IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 49:
Daniel touched the communication wand to the Senator’s helmet. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” he said.
It’d be even more magnificent from the masthead, but Forbes wasn’t going to get up there unless she managed to drag Daniel along by main force. With luck she wouldn’t remember–or understand–Cazelet’s exact words.
“Leary, this is…,” Forbes said. “All those stars!”
“What you’re seeing aren’t stars, your Excellency,” Daniel said, warming to the Senator due to their shared enthusiasm. “Each point of light–”
He held the wand in his right hand, so he swept his left arm through Forbes’ field of view.
“–is a universe equal to our own. The colors indicate each one’s energy state in relation to us. That is, in relation to the Millie herself, a bubble universe driven through the Matrix by the pressure of Casimir radiation on her sails. At present, we’re in a much higher energy state than the sidereal universe.”
Forbes turned her head slowly, taking in the full expanse of sworls and brush strokes of light. “And you control this, Leary?” she said. “You must feel like a god!”
Daniel thought for a moment. “No, your Excellency,” he said. “But I do feel–”
As he never did in a temple.
“–that the Gods are real. Surely beauty like this can’t just have occurred at random?”
The Senator laughed and turned her gloved palms up. “You’ll have to ask a priest about that,” she said. The rod thinned her voice, but it sounded less harsh than it ordinarily would. “I don’t spend much time with them myself.”
The dorsal antennas shook out their topsails; the hull quivered in response. On the A ring, the left half of the sail didn’t descend. Two riggers scrambled up the ratlines to open the mispleated fabric.
Forbes followed the crewmen with her eyes. To Daniel the riggers moved very gracefully, but he didn’t know what a layman saw. At last she said, “Captain Leary, why are we raiding a small Alliance base? What do you hope to find there?”
“A transport,” Daniel said equably. “Specifically, the Wartburg, a three-thousand tonner out of Bankat. According to movement information from the Merkur’s database, she’s scheduled to take on reaction mass on US1528 about the time we’ll arrive there.”
“But we’re hiring ships from Hydra,” Forbes said. “Surely they can provide all the capacity we need for the invasion?”
The Milton was swinging under her new rig. Did Forbes feel the course change or was it lost to her eyes in the majestic, slow swirl of the Matrix?
“With respect, your Excellency,” Daniel said, “the Hydriotes aren’t providing ships for the invasion. By the contract, and by the oath of a Leary–”
He didn’t overly stress “and”, because he was sure Forbes would take his meaning without being beaten over the head with it.
“–Bolton will be in our hands before the first Hydriote vessel lands.”
He grinned, though the Senator wouldn’t be able to see the expression.
“Fonthill isn’t a problem, of course, but I can’t say the same of a major Alliance base.”
Forbes touched the wand with her left hand, then turned to face Daniel. After a moment she said, “I see, Captain. I’d thought this ship herself–”
She tried to tap the cruiser’s hull with her toe; the magnets in her boots made them too sticky to respond the way she wanted.
“The ship, as I say,” she went on, “would capture Bolton. But I suppose I can leave those matters safely to you.”
Forbes stared at the gorgeous, glowing Matrix. “After all,” she said in a voice that Daniel could barely hear. “You rule the heavens, Leary.”
“Base Control,” said Adele in the accent she’d picked up during the fourteen years she lived on Blythe, working in the Academic Collections. “This AFS Admiral Spee. By order of Admiral Petersen, all liftoffs and landings are embargoed until further notice. Acknowledge, base. Spee over.”
There was nothing very prepossessing about US1528. Almost half the surface was water, making it a suitable world to refill with reaction mass. The gravity, temperature and atmosphere were all within the human comfort zone. There was even life.
The problem was that the life was single celled. The most complex forms were an analogue of blue-green algae which built reefs in the tropical oceans. The land was sterile and windswept.
You couldn’t grow crops without importing the nutrients, so it was simpler to process algae and bacteria into edible blocks that sustained life without providing any reason for living. The Alliance had sited its base on a temperate coastline with minimal repair facilities and a warehouse filled with nutrient blocks; immigrants, contract laborers, and the crews of tramp freighters couldn’t be choosers.
“What?” said ground control. Adele hadn’t been sure anybody would be awake at the base, so besides the standard microwave communication she’d broadcast on the 20-meter emergency frequency. That set off automatic alarms, no matter how bored and sleepy the staff was.
“Say again, Spee?” the controller demanded. “This is Transit Base US1528, over.”
“Base Control,” Adele repeated. “This is AFS Spee! Admiral Petersen has embargoed all movements on your sand pit until we’ve carried out a survey. Do you copy, over?”
Adele normally tried to sound blasé during this sort of false communication so as not to raise the emotional temperature of the party she was deceiving. This time, because she wasn’t available to help Cazelet and Cory oversee data from the sensors while she was pretending to be an Alliance officer, she probably seemed irritated. That was all right too.
A caret blinked in a corner of Adele’s display; she opened it. Cory had located the Wartburg, the Alliance freighter they were here to capture. It was in orbit. Still in orbit: it had only arrived minutes ahead of the cruiser rather than having lifted off after refilling with reaction mass.
“Spee, I don’t understand,” said the bewildered controller. “Why are we embargoed, over?”
Cory had already transmitted the data on Wartburg to the command console. Just in case Daniel was in the press of other business ignoring an alert from a less-than-brilliant midshipman, Adele ran a crawl at the bottom of his display–WARTBURG IN ORBIT PREPARING TO LAND–and followed it by a duplicated link to the course data.
Cory didn’t have all the skills that could be wished in an RCN officer, but his knack for communications had positively impressed Adele. She wished him well.
Openly snarling, she said, “Base, this is Spee! You are not required to understand, you are required to obey. Are you prepared to obey Admiral Petersen’s direct order or not, over?”
The Wartburg was 200,000 miles out from the planet; a good approximation if her astrogator had brought her there directly out of the Matrix. In all likelihood they’d been lucky to extract in the system the first time, and getting this close had been the result of two or three additional jumps. Freighters didn’t have astrogators trained to RCN standards, nor were their crews large enough for delicate maneuvering with the sails.
“Spee, this is 2-8 Base,” said a new voice: female and harsh with frustration. “We’re shutting down as requested. There’s nothing here to shut down, Spee. This is the bloody sticks! 2-8 Base out.”
“Adele,” said Daniel on a two-way link. “Tell the Wartburg to hold where they are and await boarding. Tell them we’ll use an umbilicus to their dorsal airlock. I don’t trust them to have suits, even air suits, for all the crew–but don’t tell them that. Over.”
“Yes, Daniel,” Adele said. She switched to tight-beam microwave, then reconsidered and aligned a 15.5 Megahertz antenna instead. Starships used their antennas and yards to send and receive short-wave signals. Though a freighter’s maintenance of microwave cones, let alone laser pickups, might be lax to the point of non-existence, a starship in service always had some form of rigging.