A Call To Arms – Snippet 22


Readiness Two.

The words echoed through Osterman’s mind as she carefully slid her rebuilt circuit board back into the Forward Missile capacitor-charging monitor. Captain Fairburn hadn’t bothered to explain what was going on, and Osterman suspected most of the crew thought it was just part of the training exercise.

But all her years in the Navy had honed Osterman’s instincts into fine-tuned sensors in their own right. She could feel the subtle tension in the air, the slight edge in the sporadic orders and communications emanating from the bridge.

Something was definitely going on.

But what? A rescue mission? An attack on the Star Kingdom?


Readiness Two.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a figure float swiftly past the compartment doorway. She glanced over just in time to see that he was carrying something fist-sized in his hand. An electronic module, her brain automatically identified it, probably a hex.

Which in itself wasn’t unusual. Ever since general quarters had been called officers, petty officers, and spacers had been scrambling like mad to get half-working systems up to full operating capacity. Forward Weapons was no exception, and Osterman had nearly been mowed down at least twice by spacers maneuvering racks and large components through the zero-gee at unsafe speeds.

What made this current sighting odd was that there were no storerooms or component bins in the direction the spacer had come from.

Which strongly implied that the hex clutched in the spacer’s hand had been borrowed from somewhere else.

Osterman had pushed her way out of the compartment and sent herself flying down the passageway almost before the analysis had fully worked its way through her brain. Midnight requisitions were hardly unheard of aboard Salamander — indeed, they were depressingly common, given the chronic shortage of equipment. But there was a big difference between borrowing from a secondary system and from a vital one. Wherever the spacer was going with that hex, she was damn well going to find out where he’d gotten it.

She caught up with him two turns later, and to her complete lack of surprise saw that it was Spacer First Class Hugo Carpenter. “Hold it,” she called as she hurried to catch up. “Carpenter? I said hold it.”

For that first second it had looked like he might try to ignore the order and make a break for it. But the use of his name had apparently convinced him that running would be both useless and foolish. Catching hold of a handhold, he brought himself to a clearly reluctant halt.

“Yes, Senior Chief?” he greeted her carefully as he turned around, pressing the hex close to his side. Maybe he was hoping she wouldn’t notice it there.

Fat chance. Even on a ship full of scavengers, Carpenter was something of a legend among the petty officers.

“Something seems to have attached itself to your hand,” Osterman said. “I thought you might need help getting it removed.”

The majority of people didn’t blush in zero-gee. Unfortunately for Carpenter, he wasn’t one of them.

“Uh…” he stalled, his face reddening.

“Come on, we don’t have time for this,” Osterman growled, gesturing to the hex. “Where’d you get it?”

Carpenter sighed.

“Ensign Locatelli ordered us to get the tracking sensors up and running,” he said, reluctantly holding up the hex.

“What, all three systems?” Osterman asked, frowning. One of His Majesty’s ships these days was lucky if it had even two of the tracking systems running. Most of the time they had to make do with one.

“All three,” Carpenter confirmed, giving her a wan smile. “He said he didn’t care how we pulled it off, but that by God we would.”

Osterman suppressed a scowl. That sounded like Locatelli, all right. Still trying to wield the kind of authority he wasn’t even close to actually possessing.

“Where’d you get it?” she asked.

“The laser temperature sensor,” Carpenter said. “I figured that since the system has been down for weeks, and these components were just sitting there –”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Osterman interrupted, plucking the hex out of his hand. With the lack of a functioning x-ray emitter having put the beam weapon semi-permanently out of commission, the rest of its associated equipment had become a sort of happy hunting ground for Salamander’s scroungers.

And indeed, Carpenter’s hex looked damn near fresh out of the box. There were no kluges, no rebuilds, and only a couple of casing scratches around the mounting bolts where careless techs had missed the mark with their screwdrivers. Definitely a component that hadn’t seen much use.

“You put your old hex in its place, I assume?”

“Yes, Senior Chief,” Carpenter said. “Ours wasn’t broken, exactly, just a little iffy, and I wasn’t sure it would hold up to one of Ensign Locatelli’s one-ten tests. If it didn’t — well, you know what he’s like.”

“Not sure I like your tone, Spacer,” Osterman warned. “That’s an officer you’re talking about.”

“Sorry, Senior Chief.”

Osterman grunted. Tone notwithstanding, Carpenter had a point. Locatelli the Younger was famous for pushing people and equipment past their limits, and had little patience when the results didn’t match up with his expectations.

In a navy with infinite money and resources, pushing components to a hundred and ten percent of their normal operating ceilings was a good way to weed out those that might fail under the added duress of combat. In a navy with extremely finite quantities of both, that kind of limit-pushing was just begging for trouble.

But nobody could tell Locatelli anything. More depressingly, nobody would tell him anything. Not with the shadow of his powerful uncle looming over him.

Still, this kind of poaching wasn’t something a senior chief ought to turn a blind eye to. Osterman was trying to decide whether to simply tell Carpenter to return the hex, or to take the time to accompany him to the beam monitor compartment to make sure he did it, when the ship’s klaxons abruptly began wailing. “Battlestations! Battlestations! All hands to battlestations. Set Condition One throughout the ship.”

Osterman swore under her breath. Battle stations. Whatever the hell was going on out there, it had just gotten real.

“Here,” she said, thrusting the hex back into Carpenter’s hands. “Get the tracker back together before Locatelli skins you alive.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said tensely. Shoving off the handhold, banging his shoulder against the bulkhead in his haste, he headed back toward Forward Missiles.

And in the meantime, Osterman still had the rest of the capacitor-charging system to double-check. Shoving herself the opposite direction, she flew down the passageway.

Wondering what the hell Captain Fairburn was up to.

* * *

“I’m sorry, Sir,” Ravel said. “Even if Captain Shresthra was telling the truth about the hyperdrive interface being disassembled, there’s just no way to know how disassembled it was when this Grimm character took over. And without that data, there’s no way to know when Izbica will be ready to translate.”

Fairburn glared at the gravitics display. Izbica was still far ahead, with the TO still putting their zero-zero rendezvous half an hour away.

And that assumed the freighter didn’t increase her acceleration again. Salamander was already pulling more gees than Fairburn liked, and he really didn’t want to push his compensator any further than he already was.

Besides, for all they knew, Izbica’s hyperdrive might already be ready to spin up. Grimm could be one of those sadistic SOBs who would let Salamander get almost in reach before making his move.

In theory, assuming Salamander made it far enough outside the hyper limit, Fairburn could follow the target into hyperspace. But Salamander was still close enough to the edge to make that a bit risky. If Izbica got even a minute’s head start, all Fairburn would have to show for his trouble would be a single sarcastic communication, some useless sensor readings, and a double handful of nothing.

And Chancellor Breakwater and his allies would continue their campaign of scorn and contempt for the Navy.

Fairburn couldn’t let that happen. Not now. Not when Salamander was so close.

Not when there might be a way to make sure that pirate ship stayed put.

“TO, what’s our range and position vis-à-vis a missile launch?” he asked.

Even without looking, he could sense the sudden tension on the bridge. “Excuse me, Sir?” Ravel asked carefully.

“Relax — I’m not planning to shoot her out of the sky,” Fairburn said, swiveling to face her. Ravel’s expression was just as rigid as her voice. “What I want is to send a missile past her wedge, detonating the warhead in front of her. Close enough for the blast to cause some damage to sensors, maybe glitch the hyperdrive or impellers if we’re lucky, but far enough away not to instantly vaporize her. Can you set up a shot like that?”

“Yes, Sir, I think so,” Ravel said, her voice going even more stiff and formal. “But even with close-control telemetry I can’t guarantee the blast will damage Izbica enough to disable her. If the error’s on the other end, it may destroy her outright.”

“Understood,” Fairburn said. “But actually disabling her may not be necessary. Once we’ve proven we have the will and the ability to destroy her, Grimm may be more willing to surrender.”

“That may be, Sir,” Todd spoke up, his expression and tone as formal as the TO’s. “For the record, Sir, I’m obliged to remind you that a missile is an expensive and valuable part of the Star Kingdom’s arsenal. To spend one on what is little more than a warning shot could be construed as wasteful.”

And Breakwater would indeed construe it that way, Fairburn knew. Firing a missile at Izbica would be a huge gamble, on several levels.

“I must also remind you, on the record,” Todd continued, “that standing orders require that all expenditures of missiles and other restricted ordnance be fully justified by the situation, and can only be done in consultation with the Executive and Tactical Officers.”