WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 33:



CHAPTER 14: Above Churchyard


            Adele watched the Stager Brothers begin its attack run. Despite Captain Stout's prickliness, his approach through the top levels of the atmosphere was as smooth as that of any starship could be.

            She smiled. Perhaps being prickly was a necessary part of being good. There were certainly people who'd found Adele Mundy difficult over the years, and even Daniel ruffled feathers with his focus on accomplishing the mission regardless of proprieties.

            Ever since the Columbine came alongside, the Ladouceur had been ringing like the interior of a steel drum. A warship in action was always noisy, but this time the missiles bumping down the rollerway were being transferred to the smaller ship rather than sliding into the cruiser's own launching tubes. Woetjans had all her riggers on the hull, manhandling the projectiles across the gap separating the ships and clamping them into the Columbine's hull mounts.

            Adele didn't imagine the effort was going to be of any use, though. Certainly none of the previous attacks had been.

            "Adele?" said Daniel unexpectedly. She'd carefully avoided interrupting him at a time when he had his hands full. Out of squeamishness she hadn't even echoed the command display as she sometimes did from curiosity. Since things were going so badly, it would've felt to her like staring at a friend who'd just upset the table at a formal dinner.

            "Yes, Daniel?" she said, replying on the same two-way link and pleased to ignore protocol.

            The Stager Brothers had made two circuits of Churchyard, cutting progressively deeper as if shaving thin slices from the atmosphere. As Stout started his third orbit, he launched his four plasma missiles. This was no part of Adele's job, but simply as a matter of interest she'd expanded an image of the vessel coming around the curve of the planet.

            The only communications that she had to monitor right now were the excited chatter of both the Alliance and Bagarian forces. The Alliance voices were predictably in a better humor, but nothing important was being said by either side.

            "I'm going to be taking charge of the Columbine for the next attack," Daniel said. "Can you keep me in direct touch with the entire squadron?"

            One of the Stager Brothers' missiles didn't appear to separate until the ship drove up through the atmosphere again on gimbaled thrusters. The missile continued for a few moments on a ballistic course, then began to tumble; it quickly broke up.

            "One moment," said Adele, because she didn't give Daniel a certain answer without knowing everything about the Columbine's commo suite. She'd never had occasion to learn that information before now–

            But she'd gathered it, because it was information and that was what she did, gather information against need. In the particular instance she'd thought knowing the particulars of the Bagarian ships might help her communicate with them, though in the event she'd decided that the 20-meter band was all she could count on.

            The thrusters of the Stager Brothers' remaining three missiles lighted. One blew up three seconds later, rocking the ship that launched it. The blast didn't appear to do serious damage, but Captain Stout's torrent of profanity was justifiable if pointless.

            Adele brought up the data on the Columbine and considered it coldly. She smiled: she did everything coldly. Even when others might think that she'd lost her temper, she was really quite cold inside.

            In the particular instance, the data was better than she'd feared it might be. She said, "Daniel, the Columbine has a working laser communicator. It's a single-head device, but the Ladouceur can retransmit to the rest of the squadron without a noticeable lag. Oh!"

            "Is there a problem, Signals?" Daniel said. He remained on the private channel, but he'd slipped into formality to jog her out of her silence.

            The problem is that I have to be at both ends of the transmission in order to make the relay work.

            The thruster of the Stager Brothers' third missile cut off abruptly. Without power for its gyroscope, the missile wobbled, swapped ends, and tore itself into a shower of fragments. They blazed white with the friction of their passage through the atmosphere.

            Instead of replying to Daniel directly, Adele switched manually to the command channel and said, "Cory, I'll be away from my console for a considerable length of time. Until I return, can you relay laser transmissions from the Columbine to the rest of the squadron if I set the system up for you? Over."

            "Ah," said Cory. "I'm sure I can, sir, over."

            "Negative, Officer Mundy," Daniel said. He didn't exactly shout, but he meant to be heard and obeyed. "Your presence with the Ladouceur's sensor and commo suites will be absolutely necessary if something unpredictable occurs. You will not be leaving the bridge. If that means a gap in my control of the rest of the squadron, then that's still the better choice, over."

            The Stager Brothers' last missile began to describe a slow spiral. Adele was too busy to magnify her image of it, but she'd seen several rounds from the Columbine and Forsyte 14 fail in the same fashion. Exhaust had eaten a hole in the thruster nozzle so that plasma was pushing sideways as well as straight back. As Adele'd learned to expect, the missile carved increasingly wider circles until a gush of flame blew the whole back end away.

            All sixteen missiles from the three Bagarian ships had failed before they got within ten miles of the surface of Churchyard. Adele didn't know what Daniel thought he could accomplish since the problem wasn't in the way the rounds had been aimed, but that wasn't her job to determine.

            "Captain, I don't think Cory can keep the Columbine's sender focused on us, on the Ladouceur, if both ships are maneuvering," she said. "He can handle the relay, that's automated. I–"

            "Captain Leary?" Rene Cazelet interrupted. Adele knew Rene'd added himself to the command channel that linked all the commissioned and warrant officers aboard, but she hadn't given the matter any thought when she moved the discussion there to include Cory. "I can direct the head manually. I don't mean to imply criticism of Mister Cory; your Cinnabar naval equipment is automated, but I trained in the merchant service with apparatus very like what the Columbine has. Over."

            "Adele?" Daniel said, back on the two-way link.

            Adele looked at the image of Rene Cazelet on her display. She knew that she could meet his eyes directly by just looking up and glancing across the bridge, but she preferred the electronic semblance. His expression was clear and open; and underneath that, afraid. He was afraid that she wouldn't think he was competent.

            Which meant that he really thought that he could do the job. Well, he had more data on the subject that she did, so she might as well accept his judgment.

            "All right," Adele said. "Cazelet, accompany Captain Leary to the Columbine. Keep a real-time connection with me, and do everything else he tells you to. Over."

            Or did she mean, "Out"?

            "Yes, mistress!" the boy said as he leaped from his console. He was beaming as he strode to the suit locker in the rotunda beyond the bridge hatch.

            "Lieutenant Liu, you have the conn," Daniel said as he rose. Hogg got up also. Daniel added, "Hogg, you can stay aboard the Ladouceur. Space may be tight on the Columbine's bridge, and there's nothing for you to do, over."

            "Sure there is, young master," Hogg said, speaking loudly over the sound of the air handler. "That wog captain may not want to give you his seat, admiral's pips or no."

            As he spoke, Hogg pulled his big folding knife from a pocket. It had a handguard in the form of a knuckleduster.

            "I'll come along to reason with him," Hogg concluded, tossing the knife–still closed–in the air and catching it again.