Read an Excerpt
By David Drake
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-72121-6
Chapter OneEARTH: DOCKING
The starship shimmered yellow in the midst of three spikes of blue flux, the magnetic motors of the tugs which added their thrust to that of the larger vessel. Ribbons of aurora borealis filled the rest of the sunless sky with faint pastels.
Lieutenant Randall Colville didn't need to squint as he stared upward, because the limousine's sunroof grayed automatically to dim the dangerous brilliance of the tugs' discharges. The low-frequency rumble of the starship's passage through the stratosphere shook the car.
"Is that ...?" asked Lady Hilda Bernsdorf. She was in the driver's seat, but the limousine edged forward under external control in the line waiting for access to Port Northern's VIP parking.
Ran smiled at her, though there wasn't a great deal behind the expression at the moment. Hilda was a good lady, appreciative and quite appreciable. And the timing couldn't have worked out better ....
"The Empress?" he said. "No, probably a Planet-Class packet from Solar Traders."
Ran combed the fingers of his left hand through his short auburn hair as he considered the descending vessel. "The Jupiter's on a Wednesday shuttle from K'Chitka. It's probably her. But she's not a third the size of the Empress of Earth, milady."
The limousine jerked forward again as the car at the head of the line cleared the final security check. The autopilot of Lady Bernsdorf's vehicle was capable of micrometric precision, but the Port Northern control worked in much coarser increments.
Ran made a mental note. The spaceport authorities should do something about that. Those with access to Port Northern's VIP lot understood the need for security as well as anyone on Earth, but they wouldn't put up with needless discomfort
That wasn't a matter of concern to a junior officer of Trident Starlines ... but thirty standard years in the past, Ran Colville had been born on Bifrost, the son of a hide-hunting ex-mercenary. Someday in the future, there might be a Ran Colville who was administrator of the greatest spaceport in the known universe.
"They're all ships," Hilda said. "They all take people places they don't want to be...."
Her right hand tightened on the limousine's collective, a wheel with a 10-cm diameter. Forward and back motion controlled speed. Rotating the wheel turned the vehicle without need for the driver to consider the car's attitude or fan pitch. The control was disabled in the secure lane, so it didn't matter that the knuckles of Lady Bernsdorf's fine-boned hand were mottled with the force of their grip.
Ran laid his big left hand over Hilda's, squeezing just enough to remind her that he was present Her features were as sharp and beautiful as those of a well-struck medallion. "Some people like to travel," he said gently.
He thought of Bifrost. Some people know that wherever they go will be better than where they started out, even if that means working their passage in the Cold Crew, outside a starship in sponge space.
Aloud, controlling his voice to prevent it from trembling, he said, "Is that why you didn't go with your husband to Nevasa? You don't like star travel?"
Hilda's hand twisted on the collective to grip his. She leaned toward him, reaching up with her free hand to draw him into a fierce kiss. Ran slipped his hand behind the woman and kneaded the flesh over her shoulderblades. The garment she wore was silk from a Waserli royal nursery chamber. The fabric was opaque despite its natural pale dun color, but it was so fine that he could feel the texture of Lady Bernsdorf's skin through it.
The line of cars advanced again. The stuttering motion was masked by Shockwaves reflected as the starship and its tugs neared the ground.
Hilda turned her head, breaking the kiss but continuing to hold Ran cheek to cheek with her. "That and other things," she said. "Sven isn't pleasant to be around when he's on a mission. If things aren't going well, he takes it out on whoever's closest. After a while, I decided that that wouldn't be me anymore."
"Well, ambassadors have a lot on their minds," Ran said. He twisted slightly to watch the sunroof through the blond halo of Lady Bernsdorf's hair.
A spot on the clear panel darkened. The limousine's sensors had noted potentially dangerous actinics and polarized against them before human retinas could have reacted. "This may be it," Ran murmured.
"My ship. The Empress of Earth,"
Hilda stiffened, then relaxed and very deliberately released Colville. She straightened on her side of the car and touched a control. The limousine's windows were opaque to outside eyes; now the inner face of the windshield mirrored as well. She adjusted the angle of reflection and began fussing with her hair.
"I, ah ..." Ran said awkwardly.
He wasn't sure what the woman wanted, but he knew he'd screwed up that time. She was a nice lady. She shouldn't feel that he didn't care about her when they parted, and he did care. But it had been a long road from Bifrost to Third Officer, Staff Side, of the Empress of Earth ....
"If your ... if Count Bernsdorf is coming home early," Ran continued, "does that mean he's brokered peace and the emergency is over? Or, ah, that it's war for sure between Nevasa and Grantholm?"
"You're asking the wrong Bernsdorf," Hilda said curdy. She cleared the windshield as spaceport control jogged the limousine forward again. They were nearing the head of the queue. "Not that Sven would tell you anything. Or tell me anything. He's very professional. In five years, he'll be heading the Ministry of External Affairs."
The limousine shuddered from the hammering roar of the incoming starship. The eye-saving filter in the sunroof had expanded to the size of a gravy boat. It was almost black, indicating a near-uniform intensity of flux between the starship's own motors and those of the eight tugs aiding its descent. The vessel's mass was such that her own motors were being run at high capacity despite the large number of tugs adding their thrust.
"This is a-"
Ran Colville looked at Hilda in sudden confusion. Until she spoke, he'd forgotten she was present.
"-considerable promotion for you, isn't it, Ran?" the woman continued smoothly, as though her clear blue eyes had failed to notice her ex-lover's abstraction. "This ship is bigger than any of the others you've served on."
Ran gave a wry chuckle. "A Planet-Class liner is bigger than anything I've served on," he admitted. "And the Empress of Earth, well, she's the biggest there is, my love .... Except maybe for the Brasil, and that's a matter of how you measure the two of them. Yeah, this is a promotion."
Without changing her neutral expression, Hilda said, "Since Sven is coming home from Nevasa, that means he's failed. If there'd been a realistic chance of Nevasa agreeing to peace talks, he'd have gone on to Grantholm. Federated Earth doesn't want an interstellar war to break out, but since both the principals do-they'll fight, won't they? Because they're fools."
"I don't figure it either," Ran said, staring upward toward the Empress of Earth. "Nevasa and Grantholm have everything they could want already. It's not like B-B ... It's not like some of the fringe worlds, where people don't have anything to lose from a war."
Not like Bifrost.
The Empress of Earth's descent had been braked to a near hover by thrust at high altitude. Now she was dropping again, supported primarily by the tugs. The limousine's filters paled, permitting details of the huge vessel to show through a gray haze. Landing outriggers extended from the cylindrical hull, and the panels concealing the lifeboat bays were withdrawn.
The podded reaction engines were snugged into hollows while the Empress maneuvered in a gravity well. They drove the vessel in sponge space, fed and maintained by the Cold Crew while everyone else was safe in the starship's insulated interior.
The limousine grated to a halt at the guard kiosk. A canopy clamped over the vehicle, sealing it from the North Polar elements. The driver's-side window withdrew before Hilda touched the control. An attendant in civilian clothes with an identibox on her left shoulder leaned into the opening.
"Lady Hilda Bernsdorf," Hilda said coolly. She stared directly at the identibox. "Meeting Count Bernsdorf, a passenger on the Empress of Earth."
"Randall Park Colville," Ran said. He blinked involuntarily, though he knew the tiny burst of laser light which painted his retinas was of too low an intensity for him to notice. "Reporting for duty as junior staff lieutenant aboard the Empress of Earth."
There was a brief zeep from the attendant's shoulder. "Milady, sir," she said as she straightened. "Thank y-"
The closing window cut off the last of the perfunctory phrase. If Port Northern's data bank had not cleared the occupants' identifications, or if sensors had indicated anything doubtful within the vehicle, the limousine would have been shunted into a holding facility hardened against nuclear weapons before the check proceeded.
"Ran," Lady Bernsdorf said. She was facing the windshield as the limousine staged through the double airlocks which protected Port Northern against the elements. Hoarfrost formed despite the static charge of the dome covering the port facilities. It zigged like frozen lightning against the auroral pastels.
Ran looked down at his companion. "Milady?"
"We agreed that this was only for a few days," Hilda went on in a controlled voice. "That we'd never try to see each other again. Because it was too dangerous."
Ran thought he understood at last why Hilda had been so tense ever since they got up in the morning to make the drive. "Oh, milady," he said gently. She still wouldn't look at him.
He leaned over the console and kissed her rigid cheek. "Did you think I was going to wreck your life? Oh, love, I'm not that sort. You've honored me greatly with your company. I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. Least of all cause you problems with your husband."
The limousine halted in its assigned space-less than ten meters from the VIP entrance to the passenger terminal. Ran pressed the door release. The panel shrank from an impervious sheet to a centimeter-thick block resting on the lower coaming.
He got out. He thought Hilda had started to say something, but when he looked back she was still seated, and her eyes were straight ahead.
Ran stretched. Passengers and the uniformed but unarmed doorman glanced at him-a young man of middle height, in the white uniform of a Staff Side officer of Trident Starlines. Men on Bifrost were rangy rather than solid, but no one who had ever seen a Bifrost Cold Crew riot doubted the strength-or the ruthlessness-of those who came from that bitter world on the fringe of civilization.
The atmosphere of the parking area was slightly warmer than that set by the limousine's climate control. It contained vague tinges of lubricant and ozone from the vehicular traffic. At the distant rear of the lot, a monorail hissed to a halt and began transferring the normal mass of passengers and visitors to the slideways that would take them within the building.
Ran looked up through the dear dome of Port Northern. For a moment, all he could see was steam roiling in patterns of compression and rarefaction from the thrust that balanced the starliner's huge mass.
The view cleared abruptly. The motors of the tugs and starship had blasted away all the condensate on the landing field.
The Empress of Earth hung poised a few meters from touching the ground: 800 meters long, 150 meters across the diameter of her cylindrical hull; built to the precision of an astronomical dock despite her enormous mass.
The highest expression of technology within the known universe ... and Ran Colville was an officer aboard her.
He straightened his cap. He considered throwing it in the air, but he'd gotten this far by not putting a foot wrong professionally. He wasn't going to jeopardize his chances of getting much farther.
Shouting with laughter hidden by the thunder of the starliner landing, Ran Colville marched toward the entrance and his future. He didn't look back at the limousine, which still sat with the right-hand door open.
Franz Streseman's monorail compartment was a party of Grantholm citizens: two couples and six single men. All of them were middle-aged, all of them were buzzed if not drunk; and they were very loud. Franz sat stiffly, staring toward his hands crossed in his lap and thinking about the engineering degree he was leaving behind.
Perhaps forever; but "forever" was a concept beyond the experience of an eighteen-year-old, while the utter disruption of his life was a present reality.
"Damn, damn, damn the Mindanesians," sang the party from Grantholm, all the men and three of the women joining in on the choruses.
Franz knew the lyrics, from a camp song of the Mindanao campaign twenty years before. Mindanao had been settled from Earth, mostly by Filipinos and other East Asians, but with funding and control from Grantholm. The colony fell behind on its repayment schedule, because a significant proportion of its wireweed production was being diverted to interloping traders at free-market prices rather than going to Grantholm on fixed-rate contracts.
Grantholm's determination to have its rights sparked a full-scale rebellion.
"Cross-eyed, dirty-faced ladrones," the party sang.
"Underneath the triple suns, civilize them with our guns,
"And return us to our own beloved homes!"
The men in the Grantholm party were of an age to have served on Mindanao, but it was unlikely that all of them had done so. Grantholm had developed a network of dependant worlds through a combination of entrepreneurial drive and governmental action. Most of the armed forces which put down the Mindanese Rebellion-and they did put it down, though wireweed production was only now beginning to equal what it had been before the war-came from those subject planets.
Five years after the Mindanese Rebellion drowned in blood, Mindanese battalions were serving Grantholm on Cartegena during the "emergency" there.
"Social customs there are few," boomed the Grantholm men.
"All the ladies smoke and chew ..."
The monorail swayed gently as its gyroscopic stabilizer matched the polar winds without difficulty. Ultra-high-frequency sound predicted the force and direction of gusts, feeding data to the stabilizer, so that the monorail actively met disturbances instead of reacting to them.
Excerpted from Starliner by David Drake Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.