WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 35:



            Adele noticed the next of the Bagarian ships dropping into the atmosphere while the Columbine was only beginning her ascent. She didn't know whether or not that was a problem, so she said, "Columbine Six, the Heartsease is attacking already. Over."

            "Thank you, Ladouceur," Daniel said, his voice a little strained. He was accelerating hard, of course. "I've got them on my display. I didn't intend such close separations, but I guess it's all right so long as one of us knows what he's doing. Six out."

            The jabbering on the ground wasn't quite as boastfully contented as it'd been an hour earlier, but the Alliance garrison wasn't really worried. The Columbine had driven deeper into the atmosphere than the five runs that'd preceded this one, and now the Heartsease was coming in immediately on the Columbine's heels.

            Neither was a threat on the face of it, given the complete failure of the attack to this point. They were changes, though, and nobody likes to see a change when everything's been going well. Especially when the situation involves other people shooting at you.

            Since the Columbine was out of the battle until it reloaded, the antiship battery shifted its tracking to the Heartsease. The latter was one of the smaller Bagarian vessels and carried only three missiles. It'd been a late arrival, and though it appeared to receive signals, it hadn't emitted any since the seventh-planet rendezvous.

            In past years Adele would've assumed the ship's transmitter had gone out, but she'd seen enough of fringe-world navies to realize that the captain might be in a snit and refusing to respond verbally. That would be insane, of course, but it was by no means impossible.

            The Columbine's six rounds had been tracking smoothly, but the second one launched slowly diverged from the path of the others. There wasn't anything obviously wrong with it; perhaps its gyrocompass had gone awry. Still, if the others–

            The fifth missile dived straight downward, splashing into the ocean half the planetary circumference short of Hafn Teobald. Adele felt a wash of disappointment.

            Daniel had done all he could. Nobody was successful all the time, not even the most brilliant officer in the RCN. There'd be another way to overcome the Alliance forces, there was always another way. Daniel wouldn't stop–they'd none of them stop–until they'd found a way to–

            The Columbine's first missile plunged into the Alliance base, striking the S81 amidships. There was a huge white flash, the friction of steel hitting steel at high velocity. The boat's hull sank, dragging the outriggers with it. An underwater blast emptied the slip momentarily of water and demolished one of the concrete piers.

            The sea gushed back; an outrigger bobbed to the surface. Steam drifted across the harbor on the light breeze, the cloud expanding slowly.

            Adele smiled in self-mockery. She should've given Daniel more credit. Though assuming failure as she'd just done wasn't a problem so long as she went ahead with her tasks regardless. As, of course, she always did.

            High Drive missiles were expected to be on a ballistic course at impact, so they didn't have guidance systems. Despite their relative simplicity, the Bagarian plasma missiles did have sensor-activated controls. They homed on modulated laser signals reflecting from the target. In this case the laser designators were on the Ladouceur, not on the ships launching the missiles.

            Given how crude the missiles were, Adele had wondered if the guidance system could possibly work well enough to matter. Apparently it would.

            The third missile–the second was off-course, thirty miles to the west of Hafn Teobald–had been aimed at the antiship battery. Instead it slammed into the center of the tidal pond behind the site. Reflection from the water must've confused the homing system.

            Adele's smile twitched. The shrieking terror of the battery captain talking to Alliance HQ was worth something, though.

            The fourth missile hit Alliance Headquarters; the center of the sprawling, U-shaped building, unfortunately, since Adele by now knew that the real command center was in a bunker under the north wing. Nonetheless, it was very satisfying to watch the magnified image of the walls shattering in a pall of pulverized concrete. The roof of plastic sheeting fell in and began to burn.

            The final missile was aimed at the Cesare Rossarol; likely one or both of those which failed had targeted the vessel also. The cloud from the S81's ruptured fusion bottle drifted over the destroyer, not concealing it but providing a medium to reflect the laser illuminator. The incoming missile spiked the center of the false bull's-eye and plunged into the far wall of the slip beyond the Rossarol's.

            Chunks of concrete flew in all directions. The destroyer pitched and bucked, but apart from the shaking it must be unharmed.

            The Heartsease was starting her second circuit. Adele's interest in the attack had always been secondary to her duty of listening to intercepted Alliance communications. Now she manually keyed the 20-meter transmitter and shouted, "Heartsease, change direction! They're about to launch at you. Stop your attack now, stop!"

            A plasma missile separated from the Heartsease. The ship rocked and threw off a second missile.

            "Heartsease, pull up or do something! They're going to–"

            The blast of an antiship missile ripped a huge divot from the ground behind the rotating launcher. The projectile itself was a needle glinting in the sunlight; shock diamonds formed in back of its triple nozzles, and far behind swelled a white blanket as the borate exhaust plume absorbed moisture from the air.

            "Pull up, you fools!" Adele screamed. "Dodge, do something!"

            She wasn't sure that the Heartsease would be able to do anything that'd help it survive. Inertia and air resistance might be binding it into a practically fixed course. But the crew ought to try instead of going on with what was effectively a march to the scaffold.

            The third plasma missile dropped away from the Bagarian ship which shuddered as its captain started to pull up at the end of his attack run. The Alliance missile spitted it like an ice pick through an egg. The round depended on velocity, not an explosive warhead; it continued to scream upward into the stratosphere as a thin silver streak.

            The Heartsease flew apart, wrecked by its own speed once it'd been gutted. Chunks of hull and rigging battered each other to fragments that rained toward the surface. The initial impact had probably killed the whole crew; regardless, nothing human–even wearing a hard suit–could survive the hundred-thousand-foot fall.

            Adele's face was grim. She'd tried to warn them, but they hadn't listened. It wasn't her fault, not as anybody else would judge blame.

            Besides, people die in wars. She'd killed a lot of them herself….

            One of the missiles from the Heartsease dropped; its thruster hadn't lighted. The second blew up after thirty seconds of operation. The third curved into a helical course that'd probably be twenty miles in diameter by the time it landed somewhere in the ocean west of Hafn Teobald.

            "Squadron, this is Squadron Six," Daniel said crisply. "Well done, spacers, we've got their measure now. One more attack will do the job, but this time the entire bombardment flotilla will go in together and swamp the defenses. At the same time, the Ladouceur, Independence and DeMarce will approach at low level. The garrison'll panic, I expect, and if they don't we'll burn them out with plasma cannon regardless of what the bombardment missiles–"

            "Like hell we will, you bloody Cinnabar madman!" Captain Seward shouted in fury. "You're just trying to get us all killed so that we can't tell the government that your notion of shooting down at Churchyard was a waste of time. I'm going back to Pelosi, and when I get there I'll call for you to be removed for unfitness. Out!"

            The Stager Brothers had reloaded with plasma missiles from the Sacred Independence while Daniel was attacking with the Columbine. Now it began to accelerate, its High Drive motors stabbing blue-white sparks into vacuum.

            "Stager Six, this is Squadron Six," Daniel said sharply. The Columbine was on what the Plot Position Indicator predicted to be an approach course with the Ladouceur. "Shut down your motors soonest, Captain Stout. We'll be attacking all together after I work out courses, over."

            Stout didn't answer; instead the bead marking Stager Brothers faded off the PPI. Stout had fled from the sidereal universe.

            The other small ships were vanishing also. Adele had seen how long it took their captains to plot a course; it seemed likely that all they were doing was getting out of the immediate vicinity of the Ladouceur's heavy cannon. None of them directly addressed Daniel or the cruiser; they were simply leaving.

            "Admiral Leary," said Hoppler of the Independence. It and the DeMarce were accelerating to gain useful velocity that they could multiply in the Matrix. "Because of a serious leak in my reaction mass tanks, I'm forced to return to Pelosi for repairs. I hope to greet you there soon on your arrival so that we can plan further operations against the common enemy. Hoppler out."

            Sun turned from his console with a look of anguish on his face. "Mistress!" he said to Adele. "They're rats, they're running out on us! Can I ring their bell while they're still this side of the Matrix?"

            "You may not," Adele said sharply. She didn't bother to say that the question was beyond her authority: it wasn't beyond her authority, her real authority at least. There wasn't a Sissie who wouldn't do as Mistress Mundy ordered, Daniel included. "We'll serve them out later, Sun, but not in that fashion."

            She wasn't sure precisely how they'd even the score. Daniel wasn't the sort to send Hogg and Tovera to assassinate the captains who'd ignored his orders and fled. He wouldn't ask Lady Mundy to challenge the cowards to duels, either; but if he did ask that, she'd shoot Hoppler, Seward and the rest of them down with as little compunction as she'd killed a hundred other men and women in the course of her duty.

            It didn't bother her in the least while she was doing it: she saw only a blur in her sight picture. The features didn't appear until late into the darkness, when the dead came to speak with her again.

            The DeMarce faded from the PPI; the Independence was already gone and so were most of the light craft. The Forsyte 14 suddenly reappeared within the display, but that was simply because it hadn't had enough velocity in the sidereal universe to get any distance even with the help of the Matrix. It was accelerating at what appeared to be its maximum rate, now, and it didn't reply to Adele's attempts to raise it on short wave and laser. She didn't imagine that any response the captain made would be a useful one, of course, but she thought she ought to try.

            "Ladouceur, this is Squadron Six," Daniel said. Adele thought he sounded weary, but that could be an artifact of the freighter's commo system. "The Columbine is coming alongside. Mister Liu, have Captain Julian's riggers ready to transfer back aboard, if you will. Six out."

            Adele's algorithms caught the disruption of a ship extracting from the Matrix before the cruiser's own did, but only moments before: the Ladouceur might be old, but she was a warship which'd been constructed and equipped to serve in the foremost navy of the human universe. Software had improved since then, but the real question has always been the skill of the person using the apparatus rather than the apparatus itself.

            "Squadron Six!" Adele said. The Columbine certainly didn't have the sort of electronics Daniel would need to deal with this, and she didn't imagine there'd be time for him to reboard the cruiser. Could she transfer the necessary data to him using the freighter's single-head laser transceiver? "A heavy ship's entered sidereal space three hundred… and six thousand miles from Churchyard. It's not one of our squadron. It's–oh."

            She paused for a moment as she crosschecked the data cascading in from the new arrival; her data were entirely consistent. There hadn't been time yet for an optical identification, but Adele trusted her signals intelligence farther anyway.

            "Daniel," she said, her voice clipped from embarrassment at having given a needless alarm, "the ship is the Zwiedam, a former immigrant transport now owned by the Free State of Skye. I believe this is–"

            "Skye Defender calling Admiral Leary," announced the new arrival over tight-beam microwave. Adele relayed the message to the Columbine over the laser link. "This is Colonel Raymond Chatterjee reporting as ordered, over."

            "Colonel, this is Squadron Six," Daniel replied with a cheerful bounce that hadn't been in his voice a moment before. "I'll be aboard my flagship inside half an hour. We'll shape course to some place we can discuss matters in greater comfort than I suspect you and your troops find in vacuum. Hold what you've got till then, if you don't mind."

            In an even more ebullient tone he added, "I'm very glad of your arrival, Colonel. I think we'll now be able to turn the present bag of lemons into lemonade! Six out."