Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 39



Cory had lighted the thrusters as soon as Adele ordered the attack, but it was almost a minute before he was willing to tighten the sphincters. Adele felt the Princess Cecile lift as smoothly as if she had been on water. They rose vertically until they were comfortably above the lip of the swale which had sheltered the ship while Vesey’s party advanced.

The message came from a laser emitter, but it was so weak and distorted that only a system as sensitive as the Sissie’s could have received and enhanced it: “Beta Six to Beta. Cazelet down, need Medicomp soonest, out.”

Adele forwarded it as a throbbing purple text crawl at the bottom of Cory’s display. She didn’t think there was anything Cory could do about it, and maneuvering a starship at low altitude was more than most captains could have managed even without distractions. It was all Adele could do, though, so she did it.

“Command to Barnes,” Cory said on the command channel. “We’re going to open up as soon as we get down. I want your crew in hard suits so you can lay the boarding bridge while the ground’s still hot. We’ll have a stretcher coming aboard and they won’t have suits, over.”

“Roger, out,” said Barnes, the acting bosun while Woetjans was aboard the Katchaturian.

“Ship, this is Command,” Cory said, keying the general push so that everyone aboard could hear him. “We’re going in hard, so brace yourselves. Command out.”

The Princess Cecile was at a hundred feet. They had porpoised slightly when they lifted off, but Cory had held the ship steady as soon as it had built forward motion. They speeded up slightly as they slanted downward; Cory had adjusted the angle of his thrusters.

Adele switched her display to a real-time panorama, reducing her communications duties to a sidebar. Benjamin in close-up was the same gray-dun blur it had appeared from a light-minute out. Small bushes wriggled in the Sissie’s bow wave, sometimes releasing a fluff of white seeds before the plasma exhaust incinerated them.

The village — Beta — came in sight ahead. One of the huts was burning.

“Ship, hang on!” Cory repeated. The ship bucked as he opened the throttles. The Sissie was beginning to slow when the outriggers touched, first toward the stern.

There was a rending crash and one of the worst jolts Adele had ever felt aboard a starship. Automatic restraints clamped her about the waist, so that she wasn’t flung off the console. The only worse one was when a missile hit the Milton…and that wasn’t much worse.

Sand and dust sprayed up, filling Adele’s display. The Dorsal A antenna, raised as a communications mast, carried away. The butt end rang on the Sissie’s bow on the way past, certainly hard enough to dent the steel hull.

“Opening main hatch!” Cory warned. The dogs withdrew; their hammer-on-anvil chorus seemed muted after the landing itself.

The ship shuddered. There was a muted shock and the hatch began to hum downward.

Though only a few feet away from one another, Cory and Adele sat back to back. He looked at her face in his display and said, “I was afraid for a moment that the hull was so warped the hatch wouldn’t open. I don’t know what we’d have done then.”

“We’d have found a way,” Adele said. “Anyway, the hull didn’t warp. You did a good job, a remarkable job.”

“Six’ll have my commission for this,” Cory said. “I doubt either outrigger is watertight now, and the gods only know what damage the antenna did when it ripped loose.”

“Daniel doesn’t care about problems that can be solved by money,” Adele said, deliberately emphasizing her personal connection with Captain Leary. “Neither should you.”

The boarding ramp thumped into the ground. Three Sissies wearing gauntlets and the lower halves of rigging suits and one with just the suit bottom carried the boarding extension down the ramp at a dead run. The haze of dust and unquenched ions from the exhaust blurred them to ghost figures.

In a normal landing, the harbor water dissipated heat and quenched plasma by conduction and boiling; this rocky soil would be too hot to touch for hours. Four figures with jackets wrapped over their faces were trotting out of the village. They carried a cloth-wrapped figure on a stretcher made from a tarpaulin and a pair of stocked impellers.

Adele rose from her console. She squeezed the acting captain’s shoulder and said, “Cory, I’m going down to the hold. Handle communications, if you will.”

“Yes ma’am!” Cory said. Over the years he had developed more skill with communications suites than anyone Adele had met besides herself. He already sounded brighter than he had while he was thinking about the damage he had done by skidding the Sissie in to save a comrade’s life.

Adele started down the companionway. It was strange to hear her own feet on the steel treads without the sound of Tovera’s footsteps in counterpoint. It took her back to her days in the Academic Collections, though the staircases in the stacks weren’t in armored cylinders so the echoes weren’t as noticeable.

Adele’s smile was mostly in her mind; and mostly sad. She recalled a time when she had no problems except those of poverty, which really hadn’t distressed her very much.

She opened the hatchway into the main hold and staggered. The shock of the hot atmosphere full of ozone and other ions. It was like being slapped in the face with barbed wire.

Barnes’ landing crew had returned to the hold as soon as they had extended the bridge. A guard was still at the hatch, using her hands to shield her eyes as a sub-machine gun swung loose from her shoulder.

The stretcher bearers stumbled aboard. Barnes opened the internal hatch to the chamber which held one of the corvette’s Medicomps. The main hatch was already rising; when it closed, it would at least stop the influx of air poisoned by the ship’s exhaust.

People were shouting instructions. A half-suited crewman grabbed Dasi by the arm and guided him and his crew toward the Medicomp. The stretcher bearers were blind or the next thing to it; they would probably need medical attention also. Adele followed them into the inner chamber and closed the hatch behind her.

Crewmen who’d remained aboard tossed aside the jacket which had protected Cazelet’s face during the trip through Hell; they loaded him into the waiting Medicomp. Adele was glad to see that Madringer was one of them; he was an expert in the unit. Like any other machine, there were better and worse ways to use a Medicomp, even though it was designed for the lowest common denominator.

Cazelet’s right leg from mid-thigh was separate on the stretcher. Madringer arranged it carefully within the Medicomp, then closed the machine and let it get on with its business.

Adele realized that Dasi was standing beside her. The big bosun’s mate’s hands were swollen, and his red eyes looked ghastly.

“Dasi, you’d better get some help yourself,” Adele said.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Dasi said. His words were slurred; fumes and ozone had obviously damaged his mouth and tongue even worse than they had the tough outer skin of his hands. “But I want to make sure the kid’s okay first.”

“Yes,” said Adele. “I…”

She paused because she wasn’t sure how to continue. “Feel responsible for him,” was what she had started to say, which sounded extremely foolish when the words formed in her mind. Rene was a thoroughly competent adult who knew the risks of RCN service as well as she herself did.

“I was greatly indebted to his grandmother on Bryce, after I was orphaned,” Adele said. “She sent him to me when his parents were arrested for treason.”

“Madringer!” Dasi croaked. “How’s he doing?”

“I’ll tell you when I bloody know something, won’t I?” Madringer said, bending over the display screen and adjusting the roller control beside it.

“Hell, he’s gonna be all right,” Dasi muttered. It was more a prayer than a prediction. He looked at Adele and said, “Half a dozen of us was just going up the ramp of the Roebuck, clearing her, you know? And some wog comes out of a hut and shoots at us, from behind, you see? And then he throws his gun down — the loading tube was jammed, Sun said afterward, but he got the one slug out and it took off Cazelet’s leg neat as a snapped cable.”