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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Saturday, March 3, 2018 07:17 EST



0600 Sunday

Embarkation for the Monarch’s Thanks five hours away.

    Sergeant Robert Herzog was sweating bullets. Big bullets.

    Because the whole damn thing was ridiculous. Utterly.

    It wasn’t bad enough that the King, Crown Princess, former King, Prime Minister, and half the Cabinet were going on this little jaunt. Oh, no. Just the entire leadership of the Manticoran government, aboard a single ocean-going ship, within range of a well-placed missile or long-distance mortar attack from the shore. It was the same assassination choke point the King ended up in every time he and his family headed out to Triton Island, or even just for a cruise around Jason Bay.

    And every single time Herzog and the rest of the King’s Own security force walked on eggs until their monarch was safely back in the Palace.

    But this time was worse. Far worse. For this trip, the King had effectively doubled the ante.

    Because he’d also invited the Navy’s top officers aboard. The self-same officers who’d risen to the challenge of Tamerlane’s superior force, beaten him back, then chased him out of the system

    Which meant that theoretical well-placed missile or mortar round would not only take out the Star Kingdom’s top political leaders, but its best military ones, as well.

    Didn’t the King realize that?

    Probably not. Herzog suspected that Edward had his father Michael’s easy-going and slightly naïve attitude toward assassination, which boiled down to the assumption that he was so beloved by the Manticoran people that no one would ever want to harm him. And if by some miracle someone did want to, the men and women of the King’s Own would protect him.

    Under normal circumstances, Herzog would have mostly agreed with both parts of that assessment. Certainly the King’s Own were the absolute finest the Star Kingdom had to offer.

    But these circumstances weren’t normal. The Star Kingdom had just beaten back an invasion…and Herzog’s reading of military history indicated that invasions were often preceded by the infiltration of enemy agents. Agents whose job it would be to support the external attack with an internal one.

    That was ominous enough. Even worse, the fact that they still didn’t know where Tamerlane had come from meant there was no way to guess what sort of agents and weapons might be unleashed against them.

    The King might not appreciate the risks, former Navy officer though he might be. He was used to being surrounded by other dedicated officers, protected by multiple centimeters of armored hull and a flinkin’ big impenetrable impeller wedge. He might not really understand how vulnerable he was down here at the bottom of a gravity well.

    But if the King didn’t get it, Major Blackburn certainly did. He’d had his people swarming like crazed bees ever since the announcement had been made public. Everything within reasonable attack range of the Palace and the yacht had been checked and double-checked.

    Which was all well and good. But in the end, it came down to the last few hours. Those last hours when someone could smuggle a sufficiently powerful weapon into range and wait out the remaining minutes until he could change history.

    That wasn’t going to happen today. Not on Sergeant Herzog’s watch.

    The wind was brisk and cool, and getting brisker as the sun warmed the air. But Herzog didn’t mind. He liked rooftops, the higher the better. Slowly, he turned on his latest three-sixty, peering at each of the nearby rooftops through the spotting scope slaved to the computer controlling his tripod-mounted M5A1 hypersonic sniper rifle. There were other spotters scattered around Landing’s highest buildings, but this was the one with the best view of the Palace and yacht. An attacker with even half a brain would set up somewhere around here.

    Herzog would be ready for him. The M5A1’s computer did a continual read on air pressure, humidity, windage, distance, and every other factor that might affect how and where a bullet flew through the air. At the first sign of trouble — or even the first hint of a sniper nest in the making — Herzog could put a targeting laser built into his scope on that trouble and squeeze the trigger, and the rifle would put a round within two centimeters at a distance of three kilometers.

    He paused. Down on the Samantha’s dock, among the people moving briskly about on their various errands…

    He tapped his mic. “Nitro; Herzog,” he said quietly. “I make a stranger ten meters on your ten.”

    “Blue shirt?” the reply came back instantly. “It’s okay — he’s got an ID pin.”

    “Yes, I can see that,” Herzog said tartly. “He’s still a stranger.”

    “Hang on, let me check.”

    The earpiece went quiet. Herzog peered at the unidentified man another second, then went back to his scan. Planting a screaming security anomaly in the most visible place possible was a classic diversionary tactic, and he was determined not to fall for it.

    He hadn’t found anything more suspicious before Nitro came back on. “Herzog; Nitro. It’s okay — he’s from one of the caterers.”

    “Caterers?” Herzog repeated, frowning. The Palace had a full kitchen staff of its own.

    “Specifically, Sphinxian caterers,” Nitro confirmed. “A few of the people coming on the cruise are Sphinxians, and the King wanted to get some authentic food for them. Don’t worry — our people supervised the cooking and ran the usual tests, and sent everything over under full seal.”

    “And the seals are intact?” Herzog persisted, focusing his scope back on the man far below. He sure didn’t look like a caterer, though now that Herzog thought about it he probably hadn’t seen an awful lot of caterers in his lifetime.

    “Checked ’em myself,” Nitro assured him. “Relax, will you? You hawks just do your job up there and let us gophers do ours down here, okay?”

    Herzog nodded, feeling marginally better. Eagles and groundhogs would have meant Nitro was under duress or otherwise had some suspicions that he didn’t want to broadcast. But any other animal names meant things were all right.

    At least, they were down there. Up here…well, the jury was still out.

    Lifting his scope focus from the dock, Herzog settled it briefly on the distant patch of green midway to the watery horizon. Landing City was important, certainly. That was where the Samantha would depart from and return to.

    But even more critical was Triton Island itself. That was where everyone would be spending three or four hours today.

    Granted, an island was a big target. But it was also a stationary one. And even an unskilled idiot could hit a target that wasn’t moving, provided he had a big enough weapon.

    There were some in the security team, Herzog reflected, who considered him paranoid at best and something of a nutcase at worst. But he didn’t mind the name-calling. He might be a pain in the butt to work with — a lot of team members said that, too — but at least no one had to worry about him overlooking or casually dismissing a potential threat.

    Herzog had his end of the danger zone locked down. He just hoped the other end was equally solid.



0700 Sunday

Embarkation for the Monarch’s Thanks four hours away.

Arrival at Triton Island six hours away.

    Growing up in the hills outside of Landing, Major B.A. Felton had always loved the woods. Here on Triton Island, he was starting to hate them.

    It hadn’t always been that way. Felton was old enough, and had been in the King’s Own long enough, that he had fond memories of Crown Prince Richard and Princess Sophie hiking in these woods. Often the hikes degenerated into a game of hide and seek, usually with Richard attempting to lose his little sister. Most of the time it had been a game, but occasionally Richard had been exasperated enough with having a half-sized shadow that he’d tried to lose her for real.

    Which hadn’t bothered Sophie in the slightest. She’d doggedly pursued him each and every time, even when she became so exhausted by her efforts that her guards had to carry her back to the Lodge, the big stone building that had been the Wintons’ get-out-of-town-and-clear-your-head retreat ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

    But now Richard was gone, it was Sophie who was heir to the Throne, and the Star Kingdom had been attacked.

    And the woods were no longer a place for children to play and adults to stroll.

    Woods could hide people. Woods could hide traps. Especially the dense woods on the western side of the island between the Lodge and the sea.

    Still, the advantage of an island was that, once it had been locked down, it tended to stay that way. Mostly, anyway. While the official announcement of the Monarch’s Thanks luncheon had been made a month ago, the far quieter revelation that it would be held on Triton had only happened in the past six days. Within three hours of that news the island had been sealed off, the handful of visitors who’d been enjoying the public park sections had been escorted back to their boats and sent home, and a millimeter-by-millimeter search begun. Two days later, Felton himself had declared it clear.

    But there were always ways a clever person could slip something through even the cordon into a supposedly safe place. Hence, with six hours left before the Samantha’s projected arrival, they were sweeping the island again.

    “Major Felton?” PFC Patricia Gauzweiller’s voice came over Felton’s earpiece. “We may have something at the Lodge. It might be nothing, but it looks a little…odd.”

    “On my way,” Felton said, heading off at a quick jog, his right hand resting on the grip of his sidearm. “Don’t touch it.”

    “Roger that, Sir. Not really going to be a problem.”

    Felton was still frowning over that one when he reached the Lodge. Gauzweiller was standing at the southwest corner, peering up along the side of the building with her binoculars. “Where is it?” Felton asked.

    “Up there,” Gauzweiller said, pointing toward the roof. “At the top of the chimney. Looks like a bird’s nest.”

    Felton focused his own binoculars on the spot. It did indeed have that nest look to it.

    “Only it wasn’t listed on the last report, so I thought someone should check it out,” Gauzweiller continued. “You want me to take a look?”

    “No, I’ll do it,” Felton said. Keying his counter-grav belt, he eased on his thruster and floated slowly up the side of the building, every sense alert for trouble. He reached the chimney without incident…

    To discover that the mass of twigs and mud was indeed just a bird’s nest.

    Still, Gauzweiller was right. It should have been removed or at least noted during the earlier sweep of the island. Either someone on Felton’s team had been sloppy, or Triton was home to a world-champion nest builder.

    “Looks okay,” he called down. Just the same, he eased his probe through the mass in a few spots, in case they had a very clever bomber on their hands. But there was nothing but nest.

    “Any eggs?” Gauzweiller called back.

    “Nope,” Felton assured her as he carefully gathered it together for removal. If Sergeant Herzog had been assigned to the Triton detail, he mused, once this whole thing was over he would probably go over the records and find out who had let this slip through the earlier sweep. It would then have been a tossup as to whether the guilty party would suffer more from the gig or the lecture on how there was no room for sloppiness when the lives of the royal family were at stake.

    A movement caught his eye, and he looked up at the blue water glistening in the early-morning sunlight. Between Triton and the distant spires of the city a couple of dozen small pleasure craft had already appeared. Some of the boaters were probably hoping for a glimpse of the King as the Samantha passed by, while others were simply out for a leisurely Sunday morning cruise or some casual fishing. Many of them, Felton suspected, were there for all three reasons.

    They were going to be disappointed. Two of the Coast Guard’s cutters had already appeared on the horizon, plowing through the waves toward the scattering of boats. Each craft would be hailed, each passenger checked against the Manticoran citizen lists, and everyone ordered clear of the corridor the Samantha would soon be taking to the island.

    It was a task that by its very nature generated civilian disappointment and anger, and Felton didn’t envy the cutter crews their duty. But it had to be done. With Triton Island locked down, the critical part was to keep anyone from approaching the yacht.

    Still, the cutters had had lots of experience at that task. They were hardly going to screw up today.



0800 Sunday

Embarkation for the Monarch’s Thanks three hours away.

Passage through this part of Jason Bay approximately four and a half hours away.

    The maritime enthusiasts of the greater Landing area were not happy.

    Lieutenant David Bozwell, commander of the CGC Jackstraw, couldn’t really blame them. Triton Island was the royal family’s retreat, and the Palace almost never announced their visits early enough for citizens to get out on the bay in time to watch Samantha plying the waters.

    Bozwell wished the Palace had kept its corporate mouth shut this time, too. His best guess was that the King knew how confused and worried his subjects were and wanted to offer them the chance to line the route, possibly to cheer him on and show their support, possibly just to watch as he and the heroes of the Battle of Manticore passed by.



    Still, it had raised the security issues an order of magnitude. None of the King’s Own liked it. Sergeant Herzog had been especially loud on the subject, fuming over the stupidity inherent in telling potential assassins exactly where to find the entire flipping royal family, in one sinkable spot, for what amounted to a flipping publicity stunt.

    What made it worse was that whatever PR advantages the king had hoped for were going to be largely negated by the security requirements. Most of the citizens who’d come out for the procession had gotten up at the crack of dawn in order to get here. A lot of them had rousted their children out of bed for the occasion, which in Bozwell’s opinion was on a par with winning a space battle all by itself.

    They weren’t happy at being told to head back to Landing or get themselves a minimum of five kilometers away from the Samantha’s route. Bozwell wasn’t any happier at being the one who had to deliver those orders.

    But at least the job was almost done. Only five more boats were still within the safety zone, and two of them were in the Argus’s patrol area. Three more unpleasant confrontations for Bozwell and the Jackstraw, and they could move on to straight perimeter patrol.

    Unfortunately, this next encounter was likely to be one of the more aggravating ones. The Happily Ever was a big boat, a sailing cabin cruiser of the kind favored by people who weren’t necessarily rich but wanted everyone to think they were. In Bozwell’s experience, most of that sort liked to project that same elitist attitude toward everyone around them, including authority figures.

    This one was certainly playing the nouveau riche role to the hilt. As the Jackstraw approached, Bozwell could see a half dozen figures lounging in deck chairs on the fantail. Right at the stern, nestled against the low railing, were a cooler full of ice and colorful drink cans and a squat grill loaded with freshly-caught fish. The wind shifted momentarily, bringing Bozwell a whiff of the smoke from the grill: Graeling sea trout, he tentatively identified it, with way too much spice sauce for that kind of fish.

    All six boaters were watching the Jackstraw now as it cut through the water toward them. One of the men, Bozwell noted, had a particularly apprehensive expression. That must be the owner, listed in the records as a Mr. Basil Moore, wondering if his precious boat was about to be rammed.

    Luckily for him, the Jackstraw’s helmsman knew his business. At the last second the cutter’s engines shifted into reverse, bringing the vessel to a smooth halt. A final twitch of the wheel, and the cutter ended up angled a meter off the Happily Ever’s stern. If Moore wasn’t impressed, Bozwell thought, he really ought to be.

    “Ahoy!” he called as he stepped out of the wheelhouse onto the Jackstraw’s deck. “Sorry to bother you, but –”

    “What the hell are you doing?” Moore cut him off angrily. Not impressed, apparently. “You trying to run us down?”

    “Not at all, sir,” Bozwell said, keeping his tone the respectful politeness required by the CG manual. “We’re clearing out this sea lane in preparation for the Samantha’s crossing later this morning. I’m afraid I have to ask you to move away.”

    Most of the people Bozwell had talked to this morning had reacted with surprise, disappointment, or annoyance. Moore reacted like a rich kid with a new toy. “Like hell you are,” he bit out. “This is Jason Bay. It belongs to everyone on Manticore. The King wants to go for a cruise? Fine — he can have one boat’s width of space, just like everyone else.”

    “I’m sorry you feel that way, sir,” Bozwell said. The rest of Moore’s party, he noted peripherally, were starting to look uncomfortable. One of the women, sitting directly behind her host, quietly and discreetly moved to a chair farther out of any potential lines of fire. Apparently, Moore had something of a temper. “And under normal circumstances, you would indeed have claim to freedom of the seas. But not today.”

    “Really?” Moore scoffed. “What makes today so special? Because a bunch of pampered politicians and stuffed uniforms want to burn a few extra tanks of hydrogen just so they can have lunch sixty kilometers from the great unwashed public?”

    “No, sir,” Bozwell said, really regretting that the manual’s rules of conduct were so specific. “Today is special because there are extra safety considerations.”

    “Oh, safety is the issue, now?” Moore demanded. “Fine. Let me tell you about safety.” He waved a hand in a wide, sweeping arc. “We’ve been watching you. There was a nice, compact group of boats out here, and you’ve spent the last hour or so scattering them to the four winds. Now, what happens if one of them has a problem? What if one of them starts to sink? Will you or your buddy be able to get there in time? Or are you just going to hope and pray that they have enough counter-grav belts for everyone and don’t get dumped into the water before they can activate them?”

    “We appreciate the risks involved whenever someone takes a watercraft out onto the high seas,” Bozwell said. He could feel a subtle vibration in the deck beneath his feet: the measured pace of heavy footsteps coming his way from the wheelhouse. “But we can only do what we can with the limited resources we have.”

    “So what you’re saying is –?”

    “Beg pardon, Lieutenant,” a deep voice interrupted.

    And out of the corner of his eye Bozwell saw Sergeant Brian VanHoose step from the wheelhouse.

    Only out of the corner, because most of his attention was focused on Moore.

    He wasn’t disappointed. The majority of Sphinxians were by nature and necessity big people, but even on that scale VanHoose was a big Sphinxian. As he hove into view Moore’s eyes went wide, and he started to take a reflexive step back before he caught himself. His eyes flicked up and down VanHoose’s bulk, finally settling on the deadpan face and half-lidded eyes that fooled people into thinking there wasn’t a lot going on behind them.

    Which was always a mistake. VanHoose might look like a genial giant idiot, but he had a knowledge of regs and orders that was second to none.

    “Yes, Sergeant?” Bozwell said blandly. “You have a thought?”

    “It seems to me, Sir, that the gentlemen and his companions have been drinking,” VanHoose said, just as blandly. “Reg gamma-four-oh-six, subsection three, paragraph four, says that if a boater is impaired the Coast Guard is required to take possession of his or her vessel and bring it safely into port.”

    “I do believe you’re right, Sergeant,” Bozwell said, frowning in thought. “Well, I’m sure that won’t be a problem. I can handle the rest of the security sweep on my own while you bring the Happily Ever back to Landing.”

    Moore finally found his voice. “Wait a second,” he said, a hint of nervousness starting to crack his arrogance. “No one’s impaired here.”

    “I don’t know,” Bozwell said, eyeing the cooler. “I see a lot of beer in there. Sergeant, do the regs specify how much alcohol is required for impairment?”

    “We could break out the breath analyzer,” VanHoose said. “But you know it’s been on the fritz lately.”

    “Besides, alcohol affects people in so many different ways,” Bozwell pointed out. “If I let you take command of this vessel, will you promise to be more careful than the last time?”

    “Hey, that fireball wasn’t my fault,” VanHoose protested. “The tank regulator was cracked. If I hadn’t bumped the dock it would have just gone kablooie somewhere else.”

    “Bumped?” Bozwell echoed. “Is that what you call it? Bumped?” He lifted his hands. “Never mind — we don’t have time for this. Sergeant Brian VanHoose, as per Regulation whatever it was, I authorize you to –”

    “Okay, okay,” Moore said quickly. “We’ll go.”

    “In good time, right?” Bozwell said.

    “As fast as we can,” Moore promised, his face looking like an angry sea.

    “Good,” Bozwell said. “Sergeant, take us to the next vessel, please. Good day, Mr. Moore.”

    A minute later the Jackstraw had left the Happily Ever’s side and was speeding through the low waves toward the next boat in line.

    Speeding just a tad too quickly, perhaps.

    “You realize,” Bozwell said, peering aft through the wheelhouse door at the Happily Ever rapidly receding in the distance, “that you dumped their entire fantail when you took off.”

    “No big loss,” VanHoose said, waving a hand in dismissal. “That was about the cheapest cooler on the market — I’ve got one myself; they’re only a couple of dollars. And they’ve already had enough beer.”

    Bozwell took another look behind him at Moore, frantically digging into the water off the stern of his yacht. VanHoose was right — the cooler had been a cheap foam job, and a man at Moore’s level of snobbery really needed to upgrade. “And the grill?”

    “Too much sauce on the trout,” VanHoose declared. “I did everyone a favor.”

    “Ah,” Bozwell said. Somehow, he doubted Moore would see it that way.



0900 Sunday

Embarkation for the Monarch’s Thanks two hours away.

Passage into the Triton Island approach four hours away.

    “Bravo-six clear,” a muffled voice came in Sergeant Sara Felton’s earpiece. “Moving on to Bravo-seven.”

    “Copy,” Sara said. Back in the old days, the odd thought struck her, her voice had sounded exceedingly strange to her as it bounced back from a diving helmet’s faceplate. Now, after ten years of service, she didn’t even notice.

    Which was just as well, because right now she needed every gram of brainpower focused on the job at hand. At last report, Triton Island and Landing were secure, and the sea lane between the two was rapidly becoming so.

    Time for the area beneath the surface to be likewise.

    “Sara?” the voice of Sara’s cousin, B.A., came in her ear. “How’s it going?”

    “We’re getting there,” Sara said. Out in the world, of course, they had to be Major Felton and Sergeant Felton to each other, which was a never-ending source of private amusement among their fellow teammates. On a private com like this, they could be more informal. “The approach line has been checked and cleared, and we’re about three-quarters done with the rest of the seabed. How about you?”

    “We found a bird’s nest in one of the chimneys,” B.A. said. “Aside from that, we’re good.”

    Sara grunted into her helmet. “Good thing Herzog’s not there. Someone would be in for a coal-raking.”

    “Agreed. Maybe I’ll mention it to him next week. It can be entertaining when he spins up.”

    “As long as you’re not the one he’s spinning up on,” Sara said. “Tell me again why they couldn’t just have lunch at the Palace?”

    “It’s politics,” B.A. said. “The King needs to get out and show that he’s not afraid of anything. And, by extension, that no one else should be afraid of anything, either.”

    Sara wrinkled her nose. But he was probably right. Grand gestures were part of high office, and King was as high as anyone could get. “I just hope everyone appreciates it.”

    “The ones who matter do,” B.A. assured her. “The rest probably never even notice us.”

    “Part of our job.”

    “Yep,” B.A. agreed. “Listen, do me a favor, will you? One of the approach sensors seems to be winking a little. When you finish your current sector, will you go take a look? It’s probably nothing, but I’d feel better if you checked it out personally.”

    Sara smiled as she tapped for a readout. “No problem, Cuz. Number 44?”

    “That’s the one,” B.A. confirmed.

    Ten minutes later, Sara was at the problem sensor.

    “Well, for starters it’s leaning sideways,” she reported as she hovered beside the slender two-meter-tall rod-and-bulb device sticking up from the sea floor. “About forty degrees off vertical. I don’t see any damage to the bulb or signs of tampering, though. Probably just got pushed over by crawlers digging into a grub nest.”

    “Probably,” B.A. agreed, sounding a bit doubtful. “We’ll swap it out anyway. I’m sending Keating down with a new one — she’s suiting up now. Wait there until she arrives and help her install and network it.”

    “Right,” Sara said, shifting her light to the next sensor in the lane. “Let me know when she’s in the water. I’m going to give the next couple in line a quick look.”

    Sara hadn’t found any other problems in the sensor line by the time PFC Bridget Keating arrived. Together they swapped out the sensor, networked the replacement with the others, and ran a quick diagnostic. Once B.A. confirmed the system was back to full green, Keating headed back to shore and Sara returned to her check of the Triton Island shallows.

    B.A. was right, Sara knew as she resumed her part of the search. If all went well, most of the people who would soon be boarding the Samantha would never be aware of the work that had gone into keeping them safe.

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