WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 34:



            "Captain Julian, gentlemen," said Daniel as he and Hogg stepped out of the airlock. They'd taken their helmets off before the hatch undogged, so he didn't have to struggle with that task while the three men in Columbine's forward compartment stared at him in surprise. He hadn't warned Julian by radio because he shared Hogg's opinion that the Bagarian captain wouldn't be in agreement with his plan.

            "What're you doing here?" David Julian demanded. He struggled awkwardly to rise from his console. It was placed in the far bow facing inward, so that the captain seated there could see everybody in the forward compartment.

            "I'm going to take the Columbine in on this run, Captain Julian," Daniel said cheerily. "I regret the suddenness of this."

            In fact Daniel regretted a lot of things, certainly including the fact that he was cutting corners in a fashion that could only be described as discourteous to a fellow spacer. Admiral James and the Bagarian Republic both depended on clearing the cluster of Alliance bases, though, and this seemed to be the only way to do that in a reasonable length of time.

            "You'll do nothing of the sort!" Julian said in a scandalized tone. "This is my ship. I own her!"

            Daniel stepped around the console, noting with relief that the seat was so oversized that he could use it without stripping off his hard suit. That was a common feature on tramp freighters, since the crew could rarely depend on the climate control system or the vessel remaining airtight either one. If the controls couldn't be operated by people wearing suits, they couldn't be operated at all.

            Captain Julian wasn't suited up, but he filled and overflowed the console; Daniel instinctively sucked in his gut. Mentally, he murmured a promise to really cut back on his meals. Mind, he'd made the same promise every time he'd put on his Dress Whites during the past six months.

            "He most certainly is not the owner of the Columbine!" Adele's voice rattled from the implant in Daniel's left ear. "He sold the ship to the government for one point five million ostrads, on the basis of a valuation by Petrus Lascaux. Who appears to be Julian's brother-in-law!"

            "I'm very sorry, Captain," Daniel said. He didn't suppose he sounded any sorrier than he felt. "Nonetheless you knew this might happen when you sold the Columbine to the government for one and a half million ostrads."

            Because Julian had risen to confront Daniel, the console's empty seat was between them. Daniel set his armored right foot on it, knowing the hard suit trumped the Bagarian's greater bulk.

            The information from Adele didn't change anything but the words, though. Daniel would've commandeered a private vessel if he'd had to, counting on his admiral's rank to justify the action; or if not that, then success wiping the slate clean. If he didn't succeed, he'd probably be dead and the question of whether he'd committed piracy wouldn't matter.

            The airlock cycled again. It only held two suited figures at a time, so Adele's friend Cazelet had to come through after Daniel and Hogg had.

            Julian clenched his fist and said, "You can get your Cinnabar ass off this ship, buddy, or–"

            "Or what, lard-butt?" Woetjans said. "You're talking to Mister Leary. That means you keep a civil tongue in your head or somebody's likely to pull it out!"

            "Who're you?" Julian said in a tone of wonderment. He lowered his arm, all bluster vanished.

            Daniel half-rotated his body; the rigid suit kept him from glancing over his shoulder as he'd have done in street clothes. Cazelet was there, all right, but the bosun had entered ahead of him. She held the short come-along she'd been using to lever the plasma missiles into their cradles on the hull.

            "Six, the kid here–"

            She pointed a thumb over her shoulder; Cazelet hopped back. Behind them both, the airlock was cycling again.

            "–told us what you were pulling. We sent his riggers onto the Laddie, but me'n four a' my crew are gonna handle the rig while you're aboard. Or handle any bloody thing at all, right?"

            "Right!" said Daniel briskly. "Captain Julian, if you'll make yourself as comfortable as you can on one of the benches, we'll take care of business so that you can have your ship back."

            Dasi and Barnes were the next pair of Sissies out of the airlock. Like the bosun, they carried the tools they'd been using out on the hull.

            "We cast this tub loose from the Laddie, Six," Barnes said cheerfully. "Say, we going to put it to the wogs again?"

            Dasi glanced at the two spacers who'd been in the compartment when Daniel arrived. "My buddy means Alliance wogs, not you lot," he said. He pursed his full lips in consideration. "That's right, ain't it, Six?"

            "Perfectly correct, Dasi," Daniel said, checking the little freighter's systems. Cazelet settled himself on the console's jump seat; the controls on that side were already live, probably by accident.

            The Power Room with the fusion bottle and a crew of three was the Columbine's only other pressurized compartment. The engineer hadn't opened the hatch to see what was going on in the fore cabin and Daniel didn't see any reason to disturb him.

            The aft two-thirds of the hull was partitioned into three separate holds, empty now except for crew stores. The total volume was slight. Bulk cargo would be slung externally, much as the missiles were being carried now.

            The nozzle of Thruster Three was paper thin; the Columbine could make this attack using only the fore and aft pairs, but to lift with a full cargo requiring all six thrusters seemed a recipe for disaster. According to their internal diagnostics the four High Drive motors were fine, but a scan of the log indicated that Starboard Aft didn't develop better than 70% of its rated impulse. That could mean the pump was failing, the feed line had a blockage, or for that matter that there was an instrumentation flaw. Again, it didn't matter for now.

            Sayer and Braun shambled out of the airlock. Anja Braun, a stocky woman who could kick her heel through a brick wall, looked at Woetjans and asked, "What you want us t'do, Chief?"

            "Sit your butts down till I tell you," Woetjans growled. She slapped the come-along into the palm of her left glove. It was an idle gesture, but the two Bagarian spacers winced.

            "Look," muttered Captain Julian, staring at his fingers interlaced over his heavy belly. "You can make me the goat if you like, I can't fight you. But it wasn't my approach that screwed the pooch on the first attack. The missiles're bloody useless, it's that simple."

            "I agree that you're not to blame, Julian," Daniel said. He spread his hands over the console's virtual keyboard, making sure that he was aware of its subtle differences both from the Sissie and from the cruiser he'd been commanding these past few weeks. "It's simply a case of, well–"

            He shrunk the display and looked at Julian until the fellow turned and their eyes met.

            "–if this attack fails, there'll be a move to crucify the foreigner who planned it, not so? And if I'm going to be hung for failing, then it's bloody well going to be me who fails."

            In the air before him communication established pulsed in green letters. Daniel brought up his display and said, "Ladouceur, this is Columbine Six. Can you hear me, over?"

            "Of course I can hear you, Columbine Six," Adele's voice rasped from the console's speakers. "If you want to address the squadron, just verbally key them and the relay will work automatically. Otherwise, you'll be speaking through me. As usual. Over."

            "Roger, Signals," Daniel said, grinning as he so often did when dealing with Adele. "Ship, prepare to attack."

            He cleared his throat, then said, "Squadron, this is Squadron Six. Columbine is taking the place of Heartsease in the attack rota. Heartsease, set up your attack to follow that of Columbine. Six out."

            Daniel pressed the Execute button; the High Drive motors fired on preset angles, dropping the Columbine toward the surface of Churchyard. Let's see how long the Alliance garrison continues to laugh….

            Freighters didn't have true attack boards; Daniel'd adapted the pilotry display as if he were setting up a landing. That was basically what he was doing, except that if things worked out it'd be six plasma missiles landing in Hafn Teobald instead of the Columbine herself.

            The vessel began to slide into the atmosphere. The air wasn't thick enough to buffet the hull yet, but Daniel heard the pings of antimatter in the exhaust disintegrating gas molecules in the throats of the motors. He didn't switch out of High Drive yet because he didn't trust the plasma thrusters.

            Daniel expected Captain Julian to complain, but the Bagarian simply sat with a glum expression. He might also stay long in High Drive on his approaches, for the same reason.

            When the pinging increased in frequency to that of water coming to a boil, Daniel shut down the High Drive, waited three seconds on a ballistic course, and finally lit the thrusters. They came on line raggedly, as he'd more or less expected.

            He'd been afraid of a late power blip from one of the motors. If by bad luck only one thruster was making power at the moment when a High Drive motor fired late, the combined impulse could rotate a small vessel like the Columbine on her axis. Better a long freefall than to take that needless risk.

            "Columbine Six, the antiship battery at Hafn Teobald is tracking you," Adele said in a cool tone. "This was the battery's practice with earlier runs as well. None of the Alliance communications indicate an intention to launch this time either." A pause. "Ah, Ladouceur out."

            Daniel smiled. It no longer struck him as odd that in the middle of an attack he was getting reports on the enemy's internal communications.

            The Columbine was well into the first circuit of her attack and was rocking noticeably. The choppiness wasn't as bad as he'd have expected on the Princess Cecile, though the corvette was a somewhat heavier vessel; the outboard-mounted missiles were acted as roll dampers.

            What would Admiral Vocaine say if I recommended that he recruit librarians for signals duty in all RCN vessels?

            Daniel began to laugh. Julian spluttered something which Daniel couldn't make out over the snarl of air jumbling about the rigging. The sound may not have been words at all, of course, just generalized amazement. Woetjans clapped the Bagarian on the shoulder and looked smug.

            They'd completed their second circuit and started into a third, going deeper than the previous runs. The Columbine was slowing, so the roughness wasn't noticeably worse despite the thicker atmosphere.

            "Columbine Six, Command Headquarters has put the missile battery on launch warning but haven't directed them to launch," Adele's voice trembled. "Under current protocols they won't launch unless the target drops beneath three thousand meters. Over."

            "Roger, Signals," Daniel said as his fingers adjusted flow to Thrusters One and Two, raising the bow slightly. "We're not going to come close to that, over."

            The warble in Adele's voice was an artifact of atmospheric distortion on the laser signal. An RCN warship's software would've reshaped the signal into its original form, but the Columbine had nothing so sophisticated. Well, she didn't need it; at least with Cazelet handling commo duties, the freighter's rig was more than adequate.

            "Ship," Daniel said, "prepare to launch. Launching one–"

            The ship bucked into a roll to port as the lower starboard missile separated.

            "Launching two–"

            Two was the upper port missile, thrown clear by the ship's rotation.





            "Ship, we're pulling up!" Daniel cried as he slammed keys to activate the preset course. "RCN forever!"

            His Sissies cheered over the roaring thrusters. Maybe some of the Bagarians did too, though it wasn't the most politic thing to have shouted now that Daniel had time to think about it.

            Bloody hell, they were in the middle of a battle. The six missiles they'd just launched were running straight and true as the Columbine lifted back out of Churchyard's atmosphere.

            "RCN forever!" Daniel repeated. This time he was sure the Bagarian spacers were cheering along with his own.