Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Friday, March 20, 2009 06:50 EDT



En route to US1528

“Your Master Cazelet tells me that the Matrix from a masthead is the most spectacular thing I’ll ever see,” Forbes said. “But Lady Mundy doesn’t seem as convinced. Which of them is right, Leary?”

    “I’m in agreement with Cazelet,” Daniel said. “I suspect that if it were possible to display imagery of the Matrix on Officer Mundy’s data unit, she’d be more impressed with it.”

    While he pulled on the stiff sections of his rigging suit, Tovera was dressing the Senator in an air suit. Daniel would have been happier if the Senator were wearing a hard suit also, but the gear really was impossibly clumsy until you got used to it.

    Mind, he’d have been happier still if Forbes hadn’t decided to take a jaunt on the hull. Rene Cazelet was right in his enthusiasm, but it wouldn’t be his responsibility if the Senator managed to kill herself by ripping her air suit wider than Daniel could fix with one of the emergency patches he was carrying on his equipment belt.

    He grinned faintly. Adele had never managed to get used to a hard suit either. The chance that she’d awkwardly tear her suit on a sharp corner was less of a concern than that a rigging suit would make her stumble and she’d drift off into the Matrix as a miniature universe. Besides that, she’d gotten scrapes and bruises from the inside every time she’d worn a hard suit. Adele’s comfort wasn’t as high a priority to the RCN as her safety–neither was important to Officer Mundy herself–but when there wasn’t an obvious improvement in safety, comfort had to count for something.

    The same was true of Senator Forbes, Daniel supposed, though despite being a former minister he doubted that anybody would be terribly upset if she had a fatal accident now that the embassy to Headman Hieronymos had failed. Forbes had a sharp mind, however, and when pushed didn’t hesitate to do what she’d decided was necessary. Daniel had served under RCN officers who lacked both those virtues.

    “Will I be able to see this Alliance base from out there?” Forbes said. “I’ve heard that distances aren’t the same when we’re in space as they are on the ground.”

    “Not yet,” said Tovera as she stepped behind Forbes to lift the torso of the air suit. “Now, your Excellency. Put your right hand into the hole first.”

    “Distances–constants of space and time–in the universes through which we travel in the Matrix do differ from ours, your Excellency,” Daniel said. He’d had to blank his face to avoid staring in disbelief at such a, well, ignorant question. “But not so that we’ll be able to see US1528. We won’t do that until we extract into sidereal space after another two days sailing.”

    Twenty feet down the corridor, Hogg was chatting with the Senator’s bedmate DeNardo. The fellow had a equable temper and had proven willing to lend spacers a hand when his considerable muscles would be helpful. Obviously Forbes trusted him, though she probably wasn’t one to indulge in pillow talk.

    Daniel wanted DeNardo at a distance because he wasn’t very bright. While he wouldn’t consciously betray the Senator, it wouldn’t take a skilled interrogator to lead DeNardo to repeat any discussion he remembered. Hogg could keep him occupied; Tovera could help the Senator on with her suit–what was true for DeNardo was true in spades for spacers given a chance to impress their messmates; and Daniel could chat with Forbes without concern that anyone else would hear about their discussions.

    “Captain Leary?” said Tovera obsequiously. “Are you ready for me to close down her Excellency’s helmet?”

    “Yes,” said Daniel. He locked down his own face-plate, then patted his belt to make sure the brass communication wand was in the tooled leather scabbard which the craftsmen of Bantry had sewn for it unasked. Wearing a hard suit he could only look down by bending at the waist, which wasn’t a useful way to determine what you were wearing on a waist belt.

    He smiled, gestured the Senator ahead of him into the cruiser’s forward dorsal airlock, and set the inner valve to close behind them as he followed her.

    The Milton had eight locks instead of the Sissie’s four, and each chamber was big enough to hold sixteen riggers–or twenty, if they were good friends. It felt oddly wrong to Daniel that he shared such a volume with only one other person.

    He grinned at the thought. He grinned at most things. On average, Adele and I smile the usual number of times in a day. That thought made him grin more broadly.

    The light in the chamber began to flatten as pumps drew the air out. Forbes looked first startled, then concerned. Daniel leaned close to touch helmets–the wand would be more trouble than it was worth–and said, “This is normal, your Excellency. An atmosphere scatters light, so things look a little different. But there’s no problem.”

    The telltale on the outer lock door switched from red to green. Daniel tugged the safety line attached to his belt, then clipped the end to the staple in the center of the Senator’s chest plate.

    “Just shuffle your feet, your Excellency,” he said, then touched the hatch switch. The airlock swung slowly outward. Daniel put an arm around the Senator’s shoulders to guide as well as to reassure her. They stepped into the flaring wonder of the Matrix.

    Forbes placed her right foot on the hull. She froze with her left foot still inside the lock chamber, staring upward. Her mouth opened and closed like that of a carp on the surface of a pond on a hot day. Daniel weighed alternatives, then half pulled, half lifted the Senator toward him so that he could cycle the airlock closed.

    The cruiser was proceeding with topsails on the port and starboard antennas, and topgallants cocked at 30o on the dorsal and ventral antennas of the G and H rings. From the airlock, just aft of the dorsal antenna of the A ring, only the standing rigging and the antenna itself marred the view of the Matrix.



    Daniel touched the communication wand to the Senator’s helmet. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” he said.

    It’d be even more magnificent from the masthead, but Forbes wasn’t going to get up there unless she managed to drag Daniel along by main force. With luck she wouldn’t remember–or understand–Cazelet’s exact words.

    “Leary, this is…,” Forbes said. “All those stars!”

    “What you’re seeing aren’t stars, your Excellency,” Daniel said, warming to the Senator due to their shared enthusiasm. “Each point of light–”

    He held the wand in his right hand, so he swept his left arm through Forbes’ field of view.

    “–is a universe equal to our own. The colors indicate each one’s energy state in relation to us. That is, in relation to the Millie herself, a bubble universe driven through the Matrix by the pressure of Casimir radiation on her sails. At present, we’re in a much higher energy state than the sidereal universe.”

    Forbes turned her head slowly, taking in the full expanse of sworls and brush strokes of light. “And you control this, Leary?” she said. “You must feel like a god!”

    Daniel thought for a moment. “No, your Excellency,” he said. “But I do feel–”

    As he never did in a temple.

    “–that the Gods are real. Surely beauty like this can’t just have occurred at random?”

    The Senator laughed and turned her gloved palms up. “You’ll have to ask a priest about that,” she said. The rod thinned her voice, but it sounded less harsh than it ordinarily would. “I don’t spend much time with them myself.”

    The dorsal antennas shook out their topsails; the hull quivered in response. On the A ring, the left half of the sail didn’t descend. Two riggers scrambled up the ratlines to open the mispleated fabric.

    Forbes followed the crewmen with her eyes. To Daniel the riggers moved very gracefully, but he didn’t know what a layman saw. At last she said, “Captain Leary, why are we raiding a small Alliance base? What do you hope to find there?”

    “A transport,” Daniel said equably. “Specifically, the Wartburg, a three-thousand tonner out of Bankat. According to movement information from the Merkur’s database, she’s scheduled to take on reaction mass on US1528 about the time we’ll arrive there.”

    “But we’re hiring ships from Hydra,” Forbes said. “Surely they can provide all the capacity we need for the invasion?”

    The Milton was swinging under her new rig. Did Forbes feel the course change or was it lost to her eyes in the majestic, slow swirl of the Matrix?

    “With respect, your Excellency,” Daniel said, “the Hydriotes aren’t providing ships for the invasion. By the contract, and by the oath of a Leary–”

    He didn’t overly stress “and”, because he was sure Forbes would take his meaning without being beaten over the head with it.

    “–Bolton will be in our hands before the first Hydriote vessel lands.”

    He grinned, though the Senator wouldn’t be able to see the expression.

    “Fonthill isn’t a problem, of course, but I can’t say the same of a major Alliance base.”

    Forbes touched the wand with her left hand, then turned to face Daniel. After a moment she said, “I see, Captain. I’d thought this ship herself–”

    She tried to tap the cruiser’s hull with her toe; the magnets in her boots made them too sticky to respond the way she wanted.

    “The ship, as I say,” she went on, “would capture Bolton. But I suppose I can leave those matters safely to you.”

    Forbes stared at the gorgeous, glowing Matrix. “After all,” she said in a voice that Daniel could barely hear. “You rule the heavens, Leary.”



Above US1528

    “Base Control,” said Adele in the accent she’d picked up during the fourteen years she lived on Blythe, working in the Academic Collections. “This AFS Admiral Spee. By order of Admiral Petersen, all liftoffs and landings are embargoed until further notice. Acknowledge, base. Spee over.”

    There was nothing very prepossessing about US1528. Almost half the surface was water, making it a suitable world to refill with reaction mass. The gravity, temperature and atmosphere were all within the human comfort zone. There was even life.

    The problem was that the life was single celled. The most complex forms were an analogue of blue-green algae which built reefs in the tropical oceans. The land was sterile and windswept.

    You couldn’t grow crops without importing the nutrients, so it was simpler to process algae and bacteria into edible blocks that sustained life without providing any reason for living. The Alliance had sited its base on a temperate coastline with minimal repair facilities and a warehouse filled with nutrient blocks; immigrants, contract laborers, and the crews of tramp freighters couldn’t be choosers.

    “What?” said ground control. Adele hadn’t been sure anybody would be awake at the base, so besides the standard microwave communication she’d broadcast on the 20-meter emergency frequency. That set off automatic alarms, no matter how bored and sleepy the staff was.

    “Say again, Spee?” the controller demanded. “This is Transit Base US1528, over.”

    “Base Control,” Adele repeated. “This is AFS Spee! Admiral Petersen has embargoed all movements on your sand pit until we’ve carried out a survey. Do you copy, over?”

    Adele normally tried to sound blasé during this sort of false communication so as not to raise the emotional temperature of the party she was deceiving. This time, because she wasn’t available to help Cazelet and Cory oversee data from the sensors while she was pretending to be an Alliance officer, she probably seemed irritated. That was all right too.

    A caret blinked in a corner of Adele’s display; she opened it. Cory had located the Wartburg, the Alliance freighter they were here to capture. It was in orbit. Still in orbit: it had only arrived minutes ahead of the cruiser rather than having lifted off after refilling with reaction mass.

    “Spee, I don’t understand,” said the bewildered controller. “Why are we embargoed, over?”

    Cory had already transmitted the data on Wartburg to the command console. Just in case Daniel was in the press of other business ignoring an alert from a less-than-brilliant midshipman, Adele ran a crawl at the bottom of his display–WARTBURG IN ORBIT PREPARING TO LAND–and followed it by a duplicated link to the course data.

    Cory didn’t have all the skills that could be wished in an RCN officer, but his knack for communications had positively impressed Adele. She wished him well.

    Openly snarling, she said, “Base, this is Spee! You are not required to understand, you are required to obey. Are you prepared to obey Admiral Petersen’s direct order or not, over?”

    The Wartburg was 200,000 miles out from the planet; a good approximation if her astrogator had brought her there directly out of the Matrix. In all likelihood they’d been lucky to extract in the system the first time, and getting this close had been the result of two or three additional jumps. Freighters didn’t have astrogators trained to RCN standards, nor were their crews large enough for delicate maneuvering with the sails.

    “Spee, this is 2-8 Base,” said a new voice: female and harsh with frustration. “We’re shutting down as requested. There’s nothing here to shut down, Spee. This is the bloody sticks! 2-8 Base out.”

    “Adele,” said Daniel on a two-way link. “Tell the Wartburg to hold where they are and await boarding. Tell them we’ll use an umbilicus to their dorsal airlock. I don’t trust them to have suits, even air suits, for all the crew–but don’t tell them that. Over.”

    “Yes, Daniel,” Adele said. She switched to tight-beam microwave, then reconsidered and aligned a 15.5 Megahertz antenna instead. Starships used their antennas and yards to send and receive short-wave signals. Though a freighter’s maintenance of microwave cones, let alone laser pickups, might be lax to the point of non-existence, a starship in service always had some form of rigging.



    She wasn’t relaxed, precisely, but she felt much less pressured than she had a moment before. US1528 wasn’t protected by a planetary defense array, but the base had shipkilling missiles. The battery might be unserviceable, and even if it did work the Milton was probably above even the extreme range of a ground-based system. Nonetheless, until Adele had bullied the ground crew into acquiescence, there was a possibility that they’d launch and get improbably lucky.

    And it would be her fault. Adele was one of the people who viewed all failures as her fault. She knew that wasn’t rational, but it meant she made fewer repeat errors than the large number of people who were sure that all failures occurred because someone else had made a mistake.

    “Freighter Wartburg,” Adele said, “this is AFS Admiral Spee. Acknowledge, over.”

    A buzzing rumble gripped the cruiser. Powerful magnetic levitators raised the gun turrets minusculely above their tracks and began turning them by precession. Though the rotation was without metal-to-metal contact, the inertia of armored gunhouses and the paired osmium-lined eight-inch gun tubes nonetheless made all the loose fittings in the hull and rigging vibrate like individual steel drums.

    Adele had learned to recognize the sound of gun turrets training aboard the Princess Cecile, but the corvette’s lighter battery didn’t have anything like as great an effect. She smiled coldly. If the Wartburg had decent optics, they were getting a good look at the Milton’s weapons right now. Even at a hundred thousand miles, the bore of an eight-inch plasma cannon was enough to get one’s attention.

    “Wartburg,” Adele repeated, hearing her voice slip into the harsh tone that was never very far beneath the surface. “This is Spee. Respond in the name of Admiral Petersen, over!”

    She was better at using proper communications protocol when she was playing a part than when she was performing the proper duties of an RCN signals officer. She didn’t know what that meant, but in the realm of human behavior Adele didn’t expect to know what much of anything meant.

    “Spee, this is the Wartburg out of the Free City of Willowbend on Tilton,” said an angry, frightened voice. The transmission was on the upper sideband only; because of that and compression, Adele couldn’t be sure of the speaker’s gender. “You have no right to delay us. We haven’t landed, we’ll just proceed to another fueling point and leave you to your business, over.”

    Adele took a deep breath. A lime-green text crawl across the bottom of her display read hold one. She glanced at the inset of Daniel’s image. Rene Cazelet had sent the caution, but he’d been in a discussion with Daniel and Sun while Adele argued with the Alliance captain.

    “Ship, this is Six,” said a grinning Daniel over the intercom. “This is a warning only. Mister Cazelet, go ahead, out.”

    “Wartburg, this is Captain of Space Sir Helmut von Thoma!” Cazelet said. The Spee’s real captain was from Pleasaunce whereas the Cazelets were a Diregean family, but both worlds pronounced ‘mut’ as ‘moot;’ even if the Wartburg’s captain was an improbably good judge of accents and had a Fleet List handy, Rene’s voice would ring true. “You have been directed to heave to by an officer of the Fleet!”

    Daniel, grinning as widely as a Verrucan rubbermonk, dipped his right index finger toward Sun. The gunner, grinning if anything wider toward his gunnery display, stabbed the red button on his virtual keyboard. The RF filter of Adele’s console blanked the spectrum-wide noise of an ion release.

    Even though Adele knew it was coming, the crash of one gun from the dorsal turret made her flinch in her seat. Her previous experience with plasma cannon had been in the midst of battle, when she’d been fully absorbed with her own duties and the sound of gunfire had been lost in the general racket.

Besides that, the Milton’s guns were orders of magnitude more powerful than the Sissie’s four-inch weapons. She’d heard Daniel say that the Milton was overgunned with what were properly battleship cannon. Now that Adele had been subjected to the recoil of an eight-inch gun fired from a cruiser’s hull, she knew what he meant.

    Plasma cannon used a laser array to detonate a bead of deuterium, sending the jolt of thermonuclear energy through the single window and down the axis of the bore. In the hard vacuum of space, the discharges spread very slowly. A bolt from an eight-inch gun was potentially dangerous to a lightly built freighter, even one as far distant as the Wartburg was from the Milton.

    “Spee, what are you doing, you animals!” screamed the voice from the Wartburg. “Cease firing, cease firing! In the name of all the Gods, we’re laying to, over!”

    “Wartburg, this is Spee,” Cazelet said, his voice dripping with aristocratic malevolence. “We’ll be joining you shortly by the Matrix. I’m sending a boarding party through an umbilicus to your dorsal airlock. If you’ve nothing worse on your conscience than more Chantral peaches than were listed on your manifest, you don’t have to worry. We’re the Fleet, not a customs barge. But–”

    Adele’s dancing fingers brought up the references. Chantral was the Wartburg’s most recent port of call. The planet’s main export was Terran peaches–actually nectarines–which formed a warmly pleasant hallucinogen when grown in Chantral’s soil. Adele suspected–and Cazelet, the one-time heir of a shipping family, had obviously known–that the freighter’s captain would have under-reported his cargo of so valuable a product to avoid duties.

“–if you attempt to escape while we’re in the Matrix, every one of you will go out the airlock when we catch you. And we will catch you, on my oath as a von Thoma! Do you understand, over?”

    “Wartburg to AFS Spee,” said the freighter’s chastened captain. “We’ve shut down our High Drive. We’ll be waiting in free fall until you link with us, Captain von Thoma. Wartburg out.”

    “Mister Robinson,” Daniel said, switching to intercom, “pick a prize crew of twenty to serve under yourself. Mister Cazelet, I’m detaching you to accompany Mister Robinson. You have the accent and you know Alliance commercial procedures; we’ll need both those things. Lieutenant Vesey, take a squad of Marines aboard the prize and escort the present Alliance crew back to the Milton after you’ve satisfied yourself that the freighter is sound and capable of proceeding. Break.”

    Adele imported images from the navigation console to see how Cazelet was taking the sudden directive. The boy looked cheerfully excited. Lieutenant Vesey’s face, on the other hand, was as white as a chalk bust. Her lips were pressed tight in anger or frustration.

    “Ship,” Daniel continued–briskly, brightly. “Prepare for inserting into the Matrix. Inserting… now!”

    He pressed a virtual button with two fingers. Adele felt the charge build, lifting the tiny hairs on her arms and neck; then she felt a reversal and cold like that of a dead planet.

    The look in Vesey’s pale blue eyes was colder yet.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image