A Call To Arms – Snippet 31


“Yes, Ma’am,” Travis said, his pulse suddenly pounding.

Maneuvering past her, he pulled his way down the passageway and headed toward the bridge, a sinking feeling joining the resident tension already in his stomach. He had no idea what he’d done now, but for Castillo to be bothering with him at a time like this it must have been something big.

Like the other officers aboard Phoenix, Travis had been part of the bridge watch rotation ever since the early days of his assignment. But he’d never seen it during combat conditions, and the first thing that struck him as he maneuvered through the hatch was how calm everyone seemed to be. The voices giving orders and reports were terse, but they were clear and well controlled. Captain Castillo was strapped into his station, his eyes moving methodically between the various displays, while Commander Sladek held position at his side, the two of them occasionally murmuring comments back and forth. All of the monitors were live, showing the ship’s position, vector, and acceleration, as well as the status of the two forward missile launchers, the spinal laser, and the three autocannon defense systems.

In the center of the main tactical display was the approaching enemy.

It was a warship, all right. The signature of the wedge made that clear right from the outset. It was pulling a hundred twenty gees, which didn’t tell Travis much — virtually any warship could handle that kind of acceleration, and most could do considerably better. The range marker put it just under four hundred thousand kilometers out, a little over twelve minutes away on their current closing vector.

His first reaction was one of relief. There was no way a warship could sneak up that close without Phoenix’s sensors picking it up. Fornier had been right: this was indeed a drill.

But what kind of drill required Travis to be hauled away from his station onto the bridge? Was Castillo testing Bajek’s ability to run Forward Weapons? That seemed ridiculous.

“Analysis, Mr. Long?”

Travis snapped his attention back. Castillo and Sladek had finished their quiet conversation, and both men were gazing straight at him.

Travis swallowed hard. What were they asking him for? “It’s definitely a warship, Sir,” he said, trying frantically to unfreeze his brain as he looked around the multitude of displays. CIC should have spit out a data compilation and probably even an identification by now, but the screen was still showing nothing except the preliminary collection run-through. Probably another of Phoenix’s chronic sensor glitches. “But it’s not being overly aggressive,” he continued, trying to buy himself some time. “The hundred twenty gees it’s pulling is probably around seventy percent of its standard acceleration capability.”

“So far, there’s been no response to our hail,” Sladek said. “How would you proceed?”

And then, to Travis’s relief, the sensor ID screen finally came to life. The approaching ship was indeed one of theirs, a Triumph-class battlecruiser. Specifically, it was HMS Invincible, flagship of the Green One task force.

He had a fraction of a second of fresh relief at the confirmation that this was, indeed, just a drill. An instant later, a violent wave of fresh tension flooded in on him.

Green One was commanded by Admiral Carlton Locatelli. Uncle of Ensign Fenton Locatelli. The junior officer Travis was continually having to write up.

And here Travis was on Phoenix’s bridge, being asked advice by his captain while Locatelli charged into simulated battle.

What the hell was going on?

“Mr. Long?” Castillo prompted.

With a supreme effort, Travis forced his brain back to the situation. “Do we know if she’s alone?” he asked, again looking around the bridge. Everything he could see indicated Invincible was the only vessel out there, but he wasn’t quite ready to trust his reading of the relevant displays.

“Confirmed,” Sladek said. “There’s nothing else within range –”

“Missile trace!” someone barked.

Travis snapped his gaze around to the tactical. Invincible was actually firing a missile?

A practice missile, obviously, without a warhead. But even so, it was unprecedented to use one in an exercise.

Or, for that matter, to use one at any time, for any reason. Captain Davison had refused to use one of Vanguard’s missiles even when lives were at stake. Commander Metzger had undergone hours of hearings after using one at Secour, and that situation had been just one step short of a full-on war footing. And rumor had it that Salamander’s captain had been relieved of command mainly because he’d used one in the Izbica Incident.

But a new wedge had definitely appeared on the displays: the smaller, more compact wedge of a missile tracking straight toward Phoenix. Either Locatelli had some special dispensation, or he no longer gave a damn what Parliament thought.

“Acceleration thirty-five-hundred gees; estimated impact, two minutes forty seconds,” the tactical officer called.

“Stand by autocannon,” Castillo ordered calmly. “Fire will commence fifteen seconds before estimated impact.”

Travis drew a hissing breath. That was, he knew, the prescribed response to a missile attack. With an effective range of a hundred fifty kilometers, the autocannon’s self-guided shells were designed to detonate in the path of an incoming missile, throwing up a wall of shrapnel that could take out anything that drove through its midst, especially something traveling at the five thousand kilometers per second that a missile carried at the end of its run.

At least, that was the hoped-for outcome. Given that the missile would be entering the shrapnel zone barely two hundredths of a second before reaching its target, it was a tactic that either worked perfectly or failed catastrophically. Still, more often than not, it worked. Or at least it worked in simulations.

Only this wasn’t a simulation. And Phoenix’s Number Two autocannon wasn’t tracking properly.

“You have an objection, Mr. Long?” Castillo asked.

Travis started. He hadn’t realized he’d said anything out loud. “We’ve been having trouble with the autocannon, Sir,” he said. “I’m thinking…” He stopped, suddenly aware of the utter presumption of this situation. He, a lowly lieutenant, was trying to tell a ship’s captain how to do his job?

But if Castillo was offended, he didn’t show it. “Continue,” he merely said.

Travis squared his shoulders. He had been asked, after all. “I’m thinking it might be better to interpose wedge,” he said, the words coming out in a rush lest he lose his nerve completely. “If the missile comes in ventral, there may not be enough autocannon coverage to stop it.”

Castillo’s lip might have twitched. But his nod was firm enough. “Helm, pitch twenty-six-degrees positive,” he ordered.

“Pitch twenty-six degrees positive, aye, aye, Sir,” the helmsman acknowledged. “Pitching twenty-six degrees positive, aye.”

On the tactical, Phoenix’s angle began to shift, agonizingly slowly, as the ship’s nose pivoted upward. Travis watched the display tensely as the incoming missile closed the distance at ever-increasing speed, wondering if his proposed countermove had been too late.

To his relief, it hadn’t. The missile was still nearly twenty seconds out when the leading edge of Phoenix’s floor rose high enough to cut across its vector.

“Continue countdown to missile impact,” Castillo ordered. “Jink port one klick.”

Travis frowned as the helmsman repeated the order. A ship had a certain range of motion within the wedge, particularly at the zero acceleration Phoenix was holding right now.

But moving the ship that way was tricky and cost maneuverability. What was Castillo up to?

“Missile has impacted the wedge,” the tactical officer announced. “Orders?”

Castillo looked at Travis and raised his eyebrows. “Suggestions, Mr. Long?”

Travis stared at the tac display, where Invincible was now rimmed in flashing red to show that her position was based on the foggy gravitic data Phoenix was able to glean through the disruptive effects of her own wedge. For the moment, at least, the two ships were at a standoff. Phoenix couldn’t fire at something she couldn’t see well enough to target, and with its wedge floor interposed between them the destroyer was likewise completely protected from any weapon Invincible cared to throw at her.

But Phoenix was a ship of the Royal Manticoran Navy. Her job wasn’t to be safe. Her job was to protect the Star Kingdom’s people. Whatever this exercise was all about, and however Locatelli was grading them on it, that grade wouldn’t be very high if Phoenix continued to hide behind her wedge.

“Recommend we reverse pitch and reestablish full sensor contact, Sir,” he said. He hesitated, the regulations against spending missiles pressing like fire-suppression foam against all of his tactical training. Still, if this was an all-out exercise, surely it worked both directions. “I’d also recommend we stand by to launch missiles.”

This time Castillo’s lip definitely twitched. But he merely nodded. “Anything else?”

Travis frowned. From the tone of Castillo’s question, he guessed there was indeed something else they should be doing. Wedge, sensor contact, missiles —

Of course. “I’d also suggest the autocannon begin laying down fire as we approach reacquisition.”

“Good.” Castillo gestured. “Pitch twenty-six degrees negative; prepare missiles and autocannon.”

“Pitch twenty-six degrees negative, aye, aye, Sir.”

“Prepare missiles and autocannon, aye, aye, Sir.”