A Call To Arms – Snippet 32

Once again, the tac display began to shift. Travis watched, his thumbs pressed hard against the sides of his forefingers. From somewhere forward came a muted rumble as the autocannon began firing. The flashing red rim around Invincible vanished as the sensors reacquired contact —

“Missile!” the tac officer snapped.

Travis blinked. The whole thing had happened way too fast for him to see, but the vector line on the tac display showed that the incoming missile had come in right along the edge of fire from the misaimed Number Two autocannon, shot past the wedge floor as it pitched back down, skimmed past Phoenix at a distance of eleven kilometers, then continued on to disintegrate against the wedge roof.

He was staring at the line in confusion, wondering how in the world a second missile had sneaked past the sensors — wondering, too, how in hell Locatelli had gotten permission to spend not just one but two practice missiles — when the com display lit up and Admiral Locatelli himself appeared. “Well, Captain,” the Admiral’s voice boomed from the speaker, “I believe that gives me the kill.”

“Very nearly, Sir,” Castillo said calmly. “I think you’ll find your missile didn’t quite make it into full kill range.”

Locatelli frowned, his eyes shifting off camera. His smile soured a little, and he gave a small grunt. “Clever,” he said reluctantly. “You’re still blind, though — your whole tracking radar system would have been destroyed. Telemetry system, too.”

“I can still launch missiles,” Castillo pointed out.

“Only if there was another ship nearby you could hand them off to,” Locatelli countered. “In this case, there isn’t.” He shook his head. “All in all, Captain, your response was a bit on the sloppy side. I suggest you consider upgrading your tactical officer’s training and drill schedule.”

“This wasn’t my usual tac team, Sir,” Castillo said. “One of my other officers was handling the action.”

Locatelli sniffed audibly. “Your other officer has a lot to learn.”

“Yes, Sir.” Deliberately, it seemed to Travis, Castillo turned a studiously neutral look in his direction. “I believe he knows that.”

Travis felt a swirl of disbelief corkscrew through his gut. He’d been prepared — almost — to believe that an admiral of the RMN might actually go out of his way to slap down a junior officer who had crossed him.

But for Travis’s own captain to join in on the humiliation was beyond even Travis’s usual level of reflexive paranoia. For Castillo to single him out this way, in front of the entire Phoenix bridge crew…

He swallowed, forcing back the stinging sense of betrayal. Castillo was still his commanding officer, and he was expecting a response. “Yes, Sir,” he managed.

“Perfection is a noble goal,” Castillo continued, his eyes still on Travis. “We sometimes forget it’s a journey, not a destination.”

I never claimed to be perfect. Travis left the automatic protest unsaid. Clearly, this was his payback for insisting that Ensign Locatelli do his job, and neither Castillo or the Admiral would be interested in hearing logical arguments.

Or pathetic excuses, which was what any comment would be taken as anyway. “I understand, Sir,” he said instead. “I’ll make it a point to remember today’s lessons.”

“I’m certain you will.” Castillo turned back to the com display. “Any further orders, Admiral?”

“Not at this time,” Locatelli said, a quiet but definite note of satisfaction in his voice. “Resume your course for Manticore. I’ll want a full analysis of your crew’s response to this unscheduled exercise a.s.a.p.”

“It’ll be ready by the time you return from your training run, Sir,” Castillo promised.

“Good,” Locatelli said briskly. “Carry on.” He reached somewhere off-camera, and his image vanished.

* * *

And with Locatelli’s tap on the com switch, the image of Phoenix’s bridge vanished from the display.

“Excellent,” the Admiral said with clear satisfaction. “We’ll want to look closely at the post-action data, but from the looks of it the exercise went quite well.”

“Yes, Sir,” Metzger said, keeping her voice neutral and making sure her face was turned away from him.

A complete waste of effort. As always, the Admiral knew exactly what she was thinking. “You disapprove,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

She hesitated. But Locatelli always encouraged his senior officers to speak their minds. “I just think the exercise was flawed, Sir. Captain Castillo’s tactical team should have been calling the orders, not some random junior officer.”

“In other words, you disapprove of Castillo dealing out an object lesson to Lieutenant Long?”

Metzger winced. Was she really that transparent? “I disapprove of his choice of time and place,” she hedged. “This was an expensive exercise. It should have remained focused on its main purpose.”

“The purpose of all exercises is to make a better Navy,” Locatelli said. “Sometimes they shock officers and crews out of routine and complacency. Sometimes they demonstrate flaws in equipment and tactics. And sometimes they teach valuable lessons.” He paused. “Or don’t you think your shining Lieutenant Long needs to occasionally learn a lesson?”

Metzger clenched her teeth. Long was smart and innovative, and in her opinion was one of the rising stars of the new generation of Naval officers.

But damn it all, the Admiral was right. Long did have a few serious blind spots, and those gaps definitely needed to be filled in.

“Long has enough trouble with human interactions and contacts as it is,” she said. “Making him look like a fool in front of his ship’s bridge crew won’t help with that.”

“I disagree that it made him look like a fool,” Locatelli said. “But if I assume you’re right, it still leaves him with a choice. The same choice one we all have to make on occasion. Sink, or swim.”

He gestured toward her board. “And while Lieutenant Long contemplates that decision, you can start collating data on the exercise. I want to know how well Invincible performed, preferably before we hear Phoenix’s results.” “Aye, aye, Sir,” Metzger said.

She watched out of the corner of her eye until he was gone. Then, she turned back forward, indecision gnawing at her gut.

In some ways, Locatelli was right. Long needed some real-world experience, and this was as close to real combat as he would ever actually get.

But for his captain to deliver that experience this way…

Metzger scowled. It wasn’t a big deal, she told herself firmly. Humiliation was something that happened all the time in the Navy. Long had certainly had his share of verbal dressings-down, and he would live through this one, too.

But she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else going on here. Something that maybe she should look into.

She straightened her shoulders. And why not? Long was a good officer, and Castillo was a decent and competent captain, whom she was on good enough terms with. And there was certainly no reason two captains who happened to be within easy conversation range shouldn’t have a little chat about things. Especially when both of them were coming off an important exercise.

“Com, send a signal to Phoenix,” she ordered. “My compliments to Captain Castillo, and ask when it would be convenient for me to have a private discussion with him.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And,” Metzger added, “make sure to emphasize the word private.”

* * *

“Secure from Readiness One,” Castillo ordered. “Resume course to Manticore, and get the spin section back up to speed.”

He turned back to Travis. “First lesson of combat, Mr. Long: always be ready for the unexpected. In this case, because we weren’t accelerating and were on a fairly predictable course, Invincible was able to slip a second missile into the wedge shadow of the first. If the attacker is very clever with his timing, he can arrange it so that the rear missile burns out its wedge at the same time the forward one impacts the target’s wedge. With nothing showing, a pitched target will have just enough time to resume attitude as the second missile enters kill range.”

“Sometimes the tell is a bit of the second wedge peeking through during the drive,” Sladek added. “It can also show up as a sluggishness in the first missile’s maneuvering as its telemetry control is eclipsed by the one behind it.”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said. And if the missile was kicked out with a fusion booster, as most RMN missiles were, there would also be a telltale flare when it was launched, plus a slight decrease in the attacking ship’s acceleration to give the missile time to get a safe distance before lighting up its wedge.

All of that had been in his tactics classes back at Division Officer’s School, of course. But in the heat of the moment, and with the role of command unexpectedly thrust upon him —

He cut off the train of thought. Rather, the train of excuses. He’d been given a job, and he’d failed. Pure and simple.

And if it hadn’t been an exercise, with a practice missile instead of the real thing, he and everyone aboard Phoenix would probably be dead. “Yes, Sir,” he said again. “I’m sorry, Sir.”