|Previous Page||Next Page|
|Home Page||Index Page|
The Road of Danger: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Sunday, December 11, 2011 01:14 EST
Ashetown on Madison
Daniel raised his hand to the barman and pointed to the beer pitcher. It wasn’t empty, but he took care of that problem by splitting the remaining contents between his mug and Hogg’s.
“It tastes like dog piss,” Hogg muttered. He lowered the level in his mug with a series of deliberate gulps.
The barman nodded to Daniel, but he was waiting with a quart of whiskey in his hand while the trio of locals at the bar agreed on which of them would pay for the round. Hogg and Daniel were at the rearmost of the four small tables; the pair of hookers at the front table had made a desultory try, but Daniel’s curt, “Not now!” and a glance at Hogg’s face had stopped them in their tracks.
“Well, I don’t know, Hogg,” Daniel said. “It’s not up to our Bantry Brown Ale, I’ll agree, but it seems to me to have plenty of kick.”
He took a swig and rolled it around his mouth. In a judicious tone he went on, “I don’t have any experience with dog piss, of course. That I remember. I’ll admit that there’ve been mornings that I woke up and really wondered what I’d been drinking.”
Hogg half-lifted his mug to drain it again, then set it down. He looked fiercely across the table.
“Look!” he said. “We can joke and tie one on, even on this dishwater the wogs here sell for beer, and we can say it’ll all be fine. But it won’t be fine, young master. Unless you’ve figured out a way not to sleep for what? Seven days running? Maybe ten? If you go to sleep, you’re not going to reach Cremona alive and that bastard Petrov won’t even pretend it was an accident. Why should he? And you know I’m right!”
The bartender started filling a fresh pitcher. Daniel sipped, then drank deeply and met his servant’s eyes. “Hogg,” he said, “there’s risk and I know there’s risk. But I don’t know a better way to carry out my orders. It’s my duty.”
“Well, it’s not bloody worth your life!” Hogg said.
Daniel shrugged. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe I ought to settle down on Bantry and be the squire. I could buy the estate through Deirdre, I’m sure. I don’t have any better use for my prize money. Is that what you want me to do, Hogg?”
“What bloody difference does it make?” Hogg said angrily. “You’re not going to do that, whatever I tell you. And you’d go off your chump in six months with just a bunch of yokels to talk to.”
He snorted. “Same as I would,” he added, “after all we’ve seen these past years.”
Four spacers came in the front door. “I’ll be with you in a moment, gents,” the bartender said. He set down the fresh pitcher and swept up the three local coins–pistoles with square holes in the center–which Hogg had set out. Daniel had realized ruefully when they sat down that he had only Cinnabar florins in his purse.
“Look, maybe if you work on Lindstrom–” Hogg said.
The spacers in front of the bar carried lengths of tubing or steel reinforcing rod. Another man entered from the back alley and stood in the doorway. Peter Petrov, and he’s carrying a solar-charging laser from the Savoy‘s cargo.
“No, Hogg!” Daniel said, grabbing his servant’s right wrist and pinning it to the tabletop. His eyes were on Petrov. “No, no trouble now.”
“That’s right, no trouble,” Petrov said. He was holding the laser waist-high as though it were the nozzle of a fire hose. “Our little Cinnabar friend here has decided he doesn’t want to go to Cremona after all, and he’s coming into the alley with us so that we can explain why.”
The bartender had tensed to get back behind the bar where he probably had a weapon. He would have had to push through the spacers with clubs to get there; instead he moved into the back corner behind the tables. The whores had retreated to the other corner.
“And if anybody gets bright ideas, I’ll toast him good with this!” Petrov said, his voice rising as he slapped his weapon’s eight-inch lens with the palm of his left hand. “You better hope I don’t trigger it in here, because it’ll light this whole place like a pile of straw!”
The business end of the laser was a foot-long cylindrical mirror array which multiplied the pulse twelve hundred times before releasing it toward the target. The charging panel unfolded from the stock. The lasers were better for hunting than for military use, but their power and the fact that they didn’t need to be supplied with ammunition made them useful for sniping and the sort of hit-and-run attacks that rebels were likely to make.
“I’m sure we can discuss this like officers and gentlemen,” Daniel said, keeping his fingers on his servant’s wrist as he stood up. “Hogg, stay here till Captain Petrov and I sort this out, please.”
He tried to sound casual, but he could hear his voice tremble. That was all right, because Petrov would take the rush of adrenalin as meaning Daniel was afraid.
“That’s right, hobby!” Petrov crowed. “You stay right where you are or you’ll be a real crispy critter!”
The four men with clubs were presumably the Savoy‘s crew. They seemed hesitant, but Daniel didn’t doubt that they’d pound him within an inch of his life–or beyond–if only because they were afraid of Petrov’s laser.
He walked toward the door, smiling pleasantly. Keeping the laser aimed at Daniel’s midriff, Petrov backed ahead of him into the alley. He didn’t appear to be concerned by his victim’s attitude. The crewmen followed, bumping over an empty table.
The alley was paved, but the surface was covered with filth which had accumulated since the most recent rainstorm washed the previous load into the harbor. None of the businesses on this section of the waterfront bothered with a latrine. There was no street light, but illumination scattered from the Harborfront and quays where vessels were loading made it brighter than the bar’s interior.
“Now you just stand there, kiddo, and–” Petrov said.
Daniel stepped forward, grasping the laser just behind the mirror array. Petrov pulled the trigger; nothing happened.
“Hey!” Petrov said.
Daniel kicked him in the crotch. Petrov doubled up in pain, and Daniel pulled the weapon away.
Taking the stock with both hands, Daniel clubbed Petrov over the head. There was a loud bong! and the laser array deformed. The mirrors were polished metal, but nobody was going to be using this weapon again except as a club.
Daniel turned to the crewmen. They stood shocked and open-mouthed.
Hogg stepped out of the bar behind them. He held a pistol in his left hand and a knife with a knuckle-duster hilt in his right.
Daniel was gasping and his muscles trembled. “Drop those bloody clubs!” he said in a shrill voice.
Hogg called the crewmen’s attention to his pistol by firing into the coping of the building across the alley. There was a crack from the electromotive pulse and a crunching hammer blow as the osmium pellet blew a chunk of concrete into gravel.
One spacer screamed; the rest threw themselves on the pavement. The fellow who screamed continued to hold his length of pipe, but his legs slowly gave way; he slumped to his knees.
“Pushing your luck, wouldn’t you say, young master?” Hogg said in a conversational voice. He walked through the groveling spacers. The man whose hand he stepped on whimpered but didn’t try to get up. Hogg seemed casual, but the pistol slanted down–not toward the ground, but rather toward the terrified men.
“He’d taken the laser from the cargo after I left the Savoy,” Daniel said. “He couldn’t have charged it this late in the day.”
“You thought he’d just taken it from the cargo,” Hogg said with gentle emphasis. “And it seems you were right. Which I’d give a prayer of thanks for, if I was the sort who prays.”
He turned at Daniel’s side and looked down at the spacers. “How’d you feel about me breaking them up some, young master?” he asked. “Give them something to remember the next time they think about taking pipes to a Leary of Bantry.”
“That won’t be necessary, Hogg,” Daniel said. “They’re the crew of the Savoy, I believe, and I need them healthy.”
He coughed into his cupped palm and added, “You gentlemen are willing to serve me ably and willingly, aren’t you? I’ll be Mistress Lindstrom’s acting captain, you see.”
The answers were muffled by muck and fear, but Daniel was sure that they were all some variation of, “Yes sir!”
“Very good,” he said. “Now, you may stand up.”
The spacers took their time about it. It appeared that they were afraid that the first head to rise was going to be clouted back down as a reminder.
Daniel grinned. He wasn’t that sort of person, but Hogg had been known to deliver lessons of that type. Not now, though.
“Very good,” Daniel repeated. The men wouldn’t meet his eyes, but that would come. “Now, which of you knows where Mistress Lindstrom will be at this time of day?”
The tallest of the four wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I guess she’d be in the bar of the Criterion,” he mumbled. “I mean, that’s where she is most nights we’re in port here.”
“Then,” said Daniel, “you go and ask her to come back to the Savoy ASAP, where the rest of us will be waiting. Understood?”
“Yessir!” the man said. He looked behind him, then hesitated.
“Hop it, buddy!” Hogg said. “Or I’ll show you how a length of wire can cut your throat right down to the spine!”
The spacer bolted down the alley in the other direction. No doubt he would be able to find Lindstrom’s hotel in good time.
“Now–” said Daniel.
“One moment, young master,” Hogg said. He wasn’t asking permission. “We have one more thing to do. Now, ‘hobby,’ what Petey-boy called me. That’s short for ‘hobnailed booby.’ That’s right, ain’t it?”
“I believe so, yes,” Daniel said. He was being deliberately nonchalant. “A term for a countryman. An insulting term.”
“Right,” said Hogg. “Well, I’m a countryman, sure enough, but I’m not wearing hobnails because they don’t go with steel floors on a ship.”
He drew back his right leg as he turned to the sprawled Petrov. His boots were of the heavy-soled country style–but without the usual cleats, as he had said.
“Which is a bloody shame,” Hogg said. “But we’ll make do.”
He kicked Petrov in the face. It sounded like a maul striking a watermelon.
The jitney that carried Adele was intended for four passengers but carried a dozen during most of its leisurely course through the city. The seats had been removed, but nonetheless the little vehicle was badly overfilled.
Initially Adele had wrapped her right arm around a window pillar and stood with one leg on the outside foot rail and the other in the air. When a place to stand inside opened, she had taken it despite the determined opposition of a large woman with a day’s shopping in a string bag.
When the local had grasped Adele’s shoulder with the apparent intention of pulling her out, Adele had rapped the woman’s front teeth with the muzzle of her pistol. The woman had toppled backward with a shriek, spilling potatoes and unfamiliar fruit on the street around her.
The jitney started off, accelerating more slowly than a child on a tricycle. Adele put the pistol back into her pocket. The other passengers didn’t give her more room–they couldn’t–but they were obviously straining not to crowd her any more than they had to.
The local woman had been lucky. If Tovera had been present, she would have informed the woman that her behavior was discourteous. In all likelihood, the method Tovera used would have been less delicate than what Adele chose.
The jitney was approaching the western edge of the city. Instead of tenements, houses stood on their own lots with tall trees growing between them; deeper forest hung as a curtain beyond the dwellings. Flying creatures with translucent pastel wings fluttered out of the treetops, floated for a few moments in the sunlight, and disappeared into the foliage again.
The jitney stopped. The driver turned in his saddle and said to the four remaining passengers, “This is as far out as I’m going. Get off or go back with me.”
“You said you would take me to West Slough,” Adele said.
“Well, I was wrong,” the driver said. “Get off or go back, you hear?”
The man who had been standing beside Adele when she moved inside the vehicle now leaned forward and whispered something to the driver. The driver said, “What?“
He stared at Adele for a moment, then faced around and continued westward down the street. The jitney accelerated much more quickly with a reduced load.
About the distance of three blocks later–there was only one connecting street, a mud lane that made a Tee intersection with the main road–the jitney reached what Adele supposed was West Slough. The driver pulled around in a half-circle and stopped; he studiously avoided turning to look at Adele as she and her fellow passengers got off.
Well, she hadn’t wanted to have a discussion with him. She walked to the pilings on the waterside and looked at her surroundings.
From orbital imagery Adele knew that the “slough” was actually a resaca, a loop of the river cut off when the channel shifted west. The Phoenix of Assumption, the colony ship which made the initial settlement on Madison, had landed here rather than in the ocean a few miles south, and Port Madison had grown up nearby.
The river had changed course during the thousand-year Hiatus following the war between Earth and her principal colonies. When star travel resumed on Madison, the port had been relocated to an artificial harbor on the ocean; and Ashetown had shifted south as well. What remained was called West Ashetown, but most of the original warehouses and tenements had sunk into the muck.
The colony ship remained, however, as a museum and a library of Pre-Hiatus documents on a man-made island created by a coffer dam. A causeway connected the island to this shore, and a few water taxis were tied to bollards along the waterfront for those who needed to cross the resaca; occasionally the mist cleared and Adele glimpsed buildings on the other side.
To Adele’s surprise, the development along the waterside wasn’t merely a slum, though there were a number of wooden hovels which would have looked abandoned were it not for ragged people sprawling in doorways or against the walls. There were several apartment blocks of plasticized earth, their ground floors given over to shops and restaurants, and a certain amount of light industry as well. A metal-roofed shed to the right was a repair garage which sheltered several partly-disassembled vehicles; glimpsed in a blurred fashion through the mist to the left was a barge drawn up to a large building.
Adele had found reference to some regional offices being moved to compartments on the Phoenix. They were apparently funding a renaissance of sorts for the neighborhood.
She started across the causeway. It had recently been repaired by pouring a sheet of some synthetic onto the gravel surface. Adele reached for her data unit, then decided to leave it in its pocket, she continued on. She would check when she was within the ship and had a dry place to sit.
She was wearing a nondescript business suit. Her only concession to her supposed Kostroman nobility was that the fabric was russet with thin black piping on the seams of the jacket, the colors of the House of Hrynko.
She had considered going with an escort as she had to the Sector Headquarters, but she didn’t want to attract attention and she did want to think. The chatter of a dozen Sissies wouldn’t have disturbed her, but the feeling of responsibility for them would have been a serious problem.
Adele had too much experience now to doubt the kind of trouble which bored spacers were likely to get into. Escorting spacers were certainly going to be bored as they waited on a mudbank while the mistress indulged her love of old books.
Animals squeaked, shrilled, and boomed from the vegetation at the water’s edge and covering the shallows to a distance out from the shore. The creatures ranged down in size from the length of Adele’s palm and extended fingers to smaller than her thumb joint, but they were all on the same pattern: lizard-like bodies with powerful hind legs and pipe-stem arms which they folded against their torsos except when snatching food.
I’ll have to tell Daniel, Adele thought. Her interest in natural history had initially been academic, but she had so often listened to Daniel’s enthusiasm or looked things up for him that she was gaining an appreciation of the subject.
Some of the creatures were fully visible on mats of the weed; others clung to the causeway’s pilings. One even scampered ahead of her along the railing, swaying its head and tail side to side to balance the thrust of its legs.
A pair of office workers approached from the other direction, chatting to one another. The little animal rose on tiptoe, then hurled itself off the rail with its legs wind milling furiously. Its feet had bright scarlet webs. Perhaps they slowed the creature’s descent, because Adele heard only a gentle plop! as it hit the water.
The Phoenix towered overhead as Adele approached. The ship was a sphere, a volume efficient design with a score of serious disadvantages which Adele knew from discussions with RCN officers. A ship even of this enormous size would today be cylindrical, but such globes had been common before the Hiatus.
The Phoenix had brought ten thousand settlers to Madison, having kept them alive during a voyage of fourteen months. Adele smiled faintly. Alive, but probably not very happy.
Well, Adele had endured conditions no better than those of the colonists during the years she lived in the slums of Blythe City on Bryce. Her teacher and mentor, Mistress Boileau, had done what she could, but not even the Director of the Academic Collections could arrange more than a minimal stipend for a Cinnabar citizen in the midst of all-out war between Cinnabar and the Alliance.
The would-be colonists had hope before them; the orphan Adele Mundy had seen nothing better ahead of her except death. But things had become better after all, better for the person the real Adele was, than they would have been had her life gone in the track she had expected while she was growing up as the studious daughter of a powerful Cinnabar political leader.
Adele had the whole RCN as a family, and she had Daniel Leary for a friend. Her father had had power, but he had neither friends nor family in the sense that Adele had come to understand the words.
The artificial island around the Phoenix had been turned into a garden with walkways through its plantings. Adele thought, Daniel would know whether the trees are native species.
She reached for her data unit, thinking, Well, all I have to do is find the catalogue of the garden’s holdings and compare it to the database of species native to Madison.
She caught herself again. This time she came as close to laughing as she had done in weeks or longer. I’m not in competition with Daniel. If I decide that I have to compete with him, I should focus on a skill like clambering about the rigging. That would have some practical application.
An aircar approached from the mainland side. Adele wasn’t particularly interested in vehicles, but she looked at this one, an enclosed gray six-place car, because it drove low and near the causeway. The only passenger sat behind the driver. He eyed Adele as he passed.
If Tovera were here, Adele thought, she would step between me and the car–and she would have her hand on the sub-machine gun in her attaché case.
Adele didn’t reach into her left tunic pocket, but she consciously didn’t reach into it. She wasn’t as paranoid as Tovera, but she knew that that she could get into that state very easily if she didn’t constantly fight the tendency.
The aircar slowed and turned inward when it crossed the wall protecting the island. The causeway ended in a circular plaza from which narrow paths led into the garden while a broad one continued to the starship’s entrance. The pavement was probably synthetic, but it was patterned to mimic brick.
The driver angled the car between two of the stone benches set around the perimeter of the plaza. It settled, and a guard at the entry port a hundred feet away shouted angrily.
The driver idled his fans; the passenger, a short, tubby man, got out of the back and walked toward Adele. His hair was intensely black even over a swarthy complexion.
The guard shouted again and started toward them; he wasn’t armed, so that wasn’t an immediate problem. Adele lifted her pistol; she didn’t bring it out of her pocket quite yet.
“Lady Hrynko?” the little man called. He was twenty feet away and coming closer with short, quick steps. “I am Liber Osorio, the Cremonan trade attaché here on Madison. Can we go somewhere to discuss a business proposition?”
“No,” said Adele. She thought for a moment. “If you’d care to sit on one of these benches, though–”
She gestured with her right hand. Pedestrians were walking around them, and the guard was coming closer. He had taken a communicator out of its belt pocket.
“–I’ll give you a few minutes.”
Osorio turned and shouted to his driver, “Go to the other side of the water and wait for us.”
The car lifted. It hovered for a moment, then obediently drove over the water toward the mainland side at a moderate pace.
The benches were backless, slightly curved, and about six feet wide. She sat on the left end of closest and gestured Osorio toward the midpoint when he tried to sit closer to her.
Adele said, “Before you tell me your proposition, Master Osorio, explain how you happened to meet me here.”
Her hand was still in her pocket.
|Home Page||Index Page|
Comments from the Peanut Gallery:
|Previous Page||Next Page|