A Call To Arms – Snippet 04


Commander Shiflett, in her infinite wisdom, had decreed that the men and women of HMS Damocles should start the day after their first-night bash on Casca with some exercise on the streets of Quechua City.

The Royal Manticoran Navy, in its infinite wisdom, had decreed that such workouts should be administered by the ship’s petty officers.

Chomps didn’t mind. He’d learned long ago to moderate his partying, especially when under the shadow of an early-morning order like this. Besides, after being cooped up aboard ship for two months, the chance to get out and stretch his legs was an appealing one.

Sadly, not all of Damocles’s crew had his foresight or self-control. Of the five men and three woman he’d been assigned to flog a few times around the block, fully half of them were sagging like wet noodles. The other half were vertical enough, but clearly less than thrilled at the prospect of sampling any world beyond their own eyelids.

But the XO had ordered sweat, and she was going to get it. Lining them up, making sure to point out that EW Tech Redko’s squad was already half a block ahead of them, Chomps verbally kicked them off the curb.

And off they went on a glorious two-klick run together in the early-morning cool.

They’d gone three blocks when Chomps heard the sound.

The sounds, rather. There were two of them, a sort of thump-thump. Not very loud. Certainly not very clear.

But there was something about them that sent a sudden shiver up his back.

“Hold it,” he ordered his squad, looking around. Peripherally, he noted that Redko had also brought his squad to a halt and was also looking around. “Hey — Redko. You hear that?” he called, jogging up to his friend.

“Yeah, I heard it,” Redko said as Chomps stopped beside him. “Don’t know what it was, but I heard it.”

“Sounded like shots,” Chomps said.

“I don’t know,” Redko said, his forehead creasing in a frown. “They sounded to me like…I don’t know. Just out of place. What do you think we should do?”

“Call it in,” Chomps said, raising his arm and punching the uni-link on his wrist out of standby mode. The pre-landing info packet had included the local three-digit emergency code. He punched it in, trying to organize his thoughts —

“Emergency,” a brisk voice came back.

“I think I just heard a pair of gunshots,” Chomps said. “I’m at the corner of –”

“Identify yourself.”

Chomps took a deep breath. In the Star Kingdom, the identity of the uni-link’s owner came up automatically when Emergency Services was called. Apparently, whoever had set up the connections for the Manticorans’ visit hadn’t gotten around to that part yet. “This is Missile Tech Charles Townsend of the Royal Manticoran Navy,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. For all he knew, someone could be bleeding out right now. “I’m at the corner of Barclay Street and Marsala Avenue. You need me to repeat that?”

“No, I got it,” the dispatcher said. Some of the snap, Chomps noticed, seemed to have gone out of his voice. “Gunshots, you say?”

“That’s what it sounded like, yes,” Chomps confirmed. “Probably inside one of the buildings or parking garages — they weren’t very loud. There was a sort of echo to them, too, like they were coming out an open door or –”

“Yeah, got it,” the dispatcher cut him off. “Okay, thanks. We’ll get someone over there as soon as we can.”

There was a click, and the connection went dead.

“Well, hell,” Chomps growled, punching out of the connection and glaring at the uni-link for a moment before dropping his arm back to his side. “That was a whole lot of nothing.”

“What did he say?” Redko asked.

“That he’ll send someone,” Chomps said. “But he won’t. Or at least they won’t break any speed records.” He nodded at the handful of citizens in view, none of whom was showing the slightest reaction to the sounds he and Redko had heard. “Not surprising, I suppose, given that no one else seems to have heard anything. He probably figures it was a figment of the crazy foreigner’s imagination.”

“Do you want to call it in to the Lieutenant?” Redko asked, his tone strongly suggesting that Chomps shouldn’t.

Chomps couldn’t blame him. Redko clearly wasn’t as bothered by the sounds as Chomps was, and he wasn’t interested in collecting the fallout of waking up an officer to tell him they’d heard some bouncing garbage cans or something.

And given the lack of alarm anywhere on the street, Chomps had to admit the odds were against his interpretation of events.

But the odds didn’t matter. He knew what he’d heard.

“Let’s take a quick look around first,” he told Redko, glancing over their two squads. Nine in his group, eight in Redko’s. “You and your squad head around that way. Split into pairs and look for anything suspicious. My squad will take those streets and buildings over there.”

“Okay,” Redko said, a little doubtfully. “How long do we give it?”

“Ten minutes,” Chomps said, making a quick command decision. He glanced at the two groups’ trim running outfits, noting with annoyance that no one except the two petty officers had bothered to bring their uni-links along. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a problem. Today, it might. “Pick a spot for your squad to rendezvous, compare notes, then call me.”

“Okay,” Redko said. “You heard the man, Spacers. We meet back here in ten.”

Chomps gestured to his squad. “We’ll meet at that corner,” he said, pointing to an intersection a block further toward their designated search area. “Spread out and keep your eyes open. And watch each other’s backs.”

Ninety seconds later, with the rest of his squad having peeled off, Chomps was alone, jogging down the street and wondering distantly what the Bosun was going to say about this. Not to mention what Lieutenant Nikkelsen, Commander Shiflett, and possibly Captain Marcello himself would say.

At least he’d put the others in pairs, which was shipboard SOP in any kind of potentially dangerous situation. Still, the fact that he himself was now alone was probably not the smartest thing he’d ever done. Sphinxian strength and Navy combat training were a great combination, especially in Casca’s .93 G field, but they didn’t confer any special bullet-dodging powers. He would have to make an extra effort to watch his rear.

Around him, the city was starting to wake up, and a few more pedestrians and vehicles were making their appearance. A block ahead on the other side of the street was a line of three apartment buildings, each with a vehicle-sized opening that probably led to an underground parking garage. If he’d been right about hearing an echo in the gunshots, those would be good candidates for a quick look. Ahead was a crosswalk; turning into it, Chomps crossed the street.

A dark-haired man just passing on the opposite sidewalk looked over as Chomps neared him, his eyes flicking up and down the big Sphinxian’s body. It was a common reaction among the Cascans, Chomps had already noted, and he gave the man a reassuring smile as he approached. The man smiled back and continued on his way. Chomps reached the sidewalk and turned the opposite direction toward the apartment buildings.

He’d gone four steps when a sudden thunderflash seemed to light up his brain. The man’s smile…

He jerked to a halt, spinning around and staring at the man’s back. Right height, right build, wrong hair, wrong face —

“Sir?” he called.

The man took another step, then paused and turned. “You talking to me?” he called back.

“Yes, sir,” Chomps said. “I’m looking for the Manderlay Arms Apartments, and I can’t find it in any directory. Can you point me the right direction?”

“Sorry,” the man said. “I don’t think I know the place.”

“No problem,” Chomps said, smiling. “Thanks anyway.”

The man smiled back, and turned around and continued on his way.

Chomps turned back, too, a mass of ice settling around his heart. No mistake. The smile that he would never forget he’d now seen again. Twice.

The dark-haired man was the murderer from the Havenite recording.

He kept going, knowing better than to try to engage the man a second time, certainly not without a better excuse, definitely not alone. Lifting his arm, he punched Redko’s number into his uni-link.

“Find something?” the other’s voice came back.

“Maybe,” Chomps said. “Can you see me? No — never mind me. Can you see the man heading west on Barclay Street? Short, dark-haired, wearing a gray suit?”

“Uh…yes, I see him.”

“I need you to take a picture of him,” Chomps said. “Do you think you can do that without being spotted?”

“Sure,” Redko said. “Who is he?”

“I think he’s the murderer from the Havenite recording,” Chomps said, eyeing the parking ramps ahead. An enclosed van had pulled up beside the first of the openings and a group of men in workman coveralls were filing out. “And don’t get too close.”

“Okay,” Redko said. “You want me to try calling the cops again?”