A Call To Arms – Snippet 30

“Understood, Admiral,” Castillo said. “May I also say that congratulations are in order. This is the first time in years that I’ve heard of anyone being actually preauthorized to spend a missile. Even a practice one.”

“I credit the Izbica Incident,” Locatelli said. “I’m expect the Exchequer’s new-found generosity will fade with time. Do you have any questions?”

“No, Sir,” Castillo said. “But I do have a request. One of my junior officers is very good with book learning, but I see a certain disconnect with real-world situations. I’d like your permission to have him on the bridge during the exercise and perhaps let him make a call or two.”

“That’s rather an odd request, Captain,” Locatelli said, a frown in his tone. “This is partly a test of your bridge crew. It’s not going to be very useful in that regard if someone else is giving the orders.”

“If I may respectfully disagree, Admiral, the bridge crew will be functioning exactly as they normally would,” Castillo said. “I’ll be the only one who isn’t being tested. Unless that’s a specific and important part of the exercise, of course.”

“It’s part of the test, but not a vital part,” Locatelli said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be giving you this head’s-up. Rather a deep end of the pool to throw a junior officer into, though. I assume he shows promise?”

“Yes, Sir. If a couple of his rough edges can be knocked off.”

“What’s his name? Do I know him?”

“Only by reputation, Sir.” Castillo’s voice had gone a bit dry. “Lieutenant Travis Uriah Long.”

There was a long, rigid silence. “Lieutenant Long,” Locatelli repeated, his voice studiously casual. “That Lieutenant Long?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“In that case, Captain,” Locatelli said, “by all means, let’s give the young man some real-world experience.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Castillo said. “I think it’ll do him some good.”

“Let’s hope so,” Locatelli said. “Return to your bridge, and let’s make this happen. Invincible out.”

For a moment, the admiral continued to float behind the helm station. Then, giving himself a gentle push, he floated back to Metzger.

“Captain, I understand you once served with Lieutenant Long. Is that correct?”

Metzger braced herself. This had the potential to get very awkward. “Yes, Sir, I did.”

“Is he as big a prig as he seems?”

“He’s very much by-the-book,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “But he also has a great deal of ingenuity and the ability to think outside the lines.”

“Always thinks he’s right, does he?” Locatelli asked. “Thinks he’s got all the answers?”

Metzger frowned. That wasn’t what she’d said. Was that what Locatelli had heard? “I’m not sure I’d put it quite that way, Admiral,” she said.

“Well, we’ll see if he’s as clever as he thinks he is.” Locatelli settled beside Metzger’s station in a posture that suggested he was going to be there awhile. “Prepare to call battlestations. Let’s see how good this new crew of ours is.”

* * *

Travis had finished unsealing one of his boots and was starting on the other one when Fornier, lolling on the top bunk of their tiny cabin, finally emerged far enough from the depths of his tablet to notice he was no longer alone. “There you are,” he commented as he peered over the edge of the bunk. “Bajek have you on extra duty today? Or were you just starting the celebration early?”

“What are we celebrating?” Travis asked.

“Our upcoming R and R, of course,” Fornier said. “Don’t tell me you’re not looking forward to a couple of weeks groundside.”

Travis shrugged. “Depends on if the Number Two autocannon tracking sensor is slated for replacement. If so, yes. If not, not really.”

“Mm,” Fornier said. “At least you’re not blaming Locatelli for that anymore.”

Travis winced. No, he wasn’t blaming the young ensign for the sensors’ foul-up. At least not directly.

“He still should have spotted the problem and either fixed it or reported it.”

“Uh-huh,” Fornier said, an annoyingly knowing tone to his voice. “How many people in your section, Travis?”

“Nine, including me.”

“And how many of them are useless political appointees like Locatelli?”

Travis made a face. It wasn’t hard to see where Fornier was going with this. “Maybe two.”

“Maybe two,” Fornier repeated. “So let’s call it one and a half. One and a half out of eight — make it nine, since you’re not political and I assume you consider yourself non-useless. That comes to about seventeen percent. All things considered, that’s really not all that bad.”

“I suppose not,” Travis conceded. Though Fornier was conveniently ignoring the fact that the political problem seemed to get worse the higher up the food chain you traveled. With Breakwater’s faction still pushing to defund and dismantle the Navy, the political animals who’d joined for the honor and glory were scrambling to claw their way up the ladder to the coveted command ranks before the rug was pulled out from under them.

Maybe King Edward would turn that around. Certainly his “refit and recruit” program was showing progress. Having the battlecruisers Swiftsure and Victory back in service was certainly a good sign.

But Travis had seen other such efforts fizzle out over the years. He wasn’t really expecting this one to do any better.

And in the meantime, there were way more earls and barons in the command structure than anyone needed.

Maybe that was the end vector of all armed forces during protracted peacetime. Maybe the trend always drifted toward the political appointees, and the people who couldn’t figure out what else to do, and the coasters who figured such service would be an easy and comfortable way to wander their way through life. Maybe the only way that ever turned around was if there was a war.

Still, much as it might be interesting to see how those three groups handled a sudden bout of real combat, Travis certainly didn’t wish a war on the Star Kingdom. Or on anyone else, for that matter.

“Trust me, it’s not bad,” Fornier said dryly. “Certainly isn’t a travesty or anything.”

Travis glared up at him. “Not you, too,” he growled.

“Sorry,” Fornier said, not quite suppressing a grin. “It just suits you so well, that’s all. How in the world did you pick up a signature phrase like that, anyway?”

“It’s a long story,” Travis said, returning his attention to his boots.

“Okay, fine — don’t tell me,” Fornier said equably. “But seriously, take it from someone who did two years in retail before joining up. You keep track of every vendor, tradesman, bureaucrat, and official you meet during your two weeks groundside. I’ll bet you a hundred that you’ll find way more than seventeen percent who are jerks –”

Abruptly, the heart-stopping wail of the ship’s klaxons erupted all around them. There were two seconds of full volume, and then the cacophony abruptly dropped to a relative whisper. “General quarters, General Quarters!” the voice of Commander Sladek came sharply over the alarm. “Set Condition Two throughout the ship. Repeat: set Condition Two!”

There was a thud as Fornier hopped off his bunk and landed on the deck. Travis was already at the emergency locker; pulling out the vac suits, he tossed Fornier’s to him and started climbing into his own. “Hell of a time for a drill,” Fornier said with a grunt.

“If it is a drill,” Travis warned.

“Sladek didn’t say it wasn’t.”

“He also didn’t say it was,” Travis countered. “Either way, Bajek will skin us alive if we’re late, so move it.”

Four of Travis’s eight men and women were ready at their combat stations when he arrived. Ensign Locatelli, he noted darkly, wasn’t one of them.

“Diagnostics?” he asked, floating over to them in the zero-gee of the ship’s bow.

“In progress,” Beam Weapon Tech Second Tomasello confirmed. “Number Two’s trackers are still coming up twitchy –”

“Long!” Bajek’s voice boomed through the cramped space. “Lieutenant Long?”

“Here, Ma’am,” Travis said, moving out from the partial concealment of a thick coolant pipe.

“Captain wants you on the bridge,” Bajek said shortly.

Travis felt his eyes widen. “The bridge, Ma’am?”

“The bridge,” Bajek confirmed tartly. “I’m taking over here.”

She fixed him with a dark look.

“And move it,” she added. “The Captain doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”