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- "The Clouds of Saturn" by Don Dixon
(c) 1997, All Rights Reserved
When the sun flared out of control and boiled Earth's
oceans, humanity took refuge in a place that few would have predicted. In
the greatest migration in history, the entire human race took up residence among
the towering clouds and deep clear-air canyons of Saturn's upper
atmosphere. Having survived the traitor star, they returned to the
all-too-human tradition of internecine strife. The new city-states of
Saturn began to resemble those of ancient Greece, with one group of cities
taking on the role of militaristic Sparta ...
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The Clouds of Saturn!
-- An Excerpt
The Battle Of New Philadelphia
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
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
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
"Understood," Lars said. "We’re
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
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
"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
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
The two fleets closed to maximum range and began
their first cautious probings of one another’s 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
"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
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
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
"What the hell?"
"They’re attacking!" Halley screamed.
"They’re not accepting the surrender."
"Stand by," Lars ordered. "We’re
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
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
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
"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
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.
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Page was last edited on
11/11/10 04:29:02 PM