity, for at least ten seconds. Then, before her startled fire control officers could lock them up, they vanished mockingly once more. She had no doubt they were all busily streaking away to completely different positions from which to keep her under observation from within their protective cloak of invisibility.

“Admiral Dubroskaya, I can read the names on your ships’ hulls from here,” Zavala told her as the dusting of icons disappeared from her plot once again, “and I still haven’t shown you all of my platforms. I warn you once again that I knew exactly what your battlecruisers were before I contacted Dueñas and I have real-time data on every move you make. You can abandon ship now and save a lot of lives, or what’s left of your people can abandon what’s left of your ships when I’m done with them. And if you think for one moment that I’ll hesitate to pull the trigger, Admiral, you just reflect that the ships Josef Byng slaughtered at New Tuscany came from this destroyer squadron. I’m giving you a chance to save your people’s lives, which is a hell of a lot more than he gave Commodore Chatterjee or any of our other shipmates. But that’s as far as the ship goes, Admiral, and you now have seventy-five seconds to tell me you’re going to abandon.”

They locked eyes, and despite her best effort, Dubroskaya couldn’t convince herself he was bluffing. He might be wrong — in fact, he probably was — but he wasn’t bluffing. If she didn’t accept his terms, he would open fire as soon as he was in range.

But she couldn’t. She simply couldn’t surrender four battlecruisers to only five light cruisers. She couldn’t…and not just because of Dueñas’ orders. Maybe the stories about New Tuscany, even the wild rumors coming out of Spindle, were true after all. But if they were, that only made it even more imperative that the Navy draw a line somewhere, stop the chain of humiliations and reclaim its honor.

And I will be damned before I let this arrogant little prick of a captain dictate terms to me, by God, she thought harshly. No. Not this time, Captain Zavala!