IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 59:

CHAPTER 16: Base Amorgos, Fonthill

The Milton’s gig had four plasma thrusters. A single moderate-sized unit would’ve provided sufficient output to propel the little vessel, but safety and controllability at low altitude required the larger number.

Daniel grinned. Because gigs were expected to carry senior officers and dignitaries, safety was a greater concern than might otherwise have been the case. He’d landed anti-pirate cutters of about the same size, and that had been exciting every time.
Cass McDonough, the coxswain, hadn’t served in one of Daniel’s commands before; Daniel had never before had a command that rated a gig or a cox. The clearing, projected on Daniel’s face-shield was rushing up at a pace that made him want to grab the controls, but McDonough caught them on a cushion of vectored plasma and rotated the gig back for front without the hop it would have taken if Daniel had been at the controls.
McDonough had been Admiral Trelawney’s cox for the twelve years before Trelawney retired. Nonetheless, Daniel never really trusted a specialist till he’d seen him perform, and if it was a specialty Daniel knew something about, he was a very hard judge.
The gig settled with a rasp/bump/rasp of the thrusters, a delicacy possible only because of the four lightly-loaded nozzles. The touchdown was smoother than many aircars would have managed.
“Very well done, McDonough,” Daniel said, releasing his straps to rise. “Woetjans, open the hatch, if you will.”
The cox was in fact a great deal better than her captain would’ve been at the controls of the gig. She should have been, of course, but Daniel was–he grinned again, wryly this time: cocky was the term he’d heard frequently at the Academy–cocky enough to think he could give anybody a run at almost anything having to do with a spaceship. Senior Motorman McDonough had just defined one of the ‘almosts’.
Daniel lifted his face-shield. While greeting Colonel Stockheim with a polarized ball instead of a face was proper in the military sense–he was in utilities and this was a combat zone–it wouldn’t advance the spirit of friendly professionalism that he hoped would prevail during the negotiations.
“Sir?” said McDonough, turning her head as best she could while still strapped into the control console; she was prepared for an emergency liftoff, as was a proper if unlikely concern. “You might want to give the atmosphere a minute or two to clear.”
Woetjans ignored her, cycling the inner and outer hatches together. The gig’s tiny airlock would take two people in airsuits or one rigger, but it was normally going to be opened on the surface or a pressurized bay. It didn’t have the safety features that the locks of a starship would.
“I don’t believe we’re senior enough to be prostrated by a lingering whiff of ozone, do you?” Daniel said, adjusting the holster on his equipment belt and the hang of his uniform. No doubt McDonough meant well, but Daniel wasn’t a porcelain admiral who needed a coxswain to fuss over him. “I’ll lead, Woetjans.”
Camp Sixteen, the northernmost of Fonthill’s logging camps and the site Colonel Stockheim had chosen for his base of operations, was the wasteland Daniel had expected, but to his surprise it hadn’t been clear-cut. Hundred-foot spikes, some of them with streamers of foliage still fluttering from the top, were scattered at intervals from fifty to a hundred feet. They’d make landing the Wartburg trickier than expected, though it should be easy enough to bring them down with belts of explosive.
Assuming the Colonel agreed, of course.
Daniel tramped down the gig’s ramp; Hogg and Woetjans flanked him a pace behind. Stockheim and two aides stood at parade rest thirty feet away. The Colonel looked furious, but Daniel couldn’t tell whether that was because the bosun was female or just his general attitude to the situation. Certainly the situation deserved a scowl or worse.
Great stumps dotted the interior of the base, but the trash of branches and scraps which Daniel had noticed in two camps the gig overflew had been bulldozed into the earthen berm which now ringed Sixteen. There were bunkers as well, ready to defend against attack even without the armored personnel carriers now facing out from the berm.
The APCs were air cushion. Except for them and the aircars aboard the Milton, transport on Fonthill was by boat or by the great hydrogen-filled blimps which hauled logs to Base Alpha.
Impeller slugs had twice ricocheted from the gig’s heavy plating on the way here. The blimps were easily patched and their lift gas was hydrolyzed from the abundant water, but a slug through an aircar motor or even a fan blade wouldn’t be survivable. The pilots in blimp gondolas didn’t have an easy time either, though the captured officials said there was competition for the job because extra rations were a perk of it.
Stockheim saluted. He wore a slung sub-machine gun, and unlike Daniel’s pistol it wasn’t for show.
“Captain Leary,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”
His craggy face lurched into a smile as grim as a landslide. He added, “To be honest, after we learned the situation here, I didn’t expect to see anyone I could consider a representative of the government of the Republic.”
Daniel returned the salute, though not well. Generally he didn’t care, but he hoped Stockheim didn’t feel the clumsiness implied a lack of respect.
“Colonel,” he said, “you’ve had time to go over the material that Officer Mundy transmitted to you on my behalf?”
“Yes,” said Stockheim. The syllable was as uncompromising as the slam of a cell door. “Let’s go to the TOC. We’ve got maps there, and besides–”
There was slightly more humor in his grin this time.
“–I feel naked standing out here, even though the ferals don’t have heavy weapons that we’ve encountered as yet. They don’t even snipe very often.”
“There’s no point in giving wogs a chance to get lucky,” Daniel said with a smile, falling in with the Brotherhood troops as they crisply went about face and strode toward the Tactical Operations Center–three trailers dug half-way down into the purplish soil, with layers of sandbags covering the exposed walls.
“We’d begun to suspect something of the sort ourselves, sir,” said the younger aide, gesturing Daniel ahead of him down the steps of plastic-sealed earth. The three soldiers could have been son, father and grandfather, so close was the resemblance. “Otherwise, I don’t think we’d have been able to believe the documents you transmitted.”
“If I may ask, Captain Leary…,” said the older aide. “How is it that you came by the material?”
Each of the trailers held a console, a smaller version of the units on the bridge of the Milton or any other starship from a developed world. Two were manned, but the operators didn’t look up when Stockheim and his companions entered.
The area in the center of the trefoil had been dug down further and shaded with a tarpaulin. A book of three-foot by three-foot acetate maps of the region lay on the simple folding table there.
Daniel crossed his hands behind his back. “As I understand it, gentlemen,” he lied, “it was pure accident. An employee of Cone Transport misdirected an internal file to Governor Das. He sent it to his ministry, which passed it up to the Senate. Because Senator Forbes was already in the region, her colleagues requested her to investigate–which brought us here.”
To the best of Daniel’s knowledge, there wasn’t a word of truth in what he’d just said. Daniel had no intention of answering the Brotherhood officer’s impertinent question. Saying so wouldn’t have helped achieve the ends of Captain Daniel Leary and of the Republic of Cinnabar, so he’d invented a believable lie instead.
And it was an impertinent question.