IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 51:

CHAPTER 14: Above US1528

Imagery from three of the Milton’s hull sensors and the Wartburg’s single working sensor framed the schematic of the linked cruiser and freighter in the center of Daniel’s display. Even so it was the astrogation computer that handled–that had to handle–the operation.

Daniel rated himself as a better-than-good shiphandler, but the stresses which worked on the two ships were so varied and so minute that the best pilot in the human universe would’ve found himself overmatched by the task. Use of the umbilicus in freefall was taught at the Academy, but the instructors made it clear that the system was really meant for ships close to one another on an inhospitable surface.
He could’ve transferred the prisoners and prize crew on US1528, but that would’ve taken time, and it would’ve meant dropping into the range of an Alliance base with ship-killing missiles. He trusted Adele to have shut down the battery, if it was in working order to begin with, and if it crossed the mind of anybody on the ground to launch–as it almost certainly wouldn’t have.
Even so, remaining out of range of enemy weapons was always a better choice than hoping that those weapons wouldn’t be used. Spacers took enough risks as it was.
Adele was busy with six simultaneous data fields, presumably organizing just-gathered information. It was hard to imagine anything useful coming either from a minor refueling base in the sticks or the sort of freighter which frequented such a base, but Daniel had seen her do magic with equally unpromising material.
Except for Adele, everyone on the Milton’s bridge was watching the operation. Daniel had set his big display omnidirectional, so several off-duty shipside crewmen were clustered in the hatchway for a better view than they could’ve gotten from the flat-plate terminals in their quarters.
The ships drifted nose-to-tail in high orbit. Six-inch cables linked them so that they couldn’t spread wider apart, but that didn’t prevent them from rotating in opposite directions around the umbilicus… which they were indeed doing, slowly but visibly even to a human eye. Daniel judged that he’d have the personnel transferred before the problem became acute, and he surely hoped he was right. The least touch on a plasma thruster would reverse the spin, not cancel it. Even with the computer in charge, that meant a real chance that the next Alliance warship to pass would find the Milton and Wartburg still locked in a tight cocoon of cable.
“Repeat that please, Vesey,” said Adele’s voice. “Ah, over.”
Daniel leaned past his display to look at her. That showed him only the back of Adele’s head; he switched to the message icon on the screen and learned from the history that she’d just cut him in on what had been a direct query from Vesey, now aboard the freighter.
“Officer Mundy, could you join me for a few minutes on the Wartburg, over?” Vesey said. She was using the optical communications fiber woven into the umbilicus, but despite the broader than usual bandwidth her voice sounded clipped.
Adele didn’t look up from her console, but the miniature of her face on Daniel’s display expanded. The image raised an eyebrow in question; Daniel nodded approval with pursed lips.
“Yes, all right, Vesey,” Adele said in her usual professional tone, cold disinterest. “I’ll be over as soon as I get my suit on. Over. Out, I suppose.”
“Mistress,” said Vesey urgently. “Bring a helmet and air bottle against emergencies, but you shouldn’t need even that. We’ll just be a few minutes, over.”
Daniel was nodding even as Adele lifted her eyebrow again. He thought he knew what Vesey wanted, but he didn’t need to brief Adele on how to handle it.
He smiled. For a person who claimed to have no more insight into personal relationships than she did into crystal growth, Adele had shown herself to be quite a good counselor. There were worse forms of understanding than what one got from dispassionate study.
Adele unstrapped and rose from her couch. Tovera was already upright, anchoring herself in the weightless conditions by hooking a toe under the signals console. She held two breathing rigs in her left hand and had slung a full-sized sub-machine gun from the cruiser’s armory under her right arm. Her usual satchel was strapped to her back.
Tovera saw Daniel look at her and gave him a smile of sorts. He smiled back, which he probably wouldn’t have done a year ago.
He still didn’t think Tovera was human, but she made an obvious effort to act as though she were. And besides, there’d been times that the pale little snake had come in bloody useful.
Daniel had ordered the umbilicus to be attached to the cruiser’s forward dorsal airlock which opened onto the rotunda beyond the bridge hatch. The Marines there presented their sub-machine guns even before their officer hopped out of the lock from which he’d been watching and snapped an order.
Tovera stepped in front of Adele and eased her safely against a bulkhead. The Wartburg’s crew swam out of the airlock one at a time. They were a scruffy lot, though no more so than any other collection of spacers. They were dirtier than the off-duty Millies eyeing them, but that was because they’d lacked RCN discipline rather than any difference in the basic material.
The Marines who’d chivvied the prisoners off the Wartburg followed them into the rotunda. Daniel felt a glow of pride that brought another smile to his face.
He loved the Princess Cecile, his first command and a corvette which had done more harm to Guarantor Porra’s Alliance than most RCN battleships… but captaincy of the Milton was a promotion, and the degree of promotion was evident simply in her greater size. Twenty Alliance spacers and the equal number of Marine guards fit in the cruiser’s airlock rotunda; there wouldn’t have been room for them to stand comfortably in the Sissie’s whole A Level corridor.
Adele and Tovera slipped out the airlock after the last Marine had returned to the Milton. Despite Tovera carrying equipment in both hands, she was guiding her mistress. Daniel had seen his friend wind her way through tight-stacked books and paper without brushing any of the piles into collapse, but in any other environment she seemed not so much clumsy as oblivious of her surroundings.
Daniel used the lip of the hatchway as a dais from which to look onto the gathering of prisoners and guards. “Fellow spacers!” he said, “I’m Captain Daniel Leary and you are my prisoners.”
The words drew eyes to him. Until then the Marines had been glowering at the captured crewmen, and the crewmen had–quite understandably–been staring at the muzzles of the guns pointed toward them.
“You’ve been captured by the RCN through a legitimate ruse of war,” Daniel said. “You’ll not be harmed. Those of you who choose to join the RCN will be welcomed into the complement of the Milton here, a crack ship and a lucky one.”
He grinned broadly. “As you yourselves can testify, can you not, spacers?”
He’d hoped to get a grin or even a laugh from some of the prisoners, but they were too cowed to respond to his humor. Maybe it was being held at gunpoint by uniformed Marines instead of sailors wearing slops like themselves.