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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Monday, April 27, 2009 07:59 EDT



Above Bolton

    The bow dorsal airlocks opened as Adele found the electronic keys to the substation at Bahnson Peak, on Bolton’s less-inhabited western continent. She wouldn’t have noticed that any more than she did the rest of the cruiser’s chaotic activities, except that Woetjans was bellowing, “Out out out, line up in the bloody corridor and count off now, you bloody turtles, now!”

    Watch commanders always counted their riggers before landing, making sure that nobody’d gotten tangled in a cable where they’d hang till the violence of reentry whipped them to a pulp and tossed the corpse away. This was a landing with the added urgency of a ship rushing into battle. When the bosun meant to be heard, you heard her no matter how busy you were.

    The Milton’s snarling High Drive braked her into orbit, and Adele was awash in data. Her first task wasn’t the information, however, but to keep the information flow open when the cruiser’s descending course took her across the planet from St James Harbor.

    Bolton had a very sophisticated communications system, as was to be expected on a world that had been an Alliance regional headquarters for two generations. Nobody on the ground had thought to shut down the communications satellites, but they might do so. Adele was creating a cable pathway as backup.

    It was possible the Alliance officials didn’t realize how vulnerable their satellite communications were. More likely, though, they had other things on their mind at present. The fighting on the ground wasn’t Adele’s job, but she was using real-time imagery of St James Harbor as the background to the columns of numbers which she manipulated to take over the land-lines.

    The harbor was a natural embayment on the coast of East Continent. The jaws of the land were more than half a mile apart, but they were extended by artificial moles whose ends interleaved. There was a passage for surface ships at right angles to the harbor’s axis.

    In addition to the Planetary Defense Array, the harbor had a concrete-walled missile emplacement at the base of each mole. In an atmosphere, an anti-starship missile greatly outranged a warship’s plasma cannon. No vessel could hope to land in the teeth of those batteries.

    A bubble of orange flame licked the face of the southern missile pit. Adele had set the imagery to highlight motion, so a white caret traced a speck wobbling several hundred yards before splashing into the sea: one of the armored leaves of the gate into the site. The current magnification couldn’t pick out individual Brotherhood soldiers, but their actions identified them clearly.

    Relays flopped in the Bahnson Peak Substation. Adele didn’t really know where the communications node was: all she had was a schematic with names which might be outdated or might not have had real geographical meaning in the first place.

    In one sense the answer mattered, because she wanted to know all there was about everything with which she came in contact. But for now Adele Mundy had complete control of Bolton’s electronic communications systems. That would do.

    “Six, all watches reporting,” Woetjans said over the command net. “All rigging is stowed for landing and all personnel are off the hull, over!”

    The southern margin of St James Harbor was a military reservation surrounded by a fence with guard towers. Most of the latter were unmanned now, as generally according to the roster in Command Headquarters. Ranks of brick barracks capable of holding ten thousand troops in total marched along the western edge of the perimeter. On the other side of the fence were civilian subdivisions which had expanded to enclose the reservation.

    Barracks began to disintegrate in what looked like rusty smoke. Adele knew from experience that she was seeing the dust of bricks pulverized by bursts from automatic impellers.

    Great rips appeared in the roofs of civilian houses beyond; the swimming pools in their back yards scattered light as they danced in the rain of debris. Half-ounce osmium slugs accelerated by the phased coils of the impellers’ barrels kept going a long distance after they’d shattered walls, and they carried along a great deal of what they’d destroyed.

    Adele began searching for a path into the northern missile pit. It was possible to isolate batteries so that they couldn’t be controlled by anyone outside the emplacement, but that meant leaving defense to a junior officer at the site. More often they were under control of director, generally in the Combat Operations Center.

    She couldn’t find a connection here, though. That might mean there wasn’t one, but equally it might be a closed circuit which she couldn’t control without being physically present. The battery shouldn’t launch on a starship which simply happened to be landing, but who knew what would happen in the middle of a firefight?

    “Ship, we’re going in,” Daniel said over the general channel, competing with the increased roar from the High Drive motors. “Keep her closed up till I tell you. Don’t worry, Millies, I’ll turn you loose! Six out.”

    Adele’s imagery took on a specious sharpness: the actual signals had degraded, so her computer was enhancing them to a clarity which the real thing never had.

    There had to be a way to control the missile pit! She’d switched off the sensor antennas feeding it, but a crew which knew what it was doing could launch using optical sights. A heavy cruiser hovering to provide fire support made a very big target. There had to–

    A sulfurous cloud jetted up from the emplacement the Brotherhood had captured. A spike stabbed north from it, so close above the bay that the shockwave parted the water to the stony bottom. Although the Brotherhood was a light infantry unit, somebody in it knew or had learned how to control an anti-starship battery.

    The missile struck the center of the northern emplacement. The round used kinetic energy rather than a warhead to destroy its target, but much of the missile’s fuel remained unburned at the moment of impact. A fireball lifted momentarily from the target, then sucked in to be replaced by smoke the color of rotten urine. The cloud expanded over the whole harbor, thinning but remaining a presence no matter how far it spread.

    Adele switched her attention to identifying strong points still in Alliance hands. Her own taste was for subtle work, but years in the RCN had taught her to value well-placed brute force as well. She would compliment Colonel Stockheim when she next saw him, assuming they both survived.

    The upper levels of Bolton’s atmosphere began to buffet the heavy cruiser. They would be down in the midst of the fighting shortly.

    Though Adele had a great deal of information to process, she touched her pocket just to make sure that the familiar weight was where it should be. It didn’t seem to be the kind of battle in which a pistol would be of any importance.

    But then again, it might be. And Adele Mundy would be ready.



    The Milton roared toward St James Harbor from the east with Daniel at the controls. He grinned even more widely as he fought the throttles: “roared” was very much the word for it, because every part of the big ship was making a thunderous racket.

    His main display was a panorama of the surface beneath their course as he braked the cruiser into a slant onto the target. Daniel had entered the atmosphere with the display set to show the next thousand miles, but he reduced the scale as their track carved down toward the surface. When St James Harbor rose above the horizon line to become visible to the ship’s real-time sensors, it served as the terminus of the rapidly swelling image.

    The long descent had scrubbed off orbital velocity, so the plasma thrusters were driving and supporting the ship. Airspeed had dropped to 220 miles per hour, and they were holding a 3,000-foot altitude as closely as Daniel’s skill permitted–which was not as closely as he thought he should have been able to manage.

    “Six, this is Guns,” Sun said. “I’m deploying the turrets at the ordered airspeed, over.”

    As he spoke–before he spoke, really–hydraulic jacks began driving the turrets up into their extended position. When a warship was in harbor or in vacuum, the guns turrets were raised to provide more internal volume. For liftoffs and landings in an atmosphere, however, they were recessed within the hull.

    A starship couldn’t be streamlined, even with its telescoped rigging snugged against the hull. Unless the turret armor was brought as close as possible to the vessel’s center of mass, however, the chance that buffeting would set up an uncontrollable roll became very high.

    Daniel had told Sun to keep his plasma cannon stowed until the cruiser’s airspeed had dropped to 200 mph. Predictably the gunner had decided to ready his weapons for action early; and because he was experienced as well as determined, he’d set the process in motion before he’d announced what he was doing.

    Sun deserved a rocket for disobeying orders, and maybe he’d get one later. But Daniel had to admit that the cruiser’s terrible handling in an atmosphere wasn’t made worse when the turrets rose into the airstream.

    The Wartburg had landed in her assigned berth on one of the civilian quays; to do otherwise would have been to–literally–set off alarms early. Daniel was slanting the cruiser in over the water close to the military reservation, which would have been proper had she still been the Scheer as she’d been launched. In any case, the course was unlikely to raise the garrison’s suspicions further in the midst of a battle.

    Carets, wavering between orange and purple depending which gave greater contrast to the background, sprang to life across the terminus of the course panorama. Adele was indicating major Alliance targets. The data would be copied to the gunnery screens as soon as the turrets could bear on the port.

    “Ship, this is Six,” Daniel said, throttling back and adjusting the thrusters’ attitude to ease the big ship toward a hover. “You can open her–”

    Even before he got the words out, hatches being undogged all over the vessel clanged a raucous alarm. Although the cruiser’s forward speed was dropping, the windblast through scores of hull openings lifted anything loose and whirled it in the corridors. The thrusters were deafening as they pounded at high output.

    “–up, but targets on the south side of the water only. We’ve got friends down there, spacers, and I don’t want pongoes to be saying the RCN is more dangerous to its friends than the Alliance is. Don’t disappoint me, Millies! Six out.”

    The hull shuddered as Sun rotated his turrets to bear on opposite beams–ventral to starboard, dorsal to port. The harbor wasn’t in sight yet, but it would be in less than a minute.

    Daniel sneezed. Even up here on A Level, the sharp claws of ozone from the exhaust curled in with the noise of the thrusters.

    Hogg sat on the jumpseat of the command console. He held a stocked impeller, but he’d slung a sub-machine gun as well. Presumably one was for the young master in the event they made a ground assault.

    That might be extreme preparedness rather than wishful thinking on Hogg’s part, but the longing glances he cast toward the hatch on the port–south–bulkhead of the bridge was genuinely hopeful. Hogg liked shooting things, and if the targets were men shooting back, that just made it more interesting.

    That wasn’t going to happen this time. Daniel’s worst enemies wouldn’t call him a coward, but his task right now was to maneuver the Milton so that her firepower could aid the ground forces in capturing St James Harbor. The mission wouldn’t be helped by a chance slug or two entering through an open port and ricocheting around the bridge.

    “Gunner, you may fire when–”


    The blast of an eight-inch plasma cannon slammed flat all the previous sounds of wind, thrusters, and the ship working in an atmosphere. The ship torqued noticeably on her axis and the bow kicked to port. The jet of charged particles ripped a thick saffron line through the air.

    Two miles away, what had been the Planetary Police Headquarters vanished in an iridescent flash. Seven seconds after the thunderclap of the plasma bolt’s track closing came the deeper, distance-muted thump of the building exploding.

    Marines and spacers at the open hatches on the port side began to shoot furiously in the direction of the military facilities. The slant range was over a mile, and the likelihood was that half the projectiles struck low–the harborfront danced–or sailed over not only the reservation but even the civilian subdivisions beyond. It made the crew a part of the action, though, and it certainly didn’t do any good to Alliance morale.

    So long as the individual marksmen–and the automatic impellers which were even now being clamped to hatch openings–fired at the enemy side of the harbor, they couldn’t do any harm. The police building was on the north, but Adele must have determined that the Brotherhood troops hadn’t advanced that far. There had been only two careted targets on that side, the police headquarters and the planetary government buil–


    The second plasma bolt hit at the base of the Albert Robida Government Office Building, a slender, pyramidal structure some fifteen stories high. It had been built up rather than outward: for show presumably, because land couldn’t have been at much of a premium even in center of St James City.

    For show also, the building was beige stone instead of concrete or some utilitarian cast synthetic. Daniel realized that when the whole thing lifted on the vaporized contents of the ground floor, then shook itself into a rain of ashlars. They cascaded down, dishing in the fronts of the flimsier structures on all four sides.

    There were now no suitable targets for heavy weapons on the north side of the harbor. It was possible that the Brotherhood would run into a pocket of resistance that they wanted the cruiser to eliminate. So long as it was adequately marked, the job would be both safe and simple. Given the way Colonel Stockheim’s men had stormed the missile battery, however, that didn’t seem the way they thought.

    Daniel minusculely boosted the output of the leading pair of port thrusters; the cruiser’s track straightened. He’d sent the projected course to Sun so that the gunner could plan his fire missions as soon as Adele provided the targets. He’d been a little surprised that Sun had started with the civilian installations, though that had probably cleared the flank of the friendly infantry so that it could–


    The shock of two bolts at minimum separation–the right cannon had fired the instant the left tube had returned to battery–was momentarily stunning, even to Daniel. The fact that this time they were firing at maximum depression from the dorsal turret–which was in addition offset toward the bow and therefore bridge¬–made the effect even worse.

    Daniel didn’t think anybody could get used to eight-inch plasma cannon; certainly he didn’t expect to. The weapons really needed the 60-100 thousand tons of a battleship’s hull to anchor them. Sturdy though the Milton’s frames were, he guessed that if the cruiser saw action as frequently as he was used to in the Princess Cecile, she would warp herself to scrap in less than ten years.

    But by the Gods! What the powerful bolts did to their targets was a treat to see–if you were at the breech end of the gun when it happened.

    Brick walls didn’t burn, but the roofs were corrugated sheets of structural plastic. They ignited at the sun-heart temperature of a plasma bolt. The bedding, wood floors, and the bodies of any troops and dependants who happened to be inside simply exploded.

    A fire-shot cloud of brick rose skyward, spread into an anvil, and rained down for a half mile in every direction. Daniel even heard the clunk–it was too dull to be a slug–of a fragment hitting the Milton.

    What Sun had very cleverly done was to wait to fire into the military reservation until the angle let him enfilade a row of ten company barracks with each bolt. The Brotherhood had been chewing up the two-story structures with their automatic impellers from across the harbor, but they hadn’t known which of the buildings were occupied by the garrison among the much larger number which were empty and available for transients.

    Adele–or perhaps Cory?–had looked at power meter records to determine the question. In general, the Sissie’s faster-firing four-inch guns would’ve been better for support in a sprawling camp like this one, but Sun’s careful aim had allowed him to use the eight-inch weapons to their full effect.



    The Milton had reached the harbor moles. Daniel began to swing her cautiously, holding the cruiser at a steady five hundred-foot altitude. Even a corvette like the Princess Cecile was too big to fling around like an aircar.

    In the middle of a battle, Daniel’s intellect had to fight the adrenalin coursing through his system. Feeding in too much thrust was likely to start the ship rolling, spinning, or diving uncontrollably toward the surface which at the moment was scarcely her own length below.

    An automatic impeller began raking the cruiser. Daniel might not have noticed it if a slug hadn’t ricocheted through the field which provided real-time imagery forward: his electronic equivalent of a window to look out the bow. The neon-bright streak of osmium bouncing at high velocity from steel was unmistakable if you’d seen it before, as Daniel certainly had.

    Once he knew it was happening, he registered the cling-cling-cling of short bursts, three to five slugs each, that continued to rain on the cruiser. The hull was impervious and it wouldn’t be a matter of real consequence either if a spacer or spacers were killed a a round through an open hatch.

    Daniel had accepted the likelihood of a few casualties when he decided to let the crew use their small arms during the attack. They wouldn’t have much effect on the enemy at this range, but it helped the crew’s morale if they were a part of the battle instead of waiting blindly while giants slugged it out.

    A slug that hit a thruster’s Stellite nozzle would put it out of action till it was replaced. That too would be a hassle, but there was bound to be damage during a battle. This single impeller was no more real danger to the Milton than a wasp was to the crew of an armored vehicle. But like the wasp it was irritating and insistent, and it might cause Daniel to make a mistake. There was nothing he could do about–

    “I have him,” said Adele sharply on the command channel. “Her. Can somebody deal with her? She’s knocked out one of my sensor arrays. Over. Out?”

    The general display highlighted a guard tower on the southern edge of the military reservation. It had been unmanned at the start of the attack, but an Alliance soldier had put it into action, probably on his own initiative.

    Daniel touched the icon beside the caret, bringing up a greatly magnified view of the tower’s interior. The four-sided roof sheltered an automatic impeller on a central pintle. A grimly determined woman crouched behind the weapon, her hands on the spade grips. It was a pity that the mounting allowed the gun full rotation rather than just the ability to sweep the area beyond the fence line. She was aiming across the reservation, an obviously dangerous practice if anybody less skilled had been doing it.

    A fluorescent haze spurted from the impeller’s muzzle: the aluminum driving bands vaporized by the flux that accelerated the projectiles up the barrel. Instants later, Daniel heard another cling-cling-cling, then bwow-w-w! as the last slug of the burst skidded from a hull plate on its own wild course.

    He didn’t allow himself to adjust the throttles to tighten the turn the way he wanted to do. The tower was a mile and a half away, but when the ship’s side was toward the reservation again there was a reasonable chance that massed luck if not marksmanship would put an end to the irritation.


    A ventral plasma cannon had fired. Dust lifted from a graveled parade ground and swirled about the track of the bolt slanting low across it. The inset guard tower was a white flare. A three-story tenement in the civilian district beyond exploded outward, flinging brands in all directions. Other buildings began to burn.

    Daniel hadn’t expected that Sun would have a clear shot with either turret. He’d done a very nice piece of work, stabbing the bolt between a pair of empty barracks to clip the top of the guard tower beyond. One could call it a surgical job, though the civilians who’d been downrange of the target probably wouldn’t have been so positive about the result.


    The sidewalls of a large building, probably a garage, blew outward. The roof of extruded plastic fluttered down like a dark red blanket. Secondary explosions lifted the roof in tatters, belching gouts of orange flames. A truck wheel flew up like a flipped coin, then spun back into the pall of black smoke which rippled to cover the remains of the roof.


    On the harbor side, fifty yards of perimeter fence blazed white and vanished, including a pair of guard towers. The turf for twice that distance beyond was blackened and the woven-wire fencing sagged. Sun had timed his shot to sweep as much of the fence line as he could. Though nobody had been shooting from the towers he’d destroyed, soldiers spilled from others. Some threw away their guns as they ran.

    Armored personnel carriers had been driving off the Wartburg while squads of Brotherhood infantry fanned out to eliminate anything that might have been a threat on the north side of the harbor. The empty vehicles raced to shore over the water itself, each sending up a great roostertail.

    There were two ramps up from the water in the warehouse district. The APCs climbed them, then glided purposefully along the esplanade to the infantry which had double-timed to shore along the floating walkway from the transport’s entry hold.


    The bolt hit a domed amphitheatre in the military reservation. Such structures served for assemblies during bad weather and as additional barracks space when needed, as well as for entertainment purposes. It was probably empty at the moment, but because it was the largest building on the post it made a spectacular target.

    The benches and even the paint on the interior concrete walls flashed into a flame which the slanted ramps channeled upward. The orange bubble shot a thousand feet into the sky and vanished into itself with a loud bang. It was even more stunning than the jet of plasma which had brought it to life.

    The spacers and Marines were firing with renewed vigor through the Milton’s hatches. Daniel knew how hard a stocked impeller recoiled. Excitement was keeping the spacers going, but in the morning the shoulders of many would be too bruised for them to make a fist with that hand. Most would be lucky to hit a house at this range, let alone a human target, but the rain of slugs out of the sky would dispirit any Alliance soldier who hadn’t been left numb by the eight-inch plasma bolts.

    APCs laden with Brotherhood troops started around the harbor by streets a block in from the water, moving in pairs. They were simply battle taxis, not fighting vehicles, though each mounted an automatic impeller to provide covering fire while its infantry squad cleared buildings with grenades and sub-machine guns.

    “Daniel, they’re surrendering!” Adele said on a two-way link. “Commodore Donald Harmston, the Base Commander, is offering to capitulate to avoid further bloodshed. He’s asking for medical help for his aide-de-camp. Ah, the aide’s name is Harmston also. Over.”

    “Cease fire!” Daniel ordered on the general intercom channel. Taking no chances, he used the command console to lock out the main guns’ firing circuit. “All personnel, cease fire immediately. I mean it, Millies, cease bloody fire or there’ll be court martials!”

    The crew had its blood up, and there were bound to be Alliance troops on the ground who hadn’t gotten the word and would by shooting give the Millies justification. Fortunately, the fighting–the shooting, at least–had gone on long enough that as soon as the spacers stopped, they were going to notice the throbbing pain of their bruised shoulders.

    Likely enough there’d been a few broken collarbones as well. Inexperienced shooters often held the stock a half inch from their shoulder, thinking to reduce the shock. Instead the weapon, recoiling without the body’s additional mass to slow it down, hit like a hammer instead of like a heavy medicine ball.

    “Signals, inform Colonel Stockheim that the enemy is surrendering,” Daniel said as he adjusted his thrusters to bring them to a hover. “And inform the Hydriote ships in orbit that they’ll be able to begin landing within the hour. Six out.”

    He took a deep breath. “Ship, we’re about to land on Bolton, the newest possession of the Republic of Cinnabar. Fellow spacers, the Republic thanks you, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart! Up the Milton!”

    “Up the Milton!” shrieked hundreds of voices, till the thrusters licked the harbor’s surface into a deafening thunder of steam.

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