A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 13
He stopped, an odd thought starting to form in the back of his mind.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “We can’t kill him or get our hands on him. But maybe we can at least snap his leash a little.”
Chomps pulled up the tactical display. Not there. He thought for a moment, then shifted to an astro display.
“What do you think our friend would do if he thought we had a system-wide sensor net he didn’t know about?”
“He probably wouldn’t like it,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have one.”
“No,” Chomps replied, grinning evilly. “But we do have the hyper-limit NAVSAT constellation.”
“Yes, and everyone knows we do. For that matter, he can see it on his astrogation displays.”
“No,” Chomps said again. “What he sees is the new constellation.”
The other voice stopped, and he could almost see the sudden calculation in its owner’s eyes. Each of the Star Kingdom’s planets had its own Lagrange point constellation of astrogation satellites — still known by the archaic acronym, mostly because they were also used for navigation on the planets they orbited. Each stellar component of the binary system had its own hyper-limit constellation, as well: twenty-four individual satellites equidistantly spaced around the entire limit.
At the moment, however, Manticore-A actually had thirty-six hyper-limit NAVSATs. One of Earl Breakwater’ infrastructure projects was the replacement of the original elderly constellation, but half of the old constellation had been retained as backups if the new system developed any glitches and to temporarily substitute for any of the newer satellites which went down for routine maintenance.
All twenty-four of the new constellation’s beacons were clearly visible on Bloch’s astrogation displays.
“Interesting,” she said after a moment, sounding intrigued. “We might make him blink. Even better, we might make him leery of coming back. Not only could we convince him we’d spot him farther out, but it would be a nice piece of disinformation. If he thinks he missed something that significant in his intel on us, who knows what else he could have missed?”
“Agreed, and agreed,” Chomps said. “I’m not sure how we would pull that off, though.”
“Leave that to me,” she assured him. “Meantime, better get back to your day job. He’s killed his acceleration, but he hasn’t started decelerating yet. He might still decide to take a run at us.”
* * *
“Sir, they’re reversing acceleration,” Katura announced. “Not only that, they’ve increased accel by forty gravities.”
“Reversing?” Llyn repeated with a carefully concealed flare of hope. If Admiral Eigen had decided to break off after all, that probably meant the odds were even more in Llyn’s favor than he’d thought. And if that the case —
“More wedges coming up, Sir,” Katura said suddenly, a moment later. “Manticore orbit. Computer’s plotting positions and strength.”
“I see them,” Llyn confirmed, watching as Pacemaker’s computers analyzed the distant wedge data and spat its results onto the display.
And as the numbers came up, he felt his breath catch in his throat. Three orbiting ships had spun up their wedges.
All of them read as battlecruisers.
He hissed out a vicious curse. So at least four of Manticore’s five battlecruisers had survived the battle. Eighty percent of them. Gensonne had been even more incompetent than he’d realized.
Unless one of the warships was a visitor? None of the new units’ light-speed transponder codes had yet reached Pacemaker. Maybe one of them — maybe even two of them — were visitors from elsewhere.
And the only possible candidate for such generosity was Haven.
The problem was that three weeks was far too short a time for the Republic to have heard about the battle and sent help. If one of the ships was Havenite, it had to have already been here when the battle began.
Maybe that was why Gensonne had lost in the first place?
“Sir, General Haus is signaling,” Katura said into his musings. “He urgently recommends that we withdraw with all haste.”
“I’m not surprised,” Llyn growled.
And of course he was right. At this immediate moment, who owned which ships in the Manticore System was irrelevant. What was relevant was that Llyn’s force had just gone from probably superior to outclassed as hell.
The trick was going to be figuring out how to make a graceful and plausible withdrawal without looking like they were cutting and running. The Manticorans were surely already at least moderately suspicious of his unexpected arrival. A panicky reaction could only hone that suspicion, and if it rose to even fifty percent certainty, Locatelli would probably send everything they had against him.
And if the Manticoran did that, Llyn’s ships couldn’t possibly kill their velocity and begin building an escape vector before the Manticorans brought them into decisive range. Which meant —
The display updated again as the new battlecruisers’ transponder codes finally caught up with the appearance of their wedges. HMS Invincible, HMS Nike, and HMS Swiftsure.
Llyn cursed under his breath. A bunch of hayseeds in a two-for-a-credit excuse for a star nation, and out in the middle of nowhere to boot. There was no way someone like that should have been able to give a professional merc group this kind of drubbing.
That was what really frosted him, he realized. In fact, it bothered him more than the fact that he was very probably going to die in the next hour or two. It was infuriating to have been so effortlessly played for a fool by a star nation full of provincials who hadn’t even known he was coming.
Or maybe they had known he and the Barcans were on their way. If they’d not only beat Gensonne but captured him, he’d spill his guts in a skinny minute if it might save his own neck.
But it didn’t matter what they’d known. What mattered was that they’d played him perfectly. They’d delayed any response while he steadily built his velocity in-system and got farther and farther from any handy escape back across the limit. Then they’d shown him only Eigen’s force to demonstrate how badly they’d been weakened against Gensonne.
And now he knew why their acceleration had been so low. They’d had no intention of building enough velocity to make it impossible for the battlecruisers hiding in orbit to rendezvous with Eigen before actually opening fire. But now that Eigen had him sucked too far into the trap to escape, the admiral was openly decelerating to kill his own velocity in order to hasten that rendezvous.
After which, the combined force would go back to the full hundred and sixty gravities the newcomers were showing and run down Llyn’s ships — even the Barcan cruisers — well short of the limit.
At least they wouldn’t be throwing any modern weaponry at him. But that was cold and thin consolation. Ancient missiles, especially in the numbers a quartet of battlecruisers could throw, would be more than enough to do the job.
Llyn had faced dicey solutions in his time, but there’d always been a way out. This time…
“Sir!” Katura said sharply.
“What?” Llyn snapped.
“Sir, Banshee’s detected a hyper footprint just outside the limit. Captain Vaagen’s tracking three new impeller wedges.” Pacemaker’s captain cursed quietly. “At least one of them appears to be another battlecruiser.”
Another battlecruiser? Pure molten fury poured through Llyn’s veins. So all five RMN battlecruisers had survived? Had Gensonne even bothered to show up at this battle?
And the sudden appearance of yet another Manticoran squadron astern of him was almost more disturbing than the fact that they’d taken so little damage from the Volsungs. He knew — he knew — they couldn’t have prearranged this perfect a mousetrap. No one could have. Yet there the fresh threat was, its icons burning brightly as Pacemaker’s plot updated itself. However these bastards had managed to pull it off, Llyn’s defeat was total, and there was nothing he could do about it.
And then, still seven minutes from the turnover point where he would have no choice but to continue all the way to Manticore orbit, Locatelli handed him the solution on a silver platter.
“Count Bloch, this is Admiral Locatelli,” the system commander’s voice said from the com. “It would appear we’ve both been guilty of a certain degree of misunderstanding. As I’m sure our documentation will demonstrate, we have no connection with the pirates who’ve been operating in Barca’s vicinity. On the other hand, and while we don’t wish to offend even our more distant neighbors, we’ve had some unfortunate experiences of late here in the Star Kingdom and we aren’t really interested in hosting a foreign task force right now. I must therefore respectfully request that your battle force leave Manticoran space.
“I realize that until you’ve examined our evidence, you have no reason to simply take our word for our innocence. I think we can both agree that until and unless both sides can be convinced of the other’s bona fides, it might be wiser to avoid any potential incidents which could arise out of continued misunderstanding. Accordingly, I’ve instructed Admiral Eigen to begin decelerating to remain outside his engagement envelope of your command. I’ve also transmitted orders to Admiral Flannery, commanding the squadron astern of you, to plot a course to Manticore which will keep him outside missile range of your force as you withdraw.” The Manticoran admiral’s expression hardened. “I have, however, been instructed by my Sovereign that if you choose not to withdraw, His Majesty’s decision not to regard you as hostile units will have to be reconsidered.”
Llyn treated himself to a deep, unobtrusive breath of relief.
So they hadn’t beaten any information out of Gensonne after all. They were actually prepared to believe Barca truly had come calling on a pirate-hunting expedition.
“On the other hand, we have no objection to you and a one-ship escort continuing on to Manticore,” Locatelli continued. “It would give us a chance to compare notes on our respective battles. With proper analysis, we might be able to determine whether they were the same force, two parts of the same group, or totally independent.”
Right, Llyn thought with black humor. When hell freezes over, defrosts, and freezes over again.
He inclined his head, fighting to conceal his relief. It was harder than usual this time.
“All units reverse acceleration,” he ordered Katura. He noted the matching relief on his captain’s face, then punched the transmit key on his com panel again.
“I’m sure you’ll understand that the Grand Duke would consider it a breach of my duty to offer myself as a potential hostage to a star nation we have yet to clear of collaboration with pirates,” he said. “Perhaps after we’ve analyzed the data you’ve provided we’ll be able to allay the Grand Duke’s suspicions and can resume this conversation at a later date.” A sudden thought occurred to him. “If you could also provide your data from battle you mentioned,” he added, “it would surely speed up that process. Regardless, since we’re currently unwelcome, we will of course take our leave.”
Another six minutes passed, interminable minutes during which Admiral Eigen continued to decelerate towards Manticore and the three battlecruisers still approaching from planetary orbit. Pacemaker and her consorts continued forward as well, covering another four and a third million kilometers. But their velocity dropped by almost 300 KPS in the same interval, their momentum taking them to a point ninety-eight and a half million kilometers from Manticore orbit. Assuming the Manticorans didn’t change their minds about engaging the intruders, in another four hours they would come to a zero-zero point still fourteen million kilometers out from the planet and could be back across the limit in less than six.
Assuming, again, that the Manticorans didn’t change their minds.
It was almost a shock when Locatelli’s voice suddenly boomed again from the com.
“I’m sure the data would be useful to you,” the admiral said. “However, since we ourselves have only barely finished our first-pass analysis, I’m sure you understand in turn that we can’t yet release it to anyone outside the Star Kingdom. Regardless, have a safe voyage home, and we look forward to comparing notes more completely at some future date.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Llyn promised. “For His Highness, the Grand Duke of Barca, I bid you farewell.”
He keyed off the com.
“Any other instructions, Sir?” Katura asked.
“I think not, Captain,” Llyn said. “It’s over now.”