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The Road of Danger: Chapter Twenty
Last updated: Friday, March 16, 2012 19:33 EDT
Halta City on Cremona
“I don’t see that a wicker cage would add significant weight,” Adele said as she pulled the cord firmly. The elevator groaned to a halt. The cable was wound on a drum, as she had expected, but the teeth of the gears driving the drum were each the size of her thumbs.
“Brock will ride it more than anyone else,” Tovera said as they stepped off the platform. “If he wants to kill himself, why should anyone care?”
She paused and added, “Or kill the boy. Who isn’t my type.”
Tovera’s face was deadpan. Of course her only two expressions were that deadpan–and a grin that would etch glass.
Brock’s secretary had been waiting in a folding chair leaned against the shaded west end of the so-called penthouse. As the elevator trembled to a halt he got to his feet and executed a very respectable bow.
“The boss told me to send you through and then stay out of the way,” the young man said. “We also serve who only stand and wait, I like to say. Or sit and wait, in this case.”
He opened the door; Adele bobbed her head to acknowledge the courtesy, making a mental note to learn more about the secretary. He was certainly more than he had seemed initially.
The partition between the inner and outer offices had been removed, turning the penthouse into a single long room. Brock was at his desk. The three partners who owned Santina Warehousing, and the Cortons–husband and wife–who owned Loeser Brothers, sat behind the two folding tables which had been set up facing the doorway.
“Mistress Hrynko or whatever your name is,” Brock said, “you know my colleagues since you’ve talked to them too. We decided to handle this together, instead of you dicking around from one of us to the next.”
“I’m glad to see you all,” Adele said, taking the straight chair which had been left for her beside the door. Sitting, she placed her data unit on her lap and brought up its display. “Will you tell me your decision, please?”
This whole business was mummery. She knew that the outfitters had agreed to the loan on her terms and knew also that they would be together in Brock’s office when she arrived this morning.
Her tendency as a librarian was to lay all her information out immediately. The intelligence mindset to which she had been exposed if not trained in demanded that she conceal her sources and methods so that she could continue to use them.
In the end Adele had pretended to be ignorant, not because she was thinking like a spy but because she was Mundy of Chatsworth. Esme Rolfe Mundy would have been distressed to learn that her daughter was boasting of her skills–and to a gathering of tradesmen besides!
Adele felt her mouth twitch into a hint of a smile. Her mother had lived in a very simple, black and white, world. To a considerable degree, that two-value logic carried Adele through life as well. It wasn’t so very different from Daniel’s, “Cinnabar, right or wrong!” attitude, after all.
“We’ll subscribe the loan,” Brock said, looking across the line of his fellows. “On your terms.”
“We should get at least another point of interest for the risk, though!” said Addersheim. He glared at Adele, then at Brock. He had started thirty years before as Santina’s accountant and still looked the part, though he was now the senior partner.
“As I said, Lady Hrynko,” Brock said wearily. “On your terms.”
Addersheim muttered something, only half-audible and not a word anyway. Adele knew from her electronic eavesdropping that he hadn’t been able to convince even his two partners that they should press the point: they and the other outfitters understood that this was not a normal business transaction.
He’s the sort who would refuse to open the ammunition locker during a surprise attack unless he were given the correct authorization, Adele thought as she looked at the accountant.
She was more amused than not by the situation, but when Addersheim met her eyes again he started back. Well, she couldn’t help it if people misread her expressions. They tended to misunderstand her words also, despite the fact–or perhaps because of it–that she was extremely precise in picking the words she used.
Aloud she said, “Since you’re all in agreement, I propose that each firm now transfer its portion of the loan to an account under my control at the Venture Bank of Cremona. I chose the Venture Bank because you all have accounts there already.”
That was true, but it was one of two reasons. Unusually for this region, the Venture Bank had links with Cinnabar rather than with one of the Alliance core worlds. Adele doubted that it mattered, but she had made this choice in case it did.
It was very possible that Speaker Leary, the man who had ordered the massacre of the Mundy family, was the bank’s ultimate backer. Well, Adele herself kept her now-considerable prize money account in a Leary bank also. It paid a good rate of interest to RCN officers.
Brock looked at his fellows, shrugged, and said, “I have no objection.”
Mistress Corton was three years older than her husband and had provided the money for the purchase of Loeser Brothers. According to Cazelet, Master Corton made all the business decisions though his wife was the public face of the company.
Now she leaned forward and stared piercingly at Adele. Instead of answering Brock’s implied question, she said, “You’ve already bought ships and hired the crews, even though you think we don’t know that. What were you going to do if we refused to give in to your extortion?”
What a remarkably stupid person you are, mistress, Adele thought. Aloud she said, “Members of my staff have negotiated to purchase and crew a pair of small freighters, but the discussions weren’t secret. All the drafts we’ve written are contingent on there being money in the account, of course.”
She coughed to get a moment to think. How would Daniel handle this? Very possibly by sweeping the woman into his arms and kissing her. Adele couldn’t see the utility in adopting that course herself.
“As experienced businesspeople…,” she said, trying to smile. “I think the increase in your profits from the elimination of the Estremadura should be obvious.”
That was literally true. The statement didn’t imply that Adele thought Mistress Corton would see it, or even that she would be able to put on a tunic right-side to in the morning without help.
“Look, let’s move on,” Brock said. His fists were clenched and he deliberately stared toward the outside door so that he didn’t let his eyes fall on Mistress Corton. “Yes, we’ll transfer the funds now and be done with it.”
He turned to his console. Addersheim and Master Corton brought out personal data units not very different from Adele’s own.
Adele glanced at her own display. A pulsing red alert signal suffused it, then coalesced into the words–in block letters and still red–Emergency! Gunmen have captured your car!
“Stop!” Adele said to the startled outfitters. That probably confused them more than it warned them, but a part of Adele’s upbringing demanded that she not take money under false pretences. Whatever was going on outside, it certainly changed the circumstances under which she had negotiated the loan.
She had several options, but she chose to activate the active sound cancellation field and communicate by voice. The little data unit’s capability didn’t compare to that of her console on the Sissie, but it would do for now.
“Go ahead,” Adele said. She was focused on the display, but she was vaguely conscious that Tovera had stepped in front of her in case one of the outfitters was able to read lips.
“Mistress,” said Cory, “you need to get out now. There wasn’t any trouble at first because they didn’t think you’d get the loans, but now that it looks like you did, there’s a dozen or more interests that’ve gotten together to stop you.”
Adele was looking at the data which the Princess Cecile streamed to her. Cazelet was probably responsible for that, since Cory was talking.
“There’s naval and military officers and politicians, afraid of the power Lady Hrynko is getting,” Cory continued. “There’s some investors in the Estremadura, and the leader’s one of the Friends, a big man here, a fellow named Mangravite. There’s a gang, half a dozen gangs, on the way to the Wartburg warehouse now, but the first bunch already grabbed your aircar. Over!”
Adele expanded the map to fill her display; Cazelet had also included nodules with background data on each of the parties involved in this alliance against her. The tiny bead representing her location at the Wartburg Company was a mile and a half from the corvette’s berth in the harbor.
If the aircar had been available, the only risk if they left now would have been an accident caused by Tovera’s overly precise driving. As it was–
The disorganized nature of the attack worked in her enemies’ favor: red beads scaled to the degree of threat were approaching along all the routes leading to the warehouse. The force leaving the Sissie–a very large blue bead–would be able to shoot its way through any of them, but not quickly on the streets of an unfamiliar city.
“Yes, all right,” Adele said. “We’ll meet you on the way.”
She shut down the cancellation field and rose. Tovera stepped aside; she was holding her small sub-machine gun openly. The expressions of the Santina and Loeser representatives ranged from uncertain to terrified, but Brock was merely guarded. His right hand was below the surface of his desk.
“Master Brock,” Adele said. “Can you drive one of the trucks at your loading dock now?”
“Yeah, if it’s any of your business,” Brock said. The growl in his voice wasn’t anger. “I can. Going to tell me what this is all about?”
“People are coming here to kill me,” Adele said. “The leader is a man named Mangravite. You will drive me and my aide to the harbor, if you please, which will also lead most of the attackers away from your warehouse. From my reading of Master Mangravite, he’s hoping to eliminate one–”
She glanced at the other outfitters, ignoring their gabble.
“–or several of his rivals in the process.”
“That bastard,” Brock said, rising to his feet. He dropped the shoulder holster and thrust the long pistol he had taken from his desk under his belt. “I’ll give him process.”
He strode through the door; Tovera was last in the short line. Outside stood the secretary, holding a shotgun that had been out of sight when Adele arrived.
“Grampa?” he said, alarmed but not frightened. Brock didn’t exclude him from the meeting. He was on guard outside.
“Organize the crews,” Brock said. “It seems we’re going to have visitors. There’s guns in the locker for the ones who can use them, but have Busoni decide who to trust.”
“I’m coming along!” the youth said.
“You bloody well aren’t,” said Brock as he reached from the elevator control. He took up as much room as Adele and Tovera together. “And try not to get killed! Somebody’s got to run this company if I buy the farm, and it’s not your bloody father!”
The elevator squealed downward. Adele put her data unit away and took the pistol from her pocket.
All things considered, the situation was rather better than it had seemed to be a minute ago.
Kotzebue on Sunbright
“I hope you don’t mind staying outside,” said Freedom as he hopped over the ditch in which Daniel had been watching the deceptively predatory fish. “Riely’s office reminds me of a prison cell. I don’t need an early experience of that.”
Daniel had been surprised to find that he and the rebel leader were pretty much of an age. The latter was slim and an inch taller than Daniel’s five-foot nine; he looked fit but not athletic.
“You’re in charge, sir,” Daniel said. “But regardless, I prefer to be outdoors myself.”
Kidlinger and four of his troops were following closely; the driver and the other pair were with the vehicle in front. Rather too closely, it seemed to Daniel, and apparently not only to him.
Freedom turned and snapped, “Keep your distance if you please, Captain. You are not cleared for some of the information which Lieutenant Pensett has brought for me.”
Freedom sat on a dry irrigation conduit mounted on knee-high posts; he started to pull off his loose coveralls. Underneath he wore a plain shirt with trousers and a matching jacket. It was the outfit of an office worker anywhere in the Alliance or the Cinnabar empire.
Daniel, working the coveralls over Freedom’s ankle boots, looked at him and said, “I’m surprised to meet you, sir. That is, surprised by the person I’m meeting.”
The other man laughed humorlessly. “Do you doubt I’m who I said I am?” he asked. “Perhaps I should have business cards printed? Freedom, Revolutions a Specialty. Address: the Wilderness, Sunbright.”
Daniel laughed also, but without the bitterness. He sat beside Freedom and reached into his cargo pocket.
“Riely and Kidlinger both vouch for you,” he said, bringing out the document case and giving it to the rebel leader. “Given that they don’t seem to care for one another very much, I’ll accept their joint identification.”
He paused and added with a grin to take the edge off the truth, “I wouldn’t mind seeing the back of Captain Kidlinger myself.”
Freedom opened the document case, proving that his DNA matched the lock settings. That implied that the case could be used to identify the rebel leader. Daniel knew how to engage the self-destruct mode already–the case was RCN standard, after all–but the Chief should have emphasized the necessity of doing so if there were danger of it falling into Alliance hands.
Of course, it might be that the Chief didn’t care about the safety of any of the pawns in the game he was playing. Daniel was starting to figure out what that game was.
Instead of putting the chips into a reader–or using the one built into the case–Freedom looked at Daniel and said, “You’re from Cinnabar itself, aren’t you, Pensett?”
“Yessir,” Daniel said. “From the west coast.”
The real Kirby Pensett had been born in the Eastern Highlands. From things he had said when they were drinking in the same group of an evening, he had joined the RCN in the hope that it was send him only to planets where there were no words for “sheep” or “wool.”
Daniel thought he was better off lying about his character’s background than he would be trying to affect a Highlands accent. Besides, it was unlikely that a rebel on Sunbright had access to the amount of background information on RCN officers that the puppet master on Madison did.
Freedom absently tapped the single chip nested in the open case. He looked at Daniel and said, “This will be a list of weapons purchased, where they’ll be landed, and the amount of rice which must be exchanged for them. So that we can move the anti-ship batteries into place as needed.”
He gestured toward the center of Kotzebue, where the mobile battery sat adjacent to the makeshift landing field. The triple launcher wasn’t visible from where they sat, but Daniel had examined it through the Savoy‘s optics while they waited for the plasma-heated ground to cool enough to open the hatch.
Nothing less rugged than a starship could stay airborne in the hail of automatic impeller slugs which Kotzebue could throw up. In theory ships of the Funnel Squadron could sweep in low from several directions and overwhelm the missile defenses too.
In practice, the entirety of Kotzebue wasn’t worth a single starship. Taking a risk of losing three ships in a matter of seconds if the battery crew knew what it was doing would be insane.
“It doesn’t matter who provides the rice, which battalion or company or gang, you see,” Freedom said. “I’m the face of the revolution, but there isn’t really a leader. Or perhaps money is the leader. Money’s become the god of the revolution!”
Daniel didn’t speak. Freedom’s train of thought was seemed to be going in a very useful direction already.
“I asked if you were from Cinnabar, Pensett,” Freedom said, suddenly sharp again. It was like watching a gleaming fish leap up from the Slough of Despair. “Does Cinnabar support the revolution on Sunbright? Be honest! Don’t worry about what I want to hear.”
Unlike Adele, Daniel wasn’t above shading the truth–or even of throwing a heavy drape over the truth and beating it with a stick, if the girl was pretty enough. He didn’t see any cause to have done that here, however. And besides–
I don’t have the faintest idea of what you want to hear, Master Freedom, he thought.
Aloud he said, “No sir. To the best of my knowledge, Cinnabar does not support your revolution. By ‘Cinnabar’ I mean the Senate, of course. If you mean ‘public opinion on Cinnabar’ you’ll have to ask someone who knows or cares more about public opinion than I do. Than most RCN officers do, I should say.”
“It’s because of the massacres, isn’t it?” Freedom said, leaning toward Daniel and speaking with the intensity of a prophet. “You think we rebels are nothing but brutal butchers, and it horrifies you!”
Daniel tilted slightly away from the rebel leader. That was an unconscious reaction to the sort of ideological enthusiasm that had always made him uncomfortable; an attitude he had absorbed from his father without being aware of it.
“Sir,” Daniel said, “you’re asking if the Senate disapproves of your rebellion on moral grounds. No sir, it does not.”
He took a deep breath and went on, “I cannot think of a case in which I believe the Senate made a moral judgment. Personally, I wouldn’t encourage it to do such a thing, not that my political lords and masters would be interested in my opinion. The true reasoning behind the Senate’s position as I understand it–”
He shrugged and turned his palms upward, making clear his admission of his limited knowledge.
“–is that Cinnabar wants peace with the Alliance. Not out of altruism or philosophical conviction, but because the costs of decades of war have come very near to ruining the Republic.”
“The Senators aren’t horrified by all this?” Freedom said with a toss of his hand. He could have been gesturing in the direction of the pole to which hands were nailed, but Daniel suspected his intention was to indicate the whole planet. “You aren’t horrified?”
The reference to the Senate was presumably rhetorical, but the personal question was not. Daniel pressed his palms together, as though he were clapping in slow motion. Then he looked up and said, “Sir, that’s like asking me if I like the taste of purple. I’m an RCN officer, trained to consider my present environment tactically. Any present environment. If I were studying this–”
He made a gesture which was deliberately similar to Freedom’s.
“–in Xenos, in a history course, I’d look at causes and results, but I still wouldn’t be …. Sir, I’m a military officer.”
“Well, I’m horrified, Pensett,” Freedom said. He got to his feet and thrust his hands into his tunic pockets.
Two of Kidlinger’s soldiers stood ten yards away, between the irrigation pipe and the hills over which the aircar had arrived. When they stiffened in surprise, one started to topple from the planting mound he’d been standing on. He had to hop to get his balance.
“Get back!” Freedom said. “Damn you, didn’t–”
He spun suddenly and pointed his right arm at Kidlinger, who waited near the building with his remaining troops. “You, Kidlinger!” he said. “Get your buffoons out of here, back onto your truck or the street or somewhere that I don’t see them!”
“Sir, I can’t risk–” the dapper officer began.
“Get them out of my sight or I’ll declare you an outlaw!” Freedom said. “Do you understand? I’ll double the price for the outgoing payload to the unit that takes your head. Do you doubt me?”
“Reyes, Ignacio!” Kidlinger called. His voice was controlled, but there was just enough fear in it to show that he did understand. “Get back to the truck now!”
He bowed and said, “I’ll be waiting against the wall of the house when you need me, sir.”
Freedom watched him for a moment, then sat again on the pipe and patted the place beside him where Daniel had been sitting a moment before. Daniel grinned and took the seat. Their backs were to Kidlinger and the town; before them, the hills softened with the approach of sunset.
“Alliance rule was a evil thing,” the rebel said softly. “At best it would have been burdensome to people who had generally kept themselves to themselves, but Governor Blaskett is a brute: a thief and worse. When he can’t coerce a respectable woman into his bed by threat or lead her there by bribes, he sends troops to drag her from her house.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir,” Daniel said.
That was true, but the practical reality was that backwaters tended to get administrators who couldn’t be trusted anywhere more significant. He had seen that the quality of some of the fellows sent out from Xenos wasn’t a great deal higher.
Freedom didn’t respond immediately, leaving Daniel to wonder if he should have held his tongue. It was hard to tell how one was supposed to react to a statement like that about people you–and probably the person speaking–have never met.
“I don’t care about what happens to Cinnabar or the Alliance either one,” Freedom blurted. “If two gangs of exploiters want to bludgeon each other to death, let them. I care about the simple, decent farmers of Sunbright who were being crushed by injustice!”
“Go on,” Daniel said. He nodded, his face expressionless.
The peasants of Bantry weren’t simple. They had different tastes in art from those of rich city folk, and they didn’t talk much about philosophy, but the years Daniel had spent in the closest contact with Hogg didn’t allow him to say that he understood his servant; just that he could often predict what Hogg would say or do. As for decent–
He grinned broadly. For a moment he didn’t care what the rebel leader thought about his expression.
–that was a matter of definition. But they’d back each other against outsiders and back the Squire no matter how hard things got, and that was good enough for a Bantryman like Daniel Leary.
Freedom was so lost in his own problems that Daniel might not have gotten a reaction if he’d stuck his thumbs in his ears and waggled his fingers. “But it all went wrong,” the rebel said miserably. “We didn’t take Saal immediately as I’d hoped, but the rest went to plan. We took most of the planet like water soaking into a cloth. Blaskett couldn’t stop us, and Pleasaunce couldn’t send him more troops in the middle of war with Cinnabar.”
He raised his hands, apparently gesturing to an unseen audience. “I thought it was just a matter of time before the Alliance evacuated Saal and the people of Sunbright could work out their own destiny!”
“Instead Saal held out,” Daniel said. That was a foregone conclusion when disorganized militia faced regular troops in prepared positions. The first rush might have succeeded, but when it didn’t, the chances of a rebel military victory evaporated. “And the armed bands that you’d created found that it was easier to take the rice themselves rather than to fight Alliance soldiers in pillboxes. Before long, most of your forces were mercenaries or opportunists, I suspect.”
“It was worse than that,” Freedom said. He was a healthy, well-fed young man, but Daniel had seen prisoners in labor camps who looked less wretched. “And I didn’t set up all the bands, but I made them possible, yes. Don’t think I don’t know that.”
He met Daniel’s eyes. He said, “Brutes have become warlords, and the farmers are slaves. I wanted to get rid of Blaskett, but I’ve created a hundred Blasketts, and each one is worse than the one before. And there’s nothing I can do!”
Daniel considered the situation. Freedom’s political naivety startled him, though not in itself: he had learned about practical politics in his cradle as the son of Speaker Leary, but he understood that most people didn’t have such a background.
The surprise was that this young innocent, Daniel would have said, had done such a brilliant job of setting off the rebellion. The fact that Freedom hadn’t understood what he was doing didn’t detract from the skill with which he had done it. And even now, without Freedom’s coordination, government forces should be able recover Sunbright with the modest increase in forces which the Treaty of Amiens made possible.
“Sir?” Daniel said. “You’re confirming what I was told aboard the blockade runner that brought me here. But I think Sunbright will settle down if you leave; and anyway, you won’t have to watch it get worse. It certainly will get worse, I’m afraid, if you continue to direct the rebellion. You’re really very good at it, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“I can’t leave,” Freedom said. He sounded as though he had just announced that his infant son was terminally ill. “Don’t think I wouldn’t have done that, but–”
He jerked his head backward without actually turning to face or point toward Captain Kidlinger.
“–I’m never alone when I’m around ships. Except in Saal, I mean. The blockade runners only land where they’ll be protected by the missile batteries, so the gangs are always around. Even if I could convince a ship captain to take me aboard, the gangs trading with them wouldn’t permit it. I’m pretty sure that they’d kill me and hide my body rather than let the government use me for propaganda against them.”
He grimaced. “Kidlinger would kill me,” he said. “He’d like to kill me now, I think, but he still imagines that he can rule Sunbright some day.”
Daniel smiled wryly. He had expected the rebel leader to produce some altruistic reason why he couldn’t abandon “his suffering people” here on Sunbright. Daniel wasn’t an expert on accents like Adele, but he’d give odds that Freedom’s voice still carried a hint of an upper-class Xenos drawl.
Aloud he said, “You mentioned Saal, sir. Can you get into the city?”
Freedom looked at him. He said, “Can you get me off planet, Lieutenant Pensett?”
“If you can get into Saal, sir,” Daniel said, “I think I should be able to arrange something. I gather you can?”
“Yes,” said Freedom. With sudden decision, he said, “Pensett, I’m going to tell you something that nobody else on this planet knows. My name is Tomas Grant, and I’m the Field Supervisor of the Saal Water Department.”
A deputy department head would have access to the main governmental database… and if that deputy was a little more computer savvy than most of his municipal peers, it explained how the Sunbright rebels had gathered such extremely good intelligence from the start of the rebellion.
Daniel smiled slowly. Freedom–Grant–looked as stiff as if he were tied to a post to wait for the firing party.
“Fair is fair, Master Grant,” Daniel said. “My real name is Daniel Leary. I’m an RCN captain on active duty, and I’m here to get you safely off Sunbright. I have a reputation for carrying out my assignments.”
That was a case of Daniel shading the truth. His orders said nothing about keeping Freedom safe. But he was Captain Daniel Leary, and by now his superiors should be expecting him to exceed his orders.
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