The Clouds of Saturn — An Excerpt
Larson Sands lay in his acceleration couch and watched the dawn as SparrowHawk raced eastward at a thousand kilometers per hour. Dawn on Saturn was always spectacular, but never more so than on a battle morning. As the sun climbed the sky, it quickly transformed the world from a black and silver etching to a blue-white panorama of air and cloud. Lars watched as the rays of the sun chased azure shadows from the deep cloud canyons, and turned The Arch overhead into a pale ghost of its former self.
"Message coming in from Delphi."
Sands glanced toward his copilot. Halley Trevanon was a brunette in her early twenties (Standard Calendar). Halley possessed a wide mouth, full lips, green eyes, and a scar that bisected her left eyebrow. She was scanning the sensor readouts that told them what ships were in their vicinity.
"Patch him through," Lars said.
The communications screen on the instrument panel lit to show Dane Sands’s smiling face. Dane was Lars’s younger brother, and Halley’s fiancé.
"Hello, SparrowHawk," Dane said. "Get enough sleep last night?"
"You know damned well we didn’t!" Lars muttered back. Dane was serving aboard the New Philadelphia flagship, Delphi, some two hundred kilometers to their west. It was his task to act as liaison between SparrowHawk and her New Philadelphia employers. Like them, he had been at his post since just after Second Midnight when the first sighting reports had come in.
Five thousand kilometers to the east, a New Philadelphia scout had reported an unknown aircraft moving west at high speed. Although there had been no positive identification, the commodore commanding the New Philadelphia fleet had ordered his heavier-than-hydrogen craft launched. In the three hours since, SparrowHawk and the other ships of the fleet had been on guard for an approaching enemy. Despite their efforts, they had detected nothing.
"I’ve got some news for you," Dane answered. "It looks like last night was a false alarm. Dakota may have suffered a sensor glitch caused by atmospheric conditions."
Lars nodded. Saturn’s thick atmosphere of closely packed hydrogen atoms did strange things to radar performance. Eddy currents and vertical convection cells created ghosts that looked like the wake of a fast moving aircraft. Such mistakes were common.
"What are our orders?"
Dane glanced at something out of camera range. "I show you two hundred kilometers east of Delphi."
"Why don’t you work your way back in this direction? If nothing has shown up by the time you arrive, we’ll take you back aboard. You should be here in time for breakfast."
"Understood," Lars said. "We’re turning now."
He pulled his control to the left and back slightly, sending SparrowHawk into a gentle turn. As he did so, Dane Sands asked, "How’s my girl?"
"Excited, and a little scared," Halley responded. Like Lars, she was encased in an environment suit, with her helmet visor up. Should the ship be holed, she could seal her suit in a matter of seconds. The other four crewmen aboard SparrowHawk were similarly attired.
"Don’t wear yourself out," Dane said. "The high command here is still hoping our show of strength will cause the Alliance to back off. We know their fleet left Cloudcroft three days ago, but we still have no evidence that they are coming here."
"Do you really think that, my love?"
Dane flashed her his most lopsided grin. "That’s the way we’ve been betting all along, isn’t it?"
Larson Sands said nothing. Over the past few weeks, he had started to wonder if their bet had been a wise one. The Delphis were expert geneticists who had long pursued the dream of engineering a life form that could live in the upper Saturnian atmosphere. Rumors that they had developed a viable organism had reached the Northern Alliance, causing it to invite New Philadelphia to join them. The invitation had been couched in terms that caused the Delphis to look to their defenses.
As was the case with most independent cities, New Philadelphia could not afford a full time navy to challenge the larger, more powerful Saturnian "nations." Rather, they maintained the core of a fighting force that could be rapidly expanded in time of trouble. In addition to a few customs ships, they had turned one of their large air freighters into a powerful flagship and mobile base. To supplement this fleet, they had sent recruiters throughout the northern hemisphere looking for privateer ships and crews.
The Sands brothers and Halley Trevanon had met the Delphi recruiters in a bar aboard Pendragon City. Lars still remembered the plump songstress who belted out The Ballad of Lost Earth while the Delphi recruiters made their pitch. Afterward, Dane Sands had argued in favor of taking the job. He’d thought it easy money, a simple show of force to convince the Alliance that their gain wouldn’t be worth the cost.
It was an argument that had the benefit of history on its side. For if there was one thing all the cloud cities of Saturn shared, it was their vulnerability to attack. When a single fanatic with a bomb could send an entire population plummeting into the crushing pressure of the lower atmosphere, those who ruled thought long and hard before challenging their neighbors. If faced with a large enough opposition force, the Alliance would forego its claim on New Philadelphia lest they place their own cities at risk.
Larson Sands and Halley Trevanon had been less certain about the job, but neither had voiced a strong objection to wearing the New Philadelphia livery. At the time, SparrowHawk’s fusion reactors had been more than a standard year past recommended overhaul. Worse, the ship’s half-dozen crewmen hadn’t been paid in months. They’d needed the money too badly to say no.
That had been three months ago. For some time after their arrival aboard the Delphis’ capital city, it had appeared the diplomats would resolve the dispute. A week earlier, however, the Alliance ambassador had broken off negotiations. The New Philadelphia high command had also received reports that the Alliance fleet had sortied.
New Philadelphia responded by launching their own fleet. They had sent ships east along the North Temperate Belt flyway to interpose themselves between New Philadelphia’s three cities and the Alliance. Their presence there was both a challenge and a warning. While it would be a simple matter for the Alliance to bypass the Delphi flagship and her covey of fusion powered aircraft, to do so would leave their own cities open to attack. If they were serious about annexing New Philadelphia, they would first have to seek out the New Philadelphia fleet and destroy it. The Delphis hoped to inflict enough damage that the Alliance would lose interest and go home.
As SparrowHawk came westward, it didn’t take long for New Philadelphia’s massive flagship to materialize out of the blue haze of distance. Delphi was an anachronism, a machine from out of another time and place. It was a dirigible, a giant gasbag half-a-kilometer in length whose whale shape traced its ancestry back to the earliest flying machines. Large stabilizers sprouted from the airship’s stern, while the bow was a blunt curve that sliced the wind with minimum resistance. Behind the great dirigible roiled a long streamer of disturbed air that marked the flagship’s exhaust. And where cargo hatches had once been, there were now weapons locks, long range sensors, and sally ports.
Heavier than hydrogen craft like SparrowHawk had their uses, but eventually, they had to land. The giant lighter-than-hydrogen dirigibles like Delphi provided them with a place to set down. Like the ancient aircraft carriers of Earth, they were the roving bases from which the smaller craft launched their attacks. But like those earlier behemoths, the flagship was a fragile construct. It depended on its squadrons for protection.
"Attention, All Ships! Enemy craft sighted. Fifteen hundred kilometers at ninety degrees. All craft form up on Avadon. Prepare to attack!"
Lars glanced once at Halley. The voice was that of Commodore Kraken, the Delphi commander. A flurry of orders came over the command circuit from Dane as the battle center of the flagship came alive. Lars looped SparrowHawk well behind Delphi in order to take his place in the defensive line. There were twenty-one New Philadelphia craft in all. Eighteen of these were assigned to intercept the intruders and to drive them back.
"Everyone tied down?" he asked over his intercom.
SparrowHawk’s four crewmen checked in. Ross Crandall was attending the ship’s fire control computer. Brent Garvich and Hume Bailey were at weapons stations, while Kelvor Reese monitored the ship’s auxiliary systems.
When the squadron defending Delphi had formed up, they accelerated to two thousand kilometers per hour. Even at that speed, they had not exceeded sonic velocity in Saturn’s hydrogen-helium atmosphere.
The two fleets closed to maximum range and began their first cautious probings of one anothers formations. In the thick atmosphere, lasers were limited to short range. Thus, the sky was filled with missiles as ships launched at their distant adversaries. Within seconds, individual sparks of light began to appear as enemy missiles came within laser range and were blotted from the sky.
The two dozen Alliance ships bored in to engage the mixed privateer/Delphi force. The two fleets interpenetrated. Within seconds, the sky was filled with twisting, turning ships that stabbed at one another in a deadly dance.
The Alliance drew first blood as they blasted the wing off one of the Delphi customs craft. Sands watched as the small vessel healed over and began its long dive toward the invisible hydrogen sea two thousand kilometers below. There was no fire because there is no oxygen in Saturn’s atmosphere to support combustion. While he watched, a small object separated from the single seat fighter and grew into a silver balloon with a tiny figure suspended beneath it.
Assured that the pilot had gotten out, Lars went back to the battle. The next two craft to take hits belonged to the Alliance. One of their prowlers was struck amidships by a missile that exploded it. The rain of parts was such that Sands doubted anyone had survived. The second ship, a larger destroyer, took a missile in its reactor spaces. The results were less spectacular, but sufficient to cause it to withdraw.
"We’re winning!" Halley exclaimed after she launched a missile that was destroyed by laser fire scant meters from its target. Even though vaporized, the cloud of molten drops splattered across the wing surfaces of its target, causing it to follow its wounded companion east.
"They’re not as strong as we were led to believe," Lars said through gritted teeth.
Another Delphi ship died within the next few seconds, along with one of the larger Alliance craft. By now the dogfight was spread across so much sky that SparrowHawk appeared alone. The only nearby ship was a single seat Alliance fighter. Sands bore in as his opponent attempted to flee. His concentration was broken by a sudden cry for help.
"Attention All Ships! This is Delphi. We are under attack. The group you have engaged is a diversion. The main fleet is here. All ships to us!
"Damn!" Sands exclaimed. A high gee turn transformed the curse into an unintelligible grunt. Once lined up to the west, he advanced his throttles to emergency maximum and felt SparrowHawk leap forward.
"What’s your situation, Dane?" he asked over his private command circuit.
Dane’s face was wide eyed as he came on the screen. Lars didn’t know when he’d seen his brother so frightened.
"They came out of the cloud wall, Lars! Nearly thirty of them. They’re boring in on the flagship. Our combat air patrol has gone out to meet them. We’re running west as fast as we can. I don’t think we’re going to make it."
"We’re on our way."
"Hurry, damn it!"
"How many others are with us?" Lars asked Halley.
She made a quick sensor survey of the sky. She noted six other craft with the green New Philadelphia icon. There were a dozen enemy vessels behind them. The rest of the Delphi fleet was still engaged and unable to break free.
"We should have known something was wrong. No one sends a two dozen ships to attack a city."
"Do you think Dane’s in danger?" Halley asked, horror suddenly creeping into her voice.
"I think we’re all in danger," he replied grimly.
As they rocketed through the sky, Halley put up the long-range scanner display. What they saw sent a chill through Sands. A swarm of red icons was being opposed by three green while the flagship symbol attempted to flee. The defending New Philadelphia craft lasted only a few seconds before fluttering into the depths. They left twenty-eight intact Alliance craft free to swarm around Delphi.
"That’s it," he said as the Alliance fleet reached the flagship. "Kraken will have to surrender now."
Almost as though the commodore had heard Sands’s comment, the call went out. The two privateers listened gloomily as the New Philadelphia commander struck his colors. One part of Sands was saddened by the loss, another part relieved. Dane would be interned for a while, but would eventually be freed. There was no reason for the Alliance to harm captured privateers.
"Let’s get away from here," he ordered Halley. "We don’t want to be interned, too."
Ahead of them, the flagship was just coming out of the blue. It was still so distant that they could not see the smaller Alliance ships darting around it. Lars was about to turn away when the first bright flash appeared on the upper surface of the dirigible.
"What the hell?"
"They’re attacking!" Halley screamed. "They’re not accepting the surrender."
"Stand by," Lars ordered. "We’re going in."
It was impossible for SparrowHawk to move any faster. Despite its headlong speed through the thick atmosphere, it seemed they were barely moving as two more missiles impacted the flagship. Sands watched in horror as the dirigible split open like a ripe grape. With the central gasbag holed and the hot hydrogen spilled to the surrounding atmosphere, the ship was unable to support its own weight. It sagged in the middle, then broke in two as its keel snapped. The stern section, burdened by heavy drive reactors, began immediately to drop toward the distant cloud floor of the flyway. Freed of the weight of the stern, the bow bounced upward as men and machinery tumbled out through the gaping hole in the midsection.
It was then that Sands realized the attack had been no mistake. The bow section was obviously helpless as it rose out of control. Yet, the Alliance ships pressed their attack. More explosions rent the forward gasbags and the bow lost its lift. It, too, foundered and then started on a long downward spiral.
Larson Sands screamed in rage as he watched the calculated cold bloodedness of the attack. Dane was in the forward combat center. Every missile hit was like a knife into his own ribs. No longer was the Alliance shooting at a dangerous enemy craft. Honest battle had been transformed into the murder of helpless men and women.
SparrowHawk reached the Alliance fleet and launched every missile in her depleted magazines. The desperation attack took the Alliance by surprise. Three ships that had been vectored to intercept the surviving New Philadelphia craft were smashed. The resulting gap allowed SparrowHawk free passage through their defense line. The arrival of the rest of the New Philadelphia fleet kept the other Alliance ships too busy to pursue.
Sands dove for the falling flagship remnant, heedless of the pain in his ears as cabin pressure increased with each kilometer of altitude lost. It began to grow warm as well. By the time SparrowHawk overtook the bow section, Delphi had plunged twenty kilometers, yet was still under attack. With no missiles in his magazines, Sands ordered his weapons crews to slash at the marauders with defensive lasers.
The initial attack on Delphi had been centered on the dirigible’s upper surface in order to dump the hot hydrogen that buoyed the ship. Since most of Delphi’s lifeboats were housed atop the gasbag, these were destroyed in the first seconds. Still, there was the possibility that individual crewmen might yet bail out. Sands kept SparrowHawk in a tight circle around the falling bow as he watched intently for the silver balloons of survivors. As the pressure and temperature continued to mount, the Alliance ships broke off the fight and climbed for the safety of the upper atmosphere. SparrowHawk continued its plunge alongside the doomed flagship.
"Come on, Dane! Get out!" Sands muttered to himself through clenched teeth as he kept one eye on the dirigible and another on the pressure readout. Beside him, Halley sobbed quietly. Sands’s universe narrowed to exclude everything but the falling airship until Ross Crandall’s growl came over the intercom.
"For God’s sake, Lars, break off! Cooking us won’t help Dane."
Lars glanced once more at the outside temperature readout. Then, with his own sob, he pulled back on his controller and sent the ship into a flat circle. They didn’t gain altitude, but they weren’t losing any either. For the next minute, he watched as Delphi’s remains sank lower and lower. Finally, it disappeared into the cloud floor of the North Temperate Belt. As Sands scanned the sky, nowhere could he see the silver sphere of a rescue balloon.
He looked at Halley, who was staring at him. There was horror behind the glistening tears in her eyes. Suddenly, Sands felt an emptiness greater than any he had ever known.
"I’m sorry, Halley. He’s gone."
His comment was answered by nothing save the rushing hydrogen wind beyond the hull.