Daniel had left the bridge hatch open even though he expected the Milton to go into action shortly. There’d be plenty of time to seal the ship’s internal divisions, unless they were caught in the pulse of a mine; and if that happened, the internal divisions would vaporize along with the hull and its whole contents.

The A Level corridor and its bow rotunda were crammed with suited riggers; some had even locked down their helmets. If the cruiser had to go back into the Matrix, Woetjans wanted both watches on the hull as soon as possible to adjust the sails. That would be an emergency and no mistake.

They had to remain aboard for now, though, because the sidescatter of the eight-inch cannon would be lethal to personnel anywhere forward of the muzzles. The bosun was willing to take the risk–and she’d have been there with her people, of course–but Daniel was not.

“Luetzow, this is Bolton Defense,” said the female handling the R11’s signals said. “Transmit your identification codes, over.”

The signalman probably wanted to ask what the oddball cruiser was doing in the Montserrat Stars, but even a rating on a mine tender knew that such a vessel probably carried an admiral or a high-ranking political delegation. Smart people kept a low profile when folks of that sort showed up unexpectedly.

The Milton, originally Scheer, had been the attempt of Alliance designers to get battleship performance out of a heavy cruiser hull. Like other something-for-nothing schemes, it was unsuccessful; only three ships had been built in the class. The other two were still in Fleet service, however, and it was no more unlikely that one of them would be arriving on Bolton than that it would be anywhere else.

“Transmitting codes, over,” said Cory. He’d been trying manfully to learn to manipulate control wands the way Adele did, but he was using a virtual keyboard now since the situation didn’t permit any errors. His index finger stabbed, sending the queued message.

Daniel nudged the Port 1 High Drive motor. The brief impulse would start the cruiser swinging to starboard with the slow inevitability of planetary precession. Three seconds after the initial touch on the throttle, he stroked an identical burp from Port 8. That would–if he’d judged correctly–cancel the swing without reversing the change in the vessel’s attitude.

“Bloody hell, Luetzow!” the mine tender said. “You’ve sent last week’s codes! Send the current codes now, over.”

Cory had sent the most recent codes he had–those in use when Adele entered the Merkur’s log on Paton. The code generator was separate on a Fleet–or RCN–warship, so not even she and the software from her other employer could predict the regular changes from past examples.

“Wait one, Bolton,” Cory said. “I’m checking to see what’s the matter. Just bloody wait, over!”

He sounded agitated, which was perfectly appropriate for a signals officer who’s been told that he’s transmitted the wrong information. It was so appropriate, though, and Cory’s face appeared so calm by contrast, that Daniel suspected that the nervousness was acting. The boy had certainly blossomed under Adele’s tutelage.

The Wartburg was braking to enter the atmosphere; she’d be floating in a berth in St James Harbor before long. I wonder if Robinson would be able to pull it off without the Milton? Probably not, but Daniel hoped that Robinson and the Brotherhood would at least try. It’d be nice to go out on a success, even if he weren’t alive to know it.

“Luetzow, what the bloody hell is going on?” R11 demanded. This time the voice was male and sounded to be on the edge of panic. The vessel’s captain–on a net tender, that would be a junior lieutenant–had taken over from his signalman, though she was probably older and more experienced. “Either send the right codes or withdraw from the system until you can, over!”

“Bolton, this is Luetzow!” Cory said. “Transmitting, transmitting! These are the only codes the bitch will give us! By all the Gods, man, let us land or at least send a systems specialist up from the base to work on this poxy bitch, over!”

Normally a vessel’s plasma cannon–and even merchant ships were armed if they expected to venture off the best-patrolled trade routes–were locked fore-and-aft unless they had been cleared for action. The Milton’s guns were still at zero elevation, but Sun had rotated the turrets in opposition while the ship was still in the Matrix. The dorsal guns pointed at 30 degrees to the forward axis, while the ventral weapons were at 210 degrees.

“Luetzow, you are not cleared!” R11 said. “Get out of the system at once! You do not have the right codes, you are not cleared to land! Get out! Over!”

“Daniel,” said Adele, cool as spring water over a two-way link, “the array is opening. You may proceed on your planned course in thirty seconds.”

As she spoke, a countdown clock–starting at 27 SECONDS–appeared in the lower right corner of Daniel’s display. He checked to be sure that the propulsion commands were queued to go. They were, of course, just as they had been before the cruiser extracted from the Matrix.

Normally the mine tender would send a course through the array to the vessel wanting to land. It was necessary to work backward this time: Daniel had designed the entry course and Adele was, with the very powerful support of the Milton’s astrogation computer, maneuvering the mines away from it.

“Daniel, they’ve noticed the mines moving,” Adele said with what for her was considerable urgency. “They’re preparing to command detonate one of them in our direction. I don’t know if I–”

“Sun!” Daniel said over the command push. “Take out the tender now, over!”

Daniel realized he was expecting the crash of the dorsal eight-inch guns; instead he heard the deep groan of the elevation screw. He’d tried to align the cruiser so that the forward guns, cocked to clear the dorsal antennas, would bear by apparent accident. He hadn’t been quite successful, so the gunner had to make an adjustment before he could fire.

The charged particles spewed from a mine explosion were dangerous even to a heavy cruiser at many times the range at which it would ordinarily detonate. The blast might not destroy the vessel, but it would shred rigging, weld the joints of yards and antennas, and strip away external communications gear. If the operator aboard R11 was able to command detonate one of the mines before Sun–

Dorsal Right fired. For a heartbeat Daniel thought the CLANG! was a mine destroying the Milton; then Dorsal Left fired also. He was alive, and the Milton had a clear path to her goal.

Daniel grinned. One thing about concentrating on what the enemy may do is that it prevents you from worrying about whether your own people were doing their jobs. In the present case, Sun certainly had been.

“Cease fire!” Daniel ordered. “Ship, prepare for course change. Changing course… now!”

The High Drive motors resumed their grating snarl. Daniel had gimballed them to send the cruiser through the minefield instead of skirting it as before.

Both plasma bolts struck the mine tender squarely, though the second had really just roiled the expanding gas ball created by the first. Most of the vapor was hull metal, but some was the mortal remains of thirty-odd Alliance spacers who’d been doing their jobs rather well up to the instant of their deaths. Which had at least been instantaneous.

“Woetjans, get the rigging in soonest so that we can land,” Daniel ordered, using the general channel that fed through the PA system as well as to all commo helmets. “The Brotherhood of Amorgos is on the surface by now. The RCN can’t let pongoes fight the battle all by themselves, can we? Six out!”

“Cinnabar forever!” spacers shouted. Probably every spacer on the Milton, including the considerable number who weren’t Cinnabar citizens.

“Cinnabar forever!” Daniel shouted. Every spacer on the Milton….