IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 62:

CHAPTER 17: One Light-Hour above Bolton

The Milton was accelerating at 1 g to maintain the illusion of gravity, but Adele didn’t care. She never noticed the discomfort of freefall when she had work to do. At present, she had a great deal of work.

Bolton’s Planetary Defense Array was even older than the Merkur’s log had led her to believe, a Type 30 instead of the expected Type 32. That made marginally easier the task of deriving its codes.
The other thing that she’d expected–not counted on but expected, the way she expected to awaken in the bunk where she’d gone to sleep the night before–was that the array would be poorly maintained and that twenty or even thirty percent of the individual mines would be unserviceable for one reason or another. Instead, the serviceability rate was above 95 percent and perhaps as high as 97 percent.
Adele smiled wryly. If the entire garrison of St James Harbor was as good as the Defense Systems Officer, the Cinnabar forces were facing a very long day which might not have a happy ending. Recriminations would only matter to the survivors, however, and she had no intention of surviving a disaster.
The mine tender R11 was exchanging signals with the Wartburg, which had extracted fifteen minutes previously. The transport was a comfortable distance from the PDA’s coverage area, waiting for the tender to pass her through. Captain Robinson had the normal commercial codes, and the Wartburg was, after all, exactly what she claimed to be–save for her crew and cargo. There shouldn’t be any problem with her clearance.
The trick was getting the Milton through, and that was going to be quite a trick. That’s why I’m paid the big ten florins a week, Adele thought with the same grim smile as before. Plus prize money, which for spacers under Captain Daniel Leary had in the past amounted to considerable amounts. The ones who survived, of course.
A ship was already in the process of landing. It had arrived an hour ahead of the Wartburg. Adele frowned, wishing she’d been–distantly–present when it was signalling the tender, so that she could identify it.
The ship began to drop out of orbit. As it did so, the sensor image twinkled as it spoke to the controller below with a modulated laser that wouldn’t be smothered like the radio frequency band by the roaring plasma thrusters.
There was good luck and bad luck; and unless you were prepared, all your luck was going to be bad. Adele was prepared. She ran the signals through a decryption program.
The code was Alliance Fleet, not commercial, which in itself was important to know; but it was intended only for low security communications, shiphandling and docking instructions, so it wouldn’t have taken long to defeat even if the particular code set hadn’t been included in the updated package Mistress Sand had provided before the Milton lifted from Harbor Three.
The aviso Zieten was acknowledging St James Control’s directions to land in Fleet Berth 14. That wasn’t important in itself, but the fact it was a courier vessel rather than a heavier warship was critical to the success of the operation. Adele transmitted the information as a text crawl at the bottom of Daniel’s display.
If by great ill fortune the Milton had arrived on Bolton just after an Alliance battleship landed, there would be virtually no chance of accomplishing the operation. Even a destroyer whose captain reacted instantly to the situation would have made success problematic.
Adele didn’t for a moment imagine that they would have aborted the mission, of course. “Virtually no chance” had in the past been chance enough, when Daniel was in command.
The cruiser’s eight-inch turrets began to rotate, setting up as many competing vibrations as a rainstorm lashing a pond. Adele scowled and lifted her feet from the deck plating. Her console’s cushions couldn’t smother the tremblers completely, but without competing inputs from the deck she could control her wands with adequate precision.
R11 signalled the Wartburg to wait while a path through the defense array was cleared. Adele had hoped that the tender would simply switch off the mines for the time required for the transport to pass through the swept area. That would be easier for the tender’s crew, quicker for all concerned, and under ordinary circumstances would be perfectly safe.
Ordinary circumstances didn’t include an RCN cruiser waiting to swoop down on the base like an avenging angel. Well, after seeing the array’s high state of readiness, Adele hadn’t expected good news on the procedures either.
The mines were small thermonuclear weapons. In the instant of dissolution they generated a magnetic lens which channeled the blast in much the way that a plasma cannon did the explosion of its smaller charge. Each mine had a propulsion system, here a simple reaction motor, which allowed it to shift orbit as required by circumstances.
The R11 sent coded signals to create a dynamic gap in the array, allowing the transport to pass through on a precisely calculated course. If they did this often–and they probably did–the mines would have to be refueled regularly, but the practice eliminated the risk that an interloper would slip in while the array was shut down.
Adele smiled as her equipment translated the tender’s signals and passed them through to the astrogation computer for processing. She had to find or deduce the keys to 218 separate mines rather than that of the single signal which would shut down the array. If she made a mistake, she and everyone else aboard the Milton would die before they knew it.
If they didn’t die, Adele would ask to see the Alliance Defense Systems Officer after Bolton had been conquered. If that officer was alive, she supposed she’d shake his or her hand.
But it would be perfectly all right with Adele Mundy if that careful bastard had died in the fighting.
Above Bolton
“Extracting in thirty, that is three-zero, seconds,” said Daniel, his right index and middle fingers poised over the virtual EXECUTE button. A light-hour’s hop was short, even by the standards of merchant vessels with doubtful astrogators and crews too small to handle a suit of sails capable of real subtlety.
Even so, it concentrated the mind to maneuver toward a Planetary Defense Array which would infallibly destroy a ship that extracted too close to it. “Extracting–now!” Daniel said and hammered the button.
The flip-flop from the Matrix to sidereal space was never pleasant and not infrequently nauseating. Experience didn’t help: Daniel knew spacers with forty years experience who regularly emptied their stomachs of bile, though they’d learned long since not to eat before an extraction.
Which left the question of why they hadn’t found another line of work. Well, no spacer found that question easy to answer, as Daniel knew from looking into his own heart. Spacefaring was either in the blood or it wasn’t, but those who’d caught the infection wasn’t cured simply because they couldn’t keep their breakfast down.
In the present case, extraction meant that Daniel felt a red-hot knife flay his skin away in strips, starting at his scalp and working down. It can’t have gone on for more than a second or so. His display flickered as each color switched to its complement, then switched back as the transition became complete.
Instead of a pearly glow, the main screen was a Plot-Position Indicator centered on the Milton herself. Daniel had brought the ship out within three thousand miles of the planned extraction point, excellent work if he did say–well, think–so himself.
“PDA Control, this is AFS Luetzow, requesting permission to land at St James Harbor with dispatches from General Command,” said Midshipman Cory. “Over.”
The boy’s Florentine accent would pass for that of half a dozen Alliance worlds, especially through a single-sideband transmission. Daniel thought Cory’s voice was a little higher than usual, but if anything he was drawling his words rather than rattling them out nervously.
Adele usually oversaw the work of her subordinates, especially when they were handling commo. This afternoon–ship’s time; it was six in the morning at St James Harbor–she was wholly focused on manipulating the mines of the defense array. The wands danced in her hands, and a stranger would have taken her set expression as one of cold fury.
It was really just the resting state of her face. Daniel uncomfortably aware that his friend’s resting state might really be cold fury, however.