The Road Of Danger – Snippet 87

Someone had already locked the launchers. The missiles couldn’t be fired until the software had been wiped and reloaded, a day’s work for an expert–after somebody diagnosed the problem.

Mistress?” said Cazelet over a two-way link. “I’d been ready to override the controls since you left the ship this morning, but I didn’t engage it until Captain Vesey ordered liftoff. I didn’t want to chance somebody noticing the problem and maybe coming up with a fix.”

“Very good, Rene,” Adele said. He just might be able to enter the personal sectors of her console. He had been very well trained indeed.

The ventral turret, offset to the stern as the dorsal installation was to the bow, cranked downward for use; it had been under water while the ship was in the slip.

Ordinarily vessels rose through the atmosphere as quickly as their thrusters could lift them. A starship couldn’t be streamlined. Furling the sails and clamping the telescoped antennas to the hull prevented them from being ripped off, but they still created enormous turbulence in the airstream. The faster a ship moved near the ground, the more its crew bounced like dried beans in a rattle.

With Vesey at the controls, the Princess Cecile rose slowly, mushed out to sea, and began to curve back in a slight bank. A stylus would have rolled across the deck, but not quickly.

Adele’s communications intercepts showed the expected amount of chatter on Halta City’s emergency bands, but it was all concerned with the firefights which had rolled through the heart of town. Groups that hadn’t been involved were nervous and confused. Survivors of groups that had met either the truck or Cory’s relief force were in a shrieking panic. No one seemed to have noticed that the corvette had lifted off.

As a matter of reflex, Adele checked the displays on the Sissie‘s other active consoles. Cazelet was splitting the commo board with the atmosphere controls. If Vesey had a sudden stroke, he was ready to act without hesitation.

Cory was in the Battle Direction Center. He preferred his familiar bridge station, but the Princess Cecile was in combat. As first lieutenant, his primary duty was to take over in the event that the corvette’s whole bow was destroyed.

Cory had the atmosphere controls on half his display also. Vesey would have set a sequence in which the junior officers would take over should she be incapacitated, but which of them would be first on the rota didn’t concern Adele. The remaining half of Cory’s display echoed the gunnery boards of Sun, controlling the dorsal turret, and his mate, Rocker, in independent command of the ventral guns.

Gunners, you may fire as you bear,” said Vesey calmly. The last syllable wasn’t out of her mouth before a bolt slammed from each turret.

Two warehouses on the sea front erupted into mushrooms of flame. The plasma was literally as hot as the sun. Everything it touched which could burn, did: plastics, metals, even stone. A human who happened to be in the way simply vanished like chaff in a furnace.

Cory had created a targeting grid to which Cazelet had made additions. Carets in blue or red marked buildings, equipment lots, and three modern gunboats. The Navy of Cremona owned a destroyer, but it was a hulk; the gunboats were capable of at least intra-system voyages.

Sun was firing single shots. One bolt from a four-inch gun was sufficient for any ordinary frame or brick building at this short range, but Adele knew that the gunner was really showing off.

The paired guns in the turrets were designed to syncopate one another to put out a nearly continuous stream of plasma which nudged incoming projectiles off course. It took a delicate hand and a great deal of practice to fire a single round, but that considerably extended the life of the cannon’s bore.

Structure after structure disintegrated in balls of orange fire with flecks of iridescent plasma at their heart. The corvette ambled in a slow arc around Halta City, uncovering additional targets as the angle changed.

The central police station was an old building–old enough that Adele felt a faint twinge of regret at the thought of Pre-Hiatus records which might have been stored there. But probably not, and anyway it was too late to worry. Rocker hit its ground floor twice. The stone walls survived to channel a roaring inferno three stories upward, lifting the roof and licking toward the clouds.

Each shot was a miniature thermonuclear explosion, shaking the corvette like a hammerblow. The shells were laser arrays aimed inward toward the pellet of tritium at the heart of each. When tripped, the lasers compressed the tritium to fusion and directed its energy toward the one missing tile in the thermonuclear furnace which was aligned with the bore.

The laser array directed the charge. The guns’ iridium barrels were necessary to reduce side-scatter caused by the inevitable atoms in the jet’s path in even hard vacuum. That problem and the resulting bore erosion were much worse in an atmosphere.

The gunboats were allotted to Sun, who put a bolt into the outside pontoon of each. The hull plating of even a small starship was several inches thick, but the outriggers were of much lighter material and exploded in steam and white fire.

The gunboats tilted as they lost buoyancy, bringing open hatches in the hull proper under water and listing further. Within a minute or two, each of the three vessels had turned turtle in its slip.

Rocker spaced four rounds the length of the naval barracks. The result couldn’t be called surgical, but it was thorough beyond question. Adele thought of the naval officer who had precipitated the firefight in Halta City; she felt her lips smile.

Start a fight with the RCN and you’re likely to find that we’re the ones who end it

, Adele thought. Her mother would have said that was an attitude unworthy of a Rolfe or Mundy; but her mother’s head had decorated the Pentacrest in the center of Xenos.

Smudgy fires were burning in scores of locations, covering the city in haze that blurred or even concealed the buildings underneath it. The carets continued to give the gunners aiming points until there was no surviving target to shoot at.

The Princess Cecile was some distance from the sea, now, having described an arc beginning at Halta Harbor. Vesey had been holding them at two hundred feet in the air. Despite asymmetrical pounding from the guns and the pulsing irregularity of the thrusters, the ship’s altitude didn’t vary by as much as six feet up or down.

The corvette’s bank reversed and they curved sunwise as they moved deeper inland. The turrets squealed again as they rotated to bear on the corvette’s starboard broadside instead of to port.

A forest of carets sprang up, pointing to every building in a large complex surrounded by a fence and watchtowers. Adele smiled coldly; she knew what the compound was without checking–but she checked anyway.

Master Mangravite had started a fight with the RCN.