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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 80 - By the Horns[]

Cháteau des Calderon
Samantha City, Taurus
Taurian Concordat
February 19th, 3026

Thomas Calderon stood as Helena Vickers and Jack Fletcher were escorted into his office. Henri Jouett, Brenda Calderon, and Raoul Calderon were already present, along with the Exchequer of the Concordat Semyon Cantrell.

Thomas scowled; he still wasn't entirely happy that Helena had revealed the truth about the Samantha Calderon and her crew to Ardan Sortek . . . but the woman had done so to help keep Edward safe . . . and because of that, Henri, Brenda, and Raoul had talked him out of launching into a blistering tirade.

"Welcome back to Taurus," the Protector said instead. "will you join us?" he asked.

"The Protector's request is our literal order." Helena answered with a slight smile.

"Would you care for some coffee, tea, wine, or, perhaps, something stronger?" Raoul asked before Thomas could respond acidly and his brother nodded at the Minister-without-A-Portfolio.

"No thank you, Minister Calderon," Helena answered. "Jack had hoped to have this meeting before we departed for New Vallis, but we were in a rush to get out there in time, as you know."

Thomas nodded. Commander Fletcher had requested this meeting just hours before the news of the invasion of New Vallis had reached the capital . . . and that Edward had returned to that to aid in the defense. There had not been time to meet before Vickers had departed, but whatever the engineer wanted to discuss must be urgent, because he had once again made the request last evening when the WarShip had returned to Station Three.

"I presume that this concerns your report on the status of the Vandenberg? You completed your survey the day before you left Taurus." the Protector continued.

Vincent Class Corvette (blockcade run) (by Colourbrand)

Vincent Class Corvette

"Yes, Sir." the engineer answered. "That is one of the reasons that I requested this meeting." He paused and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "She's a bloody mess, that Terran boondoggle. Can't fathom why the bloody Terries would build a 420,000 ton Compact Core WarShip. Then Give her paper-thin armor, less weapons than most Assault DropShips, and the fighter complement of a Leopard CV Class DropShip! There are cheaper ways to build a bloody freighter!"

Leopard CV (Underway in Space)

Leopard CV Class Fighter Carrier Dropship

"Jack," Helena growled softly.

"Sorry, Ma'am, Sirs." he said after a moment. "She needs a lot of work—eighteen months at a minimum—but I think we can rebuild her into something we can use."

Semyon Cantrell frowned. "And just how much will that cost, Commander?"

"A lot," Jack replied bluntly. "But, if you want her back in service, the cost will have to be borne out."

"We will be receiving funds relatively soon from our offering the Vickers Core to Marik, Steiner, Kurita, and Centrella . . . Duchess Humphreys of Andurien may make a bid as well. And when Edward is successful in his mission, we will receive funding from the Federated Suns," Henri interjected.

"I would prefer not to spend in advance the eggs our chickens have not yet laid, Minister Jouett," replied Cantrell. "Still, even Alvarez might pay us something for a copy of the Core."

Thomas shook his head. "The Outworlders fought against McCarron alongside us." he said briskly and in a strong voice. "Their agents will take home a copy of the Core non-gratis to show the Alliance our appreciation for their standing besides us when few others would. Once you find those idiots out there in the wilds of Gamma Continent, Henri."

"Already done, my Protector." Henri said with a smile. "Our Search-and-Rescue Teams found them this morning . . . and they also found what those two managed to discover."

Thomas blinked and everyone in the room got silent.

"They found something . . . on Gamma?" Thomas sputtered.

Henri nodded. "Seems they had some good intelligence based on very old information they dug up on Alpheratz . . .the SLDF built an intelligence station way out there on Gamma to monitor signal traffic here on Taurus. My people and those from the Science Ministry are going through the place, but it is a treasure trove of computers and surveillance gear, mostly still operational in a sealed—well, it was sealed—underground bunker."

"Another Core?" Brenda asked in a strained voice.

"No. It was a very small and clandestine operation, but Fitz-Hugh and Milbarge found it for us." Henri frowned. "Which is what we should have done ourselves decades ago. The bastards had built dedicated taps into all of our secure government communications links before the Uprising and the Amaris Coup. They were reading our secure internal mail just as soon as it got sent; thankfully, most of those systems have been replaced over the centuries since and the taps lead to—mostly—dead ends today."

"Will miracles never cease," Thomas muttered, then he shook his heads. "The Alliance gets their copy of the Core for free; we Taurians pay our debts."

Semyon Cantrell grimaced, but everyone else in the room nodded.

"What exactly needs to be done to get the Vandenberg ready for service?" the Protector asked.

"Well, the transit drives are almost completely inoperative, my Lord. WarShip transit drives are quite different from those of DropShips and Aerospace Fighters. The people that you had trying to repair them had made all sorts of the mistakes that someone unfamiliar with their systems can possibly make. Fortunately, we have all of the parts we need on hand, and fixing those in-system drives is rather simple, if somewhat time consuming."

Jack paused. "The sensor arrays are gone; whoever hid the Vandenberg did so inside an irradiated belt of the Hyades and all of external sensor arrays will need to be replaced. Along with the armor, what little the Vincent-class carries. The sensors are not a problem; sure, you haven't had to design WarShip sensors for centuries, but it isn't any different from the long-range sensors you have emplaced on your stations. The armor, on the other hand, is almost useless . . . and we cannot produce the Ferro-Carbide composites that New Delhi used for the Vincent."

Jack shrugged. "But we don't have to. We've already got factories here in the Concordat that are gearing up to produce the IFA that armors the Samantha Calderon, and incidentally produce Ferro-Aluminum armor for Aerospace Fighters and DropShips as well as Ferro-Fibrous armor for 'Mechs and vehicles, and we can simply replace the original Ferro-Carbide with Improved Ferro-Aluminum with little problems."

He smiled. "In fact, we can improve the overall armor protection by installing a far heavier belt of armor than the Terries ever intended for the Vincents to carry; of course, without reinforcing the structural integrity of the hull, it will still be relatively light armor protection . . . at least from my point of view and that of the Fleet Marshal."

Thomas frowned. "You cannot reinforce the structure of the hull?"

"I could, my Lord, but it would triple the cost and double the time required. We—the Fleet Marshal, the Marshal of the Armies, and I—have decided that it would be simpler to avoid he added expense and time required and accept a vessel with less armor protection than the old TCN would have endorsed."

Thomas nodded his understanding. And then Jack continued.

"She will be fragile for a vessel of her size, but once we replace the sensors and armor and get her transit drives operational, she will be able to maneuver and fight."

He paused again. "Or, she could if she had any functioning weapon systems."

He looked down at his hands and shook his head. "None of her guns are operational, but we—the three of us—have some ideas about how to deal with that. Now, the Terries classified the Vincent as a Corvette, but she's only twenty-thousand tons lighter than the Concordat-class Frigate that the TCN used to field. She's in the size range of what we would term a Destroyer and with no docking collars that is what she should actually be. Now," Jack carried on as Thomas listened intently, "we have looked at what the Concordat actually needs. We need an escort that is designed to deal with hostile aerospace fighters determined to kill the Samantha Calderon. That is the greatest threat that the Inner Sphere possesses right now, sending in groups and regiments of ASF to kill the Saucy Sam with Alamos."

Concordat Frigate (Space)

Concordat Class Frigate

Jack paused again and he smiled. "But there are two answers to that problem. First option, we remake the Vandenberg into an Aerospace Fighter Carrier. We can easily fit one hundred and twenty-eight aerospace fighters onboard her, but there aren't one hundred and twenty-eight spare ASF in the Concordat right now, my Lord. That is the best option, but one we can't quite get to."

"Next, we looked at making her into a Gunboat Carrier, but even though Gunboats are heavier and tougher and carry more armament, they are also slower than ASF. And even with sixty-four embarked, we are not certain that those numbers can stop a determined attack by one of the Great Houses."

"So, what then?" Thomas asked. "If we can't provide enough Aerospace Fighters and our Gunboats won't get the job done, what are you planning to do?"

Jack smiled. "First of all, we are going to give Vandenberg a conventional scale flak-belt identical to that of the Samantha Calderon. While we are at it, we are going to increase fuel bunkers to give her the same amount of endurance at 1-G thrust as the battleship; we will expand the fighter and small craft bays to accommodate a Taurian Aerospace Fighter Division—eight fighters—and a pair of small craft."

"Which is work easily accomplished. But the main goal that the Fleet Marshal, the Marshal of the Armies, and I have decided upon is this: we are going to replace the capital scale weaponry—non-functional weaponry—aboard the Vandenberg with forty-eight Barracuda Capital Missile Launchers."

Thomas blinked. "Forty-eight," he sputtered, "capital missile launchers? We don't have forty-eight capital missile launchers!"

"Not right now, my Lord," Jack answered. "but we have already contracted with several armament manufacturers for producing new Capital Missiles—Barracudas, White Sharks, and Killer Whales—for the Samantha Calderon. Now, the Barracuda is the lightest of these and the easiest to produce, although the advanced seeker heads might prove somewhat problematic; in which case, we will simply remove them and reproduce the Nike missile that the TCN used in the early 24th​ Century before the Barracuda was invented. Not as accurate, but every bit as effective against hostile fighters as the Barracuda. And we are working with those defense contractors to build the launchers themselves; they should be ready in the next twelve to thirteen months to begin production."

Jack smiled and Helena nodded. "What will we have in eighteen months, Sire, is a formidable escort ship for the Samantha Calderon that can pour pure unadulterated Hell into a hostile fighter strike from far beyond their own attack range. And with deep enough magazines to fire a full thirty salvos—one thousand, four hundred and forty Capital Missiles. With the Vandenberg refitted to serve in this role—as an Anti-Aerospace Destroyer Escort—we can stop dead cold any attempt to engage the Saucy Sam with less than an entire Regiment of Aerospace Fighters!"

Thomas sat back and then he nodded. "Approved. Damn the expense, make it happen, Commander Fletcher." and then he paused. "You said this was one of things you wanted to speak with me about?"

And here, Jack grimaced. "Yes, my Lord Protector," he said quietly. "It is about the HPGs."

"You got them to work—we've got six functioning HPGs in the Concordat and we are operating them . . ." but his voice trailed off as he saw the look on the Commander's face.

"I did, and we do. But in six months we won't have any." the engineer said flatly.

"WHAT?!?" Thomas bellowed.

"I understand the theory behind the HPGs, Protector Thomas," he said quietly, "and I can operate them to some degree. But after looking closely at their components," and he shook his head. "this technology is at least a century beyond me. There are components that the system simply requires to function . . . and I can't for the life of me understand how they were manufactured. Their constituent alloys I have never seen or imagined."

"We can't replicate them?" Thomas asked.

"We can. We will. But it will take decades, Sire." Jack answered.

"But we can run the HPGs until then, right?"

"One of the main components we are looking at has been deliberately designed with a six month life-expectancy, Protector Thomas. Class A stations generally have enough stores on hand to replace those components twice; Class B stations just have one spare for each. And we cannot reproduce those parts. Not now, maybe not for twenty or twenty-five years, once we start heavy research into the materials sciences that were used to build the damn things."

Thomas sat for a moment. "Where does ComStar get the parts?" he asked and he feared that he already knew the answer.

"According to the former ComStar personnel now working for us, the only factory for these components is on Terra, Sire. Nowhere else has the knowledge or facilities to produce these components at this time. I can get all of the HPGs we seized up and running, Sire, but in six months—a year at the outside—they are all going down and I cannot restore them after that. Not without new parts."

"From Comstar," Thomas whispered.

Jack nodded.

Thomas looked over a Henri Jouett, who shrugged. "It was never a sure thing we could run the HPGs . . . and ComStar does insist it wants to start talks," but the look in the spymaster's face said he knew perfectly well—as did Thomas—that ComStar was not to be trusted.

Thomas cursed under his breath and he shook his head. "Doesn't the Data Core contain any information that might help?" he snapped.

Jack started to answer, but Helena put her hand on his shoulder. "Thomas Calderon," she said, "we didn't know everything and we had no idea that what you call the HPG was even possible—it was just something theorized that no one had ever made work. We just don't know enough to make building these parts possible, much less practical, at the current time. Give us ten, fifteen, twenty years? We might. But your communications are going to go down in just one year. At the most. It isn't what you want to hear, Protector, but it is what you need to hear—and to understand. Either we rely on JumpShips as couriers—and we don't have enough to keep them permanently on station in every system—or we agree to start negotiations with ComStar to stop the Interdiction and get them to resume control over the stations."

And she paused. "Of course, we can always insist that they don't have total control." she said with a slight grin.

"What she means, my Protector," added Henri Jouett, "is that after ComStar acted in such bad faith, perhaps they might be persuaded to allow representatives of our government assigned to each HPG station to monitor the official communications of our government that are transmitted."

Thomas frowned. "Would they agree?" he asked.

Henri shrugged. "I have no idea; but we can talk about it with their leadership at the conference they have asked us for . . . if you decide to attend. Otherwise . . .," and Henri shook his head.

"Damn it," muttered Thomas. "Otherwise, we will never get this Interdiction lifted and lose interstellar communications in a matter of months!"

There was silence in the room until Thomas at last looked up Raoul; his brother nodded and then Thomas sighed. "Alright. Henri, let them know we are willing to meet. On one of our worlds, and protected by the best that the TDF has to offer!"

"As you command, my Lord," Henri answered as Thomas stood, followed by everyone in the room.

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