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Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

A Call to Duty

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A Call to Duty

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Author: David Weber
Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Baen, 2014
Series: Manticore Ascendant: Book 1

1. A Call to Duty
2. A Call to Arms
3. A Call to Vengeance

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Growing up, Travis Uriah Long yearned for order and discipline in his life... the two things his neglectful mother couldn't or wouldn't provide. So when Travis enlisted in the Royal Manticoran Navy, he thought he'd finally found the structure he'd always wanted so desperately.

But life in the RMN isn't exactly what he expected. Boot camp is rough and frustrating; his first ship assignment lax and disorderly; and with the Star Kingdom of Manticore still recovering from a devastating plague, the Navy is possibly on the edge of extinction.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

"Mom?" Travis Uriah Long called toward the rear of the big, quiet house. "I'm going out now."

There was no answer. With a sigh, Travis finished putting on his coat, wondering whether it was even worth tracking his mother down.

Probably not. But that didn't mean he shouldn't try. Miracles did happen. Or so he'd been told.

He headed down the silent hallway, his footsteps unnaturally loud against the hardwood tiles. Even the dogs in the pen behind the house were strangely quiet.

Melisande Vellacott Long was back with the dogs, of course, where she always was. The reason the animals were quiet, Travis saw as he stepped out the back door, was that she'd just fed them. Heads down, tails wagging or bobbing or just hanging still, they were digging into their bowls.

"Mom, I'm going out now," he said, taking a step toward her.

"I know," his mother said, not turning around even for a moment from her precious dogs. "I heard you."

Then why didn't you say something? The frustrated words boiled against the back of Travis's throat. But he left them unsaid. Her dog-breeding business had had first claim on his mother's attention for as long as he could remember, certainly for the eleven years since her second husband, Travis's father, had died. Just because her youngest was about to graduate from high school was apparently no reason for those priorities to change.

In fact, it was probably just the opposite. With Travis poised to no longer be underfoot, she could dispense with even the pretense that she was providing any structure for his life.

"I'm not sure when I'll be home," he continued, some obscure need to press the emotional bruise driving him to try one final time.

"That's fine," she said. Stirring, she walked over to one of the more slobbery floppy-eared hounds and crouched down beside him. "Whenever."

"I was going to take the Flinx," he added. Say something! he pleaded silently. Tell me to be in by midnight. Tell me I should take the ground car instead of the air car. Ask who I'm going out with. Anything!

But she didn't ask. Anything.

"That's fine," she merely said, probing at a section of fur on the dog's neck.

Travis retraced his steps through the house and headed for the garage with a hollow ache in his stomach. Children, he remembered reading once, not only needed boundaries, but actually craved them. Boundaries were a comforting fence against the lurking dangers of absolute freedom. They were also proof that someone cared what happened to you.

Travis had never had such boundaries, at least not since his father died. But he'd always craved them.

His schoolmates and acquaintances hadn't seen it that way, of course. To them, chafing under what they universally saw as random and unfair parental rules and regulations, Travis's absolute freedom had looked like heaven on Manticore. Travis had played along, pretending he enjoyed the quiet chaos of his life even while his heart was torn from him a millimeter at a time.

Now, seventeen T-years old and supposedly ready to head out on his own, he still could feel a permanent emptiness inside him, a hunger for structure and order in a dark and unstructured universe. Maybe he'd never truly grown up.

Maybe he never would.

It was fifteen kilometers from Travis's house to the edge of Landing, and another five from the city limits to the neighborhood where Bassit Corcoran had said to meet him. As usual, most of the air car pilots out tonight flew their vehicles with breathtaking sloppiness, straying from their proper lanes and ignoring the speed limits and other safety regulations, at least until they reached the city limits. Travis, clenching his teeth and muttering uselessly at the worst of the offenders, obeyed the laws to the letter.

Bassit and two of his group were waiting at the designated corner as Travis brought the Flinx to a smooth landing beside the walkway. By the time he had everything shut down the three teens had crossed the street and gathered around him.

"Nice landing," Bassit said approvingly as Travis popped the door. "Your mom give you any static about bringing the air car?"

"Not a word," Travis said, reflexively pitching his voice to pretend that was a good thing.

One of the others shook his head. "Lucky dog," he muttered. "Guys like you might as well be—"

"Close it, Pinker," Bassit said.

He hadn't raised his voice, or otherwise leaned on the words in any way. But Pinker instantly shut up.

Travis felt a welcome warmth, compounded of admiration and a sense of acceptance, dissolving away the lump in his throat. Bassit was considered a bad influence by most of their teachers, and he got into trouble with one probably twice a week. Travis suspected most of the conflict came from the fact that Bassit knew what he wanted and wasn't shy about setting the goals and parameters necessary to get it.

Bassit would go far, Travis knew, out there in a murky and uncertain world. He counted himself fortunate that the other had even noticed him, let alone been willing to reach out and include him in his inner circle.

"So what are we doing tonight?" Travis asked, climbing out and closing the door behind him.

"Aampersand's is having a sale," Bassit said. "We wanted to check it out."

"A sale?" Travis looked around, frowning. Most of the shops in the neighborhood were still open, but there didn't seem to be a lot of cars or pedestrians in sight. Sales usually drew more people than this, especially sales at high-end jewelry places like Aampersand's.

"Yes, a sale," Bassit said, his tone making it clear that what they weren't doing was having an extended discussion about it. That was one of his rules: once he'd made up his mind about what the group was doing on a given evening, you either joined in or you went home.

And there wasn't anything for Travis to go home to.

"Okay, sure," he said. "What are you shopping for?"

"Everything," Bassit said. Pinker started to snicker, stopped at a quick glare from Bassit. "Jammy's girlfriend's got a birthday coming up, and we're going to help him pick out something nice for her." He laid his hand on Travis's shoulder. "Here's the thing. We've also got a reservation at Choy Renk, and we don't want to be late. So what I need you to do is stay here and be ready to take off just as soon as we get back."

"Sure," Travis said, a flicker of relief running through him. He wasn't all that crazy about looking at jewelry, and the reminder that other guys had girlfriends while he didn't would just sink his mood a little deeper. Better to let them stare at the diamonds and emeralds without him.

"Just make sure you're ready to go the second we're back," Bassit said, giving him a quick slap on the shoulder before withdrawing his hand and glancing at the others. "Gentlemen? Let's do this."

The three of them headed down the street. Travis watched them go, belatedly realizing he didn't know what time the restaurant reservation was for.

That could be a problem. A couple of months ago, when Pinker had been looking for something for his girlfriend, they'd all spent nearly an hour poring over the merchandise before he finally bought something. If Jammy showed the same thoroughness and indecision, it could be like pulling teeth to get him back outside again.

Travis smiled wryly. Maybe it would be like pulling teeth for him to get Jammy out. For Bassit, it would be a stroll down the walkway. When it was time to go, they would go, and whenever the reservation was for they would make it on time.

Assuming, of course, that Bassit remembered how Travis insisted on sticking to the speed limit. But Bassit wouldn't forget something like that.

Putting all of it out of his mind, Travis looked around. Businesswise, he'd once heard, this was one of the more volatile neighborhoods in the city, with old shops closing and new ones opening up on a regular basis. Certainly that had been the case lately. In the two months since he'd last been here one of the cafés had become a bakery, a flower shop had morphed into a collectables store, and a small upscale housewares shop—

He felt his breath catch in his throat. In the housewares shop's place was a recruiting station for the Royal Manticoran Navy. Behind the big plate-glass window a young woman in an RMN uniform was sitting behind a desk, reading her tablet.

A series of old and almost-forgotten memories ghosted across Travis's vision: his father, telling his five-year-old son stories of the years he'd spent in the Eris Navy. The stories had seemed exotic to Travis's young and impressionable ears, the stuff of adventure and derring-do.

Now, as he looked back with age and perspective, he realized there had probably been a lot more routine and boredom in the service than his father had let on. Still, there had surely been some adventure along with it.

More to the point, everything he'd read about militaries agreed that they were steeped in tradition, discipline, and order.

Order.

They probably wouldn't want him, he knew. He was hardly at the top of his class academically, his athletic skills were on a par with those of the mollusk family, and with Winterfall, the family barony, long since passed to his half-brother Gavin he had none of the political clout that was probably necessary to even get his foot in the door.

But Bassit and the others would be shopping for at least half an hour, probably longer. The recruiter was all alone, which meant no witnesses if she laughed in his face.

And really, there was no harm in asking.

The woman looked up as Travis pulled open the door.

"Good evening," she greeted him, smiling as she set aside her tablet and stood up. "I'm Lieutenant Blackstone of the Royal Manticoran Navy. How can I help you?"

"I just wanted some information," Travis said, his heart sinking as he walked hesitantly toward her. Blackstone was a noble name if he'd ever heard one, her eyes and voice were bright with intelligence, and even through her uniform he could see that she was very fit. All three of the probable strikes against him were there, and he hadn't even made it to the desk yet.

Still, he was here. He might as well see it through.

"Certainly," she said, gesturing him toward the guest chair in front of the desk. "You're looking for career opportunities, I assume?"

"I really don't know," Travis admitted. "This was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing."

"Understood," Blackstone said. "Let me just say that whatever you're looking for, the RMN is the perfect place to start." Her voice, Travis noted, had changed subtly, as if she was now reading from an invisible script. "Career-wise, we have some of the best opportunities in the entire kingdom. Alternatively, if you decide the Navy isn't for you, you'll be out in five T-years, with the kind of training and technical skills that will shoot you right past the competition for any job or career you want. There's going to be plenty of opportunity in the civilian economy for decades still, rebuilding from the Plague, and someone with the skills and discipline of a Navy vet can expect to command top dollar. It's as close to a no-lose situation as you could ever imagine."

"Sounds pretty good," Travis said. Though now that he thought about it, wasn't there a faction in Parliament that was determined to shut down the Navy? If that happened, there wasn't going to be much left of careers or exotic training.

"Are you interested in the Academy?" Blackstone continued. "That's where the men and women in our officer track start their training."

"I don't know," Travis said, starting to relax a little. If she thought this was a joke, it didn't show in her face or voice. And that officer's uniform she was wearing definitely looked sharp. "I might be. What kind of requirements do you need to get in?"

"Nothing too horrendous," Blackstone assured him. "There's a vetting process, of course. Certain academic standards have to be met, and there are a few other credentials. Nothing too hard."

"Oh," Travis said, his brief hope fading away. There it was: academics. "I probably won't—"

And then, from somewhere down the street came the boom of a gunshot.

Travis spun around in his chair, a sudden horrible suspicion hammering into his gut and morphing into an even more horrifying certainty. Bassit—Jammy and his girlfriend's supposed birthday—that bulge he now belatedly remembered seeing beneath Pinker's floppy coat—

There was another boom, a double tap this time and somewhat deeper in pitch. Travis started to stand up—

"Stay there," Blackstone ordered, shoving down on his shoulder as she ran past him, a small but nasty-looking pistol gripped in her hand. She reached the door, slammed to a halt with her left shoulder against the jamb, and eased the door open.

There was another pair of deep booms, then another of the slightly higher-pitched ones as the first weapon answered. Travis jumped up, unable to sit still any longer, and raced over to join Blackstone.

"What's going on?" he breathed as he shoulder-landed against the wall at the other side of the door.

"Sounds like we've got a robbery going down," she said. Her eyes bored into Travis's face. "Friends of yours?"

Travis's tongue froze against the roof of his mouth. What was he supposed to say?

"I thought they were."

"Uh-huh." She turned back to the door as two more shots echoed. "Well, I hope you're not going to miss them, because one way or another they're going down. The cops will be here any minute, and if they're not gone by now, they're not going. What was your part of the job?"

Briefly, Travis thought about lying. But Blackstone had probably already figured it out.

"They told me we had early reservations at a restaurant," he said. "They said they were going to do some shopping and that I needed to be ready to head out as soon as they got back."

"Where was this supposed shopping? Aampersand's?"

"Yes."

Blackstone grunted. "Big mistake. Aampersand's apprentice goldsmith is a retired cop. Why you?"

"My mom has an air car," Travis said. "I guess they thought they could make a faster getaway in that than in a ground car."

"Were they right?"

Travis blinked. "What?"

"Would an air car have made for a better getaway?"

Travis stared at her profile, confusion coloring the fear swirling through his gut. What in the world kind of question was that? Was she trying to get him to incriminate himself? Hadn't he already more or less done that?

"I don't understand."

"Show me you can think," she said. "Show me you can reason. Tell me why they were wrong."

Some of Travis's confusion condensed into cautious and only half-believed hope. Was she saying she wasn't going to turn him in?

Apparently, she was.

He took a deep breath, forcing his mind away from what was happening to Bassit and the others and focusing on the logical problem Blackstone had presented.

"Because air cars are faster, but there aren't as many of them in the city," he said. "That makes them more easily identifiable."

"Good," Blackstone said approvingly. "And?"

Travis's throat tightened as he abruptly noticed that the gunfire had stopped. Whatever had happened was apparently over.

"And as soon as you get above rooftop level, you're visible for five kilometers in any direction," he went on. "The cops would have you in sight the whole time they were chasing you."

"What if you wove in and out between the buildings?"

That's illegal, was Travis's reflexive thought. But of course someone who'd just robbed a jewelry store would hardly be worried about traffic regulations.

"Well, if you didn't crash into something and kill yourself," he said slowly, trying to work it through, "you'd pop up as a red tag on every other air car's collision-avoidance system. Oh—right. The police could just follow the trail on their readouts and have their pick of where to force you down." He dared a wan smile. "They could also slap a dozen traffic violations on top of the armed robbery charge."

To his surprise, Blackstone actually smiled back.

"Very good. What else?"

In the distance, the sound of approaching police sirens could be heard. Again, Travis had to force his mind away from Bassit as he tried to come up with the answer Blackstone was looking for.

But this time, he came up dry.

"I don't know," he admitted.

"The most basic flaw there is," Blackstone said, turning a thoughtful gaze on him. "They picked the wrong person for the job."

Travis grimaced. "I guess they did."

"I'm not talking about your piloting skills," Blackstone assured him. "Or even your loyalty to people who don't deserve it. I'm talking about the fact that someone who's not in on the plan isn't exactly going to burn air when the gang comes charging up with guns smoking and pockets bulging with rings and bracelets."

She tilted her head to the side.

"Especially when that person comes equipped with an ethical core. You do have an ethical core, don't you, Mr.—?"

Travis braced himself.

"Long," he said. "Travis Uriah Long. I guess so." He tried another half-smile. "Is an ethical core one of the requirements you mentioned for naval officers?"

"If it was, the officer corps would be a lot smaller," Blackstone said dryly. "But if it's not a requirement, it's certainly a plus. Shall we go back inside and get started on the datawork?"

Outside, two police air cars appeared, their flashing lights strobing as they settled onto the street.

"I don't know," Travis said, feeling a fresh tightness in his chest as cops began streaming out of the vehicles, guns at the ready. Blackstone was right—if Bassit and the others weren't out of the neighborhood by now, they were done for.

And if they were still alive after all that shooting, they were going to talk.

"It can't hurt to try," Blackstone pressed. "The vetting process will take two to four weeks, and you can change your mind at any time."

And if part of their confession included such facts as the name of their intended getaway driver...

"How about regular Navy?" he asked. "Not officer, but regular crew. How long does that take?"

Blackstone's forehead wrinkled.

"Assuming there are no red flags in your record, we could ship you out to the Casey-Rosewood boot camp by the end of the week."

"You mean no flags other than armed robbery?"

"Pretty hard for anyone to link you up with that one," Blackstone said. "Especially given that you were in here with me when it went down. Are you sure you wouldn't rather go the academy route?"

"Positive," Travis said, wondering briefly what his mother would think of this sudden right-angle turn in his life. Or whether she would even notice. "You said there was datawork we had to do?"

"Yes." Blackstone took a final look outside and closed the door on the flashing police lights. "One other thing," she added as she holstered her gun. "Back when I told you to stay put, and you didn't? Bear in mind that once you're in the Navy you're going to have to learn how to obey orders."

Travis smiled, his first real smile of the day. For the first time in years, he could see some cautious hope beckoning from his future.

"I understand," he said. "I think I can manage."

Copyright © 2014 by David Weber

Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Zahn


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