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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, April 20, 2009 08:07 EDT



One Light-Hour above Bolton

    The Milton was accelerating at 1 g to maintain the illusion of gravity, but Adele didn’t care. She never noticed the discomfort of freefall when she had work to do. At present, she had a great deal of work.

    Bolton’s Planetary Defense Array was even older than the Merkur’s log had led her to believe, a Type 30 instead of the expected Type 32. That made marginally easier the task of deriving its codes.

    The other thing that she’d expected–not counted on but expected, the way she expected to awaken in the bunk where she’d gone to sleep the night before–was that the array would be poorly maintained and that twenty or even thirty percent of the individual mines would be unserviceable for one reason or another. Instead, the serviceability rate was above 95 percent and perhaps as high as 97 percent.

    Adele smiled wryly. If the entire garrison of St James Harbor was as good as the Defense Systems Officer, the Cinnabar forces were facing a very long day which might not have a happy ending. Recriminations would only matter to the survivors, however, and she had no intention of surviving a disaster.

    The mine tender R11 was exchanging signals with the Wartburg, which had extracted fifteen minutes previously. The transport was a comfortable distance from the PDA’s coverage area, waiting for the tender to pass her through. Captain Robinson had the normal commercial codes, and the Wartburg was, after all, exactly what she claimed to be–save for her crew and cargo. There shouldn’t be any problem with her clearance.

    The trick was getting the Milton through, and that was going to be quite a trick. That’s why I’m paid the big ten florins a week, Adele thought with the same grim smile as before. Plus prize money, which for spacers under Captain Daniel Leary had in the past amounted to considerable amounts. The ones who survived, of course.

    A ship was already in the process of landing. It had arrived an hour ahead of the Wartburg. Adele frowned, wishing she’d been–distantly–present when it was signalling the tender, so that she could identify it.

    The ship began to drop out of orbit. As it did so, the sensor image twinkled as it spoke to the controller below with a modulated laser that wouldn’t be smothered like the radio frequency band by the roaring plasma thrusters.

    There was good luck and bad luck; and unless you were prepared, all your luck was going to be bad. Adele was prepared. She ran the signals through a decryption program.

    The code was Alliance Fleet, not commercial, which in itself was important to know; but it was intended only for low security communications, shiphandling and docking instructions, so it wouldn’t have taken long to defeat even if the particular code set hadn’t been included in the updated package Mistress Sand had provided before the Milton lifted from Harbor Three.

    The aviso Zieten was acknowledging St James Control’s directions to land in Fleet Berth 14. That wasn’t important in itself, but the fact it was a courier vessel rather than a heavier warship was critical to the success of the operation. Adele transmitted the information as a text crawl at the bottom of Daniel’s display.

    If by great ill fortune the Milton had arrived on Bolton just after an Alliance battleship landed, there would be virtually no chance of accomplishing the operation. Even a destroyer whose captain reacted instantly to the situation would have made success problematic.

    Adele didn’t for a moment imagine that they would have aborted the mission, of course. “Virtually no chance” had in the past been chance enough, when Daniel was in command.

    The cruiser’s eight-inch turrets began to rotate, setting up as many competing vibrations as a rainstorm lashing a pond. Adele scowled and lifted her feet from the deck plating. Her console’s cushions couldn’t smother the tremblers completely, but without competing inputs from the deck she could control her wands with adequate precision.

    R11 signalled the Wartburg to wait while a path through the defense array was cleared. Adele had hoped that the tender would simply switch off the mines for the time required for the transport to pass through the swept area. That would be easier for the tender’s crew, quicker for all concerned, and under ordinary circumstances would be perfectly safe.

    Ordinary circumstances didn’t include an RCN cruiser waiting to swoop down on the base like an avenging angel. Well, after seeing the array’s high state of readiness, Adele hadn’t expected good news on the procedures either.

    The mines were small thermonuclear weapons. In the instant of dissolution they generated a magnetic lens which channeled the blast in much the way that a plasma cannon did the explosion of its smaller charge. Each mine had a propulsion system, here a simple reaction motor, which allowed it to shift orbit as required by circumstances.

    The R11 sent coded signals to create a dynamic gap in the array, allowing the transport to pass through on a precisely calculated course. If they did this often–and they probably did–the mines would have to be refueled regularly, but the practice eliminated the risk that an interloper would slip in while the array was shut down.

    Adele smiled as her equipment translated the tender’s signals and passed them through to the astrogation computer for processing. She had to find or deduce the keys to 218 separate mines rather than that of the single signal which would shut down the array. If she made a mistake, she and everyone else aboard the Milton would die before they knew it.

    If they didn’t die, Adele would ask to see the Alliance Defense Systems Officer after Bolton had been conquered. If that officer was alive, she supposed she’d shake his or her hand.

    But it would be perfectly all right with Adele Mundy if that careful bastard had died in the fighting.



Above Bolton

    “Extracting in thirty, that is three-zero, seconds,” said Daniel, his right index and middle fingers poised over the virtual EXECUTE button. A light-hour’s hop was short, even by the standards of merchant vessels with doubtful astrogators and crews too small to handle a suit of sails capable of real subtlety.

    Even so, it concentrated the mind to maneuver toward a Planetary Defense Array which would infallibly destroy a ship that extracted too close to it. “Extracting–now!” Daniel said and hammered the button.

    The flip-flop from the Matrix to sidereal space was never pleasant and not infrequently nauseating. Experience didn’t help: Daniel knew spacers with forty years experience who regularly emptied their stomachs of bile, though they’d learned long since not to eat before an extraction.

    Which left the question of why they hadn’t found another line of work. Well, no spacer found that question easy to answer, as Daniel knew from looking into his own heart. Spacefaring was either in the blood or it wasn’t, but those who’d caught the infection wasn’t cured simply because they couldn’t keep their breakfast down.

    In the present case, extraction meant that Daniel felt a red-hot knife flay his skin away in strips, starting at his scalp and working down. It can’t have gone on for more than a second or so. His display flickered as each color switched to its complement, then switched back as the transition became complete.

    Instead of a pearly glow, the main screen was a Plot-Position Indicator centered on the Milton herself. Daniel had brought the ship out within three thousand miles of the planned extraction point, excellent work if he did say–well, think–so himself.

    “PDA Control, this is AFS Luetzow, requesting permission to land at St James Harbor with dispatches from General Command,” said Midshipman Cory. “Over.”

    The boy’s Florentine accent would pass for that of half a dozen Alliance worlds, especially through a single-sideband transmission. Daniel thought Cory’s voice was a little higher than usual, but if anything he was drawling his words rather than rattling them out nervously.

    Adele usually oversaw the work of her subordinates, especially when they were handling commo. This afternoon–ship’s time; it was six in the morning at St James Harbor–she was wholly focused on manipulating the mines of the defense array. The wands danced in her hands, and a stranger would have taken her set expression as one of cold fury.

    It was really just the resting state of her face. Daniel uncomfortably aware that his friend’s resting state might really be cold fury, however.



    Daniel had left the bridge hatch open even though he expected the Milton to go into action shortly. There’d be plenty of time to seal the ship’s internal divisions, unless they were caught in the pulse of a mine; and if that happened, the internal divisions would vaporize along with the hull and its whole contents.

    The A Level corridor and its bow rotunda were crammed with suited riggers; some had even locked down their helmets. If the cruiser had to go back into the Matrix, Woetjans wanted both watches on the hull as soon as possible to adjust the sails. That would be an emergency and no mistake.

    They had to remain aboard for now, though, because the sidescatter of the eight-inch cannon would be lethal to personnel anywhere forward of the muzzles. The bosun was willing to take the risk–and she’d have been there with her people, of course–but Daniel was not.

    “Luetzow, this is Bolton Defense,” said the female handling the R11’s signals said. “Transmit your identification codes, over.”

    The signalman probably wanted to ask what the oddball cruiser was doing in the Montserrat Stars, but even a rating on a mine tender knew that such a vessel probably carried an admiral or a high-ranking political delegation. Smart people kept a low profile when folks of that sort showed up unexpectedly.

    The Milton, originally Scheer, had been the attempt of Alliance designers to get battleship performance out of a heavy cruiser hull. Like other something-for-nothing schemes, it was unsuccessful; only three ships had been built in the class. The other two were still in Fleet service, however, and it was no more unlikely that one of them would be arriving on Bolton than that it would be anywhere else.

    “Transmitting codes, over,” said Cory. He’d been trying manfully to learn to manipulate control wands the way Adele did, but he was using a virtual keyboard now since the situation didn’t permit any errors. His index finger stabbed, sending the queued message.

    Daniel nudged the Port 1 High Drive motor. The brief impulse would start the cruiser swinging to starboard with the slow inevitability of planetary precession. Three seconds after the initial touch on the throttle, he stroked an identical burp from Port 8. That would–if he’d judged correctly–cancel the swing without reversing the change in the vessel’s attitude.

    “Bloody hell, Luetzow!” the mine tender said. “You’ve sent last week’s codes! Send the current codes now, over.”

    Cory had sent the most recent codes he had–those in use when Adele entered the Merkur’s log on Paton. The code generator was separate on a Fleet–or RCN–warship, so not even she and the software from her other employer could predict the regular changes from past examples.

    “Wait one, Bolton,” Cory said. “I’m checking to see what’s the matter. Just bloody wait, over!”

    He sounded agitated, which was perfectly appropriate for a signals officer who’s been told that he’s transmitted the wrong information. It was so appropriate, though, and Cory’s face appeared so calm by contrast, that Daniel suspected that the nervousness was acting. The boy had certainly blossomed under Adele’s tutelage.

    The Wartburg was braking to enter the atmosphere; she’d be floating in a berth in St James Harbor before long. I wonder if Robinson would be able to pull it off without the Milton? Probably not, but Daniel hoped that Robinson and the Brotherhood would at least try. It’d be nice to go out on a success, even if he weren’t alive to know it.

    “Luetzow, what the bloody hell is going on?” R11 demanded. This time the voice was male and sounded to be on the edge of panic. The vessel’s captain–on a net tender, that would be a junior lieutenant–had taken over from his signalman, though she was probably older and more experienced. “Either send the right codes or withdraw from the system until you can, over!”

    “Bolton, this is Luetzow!” Cory said. “Transmitting, transmitting! These are the only codes the bitch will give us! By all the Gods, man, let us land or at least send a systems specialist up from the base to work on this poxy bitch, over!”

    Normally a vessel’s plasma cannon–and even merchant ships were armed if they expected to venture off the best-patrolled trade routes–were locked fore-and-aft unless they had been cleared for action. The Milton’s guns were still at zero elevation, but Sun had rotated the turrets in opposition while the ship was still in the Matrix. The dorsal guns pointed at 30 degrees to the forward axis, while the ventral weapons were at 210 degrees.

    “Luetzow, you are not cleared!” R11 said. “Get out of the system at once! You do not have the right codes, you are not cleared to land! Get out! Over!”

    “Daniel,” said Adele, cool as spring water over a two-way link, “the array is opening. You may proceed on your planned course in thirty seconds.”

    As she spoke, a countdown clock–starting at 27 SECONDS–appeared in the lower right corner of Daniel’s display. He checked to be sure that the propulsion commands were queued to go. They were, of course, just as they had been before the cruiser extracted from the Matrix.

    Normally the mine tender would send a course through the array to the vessel wanting to land. It was necessary to work backward this time: Daniel had designed the entry course and Adele was, with the very powerful support of the Milton’s astrogation computer, maneuvering the mines away from it.

    “Daniel, they’ve noticed the mines moving,” Adele said with what for her was considerable urgency. “They’re preparing to command detonate one of them in our direction. I don’t know if I–”

    “Sun!” Daniel said over the command push. “Take out the tender now, over!”

    Daniel realized he was expecting the crash of the dorsal eight-inch guns; instead he heard the deep groan of the elevation screw. He’d tried to align the cruiser so that the forward guns, cocked to clear the dorsal antennas, would bear by apparent accident. He hadn’t been quite successful, so the gunner had to make an adjustment before he could fire.

    The charged particles spewed from a mine explosion were dangerous even to a heavy cruiser at many times the range at which it would ordinarily detonate. The blast might not destroy the vessel, but it would shred rigging, weld the joints of yards and antennas, and strip away external communications gear. If the operator aboard R11 was able to command detonate one of the mines before Sun–

    Dorsal Right fired. For a heartbeat Daniel thought the CLANG! was a mine destroying the Milton; then Dorsal Left fired also. He was alive, and the Milton had a clear path to her goal.

    Daniel grinned. One thing about concentrating on what the enemy may do is that it prevents you from worrying about whether your own people were doing their jobs. In the present case, Sun certainly had been.

    “Cease fire!” Daniel ordered. “Ship, prepare for course change. Changing course… now!”

    The High Drive motors resumed their grating snarl. Daniel had gimballed them to send the cruiser through the minefield instead of skirting it as before.

    Both plasma bolts struck the mine tender squarely, though the second had really just roiled the expanding gas ball created by the first. Most of the vapor was hull metal, but some was the mortal remains of thirty-odd Alliance spacers who’d been doing their jobs rather well up to the instant of their deaths. Which had at least been instantaneous.

    “Woetjans, get the rigging in soonest so that we can land,” Daniel ordered, using the general channel that fed through the PA system as well as to all commo helmets. “The Brotherhood of Amorgos is on the surface by now. The RCN can’t let pongoes fight the battle all by themselves, can we? Six out!”

    “Cinnabar forever!” spacers shouted. Probably every spacer on the Milton, including the considerable number who weren’t Cinnabar citizens.

    “Cinnabar forever!” Daniel shouted. Every spacer on the Milton….

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