A Call To Arms – Snippet 23

“So noted,” Fairburn said, an eerie feeling creeping along his spine. He’d read this order when it first came out five T-years ago, and remembered feeling the same black cynicism that probably every other officer in the Navy had felt at the time. Here and now, though, the words didn’t sound nearly so ridiculous. “For the record, I note in turn that I am consulting Executive Officer Commander Todd and Tactical Officer Lieutenant Commander Ravel. Have either of you anything to say?”

Todd and Ravel exchanged looks. Neither seemed exactly thrilled at the plan, Fairburn could see. But neither did they want to go down in Star Kingdom history as the ones who’d ruined the Navy’s first chance to finally nab a real pirate.

“I agree with Captain Fairburn’s assessment of the situation,” Todd said formally. “The circumstances justify the expenditure of a missile.”

“I also agree,” Ravel said.

“So noted and logged,” Fairburn said. And thanked God that Breakwater hadn’t added language that would have required them to ask his personal permission to do their damn jobs. “Weapons Officer, prep me a missile. TO, plot me a warning shot.

“Let’s take these bastards down.”

* * *

The last board was half reassembled, and Grimm was starting to breathe a little easier, when a sudden curse came from the intercom. “Grimm — they’ve launched on us,” Merripen bit out.

Grimm felt his heart skip a beat. “You mean a missile? They’ve launched a missile?”

“No, a cupcake,” Merripen snarled. “Yes, a damn missile. What the hell do I do?”

“You start by not panicking,” Grimm said, thinking fast. Unless the destroyer had increased its acceleration significantly — and Bettor had given Merripen strict orders to watch for that when the latter took over bridge duty — they still had several minutes before even a fast-track missile could reach them. “You’ll want to do a pitch, either up or down. Twenty degrees ought to be enough. Can you do that?”

“Yeah, sure, I can do that,” Merripen said. “But if I do, I won’t be able to see the Salamander anymore.”

Grimm frowned. That side effect of the maneuver hadn’t occurred to him. But Merripen was right. Blocking the incoming missile’s path with the floor of the Izbica’s wedge would also block their view of the Salamander.

Could that be exactly what Captain Fairburn was going for? To force the Izbica to lose track of it while it –?

While it what? Fired another missile, this one angled and arcing to run straight up the Izbica’s kilt? Or kicked up to a pursuit acceleration that was far greater than its listed limits?

Both scenarios were damn unlikely. But neither was completely out of the question.

But Grimm and the others had no choice. There was a missile incoming, and no matter what Fairburn had planned for after that, it would all be irrelevant if the missile blew the Izbica to atoms.

“Just do it,” he growled toward the intercom.

“Fine,” Merripen growled back. “You just get that interface the hell back together, okay? Suddenly, this isn’t looking like such a good neighborhood.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Grimm said, feeling fresh sweat working its way onto his skin. “Working on it.

* * *

The missile had been launched, Salamander had cut her acceleration long enough for the solid booster to get the weapon clear enough of the ship, and as the missile’s wedge came up Salamander resumed her own acceleration.

“They did it,” Forward Gunnery Officer Lieutenant (jg) Pascal Navarre murmured from behind Osterman. “They really did it.”

Osterman nodded silently. Captain Fairburn had actually fired one of Salamander’s missiles.

Or rather, Salamander’s senior officers had launched it. She’d seen that ridiculous committee order when it first came down, requiring a vote of the senior officers before a ship’s captain could spend any of the Navy’s precious ordnance.

Clearly, all of those officers had agreed.

What the hell was going on out here?

Osterman hadn’t the faintest idea. But given the situation, maybe Ensign Locatelli’s loud insistence that all three of his tracking systems be functional might not have been such a stupid order, after all.

An instant later, a dull thud sounded faintly in the distance.

And the telemetry section of the status board went solid red.

“Telemetry,” Navarre snapped unnecessarily. “Damn. Crash kit?”

“Probably not,” Osterman said, grabbing a handhold and pulling herself into the passageway. “I’ll get the one from Autocannon.”

“No — I’ll get it,” Navarre said. “You get to telemetry.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” Osterman said. Leaning into the handhold and her own inertia, she changed direction and headed toward the telemetry compartment.

She had the face off the main panel when the sound of someone tumbling through the hatchway came from behind her. “Report,” Ensign Locatelli ordered tartly.

“Telemetry is down, Sir,” Osterman said, her teeth clenching around the last word as she spotted the problem. “Looks like a hex blew.”

She spared a glance at him as she shoved off the deck toward the crash kit. But there was no recognition of reality in Locatelli’s eyes, no connecting of the blatantly obvious dots. All he saw was a dead component, and a job for his senior chief petty officer. “Then we’d better replace it, hadn’t we?” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” Osterman said, consciously unclenching her teeth. This was no time for revelations or recriminations. One of Salamander’s missiles was running free, and with the telemetry system crashed there was no way for anyone to guide or otherwise control it. All the missile had right now was its own internal hunting programming, and that might not be the proper setup for whatever Fairburn had in mind. “Can you get the face off the aux panel, Sir?” she called back over her shoulder.

At least Locatelli knew how to move when he needed to. By the time Osterman got back with the crash kit he had pulled off the auxiliary panel’s face and set it out of the way. Osterman braked to a halt with her feet against the supports and popped open the kit.

Crash kits were supposed to be the emergency supply boxes, theoretically holding a spare or two of all the major components for a given electronics or hydraulics system. Unfortunately, they were as subject to pilferage as all the rest of the ship’s equipment. As Osterman had predicted to Navarre, the telemetry crash kit was woefully incomplete, with barely a third of its untouchable contents having actually remained untouched.

Among the missing items, of course, were the two hexes that were supposed to be there.

“Damn,” Locatelli growled as he peered into the box. “Now what?”

“We first get the bad one out,” Osterman said, grabbing the eight-mil wrench from the tool tack strip and getting to work on the hex. “The Lieutenant’s getting the crash kit from Autocannon. Maybe it’ll have a hex.”

“If it doesn’t?”

“Then you’d better have Carpenter pull the one he stole for your Number Three tracking system, hadn’t you?” Osterman countered. It wasn’t the smartest thing a petty officer could say to an officer, but she wasn’t much in the mood for tact right now.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Locatelli shot back. “My people don’t steal equipment. They get it from Stores, and through proper channels.”

Osterman felt her teeth clenching up again. Either the man was as dumb as paint, or he was deliberately turning a blind eye to the inevitable consequences of his or-else orders. “Unless Stores doesn’t have what’s needed,” she said. “In which case –”

She broke off as Navarre came caroming in off the edge of the hatchway. “Got it,” he puffed. “What do you need?”

“A hex,” Osterman told him, mentally crossing her fingers.

Crossing them uselessly. There were no hexes in Navarre’s kit.

“Now what?” Locatelli demanded.

Dumb as paint. Leaning past him, Osterman jabbed the intercom.

“Forward Tracking; Telemetry,” she called. “Osterman. Shut down one of your tracking systems, pull out a hex, and bring it to me here.”

“What?” Locatelli said. “Wait –”

“Meanwhile, Sir,” Osterman put in as she cut off the intercom, “may I suggest you and Lieutenant Navarre start calling the other stations nearby and see if any of them has a crash kit with a spare hex.”

“Senior Chief — ” Locatelli began, his voice dropping into Authority Zone.

“Good idea, Senior Chief,” Navarre interrupted. “Ensign, you start with Electronic Warfare and Sensors — use the intercom in the next compartment. I’ll call Gravitics and Forward Impellers from here.”

“Sir — ”

“Move it, Locatelli.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Osterman saw Locatelli throw a glare in her direction. But he merely nodded and swam his way out the hatchway.

“Thank you, Sir,” Osterman murmured.

“Just doing my job,” Navarre rumbled, moving over to the intercom. “Meanwhile, better make sure the hex didn’t cascade anything else when it died.”

“Already on it.”

* * *

The seconds crept by. Slowly, they turned into a full minute.

And the missile was still rogue.

Fairburn consciously forced open his hands, which had somehow closed themselves into fists when he wasn’t watching. A rogue missile might not be a commander’s worst fear, but it was pretty damn high on the list.

And still the missile flew. How long did it take to repair a damn telemetry transmitter, anyway?

“Tracking reports missile still on kill course, Sir,” Ravel said tautly.

Fairburn’s hands again closed into fists. Kill course. Not the overshoot-and-explode in the wide open area in front of Izbica that he’d planned for it. With its telemetry link to Salamander gone, the missile had shifted to internal guidance.

And the default programming was to go for the kill.

Whether the missile would be able to carry out its new goal was still in question, of course. At its current flight angle, Izbica’s floor was blocking a direct intersect vector, and as the missile gained speed it progressively lost its already limited maneuverability. At this point it really had only three possibilities: impact on Izbica’s floor, make it past the edge of the floor and impact on the roof, or split the difference and detonate during the split-second it was between the two stress bands.

The first two scenarios would accomplish nothing except the waste of the missile itself. The third would probably vaporize the freighter.