SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 81:



            Daniel wore a smile as he fought the transport's controls, but even he had to admit that it was rather a fixed one. Starships aren't meant to fly in an atmosphere, and the Greybudd was particularly a pig.


            The valves in the lines feeding reaction mass–water–to thrusters Seven, Nine, and Eleven were sticking; if they weren't kept full on, they were likely to cut out unexpectedly. Daniel kept them flared at maximum flow but ran the other nine at normal apertures and lower throttle settings. If he'd mushed along with all twelve thrusters at full flow, he'd have emptied his reaction mass tanks before he got across the continent.


            "I didn't realize it'd be so rough!" shouted Corius over the buzzing roar. He was sitting at the second console, the one meant for the navigation officer. "My God I didn't! Do you think the men will be in shape to fight?"


            For your sake they'd better be, Daniel thought grimly. He didn't speak aloud, both because he was busy and because he didn't have anything useful to say. I don't expect to be staying around very long myself.


            The Greybudd yawed but righted herself. Daniel kept his hands steady. If he'd acted as instinct urged him, he'd have overcorrected and very possibly lost the ship for good and all.


            The left side of his display was a real-time strip map of the terrain over which the transport flew. The top was the limit of the land painted by the ship's mapping radar at this low altitude, somewhere between twenty and thirty miles ahead of them as the transport porpoised along.


            Port Dunbar came in sight, its northern suburbs outlined by muzzle flashes and explosions in the optical feed on the upper right of the display. Daniel saw the channel, then seconds later the low bulk of Mandelfarne Island beyond.


            Hogg was sitting on a flip-down seat against the starboard bulkhead, seemingly as placid as a mushroom on a tree stump. He held a stocked impeller between his legs.


            Fallert had been on another of the three jumpseats, but he'd gotten up and begun pacing within minutes of liftoff from Ollarville. His long legs gave him a wide stance, and his balance was better than a cat's.


            A corner of Daniel's display showed the bridge compartment. He'd been sure some of the lurches the Greybudd made when crosswinds conspired with vagaries in the thrusters would throw the snakeman to the deck, but he'd been wrong.


            Crossing the shoreline into the relatively cool, dense air over the channel made them bob upward slightly. Daniel rebalanced his thrusters, portside aft and then the other nine. The ship wobbled, then wobbled back. It was a thoroughly unpleasant motion but he didn't dare take both hands off the attitude control to adjust both groups of controls at the same time.


            Shots rang from the hull. From the flashes on the ground, both the Bennarian defenders and the Pellegrinians were shooting at the transport. Daniel smiled wryly. Chances were that none of them had the faintest idea what the ship was. They were simply shooting because it was moving and they had guns in their hands. He didn't despair about human beings the way Adele sometimes seemed to, but occasionally people's behavior, while predictable, was difficult to feel good about.


            It took pretty good shooting to hit them, though. Sure, a starship is a big target, but they were moving fast and the sheer size was daunting.


            Daniel would've liked to hug the ground all the way from Ollarville or alternatively to have stayed in the stratosphere until he dropped onto the Pellegrinian base. The Greybudd didn't control well enough to trust making the journey on the deck, though, while if they didn't stay fairly low they'd have been in sight–and range–of the missile battery long before Adele's crew could capture it. This was an awkward compromise, but it'd worked.


            "Six, this is Three!" said Pasternak over the command channel. "We'll start losing thrusters in ten minutes, maybe less. The jets aren't meant for runs this long, over!"


            "Three, we'll be down in less than that, over," Daniel said, scanning the optical display.


            "Six, we may have less than that!" Pasternak said. "You could shave on the edge of Two and Five, they're burned so thin, out."


            The assault group was to mark its perimeter with Search and Rescue strobes. Every starship's computer was designed to caret that particular shade of blue. Daniel's display now did so, three narrow, pulsing spikes on the berm around the missile pit. Adele had captured the battery.


            Of course. The Greybudd would be a fireball spewing scrap metal and burned meat if she hadn't.


            "Ship, prepare for landing!" Daniel said. He wished he knew the Greybudd better, and he wished he had somebody trustworthy backing him up in the Battle Direction Center–


            But a freighter doesn't have a BDC, and he wasn't being asked to do anything that the Rainha's civilian captain hadn't done a score of times: bring a clumsy, wallowing pig of a ship down on a mudpile safely. Laughing and aware of the Councilor's gaping amazement–which made him laugh louder–Daniel dilated the nozzles of Thrusters Three, Four, Five and Six without changing their flow rate. Diffusing the exhaust reduced thrust, so the Greybudd began to sink perceptibly without losing her forward motion. Daniel nudged the attitude yoke half a point to starboard.


            "Ship, coming down in five, four–" Daniel said, flaring all the nozzles but boosting flow. They were very low, now, bathed first in steam and then in the smoke of tents and supplies and men.


            "–three, two–"


            Daniel hit the virtual button on his display that cycled the three cargo hatches. The hydraulics barely started to groan, but that instant of anticipation broke the seals before the impact could twist hatches and coamings together immovably. The difference between life and death….