A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 06

Peacetime exercises had only confirmed that view on the part of most of her peers. But Clegg had always taken those exercises with a kilo-sized grain of salt. Missiles were far too expensive to waste in live-fire exercises, and she’d suspected that both accuracy and terminal effect — and the inefficacy of defensive fire — were overstated in the simulations’ assumptions. That was why she’d always argued that those exercises badly understated the importance of close-range, direct-fire weapons.

Three weeks ago, missiles had, indeed, wreaked carnage in the opening phase of the engagement. But it had been HMS Casey’s energy torpedoes which had utterly demolished the first battlecruiser ever destroyed in combat by the Royal Manticoran Navy. Lasers, too, had played a critical role in the final slugfest before the enemy’s withdrawal from the system.

The decisive impact of the despised short ranged weapons she’d championed for years only made her frustration at missing the battle even more acute.

* * *

His Majesty’s Space Station Orpheus was a madhouse.

Travis felt his head trying to swivel in continuous 360° motion as he and Lisa swam briskly across the micro-gravity section of the platform towards Damocles’ boarding tube, and not just because he couldn’t look away from the chaos. He was afraid that if he did look away, the consequences might be fatal.

For three weeks, everyone had worried that the Star Kingdom’s attackers might return. For that same three weeks, everyone had hoped desperately that they wouldn’t, because the severely mauled Royal Manticoran Navy was in no state to resist a follow-on assault. Two battlecruisers, a heavy cruiser, and Casey were all down for major repairs, and half the ships that weren’t currently in yard hands should have been. They were in line behind more important units, but that didn’t make them remotely combat-capable.

And of those that were theoretically combat-capable, too many, in Travis’s opinion, were scattered around the Manticore Binary System. Every combat-ready unit assigned to the capital planet’s defense — which was a grand total of three of them — were in Aegis Force. Whether or not any of the other ships in Manticore orbit — many of them at least lightly damaged — might be available to support them was an open question. He wasn’t positive about Damocles’ condition, but in theory, she, the heavy cruiser Perseus, the destroyer Eriyne, and the corvettes Aries and Taurus, constituted the entire System Reserve Force.

The first three on that list had suffered at least moderate damage in the battle. The two corvettes had escaped unscathed, but they’d exhausted their supply of missiles, and the RMN had never really had enough of those to go around in the first place. MPARS’ attempt to get the Navy to hand over some of its precious remaining birds, unfortunately, had fallen on deaf ears.

Now, someone had apparently realized missiles would be more useful aboard ships that could move, even wretched little corvettes, than they would sitting in stowage or in the magazines of lordly cruisers and destroyers that were dead in the water.

Unfortunately, transferring an impeller drive missile was a nontrivial task at the best of times.

Travis winced as one of the station’s bright yellow cold-thruster tractors drove across the crowded docking bay gallery at at least twice the maximum speed regulations allowed and well outside the normal cleared lane. The pilot never slowed down, but merely leaned on the horn button while pedestrians scattered out of his path like fish surprised by a plunging shark. The two trailers behind the tractor carried power shunts for someone’s sidewall generators, and Travis wondered which ship they were headed for.

He hoped it wasn’t Damocles.

The demented tractor pilot wasn’t the only lunatic on the loose. Everywhere Travis looked, parties of yard dogs ignored every conceivable safety reg as they worked frantically to get the warships ready to fly. Crews were frantically ripping away repair scaffolding, and even the nearest of the moored ships floated at least eight hundred meters from Orpheus at the end of individual boarding tubes and service umbilicals. The yellow hardsuits of the ordnance personnel threading through the whirlpool of frenetic movement were designed to be clearly visible, and Travis’s jaw tightened as one of them took a glancing hit from a discarded scaffold structural member and went tumbling away from the missile its owner had been moving. That was probably a broken bone, or worse.

Travis knew he followed regulations and SOP more than most, and usually disapproved of those who didn’t. But even though the mad chaos underscored exactly why those regs had been written, he found himself for once mentally urging on the violators.

They reached Damocles’ thousand-meter boarding tube and swam madly up it. It seemed a lot more than a kilometer long and there was plenty of traffic, but a hole opened magically before them as Lisa bawled for the right of way. They reached the shipboard end at last, and she waved a salute at the ensign standing post as boat bay officer of the deck without even slowing down.

* * *

“Status on Aries and Taurus?” Admiral Eigen asked quietly, never looking away from the main plot. Bogey One had made its translation into n-space half an hour ago, during which time it had traveled almost two million kilometers towards Manticore. Its velocity was now 1,412 KPS, continuing to build at the same leisurely eighty gravities’ acceleration.

“Aries has three birds aboard and two loading now, Sir,” Bertinelli replied from CIC. “Taurus has two stowed and two loading.”

“Casualties in the transfer crews?”

“Unknown, Admiral.” Bertinelli’s tone sounded faintly surprised.

Eigen clenched his teeth. Of course the question would never have occurred to him. “Then I suggest you find out,” he bit out.

“Yes, Sir,” Bertinelli replied.

Eigen inhaled deeply. He shouldn’t have lost his temper that way. Not as he prepared to lead his force into combat. His officers and crews needed to know he was fully and coolly in control.

“Orpheus reports three injuries so far, Admiral,” Bertinelli’s voice came, sounding subdued. “One of them is considered serious.”

* * *

Damocles’ bridge was a hive of quietly tense voices and flickering displays as Lisa and Travis slipped in through the hatchway.

“Tactical Officer reporting for duty, Sir,” Lisa called as she maneuvered her way through the tight maze of stations, displays, and other people towards the CO’s station.

The man and woman floating together at the station turned around. Travis recognized the man as Captain Hari Marcello; the woman wasn’t familiar, but from her insignia she was obviously the XO, Commander Susan Shiflett.

“Welcome back, Commander,” Marcello greeted Lisa. His eyes flicked to Travis. “You must be Lieutenant Long. Welcome aboard.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Travis said, giving his best salute. “I was given orders to come aboard — ”

“Yes, I know,” Marcello cut him off. “I was the one who approved them. I presume you remember how destroyers are laid out?”

“Yes, Sir,” Travis said, his mind flashing back to his assignments aboard Guardian and Phoenix.

“Good.” Marcello nodded behind him toward the double TO/ATO station at the forward end of the bridge. “Strap in and start running your pre-checks. And remember, Tacco,” he held up a warning finger to Lisa, “that you’ve only got the ventral launcher to work with.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Lisa pushed off the Missiles Station handhold and slipped past the captain to the Tactical Station. Travis was right behind her.

He had indeed served aboard two other destroyers. But back on Guardian, he’d been a mere gravitics tech third class, while on Phoenix he’d been he’d been a forward weapons officer. Neither post had given him much time on the bridge, and certainly hadn’t allowed him any time at the ATO’s station.

Fortunately, the control layout was very similar to the setup aboard Casey, where he had spent considerable time. He strapped himself in and gave everything a quick look, making quick mental notes about the handful of mostly minor differences.

“What do you want me to do first, Ma’am?” he asked Lisa.

“Double-check the auto cannon,” she said. “Fore first and then aft. The weapons crew is shorthanded, and we’ve been having serious trust issues with the status board feed. Chief Wrenner is working on the laser plasma feed — stay on the intercom with him until he’s finished, then run a remote diagnostic on the laser. I’ll do the missiles and launcher.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Travis said. A quick look at the tactical — “Three hours yet to begin raising impellers?”

“Engineering’s still spinning up the reactors,” Lisa told him. He looked at her, and she shrugged. “Regs,” she said with a wry smile.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said. Yet another eminently sensible peacetime regulation that had now come back to bite them. From both safety and reactor efficiency perspectives it made sense to require ships to use shore power when moored to a space station.

In peacetime.

He looked at a side display, a hollow feeling settling into his stomach as he examined the icons of the ships theoretically prepared to sortie in Aegis Force’s support. Damocles, Eriyne, and Perseus, and none of them able to move for at least another three hours. By then, the intruders would be barely twenty minutes from their turnover point for a zero-zero intercept with Manticore.

And if the invaders got past Aegis and its theoretical supports, there’d be nothing between them and the capital planet.