Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 15


Cuvier Harbor on Jardin

“Opening main hatch,” Vesey warned over the PA system. Daniel, at the back of the boarding hold, squeezed Miranda’s hand and released it. Landings on distant worlds were part of his normal routine, but this was the first time his wife had been off Cinnabar.

The bolts locking the main hatch into the Sissie’s hull withdrew with as much racket than they had made when ringing home. When dogged shut, the hatch was a stressed portion of the corvette’s frame. Now the ship sighed, shaking herself as the hatch pivoted slowly downward to become the boarding ramp.

Steam and ozone sucked into the hold; Miranda flinched slightly. Exhaust from the plasma thrusters was quenched in the harbor when ships made normal water landings, but in still air a miasma of steam and ions hung about the vessel for as long as an hour. The atmosphere was safe within a few minutes of landing so ships rarely waited more, but the first experience of plasma-laced steam and harbor sludge was — literally — breathtaking.

Normally the liberty party would have cheered, but today the Sissies packed in the hold were showing their company manners — Daniel smiled — for Six and his lady. Miranda no more needed to be coddled than Adele did, but the crew was erring on the side of courtesy. That was always proper behavior.

Woetjans and four riggers carried the extendable boarding bridge down the ramp while it was still lowering. Jardin’s triple moons were too small for their gravity to matter, but solar tides raised and lowered the harbor surface by as much as six feet.

The quays of most ports provided ladders to deal with tidal variations. The sort of passengers — and yacht owners — who visited Cuvier were provided with stone steps rising to the top of the quay so that they didn’t get their hands and clothing slimy. Even the non-skid surfaces of the steps couldn’t protect the soles of their shoes from filth, but there were probably mats at the top for cleaning them.

The Sissie’s boarding bridge was a roll of light-metal pontoons which the crew inflated. It connected the ramp with the floating stage attached to the quay by a track. Two members of Woetjans’ team bounced across the bridge while it was still filling and clamped the free end. They trotted up the steps and waited on the quay.

Daniel grinned and murmured to Miranda, “They’re showing off.”

“They have a right to,” she replied. “They’re better than acrobats to be able to do that without falling into the water.”

“They’re riggers,” he said. “If they make a mistake in the Matrix they have worse trouble than getting wet.”

He didn’t add, “Regulations aside, riggers don’t wear safety lines. You’ll drift for all eternity if you get separated from your ship.” Miranda probably knew that already, from her brother or her brother’s friends.

“The liberty party is –” Vesey’s voice began.

“Hold up a bloody minute!” Woetjans called from the edge of the ramp. She was used to shouting over the noise of a dockyard; the Sissies in the hold could hear her easily. The spacers going on liberty had begun to surge forward in anticipation of release, but they settled back now.

“This isn’t like the usual landfall!” the bosun said. “You’re not working for the RCN now, you’re working for Six himself. If you show your asses, you embarrass Six and you embarrass me.”

She paused, letting her words sink in. “Nobody’s saying you can’t have fun,” Woetjans said. “I’m going to get outside a couple jars of good liquor and find a man who’s drunk enough that he don’t mind looking at me. But — no problems, you got that? You may think Six is a soft-hearted git who won’t go at you too hard, and maybe that’s true; but I’m not. You embarrass me and we’ll discuss it, understood? And it won’t be going on the charge sheet, it’ll be personal.”

The bosun grinned. To call her plain would be undue praise at the best of times, but her expression now was terrifying.

“Now the liberty party is released!” she said.

Cheering, the spacers filed out of the hold and across the boarding bridge two abreast. Ribbons with ships’ names and landfalls fluttered from the seams of their liberty suits.

“I’ve split the liberty parties into three at fifteen minute intervals,” Daniel explained. “I’m giving liberty to everybody but the anchor watch, and they’ll go as soon as the first group returns to replace them. These are the senior people.”

“Why split them if they’re all going shortly?” Miranda asked.

“So that the five of us –” Daniel said, nodding past her toward Adele who stood a little apart with Hogg and Tovera “– had room to breathe before the first tranche disembarked.”

The liberty party stopped at the marquee over the base of the quay. Four young women were processing the spacers through without undo delay. A pair of husky men stood behind the marquee, but they weren’t armed even with truncheons.

Daniel frowned. He reached toward the bellows pocket of his tunic where he’d slipped a pair of RCN goggles. They had all the functions of a commo helmet’s faceshield, so he could magnify the scene to get a better idea of what was going on.

“The authorities use facial recognition software on all visitors,” Adele said, correctly interpreting Daniel’s expression. “Anyone whom their database thinks is a threat to good order is denied entry. And if you’re wondering, there’s an emergency response squad on alert at all times. They’re quite heavily armed.”

“We could handle them,” Tovera said straight-faced. “Even without the turret guns.”

Miranda burst out laughing and hugged Daniel with the nearer arm. She obviously knew Adele’s servant well enough that Tovera’s dry humor didn’t bother her.

Daniel wasn’t sure humor was quite the word. Tovera created humor by studying what ordinary people thought was funny, much as she based her actions on what Adele did. The latter seemed to be an adequate substitute for the conscience which Tovera lacked.

“I think we can start off,” Daniel said, having judged the rate at which the liberty party was moving through the marquee. “Then Vesey can send the second section down.”

They were all in civilian clothes; Daniel wasn’t even wearing the saucer hat that would mark him as a ship’s officer. His dull yellow tunic and trousers were loose-fitting with many pockets. Miranda’s outfit was similar but in a shade of pale green printed with a chain-link pattern.

They were as clearly not uniforms as Daniel could find without going to colors so bright that he would stand out, since he didn’t want that either. Adele and Tovera were in suits of cream and tan respectively, and Hogg wore blue slops instead of the garish finery that was really to his taste.

At the boarding bridge Daniel looked at Miranda and said, “If you’d like to go ahead?”

“There’s room for both of us,” she replied, squeezing closer but breaking her stride so that their feet syncopated one another instead of landing in unison.

Daniel nodded mentally in approval. He had seen a bridge undulate when a squad of soldiers marched over it — halfway over, because it had flung them off. Miranda didn’t have personal experience of spacefaring, but she had read and listened to those who did — and she was very smart.

A heavy ground-effect ship had been running its engines up in the separated harbor for planet-bound transport. Now it moved forward, its speed building from a crawl. The nose lifted as the craft came onto the first hull step, and by the time it had reached the outer mole it was on the second step and still accelerating. The trailing edges of its short, broad wings curved down to boost the craft the rest of the way into full ground effect.