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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, May 1, 2009 07:18 EDT



St James Harbor, Bolton

    “Captain,” said Vesey over the command channel, “this is Five. The transports will be landing at two minute intervals starting in seventeen minutes. I’ve assigned the ships berths in both the civilian and the naval portions of the harbor, but I can’t determine billets for the personnel until we have an inventory of how many barracks remain undamaged, over.”

    The Milton clanked and sizzled in her slip. Most of the A Level hatches remained open though Daniel had ordered the marksmen away from them, so steam continued to boil in. The mugginess carried the usual stench of burned muck.

    “Roger, Five,” Daniel said, suppressing his smile in case Vesey was watching an image of his face and thought he was mocking her. For an extremely able officer, Lieutenant Vesey seemed often to be on the verge of tears. “Well done. I think the Fonthill Militia–”

    That was the name he’d come up with to regularize Master Beckford’s former slaves.

    “–can sleep for another night aboard their transports if necessary. Six out.”

    “Six, this is Three,” reported Pasternak from the Power Room. “The ship is secure. All thrusters are shut down but operable. There’s no problems there, though one of the High Drive motors apparently took a slug during the fighting. I’ll have her changed out in an hour after things have cooled down, though being one motor short won’t affect our performance if we have to lift, over.”

    Daniel started to reply but had to cough instead to clear the sharp dryness at the back of his throat. It felt for a moment as though he’d tried to swallow a mouthful of burrs. There was smoke in the air as well as steam.

    The Gods alone knew what all was burning. Anything that could combine with oxygen would do so when hit by a plasma bolt, including all metals and some rocks.

    Daniel swallowed his phlegm, then resumed, “Roger, Three. One of the Alliance soldiers was bound and determined to die for the Guarantor, and it seems that she did some damage before Sun obliged her. Get us shipshape as soon as you safely can, but I’m not expecting to lift for several days.”

    He coughed, this time as a pause in which he could word his thought correctly. “Chief Pasternak?” he said. “The Power Train operated without a hiccup during our low-level approach and the firing passes. The thrusters gimballed smoothly, and the flow to each nozzle remained precisely where I set it. My regards to your personnel, and please inform them that they can all expect a drink on their captain when next we have a chance at liberty. Which I’m afraid won’t be any time soon, however. Six out.”

    The topgallant section of the Dorsal A Ring antenna locked in place with a cling which vibrated through the ship. It was a familiar sound in the ordinary course of things–but not in an atmosphere. Here it had a deeper, richer tone than when the ship was preparing to go into the Matrix.

    “What’s that?” demanded Senator Forbes as she entered the bridge. DeNardo, showing his usual bovine calm, and Platt who seemed on the verge of frightened tears, were with her, but the pair of servants/bodyguards were not. She was in a cream business suit with shoulder flounces rather than senatorial robes, the sort of thing she might wear during office hours while the Senate was in session.

    “I’ve raised an antenna because the sensors at the masthead will give us a twenty-mile panorama,” Daniel said, looking up with a smile. Things had gone very well thus far, but from the Senator’s sour expression she wasn’t sure of that. “If we have to lift off too suddenly to bring it down properly, it’ll go by the boards. But that’s unlikely, and in that event I’m sure we’ll have worse problems.”

    Fires were burning all over St James City. Most were in the military reservation–Vesey had been right to wonder if there’d be barracks for the laborers-become-garrison–but six or eight spots on the north side of the harbor licked flame into the smoky haze. Unless some were coincidental with the attack, the heavy plasma charges had flung blazing debris up to a quarter mile from the impact sites.

    “I’ve been watching through the display in my suite,” Forbes said, seeming to warm slightly. She’d had sense enough to keep out of the way during the fighting, but it would have rankled her nonetheless to be on the sidelines. “I won’t pretend I understood much of what was going on, though, except that apparently we weren’t all about to die the way the noises made me expect. That is correct, isn’t it?”

    “The worst noises were us shooting at Alliance positions,” Daniel said, encouraging his smile to widen. “I’ve arranged a meeting with Commodore Harmston to formally accept his surrender of the planet. I hope you’ll accompany me?”

    The Senator really was doing very well for someone who was used to thinking of herself as one of the dozen most important people in the Republic of Cinnabar. If she got peevish, she was nonetheless behaving better by an order of magnitude than Corder Leary would’ve done in similar circumstances.

    Daniel didn’t care if Forbes preferred to sit in her cabin and twiddle her thumbs–or DeNardo, for that matter. What he really hoped was that she’d be pleased at the invitation. Since the meeting was between military commanders, she couldn’t demand to be present by right.

    The Senator’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment she smiled wryly. “In fact I was hoping, shall we say,” she said, “to be present. Which is why I’m in this–

    She pinched the ruff over her right shoulder.

    “–instead of something less ornate.”

    Major Mull, wearing battledress and holding his sub-machine gun at the balance instead of slinging it, stamped into the compartment. He’d lifted the face-shield of his helmet.

    “Sir!” he said, quite clearly ignoring the civilians. “Request permission to put a squad of marksmen on the hull for security before we lower the boarding ramp!”

    Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “Major Mull,” he said. He didn’t raise his voice unduly–the Marine was just short of shouting–but it snapped nonetheless. “I will remind you that the bridge is the captain’s territory, and that at present the captain is in conference with her Excellency, Ambassador Forbes. Is that understood?”

    Mull slammed to attention. “Sir!” he said, focusing his eyes on a spot on the bulkhead. “Understood sir!”

    He’s older than I am, and this–Daniel had checked the major’s record–is his first shipboard command, though he’s served as a junior officer on two battleships before his promotion. Mull didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, but he was an unimaginative man who had never before taken orders from someone outside the Marine hierarchy.

    “At ease, Major,” Daniel said aloud. “And yes, that’s a good idea, but I’ll want twenty of your people to accompany the Senator and me when we take the surrender of the–”

    “Daniel, mine tender R16 in Fleet Berth Four is preparing to lift off!” said Adele, speaking through his commo helmet.

    “Belay that, Mull!” Daniel said as he dropped onto his console again. He hoped Senator Forbes wouldn’t feel offended, but that wasn’t his first priority any more.

    “Six, I’m on it!” cried Sun on the command push. The bone-deep rumble of the dorsal turret–the ventral turret had been withdrawn for landing and was now below the harbor’s surface–would have made that obvious anyway.

    “All personnel get off the hull!” boomed Vesey’s voice from the PA system and the ship’s outside speakers. “Prepare for gunnery exercise! All Milton personnel get inside now or you’ll be fried. Move it, Millies!”

    Vesey was on the ball too, as expected, though Daniel wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it had been Cory who cut in the external speakers. He wasn’t sure he’d have been able to manage that unusual task so quickly himself, though of course he’d never have to with Adele as his signals officer.

    Just as he didn’t have to worry about directing his next transmission. “R16, this is RCS Milton. Shut down or you will be destroyed. Shut down and acknowledge, over!”

    There were scores of ships on the civilian side of St James Harbor, several of them freighters bigger than the Wartburg. The naval base to the south was almost empty by contrast, though the extensive docks were built to handle a fleet including battleships. The Milton was by far the largest ship present, but the harbor facilities dwarfed her.



    A pall of steam rose from a slip near the eastern end of the naval harbor. From ground level the vessel floating there wouldn’t have been visible over the quay at this stage of the tide, but Daniel’s masthead sensors let him peer down on it. Another hundred-foot mine tender like the one the Milton had destroyed in orbit was trying desperately to escape and warn Admiral Petersen of the disaster.

    “R16, this is Captain Daniel Leary!” Daniel said. “Shut down immediately! You will not escape, you cannot escape. Shut down now and avoid dying for no purpose, over!”


    Voltaire 6 was Colonel Stockheim’s call sign, while Tiger was the Milton. Adele was keeping Daniel informed of her transmission without interfering with what he was doing.

    “R16, this is suicide!” Daniel said. “You must shut–”

    The gush of steam from Berth 4 redoubled, concealing the mine tender for a moment. Then the hull with its minimum rig rose slowly from the cloud. They probably don’t even have stores aboard for an interstellar voyage!

    “Six, I’ve got her, over!” Sun cried. He was hunched over his console, his right hand poised over the EXECUTE button.

    “Gunner, you may fire one round only,” Daniel said, his face hard. Taking risks and ordering others to take risks were major parts of a naval officer’s duties. This sort of pointless bravado disgusted him.


    The shot came quicker than Daniel had expected. Because of the Milton’s greater height, Sun had managed to get an angle while the tender was still largely within her slip. From the masthead sensors, Daniel saw a wedge of the top of the quay blaze white as the lower margin of the bolt touched it, reducing the concrete to quicklime and shattered gravel.

    Most of the plasma struck the R16, however, and ripped her in two. In a breathable atmosphere, steel heated to the temperature of a star became fuel. The central portion of the little vessel didn’t just vaporize as it would have done in space, it burned.

    An iridescent fireball filled the slip, then paled as it lurched upward. When it burst high in the air, diamond-bright droplets rained down.

    R16’s bow dived into the slip, driven by two working thrusters. A double blast followed when water bathed the hot Stellite nozzles. It would have been impressive if it hadn’t been upstaged by the plasma bolt itself.

    The last ten feet of the tender’s stern accelerated skyward in a steep curve while Daniel watched in amazement. The fragment hurtled several hundred feet up before the thruster driving it ran out of reaction mass. It spun, flinging out lesser debris which seemed to include a pair of human bodies, and plunged into a subdivision. There was no explosion, but more houses began to burn.

    “The bloody fool,” Daniel said. That was as much of an epitaph as R16’s commander would get or deserved.

    He took a deep breath, furious at the waste. “Ship, this is Six,” he said. “All clear, all clear. And Gunner, that was a fine piece of work. Six out.”

    Calm again, Daniel turned back to Senator Forbes. “Sun, that’s our Gunner–”

    He gestured left-handed toward the gunnery console.

    “–caught the mine tender while it was still in its berth. If it had had time to get up to a thousand feet or so it would have been an easy target because of the reduced deflection, but the falling debris would’ve done all manner of damage. That was very good work.”

    Daniel didn’t know what if anything Forbes made of what he was saying, but the fact that Sun heard his captain praise him to the Senator was important. Sun had done a very good piece of work. Most of the lives he’d saved were those of local civilians, but there would’ve been losses among the Brotherhood infantry too.

    “Yes, I see,” said Forbes in the tone of somebody who would have preferred not to have been interrupted. “When were you planning to meet the Alliance Commodore?”

    There was a dull bong and the cruiser rocked slightly. Forbes and her aides might not even have noticed it after the violence of the plasma cannon, but it announced to Daniel that the boarding ramp had lowered until it butted firmly. The naval berths in St James Harbor were as well appointed as those of Harbor Three on Cinnabar; instead of floating catwalks, metal extensions unfolded from the dock on cantilevered supports.

    “Yes,” he said. “If you’re ready, your Excellency, we’ll be heading for the command bunker in about five minutes when the utility vehicles come up from the hold. I’d have used the aircars–”

    “Except that the turbulence which the ship creates makes them too dangerous a risk to my life?” the Senator said. Her tone was so dry that Daniel wasn’t sure whether she was joking or still angry over his previous manipulation.

    “No, your Excellency,” he said. Forbes had a right to be angry, and this would be as good a time–in the middle of a major victory–as he could imagine for her to let it out. “Because it’s too dangerous to put anybody up in the air when hundreds of Alliance personnel are loose and haven’t been disarmed. I’ll take my chances–our chances, if I may say so–with the odd slug flying around, but it’s easier than you might think to shoot an aircar right out of the sky. And it’s very hard to dodge gravity if that happens.”

    Forbes sniffed and looked down at the cream sleeve of her jacket. “I should have worn gray,” she said, as much to herself as to anybody. “This will be all soot by the time we get to this bunker.”

    “Well, think of it this way, Senator,” said Hogg in a raspy voice. “So long as you haven’t shat your trousers, you’ll be better dressed than the local brass you’ll be meeting.”

    Forbes stared at him, then turned to Daniel. He let the smile ease from his lips and waited with a neutral expression.

    “Your man has a smart mouth, Leary,” she said. “Does he know how to handle those guns he’s carrying?”

    “Hogg is a very good shot, your Excellency,” Daniel said.

    “I thought he might be,” Forbes said. Her face crinkled into a slight smile. “And I dare say he’s right about how our opposite numbers reacted to being on the other end of those bloody great cannon. Well, whenever you’re ready. Do you have to change clothes?”

    Daniel glanced down at his utilities. “No, your Excellency,” he said. He took the sub-machine gun which Hogg offered. “This is a useful reminder to Commodore Harmston that we’re a fighting force.”

    The first of the Hydriote transports was rumbling down from the stratosphere with a load of the Fonthill Militia. Blantyre was in charge of them. Before they’d even lifted from Fonthill, she’d used maps of St James City to set up patrol areas. Each unit would be commanded by a petty officer from the cruiser. There’d have to be adjustments–there would have been adjustments even if a tenth of the city hadn’t been destroyed in the assault–but Blantyre would take care of the problems without bothering her captain about them.

    “As soon as we’re sure the Alliance forces understand that they’ve surrendered,” Daniel said, “I will change–at least into my Grays. The prisoners from Admiral Ozawa’s squadron are in a quarry north of the city. Freeing them is my next priority, and they deserve the respect of a dress uniform.”

    Forbes nodded crisply. “I’ll join you,” she said. There was no question at all in her done.

    “I hoped you would,” Daniel said truthfully. “Now, let’s deal with Harmston.”

    He glanced back at the panorama as he started out of the compartment with Hogg, Major Mull, and Senator Forbes. Armed spacers were trotting down the Milton’s boarding ramp. That would be the cadres for the Militia as well as the cruiser’s own security party, as expected. But among them–

    Daniel looked at the signals console; it was empty, though Cory was doubtless handling communications from his station. He’d been right to think that the two slim figures leaving the ship were Adele and Tovera. They’d left the bridge while his attention was on Senator Forbes.

    What in heaven is Adele doing now?

    Though being Adele in the present chaos, the question might better be phrased, What in Hell?

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