IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 65:

The Milton roared toward St James Harbor from the east with Daniel at the controls. He grinned even more widely as he fought the throttles: “roared” was very much the word for it, because every part of the big ship was making a thunderous racket.

His main display was a panorama of the surface beneath their course as he braked the cruiser into a slant onto the target. Daniel had entered the atmosphere with the display set to show the next thousand miles, but he reduced the scale as their track carved down toward the surface. When St James Harbor rose above the horizon line to become visible to the ship’s real-time sensors, it served as the terminus of the rapidly swelling image.
The long descent had scrubbed off orbital velocity, so the plasma thrusters were driving and supporting the ship. Airspeed had dropped to 220 miles per hour, and they were holding a 3,000-foot altitude as closely as Daniel’s skill permitted–which was not as closely as he thought he should have been able to manage.
“Six, this is Guns,” Sun said. “I’m deploying the turrets at the ordered airspeed, over.”
As he spoke–before he spoke, really–hydraulic jacks began driving the turrets up into their extended position. When a warship was in harbor or in vacuum, the guns turrets were raised to provide more internal volume. For liftoffs and landings in an atmosphere, however, they were recessed within the hull.
A starship couldn’t be streamlined, even with its telescoped rigging snugged against the hull. Unless the turret armor was brought as close as possible to the vessel’s center of mass, however, the chance that buffeting would set up an uncontrollable roll became very high.
Daniel had told Sun to keep his plasma cannon stowed until the cruiser’s airspeed had dropped to 200 mph. Predictably the gunner had decided to ready his weapons for action early; and because he was experienced as well as determined, he’d set the process in motion before he’d announced what he was doing.
Sun deserved a rocket for disobeying orders, and maybe he’d get one later. But Daniel had to admit that the cruiser’s terrible handling in an atmosphere wasn’t made worse when the turrets rose into the airstream.
The Wartburg had landed in her assigned berth on one of the civilian quays; to do otherwise would have been to–literally–set off alarms early. Daniel was slanting the cruiser in over the water close to the military reservation, which would have been proper had she still been the Scheer as she’d been launched. In any case, the course was unlikely to raise the garrison’s suspicions further in the midst of a battle.
Carets, wavering between orange and purple depending which gave greater contrast to the background, sprang to life across the terminus of the course panorama. Adele was indicating major Alliance targets. The data would be copied to the gunnery screens as soon as the turrets could bear on the port.
“Ship, this is Six,” Daniel said, throttling back and adjusting the thrusters’ attitude to ease the big ship toward a hover. “You can open her–”
Even before he got the words out, hatches being undogged all over the vessel clanged a raucous alarm. Although the cruiser’s forward speed was dropping, the windblast through scores of hull openings lifted anything loose and whirled it in the corridors. The thrusters were deafening as they pounded at high output.
“–up, but targets on the south side of the water only. We’ve got friends down there, spacers, and I don’t want pongoes to be saying the RCN is more dangerous to its friends than the Alliance is. Don’t disappoint me, Millies! Six out.”
The hull shuddered as Sun rotated his turrets to bear on opposite beams–ventral to starboard, dorsal to port. The harbor wasn’t in sight yet, but it would be in less than a minute.
Daniel sneezed. Even up here on A Level, the sharp claws of ozone from the exhaust curled in with the noise of the thrusters.
Hogg sat on the jumpseat of the command console. He held a stocked impeller, but he’d slung a sub-machine gun as well. Presumably one was for the young master in the event they made a ground assault.
That might be extreme preparedness rather than wishful thinking on Hogg’s part, but the longing glances he cast toward the hatch on the port–south–bulkhead of the bridge was genuinely hopeful. Hogg liked shooting things, and if the targets were men shooting back, that just made it more interesting.
That wasn’t going to happen this time. Daniel’s worst enemies wouldn’t call him a coward, but his task right now was to maneuver the Milton so that her firepower could aid the ground forces in capturing St James Harbor. The mission wouldn’t be helped by a chance slug or two entering through an open port and ricocheting around the bridge.
“Gunner, you may fire when–”
The blast of an eight-inch plasma cannon slammed flat all the previous sounds of wind, thrusters, and the ship working in an atmosphere. The ship torqued noticeably on her axis and the bow kicked to port. The jet of charged particles ripped a thick saffron line through the air.
Two miles away, what had been the Planetary Police Headquarters vanished in an iridescent flash. Seven seconds after the thunderclap of the plasma bolt’s track closing came the deeper, distance-muted thump of the building exploding.
Marines and spacers at the open hatches on the port side began to shoot furiously in the direction of the military facilities. The slant range was over a mile, and the likelihood was that half the projectiles struck low–the harborfront danced–or sailed over not only the reservation but even the civilian subdivisions beyond. It made the crew a part of the action, though, and it certainly didn’t do any good to Alliance morale.
So long as the individual marksmen–and the automatic impellers which were even now being clamped to hatch openings–fired at the enemy side of the harbor, they couldn’t do any harm. The police building was on the north, but Adele must have determined that the Brotherhood troops hadn’t advanced that far. There had been only two careted targets on that side, the police headquarters and the planetary government buil–
The second plasma bolt hit at the base of the Albert Robida Government Office Building, a slender, pyramidal structure some fifteen stories high. It had been built up rather than outward: for show presumably, because land couldn’t have been at much of a premium even in center of St James City.
For show also, the building was beige stone instead of concrete or some utilitarian cast synthetic. Daniel realized that when the whole thing lifted on the vaporized contents of the ground floor, then shook itself into a rain of ashlars. They cascaded down, dishing in the fronts of the flimsier structures on all four sides.
There were now no suitable targets for heavy weapons on the north side of the harbor. It was possible that the Brotherhood would run into a pocket of resistance that they wanted the cruiser to eliminate. So long as it was adequately marked, the job would be both safe and simple. Given the way Colonel Stockheim’s men had stormed the missile battery, however, that didn’t seem the way they thought.
Daniel minusculely boosted the output of the leading pair of port thrusters; the cruiser’s track straightened. He’d sent the projected course to Sun so that the gunner could plan his fire missions as soon as Adele provided the targets. He’d been a little surprised that Sun had started with the civilian installations, though that had probably cleared the flank of the friendly infantry so that it could–
The shock of two bolts at minimum separation–the right cannon had fired the instant the left tube had returned to battery–was momentarily stunning, even to Daniel. The fact that this time they were firing at maximum depression from the dorsal turret–which was in addition offset toward the bow and therefore bridge¬–made the effect even worse.
Daniel didn’t think anybody could get used to eight-inch plasma cannon; certainly he didn’t expect to. The weapons really needed the 60-100 thousand tons of a battleship’s hull to anchor them. Sturdy though the Milton’s frames were, he guessed that if the cruiser saw action as frequently as he was used to in the Princess Cecile, she would warp herself to scrap in less than ten years.
But by the Gods! What the powerful bolts did to their targets was a treat to see–if you were at the breech end of the gun when it happened.
Brick walls didn’t burn, but the roofs were corrugated sheets of structural plastic. They ignited at the sun-heart temperature of a plasma bolt. The bedding, wood floors, and the bodies of any troops and dependants who happened to be inside simply exploded.
A fire-shot cloud of brick rose skyward, spread into an anvil, and rained down for a half mile in every direction. Daniel even heard the clunk–it was too dull to be a slug–of a fragment hitting the Milton.
What Sun had very cleverly done was to wait to fire into the military reservation until the angle let him enfilade a row of ten company barracks with each bolt. The Brotherhood had been chewing up the two-story structures with their automatic impellers from across the harbor, but they hadn’t known which of the buildings were occupied by the garrison among the much larger number which were empty and available for transients.
Adele–or perhaps Cory?–had looked at power meter records to determine the question. In general, the Sissie’s faster-firing four-inch guns would’ve been better for support in a sprawling camp like this one, but Sun’s careful aim had allowed him to use the eight-inch weapons to their full effect.