Manticore Ascendant 1: A Call to Duty (eARC), page 1
A Call to Duty - eARC
David Weber and Timothy Zahn
Advance Reader Copy
A Call to Duty
Manticore Ascendant: Book One
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.
The Star Kingdom is a minor nation among the worlds of the Diaspora, its closest neighbors weeks or months away, with little in the way of resources. With only modest interstellar trade, no foreign contacts to speak of, a plague-ravaged economy to rebuild, and no enemies looming at the hyper limit, there are factions in Parliament who want nothing more than to scrap the Navy and shift its resources and manpower elsewhere.
But those factions are mistaken. The universe is not a safe place.
Travis Long is about to find that out.
IN THIS SERIES by DAVID WEBER
On Basilisk Station
On Basilisk Station, 20th Anniversary Edition
The Honor of the Queen
The Honor of the Queen, 20th Anniversary Edition (forthcoming)
The Short Victorious War
Field of Dishonor
Flag in Exile
Honor Among Enemies
In Enemy Hands
Echoes of Honor
Ashes of Victory
War of Honor
At All Costs
Mission of Honor
A Rising Thunder
Shadow of Freedom
Crown of Slaves (with Eric Flint)
Torch of Freedom (with Eric Flint)
Cauldron of Ghosts (with Eric Flint, forthcoming)
The Shadow of Saganami
Storm from the Shadows
THE STAR KINGDOM:
A Beautiful Friendship
Fire Season (with Jane Lindskold)
Treecat Wars (with Jane Lindskold)
EDITED BY DAVID WEBER:
Worlds of Honor
More than Honor
Changer of Worlds
The Service of the Sword
In Fire Forged
House of Steel: The Honorverse Companion (with BuNine)
A Call to Duty (with Timothy Zahn)
To purchase these and all other Baen Book titles in e-book format, please go to www.baen.com.
A Call to Duty
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Words of Weber, Inc. and Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by David Mattingly
First printing, October 2014
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
BOOK ONE CHAPTER ONE
BOOK TWO CHAPTER NINE
BOOK THREE CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
“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 paren
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.
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
“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. Basset—Jammy and his girlfriend’s supposed birthday—that bulge he now belatedly remembered seeing beneath Pinker’s floppy coat—