SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 71:



CHAPTER 19: En Route to Dunbar's World


            Woetjans was already waiting for him in the airlock, but Daniel spent a further moment on the hull to watch the heavens. They flared in a splendor unglimpsed by those who never left the sidereal universe. Colors and hints of color–hues Daniel was sure formed in his mind rather than on his retinas–spread to infinity wherever he turned.


            Every spark was a universe, every color was as meaningful as a woman's glance. At times like this, Daniel felt that the only reason for the sidereal universe was to permit a man to eat between visits to the Matrix.


            Daniel grinned as he stepped into the lock, dogging the hatch behind him. There were important things besides eating that one couldn't do on the hull in the Matrix, but the social life of Ollarville didn't lend itself to them either. Unless one chose to pay, of course.


            Light from the diodes in the ceiling softened as air filled the lock. Woetjans was glaring at Daniel. As they lifted off the helmets of their stiff rigging suits a moment before opening the inner hatch, she muttered, "You should've let me go, sir."


            They exited onto the foyer just aft of the bridge. Off-duty Sissies stood in the corridor, waiting expectantly. The riggers were suited up, ready to furl the sails and lower the antennas in preparation for landing. Woetjans joined her people, still looking morose.


            Riggers could remain outside while a ship transitioned from the Matrix to sidereal space, but the experience was disorienting–and therefore dangerous–even to veterans. Daniel would order it if the situation required, but otherwise he kept his crew within the hull during insertions and extractions. That was true even when the Princess Cecile had a full military crew, which she certainly didn't at present.


            Cory had been in command of the Sissie from the navigation console while Daniel was on the hull. "Five minutes to Extraction, sir!" the midshipman said when he saw Daniel come through the hatch. "Shall I relinquish command now?"


            Daniel didn't snap at him. The lad was keen, after all. Unfortunately he wasn't overly bright, and he was far more concerned to avoid doing the wrong thing than he was to do the right one. Regardless, not a bad sort and an astrogator who was showing an unexpectedly good feel for the Matrix once Daniel started pointing out the subtleties to him.


            "No, Mister Cory," he said, clumping onto the bridge. He didn't remove his rigging suit, though he unlatched and pulled off the gauntlets. He doubted he'd be going out again before landing, and this was the first time since they'd lifted from Pellegrino that he'd had the entire crew inside. "You can deal with the Ollarville authorities and take her down–but on automatic, I believe. I'll address the crew from the command console right now, though."


            "Aye-aye, sir!" chirped Cory. He'd really make a decent officer if he ever got his head around the fact that he was an officer, a person who might be expected to make life and death decisions on very little information. A good officer can get away with being wrong, but he can't be indecisive.


            Daniel settled onto the console and gave it a moment to adjust to the added bulk of his suit. He manually set his output to General: the loudspeakers in every compartment as well as all commo helmets would project his words. It struck him as he made the adjustments that though this was a familiar task for most captains, he hadn't had to perform since Signals Officer Mundy had joined the strength of the Princess Cecile.


            "Ship, this is Six," he said, hearing his voice repeated from the compartments opening onto the A Level corridor. "I haven't explained my plans to you because I wanted you all to hear it from me at the same time. This is the first opportunity I've had to do that."


            There was a way to project a real-time image of his face as he spoke, but also a way to hide it. The green bar behind the legend General on the bottom of his display meant one or the other, but damn him for a heathen if he could remember which.


            He grinned, breaking his burst of frustration. If that was the worst thing he lost by not having Adele aboard, he was doing better than he'd feared might be the case.


            "Our fellow Sissies under Lieutenant Vesey and Officer Mundy–"


            Under Adele in reality, but even the most junior commissioned officer was superior to any warrant officer. Daniel would at least pay lip service to RCN protocol.


            "–should by now have captured the Rainha in dock on Pellegrino and have lifted for Dunbar's World. When they land on Mandelfarne Island, they'll disable the missile battery emplaced there."


            "And I ought to be with them!" Woetjans snarled. She wasn't using intercom or even looking at Daniel when she spoke from the lock foyer, but her voice, throbbing with emotion, carried.


            "Lieutenant Vesey and I chose our crews on our best judgment of the needs of both ships," Daniel continued. "The choices weren't easy. We both could've used every one of you and more for the jobs we each need to do. I counted on every Sissie to work like three of any other spacer, and I'm glad to say you've performed. I'm confident that Vesey will tell me the same when we meet on Mandelfarne Island."


            The choices had been tricky, though there'd been factors Daniel didn't intend to discuss with the crew he'd kept aboard the Princess Cecile. No spacer was likely to be a coward, but some weren't as ready to face gunshots and the possibility of knife work as others.


            Even more to the point, some people couldn't easily–or simply couldn't–take the life of another human being. The assault on the Pellegrinian missile battery had to be handled swiftly, without the least flinching or hesitation. Daniel's stomach turned at the notion of commanding a crew of vipers like Adele's servant Tovera, but for the present task thirty Toveras would've been very useful.


            Woetjans would've been handy for the assault party also, but Daniel had decided that her appearance was simply too identifiable to risk sending to the Stoddard. Adele had assured him that the Pellegrinian police weren't watching the crippled freighter, but the bosun's appearance was striking enough that a passing patrol might notice and comment.


            Quite apart from that, eighteen of the thirty spacers in Vesey's crew were riggers, leaving the Princess Cecile herself very short-handed on the hull side. Woetjans' strength and skill–she had an instinct for where a line would kink or a block might freeze–had kept the Sissie's rig from descending into a complete shambles during the voyage back from Pellegrino.


            Despite the good reasons for it, Daniel hadn't expected Woetjans to be happy with the decision. He'd been right.


            "Now, you'll be wondering what this means for you and me," Daniel said. "It's pretty obvious that thirty spacers, even thirty Sissies, can't fight off a counterattack by a thousand Pellegrinian troops. As soon as the Rainha reaches orbit over Dunbar's World, Councilor Corius' mercenaries will load aboard one of his transports just like they did to come from his estates to Charlestown. This time they'll fly across the continent to Mandelfarne Island and finish what Officer Mundy's started."


            Daniel licked his lips, wondering if the listening spacers understood how close the timing had to be. He supposed they did: his Sissies had more experience with firefights than most companies of the Land Forces.


            Certainly Adele and Vesey understood. The transport couldn't come within missile range–say, three hundred miles–until the battery was captured, but it could be only a matter of minutes after the attack began before the Pellegrinians' overwhelming numbers blotted out the Sissies.


            "I'll be at the controls," he continued, "and Mister Pasternak will run the gauges, because I don't trust any civilian to do the job fast and clean the way it has to be done. The RCN way!"


            There were several cheers, but they seemed to rattle forlornly down the Sissie's corridors. There wasn't enough of a crew to make the ship ring properly, and those present clearly did know how chancy the business was for their friends and shipmates.


            "So what does that leave for us, sir?" asked Rosinant, seated at the gunnery console because Sun was part of the assault force. "Do we come with you and the pongoes?"


            "The rest of you," said Daniel, giving the answer as a full statement because most of the crew wouldn't have heard Rosinant's question, "stay aboard the Sissie under Midshipman Blantyre. You'll follow me in the transport to Mandelfarne Island. You'll pick me and Pasternak up and also our shipmates who arrived aboard the Rainha."


            This time the cheers were real–sparse by necessity, but full-throated. Rosinant shouted louder than most, obviously looking forward to the chance to use plasma cannon on ground targets. It was quite obvious to everybody aboard that the battle for the base would still be going on when they landed on Mandelfarne Island.


            "Ship, thirty seconds to extraction from the Matrix," Cory announced. He'd kept an eye on his duties during Daniel's confidence-building speech. Definitely a lad with promise.


            The world around Daniel began to ripple and fold, causing alternate waves of nausea and vertigo to wash through him.


            He hadn't lied to the crew, but he was very well aware that when he said they'd pick up 'our shipmates from the Rainha,' he'd really meant 'our shipmates or their bodies.'