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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 08:22 EST



A Call To Vengeance

Book III of Manticore Ascendant



1543 PD

    The Spanish Inquisition hadn’t been the first political and religious witch-hunt in Old Earth’s violent history. Nor had it been the last, or even been the bloodiest. But for some reason, the memory of its long and persistent reign of terror had lingered in common human memory up to the Diaspora and throughout the long centuries since.

    Lieutenant Travis Uriah Long, late of the cruiser HMS Casey, didn’t know why that was. Perhaps it was the faintly exotic name that continued to catch the human ear and imagination. Perhaps it was the cautionary proverb of a long-forgotten pre-Diaspora philosopher, who had warned that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. But whatever the reason, he was familiar with the history of that particular malevolence, and had always wondered how the victims felt as they faced their stone-eyed accusers.

    It was, he suspected, probably a lot like he was feeling right now.

    “…I do so solemnly affirm,” the clerk prompted.

    “I do so solemnly affirm,” Travis repeated.

    The clerk gave a brisk nod and raised his voice. “Long life to the King.”

    “Long life to the King,” Travis repeated. This time he was joined by the rest of the men and women seated across from him in the hearing room.

    All of whom, he had no doubt, grimly recognized the irony of the sentiment.

    Long life to the King…

    At the center of the long, curved table, Prime Minister Davis Harper, Duke Burgundy, cleared his throat. “We are assembled today,” he intoned, “to examine the events of 33rd Twelfth, and the events and decisions leading up to the loss of His Majesty’s corvette Hercules — ” he paused, just noticeably ” — and the resulting death of Crown Prince Richard Winton. Do you understand, Lieutenant Long?”

    “Yes, Your Grace,” Travis said. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

    Only in this case, it was not only expected but virtually guaranteed.

    Never mind that four other ships of the Royal Manticoran Navy had been destroyed, with the loss of their entire crews. Never mind that half a dozen others had suffered damage, with some of their crew members also dead or injured. Certainly the Battle of Manticore had brought with it more than enough death and trauma to go around.

    But those deaths were relatively anonymous except to the families and friends who had lost their loved ones. Richard’s name and face, in contrast, were known to everyone in the Star Kingdom of Manticore. He was the symbol of the Navy’s desperate defense, and as such had become the center of the swirling questions of How and Who and Why.

    The Star Kingdom was solidly focused on Richard. That went double for the members of Parliament. It went triple for the Committee of Naval Affairs.

    And Travis had no doubt that half the members of the latter group were determined to find Travis’s commander, Commodore Rudolph Heissman, personally responsible for the Crown Prince’s death.

    Which was both ridiculous and a complete waste of time. The Navy’s Board of Inquiry had already cleared Heissman of any wrongdoing. The rest of the long, official hearings had ended a week ago. What was going on in here today was nothing but political posturing.

    Travis hated political posturing.

    Burgundy was running through the standard welcome routine, thanking Travis for his service to the Crown and emphasizing the importance of the testimony he was about to give. Listening with half an ear, Travis let his gaze drift over the line of men and women arrayed against him, his eyes and brain automatically running threat assessments.

    The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anderson L’Estrange, Earl Breakwater, was clearly out for blood. Not specifically because it was Commodore Heissman on the hot seat — Travis doubted the Chancellor even knew Heissman — but because anything that besmirched the Navy’s reputation could only put his own Manticoran Patrol and Rescue Service in a better light. MPARS’ contribution to the battle had been minimal, mainly because only two of its ships had been in position to help. Still, those two ships had acquitted themselves well.

    But Breakwater was never satisfied with the simple gathering of laurels. He much preferred gathering his laurels with one hand and wilting those of his political opponents with the other.

    The embodiment of that opposition, Minister of Defense James Mantegna, Earl Dapplelake, would of course be pulling the opposite direction, for similar but reverse reasons. The Navy had suffered huge losses in the battle, and Dapplelake had no intention of letting any more of the Star Kingdom’s limited shipyard and manpower resources be siphoned off to MPARS than was absolutely necessary.

    The two men’s political, economic, and philosophic rivalry had been going on for a long time — the entire fourteen T-years that Travis had been in the Navy, at least, and probably longer. Most of the Committee members had also been in various positions of power for much of that time, and they’d long since sorted out which team they preferred to kick for. Secretary of Bioscience Lisa Tufele, Baroness Coldwater, and Shipyard Supervisor John Garner, Baron Low Delhi, typically lined up behind Dapplelake: Low Delhi because his family and Dapplelake’s were friends, Coldwater because boosts to Navy funding often meant more money for her budget, as well. First Lord of Law Deborah Scannabecchi, Duchess New Bern, and Director of Belt Mining Carolynne Jhomper tended to vote with Breakwater: New Bern because she was a big believer in legal balance and thought the Navy threw its weight around too much, Jhomper because the more patrol ships MPARS put into her area of responsibility, the better. Secretary of Industry Julian Mulholland, Baron Harwich, and Foreign Secretary Susan Tarleton didn’t favor either side: Harwich because all ship-building projects made him happy, Tarleton because Foreign Secretary was largely an honorary position and no one ever paid much attention to her anyway.

    As for Prime Minister Burgundy himself, who had assumed chair of the Committee, he would be trying hard to stay neutral. But as a close ally and personal friend of King Edward, Travis had no doubt that his judgment would be at least somewhat skewed.

    Which direction that bias might run, though, was a question all its own. In public, the King had studiously avoided saying anything beyond the simple acknowledgment of his son’s death, with no judgment or recriminations. What he said in private was something Travis doubted more than a handful of people knew.

    “Let’s start with the basics, Lieutenant,” Burgundy said. “Where were you when it first became apparent that the distress call you were responding to was, in fact, an invasion?”

    “That recognition was more an ongoing process than the result of a single bit of data or insight, Your Grace,” Travis said. “But to answer your question: I was on Casey’s bridge during the entire time in question.”

    “I see,” Burgundy said, and Travis thought he could see a flicker of approval in the Prime Minister’s eyes. It was all too easy to second-guess decisions and actions after the fact, but matters were seldom obvious to those in the middle of a given situation. Travis’s reshaping of the question should help to underscore that reality for the rest of the Committee. “When it did become evident — or at least likely — that an invasion was underway, what was Commodore Heissman’s response?”

    “We’re particularly interested in his deployment of his four Janus Force ships,” Breakwater put in. “Why was Gorgon put into aft-relay position instead of the Crown Prince’s ship, Hercules?”

    For a moment Travis was sorely tempted to play out a little rope in the hope that Breakwater would manage to hang himself somewhere down the line. But he resisted the urge. Breakwater was a master manipulator and politician, and if Travis tried to play any games the Chancellor would have him for breakfast. The truth, as straightforward and open as possible, was his best bet. “Hercules was a corvette, My Lord,” he said. “Gorgon was a destroyer. As such, Gorgon had aft weaponry — specifically, autocannon — which Hercules didn’t. Since Gorgon was already farthest from the enemy when it was time to flip and decelerate, and was therefore most likely to survive the opening salvo, Commodore Heissman elected to leave her there as our best chance of getting full sensor data back to Aegis Force.”

    “Really,” Breakwater said with clearly feigned surprise. “I’d have thought that Casey herself, with aft autocannon and an aft laser, would be the best suited for such survival. So why didn’t Commodore Heissman put his own ship in that position?” He glanced both ways down the table, as if inviting agreement. “After, perhaps, bringing the Crown Prince aboard?”

    Dapplelake stirred. “That kind of personnel transfer requires the entire force to cease deceleration while a shuttle makes the run. They had little enough time to prepare as it was. The loss of that hour would have — ”

    “Would have what?” Breakwater interrupted. “Commodore Heissman lost three quarters of his force as it is. Three hundred and fifty good men and women. Including the Crown Prince.”

    Travis squared his shoulders. Enough was enough. “If I may, My Lord?” he spoke up as Dapplelake opened his mouth to launch another verbal salvo.

    Breakwater turned to him, and for a second Travis thought the Chancellor was going to lay into him for daring to interrupt a private conversation. Then he seemed to remember where he was, and the reason they were all there, and the surprised outrage smoothed away from his face. “Of course, Lieutenant,” he said. “You were about to say…?”

    “I was about to expand on the reasoning behind Commodore Heissman’s decision, My Lord,” Travis said. “First of all, as Earl Dapplelake has said, it would have cost us an hour to transport Prince Richard to Casey, with our wedge down much of that time. Our mission at that point was to stay between the invaders and Manticore as long as possible. As it was, we unavoidably sped through missile range very quickly. Shortening that time would have meant even less time for us to inflict damage on the enemy.”

    “Exactly,” Dapplelake muttered, and out of the corner of his eye Travis thought he could again see a glint of approval from the Prime Minister.

    “More important, though, were the tactical realities of the situation,” Travis continued. “Casey had counter-missiles in addition to her autocannon. Gorgon, Hercules, and Gemini each had only autocannon. Putting Casey at the rear of the formation would have meant our countermissiles couldn’t help in the defense of the other ships.”

    He held his breath, fully expecting Breakwater or one of the others to call bogus. In theory, he was correct: Casey’s countermissile spread could indeed help protect the other ships. But as a practical matter, that kind of screening formation was seldom used unless a battlecruiser or other high-value ship was in play. With Casey the biggest and most powerful ship of her small task force, her countermissiles were mostly useful for her own defense.



    But no one spoke up. Those who weren’t familiar with such military minutiae — which was probably the majority of them — were apparently willing to accept Travis’s logic at face value. Dapplelake, who did know how it worked, would certainly not do anything to undercut Travis’s testimony that way.

    “So what you’re saying,” Breakwater said after a moment, “is that Commodore Heissman’s entire focus was on the upcoming battle. And that the life of the Crown Prince was never even a factor in his strategy.”

    “The lives of all his officers and crew were a factor, My Lord,” Travis said. “But more important even than that was the Star Kingdom and her citizens. Offering our lives in their protection was the oath we all took when we accepted the RMN uniform.” He focused on Burgundy. “All of us. Including the Crown Prince.”

    He hadn’t expected a round of applause for his little speech. But he wasn’t prepared for Breakwater’s thinly veiled sarcasm, either. “Yes, I’m sure Prince Richard would invoke such sentiments, too, were he here,” the Chancellor said. “Which, of course, he’s not. It seems to me that Commodore Heissman was also rather caught off-guard by the appearance of the — what were they called? Oh, yes: you tagged them early on as Bogey Two. The two enemy destroyers that the MPARS corvettes Aries and Taurus took care of for you.”

    Travis clenched his teeth. That was not how it had gone down. Not exactly, anyway. “Those ships came in coasting with their wedges down, My Lord,” he said stiffly. “Effective sensor range under those conditions is extremely short.”

    “Yet Commodore Heissman knew they were out there,” Breakwater said. “Shouldn’t he have been more alert?”

    “We already had our hands full with the ships of the main attack force.”

    “You can’t focus your attention on two directions at once?”

    “It’s not a matter of focus, but of firepower,” Travis said. “We knew where the main force was, and turning toward a potential flanking force would simply have left us open to the main force’s attack.” He hesitated. “To be perfectly honest, My Lord, Commodore Heissman probably didn’t expect any of us to survive the engagement. His goal at that point was to do as much damage to the enemy, and get as much data back to Aegis, as possible.”

    Breakwater gave a snort. “So RMN officers now go into battle expecting to get their entire crews killed?”

    “Sometimes Navy personnel have to do just that,” Travis said, feeling anger rising inside him. “Especially when our ships are undermanned, underequipped, and — by some — underappreciated.”

    There was a small stir around the table. Travis winced, realizing too late that he’d probably gone too far. “My apologies, My Lords and Ladies; Your Graces,” he said. “I didn’t mean to sound unappreciative.”

    “Yet you did,” Breakwater pointed out stiffly. “Perhaps we should allow you a few moments to collect yourself before we continue.” He turned to Burgundy and inclined his head. “With your permission, of course, Your Grace.”

    “I think we could postpone the rest of Lieutenant Long’s testimony until tomorrow morning,” Burgundy said, peering at his tablet. “We’re approaching the noon recess anyway.” He looked at Travis. “Tomorrow at oh-nine-hundred, Lieutenant. You’re dismissed.”

    “Yes, Your Grace,” Travis said. Silently berating himself for once again sticking his foot in it, he picked up his tablet and pushed back his chair.

    “Oh, I’m sorry — one last question,” Breakwater spoke up suddenly. “The technique you used to destroy that enemy battlecruiser. Very clever, that. Whose idea was it, exactly?”

    Travis felt his stomach tense. Breakwater knew perfectly well whose idea that had been. “It was mine, My Lord.”

    “Not Commodore Heissman’s?” Breakwater asked. “Or Commander Belokas’, or Tactical Officer Woodburn’s? Yours?”

    “Yes, My Lord.”

    “I see.” Breakwater inclined his head. “Thank you, Lieutenant. You may go now.”

    “Yes, My Lord.”

    Ninety seconds later, Travis was walking down the wide corridor toward the exit nearest the visitor parking lot. Wondering what the hell that last bit had been all about.

    Wondering perhaps a little too strenuously. Vaguely, he became aware that someone was calling his name —

    “So are you ignoring the whole world? Or is it just me?”

    Travis twitched with surprise, guilt, and embarrassment. “No, of course not,” he said hastily. “I mean — ”

    “Apology accepted, Travis,” Lieutenant Commander Lisa Donnelly said, the warm impishness of her smile erasing any lingering suggestion that she was actually mad at him. “I’m surprised you have any brainpower left at all after that.” She nodded back behind them. “Let me guess: Chancellor Breakwater was playing his usual games?”

    “Yes — Ma’am,” Travis belatedly remembered to add. Lisa had been his best and closest friend for four years now, probably the only person he’d ever truly been able to relax with. As near as he could tell, she was just as comfortable in his presence as he was in hers.

    But she also outranked him, and here in public the correct forms of military etiquette had to be strictly adhered to. “And I’m pretty sure he won.”

    “Only pretty sure?”

    “Yes. Mostly because I have no idea what the game was.”

    “Ah.” Lisa glanced around and gestured to a set of empty chairs grouped around a small table in a conversation alcove at one side of their corridor. “Let’s sit down and you can tell me all about it. If you’ve got time.”

    “Yes, Ma’am, absolutely,” Travis said, already feeling the tension melting away. He hadn’t had a chance to see Lisa for several weeks before the battle, and the thought of spending even just an hour with her was definitely something to look forward to. “They don’t want me again until tomorrow.”

    “Good.” She glanced conspiratorially to both sides as they headed toward the alcove. “And you know, if we keep our voices down, you won’t even have to call me Ma’am.”

    Travis felt his face warming. Lisa didn’t call him on his strict adherence to rules very often, but when she did she was painfully efficient at making her point. “Yes, Ma — I mean, yes.”

    “So tomorrow, you say,” Lisa said thoughtfully. “Sounds like Breakwater got what he was looking for. Okay, let’s see if we can figure this out. Was there any point where he seemed happier than he was the rest of the time?”

    “Well, he threw in a last-second question as I was being dismissed,” Travis said as they both sat down. “And he went out of his way earlier to remind everyone how his two MPARS ships took out one of Tamerlane’s destroyers.”

    “He’s not going to let anyone forget that,” Lisa agreed. “Especially since Cazenestro had ordered the MPARS ships to stand down. If Hardasty and Kostava hadn’t ignored him and moved in anyway, things would have gone a lot worse.” Her eyes shifted over Travis’s shoulder. “Speaking of which.” She lifted a hand and raised her voice. “Townsend? Over here!”

    Travis felt a sudden jolt of tension as he twisted around in his chair to look. Sure enough, the big Sphinxian lumbering toward them was Petty Officer Charles Townsend. Chomps Townsend, to his friends.

    A long time ago, Travis had been one of those friends. Not anymore.

    But Chomps was smart enough not to show animosity toward a senior officer in public. He smiled at Lisa as he came up, gave the exact same smile to Travis, then came to a smart halt and executed an equally smart salute. “Commander Donnelly; Lieutenant Long,” he greeted them. “What heinous crime have you committed, may I ask, to have been hauled into this den of political machination and chaos?”

    “And what would you know about Parliament?” Lisa asked dryly.

    “Oh, I’ve sailed these waters myself of late, Ma’am,” Chomps said. “Two days ago, in fact. Possibly later today, too, if they really want to put themselves through a repeat performance.” He glanced at the wall chrono. “Though probably not until after lunch.”

    “At least you get to go in on a full stomach,” Lisa said. “I’m guessing we’re all here for the same reason.”

    “Which is?”

    “Lieutenant Long and I were just trying to figure that out,” Lisa said. “Care to join us?”

    “Thank you, Ma’am,” Chomps said. “If I may suggest: as I say, it’s lunchtime. Would the two of you care to join me for a small repast? My treat, of course.”

    “Hmm,” Lisa said, her face wrinkled with feigned uncertainty. “I don’t know. Enlisted and MPARS. What do you think, Travis? Can we legally accept such an invitation?”

    “If it helps,” Chomps offered, “we could consider it my apology for calling you by your first name in front of your fellow officers.”

    Travis sat up a little straighter. “What?” he asked carefully.

    “It’s okay,” Lisa soothed him, her eyes twinkling with amusement. “It was on Casca, and the Cascans don’t care so much about proper etiquette.”

    “I was also trying to save my skin, Sir,” Chomps added to Travis. “Which for a while looked like they also didn’t care much about.”

    “But as you see, we made it through,” Lisa said, standing up. “Very well, Townsend, we accept. To the cafeteria?”

    “Or to a little place just around the corner, Ma’am.” Chomps raised his eyebrows at Travis. “It’s Italian, Sir. I seem to remember that you like Italian.”

    “Yes,” Travis confirmed warily, searching the man’s face for some hint of the resentment or hatred he was surely still feeling for Travis and the damage to his career that had been a result of Travis’s damning report about Chomps’s computer hacking.

    But if there were any such emotions there, Travis could see no evidence of them. Chomps seemed genuinely cheerful and relaxed, friendly to both him and Lisa, and not at all ashamed of the MPARS uniform he was wearing.

    But then, Travis had never been good at reading people. For all he knew, Chomps could be planning right now exactly how and where he was going to slip the knife between Travis’s ribs.


    He looked at Lisa. She was eyeing him, a questioning expression on her face. As if the lunch thing was his decision and not hers.

    Squaring his shoulders, Travis looked back at Chomps. If the other was planning some revenge, they might as well get it over with. “Sounds good,” he said. “Please; lead the way.”

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