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The Road of Danger: Chapter Sixteen
Last updated: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 22:34 EST
Ashe Haven on Madison
The Savoy and the pursuing cruiser had vanished into the Matrix. Neither Cory nor Cazelet could predict the result of chase, and they knew Adele too well to offer hopeful platitudes. Yes, Daniel was very skilled, but so was Captain Regin of the Estremadura, and the cruiser’s large crew made it handier than the yawl.
Adele had nodded at the analysis and turned to what she could control. She lost herself in the broad expanse of the data she had harvested from Platt’s station until a purple crawl at the bottom of her display announced Osorio arriving with vehicles on quay. The slug at the close of the message indicated it was from the command console, where Vesey was acting as watch officer–despite being captain now and no longer required to stand watches.
“I’ll go down and meet him,” Adele said, letting the console reform her words into a prose response. She transferred her work to the signals console then, stripped the work off the BDC console instead of locking the files.
Only then did she get up. “Our passenger has arrived,” she said to Cory and Cazelet. She preceded Tovera out of the BDC.
Daniel generally had stood watches also, even when the Princess Cecile had enough officers that it wouldn’t have been necessary. Captains were permitted to be eccentric.
Adele glanced down at her clothing. She was still wearing the outfit she had put on to visit the Assumption Library… which she hadn’t entered after all. The clothes were rumpled from hard use, despite being covered by borrowed garments while she and Tovera cleared Platt’s station.
In particular, there was a blotch on the arch of her right boot. It was almost certainly blood, though she couldn’t say without chemical analysis whether it was Platt’s blood or that of his victim.
Kostroman nobles were permitted to be eccentric also. It was unlikely that Osorio would observe any more than Principal Hrynko looking disheveled when at leisure on her own yacht.
Tovera stepped in front of her, the attaché case waist-high and slightly open. Before Adele entered the corridor, she looked back and said to the young men watching her, “Continue with what you’re doing.”
Then–because they would understand–she added, “I would much rather remain here doing something useful instead of this play-acting.”
As they strode together toward the forward companionways, Tovera said quietly, “You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t believe it was useful, mistress.”
Adele sighed and said, “What I should have said is that I don’t care to do this sort of thing, despite the frequency with which I’m called on to do it. I suppose I would be wiser to adjust my attitude rather than to expect the universe to change reality.”
They went down by the bow companionway instead of the one immediately outside the BDC hatch in the stern. The central corridor on D Level ran past bulk storage compartments to the boarding hold, but A Level was familiar territory to Adele and required less of her conscious mind. She nodded by rote to crewmen going sternward or calling their respects through open hatchways, but her brain kept poring over the question of whether they would meet the Savoy on Cremona–and what Adele would do if they didn’t.
Platt’s files indicated that the Estremadura sent its prizes to Westerbeke to be condemned. Adele had not yet constructed an excuse for Principal Hrynko to take her yacht to that out of the way port in the Funnel. Of course they could ignore duty and simply focus on saving Daniel; but Daniel wouldn’t approve of that decision, and neither would she.
Adele and Tovera stepped into the boarding hold just as Osorio reached the guards. Heberle, a Tech Three and the senior spacer on duty, had just started talking on her commo helmet when a rigger with a sub-machine gun patted her wrist and pointed toward the Principal and her aide. Heberle braced to attention and shouted, “Her Ladyship!”
Tovera giggled. There were as many guesses about how to treat Principal Hrynko as there were Sissies. Adele had decided that lack of uniformity in address was less of a danger than trying to drill the crew into a particular form and have a confused spacer blurt something about Lady Mundy. Even sober that could happen; and sufficiently flustered spacers could probably find a drink to relax them.
“Master Osorio,” Adele said. Looking beyond the Cremonan to the train of vehicles which had brought him–a ground car and a pair of small tractors pulling carts filled with luggage–she added, “And what is all this? Do you mistake my yacht for a merchant vessel?”
“I have lived on Madison for three years, your Ladyship,” Osorio said with a deep bow, “but I am going home to stay now with those of my possessions which I haven’t disposed of here.”
He gestured toward the car. “I sold my aircar, for example. Surely it will be possible to stow my household goods on so large a vessel?”
He probably sold the aircar at a very tidy profit, Adele realized. They weren’t manufactured on Madison, and Osorio–as a government representative–wouldn’t have had to pay the heavy import duty levied on luxuries.
Rather than answering directly, Adele turned to the detail commander and said, “Heberle, can that quantity of cargo be stored aboard without harming our combat efficiency?”
Heberle had a muttered conversation with the other ship-side spacer in the guard detail. She looked back at Adele and said, “Yeah, we can stuff it in, likely. We’re low on some of the fungibles, and there’s room in the forward magazine besides. What doesn’t fit there we can cram into the cabin you assigned his nibs, I guess.”
“All right,” said Adele. “Inform Captain Vesey that I want this cargo loaded. Also tell her that I want to lift off as quickly as possible when that task is complete.”
She looked at Osorio, who seemed startled. “Come with me to the bridge, then, my man,” she said. “I usually watch liftoffs from a console there. You can sit at the training seat on my console.”
Adele turned and started back the Up companionway. Tovera was immediately behind her. Spacers banged into the entry hold as Adele left it, on their way to striking down the passenger’s luggage.
Osorio followed–she glanced out of the corner of her eye as she entered the armored tube–after a moment of puzzled hesitation. He hadn’t expected to be treated as a foreigner of no importance.
Adele smiled faintly. It was as well that the Cremonan attaché wasn’t travelling with servants, though they could be stowed also–with as little ceremony as the luggage, and probably with what a landsman would consider as little comfort.
Her smile slipped. She did very much want to lift off. If the Princess Cecile had been ready to lift when the cruiser made for Daniel, Adele would have done so immediately, regardless of her cover as Principal Hrynko. As it was, all she could do at the moment was to determine what had happened. Later she would right it, if possible.
Adele entered the bow rotunda and strode across it to the bridge. Tovera was a silent shadow a step behind, and Osorio panted audibly at the unpracticed effort of the steep helical staircase.
The Cremonans wanted to hire to House of Hrynko to destroy the Estremadura. Adele would force them to make a reasonable offer for the services of her yacht, but that was only because the businessmen backing the project would be suspicious if she didn’t demand that.
But the money really didn’t matter: Adele had already determined that. The Sissie and her crew would eliminate the cruiser. She only hoped that she would be punishing the Estremadura‘s crew for worrying her, rather than taking revenge for Daniel’s death.
Daniel finished a series of computations before he rotated his couch and grinned at his companions. Hogg appeared nonchalant. The expression might be feigned, but probably not. Hogg had complete faith in the young master’s infallibility regarding anything to do with a starship, so he saw nothing to worry about.
“What the bloody hell are you playing at?” Kiki Lindstrom demanded. She looked furious. To a degree the anger could be hiding her fear, though Daniel’s cavalier behavior toward her ship and herself gave plenty of reason for her to be pissed.
The faces of three of the crewmen ranged from worried to frightened. The fourth, Blemberg, had no expression at all–as always before in Daniel’s experience. Daniel couldn’t tell at this early point in their acquaintance whether Blemberg was unflappably stolid or if he was simply too stupid to understand that they were in danger.
“There’s a cruiser here in the system, targeting blockade runners,” Daniel said. “The Estremadura.”
Lindstrom nodded, suddenly looking thoughtful. “I’ve heard of her,” she said. “She’s a privateer, really. The governor of Sunbright hired her because the Funnel Squadron couldn’t catch its ass with both hands. But she operates above Cremona, mostly, and sends her prizes to Westerbeke.”
“Well, for now, she’s in Madison orbit,” Daniel said. “She’s coming for us, and her captain is bloody good. That’s why I’ve been bouncing around like a training exercise.”
He was glad to see that the crewmen, too, were relaxing. When he started discussing a real danger, they realized that their captain and the only astrogator aboard hadn’t suddenly gone crazy–which was the best explanation they’d previously had for his behavior.
Lindstrom backed to her bunk and seated herself again. “The Estremadura‘s been in this system before but didn’t bother us when we lifted off?” she said. Her tone made the words a question.
“Well, that’s changed,” Daniel said flatly. “If we’d been fifteen seconds later in inserting, she’d have hit us with her guns. They couldn’t have done a lot of damage at this range, but we wouldn’t have been able to insert if she kept hitting the hull. So we have a problem.”
“Sir?” said Hargate. “Can you get us out? If they carry the ship to Westerbeke and condemn it, they just dump us spacers out on the beach there with the clothes we stand in.”
“I think we’ll be able to handle it, yes,” said Daniel. He smiled again, but this time with the hard triumph of a chess player about to make a move which he is sure will take his opponent by surprise. “The Estremadura expects us to sail to Cremona–they have our course projections. I don’t know how but they do, and whoever is captaining that cruiser will know what to do with the data. So–”
He paused to let the delay add drama.
“–we’ll go directly to Sunbright instead. I’ve plotted the course, and I’ll be out on the hull most hours to refine it on route.”
“But we can’t do that!” Lindstrom said, her voice cutting through the spacers’ disconcerted babble. “We don’t have food for a straight run, and I don’t know that the reaction mass will last out either.”
“We have enough food,” said Daniel flatly, “and the reaction mass will be fine too. I checked them both as soon as I recalculated the course. We’ll drop into normal space when we’re ten light-minutes out from Madison on the present course. That’ll give us time enough to build up speed before the Estremadura catches up with us again, if she even tries. Then–”
He repeated his artificially bright grin.
“–we don’t enter the sidereal universe again until we’re in the Sunbright system.”
“Can you do that?” Lindstrom said, rather as though Daniel had said he planned to dance on the hull without a suit.
“Can’t be done,” said West much more forcefully. “Can’t be done! Never heard of nobody doing that!”
“Nonsense,” Daniel said in a brusquely cheerful done. “We did it in the RCN every day. Well, every voyage, pretty much.”
That was a flat lie, but it was closer to the truth than West’s denial. Any RCN Academy graduate should be able to bring his ship close enough to an intended point after seven straight days in the Matrix that she could at least find his goal after extraction.
The problem was the human cost. People saw things after long immersion in the Matrix. Seven days was long enough for spacers to see a corridor where they knew there was a solid bulkhead; and sometimes to see some one or some thing approaching down that corridor.
Daniel had once seen his mother. She had stared at him in horror, then walked on very quickly and disappeared.
“You done that?” West said, but the words sounded like a prayer for absolution.
“Many times,” Daniel said, truthfully this time. “Now, I’ve got the new course loaded. Hargate, I’ll need your suit for the initial watch. West, you and I will go clear the stuck antenna or whatever the problem really is. Hogg–”
He smiled at his servant. So far, so good.
“–I’ll bang three times on the hull with a wrench when we’re ready. When I do that, you push the red button.”
He pointed to the Execute button on the console. At one time it would have been protected with a hinged cage, but that had been lost in the distant past.
Hogg grunted. “Guess I can handle that, young master,” he said. “In between trying to learn how to pour piss outa a boot, y’know.”
Hargate was stripping off the ill-fitting hard suit with enthusiasm. He might have doubts about seven straight days in the Matrix, but he was certain he didn’t want to wear the suit.
Lindstrom, though, frowned and said, “Look, Pensett, we’re not RCN, you know, even if you are. I’m not sure–”
“What I’m not sure about, mistress,” Daniel said, “is what these yobbos on the Estremadura are going to do if they find an ex-RCN officer on a blockade runner. I don’t worry about a trip to Westerbeke, but instead it just might be a dive out an airlock without a suit. And if they space me, well–”
“–they’re not going to leave witnesses, are they?”
There was silence in the cabin for a moment. Then Lindstrom sighed and said, “Sunbright it is, I suppose. But I tell you, Pensett, we didn’t have any of this trouble before you came aboard.”
“Don’t fret, mistress,” Daniel said as he started getting into the hard suit with Hargate’s help. “It’ll be a smooth run from here on out, and at the other end–”
He grinned at the glum-faced crew members.
“–we’ll all be able to get just as drunk on Sunbright as we could’ve done on Cremona.”
Ashe Haven on Madison
As Adele entered the bridge she felt the circulating pumps start, a necessary preliminary before testing the plasma thrusters. The big pumps in the stern throbbed a moment later, drawing water from the harbor. For the moment the draft would be wasted back into the slip, but when thrusters were lighted those pumps would replenishing the reaction mass tanks.
Vesey had rotated the command console inward. When she saw Adele, she shrank her display so that their eyes could meet without a holographic veil between them.
Adele felt a flash of irritation: she much preferred to be anonymous, a shadow ignored by the others present. She swallowed the reaction since it was manifestly unjust. Everyone aboard was faced by an uncertain situation, and they had to take their cues from Officer Mundy.
“Carry on, Captain Vesey,” she said aloud as she settled onto her console. Her voice was no colder nor more clipped than it would be if she had just been given wonderful news. “I have some matters to discuss with our passenger, and I’ve chosen to do so here on the bridge.”
The only wonderful news Adele could imagine at the moment was a report that Daniel was safe. A believable report, because she didn’t indulge in wishful thinking.
“Yes sir,” said Vesey and expanded her display again. Adele brought hers live.
Sun had gotten up from the gunnery station beside Adele’s and was showing Master Osorio how to use the training seat which folded out from the back of the signals console; Chazanoff at the missile station had half-turned to be able to look sidelong at Adele across the compartment, while Tovera watched the whole business with cold amusement from a jumpseat against the aft bulkhead.
Adele supposed it was amusing if viewed in the correct fashion: everyone was staring at the woman who preferred to be invisible. Perhaps at some later point she would actually be able to feel the humor instead of merely accepting it intellectually; for now, she was satisfied that nobody looking at her would understand what she was thinking.
Pasternak announced over the PA system and the general intercom channel–the general push, as Adele had learned to call it in the RCN, “Testing thrusters One and Eight!“
A moment later thrusters roared. Shortly after that, steam and the sting of ozone drifted into the bridge through open hatches.
She echoed Vesey’s display on her own. Cory was in charge of the liftoff, with Vesey overseeing the maneuver; Cazelet was ghosting it from the astrogation console.
Adele allowed herself to compare the Sissie‘s array of talent with what she knew of the officers on ordinary commercial vessels in the Macotta region; or anywhere on the fringes of human settlement, for that matter. Most astrogators would be trained or half-trained by apprenticing with people who were themselves without formal training. The exceptions were generally drunks or officers who for similar reasons had been driven from the core worlds. Only one or at most two people to a ship had even that training, with perhaps a spacer who knew how to program the computer to give a lowest-common-denominator solution.
Adele’s present life was as close to perfect as she could imagine it being. She was a member of the most efficient ship of the finest navy in the human universe. Her friends and colleagues cherished and respected her, and they constantly displayed themselves worthy of her respect–and of her love, as she understood the meaning of the word.
But to achieve this perfect–in Adele’s terms–life, it was necessary that the Mundys of Chatsworth have been massacred and that Adele go on to kill more people than she could count; people who often visited her dreams in the hours before dawn. Everything had a cost, she supposed.
The image of Osorio at the top of her display seemed to be speaking, though Adele couldn’t have heard unaided speech over the thruster roar even if she hadn’t already raised the sound-cancelling field around her station. She felt a moment’s regret at her behavior: she didn’t like the Cremonan attaché, but it had been discourteous to bring him up here and then ignore him.
She adjusted the cancellation field to encompass the console’s back as well as its front station, then said, “The crew is testing the thrusters, Master Osorio. There’ll be nothing to see until we lift, but–”
Adele used the override controls on her side of the console to provide Osorio with a panorama of the harbor as viewed from a sensor on the knuckle of the Dorsal A antenna, at present the highest point on the Sissie. As an afterthought, she added her own image to the top of his display so that he could look at her. He seemed to be completely at a loss with the console controls.
“–that shouldn’t be long. In the interim, you can explain how you sell the prizes captured by Cremonan privateers.”
Adele had that information already from Forty Stars files, but she was interested in how Osorio would react. His willingness to be frank–let alone honest–would give her a gauge of his character.
“Well, technically they’re not Cremonan privateers, they’re Sunbright Republic privateers,” he said, “but most of them are fitted out and crewed on Cremona, of course. The lesser Names–” members of the Cremonan noble class “–own most of them, because that doesn’t require much capital. And they sell their prizes on Bailey’s Horn, an independent world but in the Forty Stars, you see?”
“You personally own privateers, then?” Adele said–a question that she didn’t have the answer to. Osorio was surprising her positively. It was very probable, given her mindset, that surprises would be positive ones.
“I have shares in two or three,” Osorio said casually, “but the real profit comes from blockade running if you have enough capital to buy merchandize. And to accept the occasional run of bad luck.”
His image shrugged. “Four ships in a row that I had half-interests in were captured. Even so, with profits of five hundred percent on each successful cargo, it has been a very good investment.”
Adele kept her brow smooth, but she was frowning mentally as she reviewed the data already in her files. “Are you and your fellows, your Friends of Sunbright, outfitting all the blockade runners, then?” she said.
The Forty Stars records indicated there were about a hundred ships occupied in the trade at any one time. Though most individually were quite small, they and their cargoes added to a very considerable outlay.
The yacht’s hatches were ringing closed. The rumbling which Adele felt through the fabric of the ship was a gear train raising the boarding ramp to become the main hatch. Osorio couldn’t identify the chorus of sounds and vibrations as normal and harmless, though. Instead of answering, he looked around in concern–because he was at the back of a console, that would show him only the starboard hull–and said, “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Adele said. “The crew is readying the ship for liftoff. I asked if the Friends of Sunbright owned most of the blockade runners.”
The words were a verbal slap rather than a question this time around. Surely the man had travelled on a starship before, to bring him from Cremona to here if nothing else? And not so very long ago!
“Ah,” Osorio said, nodding as he tried to raise his mind from a slough of fear. “No, no; that would be wonderful, but even together we could not support more than a quarter of the ships trading with the rebels. The trading houses outfit most of them, but even they take money from off-planet investors. From Cinnabar, yes, but from Pleasaunce too, I’m sure.”
He shrugged, relaxing in the contemplation of profits–and apparent irritation at the fact that others were making most of those profits. “The biggest houses on Cremona are from Alliance planets,” he said, “and they all have correspondent firms on their home worlds. They own as many blockade runners as everyone else together, or very nearly so!”
Adele looked at his image, though that was merely a place to rest her eyes as her mind considered the avenues which the situation offered to their mission, the Sissie‘s mission. If Osorio was being truthful and accurate, of course; but he was in a position to know the true situation and he didn’t seem to her to be lying.
“It isn’t fair that the foreigners make so much more of the money than we Cremonans do!” he added bitterly, as if to underscore her belief that he was honest.
Adele continued to look at him. Alliance and Cinnabar estimates agreed that the Cremonan Names controlled 90% of the planet’s wealth. They also agreed that the Names paid no taxes whatever to the central government, which explained why Cremona’s government was even weaker than the norm of similarly benighted fringe worlds.
“The universe has never appeared to me to be particularly fair,” Adele said at last. “I think some people should be thankful for that reality.”
After a moment, she said, “Many more people should be thankful that appear to be, in fact.”
Before Osorio could respond–if he even intended to–Cory’s voice boomed through the speakers in unconscious attempt to mimic Daniel, “Ship, this is Five! Prepare for liftoff!“
The roar of the eight thrusters began to build. At full output they filled the world of all those aboard The House of Hrynko.
The Matrix, en route to Sunbright
Daniel waited in the Savoy‘s airlock with his gauntlet on the pump housing. The panel was fitted with red and green lights to indicate whether the atmosphere within the lock was balanced with that on the other side of the hatch, but they didn’t work. Waiting until he could feel the pump shut off gave the same result.
The vibration stilled. Daniel opened the inner hatch with one hand and lifted off his helmet–he had already unlatched it–with the other. Hogg helped his master step over the coaming. Daniel started to object, but a sudden, unutterable weariness stilled his tongue.
Hogg walked him toward the owner’s bunk. Lindstrom got out of the way without objection.
“I’ve seen you look this bad before, young master,” Hogg said, “but you’d been having more fun than you seem to be now.”
Daniel sat heavily with his legs splayed out before him. He would have collapsed had it not been for Hogg’s support. West, who had the next shift on the hull, and Lindstrom herself began stripping off his hard suit.
“I was going to set some course adjustments at the console,” Daniel said. He thought he sounded hoarse. His voice was so soft that he wasn’t sure the others present could make out his words. “I think I’d better get a little sleep first, though. Don’t let me sleep more than an hour, though.”
Hogg snorted. “You’ll sleep longer than that,” he said, “and I’ll try to fix up some of the raw patches where these bloody suits’ve been rubbing you. They’re eating you alive, bugger me if they ain’t!”
Hogg glared at Lindstrom, who didn’t look up. Working in concert with West, she wriggled the lower half of the hard suit down and off Daniel’s legs. He felt sudden relief, followed as suddenly by jabs of pain as the compartment’s cooler air touched the sores which the ill-fitting hard suits rubbed in him. He could wear either suit, but they merely punished different portions of his skin.
Lindstrom and West–Hargate and Blemberg were asleep and Edmonson was still on the hull–unlatched the upper portion of the suit.
Hogg began daubing Daniel’s left ankle with salve from the medical kit. “Wish I had proper lanolin salve like I would back to Bantry,” he growled in a savage tone.
“It’s not just what the suits cost,” Lindstrom muttered defensively. She was careful not to meet the eyes of either Hogg or his master. “It’s volume, you see how tight it is with two hard suits. This isn’t a luxury liner here.”
The remainder of the suit came off. This particular one scraped Daniel’s collarbones instead of his elbows like the other. Hogg lifted away the folded rags which at least absorbed the matter leaking from the sores and got to work with the salve again.
“Oh, well, it’s a cheap price to pay for Sunbright’s liberty,” Daniel said cheerfully.
Lindstrom snorted. “Liberty?” she said. “Is that what you call it?”
“More like rats in a pit,” said West, sitting on the deck to slide his legs into the suit Daniel had relinquished. “With no food.”
He looked up at the ship owner. “Nothing against you, mum,” he said, “but I might not’ve made the run this time without Petrov promised us a bonus if we’d….”
He must have been very tired to have said that, Daniel thought as West stopped speaking with his mouth open. He seemed frozen, afraid to turn his head for fear of seeing either Daniel or Hogg.
If West had been any doubt regarding what kind of reaction was possible, Hogg dispelled it by saying, “I’ll give you a bonus, boyo. I won’t cut your balls off just now–if you’re lucky.”
“That’s all water under the bridge, Hogg,” Daniel said. Necessity allowed him to chuckle pleasantly, which he found helped considerably with the discomfort of his long hours on the hull. “West, you’ve shown yourself an able spacer, and I’d be glad of your presence in any crew I commanded.”
That was stretching the truth somewhat, but the old fellow did know his way about the rigging. The propulsion system a closed book to him, even for so simple an operation as polishing the throats of the High Drive motors with emery cloth. On a ship of any size, however, there would be riggers and techs, neither of whom would be expected to know the others’ job.
Daniel bent and straightened the fingers of his left hand while Hogg worked on his right shoulder. Neither set of gauntlets was comfortable either, but at least they were overlarge rather than pinching.
“What do you mean about rats?” he said aloud, smiling as he looked at West. He didn’t want him being so frightened of Hogg that he missed his hold out on the hull and went drifting into oblivion with half the Savoy‘s inadequate stock of rigging suits. “From what I’ve seen–”
In Adele’s typically excellent briefing materials.
“–the Alliance governor is brutal and grasping even for, well, out here. It’s not my fight, but I can certainly understand the locals deciding they’ve had enough and trying to do something about it.”
He’d almost said, “… even for this far out in the sticks.” Which was true but was impolitic, since everyone aboard the yawl apart from himself and Hogg was from the Macotta Region.
“I don’t know about the governor,” Lindstrom said. “I didn’t get involved on Sunbright till I started these runs, and I wouldn’t be the sort to get invited to the governor’s palace anyhow.”
She stepped away from West, who now had the suit on. He got up with the slow care of a spacer whose suit fits badly.
“But what it is now…,” she said, sitting down on the other side of Daniel from Hogg. She reached across and took the liter-sized tube of salve. “Is a bloody shambles.”
Lindstrom began salving Daniel’s right shoulder. She was used to the work; her hands were no firmer than they needed to be when they covered the sores themselves.
“It’s easier work taking rice from the gang in the next vestry,” she said, “than it is going up against the Naval Infantry and the Alliance Guards that’re sitting in any place big enough to rate a garrison. And it’s easier still to loot civilians who don’t have a garrison or a local gang claiming to own them already.”
West stepped into the airlock and dogged it behind him. He was still holding his helmet, though he’d have to latch it down soon.
“There’s a lot of money in running these cargos,” Lindstrom continued, her voice growing softer. “More than I could make any other way, a lot more. And the risk, well. We’ve been doing all right, Pensett, and I guess we’ll do better with you than we did with Pete. But…”
She shrugged. The whine of the pump evacuating the airlock made the bunk quiver. The vibration was more noticeable through the cabin fittings than within the heavily framed lock itself.
“People are paying off old scores, now that they’ve got guns and there’s no police to worry about,” Lindstrom said. She had begun massaging Daniel’s shoulder muscles instead of spreading salve. “And I guess that’s all right, it’s no skin off my butt, but they’re pretty much treating anybody who doesn’t have a gun as the real crop, not the rice those folks were growing. And I’m kinda tired of that. It gets old fast.”
“What about the fellow running things, Kiki?” Daniel asked. Hogg had edged away slightly, giving him and Lindstrom as much privacy as the cramped compartment allowed. “The one who calls himself Freedom.”
He didn’t want to show too much knowledge, but it was reasonable that somebody being sent to Sunbright would have gotten a little information about the place. Besides, Lindstrom seemed to be looking for somebody to talk to.
Lindstrom frowned as though she was really puzzling over the answer. She said, “He lit the fuze, but I guess he couldn’t control it once it all started going. He’s there on Sunbright, he shows up here and there, but nobody knows where his base is.”
She shrugged. “He can’t control it, there’s no ‘thing’ to control,” she said. “Each gang does what it wants; takes what it wants, that’s the truth of it. Nobody can stop it now, not even Freedom if he wanted to. It’s going to go on until every plantation on Sunbright’s been burned, and every adult outside the garrisoned cities is in a gang or’s been killed by somebody who is. There won’t be any children. And I–”
Lindstrom’s fingers were no longer kneading Daniel’s shoulders; instead they were clamping hard. It cost him effort and the certainty of bruises not to break the spell by saying something.
“–am making great pots of money by selling them the guns to kill themselves with. Bloody wonderful business, isn’t it?”
Daniel thought in silence for… he wasn’t sure how long. His mind was swimming through colored lights which sometimes formed images either from memory or of his present surroundings. He wasn’t always sure which of those were which, however.
Aloud he said, “I’m very tired, Kiki. I’m sorry but I’m….”
Daniel lurched to his feet; Hogg steadied him as he walked across the compartment. The bottom bunk of the four-high tier was empty, which was a blessing. Though he would probably be able to grip the frame of a higher one while Hogg swung his legs up onto the mattress.
My brain still works, he thought with a faint smile. Though complex problems may require a little longer than usual.
He sat down, bending forward so that his shoulders didn’t thump Hargate, who slept on the next one up.
“Kiki?” he said. “There’s a way to fix it, I know there is. But you’re going to have to give me a little time.”
He collapsed sideways onto the mattress. Lindstrom was staring at him as if he had gone mad.
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