CHAPTER 19: St James Harbor, Bolton

“Captain,” said Vesey over the command channel, “this is Five. The transports will be landing at two minute intervals starting in seventeen minutes. I’ve assigned the ships berths in both the civilian and the naval portions of the harbor, but I can’t determine billets for the personnel until we have an inventory of how many barracks remain undamaged, over.”

The Milton clanked and sizzled in her slip. Most of the A Level hatches remained open though Daniel had ordered the marksmen away from them, so steam continued to boil in. The mugginess carried the usual stench of burned muck.

“Roger, Five,” Daniel said, suppressing his smile in case Vesey was watching an image of his face and thought he was mocking her. For an extremely able officer, Lieutenant Vesey seemed often to be on the verge of tears. “Well done. I think the Fonthill Militia–”

That was the name he’d come up with to regularize Master Beckford’s former slaves.

“–can sleep for another night aboard their transports if necessary. Six out.”

“Six, this is Three,” reported Pasternak from the Power Room. “The ship is secure. All thrusters are shut down but operable. There’s no problems there, though one of the High Drive motors apparently took a slug during the fighting. I’ll have her changed out in an hour after things have cooled down, though being one motor short won’t affect our performance if we have to lift, over.”

Daniel started to reply but had to cough instead to clear the sharp dryness at the back of his throat. It felt for a moment as though he’d tried to swallow a mouthful of burrs. There was smoke in the air as well as steam.

The Gods alone knew what all was burning. Anything that could combine with oxygen would do so when hit by a plasma bolt, including all metals and some rocks.

Daniel swallowed his phlegm, then resumed, “Roger, Three. One of the Alliance soldiers was bound and determined to die for the Guarantor, and it seems that she did some damage before Sun obliged her. Get us shipshape as soon as you safely can, but I’m not expecting to lift for several days.”

He coughed, this time as a pause in which he could word his thought correctly. “Chief Pasternak?” he said. “The Power Train operated without a hiccup during our low-level approach and the firing passes. The thrusters gimballed smoothly, and the flow to each nozzle remained precisely where I set it. My regards to your personnel, and please inform them that they can all expect a drink on their captain when next we have a chance at liberty. Which I’m afraid won’t be any time soon, however. Six out.”

The topgallant section of the Dorsal A Ring antenna locked in place with a cling which vibrated through the ship. It was a familiar sound in the ordinary course of things–but not in an atmosphere. Here it had a deeper, richer tone than when the ship was preparing to go into the Matrix.

“What’s that?” demanded Senator Forbes as she entered the bridge. DeNardo, showing his usual bovine calm, and Platt who seemed on the verge of frightened tears, were with her, but the pair of servants/bodyguards were not. She was in a cream business suit with shoulder flounces rather than senatorial robes, the sort of thing she might wear during office hours while the Senate was in session.

“I’ve raised an antenna because the sensors at the masthead will give us a twenty-mile panorama,” Daniel said, looking up with a smile. Things had gone very well thus far, but from the Senator’s sour expression she wasn’t sure of that. “If we have to lift off too suddenly to bring it down properly, it’ll go by the boards. But that’s unlikely, and in that event I’m sure we’ll have worse problems.”

Fires were burning all over St James City. Most were in the military reservation–Vesey had been right to wonder if there’d be barracks for the laborers-become-garrison–but six or eight spots on the north side of the harbor licked flame into the smoky haze. Unless some were coincidental with the attack, the heavy plasma charges had flung blazing debris up to a quarter mile from the impact sites.

“I’ve been watching through the display in my suite,” Forbes said, seeming to warm slightly. She’d had sense enough to keep out of the way during the fighting, but it would have rankled her nonetheless to be on the sidelines. “I won’t pretend I understood much of what was going on, though, except that apparently we weren’t all about to die the way the noises made me expect. That is correct, isn’t it?”

“The worst noises were us shooting at Alliance positions,” Daniel said, encouraging his smile to widen. “I’ve arranged a meeting with Commodore Harmston to formally accept his surrender of the planet. I hope you’ll accompany me?”

The Senator really was doing very well for someone who was used to thinking of herself as one of the dozen most important people in the Republic of Cinnabar. If she got peevish, she was nonetheless behaving better by an order of magnitude than Corder Leary would’ve done in similar circumstances.

Daniel didn’t care if Forbes preferred to sit in her cabin and twiddle her thumbs–or DeNardo, for that matter. What he really hoped was that she’d be pleased at the invitation. Since the meeting was between military commanders, she couldn’t demand to be present by right.

The Senator’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment she smiled wryly. “In fact I was hoping, shall we say,” she said, “to be present. Which is why I’m in this–

She pinched the ruff over her right shoulder.

“–instead of something less ornate.”

Major Mull, wearing battledress and holding his sub-machine gun at the balance instead of slinging it, stamped into the compartment. He’d lifted the face-shield of his helmet.

“Sir!” he said, quite clearly ignoring the civilians. “Request permission to put a squad of marksmen on the hull for security before we lower the boarding ramp!”

Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “Major Mull,” he said. He didn’t raise his voice unduly–the Marine was just short of shouting–but it snapped nonetheless. “I will remind you that the bridge is the captain’s territory, and that at present the captain is in conference with her Excellency, Ambassador Forbes. Is that understood?”

Mull slammed to attention. “Sir!” he said, focusing his eyes on a spot on the bulkhead. “Understood sir!”

He’s older than I am, and this–Daniel had checked the major’s record–is his first shipboard command, though he’s served as a junior officer on two battleships before his promotion. Mull didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, but he was an unimaginative man who had never before taken orders from someone outside the Marine hierarchy.

“At ease, Major,” Daniel said aloud. “And yes, that’s a good idea, but I’ll want twenty of your people to accompany the Senator and me when we take the surrender of the–”

“Daniel, mine tender R16 in Fleet Berth Four is preparing to lift off!” said Adele, speaking through his commo helmet.

“Belay that, Mull!” Daniel said as he dropped onto his console again. He hoped Senator Forbes wouldn’t feel offended, but that wasn’t his first priority any more.

“Six, I’m on it!” cried Sun on the command push. The bone-deep rumble of the dorsal turret–the ventral turret had been withdrawn for landing and was now below the harbor’s surface–would have made that obvious anyway.

“All personnel get off the hull!” boomed Vesey’s voice from the PA system and the ship’s outside speakers. “Prepare for gunnery exercise! All Milton personnel get inside now or you’ll be fried. Move it, Millies!”

Vesey was on the ball too, as expected, though Daniel wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it had been Cory who cut in the external speakers. He wasn’t sure he’d have been able to manage that unusual task so quickly himself, though of course he’d never have to with Adele as his signals officer.

Just as he didn’t have to worry about directing his next transmission. “R16, this is RCS Milton. Shut down or you will be destroyed. Shut down and acknowledge, over!”

There were scores of ships on the civilian side of St James Harbor, several of them freighters bigger than the Wartburg. The naval base to the south was almost empty by contrast, though the extensive docks were built to handle a fleet including battleships. The Milton was by far the largest ship present, but the harbor facilities dwarfed her.