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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Friday, January 2, 2009 09:20 EST



Bergen and Associates Shipyard, Cinnabar

    Adele’s kit was already aboard the Milton, but she carried what looked like a small toolbox as she arrived for liftoff. It contained specialist equipment and software from Mistress Sand.

    The computers which guided starships through the Matrix were as powerful as human ingenuity could create. Adele’s kit could harness that power to the work of decryption.

    She smiled dismissively. For most of the problems she faced, the data unit along her thigh was more than adequate. Perfectly ordinary hardware was capable of doing more than one person in a thousand could imagine. The same was true of the pistol in her pocket.

    “I wonder if some of the crew will get lost in the corridors?” Tovera said. “Being used to the Sissie and going to a ship this size.”

    Adele wasn’t sure if Tovera was joking. Tovera did tell jokes, though again, Adele wasn’t sure whether she understood them or if she was just working on her self-appointed task of imitating a normal human being. Tovera had gotten quite good at acting as though she had a conscience, for example.

    “Perhaps there’s a sense imprinted at birth that allows spacers to find their way around ships,” Adele said. “Like the instinct of migratory animals.”

    She wasn’t very good at jokes either. There was a reason Tovera had attached herself to Adele: the personality gap wasn’t as wide as it would have been with someone like Daniel.

    A black aircar overflew the harbor, then rotated into the wind and lowered itself onto the pad on top of the offices. It was a luxury vehicle, though from this angle Adele hadn’t been able to make out the gilt coat of arms on the rear doors.

    She wondered if Deirdre Leary had come to see her brother off, though that hadn’t happened in the past. Admiral Anston doubtless had, or had access to, a limousine also.

    The quay of Bergen and Associates was as crowded as it had been during Daniel’s promotion ceremony, but this time the human beings–largely the crew going aboard, as Adele herself was doing–were less of a concern than the trucks and lowboys carrying the final stores for a long voyage.

    The driver of a stake-bed carrying armored containers of main-gun ammunition was particularly noticeable. He kept edging up to the bumper of the laundry truck just ahead, revving his diesel in blats of black exhaust which subsided in the wild ringing of valves.

    “I’ll lead,” said Tovera. “I think I’ll ask that trucker–”

    She was looking at the noisy stake-bed.

    “–to shut down. Then we’ll cross in front of him.”

    “Lady Mundy!” bellowed an unfamiliar male voice from behind them. “Wait for Senator Forbes, if you please!”

    Adele turned, managing to halt her left hand’s dive for her tunic pocket when she heard the senator’s name. Twenty yards away, three servants–or aides–wearing green-yellow-green Forbes collar flashes were coming down the narrow outside staircase from the rooftop landing pad. Senator Forbes followed them, while last in line was the very muscular young man who’d called to Adele.

    Tovera shifted so that no one on the staircase could read her lips. “Do you know Forbes?” she asked.

    “No,” said Adele without trying to conceal her face. She rarely said anything that she wouldn’t repeat publicly in a loud voice if the occasion arose. “To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen her before.”

    She paused for thought, then added, “I believe Daniel met her socially. I looked into her background when I learned of our mission, of course, but she was a junior back-bencher at the time of the Proscriptions. She wasn’t even part of the Beneficial Party, though she joined it not long after.”

    Adele touched her data unit. Is Forbes still a member of the Beneficial Party, or did she resign when she lost the leadership fight? Not that it mattered, of course, but Adele liked to have details right even when they didn’t matter. Because in the long run, nothing mattered.

    “Go on, make sure my quarters are prepared,” Forbes said, brushing the servants toward the boarding ramp with the backs of her fingers. “I’ll wait here with Lady Mundy till there’s less congestion.”

    She grimaced, making her face look even more than usual like that of a marmoset. “I hate travel off Cinnabar, and this chaos on boarding–”

    She repeated her brushing gesture.

    “–makes it even worse.”

    The servants looked doubtful, but they joined a group of cheerfully drunken spacers on their way to the ramp. The traffic wasn’t as bad as it appeared, because the heavy trucks were stopping under the big gantry. There the loads were transferred to grumbling lighters, to be ferried to the cruiser’s C Level cargo holds. It was only when the trucks drove out from beneath the gantry that they crossed the line of pedestrians heading for the boarding bridge to the main hatch and they did that one at a time.

    “Should I go, Bessie?” the young man said. His expression was bovine but not unpleasant. His suit was tan with bronze highlights, hung on him as though he were a display mannequin. “Or stay with you?”

    “Oh, go onto the ship, John,” Forbes said. “I won’t need you tonight. Lady Mundy and I will be all girls together for a time.”

    Tovera’s eyes flicked from Forbes to Adele. Her look of mild amusement was perhaps a little more lively than usual.

    “One of the things I dislike most about this business,” Forbes said as the husky servant wandered off, “is that there’ll be nobody aboard to talk to besides you, Leary, and of course Robinson. And it won’t be much better any of the places we’re going, though as I understand it we’ll be landing on Paton. Isn’t that right?”

    “I can check whether Captain Leary has filed a course with Cinnabar Control,” Adele said carefully, taking the data unit from its pocket.

    If Adele needed to, she could open every sector of the Milton’s astrogation computer even if the captain believed he’d locked it. She had no reason to do that. She and Daniel had discussed all aspects of the voyage, including planetfall on Paton to replenish and get the latest local intelligence on the situation in the Hegemony.

    She didn’t say that to the senator. Whatever Forbes thought, a politician wasn’t in either of Adele’s chains of command.

    “Oh, no matter,” said Forbes with a peeved gesture. “I’m sure we do. Beckford lives on Paton, in a palace, I gather. Do you know Prince Willie, Mundy?”

    “I know of him,” Adele said, even more carefully than before. “We’ve never met. He’s a friend of yours?”

    It was hard to say whether William Beckford was better known for his wealth or for his dissipation. His reputation had grown bad enough that he’d left–been encouraged to leave–Cinnabar. It was approaching the point that money wouldn’t have been able to stave off official inquiries any longer.



    There were stories about children being brought to Beckford’s mansion and never being seen again. That might not be true, but it was quite certain that an investigation would uncover matters which would be extremely embarrassing to those who’d shared the entertainment. Some of those participants were rumored to be highly placed in the Senate.

    Forbes snorted, though the reaction was good humored. “Not in the way you mean,” she said. “I’ve done a few favors for his business interests, and he’s done some favors for me–and quite a few other people. But only in a business way, so far as I’m concerned.”

    She paused, looking at the great ship without affection. “Still, he’ll have a chef,” she continued. “He’s famous for his table. And I’ll be able to sleep in something other than a steel box for the nights that I’m on Paton.”

    She gave Adele a mocking grin. “That’s worth smiling at the greasy little toad, don’t you think? I wouldn’t have done it before the Speakership election–but then, I wouldn’t be traipsing off to the back end of nowhere if the election hadn’t come out the way it did. Not so?”

    “There’s nothing in my family history, Senator…,” Adele said, smiling faintly. “To encourage anyone to take my advice on a political question. Perhaps Captain Leary could help you there.”

    Despite Adele’s smile, Forbes looked dumbfounded as she took in the words. “By the Gods, Mundy,” she muttered. “You do have brass balls, don’t you? Well, I’d been told that.”

    Adele shrugged. “I’ve learned over the years that it’s better to bring the past up myself,” she said. “It’s easier to confine the discussion to the facts than will be the case when others talk behind my back.”

    The truckload of eight-inch rounds roared into position under the gantry. The driver didn’t shut down, but at least he kept his foot off the accelerator. The harbor was still very noisy, but the snarl of the diesel had been causing Adele to react at a subconscious level.

    Forbes was saying something about travel. She broke off and in a sharper tone said, “You find it humorous, Mundy?”

    “Not your discomfort,” Adele said calmly. “Particularly since I share it myself. I find it useful to concentrate on something else during insertion and extraction, though I still feel as though–”

    She shrugged. “Actually,” she said, “it varies each time as to what unpleasant symptom I’ll feel. I think the worst is when my whole body seems to have been turned inside out, but you may have a different particular dislike.”

    She repeated her slight smile. “Almost everyone does, you know,” she said. “Even veteran spacers like Captain Leary and Woetjans. She’s our bosun.”

    Adele had really been smiling at the concept of courtesy, which she’d been considering while the senator nattered about the few short voyages she’d made before now. People like the truck driver wouldn’t ever learn courtesy–or rather, they’d never manage to control angry, discourteous outbursts when something frustrated them.

    And it would probably be an overreaction to shoot them. They might try a little harder not to be offensive, though, if they realized there were people like Tovera and Tovera’s mistress who considered all options for removing an irritation.

    Forbes grimaced again. “Well, nothing to do about it,” she said. “If I don’t get off Cinnabar, I’ll be snubbed by every back-bencher who thinks I should’ve treated him like the sun shone out of his butt. And don’t think Speaker Bailey won’t be egging them on, the little weasel!”

    “Do you expect to be successful in your mission, Senator?” Adele said. She’d like to have brought her data unit up, but she’d have to sit down to use it. She didn’t want to do that here in the oil and dirt while wearing her 2nd Class uniform, her Dress Grays.

    She smiled again. She wouldn’t sit down without a better reason than that she was bored by Forbes’ chatter, which wouldn’t be a politic thing to demonstrate anyway.

    “Success?” snapped Forbes. “Yes, of course. This boy Hieronymos just wants to be told he’s important. Fine, he’s important–and I needed to get off-planet, as I said, so everyone gains. Why, I might’ve decided to take a junket like this regardless!”

    And the grapes were probably sour anyway, thought Adele, remembering a very ancient fable. Human nature hadn’t changed since long before humanity’s development of interstellar travel.

    Adele was sure her thought hadn’t reached her facial muscles, but the senator looked sidelong at her anyway. “Perhaps,” Forbes said, “I’ll change my mind about having Johnnie DeNardo in tonight. He’s not much brighter than a cucumber, but at least he’s warmer.”

    Adele said nothing.

    Forbes cackled in triumph. “I think I’ve shocked you, Mundy!” she said. “Haven’t I? I’d heard that about you too.”

    Mundy of Chatsworth raised an eyebrow. She put the data unit back in its pocket, though she only needed her left hand free.

    “Biology isn’t one of my particular interests, Senator,” she said in an upper class drawl. “I wouldn’t be shocked if a maggot crawled out of your eye socket, though I’d find it vaguely disgusting.”

    Forbes stared. Her mouth opened, then closed, but she didn’t speak. Her face settled into a stunned expression rather than anger.

    “I think the crowd has thinned, Tovera,” said Adele. “We’ll board now, because I have work to do.”

    She glanced toward Forbes. “You’re welcome to accompany us, Senator,” she added. “We’ll take care to keep you safe.”




    Daniel settled himself into the command console of the RCS Milton for his first liftoff as her captain. He listened for a moment to the sounds which filled the cruiser.

    Starships were never quiet. The life-support system alone involved many hundreds of pumps, fans, and valves working through miles of ducts and piping. Add the electronics, the flows of reaction mass feeding plasma thrusters for use in an atmosphere and the High Drive which more efficiently combined matter and antimatter in vacuum, and the crew itself, there was a background that made it hard to talk across a compartment in a normal voice. Five hundred human beings breathing in a steel box stirred an echoing windstorm all by itself.

    Daniel touched the virtual keyboard, sequencing the holographic screen from a systems schematic, through an astrogation display, the Plot-Position Indicator, and finally an attack board. Finally he returned to the schematic.

    The keyboard was projected over a fascia plate which had a roughened surface; the Sissie’s console had been smooth when new and by now was worn to minute dips and rises by the touch of Daniel’s fingers. He grinned. Adele had told him that he typed as though he thought his fingers were pummeling the ship into obedience.

    Well, the technique had served him well thus far. If the fascia proved a real problem, one of Pasternak’s technicians would either grind it smooth or fill the indentations with hull sealant. It wouldn’t be a problem, though.

    “Command Group, this is Six,” Daniel said, verbally directing his commo helmet’s AI to open a channel to the cruiser’s commissioned and warrant officers. “We’ll be lifting off shortly. Chief of Ship, do you have anomalies to report, over?”

    A line of miniature heads, real-time images, appeared at the top of his display. If Daniel wanted, he could dispense with the images or have them float around the interstices of the schematics instead of squashing the main display down slightly. He liked having the faces in his peripheral vision, though he almost never looked directly at them.

    There were many more faces than he was used to. As with the fascia plate, that would become normal soon.

    “Sir, the flows are normal and all the hatches say they’re sealed,” said Pasternak. “I won’t learn better till we’re in vacuum and then I figure I’ll learn, I’ve never taken a ship up first time after an overhaul that some bloody thing wasn’t wrong. But not yet. Five out.”

    “Chief of Rig, anything to report, over?” Daniel said.

    “Squared away, Six,” Woetjans said. She sounded like she had a mouthful of gravel. “Rig out.”

    Daniel smiled at the contrast between the two chiefs. It was almost a given that on a ship the size of the Milton, some clamp or joint of the new rigging would fracture under the vibration and stresses of the first liftoff. The bosun felt that she could fix whatever happened, though she knew there’d be failures; whereas the Chief Engineer felt there’d be failures, though he knew he’d be able to fix them.

    Daniel was convinced that they were both as good at their jobs as any other pair in the RCN. He had to admit that he preferred Woetjans’ attitude, though.

    He glanced toward his left side, where Adele sat at the signals console with her back to him. She and Pasternak had a good deal in common; but in her case, Daniel knew there was nobody who could claim to be her equal.

    The bridge of the Milton was larger than that of the Princess Cecile, though the compartments were much closer in size than the ships were. The corvette needed the same consoles–command, astrogation, missiles, gunnery, and signals–as a heavy cruiser. Each of the Milton’s stations was back-to-back with a full display for a striker rather than the Sissie’s jumpseats with rudimentary controls, and there was more space between the cruiser’s stations. Still, the volume was doubled rather greater by an order of magnitude.

    Daniel had rotated the command console to face the stern. Sun and Adele, gunnery and signals, were to starboard. Sun was backed by a technician named Ragi Sekaly, who’d held the rating of gunner’s mate on a destroyer. Sekaly had technically been senior to Sun on the Navy House books, but a ship’s captain had authority to promote any qualified spacer into an empty slot.

    There were RCN officers–most officers, truth to tell–who expected a gift of the subordinate’s first month’s wages in exchange for the promotion, but Daniel didn’t need the money. Indeed, he hadn’t thought much about money even when he had needed it, a matter of some irritation to Hogg in past years.

    Sun was skilled, trustworthy, and a companion from Daniel’s first cruise in command of the Princess Cecile. The Learys expected loyalty from their tenants, but they gave loyalty in return. A good principle on the Bantry estate continued to be a good one when applied to the company of an RCN warship.

    Nearest the command console on the port side was astrogation, where Lieutenant Vesey was working on a course projection. Daniel could’ve echoed it to see what course it was–or asked her, for that matter–but it didn’t matter.

    He doubted that Vesey was plotting their route to Paton and Karst, since she would’ve done that days ago when she’d learned the cruiser’s mission. More likely she was preparing in case Captain Leary decided abruptly to raid some base in the heart of the Alliance, perhaps even the Castle System itself. It had happened before; and Vesey, while not a fighting officer with an instinct for the enemy’s weakness, could be counted on to do anything that allowed her time for prediction.

    Midshipman Cazelet sat on the mirror side of Vesey’s station, observing her plot but not involved in it. He’d been Adele’s, well, protégé, one would have to call him: a youth who’d fled to her from the Alliance because she owed a similar debt to his grandmother.

    Daniel hadn’t hesitated when Adele asked him to give Cazelet a midshipman’s slot. Daniel had been impressed by Cazelet’s skills when the fellow had travelled as Adele’s assistant on the previous voyage; and anyway, he’d have backed Adele’s judgment even if he’d disagreed with it. Adele was a Leary, now, for all she was Mundy of Chatsworth. The Learys took care of their own.

    Vesey and Cazelet had spent some of their off-duty time together. Daniel didn’t consider that any of his business–another way in which he differed from many RCN captains–unless it affected performance.

    That had been a problem with Vesey in the past, and not simply involving her personal relationships. Though a crackerjack officer in most respects, Vesey had a tendency to hammer herself when things didn’t go to plan. Most matters involving human beings and the cosmos generally went off the rails at some point, and when they did they were likely to take Vesey along with them.

    Still, if Cazelet managed to avoid getting killed the way Vesey’s fiancé had been, it ought to be all right. The trouble was, violent death was a common hazard of wearing an RCN uniform.



    Borries, the Chief Missileer, was one of a dozen Pellegrinians aboard. They’d been captured on Dunbar’s World and had decided service in the RCN was a better alternative than going home to learn exactly how angry their dictator was that they’d survived a battle which had claimed the life of his only.

    The missile station display showed a view of the dockyard, but Borries was looking past it toward the command console. He nodded when Daniel’s eyes glanced onto him.

    He was Daniel’s most doubtful appointment: he’d been a good choice for the Princess Cecile, but many Cinnabar-born senior missileers had bid for transfer to the Milton. Captain Leary had the reputation of finding a battle, and battles were the only chance a missileer had to shine.

    Daniel had nevertheless brought Borries with him. The Pellegrinian was skilled, but he was also willing to defer to a captain who liked to set up his own attacks. The last thing Daniel needed was a power struggle with a member of his own command group in the middle of combat.

    The missileer’s mate was Seth Chazanoff. He was new to Daniel’s command, a Cinnabar native with a flair for the short-range computations that were in some ways more difficult than the long shots more typical of space battles. He’d been chief missileer on a destroyer at a higher base pay that he’d get as mate even on a heavy cruiser. The fact he’d been willing to take a pay cut to have a better chance of practicing his murderous specialty was enough to convince Daniel to take him aboard.

    Across the compartment from the missileers sat Adele at the signals station, using her personal data unit as a controller for the console. Daniel assumed that there was some coupling loss incurred by slaving the larger unit to a small one, but when Adele was the operator, nobody would notice it.

    She didn’t look up, but Daniel was pretty sure that his was the face inset onto her display. Adele preferred imagery to a physical presence and preferred recorded data to the evidence of her own senses. It worked for her, and what Adele did worked very well for the Republic as well as for her friend Daniel Leary.

    Midshipman Cory had the rear couch of the signals console. He had always struck Daniel as somewhat slow-witted–which wasn’t, of course, a barrier to advancement in the RCN. The odd thing about Cory was that he kept learning–not quickly or easily, but consistently. He made mistakes that almost nobody else would’ve made, but he only made them once. There were successful admirals who couldn’t say that much.

    Adele would be listening to intercepted transmissions while Cory was handling the ship’s normal flow of communications. Daniel didn’t imagine that any useful information would appear in the chatter of a private shipyard on Cinnabar, but it was habit and practice for Adele.

    She would do the same thing whenever her vessel was on a planetary surface. Several times her electronic eavesdropping had saved their mission and not coincidentally their lives.

    “Lieutenant Robinson,” said Daniel. “Any anomalies to report, over?”

    “Sir, the ship is ready to lift,” Robinson replied from the BDC. “Would you like me to initiate liftoff sequence, over?”

    No, I bloody well would not like you to take my new command up the first time I’m aboard her, Daniel thought. Aloud he said, “Negative, Three. Break. Mister Pasternak, you may light your thrusters in sequence, out.”

    “Roger, Six,” said Pasternak with gloomy enthusiasm. “Lighting Group A… now! Lighting Group H.”

    The ship rang as though a pipe somewhere in her bowels were hammering. Steam roaring up from the pool smothered the hollow boom of the thrusters themselves. They were running at low output with their nozzles flared to minimize impulse. The Milton was coming alive, but she couldn’t yet be said to be straining against gravity.

    Thrusters ionized reaction mass, generally water, and expelled it as plasma, lifting ships through the troposphere to where they could safely switch to their High Drive motors. Ships could lift from–and land on–dry ground, but their exhausts scarred the surface and hurled chunks out like a fragmentation bomb.

    If the thrusters hit a harmonic, they could set up a standing wave between the hull and an unyielding surface. A captain who reacted quickly could still land by changing the frequency or nozzle angle, but an inexperienced or ham-handed officer might flip his ship on its side in a heartbeat.

    “Lighting Group B,” Pasternak reported. The pattern of the cruiser’s minute rocking changed, though not in a fashion that Daniel could’ve identified if he hadn’t known what it was. “Lighting Group G.”

    Most large warships grouped their thrusters. The Milton’s thirty-two nozzles were controlled in lettered quartets, starting from the starboard bow. Daniel knew that even with sufficient technicians in the Power Room to keep track of thirty-two separate thrusters, coordination would’ve been impossible. He missed the feeling of flexibility that the Sissie’s individual throttles had given him, though he supposed–

    He grinned.

    –if he pretended that the cruiser had eight thrusters instead of eight sets of thrusters, it was the same thing.

    “Lighting Group C, lighting Group F,” Pasternak said. The ship trembled again.

    The band across the bottom of Daniel’s display was set to a 360o real-time panorama of the Milton’s surroundings. Though the pickup lenses were on the upper hull, high above the surface of the pool, a blanket of steam and sparkling ions hid the view. Occasionally they gave a glimpse of the roof of the shop building.

    Even at minimal thrust, the Milton was starting to feel greasy. The thunder of steam and plasma would’ve made it impossible to hold a conversation on the bridge without the intercom and the sound-canceling field of each console.

    “Lighting Group D, Lighting Group E,” Pasternak said. “All thrusters lighted. All numbers are within parameters. Six, we’re green to go. Five out.”

    Daniel checked his schematic, not because he doubted the Chief Engineer but because he always checked his schematic. Each group was in the 95th percentile for flow, throttle response, and output. Furthermore, all four thrusters within each group were within 2% of their three fellows, which could be even more important.

    The pool was a roiling hell-storm as the sea rushed through a canal to replace the steam vaporized by the thrusters. In the cruiser’s stern, two pumps sucked water up forty-inch tubes, continuing to top off the tanks of reaction mass till the very instant she lifted from Cinnabar.

    The Milton was bucking like a skiff in a riptide. It was time.

    “Ship, this is Six,” Daniel said, raising the flow to the thrusters with the collective throttle. “Prepare to lift. I say again, prepare to lift.”

    Often mass flow and nozzle aperture were handled by two officers on liftoff. At another time, Daniel might hand one or both tasks off to subordinates–but not now.

    With the flow at 80%, he smoothly rotated the vernier which caused the petals of the thruster nozzles to iris down, focusing the plasma which until then had been dissipated as widely as possible. The cruiser throbbed with intention.

    Thrust balanced gravity, then overcame it. The great ship surged upward on a pillow of steam and plasma.

    “We have liftoff!” cried the speakers in the voice of Lieutenant Robinson.

    The RCS Milton was headed to the stars on her first voyage under Cinnabar colors.

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