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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Friday, March 27, 2009 07:28 EDT



Above US1528

    Imagery from three of the Milton’s hull sensors and the Wartburg’s single working sensor framed the schematic of the linked cruiser and freighter in the center of Daniel’s display. Even so it was the astrogation computer that handled–that had to handle–the operation.

    Daniel rated himself as a better-than-good shiphandler, but the stresses which worked on the two ships were so varied and so minute that the best pilot in the human universe would’ve found himself overmatched by the task. Use of the umbilicus in freefall was taught at the Academy, but the instructors made it clear that the system was really meant for ships close to one another on an inhospitable surface.

    He could’ve transferred the prisoners and prize crew on US1528, but that would’ve taken time, and it would’ve meant dropping into the range of an Alliance base with ship-killing missiles. He trusted Adele to have shut down the battery, if it was in working order to begin with, and if it crossed the mind of anybody on the ground to launch–as it almost certainly wouldn’t have.

    Even so, remaining out of range of enemy weapons was always a better choice than hoping that those weapons wouldn’t be used. Spacers took enough risks as it was.

    Adele was busy with six simultaneous data fields, presumably organizing just-gathered information. It was hard to imagine anything useful coming either from a minor refueling base in the sticks or the sort of freighter which frequented such a base, but Daniel had seen her do magic with equally unpromising material.

    Except for Adele, everyone on the Milton’s bridge was watching the operation. Daniel had set his big display omnidirectional, so several off-duty shipside crewmen were clustered in the hatchway for a better view than they could’ve gotten from the flat-plate terminals in their quarters.

    The ships drifted nose-to-tail in high orbit. Six-inch cables linked them so that they couldn’t spread wider apart, but that didn’t prevent them from rotating in opposite directions around the umbilicus… which they were indeed doing, slowly but visibly even to a human eye. Daniel judged that he’d have the personnel transferred before the problem became acute, and he surely hoped he was right. The least touch on a plasma thruster would reverse the spin, not cancel it. Even with the computer in charge, that meant a real chance that the next Alliance warship to pass would find the Milton and Wartburg still locked in a tight cocoon of cable.

    “Repeat that please, Vesey,” said Adele’s voice. “Ah, over.”

    Daniel leaned past his display to look at her. That showed him only the back of Adele’s head; he switched to the message icon on the screen and learned from the history that she’d just cut him in on what had been a direct query from Vesey, now aboard the freighter.

    “Officer Mundy, could you join me for a few minutes on the Wartburg, over?” Vesey said. She was using the optical communications fiber woven into the umbilicus, but despite the broader than usual bandwidth her voice sounded clipped.

    Adele didn’t look up from her console, but the miniature of her face on Daniel’s display expanded. The image raised an eyebrow in question; Daniel nodded approval with pursed lips.

    “Yes, all right, Vesey,” Adele said in her usual professional tone, cold disinterest. “I’ll be over as soon as I get my suit on. Over. Out, I suppose.”

    “Mistress,” said Vesey urgently. “Bring a helmet and air bottle against emergencies, but you shouldn’t need even that. We’ll just be a few minutes, over.”

    Daniel was nodding even as Adele lifted her eyebrow again. He thought he knew what Vesey wanted, but he didn’t need to brief Adele on how to handle it.

    He smiled. For a person who claimed to have no more insight into personal relationships than she did into crystal growth, Adele had shown herself to be quite a good counselor. There were worse forms of understanding than what one got from dispassionate study.

    Adele unstrapped and rose from her couch. Tovera was already upright, anchoring herself in the weightless conditions by hooking a toe under the signals console. She held two breathing rigs in her left hand and had slung a full-sized sub-machine gun from the cruiser’s armory under her right arm. Her usual satchel was strapped to her back.

    Tovera saw Daniel look at her and gave him a smile of sorts. He smiled back, which he probably wouldn’t have done a year ago.

    He still didn’t think Tovera was human, but she made an obvious effort to act as though she were. And besides, there’d been times that the pale little snake had come in bloody useful.

    Daniel had ordered the umbilicus to be attached to the cruiser’s forward dorsal airlock which opened onto the rotunda beyond the bridge hatch. The Marines there presented their sub-machine guns even before their officer hopped out of the lock from which he’d been watching and snapped an order.

    Tovera stepped in front of Adele and eased her safely against a bulkhead. The Wartburg’s crew swam out of the airlock one at a time. They were a scruffy lot, though no more so than any other collection of spacers. They were dirtier than the off-duty Millies eyeing them, but that was because they’d lacked RCN discipline rather than any difference in the basic material.

    The Marines who’d chivvied the prisoners off the Wartburg followed them into the rotunda. Daniel felt a glow of pride that brought another smile to his face.

    He loved the Princess Cecile, his first command and a corvette which had done more harm to Guarantor Porra’s Alliance than most RCN battleships… but captaincy of the Milton was a promotion, and the degree of promotion was evident simply in her greater size. Twenty Alliance spacers and the equal number of Marine guards fit in the cruiser’s airlock rotunda; there wouldn’t have been room for them to stand comfortably in the Sissie’s whole A Level corridor.

    Adele and Tovera slipped out the airlock after the last Marine had returned to the Milton. Despite Tovera carrying equipment in both hands, she was guiding her mistress. Daniel had seen his friend wind her way through tight-stacked books and paper without brushing any of the piles into collapse, but in any other environment she seemed not so much clumsy as oblivious of her surroundings.

    Daniel used the lip of the hatchway as a dais from which to look onto the gathering of prisoners and guards. “Fellow spacers!” he said, “I’m Captain Daniel Leary and you are my prisoners.”

    The words drew eyes to him. Until then the Marines had been glowering at the captured crewmen, and the crewmen had–quite understandably–been staring at the muzzles of the guns pointed toward them.

    “You’ve been captured by the RCN through a legitimate ruse of war,” Daniel said. “You’ll not be harmed. Those of you who choose to join the RCN will be welcomed into the complement of the Milton here, a crack ship and a lucky one.”

    He grinned broadly. “As you yourselves can testify, can you not, spacers?”

    He’d hoped to get a grin or even a laugh from some of the prisoners, but they were too cowed to respond to his humor. Maybe it was being held at gunpoint by uniformed Marines instead of sailors wearing slops like themselves.



    The Marines had properly anchored themselves to bulkheads or fittings so that recoil wouldn’t spin them in all directions if they opened fire. A sergeant with three chevrons on her collar tabs had even extended her sling to loop the airlock’s manual dogging wheel.

    “Major Mull!” Daniel said, more sharply than he’d meant. The commander of the Milton’s Marine detachment had personally led the squad aboard the Wartburg and was the last man back from the prize. “Order your troops to put their guns up, if you will. I trust there’ll be no trouble here that requires a gun to finish.”

    Mull and his personnel–two were women, a lower percentage than would be found in an equal number of spacers–probably differed on the need to keep their guns pointed. They began to lower or even sling them even before Mull relayed the order which Daniel had properly issued through him, though.

    “Those of you who don’t want to serve on the finest ship in the RCN…,” Daniel continued, grinning to make the statement sort of a joke. He was pleased that this time half the prisoners smiled in return. “Will be set down on the first Alliance or neutral world the Milton touches on. I’ll give you a month’s pay out of my own pocket to replace the bindles you’ve had to leave behind on the Wartburg. I’m a Leary of Bantry, and we don’t hold it against common spacers that they have a brute like Guarantor Porra for their master.”

    In normal operation, the inner and outer hatches of an airlock couldn’t be opened at the same time. With the umbilicus in place, the cross-locks had been disconnected–electronically on the cruiser’s bridge and mechanically at the hatch by a tech in Robinson’s prize crew.

    The current of air which Daniel felt was a reminder that the seals and even fabric of the umbilicus were leaking, but hatches leaked anyway and ships were equipped to replace lost atmosphere. This slight extra wastage wouldn’t be a problem.

    “You’ll be taken aft now to the BDC, where Lieutenant Blantyre will enroll and assign watches to those of you who want to join the Millie,” Daniel said. “Those of you who claim advanced ratings will have a chance to prove it. If you satisfy the chief of your department, you’ll receive the higher rate at your first pay parade.”

    “What about officers?” asked somebody–Captain Mike Martin, the freighter’s commander almost certainly, the black-bearded man who was holding his cloth cap in front of his mouth to conceal the fact that he was speaking.

    “The RCN grants master’s warrants to qualified astrogators,” Daniel said cheerfully. “And a master with skill and ambition can receive a commission even without Academy training. It’s happened often–”

    That was a bit of an overstatement, but allowable under the conditions.

    “–Captain Martin. When I have a bit more time than I do at the moment, I’ll talk to you about the details.”

    Things were going well. When people were discussing terms and conditions of employment, they were no longer so frightened that they were likely to do something desperate. Daniel wasn’t worried that the prisoners would suddenly capture the Milton’s bridge, but if his own Marines opened fire with their sub-machine guns to prevent a rush, there’d be a real problem.

    Maybe he’d have been wiser to use spacers for guards. Wrenches and lengths of pipe weren’t going to ricochet lethally off steel bulkheads.

    “Any questions?” Daniel said brightly. Without allowing time for anyone to take up his offer, he continued, “Maor?”

    One of the Power Room techs was standing in the corridor to watch. He jumped to attention when Daniel called his name.

    “Take these spacers, our fellow Millies I hope shortly, to the BDC, if you please.”

    He paused, grinning, then sobered and went on, “I know, fellow spacers, that this wasn’t the day you expected when you got up this morning. Nonetheless, if you play your cards right, you may find that it’s the luckiest day of your life. Dismissed!”

    “All right, spacers!” Mickey Maor said, his voice cracking with enthusiasm. He was an engine wiper, the–lowly–equivalent of a landsman on the Rig side. He didn’t get many opportunities to lord it over other people. “Lively, now. You’re getting a chance to join the crack ship of the RCN, you are, and serve under the best captain anywhere!”

    The prisoners, whom he did hope were on the way to becoming recruits, paddled down the corridor behind her. Major Mull looked at Daniel with a worried expression. He didn’t know how to proceed, and he didn’t want another sharp–though unintended–rebuke for heavy-handedness.

    “Follow them with a squad, Major,” Daniel said, making an effort to sound cheerful. “I doubt there’ll be a problem, but we can’t have strangers wandering about the ship unattended in Alliance space, can we?”

    In all truth, he needn’t even have bothered with a prize crew. It probably would’ve worked out all right if he’d left the crew on the Wartburg and told them that they were to obey the RCN officers he’d put aboard. Spacers tended to identify with their profession or at most with their planet of origin, not with the aims and ideals of the political body where their ship happened to be registered.

    Half the Wartburg’s personnel had probably been born outside the Alliance, and there were doubtless several who’d been subjects of Cinnabar. They’d likely choose to keep that quiet–even if they weren’t, as Triplett had been, RCN deserters–but it was a reality of star travel that every captain, whether naval or civilian, knew and accepted.

    Having said that, there were fanatics. The new enlistees would be watched a little closer than usual, but all good petty officers kept an eye on new personnel anyway, to make sure of their competence.

    Daniel looked up through the airlock. The umbilicus curved enough to hide anybody twenty feet beyond the cruiser’s hull, but there came Vesey in a rigging suit with the right arm painted silver. Beyond her were other figures, likely Adele and Tovera.

    “Excellent timing, Lieutenant!” Daniel called. “Take charge of detaching and stowing the umbilicus, if you will. I want to get under way as soon as I’ve checked the course I’m transmitting to Mister Robinson.”

    “Aye aye, sir!” said Vesey, turning quickly but carefully so as not to bump Adele with the stiffened fabric of her hard suit. Her voice had the animation which had been so signally lacking when she called Adele to her.

    “Well, Leary,” said Senator Forbes, at his side. She’d come out of her compartment when the prisoners and Marines cleared the rotunda. “I listened to your little speech. You’re your father’s son, I can see. But…?”

    “Your Excellency?” Daniel said, since the pause required something.

    “How much of it was true, eh?” Forbes said archly.

    Daniel smiled. “Well, your Excellency,” he said, “I don’t claim to know Truth with a capital letter; I’m not a priest. But if you mean, ‘What do I believe?’ I believe everything I just told those spacers.”

    Shall I? Yes, because she’s pricking me and she needs to know that a Leary can prick back.

    “And if you heard what Maor said…,” Daniel said. His smile was just as hard and mischievous as that of Tovera, following Adele out of the airlock. “He believes that too. So far as it touches on the ship, at least–my oath as a Leary that he’s right!”

    The outer airlock hatch clanged closed; Vesey was on the job. It might be a while before Daniel learned what had happened between Adele and the lieutenant in the privacy of the umbilicus, but it had been good enough.



    Adele drifted into the umbilicus. The fabric bulged slightly outward so that the ridges of the stiffening helix were ideal for batting oneself along in freefall.

    Adele knew that she was better off letting somebody else–here Tovera–direct her. Initially her clumsiness in freefall had been an embarrassment and an irritation, but over time she’d come to the conclusion that she should concentrate on things she did well rather than trying to train herself in skills she utterly lacked.

    The spacers she served with didn’t mind; they didn’t even laugh. Maybe they’d at least have smiled if it weren’t for the other stories. Lady Mundy keeps a pistol in her tunic pocket, and she never misses with it….

    Vesey waited thirty feet up the umbilicus with the helmet of her hard suit latched open. She seemed worn. Her short hair, a nondescript blond at the best of times, now looked as though somebody had layered wet straw on her scalp.

    Adele glanced about and nodded with approval. Even if there were other people ahead or behind in the umbilicus, she and Vesey wouldn’t be overheard. The ridged, flexible tube was nearly perfect for deadening sound: it would drink normal voices from even a few feet away.

    Tovera gripped the back of Adele’s belt and eased her to an upright halt. When she’d turned her head, her body had started rotating in reaction; Tovera straightened that out too.

    “Vesey?” Adele said, realizing that her face and tone were as hard as steel plate. Adele didn’t like to stand as close as she was to the lieutenant. That was likely Tovera’s plan for security rather than the awkward mechanics of freefall, but it was still uncomfortable.

    Vesey swallowed, but she met Adele’s eyes. “Mistress,” she blurted, “why doesn’t Six trust me to command the Wartburg? I’ve done this before, I brought the Rainha in on Mandelfarne Island, didn’t I? You were with me! Why doesn’t he trust me now?”

    Adele nodded to give herself time to process the information–what she’d just been told, and what that implied. She didn’t like commo helmets and wasn’t wearing one now, but as a result she was out of touch with the currents of information flowing about her. That was an irritation, which was good. It meant she was concentrating on that trivial matter instead of dwelling on the huge problem Vesey had just posed her.

    Adele smiled wryly. Vesey was using displaced anger as a safety valve in the same way. If she weren’t angry, she might start to cry. And that, of course, was the key to the problem.

    “Does Daniel’s action strikes you as unfair?” Adele said, using her friend’s first name deliberately. It got Vesey’s attention as effectively as slapping her face would have done, and it was–humor really did spark Adele’s tiny smile, though she might be the only one who would realize that–more to her taste than the other.

    “I don’t–” Vesey said; but of course she did. “Well, I suppose–”

    “Fairness had nothing to do with it,” Adele said, as crisply as a pistol cycling. “Fairness never has anything to do with Daniel’s decisions. He doesn’t care about fairness.”

    “Captain Leary isn’t unfair!” Vesey said. She clapped her heels together by reflex, then started rotating sideways around her navel.

    “Of course not,” Adele snapped. “I said fairness wasn’t a criterion by which he framed his professional decisions. He decides on the basis of what will best achieve his ends, which because of who he is means the ends of the RCN and the Republic itself. And because he always decides by the same criteria, his decisions are always fair–without fairness ever having been considered. Do you understand?”

    Vesey pinched a strand of the stiffening coil between the thumb and forefinger of her left gauntlet, bringing her slow spin to a halt and then reversing it. She was really quite strong to have been able to do that; and the physical effort was a useful way of burning off the hormones which anger had spilled into her bloodstream.

    “But Mistress?” she said. “I did do a good job with the Rainha, capturing her and then landing her on Mandelfarne. Why wouldn’t C-c…, Six, not let me have the Wartburg? Mister Robinson’s a good officer, a very good one, I agree–but I’ve done this.”

    Adele raised an eyebrow. “Is there anything so very difficult about taking a transport from point to point and landing it in prepared harbors, Vesey?” she said. “Not that I could do it, of course; but for somebody with training–”

    She paused to set the hook properly. Logic was a game; but then, so was a duel with pistols. She was rather good at both.

    “–like Cory or Cazelet?”

    “Oh,” said Vesey, stiffening upright again. She blushed. “No, mistress,” she said, “not the shiphandling, of course. But this will be an enemy base, like Mandelfarne Island.”

    “Yes,” said Adele. “It’ll be very dangerous, I’m sure. But I don’t think we need worry about Mister Robinson’s courage–”

    “By the Gods!” Vesey said. “I didn’t mean that! Of course his courage is above reproach!”

    “And as for you having a chance to risk your life, Vesey,” Adele continued dryly, “I’m sure Daniel will oblige you in some other fashion. Personally, I haven’t found any lack of danger during my association with him.”

    Vesey smiled, her first sign of relaxation since Adele met her here in the umbilicus. “No, I haven’t either,” she said. “Mistress, I’m sorry, I just–reacted. I’m sorry.”

    And part of the problem is that Rene Cazelet will be aboard the transport, Adele thought. She didn’t say that out loud, though, because it would lead to the next problem: that Vesey no-doubt suspected that Daniel was trying to separate her from the midshipman with whom she’d been… socializing, call it.

    Vesey was quite a clever young woman, but people constantly imagined that they and their actions were more important to those around them than common sense would’ve dictated. Why in heaven would Daniel care? He hadn’t objected to Vesey’s association with the late Midshipman Dorst, had he?

    This wasn’t the time to discuss an inflated sense of importance–because that’s what it amounted to, despite Vesey’s self-effacing personality; Adele doubted there would ever be a time for that. And there were more important things to cover now.

    “Daniel sent you aboard the Wartburg,” Adele said. “What did you do there?”

    Adele knew perfectly well what Vesey had done. The lieutenant’s helmet sensors had been transmitting the whole time, so Adele had dipped into the imagery–and that of the other members of the boarding party–as a matter of course while it was going on. She hadn’t had a specific reason to do so other than the general one of liking to know things, but she’d never needed a better reason than that.

    “Well, I checked the reaction mass and the consumables,” Vesey said, frowning slightly. She didn’t see the point of the question, but she knew that there had to be a point if Lady Mundy was asking it. “There was a risk that they’d be too low to reach Fonthill, so we’d have to top off here or on the way. The volumes were fine, a twenty percent margin on food and probably better than that on air and reaction mass.”

    Adele nodded. “But you didn’t check by the gauges and inventory,” she said. “You looked at the lockers and the tanks.”

    “Well, Rene, ah–”

    “Rene is fine,” Adele interrupted, smiling a trifle less harshly.

    “Ah, yes, mistress,” Vesey said, lowering her eyes. “Midshipman Cazelet and I did look at the gauges, of course, but we also made a hands-on inspection the way Six taught us. It’s just a matter of opening hatches and thumping the side of a tank to see how it rings.”

    “Right, you did what Daniel knew you’d do, because as you say, he’s trained you,” Adele said. “He didn’t train Lieutenant Commander Robinson, Vesey. So he made sure you’d board the ship. That way he avoided a potential problem without embarrassing a subordinate by appearing to be checking up on him.”

    Vesey swallowed. “I’m sure Mister Robinson would’ve made a physical inspection,” she said. “In fact, he thanked me for saving him time when he saw what Rene and I were doing. But do you think…?”

    “Yes,” said Adele. “I do. And there’s the other matter: who’s the Milton’s First Lieutenant now?”

    Vesey’s face went flat. “Mistress,” she said, “I’m not a better officer than Mister Robinson. Thank you for what you’re trying to do–”

    “Be quiet, Vesey,” Adele said. Her voice snapped, which was useful for her purposes but quite natural under the circumstances. It was all right for people to leap ahead of her actual words, but they should not assume that Adele Mundy was about to say something patently stupid.

    Vesey stiffened again. She didn’t lose her hold on the umbilicus, so she remained in place. “Sir!” she said reflexively.

    “I’m sure either of you has the skill set required for the First Lieutenant’s duties,” Adele resumed, back to her normal flat delivery now that the flash of anger was gone. Not that there was anything abnormal about her being angry. “What you personally will do is keep out of Daniel’s way in a crisis. You’ll anticipate and without direction solve all the problems that occur around the edges, but you won’t try to fight the battle when that’s in the hands of the best fighting captain in the RCN. Daniel trusts you.”

    Vesey’s face remained blank for a moment. “Mistress,” she said, her eyes shifting away. “I apologize.”

    For a moment Adele thought she was going to explain why she was apologizing, but Vesey really was sharper than that when she let intellect rather than her emotions direct her. Instead she said, “If Six were incapacitated in action, mistress, I would handle maneuvering and damage control myself. But I’d hand off battle direction to Lieutenant Blantyre, who has more of a talent for it.”

    “Thereby demonstrating why the best captain in the RCN wants you for his First Lieutenant, Vesey,” Adele said; smiling also, but stating the flat truth. A compliment was always more effective when people knew that you said what you meant, no matter what that was. “Now, can we get back to our duties?”

    Vesey looked at her with an odd expression. “Mistress,” she said, “I don’t think you’ve ever done anything but your duty. As you said about Captain Leary and fairness. But yes, our standing out here won’t get these ships to Fonthill.”

    She exchanged a glance with Tovera, then led the way back toward the cruiser’s airlock. Adele, sandwiched between her servant and the lieutenant, found herself smiling.

    That was a very nice compliment indeed. For someone like me.

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