IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 50:
She wasn’t relaxed, precisely, but she felt much less pressured than she had a moment before. US1528 wasn’t protected by a planetary defense array, but the base had shipkilling missiles. The battery might be unserviceable, and even if it did work the Milton was probably above even the extreme range of a ground-based system. Nonetheless, until Adele had bullied the ground crew into acquiescence, there was a possibility that they’d launch and get improbably lucky.
And it would be her fault. Adele was one of the people who viewed all failures as her fault. She knew that wasn’t rational, but it meant she made fewer repeat errors than the large number of people who were sure that all failures occurred because someone else had made a mistake.
“Freighter Wartburg,” Adele said, “this is AFS Admiral Spee. Acknowledge, over.”
A buzzing rumble gripped the cruiser. Powerful magnetic levitators raised the gun turrets minusculely above their tracks and began turning them by precession. Though the rotation was without metal-to-metal contact, the inertia of armored gunhouses and the paired osmium-lined eight-inch gun tubes nonetheless made all the loose fittings in the hull and rigging vibrate like individual steel drums.
Adele had learned to recognize the sound of gun turrets training aboard the Princess Cecile, but the corvette’s lighter battery didn’t have anything like as great an effect. She smiled coldly. If the Wartburg had decent optics, they were getting a good look at the Milton’s weapons right now. Even at a hundred thousand miles, the bore of an eight-inch plasma cannon was enough to get one’s attention.
“Wartburg,” Adele repeated, hearing her voice slip into the harsh tone that was never very far beneath the surface. “This is Spee. Respond in the name of Admiral Petersen, over!”
She was better at using proper communications protocol when she was playing a part than when she was performing the proper duties of an RCN signals officer. She didn’t know what that meant, but in the realm of human behavior Adele didn’t expect to know what much of anything meant.
“Spee, this is the Wartburg out of the Free City of Willowbend on Tilton,” said an angry, frightened voice. The transmission was on the upper sideband only; because of that and compression, Adele couldn’t be sure of the speaker’s gender. “You have no right to delay us. We haven’t landed, we’ll just proceed to another fueling point and leave you to your business, over.”
Adele took a deep breath. A lime-green text crawl across the bottom of her display read hold one. She glanced at the inset of Daniel’s image. Rene Cazelet had sent the caution, but he’d been in a discussion with Daniel and Sun while Adele argued with the Alliance captain.
“Ship, this is Six,” said a grinning Daniel over the intercom. “This is a warning only. Mister Cazelet, go ahead, out.”
“Wartburg, this is Captain of Space Sir Helmut von Thoma!” Cazelet said. The Spee’s real captain was from Pleasaunce whereas the Cazelets were a Diregean family, but both worlds pronounced ‘mut’ as ‘moot;’ even if the Wartburg’s captain was an improbably good judge of accents and had a Fleet List handy, Rene’s voice would ring true. “You have been directed to heave to by an officer of the Fleet!”
Daniel, grinning as widely as a Verrucan rubbermonk, dipped his right index finger toward Sun. The gunner, grinning if anything wider toward his gunnery display, stabbed the red button on his virtual keyboard. The RF filter of Adele’s console blanked the spectrum-wide noise of an ion release.
Even though Adele knew it was coming, the crash of one gun from the dorsal turret made her flinch in her seat. Her previous experience with plasma cannon had been in the midst of battle, when she’d been fully absorbed with her own duties and the sound of gunfire had been lost in the general racket.
Besides that, the Milton’s guns were orders of magnitude more powerful than the Sissie’s four-inch weapons. She’d heard Daniel say that the Milton was overgunned with what were properly battleship cannon. Now that Adele had been subjected to the recoil of an eight-inch gun fired from a cruiser’s hull, she knew what he meant.
Plasma cannon used a laser array to detonate a bead of deuterium, sending the jolt of thermonuclear energy through the single window and down the axis of the bore. In the hard vacuum of space, the discharges spread very slowly. A bolt from an eight-inch gun was potentially dangerous to a lightly built freighter, even one as far distant as the Wartburg was from the Milton.
“Spee, what are you doing, you animals!” screamed the voice from the Wartburg. “Cease firing, cease firing! In the name of all the Gods, we’re laying to, over!”
“Wartburg, this is Spee,” Cazelet said, his voice dripping with aristocratic malevolence. “We’ll be joining you shortly by the Matrix. I’m sending a boarding party through an umbilicus to your dorsal airlock. If you’ve nothing worse on your conscience than more Chantral peaches than were listed on your manifest, you don’t have to worry. We’re the Fleet, not a customs barge. But–”
Adele’s dancing fingers brought up the references. Chantral was the Wartburg’s most recent port of call. The planet’s main export was Terran peaches–actually nectarines–which formed a warmly pleasant hallucinogen when grown in Chantral’s soil. Adele suspected–and Cazelet, the one-time heir of a shipping family, had obviously known–that the freighter’s captain would have under-reported his cargo of so valuable a product to avoid duties.
“–if you attempt to escape while we’re in the Matrix, every one of you will go out the airlock when we catch you. And we will catch you, on my oath as a von Thoma! Do you understand, over?”
“Wartburg to AFS Spee,” said the freighter’s chastened captain. “We’ve shut down our High Drive. We’ll be waiting in free fall until you link with us, Captain von Thoma. Wartburg out.”
“Mister Robinson,” Daniel said, switching to intercom, “pick a prize crew of twenty to serve under yourself. Mister Cazelet, I’m detaching you to accompany Mister Robinson. You have the accent and you know Alliance commercial procedures; we’ll need both those things. Lieutenant Vesey, take a squad of Marines aboard the prize and escort the present Alliance crew back to the Milton after you’ve satisfied yourself that the freighter is sound and capable of proceeding. Break.”
Adele imported images from the navigation console to see how Cazelet was taking the sudden directive. The boy looked cheerfully excited. Lieutenant Vesey’s face, on the other hand, was as white as a chalk bust. Her lips were pressed tight in anger or frustration.
“Ship,” Daniel continued–briskly, brightly. “Prepare for inserting into the Matrix. Inserting… now!”
He pressed a virtual button with two fingers. Adele felt the charge build, lifting the tiny hairs on her arms and neck; then she felt a reversal and cold like that of a dead planet.
The look in Vesey’s pale blue eyes was colder yet.