SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 84:



CHAPTER 22: Mandelfarne Island on Dunbar's World


            Daniel settled into the Sissie's command console with a sigh of relief. It was like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers after a day of marching in heavy boots. Blantyre had shifted to the navigation console and–


            "Good anticipation, Blantyre," Daniel said as he went over a status diagram of the corvette's systems. It was such a reflexive action that he'd have probably run the checklist even if the ship were under immediate attack. "Lighting the thrusters when Woetjans closed the entry hatch."


            The praise was reflexive with Daniel also. Both were a part of being an RCN officer and of training midshipmen like Blantyre to be officers also. She'd reasoned on hearing the corvette was being closed up that the whole assault force was aboard. Lighting the thrusters before Daniel reached the bridge might only save thirty seconds, but that could be time the Sissie and her crew needed.


            Sun threw himself onto the gunnery console. "Ship, I've got the guns, out!" he said, breathless from excitement and from having run up the companionway to the bridge. Midshipman Cory  in the Battle Direction Center had been manning the guns, but this was the sort of opportunity a gunner dreamed of. Sun had no intention of passing it up.


            He'd simply dropped his sub-machine gun onto the deck beside him. I hope it's on safe, Daniel thought, but he had more pressing problems.


            "Ship, prepare to lift," he said. He'd already balanced the corvette's eight thrusters; even before he spoke, he began easing them forward. The Princess Cecile hesitated, wobbled as she broke gravity, then rose slowly. For several seconds she danced like a ball on a water fountain, but when Daniel'd gotten ten feet of height between the thruster nozzles and the ground, the reflected thrust smoothed into a pillow rather than a series of sharp pulses.


            Daniel was aware of the dorsal turret rotating–it changed the corvette's weight distribution slightly–but he was so absorbed in the delicacy of his liftoff that the implication didn't get below the mere sensory level. When Sun fired both 4-inch guns, the paired shocks twisted the ship into the start of a roll. Reflex made Daniel's fingers twitch toward a correction; intellect snatched them back in time.


            "Bloody hell, Sun!" he shouted, but the fireball in the eastern sky was the remains of an APC. The forward half of the vehicle'd vanished, but the stern spun end over end into the ground.


            Daniel was running a real-time panorama using enhanced visuals across the top of his display. He relegated the Sissie's thruster performance to a narrow bar across the bottom–Pasternak'd warn him if there were a problem–and just above it two square terrain maps: to the left, Mandelfarne Island itself, and beside it a larger-scale one including Port Dunbar as well.


            Red blinking lights marched down the right margin of the display, urgent communications demanding his response. Adele's hooked up to the Medicomp, getting microsurgery while blood and antibiotics drip into her. For the first time Daniel thought of that as a professional loss rather than a personal one.


            "Blantyre, take over commo!" he said, gaining altitude as he slanted the corvette over the missile battery. The midshipman probably wasn't the right person for the job, but she'd have to do. The person who was right lay on her back in the Medicomp. "Handle it! Don't send anything to me unless I have to see it, over."


            They were still low enough when they thundered over the battery that Daniel had an instant's fear that the Sissie's exhaust would cook off the missiles' solid fuel. He'd picked the direction so as not to endanger the Volunteers; Corius'd been warned not to advance east of where the Greybudd landed until Daniel gave the word. It hadn't struck Daniel as he did the planning that the missiles, even if their guidance was disabled, contained enough explosive to make one hell of a bang.


            Sun fired again, this time at a gun pit on the east shore of the island. It erupted, leaving a smoking crater and a slowly fading mushroom of plasma trembling upward. Stored ammunition had added to the blast.


            "Sir, where's Officer Mundy?" Blantyre bleated. "Over?"


            "Six, this is Five," announced Vesey from the BDC. The red lights vanished. "I've got the commo, out."


            Daniel felt the ventral turret, retracted for landing, begin to rumble into firing position. A little more vibration while the thrusters were at high output would've meant nothing to a stranger, but Daniel was part of the Princess Cecile.


            Sun fired, still using the dorsal turret; another gun pit blew up. At maximum depression the dorsal cannon barely bore on the shoreline positions as the Sissie climbed and headed eastward toward the sea.


            The gunner'd switched to single shots, quite as effective on these targets as the usual paired rounds. Daniel'd apologize for shouting at him, but that could wait till they were out of this. Sun knew perfectly well that plasma bolts were directed thermonuclear explosions, and he shouldn't've have had to be told that they bloody well affected the handling of a ship skittering in ground effect.


            The Princess Cecile crossed the coastline at three hundred feet, still accelerating. Daniel expected half a dozen bolts from the Pellegrinian plasma cannon, but only one pit fired. The charge hit aft, making the hull ring and probably ruining a furled sail. Sun replied with both guns in the corvette's belly turret, scooping the enemy weapon out in a gush of steam and quivering ions.


            "Blantyre, take the helm," Daniel ordered as he swung the Sissie to port, proceeding east to west a half mile out to sea from Mandelfarne Island. "Keep us parallel to the shore, thirty knots and a hundred feet up, got it? Over?"


            "Aye aye, sir," Blantyre squeaked. "I have the conn! Out!"


            She immediately bobbled the attitude control yoke, sending the corvette into a sideways shimmy. Daniel remained poised, his hands spread above his controls. If Blantyre didn't–


            But she did let the Sissie stabilize instead of compounding her mistake by overcorrecting. The surest way to learn is by falling on your face; so long as that's survivable, of course, and this time it had been.


            Both turrets were firing, back to single shots now that Sun'd made sure of the gun which'd hit them. Sun and Rosinant–now in command of the ventral guns–raked the shore defenses. The Pellegrinian crews had almost certainly abandoned their positions in the face of the inevitable. So long as the corvette held this height and course, both turrets bore on the enemy positions–but they needed the proper targets.


            Daniel expanded the map of the island to half his screen. Before she disembarked on Pellegrino, Adele had marked the base installations, using the signals she gathered the night the aircar probed Mandelfarne Island.


            Working from her data, Daniel prodded the display with his index finger to caret targets: Arruns' headquarters, four trailers backed into the shape of a cross and surrounded with a berm like that of the missile battery; the communications center with its array of antennas for both surface and satellite signals; and the tents (with a few semi-permanent shelters) housing base staff and transients. The accommodations were probably empty, but they were the closest thing to home that the garrison had. Blasting them into fiery ruin was bound to hurt the defenders' morale.


            "Guns, I'm transmitting a target list," Daniel ordered. He sent the data as he spoke, but he changed it from a terrain map into an overlay on the turrets' targeting displays. "Execute it, then cease fire unless somebody shoots at us. Six out."