Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 38



Though in command, Cory was at the navigator’s console, opposite Adele on the Princess Cecile’s bridge. The equipment was the same, and Cory had said he didn’t need Six’ seat to act as captain. When Vesey commanded the corvette, she remained in the Battle Direction Center where she would have been when Daniel was aboard.

That probably implied something about Daniel as a leader, though Adele didn’t have any idea what. She observed human beings closely and could often predict their behavior, but as a general rule she didn’t really understand why humans did things. Desire for money or power or sex were behind most human activities…and none of those things interested Adele in the least.

“Cory?” she said on a two-way link. Another person would have turned and spoken directly. “Do you know of a great deed that was done for the sake of knowledge?”

“Ma’am?” said Cory. He was echoing her display on the lower half of his own, but he hadn’t expected her to address him directly. “Well, explorers like Commander Bergen, I guess. I’d say it was pretty great to open as many routes as he did, over.”

Adele considered that for a moment. Daniel’s uncle hadn’t gotten rich from his work. He had retired as a commander while Academy classmates had become admirals because they had focused on paths to promotion while Stacy Bergen was finding routes through the Matrix. He had never married.

He must have been driven by a desire for knowledge.

“Yes, I see that,” Adele said. “Thank you, Cory.”

She had never paused in her task of observing the assault parties. The three hundred and some red dots were overlaid on a terrain map created from imagery which the ships’ sensors had gathered during their landing approaches.

Benjamin didn’t have enough water for oceans and continents. The elevation of this region didn’t vary as much as a hundred feet in a mile, but six feet was sufficient to hide a standing human and a hundred would conceal the ships from the villages their crews were attacking.

That was fine, but it caused Adele a coordination problem since Benjamin had no satellite network. She was making due by having both ships raise a dorsal antenna high enough that the masthead sensors bore on the target village and also had a line of sight to the other ship.

A keen-eyed local could notice the distant glint on the horizon, but you couldn’t eliminate all risks.

“Beta Six to control,” Vesey said. She wasn’t in sight of the ship; her signal was being relayed through several commo helmets until it reached one which had a direct link to the Sissie’s sensors. “Beta is in position. Please confirm, over.”

Adele checked her display. It was being echoed to Vesey’s helmet, but the larger scale of the console might show something that could be missed on a face-shield display. Besides, Vesey probably wants contact with someone who’s on her side.

“Beta Six, I confirm that your party is in position,” Adele said. The hundred-plus red dots had advanced to within fifty yards of the village on the left of their line and of the Roebuck on the right.

The pirate ship’s rocket basket was locked in a forward position. With optical sensors within a mile of the target, Adele could see that only two rockets remained in the launcher.

Village Beta was dead quiet. Only dust moved in the wind.

“Acknowledged, Beta out,” Vesey said.

“Alpha Six,” Adele said. “Beta party is in position. Over.”

“Roger, Control,” Daniel said. “I think we’re here also. Please confirm, over.”

Adele checked her display again. She had split the screen vertically with Alpha on the left and Beta on the right; she had compressed the ten miles in the middle between the villages.

“Alpha Six,” she said. “Your party is in position. Over.”

She had created a do-not-cross line, yellow on the consoles and a yellow pulse on the face-shields of all spacers who reached it. That was the point beyond which the helmet was visible from the village according to the terrain map. In many cases it was closer for a spacer on her belly than it would be if she stood bolt upright.

“Control,” Daniel said. “When you’re ready, you may give the command to attack to both parties. Six out.”

There’s no reason to delay. “Nabis Contingent,” Adele said. “Attack!”

* * *

“Attack!” said Adele’s crisp voice in Daniel’s commo helmet and the other helmets in Alpha Party.

Daniel got up from behind a sand-scoured boulder, waved his sub-machine gun over his head — he didn’t shout; they were still unobserved as best he could tell — and began trudging across the hundred yards of wasteland toward the Mezentian Gate. Scrubby plants the size of a double fist studded the gravel plain at intervals of a yard or two.

Commo was a problem. The Katchaturian’s Table of Equipment had never been to RCN scale, and what there was had been run down considerably. Pasternak’s techs and a considerable amount of scrounging on Peltry had provided about half the original Nabies with something that would work.

The former Nabis officers had RCN helmets from the Sissie’s stock. They were being judged on this mission, and Daniel was making sure his decisions were based on the personnel rather than on their equipment.

The Mezentian Gate was an ordinary tramp freighter for this region. She had a single ring of antennas and was missing the uppermost yard on at least the starboard set. A circle of bright scars around a broad dimple showed where the rocket had hit before she was captured, but so far as Daniel could tell the blast hadn’t penetrated her hull.

He looked over his shoulder. His Sissies were keeping quite a good skirmish line; probably better than they would have done if they hadn’t been setting an example for the Nabies.

The village straggled off to the right. It was a line of shacks made from packing containers with the smelter was on the other end. It would give the locals an excellent strongpoint if they were organized enough to use it.

Daniel waved his sub-machine gun again and slanted toward the ramp of the Mezentian Gate. The ship was cold and silent, completely shut down.

Twenty spacers had been told off to capture the freighter with him, but it appeared that more were joining. That wasn’t ideal, but Woetjans should’ve been able to round up all the villagers with half a dozen picked Sissies. Daniel had detailed a hundred and fifty for the huts and the two small pirate ships as training, not the job itself.

Just as Daniel reached the boarding ramp, a woman began to scream. He looked over his shoulder. A local wearing a shift had come out of a hut and seen the attacking spacers. She dropped her bucket and bolted back the way she had come.

The woman was a problem for Woetjans and her people. Daniel went up the Gate’s ramp at a run; they had crossed the hundred yards from cover at a steady walk so as not to reach their targets winded. He hadn’t expected to get as far as this before being discovered.

There was a burst of gunfire from the village. Daniel hoped it was his people doing the shooting, but that was out of his control. It was always out of the commander’s control when the shooting started, and he wished more politicians understood that.

He entered the up companionway and started for the bridge. Wright, the Katchaturian’s gunner, was immediately behind him. Daniel was much more surprised to see in his glance backward that Hugo, a midshipman from Nabis aristocracy, was third in line with a determined look on his face.

Hogg had been staying far enough back to keep a lookout for stragglers. He hadn’t caught up in time to bull past the pair of Nabies before they reached the helical staircase. He was probably furious, but Daniel suspected Wright would provide sufficient backup — especially since the Nabie carried a sub-machine gun. Hogg’s stocked impeller was useless except as a blunt spear in the tight confines of a starship.

Daniel was breathing hard when he reached Level E, the freighter’s highest deck. Because the Mezentian Gate had a tiny crew compared to that of a warship, the galley and all accommodations were on this level with the bridge.

He stepped into the rotunda which served both companionways and the freighter’s dorsal airlock. A barefoot local in dungarees started out of the accommodation block behind the bridge; he bleated and jumped back when he saw Daniel.

Daniel lunged after the man and butt-stroked him in the ribs from behind. The local had been reaching for an impeller leaning against the wall; the blow pitched him forward into the rack of bunks welded to the outer bulkhead. The crash and jangle was welcome, at least to Daniel.

Men were wired to the bunks, though Daniel didn’t have time to count to be sure all were present. “We need wire-cutters!” Daniel shouted as he started to turn.

WHACK-whang! Someone kicked Daniel hard in the left buttock.

He staggered and almost fell down. He hopped to the hatch — his left leg was going numb — and grabbed the coaming.

Wright faced into the bridge and fired a short burst. Somebody unseen cried out. Wright disappeared onto the bridge with Hugo following.

“Master!” Hogg said, grabbing Daniel by the shoulder and pivoted him back into the accommodations block. Somebody emptied a sub-machine gun on the bridge; a slug ricocheted into the rotunda and disappeared aft with a nasty keening.

“I’m all right!” Daniel said. “A ricochet hit me in the ass, but I don’t think it even broke the skin!”

“It did,” said Hogg grimly, “but I can see the metal. A good thing your butt’s so fat, though. I wonder if this tub has a Medicomp?”

Daniel was getting feeling back in his leg, but his left hip was beginning to feel as though he were sitting on a hotplate. He wanted to sit in a bucket of ice water.

He said, “The Katchaturian’ll be incoming soon; she’ll have lifted as soon as we attacked. Right now I need to see what’s happening on the bridge.”

The bridge had a single console and a flat-plate display attached to the aft bulkhead by a cable which was bolted to the floor. Wright held two sub-machine guns, his own by the pistol grip and that of Hugo by the sling; the barrel was fading to red heat.

A dead local holding a rusty impeller was sprawled beside the console. A second dead man, apparently unarmed, lay on the other side of the console; he had been shot at least a dozen times in the chest. The rest of the sub-machine gun’s magazine had splanged directly into the forward bulkhead. Fortunately recoil had lifted the muzzle as well as pulling the weapon to the right, so the slugs had passed over the console instead of into it.

Hugo was down on all fours, still facing the pool of his vomit. He was weeping.

“Don’t blame the kid,” Wright said hoarsely. “He’ll be all right. Fire discipline’s a lot harder to teach than marksmanship.”

“Agreed,” Daniel said. He switched the console on. It took long enough to start to boot that for a moment he was afraid that it’d been damaged after all.

“I hear the Katie coming in, isn’t that so?” Wright said. The throb of the destroyer’s thrusters reflecting from the ground near below was making the freighter tremble. “You’ll want to get your butt looked at, so why don’t you head on out and I’ll watch the kid here.”

“Let me borrow that multi-tool,” Daniel said, nodding to the pouch on the Gunner’s equipment belt. “I need to cut some wire. It’ll take a while for the ground to cool so I can board.”

Wright set down the empty sub-machine gun. He hooked the tool out of its pouch and tossed it to Daniel.

Daniel and Hogg reentered the accommodation block. They’d had to make their way through a handful of the members of the assault force who had followed them but were milling uncertainly.

“If that fellow wants a warrant from the RCN some day…” Daniel muttered. “I’ll bloody well pull some strings to make it happen.”