A Call To Arms – Snippet 28


“Lieutenant. Long?” the gruff voice echoed down the passageway of HMS Phoenix. “Sir?”

Travis came to a reluctant halt, taking the calming breath he’d taught himself to do at times like this. Senior Chief Osterman was a major pain in the butt, on a ship much of whose officer corps and enlisted personnel seemed to take a special pleasure these days in competing for honors in that position.

“Yes, Senior Chief?” he replied, catching one of the passageway handholds and bringing himself to a floating stop.

Osterman was about twenty meters away, moving from handhold to handhold toward him, deftly avoiding collisions with the other crew members also moving through the narrow space. Phoenix had its share of first-tour crewmembers bumbling awkwardly in the zero-gee, but long-time veterans like Osterman made it look quick and efficient.

At the moment, though, Osterman didn’t seem to be putting much effort into the quick part of that solution. In fact, now that Travis had stopped she seemed to be taking her time closing the rest of the gap between them. Travis waited, cultivating his patience and resisting the urge to order her to snap it up. He’d been on the other side of the line once, back when he was enlisted, and remembered all too well what it was like to have officers barking at you.

Finally, after a few seconds, and in her own sweet time, Osterman reached him. “I just wanted you to know, Sir,” she said in a voice that skated the same not-quite-insubordinate line, “that Captain Castillo wants to see you.”

Travis frowned, glancing at his uni-link to make sure it was active. It was. “I haven’t heard any such orders.”

“That’s because he doesn’t know it yet, Sir,” she said calmly. “But I guarantee he’s going to.”

So even Osterman’s department had heard. “Ensign Locatelli brought it on himself,” Travis said firmly.

Or tried to say it firmly. Even in his own ears the edge of defensiveness was painfully obvious.

Apparently, it was obvious to Osterman, too. “It was one of three separate tracking sensors,” she reminded him. “The next shift’s diagnostic run would have spotted it in a minute.”

“That diagnostic run was two hours away,” Travis countered. “What would have happened if you’d had to fire one of your autocannon sometime during those two hours?”

Osterman raised her eyebrows. “At…?”

“At whatever Captain Castillo decided needed shooting.”

Osterman’s expression was worse than any raised eyebrows could have been. And, to be honest, Travis couldn’t blame her.

Because, really, there wasn’t anything out there for Phoenix to shoot at. There were no invaders, no enemies — foreign or domestic — and the last boogieman who’d shown himself around these parts had vanished into the stardust nearly a century ago. There were supposedly pirates out there, but aside from the incident at Secour nine T-years ago none of them had so much as shown their noses.

There was the so-called “Izbica Incident” a couple of months ago, which the local newsfeeds and ‘faxes had had a field day with. But the truth was that the freighter’s theft had been more along the lines of a hijacking than genuine ship-to-ship piracy. As far as any sort of outside incursion went, Manticoran space was about as secure as it was possible to be, and everyone knew it.

Still, what had happened to the Izbica ought to serve as a wake-up call for everyone involved. If one ship could be hijacked in the Star Kingdom’s space, so could a second…and the only thing standing in the way of such a recurrence was a Navy staffed with competent people and equipped with fully functioning systems. If anyone could understand that, it really ought to be Osterman.

Besides, men and women who wore the RMN uniform were supposed to care about their jobs.

Osterman might have been reading his mind. “And you think you’re the only one who’s getting it right, Sir?” she asked politely.

“No, of course not,” Travis muttered. “But…”

He was saved by the twittering of his uni-link. He keyed it and raised it to his lips. “Long,” he said briskly.

“Bajek,” the voice of Phoenix’s Weapons Officer came from the speaker. “Report to the Captain’s office immediately.”

Travis swallowed. “Aye, aye, Ma’am.”

“Commander Bajek?” Osterman asked knowingly as he keyed off.

“Yes,” Travis said sourly. Was the smug Chief always right? “Carry on.” Turning in the zero-gee, he gave his handhold a tug and once again launched himself down the passageway.

“Learn to play the game, Lieutenant,” Osterman called quietly after him.

Travis glowered. Play the game. It was the same advice everyone else in the universe seemed ready and eager to give him. Learn to play the game. Never mind whether the game was good or bad or clean or rigged. Learn to play the game.

Like hell he would.

* * *

Osterman watched Long go, not sure whether to be angry, frustrated, or sympathetic.

With a Senior Chief’s ability to walk the balance bar between officers and enlisted, she decided to go with a combination of all three.

Long was a decent officer — no doubt about that. He had the knowledge and the ability, and he knew regulations like nobody’s business.

But he needed to learn how to choose his battles and his opponents. Ensign Locatelli, for all the alluring fatness of the target, wasn’t one of them. Which Long was presumably about to find out.

He also needed to learn how to understand people. He’d been radiating annoyance like a reactor exchange coil as she worked her way toward him down the passageway, clearly assuming she was dawdling specifically to exasperate him. Apparently, it had never even occurred to him that she was timing her approach to let everyone else clear the space so that the two of them would be alone when she delivered her unpleasant news.

That was a blindspot she wouldn’t have expected from someone with his prior enlisted experience. Obviously, he wasn’t what her father used to describe as “a people person.”

In some ways, that was probably a good thing. Osterman had a high regard for officers who actually tried to do their jobs rather than letting things slide. But there was a balance required, and Long tended to be as subtle as a hammer when it came to accomplishing that. He seemed more tone deaf than most where other human beings were involved.

Even worse, he seemed completely oblivious to the way certain family connections were affecting his own position. Chancellor Breakwater’s successful extraction of two of the Navy’s corvettes for MPARS hadn’t sat well with anyone in the RMN, and the fact that five more were slated to follow sat even more poorly. Phoenix’s officers and crew were no exception to that reaction, and the fact that Long’s half-brother was one of Breakwater’s staunchest allies had resulted in a noticeable cooling in overall attitude toward the young lieutenant.

But unlike everyone else aboard, Long didn’t seem to have made that connection.

Of course, the true irony here, though Long would never know it, was that his insistence on Locatelli keeping all three tracking systems up and running was exactly the same attitude that had gotten the Ensign himself into trouble back on Salamander.

With a sigh, Osterman twisted herself around and headed back toward her duty station. Long was terrific at reading the lines of manuals and regs and orders.

Now, he needed to learn how to read between them.

* * *

The lift ride through Phoenix’s spin section, as usual, was more than a little unpleasant, the rapid shift in effective gravity triggering Travis’s sensitive inner ear. He kept his eyes straight ahead during the trip, thinking evil thoughts about whichever law of physics allowed stress bands that could create and mold huge gravitational fields, and compensators that could zero-out more than two hundred gees, but were only just now figuring out how to get a measly one gee pointed toward a warship’s decks. Having a half-gee rotating section to live in was better than having to eat and sleep in weightlessness, but floating around the main duty stations like air-breathing fish was a royal pain in the butt.