IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 17:
Borries, the Chief Missileer, was one of a dozen Pellegrinians aboard. They’d been captured on Dunbar’s World and had decided service in the RCN was a better alternative than going home to learn exactly how angry their dictator was that they’d survived a battle which had claimed the life of his only.
The missile station display showed a view of the dockyard, but Borries was looking past it toward the command console. He nodded when Daniel’s eyes glanced onto him.
He was Daniel’s most doubtful appointment: he’d been a good choice for the Princess Cecile, but many Cinnabar-born senior missileers had bid for transfer to the Milton. Captain Leary had the reputation of finding a battle, and battles were the only chance a missileer had to shine.
Daniel had nevertheless brought Borries with him. The Pellegrinian was skilled, but he was also willing to defer to a captain who liked to set up his own attacks. The last thing Daniel needed was a power struggle with a member of his own command group in the middle of combat.
The missileer’s mate was Seth Chazanoff. He was new to Daniel’s command, a Cinnabar native with a flair for the short-range computations that were in some ways more difficult than the long shots more typical of space battles. He’d been chief missileer on a destroyer at a higher base pay that he’d get as mate even on a heavy cruiser. The fact he’d been willing to take a pay cut to have a better chance of practicing his murderous specialty was enough to convince Daniel to take him aboard.
Across the compartment from the missileers sat Adele at the signals station, using her personal data unit as a controller for the console. Daniel assumed that there was some coupling loss incurred by slaving the larger unit to a small one, but when Adele was the operator, nobody would notice it.
She didn’t look up, but Daniel was pretty sure that his was the face inset onto her display. Adele preferred imagery to a physical presence and preferred recorded data to the evidence of her own senses. It worked for her, and what Adele did worked very well for the Republic as well as for her friend Daniel Leary.
Midshipman Cory had the rear couch of the signals console. He had always struck Daniel as somewhat slow-witted–which wasn’t, of course, a barrier to advancement in the RCN. The odd thing about Cory was that he kept learning–not quickly or easily, but consistently. He made mistakes that almost nobody else would’ve made, but he only made them once. There were successful admirals who couldn’t say that much.
Adele would be listening to intercepted transmissions while Cory was handling the ship’s normal flow of communications. Daniel didn’t imagine that any useful information would appear in the chatter of a private shipyard on Cinnabar, but it was habit and practice for Adele.
She would do the same thing whenever her vessel was on a planetary surface. Several times her electronic eavesdropping had saved their mission and not coincidentally their lives.
“Lieutenant Robinson,” said Daniel. “Any anomalies to report, over?”
“Sir, the ship is ready to lift,” Robinson replied from the BDC. “Would you like me to initiate liftoff sequence, over?”
No, I bloody well would not like you to take my new command up the first time I’m aboard her, Daniel thought. Aloud he said, “Negative, Three. Break. Mister Pasternak, you may light your thrusters in sequence, out.”
“Roger, Six,” said Pasternak with gloomy enthusiasm. “Lighting Group A… now! Lighting Group H.”
The ship rang as though a pipe somewhere in her bowels were hammering. Steam roaring up from the pool smothered the hollow boom of the thrusters themselves. They were running at low output with their nozzles flared to minimize impulse. The Milton was coming alive, but she couldn’t yet be said to be straining against gravity.
Thrusters ionized reaction mass, generally water, and expelled it as plasma, lifting ships through the troposphere to where they could safely switch to their High Drive motors. Ships could lift from–and land on–dry ground, but their exhausts scarred the surface and hurled chunks out like a fragmentation bomb.
If the thrusters hit a harmonic, they could set up a standing wave between the hull and an unyielding surface. A captain who reacted quickly could still land by changing the frequency or nozzle angle, but an inexperienced or ham-handed officer might flip his ship on its side in a heartbeat.
“Lighting Group B,” Pasternak reported. The pattern of the cruiser’s minute rocking changed, though not in a fashion that Daniel could’ve identified if he hadn’t known what it was. “Lighting Group G.”
Most large warships grouped their thrusters. The Milton’s thirty-two nozzles were controlled in lettered quartets, starting from the starboard bow. Daniel knew that even with sufficient technicians in the Power Room to keep track of thirty-two separate thrusters, coordination would’ve been impossible. He missed the feeling of flexibility that the Sissie’s individual throttles had given him, though he supposed–
–if he pretended that the cruiser had eight thrusters instead of eight sets of thrusters, it was the same thing.
“Lighting Group C, lighting Group F,” Pasternak said. The ship trembled again.
The band across the bottom of Daniel’s display was set to a 360o real-time panorama of the Milton’s surroundings. Though the pickup lenses were on the upper hull, high above the surface of the pool, a blanket of steam and sparkling ions hid the view. Occasionally they gave a glimpse of the roof of the shop building.
Even at minimal thrust, the Milton was starting to feel greasy. The thunder of steam and plasma would’ve made it impossible to hold a conversation on the bridge without the intercom and the sound-canceling field of each console.
“Lighting Group D, Lighting Group E,” Pasternak said. “All thrusters lighted. All numbers are within parameters. Six, we’re green to go. Five out.”
Daniel checked his schematic, not because he doubted the Chief Engineer but because he always checked his schematic. Each group was in the 95th percentile for flow, throttle response, and output. Furthermore, all four thrusters within each group were within 2% of their three fellows, which could be even more important.
The pool was a roiling hell-storm as the sea rushed through a canal to replace the steam vaporized by the thrusters. In the cruiser’s stern, two pumps sucked water up forty-inch tubes, continuing to top off the tanks of reaction mass till the very instant she lifted from Cinnabar.
The Milton was bucking like a skiff in a riptide. It was time.
“Ship, this is Six,” Daniel said, raising the flow to the thrusters with the collective throttle. “Prepare to lift. I say again, prepare to lift.”
Often mass flow and nozzle aperture were handled by two officers on liftoff. At another time, Daniel might hand one or both tasks off to subordinates–but not now.
With the flow at 80%, he smoothly rotated the vernier which caused the petals of the thruster nozzles to iris down, focusing the plasma which until then had been dissipated as widely as possible. The cruiser throbbed with intention.
Thrust balanced gravity, then overcame it. The great ship surged upward on a pillow of steam and plasma.
“We have liftoff!” cried the speakers in the voice of Lieutenant Robinson.
The RCS Milton was headed to the stars on her first voyage under Cinnabar colors.