Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Friday, February 20, 2009 00:51 EST



Port Hegemony, Karst

    “Six, this is Three,” said Lieutenant Commander Robinson, using the command channel instead of a two-way link. “All post-landing procedures are complete, over.”

    The Milton rang in a dozen different keys as elements of her hull and outriggers cooled to the surface temperature of Karst. Daniel found the most unexpected difference between the heavy cruiser and the Princess Cecile was how much longer–and noisier–the process of reaching ambiance after landing was on the larger ship.

    “Roger, Three,” said Daniel. “Break. Ship, this is Six. I’m going to open her up. You can deal with the bumboats to your heart’s content–”

    Hearts’ content wasn’t high in the list of what spacers wanted after a voyage, even the relatively short four days from Paton, but the harbor’s little trading craft would provide booze and negotiable affection in sufficient quantity.

    “–but liberty won’t start for six hours. I need that long to get a handle on the social–”

    He meant “political,” of course.

    “–temperature here, Millies. Those of you who’ve served with me in the past know that I’ll give you liberty as soon as I can. Those of you who haven’t, well–remember that I’m a Leary of Bantry, and I’m not even a little bit interested in your opinion. Six out.”

    Adele was extremely busy, which was only to be expected immediately after landing in a foreign port. All foreign ports were potentially hostile, of course, though if that were more than a theoretical possibility here, Daniel wouldn’t have brought the Milton down to the surface.

    The AFS Merkur, an Alliance destroyer most recently assigned to Admiral Anton Petersen’s squadron in the Montserrat Stars, was already in the harbor; she was unquestionably hostile. A destroyer wasn’t a threat to a heavy cruiser, of course; but the fact an Alliance vessel was here in the capital of the Hegemony would’ve been worrisome even without the previous reports of the new Headman’s doubtful attitude toward Cinnabar.

    “Mister Robinson,” Daniel said, switching back to the command push manually, “you may open her up. Six out.”

    Robinson didn’t bother to give an order. When he activated the undogging mechanism of the main hatch, the sound of bolts withdrawing echoed through the cruiser from the entry hold. Spacers all over the vessel cranked open ports and access panels in response, letting in air that hadn’t been processed repeatedly from a fugg of lubricants, hot electronics, and close-packed humans.

    Daniel smiled. The only reason the crew had waited this long was that they knew that Senator Forbes was aboard. They weren’t going to embarrass the RCN and their captain by acting in a fashion that a civilian would consider undisciplined. And if any present crewmembers didn’t understand that basic bit of courtesy, there were plenty of former Sissies around who’d provide the lesson with a quick boot or a fist.

    An orange legend pulsed along the bottom of the command display, overlaying the schematic of expendable stores: SENATOR FORBES HAS ENTERED THE BRIDGE. Adele considered it her business to inform the captain of anything she thought he needed to know.

    Forbes, her secretary, and her male bimbo had all entered the compartment. Two Marines were stationed in the hatchway, but they’d chosen not to prevent these particular unauthorized entries.

    That was a good thing. If they’d made the Senator angry, Daniel would’ve had to protect them because they were carrying out his orders. That would have been unfortunate.

    He collapsed his holographic display and smiled brightly. “Good afternoon, Senator,” he said brightly. “By local time, that is. I thought the Millie made a very smooth landing, didn’t you? You’ve brought us luck on our maiden voyage.”

    “I believe I warned you once about trying to manipulate me, did I not, Leary?” said Senator Forbes. Her voice was as harsh as usual, and even louder than the background chorus of the starship’s cooling fabric required.

    “Yes, Excellency, you did,” Daniel said. “The Millie is a big ship, Alliance-built and straight from a major rebuild. All those things mean her crew can expect trouble. I pushed her hard on the run to Paton, and then from Paton to Karst. She performed like a fully worked-up thoroughbred.”

    He coughed to insert the necessary pause. This was tricky, but he had to penetrate Forbes’ general anger at the world. Otherwise, sure as the sun rose, that anger would find a way to crucify him in the course of this embassy.

    “If you choose to be offended that I consider you a lucky charm, so be it,” he said, bowing slightly. “But the Milton’s very important to me, Senator, and that is how I feel.”

    Forbes wore her official robes, flowing white with only the thin black hem of a back-bencher. Daniel noticed–because Speaker Leary’s son noticed this sort of detail as surely as a naturalist noticed a lizard’s breeding coloration–that the robes were new. When Forbes gave up her cabinet post as a result of losing the Speakership struggle, she hadn’t simply removed the broad red stripe she’d worn as Minister of Finance.

    Forbes’ face broke into a grudging smile. “I see why you have the reputation you do with women, Leary,” she said. “Well, I suppose I don’t mind being treated as a woman occasionally. I trust the aircar is ready?”

    The regular establishment of a heavy cruiser included an aircar when the vessel served as a flagship. In the present instance the Milton carried two aircars, but one was disassembled and intended as a spare in event of an accident.

    “Chief Pasternak loaded it at the front of a G Level hold,” Daniel said, nodding agreeably. “The driver’s warming it up already.”

    Daniel didn’t know the Milton well enough yet to identify the sound of ducted fans running up in a hold just above the waterline, but he’d done an optical check on the compartment as soon as they were settled on the surface. If there was a problem, he wanted to know about it before Forbes asked. Fortunately, there didn’t appear to be one.

    “The driver will fly it to the dock, where you and your party can board in safety.” Daniel paused, coughed, and went on, “Ah, Senator? Will you want members of the ship’s company with you?”

    “I’ll take you, my nephew, and Lady Mundy,” Forbes said. “The ones who won’t embarrass me, of course. Where is Mundy?”

    “Remember where we are, your Excellency,” her effeminate secretary said. “An engine wiper would raise the tone of the Headman’s palace, I’m sure.”

    “I regret that I won’t be able to accompany you, your Excellency,” said Adele, seated at the signals console as usual. She was wearing utilities, which meant the Senator’s mind had completely disregarded her when she glanced about the bridge. “I’m not dressed for visiting.”

    Almost as an afterthought, she turned and looked up. She met Forbes’ startled expression and added, “Duty calls, you’ll appreciate.”

    “Oh, surely!” said the secretary. “Senator Forbes is more important than your grubby little files!”

    “Hold your tongue, Platt…,” said Forbes. The threat was all the more credible because she didn’t raise her voice. “Or I’ll have it removed!”

    Even a senators are afraid of Adele’s other employer, Daniel thought. Because it wasn’t fear of Admiral Vocaine that drew such an angry response from Forbes.

    “I’m ready, your Excellency,” Daniel said calmly, touching the lapel of his 1st Class uniform. He was wearing his foreign medals, which tended to be a great deal flashier than those which the RCN awarded. “I’ll check with Robinson, who may want to change uniform for a formal occasion.”



    Under other circumstances Daniel might have objected to both the captain and the first lieutenant leaving the Milton at the same time, but in truth the result suited him quite well. Vesey would be in charge. She wasn’t a better officer than Robinson, but if the situation went badly wrong–and Daniel didn’t have to see the Merkur seven slips away to know that it might–Vesey would defer to Adele. Given the fashion in which things were most likely to go wrong, Adele was the proper person to decide countermeasures.

    “Oh, Danny’s ready,” said Forbes with a dismissive wave. “I told him back on Paton that I’d want you all along. Well, it goes without saying, doesn’t it?”

    It shouldn’t have gone without First Lieutenant Robinson saying something to his captain, Daniel thought, but he merely smiled. He touched the commo bead clipped to his left epaulette and said, “Mister Robinson, join her Excellency and myself in the entry hold, if you will. Break, Ship, the vessel will be under the command of Lieutenant Vesey until Three or I return. Six out.”

    He nodded to Forbes and went on, “Your Excellency, I’ll lead the way if you don’t mind. A ship this size is something of a maze, and you don’t want to get lost on the way to the entry hold.”

    Woetjans waited in the corridor just outside the bridge. She’d slung a stocked impeller, but the length of high-pressure tubing stuck under her belt reflected her personal taste in weapons.

    “Beg your pardon, Cap’n Leary,” the bosun said with what for her was unusual formality. “The car’s rated for twelve, but I figure we can squeeze in eight of us; and more if the civvies stay here on the Millie till we’ve checked out the locals, hey?”

    She grinned at Hogg and said, “Not you, buddy,” and then glanced down at Senator Forbes. Beyond the fact that they were both remarkably unattractive women, they were a complete contrast.

    “And I don’t mean you neither, ma’am,” Woetjans said. “You gotta come, I see that, but you’ll want folks around who can get you out of trouble if they have to, and this poofter–”

    The contemptuous thumb she jerked toward Platt was as brown and gnarled as a briar root.

    “–can’t cut it.”

    “Chief,” said Daniel sharply, knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to save the situation but trying to anyway, “this is a friendly embassy to a civilized–”

    “Leary, get this oaf, this animal, out of my sight!” said Senator Forbes. “I swear if I see her again, I’ll have her dismissed from the service right here on Karst! Get her out!”

    “Woetjans, to the BDC, now!” Daniel said. He pointed down the A Level corridor. “Now!”

    “Aye-aye sir!” the bosun said. She turned and set off for the BDC at a shambling trot. She wasn’t used to running–riggers preferred to shuffle with both magnetic boots on the surface–but her legs were long and they took her out of the range of Forbes’ anger before another blast issued.

    Woetjans didn’t argue, of course: she behaved reflexively the way any chief of rig behaved when the captain bellowed something in that tone.

    And Daniel hadn’t argued that a senator was out of Woetjans’ chain of command and that he as her captain would make any necessary decisions regarding her punishment. Given that Woetjans was simply being zealous in the fashion that had stood the Republic in good stead many times during her service under Daniel, there wasn’t going to be any punishment.

    Which didn’t mean that Daniel was going to baulk the ambassador’s quite reasonable irritation. Forbes hadn’t been the sort of places Woetjans–and Daniel–had been; just as Woetjans didn’t understand that Port Hegemony at present wasn’t one of those places.

    Forbes glared in fury at the bosun’s retreating back. It struck Daniel that it was a bad idea to insult and threaten people who were enthusiastically willing to put themselves between you and danger, even if you didn’t feel that their sacrifice would be required. Indeed, that might be one of the more important differences between a man who was still called Speaker Leary, long years after he’d surrendered the post, and a woman who’d risen to a major ministry but was now fleeing her colleagues’ derision.

    “And Leary?” said Forbes, her eyes still glittering after she shifted them onto Daniel. “That servant of yours isn’t going either.”

    “Your Excellency…,” said Hogg, his hands jammed deep in his side pockets. The fact he bothered to get the form of address right showed how worried he was. “Look, I think–”

    “I don’t want that scruff anywhere near me, do you hear?” Forbes said in a steeply rising inflection. She didn’t look at Hogg. “We’re here to impress the Headman, not convince him that Cinnabar is a haven for subnormal yokels!”

    “I wonder, Senator Forbes?” said Adele, unexpectedly rising from her console. “Would you mind terribly if my servant Tovera joined your party? I’d regard it as a favor.”

    Tovera got up from one of the pair of jumpseats framing the hatch; the cushion thumped against the bulkhead. She wore a beige business suit. It was clean but utilitarian instead of being a marvel of tailored simplicity like the suits Adele wore now that prize money permitted her to act the part of Mundy of Chatsworth when her duties required it.

    Adele made a slight gesture to direct the senator’s eyes. Forbes frowned, but puzzlement had replaced the anger of moments before.

    “I know which fork to use at dinner, your Excellency,” Tovera said. A spider cajoling a fly to come closer couldn’t have sounded more calmly reasonable.

    “What an excellent idea!” said Daniel. Not for the first time, Adele had provided a single neat solution to several problems–which in this case included punishing Forbes for her behavior to a Leary’s retainers. “Not only will you be helping Lady Mundy in her duties–”

    He smiled broadly to emphasize the threat.

    “–but Tovera’s presence will help morale.”

    He didn’t say whose morale would be improved; in fact, he thought the whole ship’s company would breathe a little easier to know that Tovera was going along with Six. He wasn’t sure that anybody aboard the Milton really liked Adele’s servant, but she was universally respected.

    Hogg grinned at Forbes. When he chose to–as now–he could manage to look as though his intellect would rise if his brain were replaced by a rutabaga. “I’ll tell you, Excellency,” he said. “I know which fork to use at dinner too. Only with me, you’d have to worry I’d steal them, you see?”

    “Shall we go, your Excellency?” said Daniel. “I’m sure Mister Robinson is waiting.”

    He stepped nonchalantly through the hatch. He didn’t look behind him until he reached the companionway to see if Forbes and her party were following. They all were.

    Tovera was at the end of the line. She grinned when she caught Daniel’s eye.



    Adele was in her element. She could even have described herself as happy, if the concept hadn’t seemed so foreign. She smiled into her display.

    The Headman’s Palace was at Angouleme, in the mountains–well, the chain of moderate hills–twenty miles northeast of Port Hegemony and the commercial city sprawling around the docks. Adele was ready to use the Headman’s own apparatus to eavesdrop on the embassy, but at the moment Senator Forbes and her companions were waiting for clearance to land within the palace compound.

    There was no lack of things to do for those who remained aboard the Milton. Everybody seemed cheerfully busy, rather like the pixies in the fairy tale who bustled to clean a house while its human occupants slept.

    Siegel, the armorer, was issuing small arms to some hundreds of the crew. Inevitably there’d been accidental discharges, but there were no casualties more serious than burns from where an iridium slug hit a bulkhead and vaporized both itself and a divot of steel the size of a pie plate. Well, no serious casualties yet.

    The forty Marines had their separate arms locker adjacent to the bridge. Their commander, Major Aran Mull, was running them through bayonet drill in a bulk storage hold on G Level, emptied of grain during the voyage from Cinnabar. Despite how deep in the ship they were, Adele occasionally heard the attenuated snarl, “…to kill! To kill!” through open the hatches.

    She smiled again.

    “Mistress?” said Midshipman Cory, who must’ve been watching. He was at the console siamesed at the back with hers, but he had a miniature of her face on his display and speaking through a two-way link.

    “I was wondering if there are stories about pixies who carry out house clearing, Cory,” Adele said. “I was too serious a child to have a really solid grounding in fairy tales, I’m afraid.”

    Cory’s image blinked at her. “Ah–pixies, as little people who sprinkle stardust, mistress?” he said.

    “That sounds like the sort of thing they might do, yes,” she said, smiling minusculely broader. The fact that she could be whimsical was absolute proof that she was in a good mood. “But it isn’t a serious concern at present. Go back to your databases.”

    Headman Terl had been a close ally of the Republic for many years, so Cinnabar had sold him information-handling systems as good as those in the major ministries of the Republic. If every clerk carried out proper security precautions, Adele would have found entering them by brute force to be very difficult and perhaps impossible.

    Realistically, not every clerk was properly careful. While at home, Adele had browsed through the databases of finance, foreign affairs, and especially the navy as often for fun as for need. What was true in Xenos became true in spades the farther one got into the hinterlands. Karst was a wealthy, important world; but it was a very long way from Xenos or Pleasaunce.

    The situation on Karst was simpler yet, however. Every data console sold to the Hegemony had a back door which allowed someone with the codes to enter it as quickly as the designated operators. Very few people even in Mistress Sand’s organization knew of this facility, but Adele was one of them.

    Cory went back to the task she had set him, culling data from the Headman’s government. There was more than was useful even for cursory perusal, of course, but there was a rule of thumb that Adele had found worked very well when she didn’t have a particular object of search: start with the items which were protected at the highest levels of security and, as time permits, work down toward open files.

    She trusted Cory–certainly he would never deliberately act to harm either her or the Republic. There was no need for him to know how she’d entered the Hegemony systems, however, so she hadn’t told him. She’d established the pathway and then handed it over to the midshipman to exploit.

    At the console adjacent to Adele’s, Sun was setting up gunnery assignments. Initially he’d prioritized every target which the dorsal plasma cannon could hit while the Milton floated in her slip. The first target was the Merkur, though a freighter from Valladolid was berthed between the two warships. Sun calculated that three eight-inch bolts at this short range would remove the obstruction, permitting a fourth round to rip the destroyer in half.

    A few years ago, Adele would’ve thought that Sun’s calculations were appalling. Now she merely found them interesting… which was also appalling, but only to a civilian. Adele Mundy was no longer a civilian.

    Across the bridge from the gunnery console, Borries choosing missile targets. The word “target” really begged the question, because there was almost no possibility that a missile launched in an atmosphere would hit its aiming point.

    High Drive motors inevitably sprayed antimatter into their exhaust. Missiles were intended for use in a vacuum, where that was of no consequence. In a bath of normal matter, however, the mutual annihilation devoured the missile and probably portions of the ship it was launched from. The chief missileer and his striker in the BDC made their calculations anyway, just in case the need justified the cost.

    Adele had blocked the audio of most messages, including the command channel. The inevitable chatter appeared as text blocks on the right border of her display. She’d exempted a few officers, though: Vesey and Blantyre, because of long association; Woetjans, because anything the bosun had to say was important; Cory, because he seemed to look on Adele as an elder sister and she didn’t choose to treat him with the harshness that would be required to drive him away; and Cazelet, who was her protégé and therefore her responsibility.

    This time the call was Woetjans. “Ma’am?” the bosun said. “We’re getting the boats ready for an assault, you know? Hogg said we ought to ask if you want a place in one of ‘em and which one? There’s three, so it’ll be Blantyre, Cory and me doing the piloting, you see? Over.”

    Adele thought, I really don’t imagine that an assault on the heavily defended Angouleme Palace would be useful or, for that matter, survivable. Aloud she said, “In the event I’ll remain with the Millie where the communications are better. But thank you for asking, over.”

    “Yes ma’am,” said Woetjans. “Ah, ma’am? Hogg’ll be going, and you know Tovera’s already gone to the palace with Six, over?”

    “Thank you,” Adele repeated, more sharply than before. “I was responsible for my own safety for many years, Woetjans. I think I remember how to go about it. Signals out.”

    “Yes ma’am,” said Woetjans. “Sorry ma’am. Rig out.”



    The Milton carried three spaceboats equipped with plasma thrusters rather than High Drive. They had neither rigging to sail the Matrix nor the powerful computer that would’ve been necessary to control such a rig. Their purpose was simply to ferry up to twenty people apiece between orbit and a planetary surface, or in rare instances between ships in sidereal space.

    The boats were comfortably appointed as they would often be carrying officers or other dignitaries. They had no integral armament nor any easy way to add weapons, and the single one-person hatch of each was completely unsuited for a combat assault. That wouldn’t prevent the Millies, or at least the former Sissies among them, from trying to fly through batteries of antiship missiles and plasma cannon to capture the Headman’s palace.

    And if worse came to worst, Signals Officer Mundy would be jamming the fire control systems of those missiles and cannon, because the cruiser’s complement included spacers and Marines who would be very nearly as useful as she was for a close-in assault. Nobody Adele had met could disrupt an enemy’s defensive computers as effectively as she could.

    She brushed the pistol in her pocket with the edge of her left hand, then went back to her own business. It wouldn’t come to an assault.

    Though if it did, Cory and Cazelet might between them manage something useful on the computers. Whereas she very much doubted that anybody else aboard the Milton had put as many people down with quick aimed shots as she had.

    She’d given Rene Cazelet the task of gathering data from the other ships in Port Hegemony, starting with those under the Hydriote flag. There shouldn’t be anything tricky about their security systems, but the nomenclature and shorthand of merchant vessels were quite different from those of the RCN. Cazelet’s family–before Guarantor Porra had executed his parents–had run a medium-sized shipping line; Rene had been trained as both a spacer and as a port manager before he had to flee for his life.

    If Cory or Cazelet ran into unexpected problems, they’d ask Adele for help. Unless and until that happened, however, she was opening the databases of the AFS Merkur, and great clouds of data were tumbling into view.

    Like all Alliance–and Cinnabar–warships, the Merkur had a separate computer for its encryption procedures. This couldn’t be entered through the destroyer’s communications system, and its storage was probably serving as the diplomatic pouch also. Adele couldn’t touch its contents.

    She could browse all the Merkur’s unsegregated databases, however. One of the ships captured following the Battle of the Jewel System was a light cruiser deadlined at the Alliance base. It had been powered down and its crew had been transferred to active vessels. The ground personnel who surrendered the base to the victorious RCN squadron had forgotten–or hadn’t known to begin with–to set off the self-destruction charge in the cruiser’s encryption computer. As a result, Mistress Sand’s organization had the Fleet’s daily code sets for the next three months.

    Adele knew that the Merkur carried an embassy to Headman Hieronymos. She didn’t have the details that the segregated computer would’ve given her, but those weren’t difficult to imagine when she compared the names of the envoys with the up-to-date Fleet personnel list which was part of the kit which Mistress Sand had provided to Adele.

    The leader of the delegation was Captain Stewart Greathouse. He was the cousin of Admiral Petersen, the Alliance commander in the Montserrat Stars, and acted as the admiral’s aide and confidant.

    The other two envoys were the Cohen brothers, Alexander and Melvin. Though Fleet lieutenants, they’d been born on Karst. Twenty years previously they’d been whisked into exile when their grandfather was implicated in a plot against Headman Terl.

    Without access to the diplomatic files, Adele could only speculate about the specifics of Admiral Petersen’s embassy. More information was probably available through the Hegemony databases, but Cory was on that; indeed, unless Adele was badly mistaken Daniel and Senator Forbes would very shortly have personal experience of what the Alliance was about. She went back to the destroyer’s operational logs.

    The Merkur had been part of the Alliance fleet operating near New Harmony, the forward base for Admiral Ozawa’s RCN forces in the Montserrat Stars. The two fleets were roughly equal, each comprised of four battleships and a comparable number of attendant vessels.

    Cinnabar’s infrastructure in the cluster, however, was very shaky. Admiral Ozawa had brought his fleet to New Harmony in large measure to keep the government of that important world from declaring neutrality or even switching its support to the Alliance.

    At the bottom of Adele’s screen, a text crawl read AIRCAR WITH SIX JUST LANDED IN OUTER COURT OF HEADMAN’S PALACE. Adele shifted the visual feeds from Daniel’s commo unit and Tovera’s case to the upper left quadrant of her display, though she left the audio in record mode for now.

    Vesey had sent the alert. It was typical of that tense, thoughtful officer that she chose text rather than voice, providing the information without interrupting whatever task Adele was involved with.

    It was one of Vesey’s great strengths as an officer that she always thought several steps ahead of any action. It was her personal curse, however, that the options expanding from that foresight tore her apart. She never became too paralyzed to act, but sometimes she didn’t act as quickly as a crisis demanded.

    Adele returned her attention to the Merkur’s log, digging deeper into the operational files. Her mouth suddenly went dry, though she continued to read and excerpt the information that she was uncovering.

    There’d been a battle off New Harmony. The log of a destroyer wasn’t the best source from which to gain an overview of a major fleet action, but the general thrust of the information was clear enough.

    Admiral Petersen had won a stunning victory. All four RCN battleships had been destroyed.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image