Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 37

In the bosun’s hands, that was certainly true. For the slightly built Cazelet — probably less so, but that wasn’t the point. Cazelet didn’t have the military indoctrination which trains its subjects out of the normal human hesitation to kill another human. He’d failed to shoot an enemy during a deadly struggle on Corcyra and he might fail again, but he could lead an attack just as well with a club as with an impeller.

Likewise Vesey. Daniel had been thinking of Vesey as the person whom he could best trust to take care of Adele and the Princess Cecile. He’d ignored the fact that she was an RCN officer — and a human being, who had the right to resent Captain Leary’s unintentional insult on her ability to lead.

Daniel smiled, relaxing his audience. “Yes, all right, Cazelet,” he said. “That means I’m going to put the Katchaturian under –”

His pause may not have been noticeable to his officers, but it was very real in Daniel’s mind. Cazelet’s request had surprised him, though it shouldn’t have: Rene wouldn’t have been much of a man if he hadn’t asked to accompany into danger the woman whom he was seeing when they were both off duty. He and Vesey had been together for nearly two years now.

“– Captain Schnitker, who commanded her in Nabis service. He’s got a good deal of dry landing experience and has shown himself generally competent. What I don’t know about him yet is how he behaves when bullets are flying. For that reason –”

Daniel grinned at Hale, seated beside Cory.

“– Acting Lieutenant Hale will be on the Katchaturian’s bridge during action at the navigator’s console. Hale, if you believe at any point that the mission or the personnel on the ground are being endangered by Captain Schnitker’s behavior, you are to shoot him and take over. Can you handle that?”

“Sir!” said Hale. “Yes sir!”

“Draw a sidearm, then,” Daniel said. Normally personnel turned in their weapons when they returned from detached duty. Not only were guns unnecessary, the steel bulkheads made ricochets from an accidental discharge a particular nightmare.

“If that’s all our business here…” Daniel said. He waited a few beats to make sure that it was all the business. “Then we’ll go outside and inform the crews of the plan.”

He rose, bringing his officers up with him. Daniel gestured them out of the cabin so that they could join the ordinary spacers before Captain Leary addressed them from the main hatch of the Katchaturian.

“How much trouble do you think the wogs are going to give us?” Hogg asked over his shoulder as he led his master down the companionway. He carried his own stocked impeller and had slung a sub-machine gun for Daniel.

“I doubt there’s half a dozen guns in either village,” Daniel said, speaking over the echoes of boots on steel treads in a steel tube. “At Beta there might be a problem if somebody’s awake enough to use the rockets on the Roebuck.”

“Hey Hogg?” Tovera called from behind Daniel. “You want to switch duty? A slug from that cannon of yours would take out the rockets. Maybe set ’em off, even.”

“Naw, I’ll stick with the master,” Hogg said. “If the wogs get their fingers out in time, which I don’t figure’ll happen, then it’ll show this Nabis lot that life has risks, right?”

True enough on all counts, Daniel thought. But he really hoped that it wouldn’t happen. He’d be able to hear eight-inch bombardment rockets detonating even from fifteen miles away.

Reed and Nagata, both techs, were on watch in the boarding hold, standard operating procedure when the hatch was open. They muttered greetings as Daniel and the servants stepped to the top edge of the hatch. Gusts from outside whipped their clothes.

“Fellow spacers of the Nabis Contingent!” Daniel said. The loudspeakers on the Katchaturian’s spine were being fed from a parabolic microphone on the Princess Cecile, lying parallel to the destroyer and a hundred feet away.

The crews, assembled into squads, stared up at him. The spacers’ expressions varied from anticipation through discomfort to outright concern. The Sissies who would be acting as squad leaders had done the sorting while Daniel addressed the officers who would command larger groupings. The attack parties weren’t armies, but at least they were organized.

Daniel was uncomfortable too, if it came to that. Benjamin’s air was thin and dry and cold. He knew he wouldn’t notice it once they moved out to attack, but he didn’t want to shiver and have the Nabis personnel think that he was trembling in fear.

“We’re going to attack two peasant villages, capture the ships there, and free any prisoners we find,” Daniel said. “Our job is not to kill peasants, though anyone who resists will be dealt with in the quickest way possible. People who surrender are not to be harmed.”

He wondered if the spacers below could see his stern expression as he said that. Probably not, most of them; the wind flicked dust from the ground and made them squint. Benjamin was really a miserable place.

“Now that it’s really coming to the point, some of you may be thinking that maybe you’d be happier in a job where nobody’s going to be shooting at you,” Daniel said. “You’ve got that option: anybody who decides he doesn’t have the balls for this work can chicken out now. You’ll stay on shipboard till we can carry you back to Peltry and land you on the beach. The Nabis Contingent has no room for cowards!”

Daniel gave his words a few moments to sink in. He didn’t expect many Nabies to take up the offer, since crewing a starship was a dangerous job itself — more dangerous than rushing a couple villages full of startled peasants. Besides, even real cowards hated to admit they were cowards, especially in front of their comrades and a corvette-crew of foreigners, many of whom were women.

When nobody stepped forward, Daniel nodded and said, “I’m done here, then, but before we board the ships for deployment, my servant Hogg has a few words to say to you.”

Daniel stepped back, taking the sub-machine gun which Hogg handed him. Hogg and Tovera moved to the edge of the ramp. Tovera carried a full-sized sub-machine gun from the Sissie’s arms locker.

“I’ve been looking after the young master for nigh-on thirty years,” Hogg said. His gravelly voice boomed out from the speakers above him. “I’m still doing that. Now, the master knows that if we go in fast and everybody keeps moving, this is going to be a piece of cake. The only way it gets dangerous is if we funk it after we start; and by ‘we’ I mean ‘you.’ I’ll be following the batch with the master, and Tovera here –”

Tovera raised her sub-machine gun overhead by the balance.

“– will be in back of those of you landing on the Sissie. What we’ll do is kill anybody who runs away or tries to go to ground. If you think we won’t do it or can’t do it, you talk to your shipmates who served with us before. Believe me, we’re a lot more dangerous than the barefoot wogs you’re going up against.”

Hogg and Tovera backed away; Daniel took center again and said, “Fellow spacers, if everybody does his job we’ll be back on Peltry in three days, with liberty for all and a bonus –”

Paid out of Daniel’s own pocket if the Ministry of War balked.

“– to spend. Dismissed to your ships!”

Sissies led the cheer, but Daniel saw that a gratifying number of Nabies were joining in. Tovera walked down the ramp to get to her action station on the Princess Cecile. Daniel moved to the side to let the Katchaturian’s crew reboard.

“I think they’ll do fine,” Hogg said, eyeing the squads of spacers.

“We’ll know in a couple hours,” Daniel said, wishing that he were as confident as Hogg sounded.